I Thessalonians 5:21 instructs us to "test [prove, KJV] all things," which would include our old notions, and then "hold fast" to the good ones—the ones that pass the test. A mistake many make is to follow tenaciously the instruction of Revelation 3:11 to "hold fast to what we have" while completely ignoring the additional instructions of I Thessalonians 5:21 to test first.
Experience proves that not all that we believe is truth, even if held fast for forty years. We have to test our beliefs continually and rigorously against the only standard that counts—the Bible (Acts 5:29).
Human nature is lazy and takes the easy road at every opportunity. It will rely on human reasoning, the word of others, or tradition rather than do the hard work of studying the Bible and believing what it actually says. Human nature also will not naturally do the humbling work of allowing the Bible and its plain, unambiguous verses to prove matters rather than following humanly devised ideas. The church's history over the last few decades displays the fruits of taking doctrine for granted rather than allowing clear scriptures to guide our understanding of the truth.
Why do people have so many different opinions about what the Bible says? Generally, people come to the Bible with preconceived ideas and latch on to any scripture that seems to prove their belief. At the same time, they will ignore or make light of a clear verse that obviously contradicts their belief.
God can use this as a test to determine the true intents of the heart. Where does one's allegiance really lie? Will a person humbly submit to the clear instructions of God, allowing them to lead him or her to create a true spiritual foundation (Deuteronomy 8:2-3; Psalm 149:4)? Alternatively, will they choose instead to hold on to their preconceptions or other ideas of men—their idols (Revelation 21:8)—desperately grasping at the straws of unclear scriptures to build a shaky foundation?
When doctrinal disputes arise, if a person cannot or will not prove beliefs using clear and unambiguous scriptures, that fact should raise a red flag. Clear scriptures are a solid-rock foundation. Ambiguous scriptures, open to private interpretation, lead to a foundation of sand. Only one of these foundations will stand when storms come (Matthew 7:24-27).
Praying Always (Part One)
Jude calls for returning to "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). We have a chance to do that now, and once we have submitted to the Bible's authority, we can teach it to others (Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 5:12-14). But in our zeal to contend for the truth, we cannot forget a few basic principles of Bible study.
1) Here a little, there a little (Isaiah 28:9-13): God did not organize the Bible so that all information on a given subject falls in one chapter or book. The whole Bible must concur before we can truly call a theological concept "truth."
2) A positive approach (Acts 17:11-12): God left us a wonderful example of a people who sought to prove the truths of God rather than disprove them. He can work with those who have submissive minds, receptive to His revelation.
3) A desire to please God (II Timothy 2:15): Our study should be intended to merit God's approval of our lives. He is not impressed with scholarship or intelligence, but He does respect godly living and spiritual growth (Psalm 111:10; II Peter 3:18; I John 3:22).
4) No private interpretation (II Peter 1:20-21): The Word of God and the understanding of it are revealed by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:6-16). Any personal understanding or interpretation must agree in all points with the Bible, or spring without violence from its principles (cf. II Peter 3:16) - otherwise an idea is nothing more than an opinion and maybe a dangerous one.
5) Humility (I Corinthians 8:1-3): It is a good idea to remember that many others, probably wiser, have faced the same questions before us. The history of the true church of God through the centuries should be considered and the decisions of its leaders taken seriously.
6) Seek counsel (Proverbs 24:6): Not only should one bring vexing questions to the ministry, but one should also seek wise advice from brethren, both inside and outside one's normal circle of friends. After mentioning it to others, give them time to study the subject thoroughly themselves and reply before drawing any conclusions.
7) Prayer and meditation (Psalm 119:33-40, 97-99): Seeking God's will and considering the ramifications of our ideas are absolutely vital to proper Bible study. Others, weaker in the faith, may not be able to survive our "spirituality" (I Corinthians 8:9, 11-13).
If we apply these principles to our Bible study, we will go a long way toward diminishing the confusion over doctrine both within and out of the Body of Christ. And, importantly, we will be heeding the advice of our Elder Brother, "Take heed that no one deceives you" (Matthew 24:4).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Religious Confusion and You
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing 1 Thessalonians 5:21:
1 Corinthians 11:1
1 Corinthians 12:10
1 Thessalonians 5:21
2 Thessalonians 2:9-12
2 Timothy 4:3-4