Does “departing from the doctrines of Christ” include those that teach that your salvation depends on what you do — for example, those who teach that you are saved by your repentance and keep your salvation by doing good works?
This question has its source in 2 John 9, which reads, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son” (KJV). The same verse in the NIV reads, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”
To answer this question correctly we need to check two fundamental principles of biblical interpretation. The first principle has to do with context. The second principle has to do with grammar.
Looking at the context of verse 9 requires that we go backward in 2 John to see what John was referring to when he used the phrase, “the doctrine (KJV) or teaching (NIV) of Christ.” That takes us to verse 7 where John cautions the Church about false teachers who do not acknowledge the incarnation of Christ. In fact, it is that critical doctrine that is the focal point of John’s concern in this short letter because what is at stake for the Church is the very nature of Jesus Himself as God in human flesh.
Looking at the grammatical construction of verse 9, especially word usage, we notice that John carefully uses the word “doctrine” in the singular, not plural, form. This tells us that John has a particular doctrine in mind, which he refers to as “the doctrine of Christ.” Once again, this draws us back to verse 7 where this specific doctrine is addressed. Both the context and the word usage agree that John is referring to the doctrine of the incarnation.
So the answer to the question — Does “departing from the doctrines of Christ” include those that teach that your salvation depends on what you do…? — is No. That is not what 2 John 9 is referring to. Other places in Scripture may address this subject, but not 2 John verse 9. And that is very important to recognize, because we need to be extremely careful not to use any phrase of Scripture in an overly generalized sense when its terminology and context is very specific, as in this case.
Remember this axiom: a text without the context is a pre-text. In other words, without the context in which a verse or portion of a verse is found, a text can appear to mean just about anything or apply to any variety of doctrines. Keeping the context always in view when interpreting Scripture will protect us from this error and allow the Bible to say what it means and mean what it says. And that is a real Bible gem!