Words matter. Words have power. Words can build up, and they can tear down. Words can launch wars, and they can inaugurate peace. A single Tweet can trample down governments or demolish reputations. Words also communicate ideas, beliefs, emotions, and more. Whether we use them well or poorly, we all understand the power of words.
The apostle Paul also understood the power of words. So much so that twice he encouraged his disciple Timothy to promote “sound words” (cf. 1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13). They are to be followed. They are to be taught. They are to be agreed with. They are the “sound words” of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, they are an entrusted deposit to the church (2 Tim 1:12–14). But what are these “sound words,” and how are they different, if at all, from normal words? How can we follow these supposed “sound words” if we don’t know what these words are? These words seem to be important to Paul, relating to Christian doctrine, forming a “pattern” or “standard” by which the Christian is to live and believe. Whatever these words may be, it seems as if we all need some sort of vocabulary lesson if we are going to take this Pauline directive seriously.
And that’s just it.
Vocabulary is vital. This is especially true of Christian doctrine and faith. “Sound words” are more than just good vibes about Jesus–it's knowing how to talk about him in biblically profound, yet coherent ways. Now this doesn’t mean you have to be a high school spelling champ or spend your free time reading Merriam-Webster. Paul reminds his disciples that there is a correct way to speak about Jesus Christ and his gospel, as well as an incorrect way. When it comes to the best news on the planet, you don’t want to get the story wrong! And not “following the pattern of sound words” can, at best, confuse some parts of the story, and, at worst, give people the wrong story altogether. One is not helpful, and the other is utterly detrimental. Both should be avoided.
We know words can destroy. James is well aware of this fact, c.f. James 3:5. And even “sound words” used wrongly can do some damage, but sound gospel words are always meant to build up and are used to speak truth and grace. That’s why the right vocabulary is so important, and why teaching Christian vocabulary is a necessary task of the church. But this is not so others will be excluded; it is so that more can be included, and that more will be enriched by the “sound words” of the gospel story! This doesn’t mean “sound words” are not hard to swallow. Who loves to hear that God’s judgment is upon those who have rebelled against him? It does mean, however, that “sound words” make up the totality of the full gospel message, which is the story of God’s redeeming love found in Jesus Christ alone. When key words are missing in our vocabulary, or if we’re using words without knowing the definition, the ministry of “sound words” is lacking.
So how can we learn and use these “sound words” that Paul talks about? How can we build our gospel vocabulary? There are three things that we can learn from Paul and Timothy.
First, “sound words” relates to the teaching of Jesus Christ. We should strive to express good doctrine through the use of sound words. This isn’t a cherry-picking of teachings. It consists of the full kingdom message of Jesus as conveyed in Scripture. Anybody can make Jesus say what they want him to say; only those who follow his “sound words” teach what he actually said and did.
Second, we should follow the apostolic message modeled by Paul and the other apostles. Jesus’s words are life-giving, but so are the words of his chosen messengers empowered and inspired by his Spirit. Paul reminded Timothy of the “pattern of sound words” learned from his mentor in the faith. We too should look to that apostolic message to inform us of that pattern. Hence, both Jesus and his chosen messengers serve as our vocabulary tutors.
Third, we should guard the “good deposit.” Sound words communicate the life-giving message of this original deposit. Hence, we need to be careful with innovation. This deposit of faith is the simple gospel message about the God who took on the form of a servant, born in the likeness of man, humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, in order that all those who place faith in him may not perish, but will have eternal life, no longer fearing condemnation (cf. Phil 2:6–8; John 3:16; Rom 8:1). With this deposit comes the occasional need to expand our vocabulary in order to best explain the gospel message within each era and cultural context. Vocabulary words such as “Trinity,” “penal substitutionary atonement,” or “hypostatic union” help explain what is already part of the original deposit. While there is always a need to contextualize the gospel message, there is never a reason to adjust it.
Following the pattern of sound words is more than a vocabulary lesson (though it's certainly not less than that). Words shape beliefs which in turn guide actions. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” declares the Psalmist (Psa 119:105). Following the pattern of gospel words means that it must, at all points, affect and direct our heart as well as our hands. Words have power, after all, and the “sounds words” of the gospel have the greatest power of them all.