Retain the Standard of Sound Words

“For this cause I also suffer these things; but I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to guard My deposit unto that Day. Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit given through the Holy Spirit indwelling in us.” 2 Timothy 1:12-14

When higher ground has the possibility of sliding or eroding away, people will often build a retaining wall along the edge of the portion of land. This keeps the land intact, and it also makes a clear distinction between the higher ground and lower ground.

Such is the role of “sound words” in the life of the believer and of the church. What we believe sets us apart and sets us upon higher ground. But there are forces that tend to pull us down, causing us to slip and stumble toward the worldly and ungodly lifestyle from which we were saved. We should carefully note the gravity of the threat of such spiritual erosion.

The tone of Paul’s second letter to Timothy and the condition of some of the people he describes are evidence that “holding fast” or “retaining” is not a work that is automatically done for us by the Holy Spirit; it is something we are commanded to do. If we don’t take it seriously (as Paul certainly did), we can easily fall. Although Paul’s letter is somber, and even sad in parts, the charge to Timothy is positive. It is not just a prevention of slippage and destruction that he has in mind. Rather, he wants Timothy to focus on the soundness of what he has been taught and the standard of Paul’s own example.

Not What But Whom

The strength to do this is not from ourselves. It starts with the example set by God Himself. Notice verse 12. There we read that God has us and holds us. Saving faith involves entrusting our souls to the Lord, not just to save us but to keep and lead us. Paul could fully commit himself— even to martyrdom—because he had complete confidence in the character and power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So it isn’t only about what we believe, but Whom we believe. The soundness of the words is a direct outflow of the soundness of the divine mind. If we know the character of God, we will value His words. The standard Paul set for Timothy was set for Paul by the Lord Jesus Himself. Second, notice verse 14. We have the Holy Spirit indwelling us. When we take to heart the command to “hold fast” and then “guard,” we find the Spirit ready and able to make it happen. If we live in humble dependence on the Lord, our retaining wall will stand firm. There will be no erosion and the higher ground will be maintained for the Lord’s own possession.

Slippage and Erosion

Paul was concerned about Timothy, who seemed to be struggling with timidity and, possibly, self-preservation (1:7-8) under the pressures of ministry and persecution. His son in the faith needed encouragement to be strong and to work diligently with other faithful people (2:1-2). In other words, Timothy needed to remember the higher ground and stay up there.

Paul refers to several cases of people who did not retain the standard of  sound words (1:15; 2:14, 16-18, 23; 3:1-9, 13; 4:3-4, 10, 14-15, 16). It is instructive for us to read of these and take warning. Paul was a faithful guardian of the Word, and he set a standard that would be helpful if followed (1:11; 2:2; 3:14). So those who choose other paths could be leading themselves and others to lower ground. It is necessary to seek godly examples to follow. Only Christ is perfect, but it is the proud and potentially destructive person who thinks that he or she will set a better example than that which has been set for us (Eph. 5:1; 1 Cor. 11:1).

Let us be clear that the standard has already been set; there is no need for us to be innovative in how we read our Bibles. When we play around with the words, we erode the faith of those who listen to us. Newer or younger believers are watching and learning from the example we set. The standard is to be modeled, not just guarded.

Let us also be clear that not all words are of equal value. Compared to the way Christ spoke, much of what we engage in as believers is just chatter. It is not motivated by the glory of God, and it is not led by the Spirit. Many come up with their own “truth” and seek a following. It is like unhealthy, self-absorbed cells in the body; they become a cancer that will almost certainly not stay localized if left to continue their poisonous growth.

If we shift our focus or passion away from the One in Whom we have believed, we can end up almost anywhere else, but it will definitely be lower, since His standard is the highest and holiest.

There is one more problem with this shifting that is not just about our own loss or the way it could bring others down. We can see in Paul’s concluding section that he personally felt a great loss and loneliness at having once had good fellowship with many whom he could no longer count among the faithful because they had shifted their priorities. When we slip down, we grieve and weigh down those who continue on in the standard of sound words.

Higher Ground

The instruction to “hold the standard of sound words” does not end there. The verse adds, “in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” This removes any justification for pride and judgmentalism. Many an assembly is “holding a form of godliness, but denying the power of it” (3:5). Holding fast to New Testament church principles concerning order is essential. However, we must do so in a way which also holds fast to New Testament church principles concerning character: faith and love.

We are to take our retaining wall seriously and ensure it is well-constructed and solid. But it isn’t the Lord’s will that we stay on the wall, living in fear of erosion or occupying ourselves with the way others might be slipping. He is the One who will keep us intact; our priority needs to be on living on the higher ground, demonstrating to others what faith in, and love for, Christ Jesus looks like. It is an entirely different level of life than the world knows.

Traditional marriage vows have included the words “to have and to hold from this day forward.” Such is the concept of Paul’s instructions to “hold fast” or “retain.” Confident in the person and the vow, and staying committed in faithfulness, a new life is built together.

The standard has been set and modeled. The soundness of the words is beyond dispute, since they are those of the Lord Himself. So it is not only right and wise to hold fast to that standard of sound words, but it is how we can enjoy the abundant life that Christ paid for (Jn. 10:10). What a blessing it is for us individually and corporately when we humbly take this to heart! It will be a most effective way of proving to the lost around us that Christ is all He claimed to be, and that eternal life is a glorious— not religious—thing (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:22-23).

In spite of Paul’s concerns, and even some loneliness, he concludes his letter with confidence and victory, knowing Whom he had believed and knowing that he had run the race well. Timothy was invited to run the race with him, and the offer is extended to us, today.