Prove All Things
By J. C. Ryle (1816 – 1900)
The Holy Ghost, by the mouth of Paul, says to us, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). In these words you have two great truths:
The right, duty, and necessity of private
judgment. “Prove all things.”
• The duty and necessity of keeping firm hold upon truth. “Hold fast that which is good.” I propose to dwell a little on both these heads.
Right, Duty, and Necessity of Private Judgment
When I say the right of private judgment, I mean 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.
When I say the duty of private judgment, I mean that God requires every Christian man to use the right of which I have just spoken; 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 when I say the necessity of private judgment, I mean 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 to which I have referred; 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 urges all these three points – right, duty, and necessity – upon your notice when he uses those remarkable words, “Prove all things.” I ask your particular attention to that expression. In every point of view it is most weighty and instructive.
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, writing too with special reference to matters of doctrine and preaching, as we know by the verse preceding the text, “Despise not prophesyings” (v. 20). And yet mark what he says, “Prove all things.”
He does not say, “Whatsoever apostles, whatsoever evangelists, pastors and teachers, whatsoever your bishops, whatsoever your ministers tell you is truth, that you are to believe.” No: he says, “Prove all things.” He does not say, “Whatsoever the universal church pronounces true, that you are to hold.” No: he says, “Prove all things.”
The principle laid down is this: “Prove all things by the Word of God. All ministers, all teaching, all preaching, all doctrine, all sermons, all writings, all opinions, all practices – prove 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 abide the fire of the Bible, receive, hold, believe and obey. That which cannot abide the fire of the Bible, reject, refuse, repudiate, and cast away.”
A New Testament Principle
This again is the principle laid down by our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember what He says, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits...” (Matt. 7:15-16). How is it possible that men shall 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 Paul’s word for granted when he came to preach to them. You are told, that they “searched the Scriptures daily, whether those 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 given in First Corinthians 10:15, “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say”; and in Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit...”; and in First John 4:1, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God...”; and in Second John 10, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house....”
Duty and Necessity of Keeping Firm Hold upon Truth
The words of the apostle on this subject are pithy and forcible. “Hold fast,” he says, “that which 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.”
The 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 liability 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 latter times. All show the great necessity laid upon the church to remember the apostle’s words: “Hold fast that which is good.”
Many a church of Christ since then has fallen away for want of remembering this principle. Their ministers and members forgot that Satan is always laboring 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 endeavors 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 that which is good.”
If we would hold fast that which is good, we must never tolerate or countenance any doctrine which is not the pure doctrine of Christ’s Gospel. Who would ever think of tolerating a little poison given to him day by day? If men come among you who do not preach “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), 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 cease to hear them. You ought to act upon the injunction given by the Holy Ghost in the Old Testament, “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge” (Prov. 19:27).
Thorough Knowledge of the Word
I have set before you 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. It only remains for me to apply these things to your own individual conscience by a few concluding words.
If it be your duty to “prove all things,” let me beseech and exhort you to arm yourself with a thorough knowledge of the written Word of God. Read your Bible regularly. Become familiar with your Bible. Prove all religious truth, when it is brought before you, by the Bible. A little knowledge of the Bible will not suffice. Depend upon it, 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 royal road to a knowledge of the Bible. There must be reading, daily, regular reading of the Book, or the Book will not be known. As one said quaintly, but most truly, “Justification may be by faith, but a knowledge of the Bible comes only by works.” The devil can quote Scripture. He could go to our Lord and quote Scripture when he wished to tempt Him. A man must be able to say, from his knowledge of Scripture when he hears Scripture falsely quoted, “Thus it is written” again, lest he be deceived. Neglect your Bible, and nothing that I know of can prevent your becoming the prey of any false system you happen to meet.