We lay great emphasis on the soundness of preachers we listen to, and authors whom we read. For many of us an individual’s fidelity or infidelity to the truth of Scripture will govern the time and weight we lend to what they have to say. We speak longingly, lovingly, or nostalgically of sound preachers and teachers, and of sound churches, distinguishing them from error and wrong thinking.
The irony is, that when it comes to me (and to all preachers for that matter), I can never really be granted this adjective as my own. Although such terminology is a convenient shorthand it can misplace our emphasis and can downplay careful listening and discernment. The New Testament depiction of the servant of Christ is not of someone who acts as the guarantor of what they preach, but of individuals who are given a stewardship or a deposit which they must closely guard, which they must pay attention to and not lose hold of.
A sampling of the pastoral epistles gives a sufficient snapshot of this. Timothy is entrusted with a charge, waging a good warfare, keeping a good conscience, all the while knowing that men like Hymenaeus and Alexander stand as warning signs about the danger of personal apostasy (1Tim 1:18-20). Timothy’s credentials as a good servant of Christ Jesus are not only predicated on the fact that he has been trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine, but also because he refuses to give himself to foolish and false teaching (1Tim 4:6-7). He is to keep a careful watch on the church, but also on himself and on ‘the teaching’ knowing his salvation and that of others hangs on it (1Tim 4:16). Timothy is to flee ‘different doctrine’ that ‘does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness’ (1Tim 5:2-3; 11). He is to ‘guard the deposit entrusted to him’, knowing that this message is not his to alter or to relinquish (1Tim 6:20). This injunction is repeated and amplified in the first chapter of 2Timothy where Paul’s younger disciple is urged to ‘follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus’ (vv13-14). Timothy’s adherence to the truth is to be constant, part of a continuum which stretches from childhood to manhood, he is to ‘continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it’ (2Tim 3:14). Paul writes this counsel to Timothy and to Titus understanding that he himself does not have ownership of Christ’s gospel, that he has ‘been entrusted with’ it ‘by the command of God, our Saviour’ (Titus 1:3). Titus’ ministry in Crete is also to be characterised by teaching that ‘accords with sound doctrine’ (Titus 2:1).
Behind all of this instruction from Paul lies an inherent danger which is all too easily overlooked – a man may hold and preach the truth of God for a time, and then hopelessly abandon his apparent convictions and become an enemy of the gospel. The workforce of labourers in the gospel is not a sealed canon, it is not a guaranteed body of people – digression, declension, compromise and perversion are ever present enemies to those who handle the Word of God. The pastoral epistles are littered with spiritual wreckage, ranging from Phygelus and Hermogenes to Demas, which demonstrates that fidelity is not necessarily ingrained in those who handle and share God’s Word.
These issues have a tremendous practical bearing on how we view preachers and their ministry. Rather than construct a pantheon of people whom we view as ‘sound’, we should earnestly pray that our pastors and teachers will remain so, that they will not be influenced by the gravitational pull of culture and compromise, that they won’t shift from the revealed truth of Scripture, and that they won’t shipwreck themselves in the process. We need exert little mental energy to call to mind men in our own generation who have carried a reputation for sound doctrine, who have been viewed as theologically watertight, but who have outrightly denied the gospel with their intellect, or their libido, or both.
I am not theologically sound in the sense that this is something that naturally or permanently pertains to me, as though I have gained lifelong membership of a doctrinal guild which guarantees all of my future work and thought. I need to surrender to the self-conscious, self-abasing work of guarding the good deposit, of recognising that holding to the truth in its fullness is a matter of life and death, and that doing so does not necessarily go with the grain of my sinful desire for approval and belonging as a human being.
Pray for me that I won’t digress, pray the same for every preacher you know whether their public platform is big or small, and don’t put your trust in people – question what they say in light of the good deposit of Christ’s truth and accept or reject them on that criteria alone. There are no sound men, just sound doctrine which men must fight tooth and nail to maintain and teach with clarity, fidelity and integrity throughout their ministry.