1 Timothy 4:16
Take heed to yourself, and to the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this you shall both save yourself, and them that hear you.
In counselling his friend and follower as to the best method of doing good in the sphere of duty allotted to him, the apostle seems here to lay the chief stress, not on doctrine or teaching, but on life or conduct. "Take heed," is his admonition, not first to what you teach, and then to what you are; not primarily to your verbal instructions, and then to the spirit of your own character and life, but first "to thyself" and then "to the doctrine." For it is nothing less than the broad principle that, in order to do good, the first and great effort must be to be good, — that extent and accuracy of religious knowledge, however important, are secondary, as a means of influence, to the moral discipline and culture of our own heart and life. Both reason and experience are against the notion that it needs great personal piety to be an accurate expositor of the theory of Divine truth, or that none but men of very holy lives can be profound theologians or able preachers. To be versant in a science does not of necessity imply that we must be skilled in the correlative art. Theory and practice, science and art, the knowledge of principles and the power to apply them, are attainments which depend on totally different faculties, and which may be, and in actual experience very commonly are, dissociated from each other. The able or eloquent writer on the principles of government would not always make the best practical statesman, or the acute expounder of theories in political economy the most sagacious financier. It is possible to know scientifically the principles of music without being able to sing a note, — to discuss and enforce the principles of grammar and rhetoric, and yet be a feeble speaker or inelegant writer. And the same remark is borne out in the sphere of man's spiritual life. The facts and data being given, a man may play with the terms of theology as with the terms of algebra. The experience of mankind in all ages has shown how possible it is for a man to draw fine fancy-pictures of the beauty of virtue amidst a life that is sadly unfamiliar with her presence, to utter pathetic harangues on charity with a heart of utter selfishness, and to declaim on purity and self-denial, whilst living in sloth and luxurious self-indulgence. The truth of God may thus be studied as a mere intellectual exercise, and preached as a feat of rhetorical address, whilst yet the premises of the preacher's high argument are utterly foreign to his own godless experience. Like a sick physician, the preacher may prescribe, perhaps successfully, to others for the disease of which himself is dying. We fall back with not less confidence on the assertion, that an experimental acquaintance with Divine truth — deep religious earnestness, is the first and grand qualification in the teacher, incomparably the most powerful means of usefulness, and the surest pledge of success. To be duly effective, truth must not merely fall from the lip, but breathe forth from the life; it must come, not like incense from the censer that only holds it, but like fragrance, from a flower, exhaling from a nature suffused with it throughout. In one word — and this is the principle which I wish now to illustrate — the first qualification of the religious instructor is, not knowledge, but piety.
I. That life is in some respects of prior importance to doctrine may be perceived by reflecting THAT LIFE TENDS VERY GREATLY TO MODIFY A MAN'S OWN VIEWS OF DOCTRINE; in other words, that personal character tinges a man's perceptions of truth. Whether it be things material or moral, objects of sense or objects of thought, in most cases we perceive according as we are. The same objects may be externally present to a hundred spectators, and yet be practically different to each of them. Every one knows, for example, that the varied colours wherewith the face of the visible earth seems to be clothed, exist not literally in the objects themselves, but owe their splendour to the eye that surveys them. It is only the unknown or occult causes of colour that exist in nature; colour itself is in the organism and mind of the observer; and through physical disease or organic defect our perceptions of colour may be marred or destroyed. The jaundiced eye blanches nature. Or if we pass from the mere organism through which man's spirit converses with the outward world to that spirit itself, still more obvious illustration have we of the principle before us. It is the state of the inner eye, the condition of that spirit within us which looks out on nature through the loopholes of sense, that makes the world's aspect to be to us what it is. It is the same world which is beheld by the man of deep thoughtfulness and sensibility, and by the dull observer in whom the sense of beauty has never been evoked, and yet how different that world to each! Now the same law attains in that higher province to which the text relates. As our perceptions of beauty, so our perceptions of moral and spiritual truth are modified by the inner spirit and character of the percipient. Self conditions doctrine. A man's own moral state is very much the measure of his moral convictions. The highest spiritual truths lie beyond the range of a soul that is not in harmony with them, and the glimmerings of truth which a defective nature gains, take their complexion from its moral tone and spirit. The glorious discoveries of Divine things on the page of inspiration are lost to the soul in which the moral sense, the vision and faculty divine, is dull or dormant. God is but a name to the mind in which no Divine instinct, no godly sympathies and aspirations, have begun to stir. Moreover, consider how notoriously our opinions in secular matters are affected by our prejudices and passions. Who of us, where personal interest is at stake, can trust with unerring certainty to the conclusions of his own judgment? Experience proves that agreeable falsehoods are at least as likely to be believed as disagreeable truths. Endeavour to introduce new opinions, uncongenial to educational or class convictions, and often all the force of truth will in vain be exerted to obtain for them a place in the rugged and reluctant mind. Thus even on the lower ground of secular truth it needs, in the formation of opinion, the rarest candour and self-watchfulness to conduct the process aright. But this discipline is still more indispensable to the religious inquirer. For there are no interests so tremendous as those which are involved in our religious beliefs. In no other province of inquiry are deeper passions stirred, or prejudices, associations, habits, more numerous and inveterate, called into play. As the chemist seeks to render his balances exquisitely sensitive, and carefully eliminates from his results all variations of temperature or other disturbing elements; so should the student of Divine things strive by God's grace to attain the acuteness and delicacy of a judgment freed from all deflecting influences, and poised with an exquisite nicety of discrimination on which not the slightest grain of truth is lost. He should cultivate, in one word, by the discipline of a holy life, a truer and philosophic calmness and candour — the calmness of a spirit that dwells in habitual communion with God, the candour of a mind that has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by truth.
II. In further illustration of the principle that life or character comes, in order of importance, before "doctrine," it is to be considered that LIFE OR CHARACTER AFFECTS NOT ONLY A MAN'S OWN VIEWS OF TRUTH, BUT ALSO HIS POWER OF EXPRESSING OR COMMUNICATING TRUTH TO OTHERS. For if, from any cause, the organ of spiritual perception be impaired or undeveloped in a man's mind, of course he can communicate to others no clearer views than he himself has received. The stream can rise no higher than its source. The medium lends its own defects to the light which passes through it. To exert real power over men's minds and hearts, what you speak must be not only true, but true to you. For the conveyance of thought and feeling from mind to mind is not a process which depends on mere verbal accuracy. Language is not the only medium through which moral convictions and impressions are transmitted from speaker to hearer. There is another and more subtle mode of communication, a mysterious moral contagion, by means of which, irrespective of the mere intellectual apparatus employed, the instructor's beliefs and emotions are passed over into the minds of his auditory. Strong conviction has a force of persuasion irrespective of the mere oral instrument by which it works. The magnetic force must saturate his own spirit ere it flow out to others in contact with him. No stereotyped orthodoxy, no simulated fervours, however close or clever the imitation, will achieve the magic effects of reality. Bring your own spirit to the fount of inspiration, live inhabitual communion with the infinite truth and life, and the words you speak to men, whether rude or refined, will possess a charm, a force, a power to touch their hearts and mould their secret souls, which no words of eloquent conventionality can ever attain. There will be an intuitive recognition of the Divine fire which has touched your lips.
III. The only other consideration I shall adduce in support of the principle involved in the text is — THAT LIFE OR CHARACTER HAS IN MANY RESPECTS AN INFLUENCE WHICH DIRECT TEACHING OR DOCTRINE CANNOT EXERT. Actions, in many ways, teach better than words, and even the most persuasive oral instruction is greatly vivified when supplemented by the silent teaching of the life.
1. Consider, for one thing, that actions are more intelligible than words. Ideas, reflections, deductions, distinctions, when presented in words, are liable to misapprehension; their power is often modified or lost by the obscurity of the medium through which they are conveyed, and the impression produced by them is apt very speedily to vanish from the mind. But whatever the difficulty of understanding words, deeds are almost always intelligible. Let a man net merely speak but act the truth; let him reveal his soul in the articulate speech of an earnest, pure, and truthful life, and this will be a language which the profoundest must admire, while the simplest can appreciate. The most elaborate discourse on sanctification will prove tame and ineffective in comparison with the eloquence of a humble, holy walk with God. In the spectacle of a penitent soul pouring forth the broken utterance of its contrition at the Saviour's feet, there is a nobler sermon on repentance than eloquent lips ever spoke. The living epistle needs no translation to be understood in every country and clime; a noble act of heroism or self-sacrifice speaks to the common heart of humanity; a humble, gentle, holy, Christlike life preaches to the common ear all the world over.
2. Consider, again, that the language of the life is more convincing than the language of the lip. It is not ideal or theoretical, it is real and practical; and whilst theories and doctrines may be disputed, and only involve the learner in inextricable confusion, a single unmistakable fact, if you can appeal to it, cuts the knot, and sets discussion at rest. The theory is a fine one, they admit, but constituted as poor human nature is, there is this inseparable objection to it, that it will not work. But in this, as in many other cases, experiment will be the test of truth. Men may dispute your theory of agriculture, and explanation or discussion might only serve to confirm them in their error; but show them, rugged though be the soil and ungenial the climate, your fair and abundant crops, and objection is silenced.
3. Consider, finally, that the teaching of the life is available in many cases in which the teaching of the lip cannot, or ought not, to be attempted. But in all cases in which formal instruction or advice is precluded, how invaluable that other mode of access to the minds of men on which we are now insisting — the silent, unobtrusive, inoffensive, yet most potent and persuasive teaching of the life. The counsel you may not speak you may yet embody in action. To the faults and sins you cannot notice in words, you may hold up the mirror of a life bright with purity and goodness and grace. The mind which no force of rebuke could drive from sin, may yet be insensibly drawn from it by the attractive power of holiness ever acting in its presence. Let your daily life be an unuttered yet perpetual pleading with man for God. Let men feel, in contact with you, the grandeur of that religion to whose claims they will not listen, and the glory of that Saviour whose name you may not name. Let the sacredness of God's slighted law be proclaimed by your uniform sacrifice of inclination to duty, by your repression of every unkind word, your scorn of every undue or base advantage, your stern and uncompromising resistance to the temptations of appetite and sense. Preach the preciousness of time by your husbanding of its rapid hours, and your crowding of its days with duties. And, be assured, the moral influence of such a life cannot be rest. Like the seed which the wind wafts into hidden glades and forest depths, where no sewer's hand could reach to scatter it, the subtle germ of Christ's truth will be borne on the secret atmosphere of a holy life, into hearts which no preacher's voice could penetrate. Where the tongue of men and of angels would fail, there is an eloquence of living goodness which will often prove persuasive.
(J. Caird, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.