1 Thessalonians 5:21
Great Texts of the Bible
Proving and Holding Fast

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.—1 Thessalonians 5:21.

1. These are very astonishing words to address to a community of new converts. We might have expected that the Apostle would be careful to give them precise and detailed instructions, plain and solemn warnings, encouraging assurances of Divine approval, but hardly that he should bid them take account of their own experiences, and train themselves in the difficult and risky art of self-direction. We might have expected that this earliest Epistle of St. Paul would point out clearly the manner in which controversies might be quickly and finally closed by reference to some authoritative tribunal; that it would have stated the constitution of the Christian Church in plain language, which should leave no loophole for schismatical casuistry; that it would set out in unambiguous language the powers of the Christian clergy, and the manner in which those powers were to be exercised. Of all this, however, we find nothing. The Epistle is addressed to the community or Church of the Thessalonians, and contains no clear reference at all to an official ministry; for the mention of some prominent members of the community, as supervising its business and “admonishing” it, hardly suggests an official ministry, but rather a volunteer executive sustained in office by the general confidence and goodwill. The Thessalonians are “to esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work’s sake.” The Apostle’s appeal is directly to the whole body of members: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

2. The words of the text stand in close relation to the words which they immediately follow: “Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophesyings; prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” It is manifest from the record of those Apostolic times that the operations of the Holy Spirit were of an exceptional and temporary character. This is specially apparent in those spiritual utterances, those mysterious “tongues,” to which St. Paul refers in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. But, further, there appears to have been on the part of those early Christians a very natural desire to prophesy—to speak out, in the presence of others, their own impressions or experiences of the spiritual life. A new prospect, transcendent in its beauty and glory, had been opened up to them by the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the freshness of their new hopes and new joys, they were eager to make known to one another, with unregulated fervour even in their religious assemblies, their individual experience of the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord. There would, however, be some among the Christian converts, some of the less enthusiastic and more sober-minded, who would both dislike and distrust such utterances. It is probably such critics as these that the Apostle has in his mind when he addresses to them the words of caution, “Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophesyings.” He could see the possible danger of such utterances; but he recognized in them the workings of the Holy Ghost, and would have them not suppressed, but tested and controlled. There were in them, no doubt, elements of exaggeration, dangers of self-seeking and of unreality, of presumption and pride; and these were not of God, but of the evil one. Yet behind all these there was a spiritual reality, obscured but not obliterated, and therefore they were to prove all things and to hold fast the good.

Many of the fathers of the Church connect these verses with what they consider a saying of Jesus, one of the few which are reasonably attested, though it has failed to find a place in the written gospels. The saying is, “Show yourselves approved money-changers.” The fathers believed that the Apostle uses a metaphor from coinage. To prove is really to assay, to put to the test as a banker tests a piece of money; the word rendered “good” is often the equivalent of our “sterling”; “evil,” of our base or forged; and the word which in our old Bibles is rendered “appearance”—“Abstain from all appearance of evil”—and in the Revised Version “form”—“Abstain from every form of evil”—has, at least in some connexions, the signification of mint or die. If we bring out this faded metaphor in its original freshness, it will run something like this: “Show yourselves skilful money-changers; do not accept in blind trust all the spiritual currency which you find in circulation; put it all to the test; rub it on the touchstone; keep hold of what is genuine and of sterling value, but every spurious coin decline.”1 [Note: J. Denney, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, 244.]



1. Why must we prove? Because faculties have been given us for that very purpose. The possession of faculties for thinking and reasoning tells us that we have the duty as well as the right of exerting them, just as truly as to have been born with eyes confers upon the individual the right to see. The eye has to be trained and so to become adjusted to objects about it. In many cases it is defective. We do not, therefore, bandage every man’s eyes or put spectacles upon him, because these are required by certain persons. The maxim, Usum non tollit abusus, obtains here. Persons have grievously abused their right of private judgment; it does not follow that they should be deprived of it. It would be safer to infer that the faculty for forming such judgments imposes upon them the duty of using it.

The question you put is by no means an easy one to answer: whether, namely, it be right and wise for you to read on both sides of the question—or rather, I should say, questions? for on this subject they are endless, and grow up like Hydra’s heads. I could not reply, No: for that is the very advice given by the Romish Church, which we so much blame; and it is very inconsistent in us to condemn their prohibitions of heretical or Protestant books to the laity, if we, tractarian or evangelical clergy, forbid, as is constantly done, the perusal of books which we judge heretical. Now, first of all, the questions of religious truth are interminable, and a lifetime would scarcely suffice to pass even the outworks of them all. Next, very few minds are in possession of the means or of the severe mental training which qualifies a man to set out as an original discoverer of truth; so that if we cannot begin with a large number of truths, which must be considered as first principles and settled, life must be one perpetual state of Pyrrhonism and uncertainty. On the other hand, to refuse to examine when doubts arise is spiritual suicide; and I do not see how, on this principle, any progress in truth could ever have been made. Why should the Pharisees have been blamed for the views so long stereotyped or the Jews for remaining in Judaism?1 [Note: Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 317.]

2. This duty is not dropped when a man accepts the obedience of Christ. The Christian life is necessarily a struggle with intellectual as well as with moral difficulties, with ignorance as well as with sin. Let no one enter upon it with the thought that his days of perplexity are over, that henceforth he is to be within the calm shelter of the haven, where no breath of wind or stormy wave can reach him from the open sea. There may be those who are thus blessed, but most are called to the battle. But the battle is itself a blessing when it graces, strengthens, confirms. The great German thinker may have been guilty of an exaggeration, but it was the exaggeration of a truth, when he said, “Did the Almighty, holding in His right hand ‘Truth,’ and in His left ‘Search after Truth,’ deign to tender me the one I might prefer, in all humility, and without hesitation, I should request ‘Search after Truth.’ ” There are, indeed, some who, wearied of searching after truth, have bowed their reason to some external authority, some infallible Church, admitting all its assertions as equally true; while others have found refuge in a universal scepticism denouncing all as equally false. The one goes against the precept, “Prove all things,” the other against its natural and necessary counterpart, “Hold fast that which is good”; and both evade one of the most potent means of moral training for this ceaseless conflict, this patient endurance, this quiet hope, this earnest longing, this immovable confidence in what is right and good, when they do not use it as one of the ways in which God has chosen to educate us for Himself.

Faith, whatever else it may be or imply, involves definite and strong conviction. Conviction requires evidence. Evidence is the objective truth which compels assent. Subjectively and spiritually, faith in a Fiji islander may be the same as it is in a cultivated and reflecting man, but intellectually it cannot be the same. Whatever the truth may be, or in whatever form it may meet the mind,—whether by an argument, or a person, or a dream, or a fantasy,—it must convince the intellect that something is true.1 [Note: N. Porter, Yale College Sermons, 337.]

In the Cathedral Church of Copenhagen, amid Thorwaldsen’s famous group of the Twelve Apostles, stands the figure of a grave and meditative man, with earnestly questioning face, rule and measure in hand, as though prepared to bring all things under strict verification, whose name no one needs to ask, so plainly does the statue stand for the doubting Thomas. Thomas was, according to the traditions of the Early Church, a born sceptic, a constitutional questioner, whose faith followed his understanding, who could not rest on external authority, who brought even Christ’s words to the bar of reason, and, failing to elicit an intelligible answer, withheld his assent—in short, a genuine Rationalist. Yet this Thomas was one of the twelve disciples, a full member of the Apostolic College.2 [Note: R. H. Newton.]


Prove all Things

1. “Prove all things” is a favourite text with Protestants, and especially with Protestants of an extreme type. It has been called “a piece of most rationalistic advice”; it has been said to imply that “every man has a verifying faculty, whereby to judge of facts and doctrines, and to decide between right and wrong, truth and falsehood.” But this is a most unconsidered extension to give to the Apostle’s words. He does not say a word about every man; he is speaking expressly to the Thessalonians, who were Christian men. He would not have admitted that any man who came from the street, and constituted himself a judge, was competent to pronounce upon the contents of the prophesyings, and to say which of the burning words were spiritually sound, and which were not. On the contrary, he tells us very plainly that some men have no capacity for this task—“The natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit”; and that even in the Christian Church, where all are to some extent spiritual, some have this faculty of discernment in a much higher degree than others.

Again and again it comes home to me that true wisdom lies in the abiding recognition that spiritual things are spiritually discerned. If we labour for the meat which perisheth not, and if we witness to the Kingdom of God in word and deed, our labour and our witness must be in the Spirit, i.e. by and to the Spirit.1 [Note: R. W. Corbet, Letters from a Mystic of the Present Day, 112.]

Johann was one day on his travels, and came to a wood. In an old tree he found a bird’s nest with seven eggs, which resembled the eggs of the common swift. But the latter bird only lays three eggs, so the nest could not belong to it. Since Johann was a great connoisseur in eggs, he soon perceived that they were the eggs of the hoopoo. Accordingly, he said to himself, “There must be a hoopoo somewhere in the neighbourhood, although the natural history books assert that it does not appear here.” After a time he heard quite distinctly the well-known cry of the hoopoo. Then he knew that the bird was there. He hid himself behind a rock, and he soon saw the speckled bird with its yellow comb. When Johann returned home after three days, he told his teacher that he had seen the hoopoo on the island. His teacher did not believe it, but demanded proof. “Proof!” said Johann. “Do you mean two witnesses?” “Yes!” “Good! I have twice two witnesses, and they all agree: my two ears heard it, and my two eyes saw it.” “Maybe. But I have not seen it,” answered the teacher. Johann was called a liar because he could not prove that he had seen the hoopoo in such and such a spot. However, it was a fact that the hoopoo appeared there, although it was an unusual occurrence in this neighbourhood.2 [Note: A. Strindberg, Zones of the Spirit, 13.]

2. The truth is, St. Paul is not concerned so much with the things which we are to prove as with the spirit in which the duty should be performed. What he would say to us is in substance this: “Whatever subjects may engage your attention, or require the formation of your opinion, let this be the course you pursue: be not prejudiced, be not hasty either in approving or in condemning; ‘prove all things’; weigh them in the balance of a sober judgment, and deal with them by the use of that reasoning power with which God has endowed you. Estimate the value of every statement and every argument with what power and ability you may possess, deal with them in a philosophic rather than a polemic spirit. Pray that your intellectual gifts may be guided in their services by the Holy Spirit of Truth, and then, whatever truth, whatever good you may find, lay hold on that and hold it fast.”

A man has as much right to use his own understanding, in judging of truth, as he has a right to use his own eyes, to see his way: therefore it is no offence to another, that any man uses his own right. It is not to be expected that another man should think as I would, to please me, since I cannot think as I would to please myself; it is neither in his nor my power to think as we will, but as we see reason, and find cause. It is better for us that there should be difference of judgment, if we keep charity: but it is most unmanly to quarrel because we differ. Men’s apprehensions are often nearer than their expressions; they may mean the same thing, when they seem not to say the same thing.1 [Note: Benjamin Whichcote, Moral and Religious Aphorisms.]

3. This shows us the place and the duty of criticism in relation to the Bible. To criticize is, first, to distinguish—to distinguish in a complex reality what is primary, essential, eternal, from what is secondary, accidental, temporary. So we find out what is the essence of the thing itself, making it what it is, as distinct from accessories not necessarily peculiar to it, which have gathered round it, and which can be, and perhaps at times should be, stripped off. To criticize is, next, to test. When this first duty of distinction has been discharged, and the root of the matter made known to us, it has then to go on to the work described in the text—to test or prove it. It must try to discern, first, whether it is a reality—whether (that is) what it declares as truth is a real truth, accordant with the great laws of being; whether the power which it claims to wield is a real power, able to guide, to rule, and to exalt humanity. Historical science has studied and analysed the actual Christianity, the Church of Christ, in all ages. It has bidden us look through the visible developments of law, system, ritual, to the inner spiritual force, which gives them life; it has distinguished in it the obviously human element, with all the imperfection and evil clinging to it, which it shares with other great world-wide powers, from that element which is its peculiar characteristic, clearly unique and claiming to be miraculous and Divine. It makes us see plainly that this inner reality is, in spite of all imperfections, accretions, superstitions, the reproduction in the individual and the community of the life of Christ Himself. So, again, literary and critical science examines the Holy Scripture. It distinguishes in it also the human element of imperfection and progressiveness from that which claims to be Divine—the essential truth itself from the forms in which it has been conveyed. And the result is to make us see clearly that the one key to its right interpretation is the knowledge of the central manifestation of Christ Himself—His Life, His Word, His Person—that in relation to this all other parts stand simply as preparatory or explanatory, and only in that dependence can be rightly understood and reasonably reverenced.

Professor Huxley once said that men of science no longer believed in justification by faith, but in “justification by verification.” Now, St. Paul taught justification by faith, but he also, as we see, taught justification by verification. In his view, the one did not exclude the other. St. Paul calls, not for the surrender, but for the exercise, of the reason. We have his approval if we feel that, in religious as in other matters, we wish to have our intelligence satisfied, before we yield the submission of our hearts.1 [Note: J. G. Henderson.]

In order to the discovery of that which is better of two things, it is necessary that both should be equally submitted to the attention, and therefore that we should have so much faith in authority as shall make us repeatedly observe and attend to that which is said to be right, even though at present we may not feel it so. And in the right mingling of this faith with the openness of heart which proves all things, lies the great difficulty of the cultivation of the taste, as far as the spirit of the scholar is concerned; though, even when he has this spirit, he may be long retarded by having evil examples submitted to him by ignorant masters. The temper, therefore, by which right taste is formed is characteristically patient. It dwells upon what is submitted to it. It does not trample upon it, lest it should be pearls, even though it looks like husks. It is a good ground, soft, penetrable, retentive; it does not send up thorns of unkind thoughts, to choke the weak seed; it is hungry and thirsty too, and drinks all the dew that falls on it. It is “an honest and good heart,” that shows no too ready springing before the sun be up, but fails not afterwards; it is distrustful of itself, so as to be ready to believe and to try all things, and yet so trustful of itself, that it will neither quit what it has tried nor take anything without trying. And the pleasure which it has in things that it finds true and good is so great, that it cannot possibly be led aside by any tricks of fashion, or diseases of vanity: it cannot be cramped in its conclusions by partialities and hypocrisies; its visions and its delights are too penetrating, too living, for any whitewashed object or shallow fountain long to endure or supply. It clasps all that it loves so hard that it crushes it if it be hollow.1 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters, pt. iii. sec. 1, chap. iii. (Works, iv. 58).]


Hold Fast that which is Good

1. The command addressed by St. Paul to the Thessalonians describes with incisive brevity the only kind of criticism that is right in principle and likely to be fruitful in results. It is the criticism, first, which claims, not to discover, but to “test” all things—taking the thing criticized as it actually presents itself, and not reconstructing it out of our own discovery or imagination. It is the criticism, next, which, until it is forced to an opposite conclusion, holds (with Richard Hooker) that whatever has spiritual life and power in it cannot be “wholly compacted of untruths,” but must have in it something “which is good,” and which it is therefore worth while “to hold fast.” It is, moreover and above all, the criticism which performs its two functions simultaneously, not waiting in suspense till the whole conceivable work of testing is over, before it proceeds to grasp anything firmly, but at every point laying strong and enthusiastic hold of whatever, so far, it has found by trial to be good, living in it by strong sympathy, and making this experience of its inner meaning a means of advancing towards larger knowledge.

It is interesting to observe the various shades of meaning in which the Apostle uses the word δοχιμάζειν, which he here employs. There are passages, like the present, where the sense is general. But there are others where it clearly implies, not the exercise of the critical faculty, but the appreciative acceptance of what is manifestly good and true, as when he exhorts the Philippians to approve the things that are excellent, and the Romans to prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.2 [Note: Archbishop Maclagan.]

2. So we are not only to prove all things; we are bidden to “hold fast that which is good”; to be faithful to whatever has proved itself to us as worthy of love and reverence. The value of every discovery or invention consists largely in its power to satisfy some human want. The great test is experience of its results. May we not apply the same test to religious truth? If we have felt a craving to be delivered from sin, and to be made partakers of light and holiness; to be drawn nearer to God and to be lifted above ourselves; to know something of human destiny, and to obtain more worthy views of the world, and a deeper insight into moral truth, then let us ask, Does Christianity meet any or all of these requirements? If, in our assurance that God is love, and that we, though weak and ignorant and sinful, are His children, we feel convinced that God has spoken to us, and that His Word is in His own Gospel; if we have believed in His promises, and tasted the blessings of forgiven sin, and the peace which the toil and the changes of the world cannot reach; if we have attained higher views of holiness and truth—are not these things good, and shall we not hold them fast? These are sufficient for our life; and as for others, we must maintain towards them an attitude, not indeed of indifference, but of bold and ceaseless endeavour, proving all things, and holding fast that which is good.

When the anchors faith has cast are dragging in the gale,

I am quietly holding fast to the things that cannot fail.

I know that right is right, that it is not good to lie;

That love is better than spite, and a neighbour than a spy;

In the darkest night of the year, when the stars have all gone out,

That courage is better than fear, and faith is better than doubt;

And fierce though the fiends may fight, and long though the angels hide,

I know that truth and right have the universe on their side,

And that somewhere beyond the stars is a love that is better than fate;

When the night unlocks her doors I shall see Him, and I can wait.

3. Happily for us, the great truths which should guide our judgment are just those which cannot escape our observation. The distinction between good and evil is written upon our conscience in characters which nothing can altogether efface The love of God beams in the sunshine, is poured forth in the refreshing shower, reveals itself in all the wondrous glory and beauty of the world. History reveals one human life in which Divinity shines out in all the radiance of perfect love, and purity, and Divine self-sacrifice. The condemnation of sin and the way of deliverance for the sinner were manifested in the death upon the cross. Thus, grasping with a perfect faith the great elements of good, we are able to look accurately at the difficulties which beset us, and prepare ourselves boldly for the journey or the fight.

Christianity has abler advocates than its professed defenders, in those quiet and humble men and women who in the light of it and the strength of it live holy, beautiful, and self-denying lives. The God that answers by fire is the God whom mankind will acknowledge; and so long as the fruits of the Spirit continue to be visible in charity, in self-sacrifice, in those graces which raise human creatures above themselves, thoughtful persons will remain convinced that with them in some form or other is the secret of truth.1 [Note: J. A. Froude.]

Proving and Holding Fast


Aglionby (F. K.), The Better Choice, 144.

Barry (A.), Some Lights of Science on the Faith, 218.

Blunt (J. J.), University Sermons, 243.

Boyd (A. K. H.), Changed Aspects of Unchanged Truths, 1.

Calthrop (G.), Hints to My Younger Friends, 121.

Denney (J.), The Epistles to the Thessalonians (Expositor’s Bible), 233.

Hardy (E. J.), Doubt and Faith, 1.

Henson (H. H.), Christ and the Nation, 102.

Henson (H. H.), The Road to Unity, 97.

Hutton (A. W.), Ecclesia Discens, 92.

Jones (T.), The Social Order, 45.

Merson (D.), Words of Life, 91.

Porter (N.), Yale College Sermons, 332.

Secker (T.), Sermons, i. 25.

Christian World Pulpit, xxviii. 378 (R. H. Newton); xlviii. 333 (J. B. Hastings); l. 241 (W. D. Maclagan); liv. 395 (E. J. Hardy); lxv. 308 (C. S. Horne); lxxv. 193 (J. G. Henderson).

Church of England Pulpit, xlii. 265 (W. D. Maclagan).

Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., x. 228 (J. R. Palmer).

Guardian, lxvii. (1912) 1409 (H. C. Beeching).

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