Organic? Free-range? Many of us are learning to consider the long-term effects of what we’re eating. What consequences will the hormones pumped into the chickens and cows produce for me and my family over time? How harmless is it to consume a “genetically modified organism”?
Such questions, of course, can be overdone, but for many, these are sober-minded, diligent concerns. Especially when we’re not just choosing our own food, but sustenance for others, even our children. And if such bodily concerns can be of some value (1 Timothy 4:8), should we be any less careful about our spiritual diet?
Week after week, Christians sit under the preaching of God’s word in worship. How do we know if the food we’re receiving is spiritually healthy? What will be its long-term effects on our soul-health? If I keep feeding on this teaching, will my spirit be better off for it, or will I look back someday and wish I’d made wiser choices?
More to the point, how will we know whether the full sweep of Christian content we’re regularly feeding on is healthy — not just weekly sermons, but daily devotionals, Christian books and podcasts, social feeds, and even real-life spiritual conversations? Aside from generally knowing the Scriptures better from cover to cover, which is a lifelong pursuit, how can we tell along the way that the places from which we’re feeding are nourishing?
Put another way, might there be any key indicator or determining factor for discerning whether Christian teaching or doctrine is healthy or not? Is there any litmus test, or organizing principle, or heart, or core, or touchstone, of what makes teaching “sound” or unsound? Healthy or unhealthy? Paul doesn’t provide a comprehensive plan, but he does give us something tangible to lean on in 1 Timothy 1:10–11.
The phrase “sound doctrine” (literally “healthy teaching”) at the end of verse 10 is one of the most important concepts in 1 Timothy, as well as 2 Timothy and Titus (“the Pastoral Epistles”). Paul paints a stark contrast between good teaching and bad. Between healthy teaching and unhealthy. Between the kind of teaching that produces healthy spiritual lives (“godliness”) and the kind that does not. False teaching will produce spiritual sickness (1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3–4). True teaching will produce long-term spiritual health (2 Timothy 4:3–4; Titus 1:9; 2:1).
And what’s especially important about this first mention of “healthy teaching” in 1 Timothy 1:10 is that, more than anywhere else, it answers for us what is the key to “healthy teaching” or “sound doctrine.”
“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” At first, this might seem too simple to be true. The heart and core and center and organizing principle of Christian theology is the gospel — in the words of verse 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s the good news. That’s the heart and soul of the Christian message in all its expressions. True doctrine explains and supports and complements the Christian gospel, and false teaching blurs and mutes and obscures it.
God sent his Son into the world, as the pinnacle of all time and history, to save sinners through his death and resurrection, and to ascend to the throne as the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. This is the gospel, or good news, of the Christian faith: Jesus saves sinners. This is the climax and heart and core of why God made the world, and all that Christians believe and confess relates in some way to this. Not just the truths we think of as exciting and comforting, like God’s love and mercy, but also the dark and difficult and unsettling truths like sin and divine wrath and eternal punishment in hell.
“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” Christian doctrine, in all its details, gets its bearings from a particular message. Good, healthy teaching (that produces healthy Christian living) has the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. It explains and upholds and expresses and is relentlessly shaped by Jesus’s person and work as its unifying theme. When there’s no nutrition label on the side, apply the litmus test of the gospel.
Not Enough to End with Gospel
But it’s not enough here to end with “the gospel.” Paul says healthy teaching is “in accordance with the gospel” — but he doesn’t stop at “gospel.” He continues: “. . . the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” I’m so glad he does. Because the words that follow give us an amazing look into what makes the good news so good.
At first glance, this phrase (“gospel of the glory of the blessed God”) may not seem all that extraordinary to us, but these are not throwaway words for the apostle Paul. Here we find, piled on top of each other, three of the most important words in Scripture, three of the most important realities in the universe, and three words Christians can be prone to hear and say so often that we miss the depth of their meaning. Gospel. Glory. Blessed. “The gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”
Gospel, as we’ve seen, is the good news that God himself, in the person of his Son, has made a way to rescue us, by faith, from our sins and the eternal death we justly deserve. The heart of our faith is gospel, not law. Good news, not good advice. Glory is the beauty of God’s diverse perfections, or the visible display of God’s infinite value and worth. “God made us for his glory” means he designed us to show his greatness in the world (and in a special way: “in his own image” as Genesis 1:27 says). And what is God doing in all of history in this visible, tangible world? Showing us his glory — the height of which, Ephesians 1:6 says, is “the glory of his grace.” Jesus and his rescue, called the gospel, is where God’s glory shines out the clearest and brightest.
Blessed may be the trickiest of all. What does it mean that God is “the blessed God”?
Blessed here doesn’t simply mean he’s worthy of worship, that we should “bless” him in praise. That’s true, but as an adjective for God, it’s deeper than that. He is worthy of our worship, but his being “the blessed God” means, in essence, he is “the happy God,” and in no trite way. He is infinitely, unassailably, unimpeachably happy. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). He has and is infinite bliss.
At the outset of his recent Kistemaker Lectures at RTS-Orlando on “the blessedness of God,” Fred Sanders begins with this striking phrase in 1 Timothy 1:11 and says this about God’s blessedness:
The good news is about the particular character of this God, the one whose nature it is to shine out in glory and to repose in blessedness. God is not only the God of salvation, the sovereign rescuer of lost humanity. God is not only the King in his splendor bursting forth in unimaginable glory. Above or beyond or behind that, in a secret sanctuary of the depths of divinity, God is something even more astonishingly unimprovable. God is blessed.
And this blessedness, this divine happiness, in all its glory, is the ground of the possibility of his creatures being truly, deeply, enduringly happy in him, forever. God is not the cosmic killjoy many of us may have feared. He is not frustrated and sad. He is not grumpy and sour. No, he is blessed. He has infinite happiness, and is infinite happiness, and shares infinite happiness.
When Daddy Is Happy
This infinitely happy God, in his mind-stretching fullness, has gone public in creation and redemption with his infinite value and worth, called his glory. And the height of his glory is the demonstration of his fullness in the sacrifice of his Son for the eternal happiness of his people, called the gospel. And what good news it is for natural-born law-breakers like us. Not just that God rescues sinners. But that he is glorious. And he is gloriously happy.
And when Daddy is contagiously happy, the whole house is happy, and it’s a safe place to be honest about your disappointments and struggles. As his people, we are God’s household, “the church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15) — and what good news it is that the Father of this household is happy. Such a church is a good place to heal, and be restored to joy, and find joy that is deeper than all your pains.