Facing Broken Fences: The Pastor’s Burden

Desiring God 2003 Conference for Pastors

Good Fences, Bad Fences, and the Glory of Christ

It’s a wonderful thing to be moved to the depth of your being by unaccompanied metrical Psalms and by simple songs with simple tunes. And it’s a great thing to think about our God watching us and rejoicing over us with love and with his own responsive fatherly songs. We have heard little yet of that grace, but one day, internationally, we shall hear not ourselves sing, but he himself will sing with joy. All of our worship and all of our praises are but a faint echo of that fatherly joy.

It has been a great privilege for me to be present at the conference. I said at the beginning that really the reason I accepted John Piper’s kind invitation to take part in the conference was a desire to be at the conference. That may underline for you just how cheap Scotsmen really are.

The Personal Pains of Gospel Ministry

Many years ago now, I think it was probably 33 years ago, I had a semi-public conversation with a young man who was one of the dearest and closest friends I have ever had. I learned much from him. He was intellectually brilliant. He sailed through a degree in mental philosophy with highest honors, a degree in theology with highest honors. He sailed through Oxford University with a doctor of philosophy with ease, and I loved him dearly and still do. We wrestled together, he and I, over a lengthy period of time about the theology that divided us, and it created a division between us that neither of us was able to heal.

I remember the conversation that I had with him, as I said in semi-public, largely because we were together on a mission and a friend who was there, irritated by our wrestlings together with the theology of the Christian gospel, broke into our conversation and my friend turned to him. I had been doing studies in the Sermon on the Mount, and my friend said this to the exasperated brother, “Do you remember that passage Sinclair was speaking on in Matthew 5 that says, ‘If you have something against your brother, leave your gift at your altar and go and be reconciled to your brother?’” And he said, “You know, that applies to doing theology too.”

I’m here this evening conscious that through your life and through my life as theological pastors, as servants of the Lord’s people, you and I at various punctuation points in our lives know that contending for the gospel, that guarding the gospel in order that we may guard the flock and guard the future and guard the only hope of the world, is something that may cause us intense personal pain.

It may cause us the loss of personal friendships, and these letters that we have been reflecting on, however superficially and particularly — including Paul’s last letter, 2 Timothy — are replete with the profound cost that it was to the apostle Paul to guard the gospel. He urges his young friend Timothy, in 2 Timothy 1:14, to guard the good deposit and urges him not to be ashamed of the gospel or ashamed of suffering for him as a fellow prisoner with Jesus Christ, and we read these poignant words in 2 Timothy 1:16–18 about Onesiphorus who, when he was in Rome had to search hard for the apostle Paul. We understand the words with which we introduce that great and godly man — he is so significant to us that we simply refer to him as the great apostle. We almost never refer to Peter or to John or to any of the others in those terms, but we refer to this man in these terms, and here he is at the end of his life.

Like so many of those who have served Jesus Christ, at the end of his life he finds himself deserted by others. He finds that the stand he has taken to commend the church of God to the gospel of God is a stand that has lost him friendship, lost him companions, lost him the prestige of the world, lost him the possession of all his worldly goods. But since he has Jesus Christ, he is conscious that he has absolutely everything and he is longing for that day when Jesus Christ will give to him, having fought the good fight and finished the race and kept the faith, a crowning of his justification, which the Lord the righteous judge will give not only to him, but to all those who, unlike Demas, who had fallen in love with this present age, are like Paul and have fallen in love with the appearing of the Lord Jesus.

A Sanctified Intellect

One of the things that the apostle underlines for us in this connection, in the battle for personal holiness and faithfulness, is that Christian orthodoxy is part of the sanctification of our lives because it involves the sanctifying of our intellect. Even the word orthodoxy means to have straightened, corrected, healed, and transformed opinions and views about the greatness of God, the greatness of Christ, and the marvel of the gospel. That is why in these letters he is simply enunciating his twofold principle to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, that he is to “take heed to himself and to his doctrine.” He is to learn, as the apostle teaches in many places, that we are to love God with our minds. We are to love God with our minds in such a way that as our love beholds the object of that love intellectually, our minds begin to become framed to the object of our love.

And unlike what so many of us confess about ourselves, to be almost incapable of holding that thought about God, we learn to linger lovingly with our minds upon God, and the riches of the truth about Jesus Christ begin to flood and fill our minds and mold our thinking. As we think about the way in which the Apostle Paul in different places ministered and taught the word of God daily, when you think of what the early fathers did, like Augustine and Chrysostom, when you think about what Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin did day after day after day, pouring the word of God into the people of God, you begin to understand what true Christian and biblical ministry is.

It isn’t simply a matter of adding to what is there. It is a matter of radically transforming the mindsets of men and women by the truth of the gospel so that their lives will be so reshaped by that gospel that the world will be compelled to notice that Jesus Christ transforms lives.

I mentioned yesterday evening the shorter catechism. It struck me during the day, as I reflected on the shorter catechism, that it may just be true that 150 years ago or 100 years ago, a little seven-year-old boy in one of the fastnesses of the hinterlands of Scotland knew multiple times more Christian theology at the age of seven than most seminary graduates in the year 2003 would ever be able to articulate.

We need to be deeply conscious that the atmosphere into which we are called to minister God’s word, that will build the fences that will protect the children, that will provide for the people all the inheritance of God’s grace, that will build the children up, that will secure and unite the people of God, is not going to be easily won by us in the ministry of the gospel, and is going to demand from us the outpouring of our being through God’s word in whatever sphere of ministry God calls us to minister, in such a way that orthodoxy, like orthodontistry, will produce glorious smiles on the faces of the people of God.

Being an Expert of the Word of God

It will become obvious by our very demeanor that we are men and women who have been transformed into those who love the Lord with all of our minds. It is because he has this apostolic vision, has engaged in this very church where Timothy has been left to minister, and has engaged himself in this that he longs for every future generation, including our own, those of us sitting here this evening, by God’s grace, to catch something of the vision, of preaching the word of God, of teaching the people of God, of so growing in our knowledge of the truth of God and our ability to expound that to God’s people, to break down the defenses, to trip up their hypocrisy, to unmask their defilement, so to plant the word of God into their very souls, that the grace of Jesus Christ will shine with mighty power among our people and that authentic gospel ministry will produce authentic gospel living.

Men and women will hold onto us and say to us, “Give us the teaching. Give us the word. Give us the writing. Give us the message.” And in these days when there are so many pressures upon us to be everything else, to be all things to all men, to labor in all kinds of specializations, I want to appeal to you brothers in God’s name, be an expert in God’s word. Be an expert in God’s theology. Be an expert in spiritual diagnosis. Grow in your love for the word of God and so let it frame your mind that something of these mysteries of the gospel, about which the Apostle Paul speaks here, may so transform you that you will be able truly to minister to your people as a radically different man.

The Gospel of Union with Christ

Now, one of the reasons that is so important for us, as we have noticed, is that there is a rhythm to Paul’s understanding of sanctification, and that rhythm is always a walk on both feet. It is always a sense of our union with Jesus Christ in the context of which you and I preach the gospel, because we who are preachers at least understand that while we live the whole of our Christian life in union with Christ, that union with Christ is the atmosphere, context, and foundation out of which we preach the gospel for this reason, that it is our Lord Jesus Christ alone who is the true preacher of the gospel. It is our Lord Jesus Christ alone whose voice the sheep will hear. It is the Lord Jesus Christ alone who says, “I will declare your name in the great congregation” (Psalm 22:2; Hebrews 2:12). It is he who is the truth theologian of the church, and when he preaches, he preaches as the one who was crucified and is now risen, as the Lamb who was slain, who is the lion of the tribe of Judah.

It is always, therefore, characteristic of Jesus Christ’s ministry that he is drawing those who listen to him into union with him in his death and drawing them simultaneously into union with his resurrection life, so that as they learn to love the Lord with all their minds, two things are going on in their minds. First, there is a mortification, a putting to death of everything that is inconsistent with the gospel, that is false to the gospel. And second, there is a putting on of Christ in the gospel. There is no point in you or I having a nose for heresy if we are not able to expound orthodoxy. There is no point in us having a sense of where the margins are, as I said yesterday evening, unless we are capable of highly exalting our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is about this that Paul is speaking when he says to Timothy, “From your infancy, your childhood, you have known the Scriptures that are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:15). I do believe one of the things that causes the confusion of our times, the awakening of false teaching, the arising of wolves among our own people, is quite simply this, that as you survey what we have done as evangelical Christians over the past 50 years, as you survey the literature that we have produced, the seminars that we have put on, the sermons we have preached, the things that we have been taught, and the things that have fascinated us, so many of those things stand at the margins and so little of them focus our gaze upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures are given to us to make us wise through faith in him for salvation.

It is one of the tragedies of that context to which I belong, the context of the renewal of the Reformed faith in our churches, that so many of our best minds, our most able communicators, have given themselves to discussing and expounding and promulgating almost everything about the Christian faith except the glories of the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul is reminding Timothy out of his own experience that this is what the Scriptures are for, first and foremost, to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and there is so much in the Scriptures to give us real wisdom in Jesus Christ, to fill out the fullness of our salvation in Jesus Christ that, dear brothers, if we would just preach Christ, crucified, risen, ascended, glorified, reigning, and coming again in majesty and glory, we would so fill the garden of the Christian Church with the flowering of the gospel that the atmosphere would begin to stifle false teaching.

How sad it is that it is partly because of our failure to exalt Christ, to know Christ, to love Christ with our minds, to preach Christ to our people, to ransack the Scriptures so that we may put on display the greatness of Christ and may say about our preaching, “Jesus Christ was placarded as crucified before you,” that the atmosphere of our garden has been so amenable to teaching. If we are to guard the flock, we must learn to preach Christ and him crucified.

The Goal and Means of Ministry

This is why here in these closing sections of 2 Timothy, particularly in chapters three and four, the Apostle Paul turns our attention essentially to two things: the goal of our ministry and the means at our disposal. It is with these things that I want us to conclude our studies in the Pastoral Epistles. What is the goal of our ministry? Well, in a way, he has summarized it in 2 Timothy 2:15:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

He understands incidentally that being a minister of the gospel does not place you among the executive classes, but among the working classes. It is hard work to be a true and faithful minister of the gospel.

Alexander McLaren, the great Victorian English congregationalist preacher, used to go into his study, determined to be there before he heard the workman’s boots on their way to their factories. And he went into his study wearing workman’s boots to remind himself that he was seeking to be a workman who did not need to be ashamed. It is an awful thing to say, but part of our fruitlessness may be the fruit of our laziness in studying, understanding, ransacking, and subjecting ourselves to long, long hours of meditating on the word of God. The goal of our ministry is that we should be an unashamed workman who, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, is able to present himself as one approved.

That’s a daring thought, isn’t it? Someone who is able to present himself to God as one who has been approved as passing the test. I bought a new pair of pants the other day and I noticed that it had gone through two testers — either that or one tester had put two numbers into the hip pocket — guaranteeing me it had been through the test. I wonder if that’s the thing that you most fear about your ministry of God’s word, that it might go through the test and not meet it. I am, as my wife would tell you, the least practical of men, and therefore on the few occasions I’ve ever tried to do anything, I have never wanted to test them. The thing that I’ve always admired about good workmen is the way they bash their work around to make sure that it’s going to stand the rigors, and they put it to the test because they have confidence in their work. The apostle Paul is saying, by God’s grace we can do that. We can be that.

Passing the Test

My dear Mr. Still, whom David Livingstone mentioned to you this morning, I will never forget him saying to me, as he poured himself into my life, “You know, Sinclair, I never ever preach without the full expectation that something is going to be done that will last for all eternity.” I remember my response, “Oh God, make me a minister of the gospel like that, approved of God with the seal of God’s test upon my ministry, so that I may know with such a God as this and with such a word as this in my hands, my ministry will pass the test. I will build with precious stones that will last for eternity, pass through the fire, and that every time I preach something good will be done for all eternity.”

The language Paul uses of course is used of testing metals for genuineness, but interestingly it’s used outside of the New Testament in the secular world of physicians who have mastered their calling, who are competent in their ability to diagnose sickness, who excel in their understanding of the way in which the human anatomy works and the human physiology and have a knowledge of medicines and poisons that are able to be used in different doses in order to bring healing.

Isn’t that exactly what it means for us to pass the test? It means to so excel in our knowledge of God’s words; to so have a familiarity with it and its interconnectedness; to so have a sense of spiritual poison that will kill and spiritual remedy that will heal, that we are able, by what may seem to people to be an easy instinct — an instinct that has taken long to be wrought into our lives — to pull down from the shelves of the gospel as stewards of the mysteries of Christ, precisely the remedy for the sickness of men and women’s souls.

All of this we must learn to do if we are to guard the fences of the gospel in such a way that the atmosphere of our garden will be an atmosphere in which the children of God may grow, in which their sicknesses may be healed, in which their brokenness may be mended. We are divinely sent physicians. Our instrument is the word of God. Our remedies are, in the Scriptures, able to be used by the power of God. And the evidence that our ministry has been tested and approved is that we are able correctly to handle the word of God. Paul is very emphatic about that because he has become so familiar with a mistaken handling of the word of God. He is familiar with those who falsify the word of God, who handle the word of God deceitfully, and he’s urging us, “Oh Timothy,” he says, “Learn to handle the word of God correctly.”

It is the most important thing in your life. Handle the word of God correctly. Be submissive to it in your mind. Follow it where it will lead you. Apply it where it teaches you, but be a man of one Book and so be engrossed by that book, knowing that book, studying that book that it will flow through your instincts so that you will become a kind of living Bible, that out of every pore of your life and your dealings with your people, the wisdom of Scripture that is able to show you salvation in Jesus Christ will simply pour down upon them. Oh, to be such a minister of the gospel.

A Wonderful Example

The glorious thing is that just as that is true of some of us by God’s grace, it was true of young Timothy that God had given him a most wonderful model. He appeals to this later on in chapter three. He says to him, “Timothy, you know all about my teaching.” One day when I was a student, Mr. Still gave me something. It was the first time he had given me anything that wasn’t spiritual, and I knew him well enough to pull his leg a little. I said, “This is the first thing you’ve ever really given me. I want you to autograph it,” and I put it into his hand and he put it back into my hand. He said, “I don’t want to write my autograph there,” and he poked me in the chest and he said, “I want to write the autograph there.”

As I think of that and think of the young men who may be here, if at my middle age I may address you as young men, if there is any way under the sun you can find a minister of the gospel who will pour himself into your life in this way, find him. If you are an older minister of the gospel, you don’t need to be very much older, but if you are an older minister of the gospel, then you may secure the ministry of the gospel into the future generations and to the ends of the earth by being willing to pour yourself into a younger minister in this way. This is what Paul had done with Timothy and given him a true model of the ministry of the gospel that was not simply an education of his mind, but was a demonstration of the embodiment of the gospel.

That’s why, you know, almost all these great Puritan ministers learned to be ministers by living with ministers. They didn’t have seminaries. They simply sat and watched and breathed in the atmosphere, and Timothy had that privilege under the leadership and jurisdiction of the apostle Paul, and that was why the apostle was so confident that this man would be a model minister for the whole future of the Christian Church, and in this last outpouring of his concern for him, he pours out his instruction to him to be a workman who does not need to be ashamed.

The Means of Ministry

What are the means at our disposal if we are to be that kind of minister? Well he turns to this in 2 Timothy 3:14, and I want you to notice as he speaks of this that he mentions four things. Everything so far is simply preamble to these four things.

1. Perseverance in Wisdom

Number one, he urges him to persevere in the wisdom of the Scriptures. Second Timothy 3:14 says:

Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed . . .

Maybe that is the one word you need to hear from this conference. Just go on. Go on doing what you’re doing but do it more. Continue in what you have learned. He says:

Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14–15).

Let me pause on that little expression, “wise for salvation.” Most of us wouldn’t use it actually. Most of us would say the Scriptures are able to show you the way of salvation. We wouldn’t ordinarily, in our evangelical speak today, say to anybody, “The Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation.” Why this emphasis on wisdom? Because he isn’t just thinking about salvation as justification, the pardon of my sins, or the accounting of me as righteous. He is thinking of salvation as the transformation of my whole life, and for that salvation I do not simply need the knowledge; I need that wonderful Spirit-given sensitivity to how the knowledge works out in terms of its transforming impact on my life. The privilege Timothy had was that he had known this since his infancy.

How do you get that wisdom? I remember reading somewhere, I think it was actually in John Duncan, that he said about Jonathan Edwards that the amazing thing about Edwards’s preaching was that his doctrine was all application, and his application was all doctrine. That is actually wisdom. That’s all he was saying. There is wisdom there, and that’s precisely what he is longing to see Timothy persevering in.

The Wisdom of Jesus

Wisdom, what do I mean by that? If I can give you an example, I mean when we are dealing with people who are finding the truth about God’s sovereign election difficult to grasp, how do we deal with that? We deal with that by having the wisdom that Scripture gives us about salvation. You see it exhibited in Jesus. He says, “Father, you’re the Lord of heaven and I thank you that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and in your sovereign election you have revealed them to babies because this was your sovereign will. Come to me all you who labor and our heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:25–30).

The wisdom that is able to make us wise for salvation is the wisdom that enables us to take some struggling believer, full of all kinds of confusions about God’s election and what he thinks is the consequential inability to say anything to a sinner about salvation in Jesus Christ, and to say to him, “Let me take you to the wisdom of your dear Lord Jesus. Let me show you how he did his evangelism. Let me show you that he believed in God’s sovereign election and in God’s discriminating election, and he believed in the most passionate appeals conceivable in his evangelism. This is the wisdom of Jesus.”

I think in that connection of what burdens me personally so much, that our doctrine of the trinity should be so regarded as the great speculation of the church’s theologians and dispensable with because it is so utterly impractical and makes no real difference to your Christian life. I want to go on that dark night to listen to the heartbeat of my Savior’s overwhelmed spirit as he gathers now just the 11, who remain in the upper room having celebrated the Passover meal, and he sits them down and he says, “Dear children, I have something to say to you. I want to teach you the most important thing in the entire universe, and you need to know it tonight of all nights because this is the night of the universe. This is the time of the powers of darkness. This is your greatest crisis. This is the hour in which I am overwhelmed.”

What does he teach them in the farewell discourse? He teaches them the doctrine of the Trinity, and he weaves his way around the glory of the relationship between the Father and the Son that he has so marvelously illustrated in coming down and washing their feet, and he weaves his way into the way in which he is the way, the only way to the Father. As he brings himself to the Father, he shows us how he will ask the Father and the Father will send his own Spirit, Jesus’s Spirit, to come and indwell believers, and in John 14, to make his home with us. The Father and the Son will make their home with us so that we will not be orphans indwelling us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit released into the lives of the disciples to remind them of everything Jesus has said to lead them into all the truth, to show them what will come in the ages yet unborn, to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ because he has been with Jesus from the beginning.

The Practical Wisdom of the Trinity

He is the true witness to all that the Lord Jesus has accomplished and he who has been the true witness to all that Jesus has accomplished will indwell them so that they must be witnesses to the ends of the earth and to the end of the ages. And although it doesn’t dawn upon them, presumably until the apostle John and his later record of those glorious, glorious hours when they sat at the feet of their dear Lord Jesus Christ, that the thing that will take you through hell and high water in this world is God the blessed Trinity. If you don’t know him as Trinity, you don’t have the kind of God that is able to succor you in the crisis, as it then dawned upon them.

“I have yet many things to say to you,” he says, “but you’re not able to bear it.” In other words, “You’re not even able to understand what I’m talking about here, but when you understand and when you bear it, you will discover that knowing God as Trinity is the most practical wisdom and knowledge any believer could ever have.” Do you see, dear ones, how false teaching that marginalizes the things that are central and places central the things that are marginal, takes the food of the children out of their mouth and throws it to the dogs? Do you see how important it is that we who are ministers of the word of God should be mainly in the main things? Our people should be soaked in the Trinity as the New Testament is soaked in the Trinity.

You read through the New Testament letters and write down on your desk the word Trinity and then go and read through the New Testament letters and you will see that the apostle Paul could scarcely move an inch without doing it as a man conscious that he was living in the presence of and for the glory of God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. That’s all part of what Paul is saying to Timothy when he says, “You have known these Scriptures from your infancy that are able to not just save you in the sense of justify you, for which we thank God, but give you wisdom that is saving wisdom because it’s wisdom that brings you to the knowledge of the glory of God in Jesus Christ and enables you to understand that none less than God, the eternal Trinity, has committed himself to you in grace.” So he urges him to persevere in the wisdom of the Scriptures.

2. Encouragements for Preaching

He shows him the encouragements God has given him as one who is to preach the Scriptures. This is a very beautiful thing in 2 Timothy 3, isn’t it? For example, in 2 Timothy 3:10–11, he says:

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings . . . yet from them all the Lord rescued me.

And then later on, he says, “You know those from whom you learned the truth.” The minister of the gospel never lives in isolation. Even the minister of the gospel who feels himself to be isolated can always have those from whom he is able to learn the meaning of the gospel and the meaning of what it means to live for the gospel. In Timothy’s case, that was a very intimate thing in his own family and with the apostle Paul. You may be deprived of these privileges. You may live in some part of the country where there is no easy access to anyone who is able to teach you. What are you to do? You are to learn to be taught by the whole church of Jesus Christ, that is what you are to do. You are to learn that you belong to the church catholic, that is what you are to do. And you are to learn to understand that those teachers who are living are not the only teachers God has ever given to the Christian Church, and you can know those from whom you learn.

At the Feet of Great Teachers

When I was a young student, I stumbled purely by happenstance, on a principle that transformed my life in two ways. It dawned on me that while all Scripture is inspired and inerrant, the Scripture has its own structure and its own inner coherence. It has its own form and shape, and the wise thing, even for a young man, was not to begin at the margins but to begin at the center. I gave myself to the study of what you might think of as the central books of the Bible, and by parity of reasoning, it dawned on me that the same might be true of the history of the Christian Church and the history of theology. I must give myself to the study of those books that have proven themselves to be church-building and life-transforming. However embarrassing it might be to confess that no, I had not read that book, real lasting biblical ministry would be produced by mastering the masters, by learning from the masters, by sitting at their feet, by allowing them to write their autographs into my heart so that I could have some understanding of the greatness of the gospel from those who themselves had an understanding of the greatness of the gospel.

When we begin to do that, and all kinds of winds of doctrine blow through the church, as they are blowing through the church, we begin to discover truly that there is relatively little that is new under the sun. And those who push the envelope at its edges and say we have got to be open to explore, make the same foolish mistake that Christians have made from generation to generation of believing the heresy of the modern, that the truth has begun with us, and so often are so ignorant of the history of the Christian Church and its theology in the past that they don’t even know that the church has already wrestled with these things. And that’s really just an application of Paul’s principle here, isn’t it? There are those from whom we learn. When we have the opportunity we are wisest to learn from those we know are the best.

Studying the Past

In our church, in the run-up to the end of the millennium, I gave a series of talks at our Sunday evening services. They were about 12 minutes long each evening and I took one of the 20 centuries of the Christian Church each evening and kind of raced through 100 years in 12 minutes, and in the middle of this in Britain, there was a poll in one of the major newspapers asking the question, “Name the most significant man and the most significant woman of the last thousand years.” Do you know what the answers were? The most significant man of the last thousand years turned out to be Nelson Mandela. The most significant woman turned out to be Princess Diana. The thing that struck me was this: we have become a society so engrossed in the soap opera presented to us by the television media that we have actually come to believe that people who are contemporary with us are the most important and significant contributors to an entire thousand years.

Then I sadly thought that if you were to ask Christians of the contemporary evangelical world to name the two most significant Christians of the last thousand years, the likelihood would be that they would name people who are still alive. I thought of Hegel’s maxim — Hegel of all people — lamenting the fact that the only thing we learn from history is that we have learned nothing from history. There is this broad application, it will do you so much good my dear brothers, it will do you so much good seriously to commit yourself to knowing the church, to knowing those from whom it is safe to learn the gospel because they have proven over the centuries that the gospel that they preach, the gospel that they taught, is a gospel that builds churches and transforms lives so that no matter where you are in this land mass or in the world you can benefit from them.

Think of what’s available to you if all you’ve got is your little laptop and a hundred CD-ROMs. You have access to a universe in the Christian Church so that the Apostle Paul would be able to say to you, “You have known those from whom you learned the gospel and you have seen their suffering, you have understood their teaching, and you know that the Lord delivered them out of every difficulty, and you know that through your ministry you can build a church that will last through the difficulties of heterodoxy and all the winds of affliction and false doctrine that beset the church in our present century.”

3. Rightly Handling the Scriptures

Thirdly, he says to Timothy, “Not only persevere in the wisdom of Scripture, not only get your encouragement from those who can teach you Scripture, but learn rightly to handle the Scriptures.” There is, in my own view, one of the worst chapter divisions in the English Bible between 2 Timothy 3 and 2 Timothy 4. I say that because it’s obvious from the flow of what Paul says, and even the language he uses, that what he is saying to Timothy is, “Here are the things that Scripture is for, therefore preach them that way.” It says:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness . . . So preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 3:16–4:3).

It’s obvious that Paul’s great concern in this marvelous statement about the inspiration of Scripture is actually not so much about the inspiration of Scripture but about what the inspiration of Scripture is for, the use of Scripture in the life of the church. And as he tells us what Scripture is for in these four things, he then goes on to say, “Don’t you see the logic of this? If these are the things that Scripture are for, then use the Scriptures for these things.”

Scripture’s Use for Teaching

I once in my youthful folly thought that preaching grids given out by professors of preaching and theological seminaries in North America were a novelty with which the Christian Church could easily dispose, until I began to reflect on the fact that this is the great preaching grid of the apostle Paul. In the simplest of words, he can teach you to preach. He says, “Your preaching of the word of God must first of all include teaching. It must engage the mind and shape the mind by truth. Your teaching comes to men and women whose minds are darkened by sin and who bring to the hearing of God’s word all the accumulated baggage of the world and the baggage that they have heard on the Christian media, and all the hypocrisy of the human heart and the pride of the human mind.

Your task as a teacher of the word of God is to bring, in the power of the Holy Spirit, illumination to darkened minds and truth to hypocritical spirits. You undermine the self-deceitfulness of those who sit before you. You deal, by the power of God’s word, with satanic deceit, and so use the word of God in such a way that the teaching of the gospel puts on the lights in peoples’ minds in such a way that, glory be to God, you can sometimes see it with your own eyes that the lights have gone on and the truth of the gospel has dawned.

So we must teach in such a way that we disarm sin. We must teach in such a way that we hold up the mirror of God’s truth to men’s minds and faces and say, as Jesus constantly does in the parables, “This is the real truth about you, shocking as it is.” Teaching comes to the minds and hearts of sinful and fallen men and women, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:2, with almost unparalleled tenderness, so do this with great patience and careful instruction.

Wasn’t that what Antony was counseling us about this morning from God’s word? God has been so patient with me and I have been so impatient with my people. Do it with patience. It’s hard to bear that pain, isn’t it? Preaching must include teaching.

Scripture’s Use for Rebuking

Preaching, he says secondly, will involve rebuking. The word of God is given to us for teaching and for rebuking.

Paul’s verb (elenxon) of course, in the New Testament, has this kind of marvelous elasticity to it. It can mean, on the one hand, as he uses it in Titus 1:9, refuting opposers of sound doctrine. It can mean, as he uses it just a little later on in Titus 2:15, rebuking in the sense of reproving. It can mean, as he uses it in Ephesians 5:11, exposing in the sense of unveiling, revealing, or unraveling sinful humanity, in such a way that there is the implied rebuke of God’s holiness and of God’s law, and we understand that this is entirely when it is effectual, the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to administer divine rebuke, and one of the romances, the beauties, of preaching the gospel is that he does it when you know nothing about it. You know as I know what it means to stand at the church door and be greeted by an angry parishioner who wonders who has been speaking to you about what they have been up to.

You know what they do not seem to understand, that the Spirit moves among the congregation, as John Owen puts it, with the word of God to you, the preacher wrapped up in parcels, and he comes and he sits down, one member, another member, and he opens up the parcel, and he says, “This is for you and your life in this way.” The word of God is able to cleave right through the joints and the marrow and cut to the chase, and the sheer grace of God is that it’s never up on the big screens. That for all the numbers of people who are gathered, be it large or small, God is chaste in his rebukes. God is gracious in his rebukes. God is intimate in his rebukes.

God is the perfect counselor in his rebukes, and he comes by his word like a surgeon with his scalpel making sharp and clean cuts. You stand there as though you stood beside a master surgeon in the hospital operating room and are but the hospital operating room nurse. When he says, “Scalpel,” you hand him the word of God and he cuts cleanly and perfectly into the human soul. As you go on, you can only admire it. Isn’t it true of you, dear brother, that whatever you might do in the whole wide world, you would never ever, ever, ever want to exchange the privilege of handing to the divine surgeon the knives of the gospel in order for him to cut cleanly as he administers his rebukes to the people of God, exposes their sinfulness, cleans out their wounds, and then hands back the scalpel to you at the end of the Lord’s day and says, “Now make it clean for the next time.”

Scripture’s Use for Correcting

Again, the word of God is for teaching and the word of God is for rebuking. The word of God, says Paul, is for correcting. I read the Bible as a youngster for five years, day after day, before I heard the word of Jesus saying, “You search the Scriptures and in them you think you have eternal life, but you will not come to me in order to have life” (John 5:39). I began to do it as a nine-year-old boy. I’m ever grateful to God for the providence that he displayed in my life despite all my blindness. In those days, when I read these words, rebuke and correct, I used to think, “Why does the apostle Paul say that same thing in two different ways? Because rebuking and correcting meant the same thing to me.” If the teacher corrected me, it meant by implication my teacher was rebuking me.

It was only when I got a little Greek language that I began to understand that Paul was not saying there’s something wrong so much as saying, “Let’s put this right.” There’s a wonderful word, epanorthōsis. It’s got orthodoxy written all over it, hasn’t it? It means “putting things right.” It’s used, I think, in the Septuagint of restoring the walls of Jerusalem. It’s used outside the New Testament in the Hellenistic world of physicians healing broken limbs. It is a most beautiful term of restoration, of repair, and it gives us such a panoramic view of what it means to teach the gospel in such a way, not only that people feel themselves exposed by the truth of God’s word and are brought down low, but in the agony of being brought down low, they may — and it seems almost simultaneously — know the ecstasy of being healed and transformed and restored more and more into the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is such a beautiful balance, isn’t it? Fancy that God has said to you, “Do both of these things all of the time at the same time. Rebuke and correct.” You sit in your office before you go into your pulpit and you think, “Oh God, these people are hurting, and this is a word of rebuke. How under heaven is it possible for this word of yours to minister to God’s people?” But you understand that the word of God is given so that simultaneously there is rebuke and there is a most sweet correction. Because, you see, we are not only operating nurses handing sharp scalpels to the Spirit of God; we are art restorers, by God’s grace, restoring in the lives of men and women through our multifold use of God’s word. We are at work carefully restoring in their lives the image of God, the image of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That supremely is why your preaching needs correctly to handle the word of God. Because those of you who have ever moved around or moved from congregation to congregation know that one of the most astonishing things in the world to see is how often the personality of a congregation is almost identical to the personality that is held up in the preaching. Congregations are molded into the image of Jesus Christ that is portrayed before them in the preaching of the gospel. Paul is calling us to be physicians of the soul, construction workers, art restorers in the lives of the people of God, and if we are going to be able to do that, we are going to need to be able so to use God’s word in such a way that our hands become healing and transforming hands. That’s how we are to teach in such a way that we correct.

Restoring Beauty

It’s actually not so difficult to spot error as it is to restore the likeness of Christ. Many years ago now, when our second boy was I think 14 and a budding golfer — I did momentarily, when he was about three years old, think that I had the first Tiger Woods in my hand — I took him to a friend with whom I’d played golf myself. My friend was one of the two or three best golfing coaches in Scotland, and I was about to leave my son with him, and my friend from the past said, “Oh, just stay and watch.”

In half an hour I watched this man, a master teacher. I knew there was something wrong with my boy’s ball contact, but I couldn’t do anything about it. All I could see was there was something not right. I didn’t know how to transition him from what was wrong to what was right. In half an hour I watched my friend weave himself into the body of my son to work him through to transform his sense of things, his feel of things, to create for him a club head speed he’d never had before, and the sweetest of ball contacts, it was absolutely glorious to watch. Well, he was already beating me, so it was absolutely glorious to watch. I thought, “Oh, to be able to do that with God’s word.”

I want to so wrap God’s word around God’s people into their lives, into their psyche, into their thinking, in such a way that I’m not only able to warn them against error and danger or to see when they’ve fallen into error or danger, but that I’m able to bring them from error and danger into the truth of the gospel and into growing likeness to Jesus Christ.

Ah, growing likeness to Jesus Christ is everything, absolutely everything in the ministry of the gospel. That is why true preaching of the gospel trains in righteousness, and Paul has in view here, of course, child training in righteousness. We were reminded already of those unspeakably beautiful words, “Oh, my dear children, I am in labor again with you . . .” Until what? “Until Christ is fully formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). That’s what training in righteousness is because he is the Righteous One. He says he’s going to stand before the righteous judge and the righteous judge is going to give him a crown of righteousness.

It’s righteousness all the way down, and what it means is that the righteousness that has covered you, the righteousness of Jesus Christ that enables you to stand in the presence of God as boldly as Jesus Christ stands in the presence of God, because you stand in the presence of God only with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that same righteousness that has been imputed to you in the gospel is going to be imparted to you by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Training in Righteousness

Our business is to train in that ever-increasing, Christ-like righteousness so that members of our congregation, as they move out into the world from the safety of our fellowship, from the nourishment of our ministry, are going to be gazed upon.

People are going to ask, as you remember the apostle John asks the question, “From what country has this love come from that these people should so obviously be the children of God even though it does not yet appear what they shall be? It is so evident here and now that they belong to the family.”

I think among the most moving experiences of my life was an experience that happened on the 13th of December 1982. My wife and I had gone down to London to get our visas to come to the United States to teach at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. We were to take all our children down there and our oldest child was only 10 years old. There had been a major derailment on the railway. We decided to go by train for the fun of it, and we found ourselves slowly moving back to Scotland by another route from the American Embassy in London.

We found ourselves on a crew station platform on a horrible night in the middle of December with a thought of leaving our native land heavily on our minds. I thought, “I feel utterly miserable,” and the train wasn’t coming. A girl appeared on the platform in her early twenties, absolutely out of nowhere, came straight up to me and said these words to me, “Excuse me, would you be a Christian family?” I thought to myself, “How in all the world, by God’s grace, when I’m feeling like this and when we’re looking like this, is it still obvious that there’s something different about us?” The simple answer is that God’s servants had poured God’s word into our hearts, into our children’s hearts, by God’s grace.

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.