Put God’s Word to Work

Four Ways Pastors Use the Bible

All Scripture is God-breathed . . .

This often-quoted Scripture about Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16 gets a lot of attention today (and it should). Many fine defenses of the classical understanding of these three Greek words (pasa graphē theopneustos) have been published in recent decades. The God-inspired, or God-exhaled, nature of holy Scripture is worth receiving and defending and — as the rest of the verse reads — putting to use. Theorize and argue about it as we might, a second foot lands that makes this a strikingly practical text:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness . . .

Take up Scripture, and use it, Paul writes. It is profitable, that is, valuable, beneficial, useful (Greek ōphelimos). We might even say it’s doubly useful — not only for those who are taught, reproved, corrected, and trained, but also for the teacher himself. That’s the purpose Paul gives: “. . . that the man of God (the teacher himself!) may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Scripture not only profits the people; it equips the teachers. Christian pastors dare not feign to teach and preach to God’s people apart from using Scripture — with the kind of use (and not abuse) that God intends.

Are the Four in Order?

Now, ancient letter-writing was an expensive and time-consuming endeavor (we shouldn’t assume the kind of speed and carelessness with which we dash off emails today). Skilled craftsmen like Paul would thoughtfully plan and draft and rewrite and edit and proof their epistles before those words hit the Roman roads.

So, when an apostle lists a sequence like the last part of 2 Timothy 3:16 — “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” — he means it. He thought of this list, ordered it, drafted it, reviewed it, and finalized it. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament goes as far as to say that this is “obviously a planned sequence in this list of nouns.” While guarding against over-reading the order, we can look for reasons why Paul chooses these particular words and arranges them like he does.

Let’s consider, then, this planned sequence for the pastoral use of Scripture in the local church. How might these specific activities clarify our calling and practice as pastor-teachers?

First and Foremost: Teach

It’s no surprise that Paul would begin with “teaching.”

Teaching is the distinctive, central labor of the pastor-elders in the life of the local church. The risen Christ gives his church its pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11), leaders who speak the word of God (Hebrews 13:7), overseers who not only exercise authority but do so mainly through teaching the gathered church (1 Timothy 2:12). Good pastor-elders “labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). The heart of their calling is not their own wisdom or life hacks or executive savvy, but feeding souls through teaching and preaching God’s word.

So, Paul takes a deep breath after verse 17 and then says, after a long, loaded preamble, “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). And such pastoral preaching in the life of the local church is clearly bound up with teaching:

preach the word . . . reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching . . . (2 Timothy 4:2–3)

Let’s not miss the prevenient nature of Christian preaching and teaching: ideally, instruction in sound doctrine begins before the church encounters error. Preaching the word and teaching the Scriptures is steady-state, everyday Christian pastoral ministry. We feed the souls of the sheep on God’s words. His Scriptures are the green pastures and still waters to which good shepherds lead their flock. First comes faithful, heartful preaching and teaching, as daily bread and water; then comes the defense of the flock as various threats arise.

If the sequence of nouns in 2 Timothy 3:16 represents four distinct aspects of the pastoral use of Scripture, then it is hard to imagine another activity appearing first. Teaching is the pastors’ first and foremost call, and its coming first helps us to recognize what we might call a “didactic order” — a logical sequence here that lists teaching first, then rebuke, then correction, then training.

Next: Expose Error to Light

Appropriately, “reproof” comes next. Now the term is negative and responsive, complementing the positive and pro-active endeavor of teaching. However well the pastors teach their people, errors and deceptions inevitably emerge, often related to prevailing errors in the world (or overreactions to those errors) that find sympathy in the church. We Christians also have plenty of indwelling sin to originate our own errors as well. Every church and all Christians are susceptible to both innocent and culpable mistakes, in belief and practice, that need to be exposed to the light.

Pared with teaching, this reproof, says Gordon Fee, is “the other side of the task; [the pastor] must use Scripture to expose the errors of the false teachers and their teachings” (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, 13). Exposing error to light, through words, is the heart of this second activity (John 3:20; Ephesians 5:11, 13). Good preaching and teaching exposes errors, yet without letting error set the agenda. Teaching is the tip of the spear — and the advancing spear divides truth from lies (and half-truths), and sheds fresh light on unlit nooks and crannies, enlightening darkened minds and convicting compromised hearts.

Pastoral exposition, then, not only exposes our people to the light by faithfully teaching Scripture; it also exposes remaining pockets of darkness in us and in our habits of life. And such exposure of error need not be combative or heavy-handed. Rather, like pastoral admonition (an even stronger term in the New Testament), reproof is familial. The apostle Paul says he wrote to the Corinthians not to shame them, but as a father to beloved children (1 Corinthians 4:14).

If even admonition is to be brotherly (2 Thessalonians 3:15), rather than adversarial (and works hand in hand with teaching, Colossians 1:28; 3:16), then wise shepherds, as fathers and brothers to the flock, will expose errors with the same hope, patience, and Christian grace they exercise in their teaching. The call to reprove is no license to sin, abandon self-control, or to draw attention to the teacher’s own smarts as the one who knows better.

Good pastors lovingly expose error — however gently or severely the situation requires (Titus 1:13; 2:14) — because we have a clear, objective, fixed standard of truth, outside ourselves. In a world of endless shades of gray, how could we presume to claim to say what’s in error and what’s not? Because we have and teach the Scriptures. Not our own abilities, but God’s written word. As Robert Yarbrough comments, “On what basis does any pastor stand in undertaking such a daunting responsibility? It is the Scriptures that furnish guidance and divine authority for servants of that word to perform this necessary function” (The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 687).

Then: Envision the Path Forward

So, back to the sequence. Let’s say God’s word is being taught, and along the way error is exposed — now what? Then follows “correction.”

Correction (Greek epanorthōsis) moves from ideas to actions, from exposing false teaching to envisioning godly living and tactical hope. Correction charts a course for healing, for restoration, for reformation, shining light on the path that is an escape from the dark. According to Yarbrough, “Pastors do not merely rebuke: they restore and point in corrective directions.” Correction, says Philip Towner, is “the activity that follows” rebuke.

Hebrews 12:13 captures it, using the same root word (orth-, meaning straight): “make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” Correction re-sets the broken bone, that it might properly heal. It’s a companion to reproof that “emphasizes the behavioral, ethical side” (Fee). While reproof brings error to light, correction directs sinners toward recovery. When errors come to light — when you realize, Oh no, I’ve been wrong! — correction is the next step.

Tactical as it is, such correction is no less than the full application of God’s grace in Christ — both outside of us in Christ and his work, and in us through his indwelling Spirit. God’s word both announces his forgiveness of our exposed sins, and summons us to practical holiness, empowered by the Spirit. Christian teaching of God’s full word prompts sinners to cast themselves on mercy, and learn to stand and walk in grace as well.

Finally: Train Them to Live Well

Last of the four, and a fitting conclusion to the didactic sequence, is training — a freighted concept in the ancient world and New Testament (Greek paideia). Not merely verbal, but tactical, this “corresponds to correcting, as its positive side” (Fee). Training involves conditioning the inner person through “inculcating the acts and habits that will reflect God’s own character (his ‘righteousness’) in relationship with his people” (Yarbrough, 688).

As Jesus spoke about his disciples being trained during their time with him (Matthew 13:52; Luke 6:40), so we mean to disciple our people toward Christian maturity. And maturity, in any sphere of human life, does not come automatically, but through intentional conditioning (Hebrews 5:14). Discipling actually does something; it changes the disciple, it reshapes the soul and its patterns of thought and delights — and greatly so over time. And such training is typically not easy but requires persisting in moments of discomfort, even pain, to endure on the path toward the reward set before us (Hebrews 12:11).

Training doubtless includes what we might more narrowly call discipline (Hebrews 12:3–11), even as we note well the difference between discipline as a means and punishment as an end (1 Corinthians 11:32). The whole process of pastoral training is comprehensive and constructive, not just responsive. It’s holistic, not just intellectual.

This training in righteousness — in righteous living, Christian behavior — begins in our teaching, but doesn’t end with our words. To train our people, we pastors must be among them, and have our people among us (1 Peter 5:1–2). Together as pastoral teams, we teach the church how to live from Scripture and then model Christian conduct in everyday life (1 Peter 5:3; Titus 2:7).

In the midst of caring for the whole flock — through teaching, counseling, and example — we also “entrust [the central truths] to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). That is, we disciple and seek to invest in future leaders, vocational and nonvocational, who we hope will join us in the work and do the same. We labor to raise up men who will use God’s word well to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness even long after we’re gone.