Monday, September 5, 2011

Monday Musings : Fighting For Doctrine

It was a normal Sunday morning and the preacher was busy pounding on the pulpit, exhorting the people to persevere in their faith in God. Along with his passionate pleas, he threw the words of Paul in 2Timothy 4:7 as a proof text of what he was saying. The frequency at  which this verse was used to season the sermon was increasing as time went by and after a while the preacher just had to begin the verse, the congregation completed it. Even though the exhortation of the preacher – to persevere in faith till the end, is legitimate, the use of 2Timothy 4:7 for it is not. If we analyze the context of 2Timothy4:7, both its immediate and wider, we would see that 2Timothy 4:7 is not a message primarily for the pew, but rather to be preached to men who stand in the pulpit. 

Take a look at the wider context of this verse. 2Timothy is most probably the last epistle written by Paul and can very much be considered as his “will and testament”. However it is written to his favorite co-worker and thus contains abiding principles and exhortations for gospel ministry.  In chapter 1, Paul reminds Timothy of his calling to ministry and how he ought to suffer gladly for the gospel, by retaining the standard or pattern of sound words heard from the apostle (2Tim 1:13). Thus in chapter 1 itself, Paul is encouraging Timothy to follow the apostolic[1] faith in all its sound, doctrinal standards. Then in chapter 2, Paul  enlists a number of personal responsibilities to be a faithful workman of the gospel, all of which involves hard work  and then asks him to rightly divide the Word.(2Tim 2:15). In other words, in chapter 2, Paul is exhorting Timothy to suffer for the gospel, by laboring hard to teach the apostolic faith, interpret the scriptures diligently and live a pure life in accordance to his calling. In the third chapter, Paul moves onto warnings regarding the last days and it is one which is marked with a mere appearance of godliness and lacking any knowledge of truth. Paul again exhorts Timothy to suffer for the gospel by persevering in the apostolic faith and practice (2Tim 3:10). Paul does this by reminding him two things – 1. The example of Paul himself (2Tim 3:10-12) and 2. Timothy’s own personal experience of the power of the Scriptures (2Tim 3:14-17). Then in the last chapter, Paul exhorts Timothy to that one delightful duty to which every minister ought to give his whole being, in season and out of season, namely, the preaching of the Word (2Tim4:1-2). Thus the whole book can be seen as Paul’s final message to his dear Timothy to be a faithful gospel minister. His message can be summarized as suffering for the gospel – its purity, its protection, its perseverance and its proclamation.

It is in light of this wider context that we should approach 2 Timothy 4:7. As pointed earlier, he begins the chapter with perhaps the most serious and solemn charge in the whole of the Bible. Paul charges Timothy in the name of God and Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, to preach the Word. Pause a moment and think on this. The most serious and solemn charge, unlike no other in the Bible is given by Paul, when he gives Timothy, the responsibility to preach the Word. In our day and age, preaching has fallen on hard times, with even Evangelicals belittling the centrality and primacy of its ministry. We ought to spend more time just meditating this pressing and solemn charge of Paul in verse 1. Paul wants Timothy to approach this responsibility of preaching the Word with proper reverence and fear of God, Who will judge his ministry. It could be argued that Paul gave this solemn a charge to Timothy, as preaching the Word, in difficult times mentioned in the previous chapter, requires an appeal so solemn and serious. This is a valuable lesson for all preachers, that we should approach our ministry with God and Jesus Christ in mind, as our Judge, to whom we are accountable. Hence even if difficult times arises, a preacher of the gospel should continue in preaching the Word in all its doctrinal fullness.

Paul moves onto his reason in verse 3, as to why he wants Timothy to continue preaching the Word in season or not, knowing God to be His judge. The reason is precisely the one which he explained in chapter 3 – dangerous times. However in this verse, he explains in specific, what the problem of these times is. The apostle says very clearly that people in these times do not want sound doctrine, but they go after preachers who will tickle their ears with myths (2Tim 4:3-4). It is worthwhile for us to read the description of dangerous times in chapter 3, in light of this verse. Why do we have people who are lovers of themselves and not lovers of God? Because they do not love sound doctrine. Why do we have people who only have an appearance of godliness and not its power? Because they do not love sound doctrine. Why do we have people who are always attending meetings, but never coming to a knowledge of truth? Because they are listening to myths, no serious exposition of sound doctrinal truths. This one verse is very helpful to diagnose the myriad of problems seen in many contemporary churches which belittle sound doctrine.

In verse 5, Paul exhorts Timothy to be not swept away by what goes on in these popular circles and calls him to endure in his ministry with all soberness. In verse 6, Paul gives another reason why Timothy should take this matter of suffering for the gospel seriously, which is Paul’s time of departure is at hand. The apostle is leaving and he is depending on Timothy to take over the responsibility of guarding, heralding and instructing the gospel. In light of this impending departure, Paul joyfully cries out his triumphant boast as a servant of God in verse 7. Some seem to take these as referring to three things – fighting, racing and keeping. However it is possible that Paul was referring to the same thing, but putting it in different pictures. This is something which biblical writers often do and one which Paul used in the second chapter of this epistle too.[2] 

John Piper says, “I don’t think we should view fighting the fight and finishing the race as different from keeping the faith. They are simply pictures that Paul used to describe what is involved in keeping the faith. The reason I think this is that when Paul commanded Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:12 to fight the good fight, he called it the fight of faith: “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold on eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession.” So when Paul uses the very same phrase of his own experience in 2 Timothy 4:7, followed by the phrase, “I have kept the faith,” we have good reason to believe he meant: I have fought the good fight of faith. The two pictures of a fight and a race illustrate what is involved in keeping the faith.”[3]

The valid question that needs to be asked here is, what does the word ‘faith’ mean in this verse. Does it mean one’s subjective belief or the objective body of truth? Whenever the definite article ‘the” is found before the word ‘faith’, it is usually considered to be referring to the objective body of truth. However, is that the only reason for us to consider here. What does the context teach us? John Stott says, faith here “may conceivably mean ‘I have kept faith with my Master’. But in the context of this letter, which emphasizes so strongly the importance of guarding the deposit of revealed truth, it is more likely that Paul is affirming his faithfulness in this respect. ‘I have safely preserved, as a guardian or steward, the gospel treasure committed to my trust.”[4] Moreover Paul uses the word “the faith” in this objective sense in his first epistle to Timothy also. (1Ti 3:9,4:1, 5:8, 6:10).

It is also noteworthy that the word used by Paul for “fight” (γωνζομαι) is exactly the same root word used in Jude 3, where we are exhorted to contend (παγωνζομαι) earnestly for the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. The etymology of our English word ‘agony’ has been attributed by some to this Greek word, which means to fight, to exert oneself, labor or strive hard, to struggle or contend with an opponent.  Since we have already established the fact that, fighting the good fight, finishing the course and keeping the faith are referring to one and the same thing, we can consider this use of αγωνζομαι by Paul here as referring to the same fight for the faith as in Jude 3. In other words, Paul is emphatically affirming his victory in the fight for the protection of the revealed body of truth, upon which the Christian faith is built.

So in light of the wider and immediate context, the structure of this verse, the words used here and elsewhere in the Bible, we can conclude that Paul is encouraging Timothy to agonizingly contend for the body of apostolic truth that has been entrusted to him and thus guard the gospel from all doctrinal perversions. Only then, would he be like Paul, glad about his death and soon to be revealed reward for his faithfulness. Thus 2 Timothy 4:7 is a call to Christians, especially those who are in ministry to follow the apostolic example of doctrinal purity (fighting the fight), fidelity (finishing the course) and integrity (keeping the faith). May God enable His men to do so and also raise up a new generation of leaders who are committed to Sola Scriptura. Amen.

[1] Through out this article, the author has used the word “apostolic” to refer to that which is apostolic in origin, either of doctrines or practices, all of which has now been inscripturated for us in the New Testament. Therefore please keep in mind that this word ‘apostolic’ does not refer to any extra-biblical notions as some extreme Charismatics mean.
[2] Paul uses the illustrations of a soldier, athlete and farmer as pictures of diligence in Christian service.
[3] John Piper, I Have Kept The Faith, December 28, 1980, Bethlehem Baptist Church.
[4] Stott, J. R. W, Guard the Gospel. The message of 2 Timothy. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press.
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