Guarding the Gospel: The Pastor’s Calling

Desiring God 2003 Conference for Pastors

Good Fences, Bad Fences, and the Glory of Christ

Few things are more difficult for a Scotsman to become accustomed to than being greeted with applause before he has said anything. But I have enough debts to friends in the United States to appreciate the warmth of John Piper’s welcome and the privilege of being here at the conference once again over these few days.

Loyalty to Paul and to the Gospel

I want us to begin this evening by turning to Paul’s second letter to Timothy. This is Second Timothy. We’re going to read here from 2 Timothy 1:1–18 (all Scripture references from the NIV):

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day. What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.

The Borders of Gospel Understanding

As I say, it is a great privilege to be here with you brothers and sisters to share in the worship, which as you imagine is just a little different from that to which I’ve become accustomed in Psalm-singing Scotland. But it is — for all the sense of inadequacy I have to deal with this subject — a privilege to have the opportunity of ministering God’s word. In my more whimsical moments since January the 25th last year when John Piper wrote to me, reflecting on my previous visit here, I have somewhat come to the conclusion that John believes in Christian Hedonism for everyone except for me.

And I probably ought to confess since, confession is good for the soul, that I welcomed the invitation more for the opportunity to be at the conference than because I felt I had any special wisdom to offer. But we are to try to think together, over these days and all of our sessions, in different ways about how we are to handle the truth of the gospel; how we are, in Paul’s words, to “guard the good deposit” (2 Timothy 1:14), and how we are conscious that we have been given this good deposit to be faithful to the cross of Jesus Christ and his resurrection; to know how to say yes to the gospel and to learn how to say no to everything that has the potential to destroy the gospel; to experience the vivification of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and to share in and to apply the death and dying of Jesus Christ, in order that our way may be wholly cleared to gaze upon the sole glory of our great God.

And as we struggle to do that — as you do, as I do — together, we are trying to think about the borders of our gospel understanding and of our gospel application. We’re trying to think about the breadth and the length and the depth and the height of the love of God in Jesus Christ. And also the narrowness, the preciseness of our God, in order that we may follow him in his holy righteousness and also in his abundant graciousness. And because we are sinners, that which is easy for him is so intensely difficult for us. And so we have to try to submit ourselves all over again to God’s holy word and to his truth.

Receiving Before We Give

I wonder if I may this evening, at the beginning of the three addresses for which I am responsible, say something by way of general introduction about our approach in these studies. And perhaps also so that you may understand me as I minister God’s word, something about my own personal position.

When John asked if I would speak on this subject, I asked him if I could try to do that in an expository way. That has great advantages, although you may feel sometimes it also sets limitations on us, but I want to do that for two reasons. First of all, because some of the time in these days we are dealing with the circumference and the margins rather than with the center. And a gathering like this of pastors and pastors wives and those who are burdened for the gospel is bound to have a huge spectrum of interest and involvement about matters that involve the margins.

But all of us who are engaged in the preaching of the gospel, in the feeding of the flock of Jesus Christ. Our profoundest personal need if we are to give the word of God to others is for ourselves and the power of the Spirit to have the nourishing grace and power of that word ministered to us.

And as John has already indicated, we may in the course of our studies discover that the reason for which we have come to the conference is not the chief thing that we take when we go from the conference. And God, who — as my church’s confession says — is able to work through means, is also able to work above means, thankfully, and even against means, in order to accomplish his own gracious purposes.

I want us to try to stick to Scripture for another reason that there is probably no area of our responsibility in Christian ministry where most of us properly will feel out of our depth, and therefore, most inclined to listen to a guru. And I am no guru, either by disposition, intentionality, calling, or gifting. And perhaps that is to our benefit, that we seek to bring whatever prejudices we have — and we all have them — and humbly submit ourselves to what God, the Lord, will say to us through his holy word.

I have by God’s grace, for many years since I was a student, since I was a teenager and God brought me — I’m not so old that it was in a living way, but it was in a literary way — in contact with the works of the great Johns of the Christian faith, particularly Calvin and Owen. I have been a great believer in not purchasing the most recent Christian book, but seeking to master and be mastered by the old masters. And we live very much in a guru mentality and a guru age.

It is fascinating to me to observe that just as in the secular, worldly world, men and women look for gurus, so in our own day, probably more than in any day in the history of the Christian Church, we have looked for gurus who will decide for us, as though we lived in Old Testament rather than in New Testament days, the things that we need to be working out ourselves as we grow into full maturity.

And so even when at times the word of God in these days seems tangential to the burning issue in your mental equipment, I ask you to be patient with the word of God, that it may mold you and feed you. So much for that particular approach.

From a Personal Perspective

Let me say something that may or may not frame everything I’m going to say about my own personal position. I do not come with any hidden agenda, but with a genuine personal concern both about the divisions in our fellowship and a desire to see a greater unity among Christians.

And my own position is perhaps best summed up in some great words of Professor John Duncan, professor of Hebrew, as some of you will know, in New College in Edinburgh, in the great glory days of that college in the middle of the 19th century. He was known affectionately in Scotland as Rabbi Duncan and perhaps known to some of you because he was the chief instrument in the conversion of the great scholar, Ed Ershine. Duncan was a man who struggled with Christian truth, but a man who for all his eccentricities had a most marvelous Christian spirit. And here are his words about himself and I make them my own:

I’m first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth are Presbyterian. I cannot reverse the order.

And then when asked if these were circles, Duncan said this: rather than being circles moving out to the widest as it were from Presbyterian back to Paedobaptist to Calvinist to catholic to Christian, he said, “I like better to think of them like towers rising one above the other narrowing as they rise. The first is the broadest and is the foundation laid by Christ, but we are to build on that foundation.” And listen to this, “And as we ascend, our outlook widens.”

It’s not concentric circles in which we are narrower and narrower from being Christians to of all things to being Presbyterians, but building blocks that, as they rise, as we become clearer in how we think the Scripture is most consistently to be understood, our view of the whole Christian Church is better because it is higher. You may not think that being a Presbyterian is the apex of the Christian Church — I doubt if many of you do — but if whatever you think is the most specifically consistent form of church government does not give you a broad sense of the glory, the multiformity, the multicolored character of the Christian Church that Jesus Christ has purchased with his own blood, then you are not rising higher but going down lower.

And it is a paradoxical thing that that can be wonderfully true of us, that the more consistent we become in our understanding and application of Scripture, the more — and this is true of anything we really know — we understand how little we know and the more we appreciate how puny we are and the more marvelous it is to us that Jesus Christ should take sinners such as we are and such as others are, and bind us together in the one bundle of life in Jesus Christ, so that we will embrace all those whom Jesus Christ embraced even in the midst of this paradox of seeking to follow every letter that God has given to us in the pages of Scripture.

And so I hope in the happy fellowship that you and I will enjoy that our national badges, whatever they are, will give us a larger vision of the wonder of the body of Jesus Christ for which he died. That we may despise none for whom his precious blood was shed.

Learning from Paul’s Last Letter

Now it’s against that background that I want us to focus on three sub-themes. They focus, really, as our reading this evening from 2 Timothy will underline, on various aspects of our pastoral ministry. And if I may, I want to reverse the order that is in the program and deal with these three themes along the following lines.

First of all, Guarding the Gospel: The Pastor’s Calling; second, Facing the Broken Fences: The Pastor’s Burden; third, Serving the Truth: The Pastor’s Privilege. And my desire has been in preparation that what we might do together is to narrow down our focus upon what Paul teaches in general in 2 Timothy, of course his last letter, and to do that almost exclusively within the context of 1 Timothy and his letter to Titus.

And as we narrowly focus down upon these three letters that themselves narrowly focus upon what it means to be a pastor of the gospel in a post-apostolic age, I hope that we will learn many lessons about what it means to use the gospel, preach the gospel, define our lives by the gospel, and even perhaps surprisingly from these three letters, catch afresh the sense of the unity and the glory of the gospel that we preach.

The Hinge Point in Christian History

It’s important for us, of course, to have some sense of the significance of these letters, the context in which their author writes, the sense of pain that he reflects on several times in the pastoral letters —the pain he feels in the apostasy of those who have professed the Christian way, and even those who have shared that way with him. It’s a sense that runs through these letters of the advance of heresy that he had forewarned the Ephesian elders about, to whom Timothy is now ministering.

You can sense his enormous burden at this hinge point of Christian history, to commit the burden of ministry to the entire future of God’s care and purpose as he pours his last breath into his dear son Timothy and holds him up, evangelist though he is, within the context of service as a pastor in Ephesians. And he says to us, through his word, “Here is the model of true ministry for every generation until Jesus Christ returns in glory.”

This is the context of the author, the context of the church is that it is set precisely at that hinge point between the apostolic era, when they are able to go to apostles and say, “You tell us what to do. You show us the mind of God.” And that’s even as we are all inclined to say — “You do it. You are an apostle.”

And the recipients of these three letters are men called to leadership who are facing the question, “How is the man of God — a technical term almost in these letters for the servant of God, the minister of God’s word — to respond in what Paul calls in 2 Timothy 3:1, “times of stress.” That language is used rarely (incidentally in the New Testament), but very graphically of that awful binding of the man who wandered around in the gathering caves and broke the chains with which he was bound and was uncontrollable. How are we to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ when the days are uncontrollable, out of control? That’s the very thing that some of us doubtless in our own contexts feel that we ourselves today are wrestling with.

That All May See Your Progress

Well in that context this evening, to set the scene for everything, I want to remind you of the importance of what Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:15. Here is the central issue for us as we give ourselves to the work of the ministry, even at the margins of Christian fellowship. Paul says:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.

Let me ask in parenthesis, does your congregation, brother-minister, see your progress? As we greeted one another, I was wonderfully greeted by a brother as I came this evening. I hadn’t seen him for several years since we shared seminary space. And I thought, “I see, I think, his progress.” He continues:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

What’s the point of these many hours of study, of guarding your heart, of seeking to understand the mind of God? It is this: that by these means, in the great mercy of God, you will save yourself and your hearers.

And I want to emphasize this. This is our chief concern, brothers and sisters. We will never rightly guard the church at its margins, build the proper fences, and break down fences that are inimical to the gospel, unless we ourselves are growing in our understanding of that gospel. We will never discern the difference between deviation and apostasy from the truth of the gospel until we know the truth of the gospel, until we have such gospel instincts in us that we scarcely need to think to be able to say, “God forbid.” And that is our great calling.

That is a great burden to me personally, because in this area as evangelicals we have sometimes indeed all too frequently been far clearer about what we are against than what we are for. I say with some grief that at one time in my life I administered an exam for Doctor of Ministry candidates in Reform theology, and always included in those examinations — maybe somebody out there took one of them and remembers it with great pain — for men who had been a number of years in pastoral ministry, a question on the Trinity.

And I say with pain and a sense of shame as somebody who has been a teacher of students for the ministry that some of those answers would have sent Jehovah’s Witnesses laughing all the way home to the Kingdom hall. And yet, I suspect that those same men would have been able to tell you very clearly what they were against. But you see the tragedy is that if we are not for the Trinity, we are very likely to be against the wrong things And this is Paul’s great concern.

A Heart for Ministry

Let me say that he underlines four things in the course of these verses that we have read. The first three I want to deal with because it is essential to do so, but it is the fourth that I want to come to and focus our attention on this evening. If you and I are to be able to operate at the level of fence builders, fence repairers, and sometimes fence destroyers, as Timothy obviously was, there are four things that we need and all of them are here in 2 Timothy 1.

Number one is this: we need to have a heart for ministry. I take it that that is what Paul is driving at when he says in 2 Timothy 1:6–7:

I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

He is thinking not so much about the fact that Timothy may have been given gifts of speech and understanding; he is thinking about the fact that those gifts of speech and understanding only become profitable when they are embedded in a heart that has been set on fire with a desire to minister to God’s people. And amazingly, just almost as a throwaway here, he seems to bring together the three great facets of a call to gospel ministry. Timothy has been gifted by God, the gift of the Holy Spirit that has been given to him, and he is to fan it into flame that that gift has been recognized and received fruitfully by his fellow believers.

In this case the apostle mentions only the laying on of his own hands. Perhaps he’s thinking back to 1 Timothy where he had spoken about the hands of the elders being laid upon him, not in any curious apostolic succession, but in the recognition that this was the man whom God had gifted with an understanding of his word and an ability to expand it, who was full of the Holy Spirit and could minister it right into their souls. And they recognized that, as some of you are in the ministry only because others recognized the gift that God had given to the church in you.

Bondslaves for Christ

But the thing that really concerns him is not the question of whether he is gifted or whether he is recognized, but whether he is inflamed with a desire to take that gift and to use it in the way that Jesus Christ intended him to use it when he gave it to him. It’s not for himself, but he is to use it for them, to pour himself and the gift of the word of God into their lives, so that he would be able to say with the apostle in 2 Corinthians 4:5, which says, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

And when in all of these areas of doctrinal discernment, of biblical application, of judging fellowship, seeking to understand how the gospel operates at the margins of the fellowship of the church as it breaks into the world, if I am not able to say to my people, “I am your bondslave for Jesus’s sake,” then I need to move back from the margins and plunge myself into the gospel, in order that that servant spirit may work in me.

Even when I come to those with whom I find myself in conflict in alienation, I am still able to say to them — or I have no right really to speak — “I will be your bondslave for Jesus’s sake. For Jesus’s sake, yes; in Jesus’s word, yes. But your servant, the minister of Christ.”

When people recommend someone to me, as they do, saying, “You need to have so-and-so taking part,” or, “You need to have somebody involved in the music ministry,” I have come to ask only one question, “Is he humble? Is he a servant? Will he minister?” Those of you who love Dr. Lloyd Jones preaching, if you hear it on tape or radio, or have read his books, may remember how in his exposition of Romans 3:19, he says very tellingly, “Here is my definition of a Christian: “that every mouth may be shut and the whole world held guilty before God” (Romans 3:19). A Christian is a man whose mouth has been shut.”

And when your mouth has been shut by God’s word and God’s grace, then you begin to begin to begin to be prepared to open it, even at the margins, and to say, for the sake of the Lord Jesus, “I want to minister this word. It may be of rebuke, it may be of doctrinal reformulation, but as your servant for Jesus’s sake I do it.”

An Unashamed Fidelity

A heart for ministry. Accompanying that heart for ministry, Paul speaks in 2 Timothy 1:8–12 about an unashamed fidelity. He says:

Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord . . .

Let me pause for a moment and underline what a key thing this is: do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord Jesus Christ. We might think, perhaps, what a strange thing to say to his companion who had gone through so much with him, his companion whom we are told at the end of Hebrews 13 would indeed go to prison for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says, “Don’t be ashamed of Christ.” Why would he be ashamed? Because to stand for Christ is costly. To seek to be accurate in your thinking about Christ so that you can be accurate in your worship of Christ, that is costly in this world. It means by and large that you will not be viewed, if you are intellectually able, as belonging to the cutting edge.

It will mean, perhaps for some of you, as it often means for me and my denomination, that you will be despised, marginalized, feared, and alienated. But it’s Christ, he says. For Paul, and certainly for the great theologians, that was a great test. You see this for all the peculiarities of his writings. In the great irony, you see it powerfully in Augustine. You see it perhaps most gloriously in Athanasius, and especially in Calvin. If you know Calvin’s Institutes, you will know that he keeps coming back to this litmus test of every point of theology: does it fit with a saving Christ? Does it fit with a saving Christ? And it’s this that really drove the man on.

As Beza said about him at the end of his life, “God has shown us in the life of one man how to live for Christ and how to die for Christ.” And it is the great litmus test. It’s the reason why doctrine is important. It’s the reason why it is vital to have lenses in your theological spectacles that give you sufficient clarity to see the difference between truth and error. Because there is only one Christ. The only Christ there is is the Christ to whom the scriptures testify. So these matters are about being ashamed or unashamed of Jesus Christ. We are concerned to have single eyes for his glory.

Devoted to Christ, Devoted to Doctrine

That’s why we are concerned about truth, as we’ve been reminded this evening, because we are concerned about Christ who is the truth. This is not some personalized concern that we have as intellectuals who have some kind of neurotic fascination with Christian doctrine. This is because we are utterly devoted to our Lord Jesus Christ and want to be absolutely unashamed of him. And yet, you notice that even in the same breath the apostle says, “Don’t be ashamed of testifying about our Lord Jesus, or ashamed of me his prisoner” (2 Timothy 1:8).

That’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? That’s perhaps where some of you are this evening. You don’t still believe Paul. You don’t still believe this Book. You think, “Don’t you know what the scholars have done to this Book over the last 200 years? Where have you been?” And there is all the intellectual intimidation in the world — the social intimidation, the ecclesiastical intimidation — that some of you may have known. It’s not, of course, directly about being ashamed of Christ. No, no; it’s about being ashamed of the apostle Paul and the Bible and the apostolic authority.

But at the end of the day, my fidelity to Jesus Christ is usually demonstrated in my fidelity to God’s word when it is most demeaned. That’s when you, dear brother, dear sister, are most likely to hang your head in shame or lose your gracious cool. And that’s what he is speaking about here. Whatever marginalizes apostolic teaching, marginalizes my dear Lord Jesus Christ. And he is the only Lord Jesus Christ there is.

A Life of Sanctity

So there is a heart for ministry, an unashamed fidelity, and with it he says really in 2 Timothy 1:9–12, there is a life of sanctity. And the fascinating thing here (we will return to this in a later study, I suspect) is that he says, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life.” Just hold those words — “called us to a holy life.” Try and hold them in your mind for a moment and then see what the apostle Paul does to explain how that holy life comes into being:

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day (2 Timothy 1:9–12).

What’s he saying? He is saying it takes my ability to ransack the gospel of Jesus Christ from before the dawn of time until that great day when he will present me faultless before his glory thrown with exceeding great joy. It takes all of that gospel to produce one little sanctified Timothy. We’ll return to this later on because one of the most astonishing things, it seems to me, about these pastoral letters is the amount of biblical doctrine they contain trying to tell three letters and two men how to lead the church of Jesus Christ.

This is quintessential pastoral theology, and if ever anything underlined the seamless garment of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is that it takes the whole gospel of Jesus Christ to produce sanctity in one little gospel minister. He had reflected on that in 1 Timothy 1:10 for this reason. Do you notice in 1 Timothy 1:10–11 that he says, “the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers — and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

He is saying, “There is a connection between ungodliness and theological perversion, and there is an intimate connection between godliness and theological truth.” And he makes it abundantly plain here as he urges us to a life of sanctity.

Building Fences

Now what’s the importance of that for our concern here this evening? It is that a heart for ministry, an unashamed fidelity, and a life of godly sanctity are all prerequisites for operating at the margins in a way that is going to be lastingly fruitful, in a way in which the true gospel of Jesus Christ is going to be reproduced and not just my personal prejudice, or my personal bigotry, or my personal axe to grind, or my personal angle on something.

As Robert Murray M’Cheyne said so well, “It’s not great talents that God most uses, but great likeness to Jesus Christ.” There is an apologetic for the gospel in the holiness of the minister as well as in the preaching of the minister. There was a letter, if I may refer to M’Cheyne again, that was unopened on his desk the day he died, that came from someone who had listened to the last sermon he preached. M’Cheyne never read the words in the letter, but it said, “It wasn’t so much what you said, as the manner in which you said it.”

But you see these two things go together, don’t they? The matter and the manner, and they are preliminaries to the great exhortation that we find in 2 Timothy 1:13–14. And this is the fourth thing I want to explore: a heart for ministry, unashamed fidelity, a life of sanctity, and in 2 Timothy 1:13–14, a deep love for orthodoxy. He says:

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us and floods our hearts with love for the truth.

The other Wednesday evening at our prayer meeting in our church, I opened up for our people the vision of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 8–11. And one of the things that profoundly impressed me about that passage is the way in which Ezekiel is taken into the inner courts of the temple of God and what is set on display essentially is heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy. But the reason that is such an agony to him, and it is first of all an agony to him, is because the first thing that God shows him is his own glory. That’s a great marriage. The vision of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the light of that almost blinding glory, we learn to see things clearly and to distinguish truth from error. That’s why he speaks here about the good deposit and elsewhere about sound doctrine and godly teaching.

Guarding the Good Deposit

I have three questions and these will, I think, begin to set us up for what is to follow in the next two days:

  1. What does it mean to have a love for orthodoxy?
  2. What is Timothy to do with his love for orthodoxy?
  3. What is the significance of his task of guarding orthodoxy?

What does he mean when he says, “Keep as the pattern of sound teaching,” and, “Guard the good deposit”? He is speaking obviously of some pattern, of some model, some norm. Some of the interpreters think he’s referring, perhaps, to some credal formulation, or perhaps to a whole series of trustworthy sayings, some of which we have for example here in 2 Timothy 2:11, and in several other places. Whatever exactly the apostle Paul is thinking about here, he understands that the gospel of God has a shape.

The gospel of God is a coherent whole. It is, as we shall see tomorrow, I hope, a seamless robe woven by the Holy Spirit, and there is such a shape to it that the truth about God shapes the glorious gospel, produces sound doctrine, and effects godly living. As ministers of the gospel, we should no more appear in our pulpits or in our minister’s room for counseling with any less a grasp of the anatomy of the gospel than we would expect a physician to have a poor grasp of anatomy of the human body. We ought to be, within our capabilities, experts in this Book, and experts in understanding the inner consistency of this body of truth that has been passed down to us in the apostolic writings.

And this is what he is urging upon Timothy, that he guard this pattern that Paul has preached, that Paul has enumerated, that Paul has illustrated, and that he makes it the norm for his thinking, for his feeling, for his living, and for all of his preaching.

Demarcating the Land

And what is he to do with it? He is to hold it. He is to guard it as a trust. The preacher of the gospel is the builder and the preserver of the fences of the gospel. He is to guard the good deposit. It raises, for me, at least a couple of subsidiary questions. Number one is this: what is the function of the fences that we are to build as guardians of the gospel? Well they are first of all to demarcate the land the family owns.

That is why in Paul’s teaching indicative and imperative go together. Doctrine and life go together. Because we are staking out all of the land that belongs to all of the people of God. That was the original function of the great creeds of the Christian Church. Yes, I know they were developed in the context of heresy, but they were not given primarily in the context of heresy, but in the context of rejoicing in orthodoxy, of praising God for the truth of the gospel. And the more these early fathers praised God for the truth of the gospel, the more they wanted to praise God for the truth of the gospel in detail.

The so-called hypostatic union between the two natures of our blessed Lord, humanity and divinity, being united not in one another but in his eternal blessed person, was not simply a matter of saying, “We have to keep the heretics out,” but of saying what a glorious, ineffable Savior he is. In the wonder of the incarnation, he unites himself permanently to our human nature for our salvation.

So we demarcate the land. It is a glorious thing to sit under a ministry where the minister of the word of God and the people of God realize that everything that’s in the Scriptures is for all the people of God. It’s not for seminary professors or intellectuals; it’s for slaves and for all the people of God. And we build the fences at the margins to say first and foremost, “Go to the perimeter fence. Go no further, dear children, than the land the Lord has given us to live in. But go throughout the land. Ransack it from Dan to Beersheba, but everything in it is yours.”

That’s why we build the fences. First of all as it were to embrace all the truth of the gospel and to minister it to our people.

Keeping Out Intruders

And then we build the fences to prevent intruders. Fences are defenses. And you see that happening so often in the history of the Christian Church. This is why the great fathers of the church labored so long to try to understand how to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity, not because they felt they even understood what they were saying sometimes, but to say, “Beyond these fences we may not safely go. And outside of these fences, there is no consistent belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Beyond them, the gospel begins to disintegrate and ultimately will, if not in this generation, certainly in the next. And then we build fences to secure the wellbeing of our children so that they can grow up in safety. That’s Paul’s concern about word ministry, isn’t it? In Ephesians 4:11–14, Paul says:

Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

The newborn infants of Jesus Christ do not understand very much about the gospel. The newborn infants of Jesus Christ understand very little about what has happened to them in the powerful work of God in regeneration, and they need to be guarded. They need to be able to learn to walk and to stumble, but within the security of the fences that we build in order to protect them from every wind of doctrine that blows through town and that may blow through our local assembly.

We have many who do not know their doctrinal left hand from their right hand, and we need to guard them — the lambs of the flock. But if we are to build fences and these are the functions of the fences we build, we cannot be fence builders at the margins without encountering danger. And there are dangers in fence building for sinners.

Building Fences Too Narrow

The number-one danger is that we position them in too narrow a radius, and we thus deprive the people of God of their inheritance, their liberty and the glory fellowship that they may enjoy in the gospel. We create not so much boundary fences, demarcating the truth from error, as prison fences; and prison fences, at least in Scotland, are often electrified and dangerous both for those who have been marginalized by them and those who seek to press them out.

And it is a danger that we build the fences so restrictively that we deprive the people of God of the inheritance that is theirs. And we destroy those who should be inside the fences whom we have put out. Do you remember Diotrephes? He loved to have preeminence and insisted on putting people who belonged inside the fence, outside the fence. My dear brother, if you are in danger of that, you are going to discover the more you learn about the history of the Christian Church, that you will have not one single hero of the faith left inside your fence.

Irenaeus cannot get inside your fence. Athanasius cannot get inside your fence. Augustine cannot get inside your fence. Anselm certainly cannot get inside your fence. Luther is way outside your fence. Calvin can hardly see your fence. And you know what I mean when I say you’ll even begin to have doubts about Jonathan Edwards. That’s why this isn’t easy. That’s why the last thing in the world you need is a guru to tell you where to build the fences.

What you need is a gospel understanding that so creates such an ongoing, increasing sensitivity to the truth of the gospel in all areas of life, the application of the gospel to all those with whom you come in contact, that you become — if you remember Paul’s very specific language — a “wise and master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10). Most of us in this room are builders. That doesn’t mean that we are wise or master builders. So there is a danger that we position them in two narrow a radius.

Building Fences Too Broad

There’s the opposite danger that we position them in two broad a radius and we allow into the garden of God teaching that causes weeds and threatens the security of the family. We have a very senior physician in our congregation at home. He was a very honored physician. He was physician to our majesty the Queen. I don’t know if he ever attended her aches and pains, but it was an honorary position.

At the end of his life he had come to the end of his service and his medical practice, and it was just at the stage where medical practices were moving over from handwritten records to databases. And he took a kind of historical interest in what had happened in his practice over 40 years. And he described to me the transition he had seen in medicine. “It came to a stage now,” he said, “where often a patient will come in, he will present certain symptoms, I’ll not be very sure what he has. I’ll prescribe something for him, he may get better, and I’ll still not be sure what he had.”

And it was kind of surprising in this world of ever-expanding knowledge that he was a man honest enough to say, “The more we know, in some ways, the less we feel we know. The more we investigate, the more we master, the more we discover sub-worlds that need to be mastered.”

Beloved, if that is true with the human body, how much more true it is of the body of divinity, of the body of truth? And how ashamed we should be. I hang my head in shame at my age that I understand the gospel so little. I’ve had such privileges and I have squandered so many of them. I never go to a conference of any kind without leaving it thinking, “If I only knew my Bible better, I would be of more use to these people.”

And it’s only that development of understanding that enables us to sense these fences are too broad and the weeds will begin to grow.

Confusing Fence Building with Gardening

There is a third danger. There are three dangers in fence building: position them too narrowly, position them too broadly, and the third one is this: that we confuse fence building at the borders with high-level cultivation of the garden. Those are not the same things.

I remember a number of years ago preaching in a church in some part of this land mass that none of you would be able to identify. I never knew the minister, but I got to know people that I had meals with on the Lord’s day. And then I returned sometime afterwards when the minister had gone somewhere else. I had gotten to know these people. They were the kind of people who would be absolutely faithful to death to their minister, so long as he preached the gospel. And this man had undoubtedly preached the gospel.

But they said this, and it was very telling thing to me. They said, “At the end of his ministry, as we reflect on it, we realize that we were well instructed but poorly nourished.” And I pondered that and puzzled over it, wondering what they meant. They weren’t really able to explain what they meant. But as the whole story unfolded, I realized that he had been in danger of confusing building fences with high quality cultivation of the garden. These two things are essential to us. These two things are created by our own growth in the understanding of the gospel. But these two things need to belong together, or you and I are on the high road to pastoral shipwreck.

Healthy Doctrine for Healthy Christians

So what does it mean to guard the gospel? It means to understand the gospel has a shape, and that that gospel is shaped by the whole of Scripture, and to bring to bear the whole of Scripture and our understanding of the gospel until we become experts in understanding the gospel, masters of the gospel and mastered by it. What are we to do with this gospel? We are to proclaim it and we are also to guard it as a trust. We are to build fences, but we are to build them in the right place. And we are to build them even as we nourish the people of God.

What is the significance of this task? Why does Paul emphasize guarding the gospel? Why does he emphasize love for orthodoxy? Well, because he understands two things. Number one, he has seen the fruit of false teaching. In 2 Timothy 2:17, there is that graphic expression he uses about false teaching. He says, “Their teaching (Hymanaeus and Phyletus) will spread like gangrene.” He says they have wandered away from the truth and said the resurrection has already taken place (2 Timothy 2:18). It will spread.

Yes, it will spread, but it’s the way it spreads. It’s the metaphor he uses. He says, “It will spread like gangrene.” He is passionate about the fences, passionate about guarding the gospel because he understands that everything that is un-gospel spreads like gangrene and destroys.

We have two medical people in our family, our second boy who’s a surgeon, and our girl who is a medical student. During the Christmas vacation she was at home with her diagnostic manual. There were marvelous pictures. And I sat one evening with her holding my stomach in as I looked through these graphic pictures of everything that can go wrong in the human body. And I said to her, because she is somewhat gifted artistically, “You know, Ruth, you and I could write together a most marvelous handbook for pastors, a diagnostic manual of spiritual ills.” And she has a very zany sense of humor.

I said, “We could do this and you could do all the illustrations to show the distortions and contortions of the human soul for, even wrapped up in respectable, decent church life, and in respectable, decent individuals, to show the ghastly effect on the human soul of what the apostles called “destructive heresies”. That was why the fathers, not just the Reformers, but the fathers of the early Christian Church, resisted false doctrine but welcomed martyrdom. They understood that false doctrine always kills, but martyrdom never can. And Paul understood that.

And throughout the pastoral letters, it is as painful a study as those pictures in my daughter’s diagnostic manual. You look through the pastoral epistles and you see the effects of false teaching. This is one of the ways, incidentally, you recognize false teaching even before you have begun to make the intellectual connections between what is being taught and the way in which it diverts from the truth of the gospel. First Timothy 1:4 says that it promotes controversy in the church rather than God’s work, which is by faith.

Now there is going to be controversy in the church, but this is about that which provokes controversy and promotes controversy, rather than God’s work, which is by faith. This is an unhealthy interest in controversy. Isn’t it one of the most astonishing things in the world that the New Testament bars from leadership in the Christian Church those who are of a controversial spirit, not those who are prepared to engage in controversy, but those who are of a controversial spirit? But those who are of a controversial spirit see that as one of the hallmarks of a calling to leadership in the church. Always be suspicious, brothers, of a controversial spirit and make sure that it is fenced.

The Fruit of False Teaching

And then Paul speaks about teaching in 1 Timothy 1:18–20 that leads to destruction of the faith and conscience. False teaching always destroys conscience. Gospel teaching always informs conscience, sanctifies conscience, and liberates believers to the joy of the Lord. False teaching always falsely binds conscience and destroys liberty and joy. False teaching, Titus 3:10, that spreads like gangrene produces divisiveness in the fellowship. Look at what he says there.

Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.

It’s spreading like gangrene and producing envy, quarreling, malicious talk, evil suspicion, and constant friction. In 1 Timothy 6:10 and 1 Timothy 6:21, false teaching causes people to wander. And then listen to this language, “And to be pierced with grief.” And so says Paul to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:5. He speaks of those who are engaged in “malicious talk, evil suspicions, constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth.” These are the telltale signs. And once you’ve seen false teaching for what it does, you want to make sure that you build fences within which the children of God can play in safety.

The Fruit of True Teaching

But it’s not just that he’s seen the fruit of false teaching, he’s seen the fruit of true teaching. He uses the language of healthiness, vigor, and joy. Because he’s seen in his own life, with his own eyes, the fruit of pouring the word of God into God’s people, building the fences in the right place, so that the children may grow up strong and healthy. He sees, as he says in Timothy 1:5, that is productive of love; and in 1 Timothy 1:11, that it conforms to the gospel of the blessed God; and in 1 Timothy 5:16, that it leads to salvation; and in Titus 1:1, that it leads to godliness.

And he understands, as certainly used to be true in Scotland where they invented banks — I hope you knew that. They also invented most of the jokes about mean Scotsman as well, as it happens. They used to train bank tellers how to recognize a forgery by sitting them down with genuine pound notes and saying, “Now count these. Count these, count these, count these, count these, count these until in your sleep you could tell the difference between the true and the false.

And that’s how it is. That is orthodoxy. The truth of the gospel is poured into us. We learn almost by instinct to tell the difference between the true and the false. And we see the fruit of the true teaching of the gospel as men and women are conformed by the blessed gospel of our glorious God, more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

And all this, there is an apologetic for the truth. In the life that breathes the truth as well as in the life that knows the truth. And as we study these things together, how humbled we are under God’s mighty hand that we who are called to be leaders of the church know the truth so poorly and exhibit the truth so dimly. And yet, brothers, there is an ecstasy in the agony, and there is nothing under the sun more glorious as a minister of the gospel, than being humbled under the word of God with your weaknesses exposed and the truth poured in.

And as, like Jacob, you go into the future limping, the sun has begun to dawn. And you say to yourself, “Oh God, fill me with your truth. Enable me to glorify your Son. Help me to see where and why and how to build the fences for the children.”

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