Back in October of last year, we looked at the shipwrecked faith. Specifically, how do people make shipwreck of their faith? What causes it? And there in APJ 1849, Pastor John, you defined the shipwrecked faith as a person who makes a beginning in the Christian life, but who drifts away as their heart increasingly prefers sin over Christ. It’s a heart-preference issue. The heart falls in love with riches, or the heart falls in love with this present world and its approval, and so it rejects a good conscience and becomes defiled by the world’s sin. Basically, a shipwrecked faith is the heart’s desires corrupted.
But sometimes when we speak of the shipwrecked faith, we assume this state is one of final undoing — like, there’s no hope for return. It’s over. You shipwrecked, or you don’t shipwreck. Which leads to today’s email from a listener named Jacob. “Pastor John, thank you for all your service and for your passion in the gospel! My question is this: Is there hope for those who have shipwrecked their faith? I believe I have done this as 1 Timothy 1:19 describes what has happened to those who have rejected a good conscience. I feel my communion with the Lord has been dry and blocked for almost six months now due to my personal sin. Can a shipwrecked faith be undone?”
I think it would be unbiblical and unwarranted and unhelpful for me to say to Jacob that he is beyond hope. Those six months of sin and disobedience and distance from God are no sure sign that Jacob is beyond hope. So let me try to give four encouraging reasons from the Bible for why I say this for Jacob’s sake — and also for others who no doubt share his condition — and then we’ll close with a sober warning and a hopeful exhortation.
Handed Over for Discipline
First, let’s just pay attention to the context that he’s referring to in 1 Timothy 1:19–20. It’s a very hopeful context, not a despairing one, when he talks about the shipwreck. He says, “[Hold] faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this [the good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
So Paul knows these two men. He knows them, and he says that they’ve made shipwreck of their faith by rejecting conscience, and that he has handed them over to Satan. But why? Why did he hand them over? It does not say he handed them over for final punishment. It says he handed them over to Satan to “learn.” The word is paideuō, which means “to give instruction, to train, to discipline.” So he handed them over to be instructed, to be trained, to be disciplined. This is not a word for final judgment or damnation. This is a word for remediation, improvement, and hope.
“Making shipwreck of your faith need not mean final loss. There is hope for a turnaround.”
And supporting that interpretation that I just gave is the fact that there’s one other place in the writings of Paul where he speaks about people being handed over to Satan because they’ve sinned in an egregious way. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, he says, “You are to deliver this man [who’s committed this terrible sexual sin] to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Again, the aim of handing him over to Satan is salvation, not damnation, which means that making shipwreck of your faith in 1 Timothy need not be final loss. There is hope for a turnaround. That’s my hopeful argument number one.
Surviving a Shipwreck
Number two, why did Paul use the image of shipwreck? He could have used so many other images for the destruction of faith or the damage of faith. Why did he use that? They rejected conscience; they’ve chosen to live against their conscience, in sin. They’ve therefore left the faith — at least it looks like they’ve left it — and they’ve turned away. What did shipwreck mean in Paul’s experience?
Well, he tells us. It’s quite amazing. I didn’t quite realize this until thinking about it for this question. Here’s 2 Corinthians 11:25: “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked.” Are you kidding me? “Three times I was shipwrecked.” Now that’s before the one in the book of Acts (see Acts 27). So we can say he was shipwrecked at least four times. “Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea.” Paul must have thought, “Lord, I’ve got to be persecuted in every city, and every third time I get on a boat, you’re going to make it go down?”
That’s a lot of shipwrecks for a life as short as Paul’s. Paul had experienced three shipwrecks even before the one in the book of Acts, and one of them evidently left him drifting in the water, holding onto some wreckage for a day and a night before he was, what — picked up by some other boat or got to shore? I don’t know. Amazing, three shipwrecks! As if it were not enough that he was persecuted everywhere and had every other manner of trouble.
But here’s the relevant thing for Jacob’s question. Shipwreck in Paul’s experience did not mean death. It didn’t mean judgment and death; it meant loss and suffering. It was not final, at least not in Paul’s experience. It wasn’t final. Three times he had come through it alive. He knew people survived shipwrecks. He had three times. So there’s no warrant to think that when it says “shipwreck of faith” in 1 Timothy, he meant, “That’s the end of faith. It’ll never come back. It can’t survive. It’s not holding on for a day and a night in the water. No hope for Hymenaeus and Alexander. No hope for Jacob.” No way. That’s not what it implies necessarily. You can’t argue that from the word shipwreck.
From Useless to Useful
Third, one of the most beautiful sentences in Paul’s letters is 2 Timothy 4:11, where he says to Timothy, “Luke alone is with me [this is Paul’s last letter; he’s soon to be killed]. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me in ministry.” That’s beautiful. Now, I know that when John Mark left Paul and Barnabas and refused to go on the missionary-journey work, we are not told why. We were not told that it was a crisis of faith, a little mini-shipwreck or something like that. We’re not told. We don’t know why he turned back.
What we do know is that Paul was really angry. He was so displeased by Mark’s behavior, he refused — absolutely refused, at the expense of his own friendship with his close friend Barnabas — to take John Mark with him on his second missionary journey. Luke says it caused “a sharp disagreement” between Barnabas and Paul. (Acts 15:39) And Mark must have felt a deep sting from the great apostle. Picture it: your favorite Christian leader says, “I’m not going to work with you. You’re a quitter.” Oh my goodness. What a shaming thing to happen to John Mark.
Now, that may be what Jacob feels right now in asking us this question. Maybe he feels like, “I’ve just so badly deserted, like John Mark did, that I could never be useful again.” But the encouraging thing is that here, at the end of Paul’s life, either he or Mark (probably Mark) has changed. Something’s changed. Mark has become not just useful, but very useful. “Get Mark and bring him, Timothy, because he’s very useful to me for ministry.” And I mentioned this simply to show that there have been, and there can be now, dramatic changes in people’s lives so that being rejected and useless can turn around and become accepted and useful. So that’s number three.
Denier No Longer
Here’s number four. Picture the night that Peter denied the Lord Jesus three times. Jesus had warned him that this was coming. And Peter, instead of humbling himself with trembling and pleading for help — “Oh, don’t let that happen to me, Jesus. Please, don’t let that happen to me!” — was instead cocksure it would never happen. “I’m not going to deny you — I’m ready to die with you” (see Luke 22:33). And here’s Luke’s description of that final moment after the third denial of Peter. This is just so moving.
Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:60–62)
Surely this was a shipwreck if ever there were one. Three times he denies the Lord of glory after three years of experiencing his glory and beauty and love and patience — three times in the hour of his greatest suffering and loneliness. And Peter knew the Lord saw it. He saw it happen. There was just no question. “Jesus knows what I’ve just done. He saw me, and he knows what I’ve done.” And therefore, his guilt must have been horrible. The shame he must have felt as he wept must have been absolutely overwhelming.
“Peter’s ship of faith wrecked. It really did. But it didn’t wreck utterly, not finally. And Jesus welcomed him back.”
And then, as we know from the Gospel of John, the Lord met him after the resurrection and three times — no accident — asked him, “Do you love me?” And after he heard yes after each of those three times, he said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). You’re back Peter — you’re back. Amazing. Absolutely amazing. The ship of faith wrecked. It really did. But it didn’t wreck utterly, not finally. And Jesus welcomed him back.
He Welcomes All Who Come
My fifth statement, which I said would be a sober warning and an exhortation of hope, comes from Hebrews 12. It’s about Esau. It says, “See to it . . . that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected . . .” Let me say that again, because that’s sober. “You know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it [namely, repentance] with tears” (Hebrews 12:15–17). Now here’s the sober warning: it is possible to make shipwreck of your faith like Esau and never be saved. That’s a sober warning.
But here’s the hopeful truth and my exhortation: the text does not say, “Even though he repented, God withheld the blessing.” That’s not what it says. It says he sought repentance with tears, and he couldn’t find it. He couldn’t do it. This is the final shipwreck from which there is no salvation: we sin so long or so deeply that we can’t repent. We can’t. Our hearts have become too hard.
But the hope is obvious, right? It’s obvious: if you repent — if by God’s grace you can turn and renounce your sin and come to Christ and take him afresh as your Savior and Lord and treasure — he will receive you. “All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). So the exhortation, Jacob — and every other person listening in Jacob’s situation — is to come to Christ. Come back. If you can come, he will have you.