The Right of Private Judgment in Matters of Religion
1 Thessalonians 5:21
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

I. OBJECTIONS THAT ARE TAKEN AGAINST THE EXERCISE OF THIS RIGHT. It is said that if this be granted then every individual will have his own religion.

1. Our answer to this is, such would be a consequence not of the exercise of private judgment, but of human depravity. If imperfect men had all the privileges of angels consequences would follow very different from those characterizing the history of angels, but no one would say that they were the necessary effects of the enjoyment of angelic privileges. If, then, instead of assailing the depravity of man for abusing the right of private judgment we assail that right and forbid its exercise, we are mistaking the source of the evil and not taking the proper method to prevent it.

2. Then we may ask how interdicting the right can prevent the evil consequences? Shall we issue a decree and enforce it by penalties? But that will only stop the expression, and will not interfere with the right of private judgment. The slave clad in iron fetters has still his private judgment, and with his mind, which is free, you cannot meddle.

3. But it may be affirmed that to suppress this expression is a good thing, and prevents evil. How so? This supposes an infallible instructor. How do we know that the public judgment of any body of men may not be as pernicious as the private judgment of an individual? Look at the past. Almost every heresy has at one time been protected and taught by public authority, and almost every orthodox sentiment has been put down by the same.


1. We find from Scripture that the right of private judgment in religious matters is the duty, not merely the privilege, of every individual to whom the Word of God should come.

(1) This Epistle was addressed to the Church, not to any public functionary. Paul, Timothy, and Silas, inspired teachers of the mind of God, say, "Prove all things." If any say that the laity must defer to authority, the authority here says exercise your private judgment! Then what is the meaning of the general addresses to the Churches, as such, at the commencement of each Epistle, but that the minds of laymen as well as ministers should be exercised upon them?

(2) When we come to Epistles addressed to individuals such as Timothy and Titus we find nothing investing them with the authority of interpreting against the private judgment of those they taught. Nay, they are commanded "in meekness to instruct those that oppose themselves," not to dictate to them on the ground of authority.

(3) Then we have the doctrine that every one of us must give an account of himself to God, which implies the exercise of private judgment. How can we reconcile this with being compelled to follow the dictates of another? Shall we give an account of ourselves to God at the last whilst we are permitted to take no account of ourselves? Shall we carry mental slavery with us all the time we are in our state of probation, and in eternity only stand on our own foundation? Nay; if God tells us that every one of us must give an account then He means that we must prove all things against the day of that account.

2. The arguments derived from the powers and faculties that God has given us is no less conclusive. Why did God give us the power of judging at all? Is it possible that God would give men the exercise of public judgment for the things of time and forbid it in the affairs of eternity?


1. Searching the Scriptures. We criminate ourselves deeply if we contend for the right of private judgment and neglect to search those oracles about which alone the faculty can be engaged. What should we think of a judge who insisted on his right to pronounce judgment while ignorant of the matter on which the judgment was to be pronounced.

2. Stimulating others by teaching them the great things of God. If it be our duty to search the Scriptures it is the duty of all. It is incumbent on us, then, not only to practice, but to encourage this exercise.

3. Duly appreciating the falsehood that revelation trammels the mind. On the contrary the text breaks every mental bond.

(J. Burnet.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

WEB: Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good.

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