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.


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