"Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus."—2 Tim. i. 13.
A NY great author or artist passes, in the course of his
iX work, from one manner to another ; so that a person familiar with him can date pretty accurately his books or pictures as being in his "earlier" or "later" style. So there is nothing surprising in the fact that there are great differences between Paul's last writings and his previous ones. The surprising thing would have been if there had not been such differences. The peculiarities of the so-called three pastoral Epistles (the two to Timothy, and the one to Titus) are not greater than can fairly be accounted for by advancing years, changed circumstances, and the emergence of new difficulties and enemies.
Amongst them there are certain expressions, very frequent in these letters and wholly unknown in any of Paul's other work. These have been pounced upon as disproving the genuineness of these letters, but they only do so if you assume that a man, when he gets old, must never use any words that he did not use when he was young, whatever new ideas may have come to him. Now, in this text of mine is one of these phrases peculiar to these later letters—" sound words." That phrase and its parallel one, "sound doctrine," occur in all some halfdozen times in these letters, and never anywhere else.. The expression has become very common among us. It is more often used than understood; and the popular interpretation of it hides its real meaning and obscures the very important lessons which are to be drawn from the true understanding of it, lessons which, I take leave to think, modern Christianity stands very sorely in need of. I desire now to try to unfold the thoughts and lessons contained in this phrase.
I. What does Paul mean by a "form of sound words"?
I begin the answer by saying that he does not mean a doctrinal formula. The word here rendered " form " is the same which he employs in the first of the letters to Timothy, when he speaks of himself and his own conversion as being "a pattern to them that should hereafter believe." The notion intended here is not a cut-and-dried creed, but a body of teaching which shall not be compressed within the limits of an iron form, but shall be a pattern for the lives of the men to whom it is given. The Revised Version has " the pattern," and not "the form." I take leave to think that there were no creeds in the Apostolic time, and that the Church would probably have had a firmer grasp of God's truth if there had never been any. At all events, the idea of a castiron creed, into which the whole magnificence of the Christian faith is crushed, is by no means Paul's idea in the word here. Then, with regard to the other part of the phrase—" sound words "—we all know how that is generally understood by people. Words are supposed to be "sound," when they are in conformity with the creed of the critic. A sound High Churchman is an entirely different person from a sound Nonconformist. Puritan and Sacramentarian differ with regard to the standard which they set up, but they use the word in the same way, to express theological statements in conformity with that standard. And we all know how harshly the judgment is sometimes made, and how easy it is to damn a man by a solemn shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulders, and the question whether he is sound.
Now, all that is clean away from the Apostolic notion of the word in question. If we turn to the other form of this phrase, which occurs frequently in these letters, "sound doctrine," there is another remark to be made. "Doctrine" conveys to the ordinary reader the notion of an abstract, dry, theological statement of some truth. Now, what the Apostle means is not" doctrine " so much as "teaching " ; and if you will substitute "teaching" for "doctrine" you will get much nearer his thought; just as you will get nearer it, if, for "sound," with its meaning of conformity to a theological standard, you substitute what the word really means, " healthy," wholesome, health-giving, healing. All these ideas run into each other. That which is in itself healthy is healthgiving as food, and as a medicine is healing. The Apostle is not describing the teaching that he had given to Timothy by its conformity with any standard, but is pointing to its essential nature as being wholesome, sound in a physical sense; and to its effect as being healthy and health-giving. Keep hold of that thought and the whole aspect of this saying changes at once.
There is only one other point that I would suggest in this first part of my sermon, as to the Apostolic meaning of these words, and it is this : "healing " and " holy" are etymologically connected, they tell us. The healing properties of the teaching to which Paul refers are to be found entirely in this—its tendency to make men better, to produce a purer morality, a loftier goodness, a more unselfish love, and so to bring harmony and health into the diseased nature. The one healing for a man is to be holy; and, says Paul, the way to be holy is to keep a firm hold of that body of teaching which I have presented.
Now, that this tendency to produce nobler manners and purer conduct and holier character is the true meaning of the word " sound " here, and not " orthodox," as we generally take it, will be quite clear, I think, if you will notice how, in another part of these same letters, the Apostle gives a long catalogue of the things which are contrary to the health-giving doctrine. If the ordinary notion of the expression were correct, that catalogue ought to be a list of heresies. But what is it? A black list of vices—" deceivers," "ungodly," "sinners," "unholy," "profane," "murderers," "manslayers," "whoremongers," "man-stealers," "liars," "perjured" persons. Not one of these refers to aberration of opinion; all of them point to divergencies of conduct, and these are the things that are contrary to the healing doctrine. But they are not contrary, often, to sound orthodoxy. For there have been a great many imitators of that King of Prance, who carried little leaden images of saints and the Virgin in his hat and the devil in his heart. "The form of sound words" is the pattern of healing teaching, which proves itself healing because it makes holy. Now, that is my first question answered.
II. Where Paul thought these healing words were to be found.
He had no doubt whatever as to that. They were in the message that he preached of Jesus Christ and His salvation. There and there only, in his estimation and inspired teaching, are such words to be found. The truth of Christ, His incarnation, His sacrifice, His resurrection, His ascension, the gift of His Divine Spirit, with all the mighty truths on which these great facts rest, and all which flow from these great facts, these, in the aggregate, are the health-giving words for the sickly world.
Now, historically, it is proved to be so. I do not need to defend, as if it were in full conformity with the dictates and principles of Christianity, the life and practice of any generation of Christian people. But this I do venture to say, that the world has been slowly lifted, all through the generations, by the influence, direct and indirect, of the great truths of Christianity, and that to-day the very men who, in the name of certain large principles which they have learned from the Gospel, are desirous of brushing aside the old-fashioned Gospel, are kicking down the ladder by which they climbed, and that, with all the imperfections, for which we have to take shame to ourselves before God; still the reflection of the perfect Image which is cast into the world from the mirror of the collective Christian conduct and character, though it be distorted by many a flaw in the glass, and imperfect by reason of many a piece of the reflecting medium having dropped away, is still the fairest embodiment of character that the world has ever seen. Why, what is the meaning of the sarcasms that we have all heard, till we are wearied of them, about "the Nonconformist conscience " f The adjective is wrong ; it should be "the Christian conscience." But with that correction I claim the sarcasms as unconscious testimony to the fact that the Christian ideal of character and conduct set forth, and approximately realised, by religious people, is far above the average morality of even a so-called Christian nation. And all that is due to the " pattern of health-giving words."
Now, the historical confirmation of Paul's claim that these health-giving words were to be found in his Gospel is no more than is to be expected, if we look at the contents of that Gospel to which he thus appeals. For there never has been such an instrument for regenerating individuals and society as lies in the truths of Christianity, firmly grasped and honestly worked out. Their healing power comes, first, from their giving the sense of pardon and acceptance. Brethren, there is nothing, as I humbly venture to affirm, that will go down to the fountain and origin of all the ills of man, except that teaching " God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing unto them their trespasses." That reality of guilt, that schism and alienation between man and God, must be dealt with first before you can produce high morality. Unless you deal with that central disease you do very little. Something you do ; but the cancer is deep-seated, and the world's remedies for it may cure pimples on the surface, but are powerless to extirpate the malignant tumour that has. laid hold of the vitals. You must begin by dealing with the disease of sin, not only in its aspect as habit, bat in its consequence of guilt and responsibility and separation from God, before you can bring health to the sick man.
And then, beyond that, I need but remind you of how a higher and more wholesome morality is made possible by these health-giving words, inasmuch as they set forth for us the perfect example of Jesus Christ, inasmuch, as they bring into operation love, the mightiest of all powers to mould a life, inasmuch as they open up for us, far| more solemnly and certainly than ever else has been revealed, the solemn thought of judgment, and of every man giving account of himself to God, and the assurance that "whatsoever a man soweth here, that," a thousand-fold increased in the crop, "shall he also reap" in the eternities. In addition to the example of perfection in the beloved Christ, the mighty motive of love, the solemn urgency of judgment and retribution, the health-giving words bring to us the assurance of a Divine power dwelling within us, to lift us to heights of purity and goodness to which our unaided feet can never, never climb. And for all these reasons the message of Christ's incarnation and death is the healthgiving word for the world.
But, further, let me remind you that, according to the Apostolic teaching, these healing and health-giving effects will not be produced except by that Gospel. Some of you, perhaps, may have listened to the first part of my sermon with approbation, because it seemed to fit in with the general disparagement of doctrine prevalent in this day. Will you listen to this part too? I venture to assert that, although there are many men apart from Christ who have as clear a conception of what they ought to be and to do as any Christian, and some men apart from Christ who do aim after high and pure, noble lives, not altogether unsuccessfully, yet on the whole, on the wide scale, and in the long run, if you change the "pattern of health-giving words," you lower the health of the world. It seems to me that this generation is an object-lesson in that matter. Why is it that these two things are running side by side in the literature of these closing years of the century—viz., a rejection of the plain laws of morality, especially in regard of the relations of the sexes, and a rejection of the oldfashioned Gospel of Jesus Christ? I venture to think that the two things stand to each other very largely in the relation of cause and effect, and that, if you want to bring back the world to Puritan morality, you will have to go back in the main to Puritan theology. I do not mean to insist upon any pinning of faith to any theological system, but this I am bound to say, and I beseech you to consider, that if you strike out from the "pattern of health-giving words" the truth of the Incarnation, the sacrifice on the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the gift of the Spirit, the "healthgiving words," that you have left are not enough to cure a fly.
III. Lastly, notice what Paul would have us do with these "health-giving words."
"Hold the form ... in faith and love, which is in Christ Jesus."
Now, that exhortation includes three things. Your time will not allow me to do more than just touch them. First it applies to the understanding. "Hold fast the teaching" by letting it occupy your minds. Brethren, I am unwillingly bound to acknowledge my suspicion that a very large number of Christian people scarcely ever occupy their thoughts with the facts and principles of the Gospel, and that they have no firm and intelligent grasp of these, either singly or in their connection. I would plead for less newspaper and more Bible; for less novel and more Gospel. I know how hard it is for busy men to have spare energy for anything beyond their business and the necessary claims of society, but I would even venture to advise a little less of what is called Christian work, in order to get a little more Christian knowledge. "Come ye yourselves apart into a solitary place," said the Master; and all busy workers need that. "Hold fast the healthgiving words " by meditation, a lost art among so many Christians.
The exhortation applies next to the heart. "Hold ... in faith and love." If that notion of the expression, which I have been trying to combat, were the correct one, there would be no need for anything beyond familiarising the understanding with the bearings of the doctrinal truths. But Paul sees need for a great deal more. The understanding brings to the emotions that on which they fasten and feed. Faith—which is more than credence, being an act of the will—casts itself on the truth believed, or rather on the person revealed in the truth; and love, kindled by faith, and flowing out in grateful response and self-abandonment, are as needful as orthodox belief, in order to hold fast the healthgiving words.
The exhortation applies, finally, to character and conduct. Emotion, even when it takes the shape of faith and love, is as little the end of God's revelation as is knowledge. He makes Himself known to us in all the greatness of His grace and love in Jesus Christ, not that we may know, and there an end, nor even that knowing, we may feel, and there an end, though a great many emotional Christians seem to think that is all ; but that knowing, we may feel, and knowing and feeling, we may be and do what He would have us do and be. We have the great river flowing past our doors. It is not only intended that we should fill our cisterns by knowledge, nor only bathe our parched lips by faith and love, but that we should use it to drive all the wheels of the mill of life. Not he that understands, nor he that glows, but he that does, is the man that holds fast the pattern of sound, health-giving words.
The world is like that five-porched pool in which were gathered a great multitude of sick folks. Its name is the "House of Mercy," for so Bethesda means, tragically as the title seems to be contradicted by the condition of the cripples and diseased lying there. But this fountain once moved gushes up for ever; and whosoever will may step into it, and immediately be made whole of whatsoever disease he has.