Friday, August 30, 2013

Fighting for Vintage Christianity (1 Timothy 1:18-20)

When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain at the age of 65 on May 10, 1940, it was just hours before the German blitzkrieg rammed its way through the Low Countries into France, eventually forcing it to surrender and leaving England completely alone in its stand against Nazi aggression.  England had virtually no army to stop the Germans – it had been pulverized in France and its remnant forced to retreat back to England via Dunkirk, and its air force was outnumbered by the vast German Luftwaffe.  Seeing that Hitler was now the undisputed master of Europe, some in England wanted to negotiate a peace with Germany.  In fact, nobody expected England to hold out.  But Churchill would have nothing of it.  In his first speech to the House of Commons three days after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill uttered these famous words:
I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.  We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.  We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering. . . .
You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word: Victory.  Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terror – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.[1]

Just as Churchill understood that the war being then waged against Nazism could only end in the total defeat of either England or Germany, Paul understood that there is a spiritual warfare going on that must end in either total defeat or complete victory.  Unlike Churchill, however, who couldn’t foresee the outcome (he told one of his generals that “you and I will be dead in three months’ time”[2]), we know that the outcome of the war between God and Satan will end in Satan’s complete defeat.  But that doesn’t make the present struggle any less intense.  

In fact, as in any war, there are casualties, spiritual fatalities to the brutal assaults of the wicked one.  People who begin well but end in disaster.  People who begin sailing in the sunshine of bright hope and end up shipwrecked on the rocks of sin and disgrace.  Paul mentions two such individuals by name in the text: Hymenaeus and Alexander (v. 20), who evidently were false-teachers who were leading the faithful astray.  The sad thing about this is that these two men were probably faithful elders at one time.  Before Paul left Ephesus for the last time, he met with the Ephesian elders, and warned them with these words:

Take heed . . . unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.  For I know that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also, of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30)

As Paul had warned of those who would speak “perverse things,” so now he reminds Timothy that he had delivered these two false-teachers over to Satan, “that they might learn not to blaspheme” (v. 20).  These casualties of war remind us that we really are involved in a very real battle.

All this, however, begs a few questions, to which we will now devote our attention to answering: (1) What exactly is the good fight?  (2) Why should we fight the good first?  And (3), how do we fight the good fight? 

Fighting the Good Fight

Not everything is a good fight.  In the Greek text, Paul doesn’t urge Timothy to war a good warfare, but to war the good warfare – or fight the good fight.  There is only one good fight that the believer should be involved in. Unfortunately, too often we end up in friendly fire incidents.  It seems that many of the fights – if not most of the fights – the church has been involved in have been wars that consist mainly in fighting each other instead of the enemy. The sad thing is that we have probably all experienced instances of this.  

There are some more subtle versions of this, however.  It can be unhealthy for believers in the name of defending doctrine to spend all their time shooting down the unorthodox.  Though this is necessary at times – after all, Timothy’s job is to shut the mouths of the false teachers – it doesn’t need to be the primary goal.  Stopping the false-teachers was not the ultimate goal for Timothy; it was necessary so that he could remove the impediments to the inculcation of love in the believers.  You don’t just remove the weeds, you also plant good grass.  If you spend all your energy removing the weeds without planting good seed, then your efforts have really been wasted.  In other words, if shooting down the opponents of truth becomes our only or main object, then we are no longer fighting the good fight.  Or, if we fight for the sake of fighting, then we are no longer fighting the good fight. 

When Martyn Lloyd-Jones came to North America for the first time 1932, he met with the famous Canadian pastor T. T. Shields.  However, by this time, his ministry had devolved into little more than a war on liberalism.  Lloyd-Jones warned him about the consequences of this, and encouraged him to “feed the sheep” as well as keeping away the wolves.  When Shields likened his ministry to the job a doctor has to perform in taking out a cancer, Lloyd-Jones responded:

I am a physician but there is such a thing as a 'surgical mentality', or of becoming what is described as 'knife happy.'  I agree, there are some cases where you have got to operate, but the danger of the surgeon is to operate immediately.  He thinks in terms of operating.  Never have an operation without having a second opinion from a physician.[3]

Lloyd-Jones ended in encouraging Shields to “preach the gospel to people positively and win them!”  Unfortunately, he did not heed Jones' advice, and ended up driving people away.

But there are things the church must fight for.  There is a good fight.  If the church doesn’t fight for truth, then it is no longer a church, for the truth is what defines the church.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many leaders in the main Protestant denominations wanted to define the church in terms of religious experience, in which the new birth became a catch-all term for any vague spiritual experience.   The result was the loss of almost all of orthodox Christianity – the denial of the supernatural, including the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, his divinity, the miracles, and so on.  When they stopped fighting for these things, they lost the faith – they shipwrecked it, as Paul puts it in our text (v. 19).  The scary thing is that this trend seems to be happening all over again, this time among evangelicals.  Thus, if there has ever been a time to fight for the faith, it is now.

What are some of the things we should fight for?  First, we should fight for the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.  When we began this series at Paul’s introduction in verse 1-2, we noted that this sense of authority is inherent in Paul’s opening words.  In our day, this is becoming increasingly under attack.  And again, the center of the attack is not from liberal theologians but from elements of the church that have traditionally identified themselves as evangelicals.  There is a subtle lie that is sometimes taught that inspiration is not the same as inerrancy, and that we should believe the former but not the latter.  However, the truth that the Bible is God’s word must mean that it is without error.  And this is exactly what Jesus taught.  As Kevin DeYoung puts it:

We should be a biblicist in the same way Jesus was. He believed that the entire Old Testament came from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). He believed that for Scripture to say something was the same as God speaking (Matt. 19:4-5). He believed the inspiration of Scripture went down to the individual words (John 10:30). He believed that Scripture cannot fail, cannot be wrong, and by implication cannot ultimately contradict itself (John 10:35). He believed that the apostolic teaching–what is now preserved in the words of the New Testament–would be divinely inspired by the Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15). He settled disputes on all kinds of matters, from Christological to ethical to political, by appealing to Scripture, often “prooftexting” from a single verse (see Matt. 4:1-10; 19:1-7; 22:32). He believed there were correct interpretations to Scripture that others should recognize even in the midst of interpretive pluralism (Matt. 5:21-48; 22:29).[4]

Second, we must hold firm to the doctrine of the Trinity.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, The doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing of practical value, even if one claims to understand it; still less when one is convinced that it far surpasses our understanding.”[5]   However, as theologian William Shedd put it, Christianity is Trinitarianism; if you don’t have that, you don’t have Christianity.  

To see why holding fast to the Trinity is important, consider the fact that every religion that denies it as a matter of course does not hold to an orthodox view of the person of the Son of God.  Most often, what happens is that his divinity is denied.  After all, this reality is what led to the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place: how can there be only one God, and yet Christ be God?   For the Father to whom Jesus addressed himself was clearly referred to as God, as well.  The Trinity solves the problem: there is one God, and this one God consists in three persons:  Father, Son, and Spirit.

You simply can’t be a Christian and not be a Trinitarian.  To be a Christian is to confess the Father and the Son, and to confess the Son in the fullness in which he is revealed in Scripture (1 Jn. 2:23).  Again, in his opening sentences Paul assumes a Trinitarian stance when he tells us that grace, mercy, and peace flow to us equally from God the Father and from Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Tim. 1:2).

Third, we need to fight for the Biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  This is at the heart of Paul’s argument in verses 12-17.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and he did this by dying on a cross in their stead.  “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).  This is at the heart of the gospel, which is the message of the church.  If we lose this, we have nothing else to say.  For the church cannot save the world.  Our mission is only meaningful because our mission is to point people to Jesus.  Jesus is the only one who can save sinful men and women, and the way he did this was by purging their sin as he substituted himself as the object of God’s wrath against sin.

These are some of the main things we should fight for.  You might notice that these three things stand or fall together.  Those who deny the authority of the Bible are not likely to believe in the Trinity, and those who deny the Trinity are not likely to embrace the atonement as being a vicarious sacrifice.  Further, these three things together strongly point us in the direction of grace as the basis for all our salvation, so that if we really embrace these three things as the Bible teaches them, we must inevitably also embrace the doctrine that our salvation is from first to last completely and entirely of the grace of God.

How We Fight the Good Fight

Paul urges Timothy to fight the good fight “by them” – which refers back to “the prophesies which went before on thee” (v. 18).  We don’t know the exact content of these prophesies, but comparing this verse to 4:14 (“Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophesy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.”), we can surmise that these prophesies were a part of Timothy’s ordination into the ministry.  The prophesies probably pointed out Timothy’s gifts for such work, and as such were meant to function as an encouragement to it.  If this is the case, the prophesies would have functioned much as the words of the Holy Spirit in Acts 13:1-3, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.”

Just as Timothy had God’s word via prophesies to encourage him in the battle, every Christian has access to the promises of God in the Bible, which are just as real and personal as if God were speaking to him/her.   In the movie, The Longest Day, a British commando is given orders to take a bridge in enemy territory.  The final words from his commander to him before departing were, “Hold until relieved.”  Throughout the movie, as these commandos are hard-pressed in holding the bridge, the words “hold until relieved” echo in his mind.  He was reminding himself, not only of his duty in holding the bridge, but also the promise implicit in those words that relief would come.  And it gave him and his men the courage and fortitude to hold on.  In the same way, God tells us that he is with us, that he will strengthen us, that he will never leave us, and that in the end, he will give us eternal life.  What more encouragement could the believer ask for?

But this was not the only weapon in the arsenal to help Timothy fight a good fight.  Paul goes on to say that he should do it by “holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck” (v.19).  Holding the faith means holding to the truths of God’s word, the doctrines which we outlined above.  It does not mean “keep the faith” in a generic sense, by which is often meant something like “keep your spirits up!”  No, this faith has a definite object, the word of God.  Our first line of defense and offense is to know and love and apply and share God’s word.  When Paul goes into more detail about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, he tells us that the “sword of the Spirit” that the believer is to wield in combat is “the word of God.”

But that is not enough.  Paul orders Timothy to keep his conscience clean.  You simply won’t last in the battle if you don’t pursue holiness.  It is not enough to be doctrinally orthodox; you must also so apply the truth to yourself that it changes your heart.

I think it is important to note that Paul specifically says a “good conscience.”  Our conscience is placed to point out not just the sins others can see, but the secret sins that only you can God can see.  Paul is not interested in Pharisaical shows of holiness which are only external.  Paul is interested in what goes on in Timothy’s mind and heart.  Am I?  It is so easy to be careful enough to not fall into the “big” sins, when we are letting the devil loose in our imaginations. What do I think about most often?  What do I desire the most?  What do I dream about?  The answer to these questions is likely to reveal where our hearts are, and whether or not we are keeping a good conscience.

Keeping a good conscience means daily repentance.  It means fighting not only the devil and the world, but it means fighting yourself.  It means that I don’t turn a blind eye to my sins but relentlessly pursue them until they are dead.  It means I don’t give up at it.  It means letting the arrows fly until sin is conquered (2 Kings 13:18,19).  It means not making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof (Rom. 13:14).  It means gouging out an eye and cutting off an arm (Mt. 5:29,30).  Am I willing to do this?  I will inevitably end up a casualty of war unless I am that serious.

After all, the root of the problem of the false teachers was moral.  What led them into the false teaching – what lead them to shipwreck the faith (v. 19) – was their abandonment of faith and a good conscience.  Sin led them into error.  The sad thing is that we tend to think we are okay as long as we have the doctrine right, but the reality is that if we don’t keep our hearts focused on God, sin will wrap itself around it and turn us toward error.

The Urgency of Fighting the Good Fight

We don’t know whether Hymenaeus and Alexander ever repented.  If Alexander is the same person who is also mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:14, it would appear that he at least never did repent.  What we do know is that when Paul wrote these words, he was not giving up hope on these guys.  For in delivering them up to Satan, his purpose was redemptive – “that they might learn not to blaspheme.”  The goal was not destruction but redemption.  Paul speaks very similarly in 1 Cor. 5:5 concerning an immoral man in the church.  His instructions to that church were “to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”  

This earlier occurrence of the phrase in Paul’s letters also gives us a hint as to what is meant by delivering someone up to Satan.  It was evidently an expression that denoted church discipline.  To put someone out of the church was to put them into the realm of Satan.  To be delivered over to Satan is to be without the blessing of God’s protection.  Although the situation is not exactly parallel, when God gave Job over to Satan, the result was great physical and material loss.  Satan told God that he had put a hedge of protection around Job (cf. Job 1:10).  When Job was delivered to Satan, that hedge was removed.  Yet in the end, as Job himself put it, he came forth as gold (Job 23:10).  The idea here seems to be roughly the same: Paul was delivering these two men over to Satan with the expectation that such an act would result in their experiencing some kind of pain and loss that would then drive them back to God.

It was entirely appropriate that this should happen.  For they were no longer taking their stand on God’s truth – they were blaspheming it, much as Paul had done before he was converted.  They were joining Satan, the liar, in spreading his falsehoods.  So it was fitting that they should be delivered over to him.

And thus we see the urgency of fighting the good fight.  If we do not watch ourselves, we too could end up like Hymenaeus and Alexander.  And this is serious.  To be put outside of God’s protection is a fearful thing.  It would be like being put out into No Man’s Land between the trenches on the Western Front during the First World War: you would be exposed to all the dangers of trench warfare but without any of the protections.  

But behind this punishment lies an even more fearful reality.  A good parent doesn’t discipline his/her children simply because they do something wrong.  They don’t foster obedience simply because obedience is good.  That is one of the reasons.  But one of the reasons we want our children to obey us and punish them if they do not is so that something more terrible than our discipline doesn’t happen to them.  We want our children to obey us so if we see a danger coming when they do not, they will obey us without questioning us and get out of the way.

I see something similar happening here.  Why would you ever deliver anyone to Satan?  This is so utterly terrible, that the only reason for it must be to prevent something even more terrible.  Paul alluded to this in the Corinthian letter: “that their spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The Day of Christ is the last day – the Day of Judgment.  To be saved in that day is to be saved forever.  To be lost in that day is to hear the words, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41).  And that is worse than anything that can be imagined.

What this means is that divine discipline is a preservative from everlasting loss.  It is one of the means of our perseverance in the faith.  As bad as the discipline might be, it should be welcomed if it keeps us from apostasy.  The psalmist put it this way: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps. 119:71).  The author of Hebrews, quoting from Proverbs, reinforces the benefits of God’s chastisement:

And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.  If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he who the father chasteneth not?  But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye [illegitimate children], and not sons.  Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?  For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; be he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. (Heb. 12:5-10).

Thus, fighting the good fight is very serious, not only because a failure to do so might land you in the devil’s hands for the present, but also because a failure to do so might land you in the devil’s demise for eternity.  

Someone might object at this point and say that this undermines the doctrine of “Once saved, always saved.”  But what we must realize is that “once saved, always saved” does not mean “once in the church, always saved.”  It is true that those who are genuinely born again are kept by the power of God unto salvation (1 Pet. 1:5).  But a person might profess to be a Christian, and go a long way in that profession, and yet be really unsaved.  This is clearly Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 9:24, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?  So run, that ye may obtain.”  It is not enough to start the race – you have to cross the finish line to get the prize.  It is not enough to begin well in a profession of faith.  You must end well, as Paul did: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

I cannot pass up the observation at this point that one of the implications of this text is that the church is part of God’s protection for his people.  To be put out of the church is to be delivered over to Satan.  Some Christians today seem to think that belonging to a church is rather optional.  They think they can do it on their own.  But again, that would be like leaving the trenches to find a shell-hole of your own and wage war from it by yourself.  And just as the chances of making it in that scenario are slim, this text seems to indicate that any attempt to “war a good warfare” on your own is suicidal.  We need the church, because God has made the church for our protection, and therefore for our good.  (This text also can help the church to do some serious self-examination: does our church provide spiritual protection for its members?  As a church, are we helping one another fight the good fight, or do we still – despite belonging to a local church – feel like we are battling it out from our own personal shell-hole?)


War is generally a bad thing.  But the Christian warfare is the most glorious thing a believer can experience.  Our cause really is just; our leader really is courageous – he has gone before us, the Captain of our salvation.  And those who belong to Christ really will win in the end.  In fact, though there are still many battles to fight, the war is already won, the victory sure.  So when Paul orders Timothy and us to fight the good fight, this is no lament from an Alamo.  We can say with even more certitude than President Roosevelt in his declaration of war, “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.”

[3] From Ian Murray’s biography on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

GOD: the Maker of Vintage Christianity (1 Timothy 1:11,17)

In Matthew 18, Jesus asks us to put ourselves in the place of the servant who owed his master 10,000 talents. To think about how much this is, consider the fact that in that day one talent represented about 20 years’ wages (ESV note on Matthew 18:24). Thus, 10,000 talents represents about 200,000 years’ wages. In today’s terms, if a yearly wage is $15,000 (this guy was a slave, after all), then 200,000 years’ wages = $3,000,000,000. There is no way the servant could pay his master back. (Actually, the Gk word for “ten thousand” is the word from which we get “myriad.” The emphasis here is not so much on the exact amount, but the fact he owed a LOT of money. If the ten thousand amount is not enough to impress you, you may substitute any sufficiently large number.) 

Now suppose that the other servant who owed 100 denarii (in modern monetary units, this would be about $2000) to the servant who owed 3 billion dollars came to him and offered to pay his debt for him. Such an offer would be meaningless; after all, he was having a hard time paying off the much smaller debt! He just didn’t have the resources to do it. In fact, it’s obvious that no other servant would be able to help this guy out.

On the other hand, the master was able to forgive the servant. How? Not only because he was the one to whom the money was owed, but more importantly, because he evidently had enough resources to absorb the loss. Not too many businessmen, even if they are billionaires, can absorb this kind of loss. You would have to be unimaginably wealthy to absorb a loss like this.

We know from the parable that the master represents God, and we the indebted servant. When Jesus originally told the parable, the point was forgiveness. God forgives our sins against him, so we should forgive the sins of others against us. But another lesson we can draw from this parable is the fact that God has unimaginable resources, resources that no one else can even come close to having. God is so impossibly great that a 10,000 talent loss is nothing to him. Infinity minus a trillion is still infinity. 

And we are the servant with the 10,000 talent debt. Our indebtedness is not monetary, however. We have accumulated this debt in a myriad of ways, and it expresses itself in another myriad of ways. Our indebtedness and its consequences are as numerous as the sins we commit. The marks of our sins are evident in the selfishness of our hearts and the misery that this spawns in our own lives and the lives of others. It has led to our own bondage and the bondage of our spouses and children.

Our indebtedness is not something we can just shrug away. It follows us everywhere we go, even if we try to avoid and deny it. The specter of its shadow hovers over every thought and deed. Its consequences show up in every war and disease and famine and tsunami and earthquake. And ultimately, the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). 

God is the master with limitless resources and we are the servant with the impossible-to-pay-back debt. What the Bible says elsewhere is that God is the only being in the universe with the quality of infinite resources. Just as the indebted servant could not look to his fellow servants for help in relieving the indebtedness, even so we would not be able to find another being in the universe that can save us from our indebtedness to God. 

Every human being in some sense is trying to flee the shadow of the death, the consequences of their sin. We are all flying from misery out of a longing for happiness. What the Bible tells us to do is to pursue this longing in God. Salvation in Jesus Christ is the cancelling of our debt. And he is the only one who can do this. When we try to find salvation in someone or something other than God, we are like the Israelites whom God condemned in Jeremiah 2:11-13:

Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit. Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the Lord. For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Compared to God, everything is just a broken cistern. It tries to hold water, but in the end our hopes leak out into hopelessness. 

This is the reason we need to have before our minds and hearts the reality of who God is. If we are not continually reminded that God is the only one with infinite resources, the only one who can cancel our debt, then we will try to find salvation in broken cisterns. You forsake the fountain of living waters before you turn to broken cisterns.

Paul and the Glory of God

In our text, Paul exalts God in Christ as the only one who can cancel our debt. He is the only one who can save the chief of sinners (ver. 15). This is announced through the gospel, the good news, with which Paul had been entrusted (ver. 11). But Paul also wants us to know that God has the resources to cancel our debt. He can fulfill the promise of salvation. And so Paul bookends verses 11-17 in which he speaks most clearly of God’s saving grace with exultation in the glory of God. Grace can only live in an environment of glory, the glory of God. And so in this passage, we have a very majestic view of God’s greatness. In this chapter, God is described in the following ways:
  1. God is glorious. Verse 11
  2. God is blessed. Verse 11
  3. God is a King. Verse 17
  4. God is eternal. Verse 17
  5. God is immortal/incorruptible. Verse 17
  6. God is invisible. Verse 17
  7. God is wise. Verse 17
  8. God is unique. Verse 17
And so, at this point, let us meditate with Paul on the God who is so described. For only when we are convinced that God is glorious, will we be truly willing to embrace his grace.

1. God is glorious. In the KJV, “glorious” modifies “gospel.” However, the authorities are convinced that we should read verse 11 as follows: “According to the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, which is committed to my trust.” In this case, “glory” now modifies “God.” Either way, the meaning comes out about the same, for the gospel can only be glorious because it reflects the glory of God. 

“Glory” to a Jew like Paul would carry the meaning of its Hebrew equivalent, kabod. This Hebrew word carried the sense of “heaviness” and thus “importance.” 

In my dining room, we have a chandelier. It looks fancy. It looks expensive. It looks like silver or something like that. But I tapped on it the other morning as I was eating breakfast, and noticed immediately that it was plastic. Not heavy. Not expensive. Not really that important. If it breaks, we could replace it without too much trouble.

A lot of things in the world are like my chandelier. They look heavy and important, but they are not. They are fake. God is the only being in the universe that is truly glorious. He is the only being in the universe that is of consequence. He is the only being in the universe that is really important. Everything else is as the Preacher put it: vanity of vanities, all is vanity (Eccl. 1:2).

2. God is blessed. God is not miserable. He is infinitely happy and fulfilled in every way. This is important, because a person who is beset by trouble and misery is in no condition to bring you out of your misery. Another indebted slave cannot pull his fellow out of bondage. But God knows nothing of bondage or misery. He is blessed.

As blessed, God can bless us. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). And true blessing can only be found in God. We are all seeking blessing, but we miss the true blessing if we miss the God from whom all blessing flows. God is the giver of every good gift. The mistake we make so much of the time is to mistake the gifts for the Giver. On the other hand, a moment’s reflection should convince us that the Giver must be greater than his gifts. Each gift is but a ray from the God in whose light we are truly blessed.

3. God is King. All the descriptions of God in verse 17 are describing God as King. This is the main thing in Paul’s mind as he praises God. He is King.

But God is not just another King. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the supreme ruler over all the universe. He is sovereign. “The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all” (Ps. 103:19). This is one of the reasons why God is blessed; he is blessed because no plan of his can ever be thwarted. He counsel can never be defeated. He is not a frustrated God.

God is King over all. The entire universe belongs to him. He has made it and holds sway over it. Therefore, our sins are not just human foibles; they are treasonous acts against our Sovereign. He is the Master and we are his slaves. We live in his dominion. If you would be happy, you can only achieve it by his blessing. To hold out for happiness in rebellion against God in a universe ruled over by a sovereign God is pure futility.
God can dispense grace because he is King. He has the right and the resources to do so. No other being can dispense grace. No other person can or even has the right to grant you the forgiveness of your sins. But God can, and he does so to all who believe in his Son, the Lord.

4. God is eternal. What this means is that God is from everlasting to everlasting (Ps. 90:2). The human soul may live forever, but every human soul has a starting point. God has no starting point. He is independent of time. Jesus told the crowds, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). God told Moses to tell the people of Israel, “I AM THAT I AM. . . . Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (Exo. 3:14). This makes no sense unless God cannot be measured by time as we mortals are.

This staggers the imagination. Everything we know has a beginning. The universe has a beginning (Gen. 1:1; Jn. 1:1), and thus everything in it. We therefore cannot point to anything in the universe and say, “God’s eternity is like that.” Illustrations here would be almost blasphemous, and we can see why God is so revolted by idolatrous images. 

What does this mean for us? It means that the bedrock of our hope is solid. God will defeat and outlast all his and our enemies. I just finished a biography on George Washington. Reading it, I realized again that what defeated the British armies was not Washington’s genius in military strategy (he actually lost more battles than he won), but his staying power. He just outlasted the British. God, the King eternal, both defeats and outlasts his enemies. Jesus is able to save us “to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth so make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).

5. God is immortal. The word means “incorruptible” or “unchangeable.” Paul uses the same word in Rom. 1:23, “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man….” God is not only eternal; he is immortal, and thus unchangeable. 

The fact that God does not change is full of hope for the believer. Paul says that he was an example for those who would hereafter believe on Jesus to everlasting life. How long “hereafter?” What if God changes his mind? But this is not a possibility, for God changes not. “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). God will not let a single promise of his fall to the ground. Once he has committed himself, he is committed forever.

God’s word does not change, and his promises do not change, because God himself does not change. We change in every sense of the word every day. Our bodies are growing older, feebler, bending toward the grave. But God is the same, and his years shall not fail.

6. God is invisible. One of the catechism questions I ask my children is, “Can you see God?” To which they are supposed to respond, “No, I cannot see God, but he always sees me.” John tells us, “No man hath seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18). He is invisible.

Why is this so important? It is important because our eyes are designed to see material objects. The fact that God is invisible tells us that God is not material. He is not part of the stuff of the universe.

When the first Russian cosmonaut came back from space and said he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that going into space to find God is like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle to find Shakespeare. God made the universe; he is not part of its furniture. We should not look for God as if he were hiding behind the moon.

This is the reason why God is immortal. Created things are mortal, and they do not have life in themselves. But God is not created; he is the creator. And as the creator of material objects, he is not himself material. He is invisible, and thus, eternal and immortal.

7. God is wise. The wisdom of God is not even comparable with the wisdom of men: his is infinitely above ours. In fact, Paul tells us elsewhere that the wisdom of men is foolishness with God (1 Cor. 1:19,20). God, speaking through Isaiah tells us:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8,9)

That God is wise means that we can trust in him, even when we cannot see why. Our eyes are dim, but God sees all things. Nothing is hidden from God. He knows the best way that we should go. 

8. God is unique. When Paul says, “the only wise God,” I don’t think he meant for us to take “only” as referring to God’s wisdom alone (in fact, the better Greek texts omit the word “wise”). God in every sense of the word is the “only God.” There is no one other than him. And I think that one of the reasons behind Paul’s choice of words here in this verse to describe God – eternal, immortal, and invisible – is to highlight the uniqueness of God. We cannot call ourselves these things. There are communicable attributes and then there are incommunicable attributes, and the latter is what Paul is pointing us to in this verse. Though we are made in the image of God, we are not God. In Isaiah 40:18, God challenges us: “To whom then will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” The answer is obvious: there is nothing on the earth or in the universe that is like God in the ultimate sense. That is why, when we say, “God is like…” we must always qualify ourselves. When we say, “The Trinity is like…” we immediately find ourselves in trouble! 

However, it is the glory of the Christian religion to point frail, time-enslaved, sinful people to the only wise God who is not like us, for this is our only hope. Man has been trying to save himself since the beginning of time, and it has never worked out. The more advanced we become, the more dangerous we become to ourselves. Our wisdom has not saved us; it has put us more at risk.

This is why the incarnation is the greatest miracle that has ever happened or will ever happen. “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” The God who is not like us became like us. He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh to save us from our sin (Rom. 8:3). 

The Doxology

“Now unto the King . . . be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” For Paul, theology always led to doxology. Mediating on God and the salvation through Christ moved him to wonder and worship. We need both theology and doxology. The latter will be meaningless if the former is misinformed. On the other hand, it is so easy to be slothful with our theology – to just sit on it, without it transforming our hearts and minds. Theology ought to be life-changing. This was no idle “amen” that was uttered by Paul. It was the amen of his life. It was the echo of his heart. If the glory of God falls on us lightly, it means that it has never really fallen on us.

Can you say “Amen” with Paul? Do you know the salvation from sin that comes to the chief of sinners? If you have felt the weight of your sin pressing upon you as you come face to face with the weightiness of the glory of God, I invite you to look to Christ. He alone, the God-man, is able to cancel your debt. He says even today, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gospel: The Message of Vintage Christianity (1 Timothy 1:8-17)

One of the reasons we are studying this epistle is to learn what the Christianity of the first-century was all about. We are calling it “vintage Christianity.” And this epistle is a good place to learn about this, especially because Paul was concerned at the end of his ministry to leave behind a legacy of faithful, apostolic churches. If we want to stand in this tradition, we need to hear what Paul had to say.

Last time, we learned that the mark of vintage Christianity is love. Paul wanted Timothy to stop the false-teachers because their doctrine was undermining love. However, love doesn't just come out of nowhere. It comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. The fact that love and faith are always mentioned together shows that you cannot have biblical love operating in the church unless it is comes from faith, which is based on The Faith, the gospel. Thus, you cannot have vintage Christianity without the gospel. It is the message of genuine Christianity.

Why is the gospel so important as the message of vintage Christianity?

When John Bunyan wrote a book in 1666 describing his conversion experience, he decided to name it Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a title which had as its inspiration Paul's own words about his conversion experience in verses 14-15. And, like Paul in our text, he understood the importance of the gospel, in that it could do what the law could not do. In another book, The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan creates a person called Interpreter, to explain to the main character the difference between the law and the gospel:

Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large parlor that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he had reviewed it a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now, when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, “Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room;” the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
Christian: Then said Christian, What means this?
Interpreter: The Interpreter answered, This parlor is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, Rom. 7:9, put strength into, ,1 Cor. 15:56 and increase it in the soul, Rom. 5:20, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue. Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure, this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit. John 15:3; Eph. 5:26; Acts 15:9; Rom. 16:25,26
This is exactly the point that Paul is making in the text before us. The gospel can do what the law cannot. This was important because the false-teachers were promoting the law in a way that minimized faith in Christ: in teaching the law (v. 7), they had swerved aside from the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith (v. 5-6). Paul later identifies two of the false-teachers as Hymenaeus and Alexander, who had made ship-wreck of their faith (v.19-20). And just like the girl with the broom, their teaching was only stirring up the sin in the hearts of their followers instead of subduing it. Therefore, Paul has to correct this wrong use of the law, which he does in verses 8-11, and then to contrast it with the power of the gospel, which he illustrates by his own experience in verses 12-17.

Is this relevant?

Someone might ask this question. After all, the false-teachers were promoting the Mosaic law. This is clear in verses 9-10, which many commentators have noticed corresponds with the Ten Commandments. But many people today don't accept the Ten Commandments as any more authoritative as any other ancient law code. In fact, many today don't accept moral absolutes at all. It might therefore be claimed that this business about the law is something most people don't struggle with any more. Legalism might be rampant in some fundamentalist Christian communities, but by and large legalism has been replaced with licentiousness.

It needs to be pointed out that even licentious people can have problems with legalism. The code they judge themselves by may not be the Mosaic Law (it almost certainly isn't!), but they nevertheless have an inner code by which they judge the rightness and wrongness of their actions. Paul calls this their conscience. It may be deadened to a large extent, it may be misinformed, but it nevertheless is there, and it operates, even if on a lesser scale. It comes out in attitudes by which we compare ourselves with others: “I'm better than they are.” On what basis do we say this? It is because we all operate with a standard by which we judge our actions and the actions of others.

So anyone can get mired in the same problem that Paul is dealing with here. No matter what our “Law” is, if we believe that we can save ourselves by our own efforts, then we are legalists. If we are not looking away from ourselves to Christ, we are legalists. And that is exactly the mistake the false-teachers were making. The tragedy is that they were not saving themselves at all: they were neither sanctifying nor justifying themselves. Without Christ, we can do neither.

1. The Limit of the Law (8-11).

That doesn't mean that the law is bad. It means that, like anything else, we have to use the law correctly. The highway system in our country is an amazing blessing. But you have to use it right: you have to drive on the right side of the road at an appropriate speed and have your wits about you. People that don't abide by these simple rules will wreck their cars, if not their lives.

What Paul says about the law is that it is good if someone uses it lawfully (v.8). It is important to underline this, because many have a wrong perception about the law of God, as if it has no role in the believer's life at all – as if it is inherently bad. But this is not true; the law is “good, and just, and holy” (Rom. 7:12). Historically, theologians have identified three proper uses of the law: the pedagogical use of the law, the political use of the law, and the pious use of the law.1 A failure to use the law in these ways has led to great confusion and trouble in the church.

The pedagogical use of the law is exemplified in Romans 7:7. There Paul says that “I had not known lust, except the law had said, 'Thou shalt not covet.'” Paul is saying that the law opened his eyes to see his desperate condition. The law teaches us that we are sinners, completely unable to remedy our position. We all need to see this if the gospel is even to be meaningful to us.

The pious use of the law is explained by Paul in Romans 8:4. There, he says that Christ died in order that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us – in other words, so that we might be empowered to fulfill the law, which formerly we were not able to do because of our death in sin (cf. Rom. 8:6,7). This is confirmed in Hebrews 8:10; at the heart of the new covenant is the promise that God will write his laws in our hearts. Since this is a quotation from Jeremiah 31, there is no doubt that the law in question is moral law expressed in the Mosaic covenant. We call this the pious use of the law because it is integral to true piety: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22).

The political use of the law is what Paul is talking about here in our text (v.9-10). He lists thirteen categories of sinners, and then sums it up with “and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine” (v.10). But note that the kinds of things Paul lists are for the most part criminal acts that societies have punished people for doing. When Paul says that the law is not made for a righteous person but for notorious sinners (v. 9), he is pointing to the fact that the law is not made for law-abiders but for law-breakers in the sense that the law only springs into action whenever someone transgresses the boundaries it sets. In other words, this text points out the restraining purpose of the law. It restrains sin, not by conquering the sin in our hearts, but by attaching certain civil penalties to it in order to restrain the outward expression of sin in the community.

The point Paul seems to be making, then, is that the law can only restrain sin but it cannot conquer it. There is a limit to the law. The law is made for sinners as such. It is not made to change them, it is made to control them. It is not made to turn sinners into righteous people; for that end, it is powerless. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh...” (Rom. 8:3). The law cannot make us keep the law, but it can punish us when we break the law.

And this was the problem with the false-teachers. They were evidently teaching the law as if it had the power to change the heart and make a person acceptable to God. They were teaching that the law could in itself sanctify and justify. This is what Paul wants to contradict.

However, this doesn't mean that the law has no place in the life of the believer. When Paul says that we are no longer under the law, he means the law as a way to get right with God. He means we are no longer under a covenant that gave people commandments but gave them no power to fulfill them. That is the difference between the covenants: the old covenant commanded but gave no power; the new covenant commands but delivers us from the bondage of trying to keep the commands in our own strength or trying to keep them to get right with God. The New Testament is full of laws and commands (just read Romans 12!). In fact, Paul says that he is under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21).

So we should strive for holiness by paying attention to what God has commanded us. But the lesson of our text is that we should do so in faith, and to say with Paul, as we try to do the impossible, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In fact, this idea of Christ strengthening us to do his will is exactly what Paul will testify to in the next verses.

2. The Power of the Gospel (12-17).

We need to see this part of the passage in connection with the preceding verses. Some think that this passage is just an impromptu expression of praise on Paul's part, after mentioning in verse 11 that the gospel of the glory of the blessed God had been committed to his trust.

But I think it is more than that. What Paul is doing in these verses is to show that the gospel can do what the law cannot, and he uses himself as the primary example of this. However, he then goes on to generalize in verses 15,16 to all believers. In other words, this is not just true of Paul, it is true of everyone who has believed on him to life everlasting. How is this power of the gospel demonstrated?

(1) First, it is seen in God empowering Paul to live a life of faithful ministry (v. 12). When Paul says that God counted him faithful, putting him into the ministry, he isn't saying that his faithfulness to God before the ministry is what prompted God to put him into the ministry. This would contradict the spirit of a passage that is suffused with Paul's recognition of the grace and mercy of God as that which was behind who he was and what he did: “By the grace of God I am what I am...”(1 Cor. 15:10). Also, it would just contradict the facts. This is because Paul's conversion and call to the ministry happened at the same time. There simply was no faithfulness to God on Paul's part before his conversion. It must mean therefore that God judged that Paul would be faithful after he appointed him to the ministry. How would God know this? It is because God empowered Paul, gave him strength. God knew Paul would be faithful, not because Paul had it in him, but because God empowered him.

This is amazing if you consider what kind of ministry Paul had (cf. 2 Cor. 11:23-33). It was not easy. And yet he was able to say in the face of almost certain death, “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). In fact, this purpose of his to finish his course was fulfilled: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). We know how Paul did it: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” “By the grace of God I am what I am, and I labored more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was in me.” Paul was not a super-Christian because of the abilities he had. He was a faithful Christian because of the grace of God.

Contrast this with the false-teachers. They had abandoned the faith and turned aside to senseless babble (v. 6,20). They had made a wreck of their lives and ministries. Why? Because they were not looking to Christ, because they were not completely surrendered to him. Christ was not at the center of their lives – the things of this world had their hearts (cf. 6:5). On the other hand, Paul's confession was “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” This was the difference. On the one side, Paul lived out the gospel, with his faith in Christ, and on the other side, the false-teachers lived out their doctrines, with their hearts on this world. But only Paul made it to the end. Only the gospel gave the power to persevere.

(2) We see the power of the gospel in Paul's background as an unbeliever (v.13). Paul describes himself as “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.” In other words, Paul is identifying with the sinners of verses 9-10. He was one of those guys at one point. But it was not the law that saved him, it was the mercy of God: “but I obtained mercy.”

It might be thought that Paul is claiming some kind of prerogative to the mercy of God, when he says that he obtained it “because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” But Paul's ignorance and unbelief did not make him worthy of the mercy of God! What Paul is saying here is that he did not commit the unpardonable sin. He did not sin against light. He really didn't believe that Jesus was the Christ. He really believed that the Way was worthy of persecution. He didn't know. That didn't make him any less a sinner – after all, he calls himself the chief of sinners in verse 15 – but it did make him eligible (not worthy!) to receive mercy.

It really was amazing to Paul that God saved him. Paul had done the unthinkable – he had persecuted the people of God, and in doing so, had persecuted the very Son of God. And yet God rescued him. God took the most hardened of all the opposers of God's people, and made him the foremost spokesperson for the gospel. What can explain this? The gospel, not the law. Christ met him on the road to Damascus, the Pharisee who was steeped in the law of Moses, and it was Christ who changed him.

(3) We see the power of the gospel in Paul's conversion to Christ (v.14). Though the words “I obtained mercy” already point to Paul's conversion in verse 13, Paul elaborates on this in the following verse. Opposed to the triad of blasphemer-persecutor-injurious person is the triad of grace-faith-love. Paul's previous life hardened against the gospel was completely overpowered by the grace of Christ. Thus, as Paul identifies himself in verse 13 with the sinners in verses 9-10, in verse 14 he identifies what it was that rescued him from that condition: it was the grace of Jesus that created in an unbelieving, cruel heart, faith in Christ and love to him and his people.

God is still in the business of taking Sauls and turning them into Pauls. Most of you know of Henry Martyn, missionary to the Muslims of Persia in the nineteenth century. Of the men sent to help him in his translating work was a wild Arab named Sabat. His story is told in Constance Padwick's biography of Martyn:

He was first driven to Christianity by remorse. The friend of his youth, with whom he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, came across an Arabic Bible in Cabul, of all unlikely places, and far from any human teacher became a disciple of Christ. The change in him could not be hid, and he had to fly for his life. He came to Bokhara. Sabat his friend was in the city.

I had no pity,” said Sabat afterwards. “I delivered him up to Morad Shah the king.” In the market-place they cut off one of the Christian's hands, Sabat the informer standing by in the crowd that watched. Then they pressed him to recant.

He made no answer,” Sabat said, “but looked up steadfastly towards heaven, like Stephen, the first martyr, his eyes streaming with tears. He looked at me, but it was with the countenance of forgiveness. His other hand was then cut off. But he never changed, and when he bowed his head to receive the blow of death all Bokhara seemed to say, 'What new thing is this?'”

Sabat could not ease himself of his friend's last look. In South India he read for himself the Book that had made a martyr. Then he all but bullied the chaplain, Dr. Kerr, until he gave him baptism. (pp 176,177).

This is exactly the lesson Paul would have us to derive from verses 12-14, for in verses 15-16 he says that his case was no outlier. What happened to Paul can happen to all.

Verse 15 really is the heart of the gospel: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” What the law could never do, Christ did: he saves sinners. Notorious sinners, like the sinners mentioned in verses 9-10. Like Paul, like Sabat. Like you and me.

When Paul says that “Christ Jesus came into the world” he is pointing to the fact that the salvation of sinners took God becoming flesh in order to die in the place of sinners. Thus, the gospel itself implies that any other way of salvation is a mirage. If it takes God to save men, then men cannot save themselves. The law cannot save men, only Christ can. And he does.

How do we join Paul in this great salvation? How do our sins get forgiven? How do you gain eternal life? Paul tells us: he was a pattern “to them which should hereafter believe on him [Jesus] to life everlasting.” The gospel tells you what God has done to save sinners. It is not up to you to save yourself. But there is an appropriate response: confess you are a sinner, and commit your life to Christ in faith. And in believing all that Jesus has done for sinners becomes yours. All that remains is praise: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

1I took these categories from Philip G. Ryken's commentary on 1 Timothy.

How to be blessed by the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1-4)

I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be ...