PROVE ALL THINGS
Based on a Tract by
“Test everything; hold fast what is good.” 1 Thessalonians 5:21
We live in days when the text before us is particularly important. Let us consider how the truths it contains apply especially to our times.
There were three great doctrines or principles which won the battle of the Protestant Reformation. These were:—first, the sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture:—secondly, the right of private judgment:—and thirdly, justification by faith only, without the deeds of the law.
These three principles were the keys of the whole controversy between the Reformers and the Church of Rome. Based on these three, in their arguments with Roman Catholicism, their position was unassailable: no weapon that the Church of Rome could forge against them succeeded. But, yielding on any one of them, the cause would have been lost. Sooner or later they would have had to lay down their arms, and surrender.
In his time, Ryle was particularly addressing and warning against new threats from the Roman Catholic church. In our day, that threat still exists but sadly, it often finds a more subtle home within the Protestant Church itself.
And so, we must put on the old armour if we would not have our faith overthrown. The sufficiency of holy Scripture,—the right of private judgment,—justification by faith only,—these are the three great principles to which we must always cling.
Let us take time this morning to look into this second principle which guards our faith.
The Holy Spirit, by the mouth of the Apostle Paul, says to us, test or, “Test everything ; hold fast what is good.” In these words you have two great truths.
I.—The right duty, and necessity of private judgment. “Test everything .”
II.—The duty and necessity of keeping firm hold upon truth. “hold fast to that which is good.”
Let us look into both of these duties.
I.—First, let us consider the right, duty, and necessity of private judgment.
By the right of private judgment, is meant that every individual Christian has a right to judge for himself by the Word of God, whether that which is put before him as religious truth, is God’s truth, or is not.
By the duty of private judgment, is meant that God requires every Christian to use this right;—to compare man’s words and man’s writings with God’s revelation, and to make sure that he is not deluded and taken in by false teaching.
And by the necessity of private judgment, is meant this,—that it is absolutely needful for every Christian who loves his soul and would not be deceived, to exercise that right and discharge that duty; seeing that experience shows that the neglect of private judgment has always been the cause of immense evils in the Church of Christ.
Now the Apostle Paul forcefully brings all these three points to our attention when he uses those remarkable words, “Test everything .” Let us look carefully into that expression. It is weighty and instructive in may ways.
Here, you will remember, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Thessalonians,—to a Church which he himself had founded. Here is an inspired Apostle writing to young inexperienced Christians,—writing to the whole professing Church in a certain city, containing members as well as ministers,—writing too with especial reference to matters of doctrine and preaching, as we know by the verse preceding the text: “Do not despise prophecies.” And yet mark what he says: “Test everything .”
He does not say, “Whatever apostles,—whatever evangelists, pastors and teachers,—whatever your ministers tell you is truth: that you are to believe.” No: he says, “Test everything .” He does not say, “Whatever the universal Church pronounces true, that you are to hold.” No: he says, “Examine everything.”
The principle laid down is this, “Test everything by the Word of God:—all ministers, all teaching, all preaching, all doctrines, all sermons, all writings, all opinions, all practices,—test all by the Word of God. Measure all by the measure of the Bible.—Compare all with the standard of the Bible.—Weigh all in the balances of the Bible.—Examine all by the light of the Bible.—Test all in the crucible of the Bible. That which can withstand the fire of the Bible, receive, hold, believe and obey. That which cannot withstand the fire of the Bible, reject, refuse, repudiate, and cast away.”
This is private judgment. This is the right you are to exercise if you love your soul. You are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said by some religious authority, Popes, Puritans, or Reformers. You are not to argue, “such and such things must be true, because these men say so.” You are not to do so. You are to examine all things by the Word of God.
Some may not like the doctrine of private judgment, but there is no doubt that it is continually taught in the Word of God.
This is the principle laid down by our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember what He says:—“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matt 7:15,16) How can anyone know these false prophets, except they exercise their private judgment as to what their fruits are?
This is the practice you find commended in the Bereans, in the Acts of the Apostles. They did not take the Apostle Paul’s word for granted, when he came to preach to them. We are told, that they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so,” and “therefore,” it is said, “many of them … believed.” (Acts 17:11, 12.) What was this again but private judgment?
This is the spirit of the advice Paul gives to the Corinthians: “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say;” (1 Cor 10:15) and to the Colossians ,—“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.” (Col 2:18)
This is the spirit of the advice the Apostle John gives to his readers—“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God:” (1 John 4:1) and —“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house.” (2 John 10) If these passages do not imply the use of private judgment, what else can they mean? They seem to say to every individual Christian, “Examine all things.”
Whatever men may say against private judgment, you can rest assured that it cannot be neglected without great danger to your soul. You may not like it, but you never know what you may come to if you refuse to use it. You cannot know into what depths of false doctrine you may be drawn if you will not do what God requires of you, and “Test everything .”
Suppose that, because you are afraid of private judgment, you resolve to believe whatever the Church believes. Where is your security against error? The Church is not infallible. There was a time when almost the whole of Christendom embraced the heresy that the Lord Jesus Christ was not equal with the Father in all things. Will your erring in company with the Church remove your responsibility for your own soul? It were surely a thousand times better for a man to stand alone and be saved, than to err in company with the Church, and be lost! It were better to prove all things, and go to heaven, than to say, “I dare not think for myself,” and go to hell.
Suppose that, in another vein, you resolve to believe whatever your minister believes. Once more, where is your safety?—Where is your security? Ministers are not infallible, any more than Churches. They do not all have the Spirit of God. The very best of them are only men. Luther, Calvin, the reformers, all made mighty errors in some areas. If a man’s religion hangs on ministers, whoever they may be, and not on the Word of God, it hangs on a broken reed. Never make ministers into Popes. Follow them so far as they follow Christ, but not a hair’s breadth further. Believe whatever they can show you out of the Bible, but do not believe a single word more.
Neglect the duty of private judgment, and you may live to experience the truth of what the Lord said to the Pharisees: “if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” You may be very sure that no one is safe against error, unless he acts on the Apostle Paul’s injunction,—unless he “tests everything” by the Word of God.
But just as the evils that may arise from neglecting to exercise your private judgment are great, so are the blessings which private judgment has produced both in the world and on the Church.
Even in the natural world, private judgment has lead to the greatest discoveries in science and technology. To this we owe the discovery of Galileo, that the earth went round the sun, and not the sun round the earth for example. And for so many other discoveries we are indebted to men who dared to think for themselves. They were not content with the beaten path of those who had gone before. They were not satisfied with taking for granted that what their fathers believed must be true. They made experiments for themselves. They tested old established theories, and found that they were worthless. They proclaimed new systems, and invited men to examine them, and test their truth. They put up with insult and ridicule unmoved. They heard the shouts of prejudiced lovers of old traditions without flinching. And they prospered and succeeded in what they did. We see it now. And we who live in the twenty first century are reaping the fruit of their use of private judgment.
And as it has been in science, so also it has been in the history of the Christian religion. The martyrs who stood alone in their day, and shed that blood which has been the seed of Christ’s Gospel throughout the world,—the Reformers, who, one after another, rose up in their might to enter into battle with the Church of Rome,—all did what they did, suffered what they suffered, proclaimed what they proclaimed, simply because they exercised their private judgment about what was Christ’s truth.
Private judgment made the early reformers forsake their lives, rather than believe the doctrines of the Church of Rome.
Private judgment made Luther examine Tetzel’s abominable system of indulgences by the light of the Word. Private judgment led him on, step by step, from one thing to another, guided by the same light, till at last the gulf between him and Rome was a gulf that could not be passed, and the Pope’s power in Germany was completely broken.
Private judgment made the English Reformers examine for themselves, and inquire for themselves, as to the true nature of that corrupt system under which they had been born and brought up. Private judgment made them cast off the abominations of Popery, and circulate the Bible among the people. They broke the fetters of tradition, and dared to think for themselves. They refused to take for granted Rome’s pretensions and assertions. They examined them all by the Bible, and because they would not withstand the examination, they broke with Rome altogether. All the blessing of early Protestantism, the wealth of sound and religious instruction we enjoy in writing today, we owe to the right exercise of private judgment.
And let no one be moved by the common argument, that the right of private judgment is liable to be abused,—that private judgment has done great harm, and should be avoided as a dangerous thing. Only examine this argument closely and it will be shown to be empty.
Those who oppose it, will say that Private judgment has been abused! But what good gift of God has not been abused! What high principle can be named that has not been used for the very worst of purposes? Strength may become tyranny when it is employed by the stronger to coerce the weaker, yet strength is a blessing when properly used. Liberty may become depravity when every man does that which is right in his own eyes, with no regard for the rights and feelings of others; yet liberty, rightly used, is a mighty blessing.
Because many things may be used improperly, are we, therefore, to give them up altogether? Because opium is used improperly by some, is it not to be used as a medicine on any occasion at all? Because money may be used improperly, is all money to be cast into the sea? You cannot have good in this world without evil. You cannot have private judgment without some abusing it.
And let no one be caught by the deceptive argument, that it is humility to reject private judgment; that it is humility to have no opinion of your own, that it is the part of a true Christian not to think for himself!
Such humility is a false humility, a humility that does not deserve that blessed name. Call it rather laziness. Call it rather idleness. Call it rather sloth. It makes a man strip himself of all his responsibility, and throw the whole burden of his soul into the hands of the minister and the Church. It gives a man a mere indirect religion, a religion by which he places his conscience and all his spiritual concerns under the care of others. He need not trouble himself! He need no longer think for himself! He has boarded a safe ship, and placed his soul under a safe pilot, and will get to heaven!
Beware of supposing that this deserves the name of humility. It is refusing to exercise the gift that God has given you. It is refusing to make use of the sword of the Spirit which God has forged for the use of your hand.
We can be thankful that the early reformers did not act upon such principles! Had they done so, we should never have had the light we have today. Had they done so, we might have been bowing down to the image of the Virgin Mary at this moment, or praying to the spirits of departed saints, or having a service performed in Latin. From such humility may we ever be delivered!
Rather, as long as you live, resolve that you will read for yourself, think for yourself, judge of the Bible for yourself, in the great matters of your soul. Have an opinion of your own. Never be ashamed of saying, “I think that this is right, because I find it in the Bible,” and “I think that this is wrong, because I do not find it in the Bible.” “Test everything ,” and prove them by the Word of God.
As long as you live, beware of the blindfold system, which many commend in the present day,—the system of following a leader, and having no opinion of our own—the system which practically says, “Only go to Church, only receive the sacraments, only believe what the ordained ministers who are set over you tell you, and then all will be well.” Be warned that this will not do. Be warned that if you are content with this kind of religion, you are putting your immortal soul in peril. Let the Bible, and not any Church on earth, or any minister on earth, be your rule of faith. “Test everything” by the Word of God.
And, above all, as long as you live, look forward to the great day of judgment. Think of the solemn account which every one of us will have to give in that day before the judgment seat of Christ. We will not be judged as Churches. We will not be judged as whole congregations. We will be judged individually, one by one. What will it profit you or me in that day to say, “Lord, Lord, I believed everything the Church told me. I received and believed everything ordained ministers set before me. I thought that whatever the Church and the ministers said must be right”? What will it profit us to say this, if we have held some deadly error? Surely, the voice of Him that sits upon the throne will reply, “You had the Scriptures. You had a book plain and easy to him that will read it and search it in a child-like spirit. Why did you not use the Word of God when it was given to you? You had a reasonable soul given you to understand that Bible. Why did you not ‘test everything,’ and so keep clear of error?” If you refuse to exercise your private judgment, what will you do on that awful day?
II. And now let us go on to the duty and necessity of keeping firm hold upon truth.
The words of the Apostle on this subject are strong and concise. “Hold fast,” he says, “what is good.” It is as if he said to us, “When you have found the truth for yourself, and when you are satisfied that it is Christ’s truth,—that truth which the Scriptures set forth, then get a firm hold upon it, grasp it, keep it in your heart, never let it go.”
He speaks as one who knew what the hearts of all Christians are. He knew that our grasp of the Gospel, at our best, is very cold, that our love soon fades into weakness,—that our faith soon wavers,—that our zeal soon declines,—that familiarity with Christ’s truth often brings with it a sort of contempt,—that, like Israel, we are prone to be discouraged by the length of our journey,—and, like Peter, ready to sleep one moment and fight the next,—but, like Peter, not ready to “watch and pray.” (Matt 26:41) All this the Apostle Paul remembered, and, like a faithful watchman, he warns, by the Holy Spirit, “Hold fast what is good.”
He speaks as if he foresaw by the Spirit that the good news of the Gospel would soon be corrupted, spoiled, and snatched away from the Church at Thessalonica. He speaks as one who foresaw that Satan and all his agents would work hard to destroy Christ’s truth. He writes as though he would forewarn men of this danger, and he cries out, “Hold fast that which is good.”
Consider well that this advice is always needed—needed as long as the world stands. There is a tendency to decay in the very best of human institutions. The best visible Church of Christ is not free from this tendency to degenerate. It is made up of fallible men. There is always in it a tendency to decay. We see the leaven of evil creeping into many a Church, even in the Apostle’s time. There were evils in the Corinthian Church, evils in the Ephesian Church, evils in the Galatian Church. All these things are meant to be our warnings and beacons in these end times. All show the great necessity laid upon the Church to remember the Apostle’s words: “Hold fast what is good.”
Many a Church of Christ since then has fallen away because they forgot this principle. Their ministers and members forgot that Satan is always labouring to bring in false doctrine. They forgot that he can transform himself into an angel of light,—that he can make darkness appear light, and light darkness; truth appear falsehood, and falsehood truth. If he cannot destroy Christianity, he ever tries to spoil it. If he cannot prevent the form of godliness, he endeavours to rob Churches of the power. No Church is ever safe that forgets these things, and does not bear in mind the Apostle’s injunction: “Hold fast what is good.”
We live in a time when the trial has come and the visible church seems to have completely succumbed but not in the way Ryle had anticipated. It has been assaulted by open enemies from the outside for sure, but her more deadly enemies have been the false friends who have continually betrayed her from within.
In his original tract, Ryle is urging his readers to resist the ongoing assault from the Roman Catholic Church on Protestant England. Sadly, 200 years later we see clearly that in terms of the visible church, the battle has been lost in England as well as for what seems to be the whole protestant world. Ryle would not recognize his church today.
But though the battle has been lost in the large established churches, it goes on and will continue in local churches and in the heart of every true believer until the Lord returns.
If we would hold fast that which is good, we must never tolerate or put up with any doctrine which is not the pure doctrine of Christ’s Gospel. There is a type of hatred which is real charity—that is the hatred of false doctrine. There is an intolerance which is actually praiseworthy—that is the intolerance of false teaching in the pulpit.
Who would ever think of tolerating a little poison given to him day by day? If men come to you who do not preach “all the counsel of God,” who do not preach of Christ, and sin, and holiness, of ruin, and redemption, and regeneration; and do not preach of these things in a Scriptural way, you ought to stop hearing them. You ought to carry out the spirit shown by the Apostle Paul in Galatians “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:8)
If we can bear to hear Christ’s truth mangled or contaminated,—and can see no harm in listening to that which is another Gospel,—and can sit at ease while fake Christianity is poured into our ears,—and can go home comfortably afterwards, and not burn with holy indignation,—if this be the case, there is little chance of our ever doing much against outward enemies such as Rome or the false prophets within. If we are content to hear Jesus Christ not put in His rightful place, we are not men and women who are likely to do Christ much service, or fight a good fight on His side. Whoever is not zealous against error, is not likely to be zealous for truth.
If we would hold fast the truth, we must be ready to stand with all who hold the truth and love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. We must be ready to lay aside all minor questions as things of secondary importance such as the mode of baptism for example. Surely it is not right to say that we expect to spend eternity with men in heaven, and yet cannot associate for a few years with them in this world
Some men may say, “This is very troublesome.” Some may say, “Why not sit still and be quiet?” Some may say, “Why dwell on such divisive controversy? What need is there for all this trouble? Why should we care so much about these points of difference?” But what good thing was ever got or ever kept without trouble? Gold does not lie in corn-fields, but at the bottom of remote rivers. Pearls do not grow in meadows, but deep down in the seas. Difficulties are never overcome without struggles. Peace is seldom obtained without war. And Christ’s truth is seldom affirmed, without pains, without struggles, and without trouble.
Let anyone who objects to “trouble” think for a moment where we would be today if the early reformers had not taken some trouble? Where would the Gospel be if martyrs had not given their bodies to be burned? What a debt we owe to them. They held fast that which is good. They would not give up one jot. They gave up their lives for the Gospel’s sake. They laboured, and they worked, and we have profited from their labours.
It is very sad if we will not take a little trouble to keep with us what they so nobly won! Trouble or no trouble,—pains or no pains,—controversy, or no controversy,—one thing is very sure: that nothing but Christ’s Gospel will ever do good to our own souls. Nothing else will sustain churches. Nothing else will ever bring down God’s blessing upon our land. If therefore, we love our own souls, or if we love our country’s prosperity, or if we would love to see Churches flourishing, we must remember the Apostles words, and “hold fast” firmly the Gospel, and refuse to let it go.
And now, as we close, we have seen two things. One is the right, the duty, and necessity of private judgment. The other is the duty and necessity of keeping firm hold upon truth.—let us apply these things to our own individual conscience in a few concluding words.
i) For one thing, if it be your duty to “prove all things,” let me urge you to arm yourself with a thorough knowledge of the written Word of God.
Read your Bible regularly. Become familiar with your Bible. Test all religious truth when it is brought before you by the Bible. A little knowledge of the Bible is not enough.
You can rest assured that a man must know his Bible well if he is to prove religious teachings by it; and he must read it regularly if he would know it well. There is no easy road to a knowledge of the Bible. There must be daily, regular reading of the Book, or the Book will not be known.
The devil can quote Scripture. He could go to our Lord and quote Scripture when he wanted to tempt Him. And so a man must be able to say, from his knowledge of Scripture, when he hears Scripture falsely quoted, “Again it is written,” (Matt 4:7) lest he be deceived. Neglect your Bible, and nothing is preventing you becoming a Roman Catholic, or Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon, or Moslem, if a persuasive promoter of any of these false systems happens to meet you.
i) Lastly, if it be right to “hold fast what is good,” let us make sure that we have each laid hold personally on Christ’s truth for ourselves. It will not save you and me to know all controversies, and to be able to detect everything which is false. Head knowledge will never bring you and me to heaven. It will not save us to be able to argue and reason with Roman Catholics, or to detect the errors of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Let us make sure that we each lay hold upon Jesus Christ for ourselves, by our own personal faith. Let us make sure that we each run to him for refuge, and lay hold upon the hope set before us in His glorious Gospel. Let us do this, and all will be well with us, whatever else may go badly.
Let us do this, and then all things are ours. The Church may fail. The State may go to ruin. The foundations of all establishments may be shaken. The enemies of truth may for a season triumph. But as for us, all will be well. We will have peace in this world, and in the world which is to come life everlasting, for we will have Christ, and having Him, we have all.
This is real good, lasting good,—good in sickness, good in health, good in life, good in death, good in time, and good in eternity. All other things are uncertain. They all wear out. They fade. They droop. They wither. They decay. The longer we have them the more worthless we find them, and the more satisfied we become that everything here below is “vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecc 1:14) But as for hope in Christ, that is always good. The longer we use it the better it seems. The more we wear it in our hearts the brighter it will look. It is good when we first have it. It is far better when we grow older. It is better still in the day of trial, and at the hour of death. And best of all, depend upon it, will it prove in the day of judgment.
If you have not yet laid hold on this hope in Christ, would it not be wise to seek it at once? Call on the Lord Jesus to give it to you. Give Him no rest till you know and feel that you are His.
And if you have laid hold on this hope, hold it fast. Prize it highly, for it will stand by you when everything else fails.