“Christianity in 12 Words – New Testament Christianity” Series
No need to pull out a dictionary. At first glance, this is not a word which should seem to require a more in-depth exploration to discover its meaning. But do not just pass over it flippantly. “Sound” is an important New Testament concept with huge implications. Do you worship among a sound church? And even more, are you sound?
A definition for what constitutes soundness that does not include the whole New Testament is woefully lacking. Each verse is relevant to the believer’s faith and conduct, and thus, his or her spiritual wellness or soundness. As a disciple digests more and more of the words of life, he ever strives to live in an acceptable way before God, “…trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). The pursuit is daily and ongoing throughout the believer’s life.
Unfortunately, this important concept is often reduced to a partial compliance to the will of God. A church that “stands for the truth” is considered a “sound” church. What does standing for the truth mean exactly? The preceding paragraph answers the question. But too often it is limited to a litmus test of corporate responses. True, false doctrine should be exposed and opposed. A local church should be organized consistently with the biblical pattern. The corporate activity of a body should reflect only those practices authorized by New Testament instruction. But once a church has complied in these areas, soundness involves this and much more.
Jesus did not charge the church in Sardis with failure in any of these areas. He spoke of their reputation among brethren – “have a name that you are alive” – but His assessment of them was the opposite – “you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). He found their deeds “not completed in the sight of My God” (3:2). How could one argue that the church in Sardis was sound? While the majority were told to repent, a few souls evidenced soundness in the group -- “…who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy” (3:4). We will not be judged as a local church but as individuals.
The soundness of corporate practice is far from irrelevant and unimportant. My individual standing before God is affected by corporate failing. While speaking to a number of congregations in Galatia, Paul speaks of the infectious false teaching that had made advances among them. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you…” (Galatians 3:1). Paul had previously warned of the embrace of “another gospel” (1:6-8). He concludes, “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in you in the Lord, that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is” (5:7-10). Thus, I draw this important conclusion. My spiritual responsibilities are both individual, pertaining to my own holiness, and collective, pertaining to my obligations to and activities within a local church.
The emphasis on soundness in the New Testament must imply the possibility of being unsound. A failure to abide in the doctrine of Christ leaves one in a most awful condition – “does not have God” (2 John 9). While the language here may allow for either what we believe about Jesus the person or the teaching that issues from Him and pertaining to Him, the latter is equally necessary because the words of Jesus give life (John 6:63). We must do more than merely believe the right things about who Jesus is but we must abide in His teaching (John 8:31,32; 14:15; 15:14). Too, Paul warned Timothy about departures from the faith that would occur and the forfeiture of soundness (1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:1-5). Not everyone who claims to be doing right is of necessity doing so. God knows who is and who is not (Matthew 7:21-23; 15:12-14; 2 Timothy 2:19). Titus too is warned, “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed” (Titus 1:16). Immediately following this warning, Titus is instructed to conduct himself differently, “But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Titus and the Lord’s people in Crete should stand in contrast to false profession of faith.
A sound church – both in her corporate obligations and in the holiness of each member -- is forged upon a solid and sound foundation. Sound teaching and preaching will be at the base of a church built by Him and for Him (Ephesians 2:19-22). In south Texas, unstable soil can create a headache for the homeowner. As the ground shifts, foundations crack and the dreaded “cracked slab” can undermine the integrity of the structure. The message believed, embraced and lived is everything. We cannot be Christ’s house or God’s building apart from His truth. “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth…” (James 1:18). As we continue to rid ourselves of attitudes and behaviors inconsistent with this message, we “…in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (1:21). Flowing from these thoughts is the discussion of being “doers of the word” (1:22) and the expected conduct of the one who claims to believe in Him – the bridling of the tongue, a genuine concern for the downtrodden and living godly not worldly lives (1:26,27).
The Greek word is hugiaino. Appearing a dozen times in the New Testament, the word is not always translated “sound.” On a few occasions, the English rendering is “well” or “in good health” indicating the wholeness, wellness or health of a person. Thayer’s defines the word, “1) to be sound, to be well, to be in good health; 2) metaphorically, of Christians who are free from any mixture of error, of who keeps the graces and is strong.” Not surprising, “the beloved physician” Luke employs the word three times in his gospel narrative. He quotes Jesus, “…It is not those who are well who need a physician but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31). Upon the healing of the centurion’s servant by Jesus, Luke observes, “And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health” (Luke 7:11). And finally, in the prodigal son parable, the father proclaims to the older brother, “…your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound” (15:27). John used the word similarly, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2).
The other occasions in which the word is used are all concentrated in the letters to evangelists. It is quite telling that the heaviest concentration of hugiaino in the New Testament was used by Paul in his framework for the preacher’s message. Four times to Timothy:
“…whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Timothy 1:10).
“If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understandings nothing…” (1 Timothy 6:3,4).
“Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Timothy 4:3).
In the context of the admonition to Titus, as the qualities of an elder in the church are enumerated, such a man holds “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (1:9). Because of Cretan culture and the tendencies toward lying and laziness, Titus is instructed, “For this cause reprove them severely that they may be sound in the faith.” And one tenet of the sound doctrine he is to speak flows into the instruction to older men, “Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance” (Titus 1:2). Without faith, love and perseverance in these, one is not sound!
This is Jesus’ superior healthcare plan! He is intent on our wellness, both corporately and individually. Neglecting either is injurious to one’s life and soul. I dare not single out a few or several tenets of New Testament Christianity and make those a litmus test for soundness. We are not sound merely because we teach the truth about baptism or because we stand opposed to frivolous divorce and unapproved marriages. We are not sound merely upon the basis of staunch opposition to destructive doctrines such as “once saved always saved” or “faith only.” If we are not careful, we can begin to draw conclusions about our wellness completely on the basis of the many good things we do on the corporate level. The church at Ephesus serves as a warning for this malady. Those brethren would not endure evil men. They put to the test those who claimed to be apostles. They hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. They toiled and persevered for Jesus’ name’s sake. Despite a number of noble deeds, Jesus charges, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:1-7).
In thirty years of preaching, I hardly recall an occasion when a brother suggested using the funds contributed for the Lord’s work in an unauthorized fashion. Conversely, I see a great number of the Lord’s people struggling in the areas of enthroning self above the Lord, loving the world not Him, and crippled by lethargy rather than being zealous for Him. The “doctrine conforming to godliness” certainly involves much more than corporate correctness. By all means, let us instruct young and old about the errors of the past and present that threaten to corrupt the holiness of worship and God’s design for the functioning of the local church. Warn of the attitudes that reflect rebellion not submission (cf. 1 Samuel 15). Not only must we be subject to God in relation to corporate involvement but personal holiness as well.
For example, we could be right about several hundred points of doctrine (and we should want to be right about all of them), but we could treat someone with contempt and by so doing fail in keeping the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8). This is precisely James’ point in his epistle and specifically chapter 2 in his familiar refrain, “faith without works is dead” (2:26). Dishonoring or ignoring the poor man who enters your assembly (regardless of the truth that is taught there) brings guilt, “Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?...But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (2:7,9). And then this sobering statement follows, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (2:10).
The point here is not to make going to heaven seem impossible or provide no hope for the one who stumbles (see 3:2). Rather, James warns about taking a selective approach to righteousness. The new covenant is not a smorgasbord where we get to choose the precepts we like or don’t like, embrace the ones that are easy for us and reject the more difficult ones. In fact, the area James addresses here is one of the most challenging of all – how we regard others.
Initial obedience to the truth is only the beginning (cf. 1 Peter 1:22-25). By submitting to God’s wonderful plan of salvation by grace through faith that culminates in our baptism into Christ, we have only just begun the walk of a Christian. Cleansed, washed and sanctified, we rise to walk in newness of life as a new creation. So much accompanying change coincides with that act and must also follow. As knowledge is amassed and understanding of truth grows, whatever remains of wickedness is jettisoned as we strive to ever more be like our Lord (see James 1:21 again).
Sound -- stable, healthy and well -- ultimately points to a condition of heart that seeks the will of God and submission to Him in every respect. Paul’s desire for the faithful in Colossae was “that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God, strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience, joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Colossians 1:9-12).
Why then is one tempted to measure soundness solely upon the basis of corporate compliance? Frankly, it is easier. Hearing about the things we are doing right is much easier than being confronted with areas where I need to experience more growth and expend more effort. “Keep your heart with all diligence” is a daily challenge. Arriving at soundness personally involves daily activity and meeting daily obstacles to faith as circumstances distract and discourage. While corporate practice continues on consistently with truth, and well it should, personal faith can slip (Hebrews 2:1). Salvation can suffer neglect (2:3). Prayer and meditation can taper off in the believer’s life. Perhaps even imperceptibly, if one is not careful, unbelief and sluggishness develop (3:12; 6:12). When this malady unfolds, we may not find ourselves in great need of another lesson about the organization of the local church or the dismantling of a false doctrine that someone somewhere is espousing. What we may need more is… “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). That could be the more real and present threat to my soundness. The teacher of God’s word must strive to be aware of any advance militating against the wellness of souls. He should also know that what believers will deal with on a consistent basis is the allure of conformity with this world (Romans 12:2). The challenge of daily surrender to the Lord’s will and the pursuit of fellowship with God will require ongoing admonitions and instruction.
Sound is measured by one’s spiritual wellness, period. Sound includes both submissiveness to God in areas of corporate responsibility and submissiveness to God in the area of personal faith and holiness.
Collectively, soundness means…
*Identifying with others who are sound and engaging in God-prescribed acts together.
*Declaring the truth that saves and standing firmly against destructive error.
*Demanding and encouraging a genuine attempt at holiness among all of the members
*Respecting God’s arrangement for the local church
*Engaging only in work and worship that is consistent with New Testament instruction
Individually, soundness means…
*Maintaining a “good and honest heart” (Luke 8:15)
*Paying homage to the great God and Redeemer
*Trusting Him daily through prayer, study and meditation
*Serving among His people and expressing genuine concern for each one
*Pursuing love in all of one’s relationships
*Imitating the Lord in faith, humility, service and purity
*Shining as lights in the world in an attempt to reach them with God’s saving message
While the foregoing is only a brief summary of our calling, ultimately the call extends to every principle and precept of the new covenant revealed in the New Testament. Attention given to understanding and implementing all of His instruction has always been the way to fellowship, life, blessing and glory. As Solomon concluded long ago, “The conclusion, when all has been heard is, fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13,14). Both the KJV and the ASV refer to the “whole duty of man.” The word duty is in italics. The NKJV says, “For this is man’s all.” What Solomon is saying is that this is what contributes to man’s wholeness. This is what makes a person healthy and sound!
By Tony Mauck From Expository Files 21.5; May 2014