Water is Sweeter




Gain draws nearer, step by step

I feel it in my bones

All things wear out, grow weak and thin

And yet

Water is sweeter

Not metaphorically, not some imagined fancy

But upon my tongue

Strangely sweet

As real as all the pain and sadness

Literal foretaste from the land beyond

This mortal mind slipping, slipping

And yet, water is sweeter

Sweeter upon my tongue







In Part I, we argued that when David flees to Philistia in I Samuel 27 and 29, he is not backsliding in faith, but rather doing what he can to serve God faithfully in difficult circumstances.  We argued this for five different reasons:

1) The literary structure of I Samuel 21-29 shows David growing in godliness, not backsliding, except his confessed sin in chapter 25.
2) Psalm 56, a Psalm of distress, may well have been written in this period.
3) The text nowhere describes David’s actions as sinful.
4) Practically, treachery to Israel would have undermined his ascension to the throne.
5) Most importantly, the results of David’s venture are positive, and thus reveal his true motives.

We turn now to the positive fruit that the text indicates results from this episode in David’s life.  And once again, we find five.

1) David ends Israel’s civil war.  We read in I Samuel 27:4 that Saul no longer pursued David.  Indeed, the last word Saul exchanges with David is when he gives him his blessing in 26:25, sincerely or not.  But it is David’s flight to Philistia that leads to peace in Israel.  As he could not in godliness either fight or kill Saul, David had no other option but to flee.  And that brings unity, of a sort, to God’s people.  In this, David reflects the mind of Christ, who prayed that His people may be one, as He and the Father are one (John 17:21).  A true King, such as David, always seeks the peace of God’s people, even at great personal sacrifice.  In this, David demonstrates the wisdom that is from above, reaping a harvest of righteousness and peace by his flight (James 3:13-18).

2) David repossesses part of the Promised Land without any bloodshed.  The narrator reveals this remarkable fact in I Samuel 27: 6: “So Achish gave (David) Ziklag that day; therefore Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day.”  David wanted to live away from the Philistine regional capital of Gath in order to remain elusive, as we will see below.  But as a practical result, he ends up annexing part of Philistia back for Israel.  So the Kingdom of God (which at this era of redemptive history maintained actual borders) expands into Philistia, all without any blood being shed.  This is part of David’s deceptive strategy to do what he could to defeat the Philistines even though he had only six hundred men at his command.  It also is a foreshadow and type of Christ who now expands His Kingdom throughout the world through the ministry of the Church, all without bloodshed, a Kingdom of grace without earthly borders (cf., Matthew 28:18-20).

3) David continues to fight Israel’s Holy War as their King in exile.  In I Samuel 27:8ff, we read of David’s raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amelekites.  We do not know much about the first two groups, other than that the text tells us that they “were inhabitants of the land from ancient times.”  But we know that the Amelekites were to be the subjects of Israel’s holy war, and were to have been wiped out in the initial conquest.   This is not the place to go into the details and propriety of holy war in the Old Testament, but David appears to be engaging in a form of it.  He does indeed take plunder, which is forbidden in holy war, cf., Deuteronomy 20, but he appears to do so in order to trick Achish into thinking that David’s raids were actually against the people of Israel.

What then of David’s lying to Achish?  In my judgment, this is a lawful use of wartime deception, a way to remain within Philistia while yet carrying out his duties as Israel’s king.  There is no clear parallel today since the Church is never to use the sword, but a rough equivalent may be the propriety of a German Christian lying to local Nazi officials about Jews hidden in her basement.

The point is that David is continuing to act as Israel’s true king by defending them, even in exile.  Most kings who go into exile do so in great luxury, and only to protect their own hides.  Not so David.  David continues to risk his life by conducting a holy war against the original inhabitants of the Promised Land.  These are hardly the actions of a rebel or backslider, but of a man devoted to his God, in season and out of season.

4) David evangelizes the Philistines.  This may be one of the most unexpected results, and yet one clearly hinted at in the text.  In I Samuel 29:6, while defending David against the (probably accurate) fears of the other Philistine lords, Achish says to David: “As the LORD (Yahweh) lives, you have been upright, and your going out and your coming in with me in the army are pleasing in my sight.”  Commentators consider it significant that Achish the Philistine uses the covenantal name of God, though most think he retains his polytheism in doing so.  (He is after all, on his way to attack Israel.)  Nonetheless, David’s venture into Philistia made the name of God known in pagan lands.

Likewise, Achish’s wording is striking when he describes David as “an angel of God” to him in verse 9.  Achish describes David as bringing him a message from God.  Whether successful or not, and notwithstanding the fact that Jew and Philistine were still primarily enemies, here we have a brief foreshadow of the gospel going to all nations.  After all, it is in the Old Testament in which we read that “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved” (Joel 2:32).  Jonah was sent to Ninevah, Israel’s greatest enemy at that time.  Why shouldn’t David proclaim God’s mercy to the Philistines, even as he recognizes that he must in part deceive them as Israel’s earthly enemies?  It is a complicated situation to be sure, but Achish’s wording in I Samuel 29 is intriguing to say the least.  One result from David’s flight is that Yahweh’s name is proclaimed among the Gentiles.

5) David plans to wreak havoc in the Philistine rear as they march against Israel.  It seems clear that David intended to do just what the Philistine lords feared – to stab them in the back in the middle of battle against Israel.  Such feats are not unknown in history, such as what occurred at the Battle of Leipzig when many of Napoleon’s German allies changed sides in the middle of battle, joining the multi-national army arrayed against him.

There appear to be three main reasons to think this was David’s plan.  First, the Philistine lords clearly state that is what they believe will happen.  Second, the inconceivable idea that David would actually fight with the Philistines against Israel, whose king he is.  Third, David gives ambiguous and almost humorous answers to Achish concerning his plans.  In 28:2, David merely says to Achish, “You will see what your servant can do.”   In 29:8, David says, “May I not go fight against the enemies of my lord the king?,” without ever specifying exactly who his lord and king were.

For all these reasons, I am convinced that David intended to attempt the dangerous tactic of handing victory to Israel by turning against the Philistines in the middle of the battle, and then somehow from there escaping Saul’s clutch after victory was attained.  If that seems unlikely, keep in mind that David had been walking this kind of razor’s edge for years as Israel’s inaugurated but not yet consummated king. In any case, the text tells us that in God’s providence, David is spared such a dangerous tactic, because the Philistines refuse to bring him along.

And then we know the rest of the story.  It is this battle that brings about the end of Saul’s life and reign.  God’s time for Saul’s end and David’s ascension had finally come.  And so the lessons for us are indeed to trust God’s providential care in times of plenty and in times of want.  To serve Him in season and out of season.  To seek the peace of Jerusalem, God’s people.  And to do our small part to see God’s Kingdom spread to all peoples, even our enemies.   I find this to be a far more satisfying, encouraging and faithful reading of I Samuel 27 and 29 than the more common approach to this text.   David is an example of faith, and a type of Christ, our ultimate King in exile.

This article was first published on the Aquila Report and is based on a sermon I preached on June 21, 2015.



David’s escape to Philistia in I Samuel 27 & 29 is one of the more perplexing episodes in David’s life. We can certainly understand his desperation as Saul continues to pursue David despite his having spared Saul’s life twice. But surely, we think, David had no cause to flee to Philistia, or worse, to serve these sworn enemies of Israel, going so far as to line up in the Philistine order of battle on the way to attack Israel (I Samuel 28:1-2; 29:1-2).

Indeed, the majority report is that these sixteen months in Philistia mark a grave backsliding on the part of David, a low point in his walk of faith. The general idea is that David is a flawed hero, and the Bible honestly reports his failures as well as his triumphs.  This then is considered one of his great failures. The fact that the Bible honestly records the sins of its greatest heroes is certainly true. The question is whether the episode in I Samuel 27 and 29 constitutes one of these failures.  In the contemporary Reformed world at least, it appears to be beyond question.  Take, for example, this list of sermon titles on I Samuel 27 found on mongergism.org (some preached by heroes of mine):

If this majority report is correct, then the lessons for us are obvious: namely, don’t backslide. Trust God to protect you and do not resort to your own wisdom.  Don’t lie for selfish and fearful reasons. Well, obviously, these are all excellent admonitions.  The question is whether they can be found in this text.

Rather, I argue for a minority report:  that David was doing what he could to serve God in desperate circumstances.  And in doing so, he continues to act as a type of Christ.  In this story then, David is the king in exile with nowhere to lay his head.  He is an alien king, a stranger to his own land – one already inaugurated as king, but whose kingship is not yet fully consummated.  In this, he models the ministry of Christ, who also lived among us as an alien and exile, rejected by His own, and received by Gentiles.

Of course, this is not to argue that David was sinless in these chapters.  But it does argue that we should read this text in a different way than as a warning against backsliding.  Instead, I believe that it serves more as a positive example for us of man exercising faith in desperate times, and a pointer to great David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I believe this minority reading of the text is correct for at least five reasons.  Perhaps no one of these reasons is sufficient of itself to overturn the majority report, but taken together, I think they make a strong case that David was faithfully serving God throughout his time in Philistia.  Here then are five reasons for this minority viewpoint:

1) The literary structure of I Samuel 21-29. There appears to be a clear structure to chapters 21-29 consisting of three literary triads, lining up approximately as follows:

21           David flees to the Philistines and tricks them
22           Saul sins by slaughtering the priests
23           David “rescued” by the Philistines who attack Saul

24           David spares Saul’s life
25           Abigail spares David from sinning
26           David spares Saul’s life

27           David flees to the Philistines and tricks them
28           Saul sins by consulting a medium
29           David “rescued” by the Philistines who attack Saul

At the very least, it is remarkable that David twice flees to the Philistines and tricks them both times.  This is followed by the Philistines attacking Saul, which in effect serves to rescue David from Saul both times.  Even more remarkable is how both of these episodes are interrupted by chapters 22 and 28, each describing Saul’s great sins and forfeiture of his kingly duty.  In this, it is important to note that chapter 28 is out of chronological order, which does not occur until the night before Saul’s death.  The author of I Samuel deliberately interrupts David’s story with this example of Saul’s faithlessness as king.

The purpose of this structure then appears obvious:  to provide a contrast between Saul, the faithless king, and David, Israel’s true king since I Samuel 16. This is reinforced by the middle segment, chapters 24-26. This section serves as the climax of this period in David’s life, his great training to be a king of mercy through the sparing of Saul’s life, not once, but twice.  But note that in between these two tests David passes so handily, he at first fails another similar test.  In chapter 25, David is offended by a man named Nabal, and responds by strapping on his sword with the intent of killing him and every man in his household.  David is becoming a tyrant like Saul, who just a few chapters earlier slaughtered the priests at Nob.

The difference is that God spoke to David through Abigail the Wise, and David listened to her in great humility and repentance.  And so in the end, David passes this test as well and thus becomes a king of mercy rather than of vengeance.  This is the great climax of David’s training as king in I Samuel.  It would seem strange then that the second trip to Philistia amounts to a backsliding of faith, given the parallel to the earlier account in chapters 21-23.  Is it spiritually possible?  Yes.  But I think the structure, along with the following arguments, suggests otherwise.  The author is contrasting David with Saul in chapters 27-29, not comparing them as equally backslidden.

2) Psalm 56 may have been written during this episode.  This is probably the weakest of the arguments, but still helps to set the tone of this period in David’s life.  The title to Psalm 56 reads in part: A Mikhtam of David when the Philistines seized him in Gath.  Now, this may well have occurred in David’s first venture in Philistia recorded in I Samuel 21.  He is not actually seized in either account, so the word here may mean he was there against his will, forced there by Saul’s relentless pursuit.  But if the argument about I Samuel’s structure above is correct, then both accounts serve as parallels with each other, describing David’s desperate plight.  And both Psalm 56 and Psalm 34 bear this out.  They are the poems of a man in distress, not a man cunning against his own people and surrendered to worldliness.

3) The text nowhere describes David’s actions as sinful.  This may be the most compelling argument.  It is true that narrative portions of Scripture do not always point out the obvious and that some sins speak for themselves.  But is that the case here?

It is not as though the author of I and II Samuel is hesitant to point out David’s sins.  In fact, David himself is not shy about confessing them!  Just read Psalm 32 or 51.  In I Samuel David has already admitted at least two great sins.  One instance is in chapter 25 as mentioned above, when he was too ready to use the sword.  The other is his failure to use the sword to protect the priests at Nob from Saul’s slaughter (I Samuel 22:22).  And of course, there is the great sin with Bathsheba of II Samuel 11-12. In all these cases, once confronted with his failure, David quickly repents and admits his sins.

But nowhere does David or the narrator indicate that what David did in Philistia was wrong.  And since he is arguably the ultimate type of Christ in the Old Testament, David should be given the benefit of the doubt as a man after God’s own heart (I Samuel 13:14), unless the text indicates otherwise.

4) It would undermine David’s quest to be recognized as king.  Practically, if David did indeed plan to betray Israel, it is hard to imagine how he ever would ascend to the throne in Jerusalem.  Imagine if Benedict Arnold returned from England to run against George Washington for president in 1792.  It is unthinkable. So then, how could David win Israel over if in fact he became known as a traitor? No, David’s actions show what his true motives were, as we will see below.

5) Most importantly, the results of David’s venture reveal his true motives.  Here we come to the heart of the argument.  If David was faithfully following the LORD as best he could in this period of his life, one would expect to see good fruit.  And that is exactly what the text goes out of its way to describe.  Thus, a natural reading of this text should tell us that these good results are most likely a confirmation of David’s essentially good motives in his flight to Philistia.  Of course, it is possible these good results come about despite David’s motives (cf., Romans 8:28) but in that case, one would expect the narrator to explain that clearly, as Joseph does in Genesis 50:20, for instance.

What are the results of David’s flight that appear to reveal his true motives?  At least five surface in the text.  We will take those up in Part II.

This article was first published on The Aquila Report and is based on a sermon I preached  on June 21, 2015.



This is a true story that happened to me in seminary.  Names have been changed.  I am Allan.  Ross has since gone on to be with his Lord. 


Allan, Abe and Ross sat around the kitchen table, drinking macro-biotic tea. Pots, pans and utensils hung from the ceiling and off every wall. The shelves were packed full of books, magazines, newspaper clippings from the past twenty years, and of course, games. Allan and Abe had their Bibles open, but Ross looked down at the table, his hand over his eyes. He wasn’t used to this — being confronted in his own home about the state of his faith. He mumbled something or other trying to express — no, trying to figure out — what he believed. Allan responded by reading something from his Bible, and then began to explain it. Suddenly, Ross looked up in anguish and shouted at Allan, “It’s all very good for you to have your nice, neat seminary answers, but they’re not doing me any good! Life’s not that simple! And another thing — Abe doesn’t know this — but you’re part of the reason I went into my depression! Remember? You took Greece without asking! And that set it all off!”

Allan had come to seminary at age 25 after spending three years in the Army. Immediately, he and his wife got involved in a local evangelical church made up primarily of lower-middle class, but well educated families. Allan remembered well the first time he met Ross. It was at the Saturday morning men’s prayer group, which met in the church kitchen. During the discussion, the issue of predestination vs. free will came up, and just when everybody had concluded that it was an inscrutable mystery (at least in the presence of so many donuts to be eaten), Allan announced in a mock-triumphant voice that he had the solution (which he in fact did). Never the coffer drinker, Ross looked up from his cup of macro-biotic tea, and spouted in reply, “So now what? We’re all supposed to bow down and worship you?”

Over the next couple of years, Allan got to know Ross better. Ross was a 62-year-old bundle of enigmas. Always struggling to make ends meet, he nevertheless had an extraordinarily sharp mind and a rich education, so that one could always expect Ross to quote Sartre or Ghandi or someone as he came or went from church activities. He had come to Christ through the ministry of the church ten years before Allan met him. Before that, he had led an adventurous life, starting Montessori schools in Afghanistan and Hong Kong, before returning to the states to run one out of his home. Ross was always aware of world events, and greatly burdened by the injustices and evils he saw in both American and other societies. Consequently, Ross served on the church missions committee, and threw himself into a number of other church activities as well. He was an unbridled optimist, and often came up with grand plans which never in the least materialized, both for himself and for the world. Ross also had diabetes, but was staunchly opposed to modern medicine, committing himself to a strictly macro-biotic diet in lieu of insulin.

Over time, Allan and Ross developed an unexpected friendship. Ross had served in Korea and also had a son in the Army, so they held this in common. Allan also enjoyed listening to Ross’s stories and views on things around the world. They were both avid BBC listeners. Allan was also impressed with the excellent job Ross seemed to do in home schooling his 13-year-old daughter, Ria, whom Allan knew from Junior High Sunday School, which he co-taught with his wife. Ria was the only junior higher Allan had ever known to use the phrase per se on a regular basis, and besides that, was a remarkably sweet girl. Ross’ wife, Greta, however, was not particularly sweet nor particularly a believer, and this was a constant source of pain for Ross, which he frequently brought up for prayer at the Saturday men’s group. One Saturday, Ross needed a ride home, so Allan volunteered. That was when he got the tour.

Ross’s home served in many ways as a metaphor for his life. Set back from the road, it was situated upon a slight, rocky hill surrounded by woods. A rusty yellow sign in the driveway warned “Slow! Children,” a left-over Allan supposed from the Montessori days. In the wooden three-car garage lay several shells of old car bodies, all half worked-on, half dilapidated. Two big, shabby dogs of some breed or more charged in welcome, their barks and tongues dangling in the wind. Ross pointed to a wooden structure attached to one end of the house that looked like a washed out bridge. It was once the walkway, he said, by which the school children would get from their classroom to the playground, now little more than a mass of mud. Ross and his wife, Greta, had turned the classroom into an apartment, but since no one was presently occupying it, Ross was able to show Allan around. Allan could see the gleams of pride in Ross’ eyes as he began to explain how they used to run the school, and their theories of integrated, holistic education. Rows of dusty trophies lined one hallway in silent homage to days gone by.

Ross brought Allan into another room, this one dominated by a huge pool table right in the middle. Boxes of board games filled the shelves, as well as the entire pool table. On one wall hung a lopsided “Go with Perot!” sign. Underneath it stood a table bearing a TRS-80 computer, which looked to be still in use. Ross began to tell Allan how this room was once used for the church youth group, but for some reason they decided to stop meeting at his house. Ross hoped instead to organize a young mothers group from church who would come and meet in his home. Allan looked around and nodded. Other rooms followed. Each had their own histories, their own artifacts, and more likely than not, their own roof leaks. Half the floor of one bedroom was a literal rock protruding above whatever was acting as the foundation.

The tour was concluded with an outdoor spiral-staircase climb to the second floor, a one-room “Spiritual Command Center,” which Ross had built with a bank loan that was supposed to go to fixing the roof. Allan supposed that Ross figured that another roof to leak through would at least slow the water down. The Spiritual Command Center was Ross’s place to get away, to organize his life and his dreams. It was equipped with several brimming map cabinets, scores of magazine stacks, and two fully functional eight-track tape players.

As the months wore on, Allan became more aware of a need in Ross’ family. Ross’ eldest son, Chad, was 27 years old and still living at home without a job. Chad had joined the Army, but unlike his younger brother, had not done well, and was in fact drummed out for laziness. Although, like his father, Chad had an exceptional mind, he had an extremely poor self-image and no ambition to seek a calling. At the same time, Chad professed a strong Christian faith and always made it to worship on Sunday. However, the young adult group at the church had disbanded, and Chad had no one in his life to challenge or disciple him. The only thing Chad had a mind for was board games, the complex political and military kind. Since Allan also enjoyed these, and had not been able to play them since high school, he thought it might be a good idea to use that as a link to begin discipling Chad. That autumn, Allan suggested that they set up some kind of “game night” on which they could both get together to first study the Bible some, and then play a board game or two. Chad was very enthusiastic about the idea, and even invited several friends to attend.

Every Friday night, Allan would go over to Ross’s and Chad’s house to study the Bible, pray some, and then engage in cardboard warfare. Often several people participated, including Ross and his daughter, Ria. At first, things went very well: Allan was getting to know the family better; Chad was open to change in his life; and everyone seemed to have a good time. However, Allan began to notice a change in Ross’ demeanor. As the winter got closer and closer, Ross’ mood got more and more dreary, and he seemed to Allan to be particularly burdened and tired. The house seemed to be getting dingier and dingier as well, but maybe that was just the fading autumn sun, Allan rationalized to himself.

The group began a new game called Diplomacy, which was supposed to reenact the political maneuverings in Europe which led to the First World War. The group decided that they would take only one turn each Friday, so that the whole week was available for negotiations with other players in accord with the game’s name. Ross was hoping to use the game to teach Ria about World War I, and when it happened that Ross ended up playing Germany and Ria ended up playing Austria-Hungary, Ross got a bright idea. He approached Allan, who happened to be playing Turkey, to form the historical Triple Alliance between these three empires that truly existed in 1914. It sounded interesting to Allan, so he agreed to give it a try, at least for as long it was to his advantage. After all, history is one thing; winning is another.

Meanwhile, Ross began showing up at worship and other church activities less and less. He seemed to be heading into a real slump and nothing could seem to stop it. Ross confided to Allan that at times he got so discouraged, he would just drive off to some cafe, and sit there all day and eat fish and chips and beer, food he knew was terrible for his diabetic condition. In addition, Allan had joined the missions committee that December, and learned that Ross had volunteered to head up the Angel Tree project that year, but had not yet done a thing about it. Eventually, someone else on the committee had to wing it at the last moment.

Strangely, the only thing that seemed to keep Ross going were the Friday game nights, as they learned how his historical rewrite would go each week as the Diplomacy game unfolded. At first, things for the Triple Alliance went very well. A surprise attack on Russia left that player reeling, and joint advances into the Balkans went unchallenged. But as the weeks wore on, things began to go sour. England hooked up with Russia in the north and was harassing Ross’ Germany. Italy was not cooperating at all, and France’s vacillation was just plain embarrassing to all involved. Finally, Allan had enough and decided that Turkey’s greater future lay somewhere else than the faltering Triple Alliance. So he opened channels with Russia, and decided to launch a sneak attack on Austria-Hungary, played by his Sunday School student, Ria. Allan’s first target would be Greece, left undefended by a trusting Ria. When the cardboard dust settled, and it dawned on Ross that his former ally, Allan, had betrayed him at the expense of his daughter, he did not get angry. Instead, he mumbled something and walked away.

Ross lost all interest in the game, and at the same time, he lost all interest in life. With Germany inactive, none of the rest wanted to play, and so while Italy was busy claiming victory by default, the rest of the Friday night game group faded away, almost as if it were a metaphor for Ross himself. And winter set in. And the days were short and cold; the nights windy and wet. And Christmas came and went, as usual never quite delivering the cheer that it promises. And winter went on. And Ross was not to be seen in church or city.

Of course, this concerned Allan, and so during the next several months, he phoned Ross to see how he was doing. When he could get Ross to the phone, all he could procure in return were half-hearted non-answers. “Fine. OK. I don’t much feel like it, that’s why. OK. Bye.” Allan talked to several of the church elders about the situation, and they were all concerned but didn’t know what they could do. Some suggested going over there and repairing his leaky roof, but others pointed out that a lack of labor was not the fundamental problem. Still others pointed out that Ross had been depressed before, and that he had always snapped out of it sooner or later. But he’d never been like this, others said. But one thing they all agreed to do was pray for Ross, and they prayed a lot.

Finally, in April, Allan approached the pastor about the situation, who was likewise concerned about Ross. He had in fact visited him two weeks previously, and simply told him that he was missed and welcome back anytime. The pastor also told Allan that there wasn’t really anything Allan could tell Ross that he didn’t already know, and that the best thing he could do for him was pray.

The next month Allan once again called Ross to see if he wanted a ride to the missions meeting. He had been asking for months, and he didn’t expect this time would be any different, but to his surprise, Ross said he would go. Allan wasn’t quite sure about what he thought of using the missions meeting as a seeker service, but at this point, he would take any opening he could get. In the car, he asked Ross many different questions, all pertaining to his well-being, but Ross was an expert at talking about every other important thing except his own spiritual health. Some people avoid the real issues in their life with a barrage of small talk; Ross did it with big talk. Finally, after hearing more than he could bear about the rest of the world’s problems, Allan blurted out, “But Ross, how about you? How is your relationship with Jesus?”

Ross looked down, rubbed his hands across his face, and murmured, “I’m beginning to wonder if I’m really one of the elect…. you see, God gives us tests that the elect are supposed to pass, right? I failed. I failed my test. Last fall, so many things fell apart…. Chad was still living at home without a job…. important parts of Ria’s home schooling fell through…. my wife still wouldn’t come to church with us…. and I was supposed to persevere and make all this work, so that we could have a strong Christian home… but I failed. So I must not be one of the elect.” Allan was somewhat shocked by the logic, but relieved that they were finally talking about the spiritual issues in Ross’s life. He offered some thoughts and some scripture as counsel to Ross, but soon they were at the home where the meeting was being held. On the trip home, Ross retreated to his refuge of big talk.

The next day, Allan spoke to the associate pastor, Abe, about what Ross had told him. Abe was very alarmed, and agreed with Allan that much more than just Ross’ moods were at stake, but possibly his very salvation. Abe suggested that Allan call Ross and arrange a time when both of them could come by for a very intentional visit to talk about these things. Ross agreed for a time in the morning two days later.

Abe and Allan trudged past the cars and the dogs and entered into Ross’ kitchen. They took seats around the table, while Ross fixed macro-biotic tea. When he sat down, Abe and Allan got right to the point. They wanted to know why Ross felt and believed as he did. Ross began to tell them, but he didn’t know himself. Like William Graham Sumner, he never deliberately discarded his beliefs, he just stuck them in a drawer for awhile, and when he went to fetch them, he found that they were gone. He could not outline in a reasoned fashion how he entered into his depression. All he knew was that he was tired, and tired of thinking. Ross told them how, during the winter, he would sit in the dark for hours at a time, doing nothing but thinking. And he was tired of trying to figure out how it all worked.

Ross told them also of his past, how he had been involved in mainstream denominations for much of his life, and how much he appreciated their genuine concern for the oppressed of the world. He told them about how important it is to have strong morals in the household and in society. Ross told them about his decision to come back to church ten years ago, and how he hoped it would lead to a strong and peaceful home life. He related his disappointment that after ten years, things had not worked out that way. He told them how he could not understand why God has not gotten Greta to go to church yet, so that the family could be united. And he reiterated his own sense of failure, how he had let God down in his role of husband and father. So he didn’t see any point in going on with church.

Abe and Allan began to answer Ross with scripture, trying to provide him with answers to some of the questions he asked. Allan was beginning a small discourse on Romans when Ross looked up from his macro-biotic tea with a look Allan had not seen since that first Saturday morning men’s group two years before. And, like a discarded scrap of meat gone bad — forgotten about until it begins to smell — the Greece issue was back on the table, and Ross looked accusingly at Allan. Now what should Allan say?


And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing (Mark 12:42)

A few years back, my friend, Ken Pierce, and I were asked to speak at a small conference at Christ Presbyterian Church in Katy, Texas, pastored by another dear friend, Fred Greco, who invited us.  The subject of the conference was the role of the Church in engaging culture.  Ken is a capable scholar and follower of Abraham Kuyper, who famously advocated Christ’s lordship over every square inch of creation, the so called “transformationalist” approach to the question.  I tend towards the “two kingdom” approach which emphasizes the church’s primary responsibility to “gather and perfect the saints” (Westminster Confession 25.3), awaiting our final hope in heaven as pilgrims and aliens here.

We entitled the conference, “Transformers vs. Aliens.”  So who won?  Well, I think both sides did.  By the end of the weekend, we all realized that we were closer to one another than we first thought.  Of course, I affirmed a Christian’s responsibility to be salt and light in this world.  And, of course, Ken affirmed that the Church’s primary responsibility is to preach the substitutionary atonement of Christ for the salvation of souls.  Disagreements remained, but they were far less than the unity we had in Christ and our common adherence to the Reformed faith.

But not all have been able to bridge the divide this way.  For some reason, the issue of how the Church is to relate to culture evokes stronger opinions and emotions than almost any other subject we are now discussing across the Reformed church.  Deep divisions, disagreements, and misunderstandings on both sides appear to remain.

Personally, I think the discussion needs to continue as some of the disagreements are real and fairly major.  They greatly affect what is preached and emphasized from our pulpits.  But there is one area where I think we might find some common agreement – a truce if you will, on at least one front of this little war.  But such a truce will require that we unite together in common cause against a greater enemy.  Let me try to explain.

A few months back I was listening to a sermon by someone clearly on the transformationalist side of the question and his concerns struck me in a new way.  He was bemoaning the pressure that some young Christians feel to go into full time gospel ministry in order for their lives to be meaningful.  I did not find his solution convincing, which in my view was an unhelpful conflation of the secular and the sacred, of creation and redemption (which begs the whole question).  But what I certainly agreed with was that the undervaluing of worthy secular callings is a gross violation of Christian freedom.  Secular callings are from God just as much as calls to the Gospel ministry.  They are worthy simply because they serve society and help people, period.

And so we must reject this kind of “evangelical” legalism which causes plumbers and painters and police officers to doubt their value and worth simply because they are not vocationally involved in teaching God’s Word.  And certainly, this kind of legalism is more likely to be found in churches with a “two kingdom” mindset than those more actively concerned with transforming culture.  It stands to reason.  But it does not stand to reason that every “two kingdom” church violates Christian freedom in such a way.  There is another approach.

Because here is the thing.  This same sort of legalism can be found in transformationalist circles as well.  What do I mean?  I mean that if one defines the Gospel as more than just saving souls, but as including the redemption of all of culture in this era, then our work in this world better be really, really good and influential, or we are just not doing much for the kingdom.  In the same way, Christians in two kingdom circles can be made to feel they are unworthy if they don’t go into full time ministry, so Christians in transformationalist circles can be made to feel unworthy if their work is anything less than excellent and making real changes in their field.

You can see how this works, can’t you?  I have met artists, engineers and others who have been part of such Christian circles who have felt a constant pressure to live up to some culture-impacting standard which they just could not reach.  They were too busy trying to pass their classes, and love their wives, and not be too grumpy when their kids kept them up all night.  And so they too feel a pressure to be something other than they are; and if they don’t, made to feel that they are not doing their part to advance God’s kingdom in this world.

But it does not have to be this way either.  There is another approach.  Both my daughters are likely to enter the arts.  One is pursuing graduate studies in collaborative piano, while the other is a budding young photographer with her own small business.  What am I to tell them?  Well, it is certainly not that they need to go into campus ministry or marry a youth pastor; or only play “Christian” music or take “Christian” photos if their lives are to have worth.  But nor am I to tell them that must have great impact upon their fields, for fear of failing to be part of God’s great redemptive work in this world.  Either of those expectations would be a form of legalism.

No, I am to tell them to enjoy their lives; and whatever their hand finds to do, to do it with all their heart (Ecclesiastes 9:10).  I will tell them to live quietly, to mind their own affairs and to work with their hands (I Thessalonians 4:11). I will tell them to love God and neighbor, to remember the Ten Commandments, and to seek the fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above (Galatians 5:22-23; James 3:13ff).  And in terms of evangelism, I will tell them to walk in wisdom toward outsiders; and for their speech to always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that they may know how to answer each person (Colossians 4:5-6; cf. I Peter 3:15).  And in terms of the culture, they are to pursue the welfare of the city in which they dwell, just because that is part of what it means to love their neighbor, all the while knowing that those cities are not ends unto themselves (cf. Jeremiah 29:7; cf. Hebrews 13:14).

That is what God requires of them and nothing more.  They are to walk in the good works which God has prepared for them and no others, no matter what preacher tells them otherwise (Ephesians 2:10).

And so here is the truce that I propose: that we may remember the Widow’s mite.  That we realize that somehow, in God’s economy, those two mites were worth more than the abundance which the wealthy contributed:

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.  And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:42-47).

Now, how is this possible?   Instinctively, we realize that Jesus is talking about spiritual truths, that man looks at outward appearances, but God looks at the heart.  But concretely, surely the wealthier contributions did more practical good.  How could they not?  Unless.  Unless, somehow in God’s economy, He was able to multiply those two copper coins into something far greater, even as He once did with five loaves and two fish.  That somehow, great wealth can build ministries and visible structures that look like they are doing great good, but actually are not.  And that a small offering, but given with great love and prayer, will somehow do far more in the end.

And if we can come to see that – by faith, since eyes will avail not here – then do you see what that does to both sides of this debate?  It causes us to, well, give our people a break. To give them grace.  To stop putting pressure on them to produce as if God or the Kingdom somehow needed them.  It allows us to remind them of their justification; that God has already approved of them through Christ, and granted them peace (Romans 5:1).  Oh, their work may suck eggs at times.  Their evangelistic skills may be utterly lacking.  But God loves them anyway.  They will never be failures in his sight, no matter what they do or don’t do for the Church or for society.   He looks at them and He sees His perfect Son.

That is the truce that I propose.  That all sides preach Grace, Grace, Grace.  That we take our boots off the necks of our people, and stop pressuring them to join the armies of whatever our particular cause may be.  That we not replace legalistic missionary pressure with transformationalist legalistic pressure, or vice versa.  And that we not allow the pressing need for ongoing sanctification to obscure the blessed peace which justification brings.   (Of course, this can be true only if we maintain a clear distinction between the two, but that is for another essay.)

But you see what this must mean?   If two-kingdomers and transformationalists are to unite on the side of Grace, then we must make common cause against the subtle legalisms of our own sides. We must declare war against all religions of works, including those found within our own churches and our own hearts.

Then if we do that, our discussions and debates can themselves be held with more grace because neither side will be conflating our churchly or social agendas into the Gospel itself.  We will remember that God justifies by faith alone in Christ alone and not by what we bring to the table.  So we are free to get some of these matters about culture wrong, and yet still be justified; still loved of God.  My peace with God does not depend upon me getting my politics or cultural responsibilities just right.  Nor does it depend on my devotion to ministry.

I must give Christ all my heart as He enables, but it still does not feel like very much, like it will make much difference in this world.  But perhaps my two mites are all that I can muster, and all that God asks for.  What grace to remember such a thing.  And so if that is true for me, so it is for all to whom I minister.  If they have trusted in Christ, they are saved no matter what vocation they pursue or how well they pursue it.  What they need is not more law – whatever form that may take – but more Christ and His free grace.  Let’s call this truce, and see what happens.

First published on The Aquila Report on December 24, 2013.


Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  ~ Philippians 2:12-13

There has been quite the dustup recently in the Reformed world over the doctrine of sanctification. To over simplify things, some are saying that our sanctification primarily comes from remembering our justification, while others want a more rigorous attention to the effort we must contribute. I have no ambition to provide a comprehensive answer that will settle the dispute, but there is one often-neglected paragraph in the Westminster Confession of Faith that I believe can provide some peace to both sides, and thus settle at least some of the dust.

But first, we should not be surprised that there is considerable debate about sanctification among the Reformed. After all, the only remarkable thing about the Reformed doctrine of sanctification is that there is nothing remarkable about it. We are the ones who reject any sort of “golden key” solution to the problem. Other traditions offer a “second experience of grace,” the sacraments, or some one doctrine as offering the ultimate solve-all to the problem of ongoing sin in the Christian’s life. But the Reformed say we need all of the above, and even more. We are precisely in the already/not yet stage of our salvation, and so it must be messy – how could it not? We are already perfect – justified by simple faith in Christ (Romans 4:5); and at the same time not yet perfect – glorification still awaits us (Romans 8:23).

So of course we have discussions and debates about what this messy stage of sanctification looks like. And it may look different from Christian to Christian. A word in season to one believer may be a crushing discouragement to another. That is why we need wisdom – and even more, love for one another, that we might know how to speak in order to build up as each case requires (Ephesians 4:29; II Timothy 4:2).

But in all this, I believe that our forefathers wrestled through this problem well and produced a very helpful paragraph that is not as well known or used as I think it might be in these discussions. And that is Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2, from the chapter on Saving Faith, found just after the chapter on sanctification:

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

Now to place this section in context, this chapter on saving faith follows the chapters on justification, adoption and sanctification – the three main benefits of redemption in this life (WSC 32).  And so this chapter is written to ensure that we see salvation as full orbed.  True saving faith is more than just a one-time decision to receive Christ, but is a life long and growing faith (cf. I Thessalonians 2:13 and I Peter 1:2, in which we are said to be “saved” by sanctification, which I take to be more than definitive, positional sanctification).

So WCF 14 begins with the reminder that saving faith is the work of the Spirit in our hearts “ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word,” and only then increased and strengthened by all three means of grace – Word, sacraments and prayer. This reminds us of the priority of the Word in Reformed ministry.  The spoken promise of the Gospel is where we must begin all ministry, to believer and unbeliever alike.  Sacraments and prayer assist this ministry, but nothing avails anyone unless they first passively receive the Word – not as actors but as those acted upon.  Justifying faith is always and only passive as the Larger Catechism makes clear (WLC 72). If we lose this we lose any hope of providing a sure and certain assurance of salvation.

But then, unless we think that the Christian life is an entirely passive affair, the divines give us 14.2, as quoted above.  This paragraph reminds us that following on our justification, the Christian life involves life-long repentance and obedience and even trembling.  Every passage of the Bible must be believed and – once properly understood – applied.  The Christian life involves action.  It is Philippians 2:12b, straight up:  work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

So is that it?  Does that settle the debate?  The “effort” side wins?  It is almost as if the divines anticipated our present day dispute. Which, of course they did, since it was a dispute in their day as well (cf. The Rise of Moralism by C. Fitzsimons Allison). And so they went on to write this important sentence:

But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

The authors remind us that even though the Christian life must involve action, that which is principal is still passive – accepting, receiving and resting upon Christ alone.  And note that this is not just for justification, but for sanctification as well.  So the divines state that the principal acts of sanctification involve resting on Christ, not our own actions!  And so now, it is Philippians 2:13:  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Now, I am not sure what that always looks like in any given situation.  We have all known people who “try too hard” to live the Christian life and just end up making themselves and everyone around them burdened and depressed.  I would suspect that most of us have been that person at some time in our lives.  And so our word to them must be to rest.  To remember their justification.  To somehow depend upon Christ for the strength to be more holy.  To slow down and relax a little.  To enjoy their life and remember that in Christ, God has already approved their works and they should not try to be more than they are (Ecclesiastes 9:7; Colossians 2:8-23).

But we have also all known believers who take their salvation for granted and seemingly have little interest in increasing their faith and repentance.  They need to be reminded of the first part of this paragraph; that if they have true saving faith, then they will respond to the Word with particular repentance, change and action, as various passages of the Bible are learned and understood.  This is why pastors and elders must be involved in their parishioners’ lives so that the general Word in sermons may be specifically applied to individual situations through discipleship, with gentleness and patience (cf. Philippians 3:15; II Timothy 2:24-25).

And so this section of the Westminster Confession provides important guidance and balance to these discussions.  To the “rest” side, it reminds us that the Christian life involves effort – God empowered effort, but effort nonetheless.  And effort that at times even trembles at the threatenings of God’s Word.  To the “effort” side, it reminds us that we must not make principal what God’s Word does not – that the principal acts of sanctification remain accepting, receiving and resting on Christ alone, and never our own efforts.

Now no ministry ever gets this balance perfectly and so we must be careful not to pick and pull at each violation lest we devour one another (cf. Galatians 5:15). But if, as a whole, a Reformed ministry does not remind its people that their sanctification involves ongoing repentance, change and trembling, then it fails its own confession at that point.  Believing the Gospel leads to concrete application (cf. Romans 12:1ff; Ephesians 4:1ff).

And likewise, if a Reformed ministry fails to emphasize resting in Christ for sanctification, then it too falls short of the Confession.  I have heard many preachers and conference speakers who have done just that.  I have left such talks wishing that the speaker had first meditated upon WCF 14.2 before burdening their hearers with so many strong, specific and fleshly exhortations.  They had reversed the Confessional order, making effort principal, rather than rest.

So I believe that there is enough in Westminster Confession 14.2 to satisfy and challenge both sides of the discussion. And if heeded, that some of the dust of this debate may peaceably settle, with all sides better able to listen well and balance out what may be imbalanced in their own ministries, rather than everyone else’s.

First published on The Aquila Report on December 22, 2013.

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“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.~ I Timothy 4:6

Should a Christian minister have a conservative or a progressive mindset?  In asking this question, I am not speaking of his politics, or even his view towards doctrinal orthodoxy.  I am assuming in this essay that we are speaking of Christian ministers who seek to be true to the Scriptures and to the historic Christian faith.

Rather, I am talking about his general mindset.  We have all been to ecclesiastical meetings where men quickly show themselves to be one or the other.  At elders’ meetings, or ministerial associations or in presbyteries, certain men can show themselves either to be adamantly conservative about everything, or as those who constantly want to push the envelope and try things a different way.

So is there an answer to the question?  Should ministers, in general, be either conservative or progressive in the way they view their work in the world?   I suggest that Paul provides an answer to this question in his pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus.  In particular, I believe we find help in I Timothy 4:6-16, as Paul exhorts Timothy to be a faithful minister of the Gospel.

And Paul’s answer to the question in this text is that we should be both.  We should be absolutely conservative about certain aspects of the faith, and open mindedly progressive in other areas.  What do I mean?  Let me attempt to demonstrate this by taking each in turn.

A Faithful Minister is Conservative

A faithful minister should be utterly conservative in three regards, or if I may borrow a term from JI Packer, he should be a conservationist.   We want to conserve that which has been handed down to us and not allow it to be corrupted by the prevailing winds of our age.   So in what ways should a minister be conservationist in his work?  I believe in these three ways:

Conserve the Message of Grace

In verse 6 of I Timothy 4, Paul writes:  “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.”  What is encouraging here is that Paul is not asking Timothy to come up with his own theses statements or original ideas.  All he must do is “put these things before the brothers.”  What are those things?  The “words of faith” he has been trained in, the “good doctrine that (Timothy has) followed.”  He does not need to make anything up or be brilliant but simply pass on the truth of the Gospel to his congregation.  That is all God asks.  Our job is to conserve the message, not add to it or try to improve upon it by our brilliant insights.

That is why Paul twice tells Timothy to “guard the good desposit” of what has been passed down to him.  There was a body of teaching worth preserving and protecting.  Guarding is primarily a passive duty, a duty of conservation.  Doctrine is not to change, but is to remain Apostolic and Scriptural, the same truths embraced by the early church.  Doctrinally, we are to be staunchly conservationist.

Why is this important?  You see, some men take these exhortations to heart and want the Church to remain true to Scripture and for all doctrine to remain the same, without deeply embracing what this doctrine protects:  that God saves us by His grace alone.  That it is a done deal through Christ.  That is why we do not need to add anything to the work of redemption.  It is finished, Jesus said upon the cross.  The whole message of the Gospel is that God has done all that is needed for our salvation already, so that all we must do is to fall on Christ in our need and weakness, and so know that we will be saved (cf. Acts 2:21; Romans 4:5; 11:36).

And those who have come to learn and love this grace of God, of a salvation already accomplished, will guard that grace with their lives.   There is nothing we need to do to add to what God has already done through Christ Jesus.   We must then be conservationists if we love grace.

Conserve the Means of Ministry

But there is more.  It has become commonplace in our day to say that “the message stays the same, but the methods change.”  That we are to “contextualize” the message, becoming “all things to all men” as Paul says he did (I Corinthians 9:22).   Of course this is true to a point. That is Paul’s point in I Corinthians (but notice that he did not say that he would become strong to the strong, and think on that a bit).

But does that mean that we can do things that violate the principle of living by faith, not sight?   That we may do things that ignore or undermine the simple means of grace God gives us to do ministry?  Listen to Paul in I Timothy 4:13:  “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”   That is it.  Of course, Timothy was to pray (I Timothy 2:1, 8), see to good order in the church (I Timothy 2-3, 5), and administer the sacraments as well (cf. II Timothy 4:5, compared to Acts 8:38; 21:8).

But the point is this.  If we believe that the Word of God is sufficient for the work of ministry, and that God gives us three books in particular addressed to pastors, shouldn’t we believe that the Pastoral Epistles are sufficient to address the means by which we do ministry?  This does not mean that they address every issue – we do have 63 other books after all – but it does mean that there is no need to add to the means by which God promises to grow His church.  Faith comes by hearing, but how can they hear unless someone preach?  That is why Paul tells Timothy to devote himself – not just practice but devote himself – to the public reading, teaching and exhortation from the Scriptures.  That is our primary work, along with prayer and the sealing of God’s promises with the sacraments.

And so we learn that a faithful Christian minister must be a conservationist in regards to both the message of grace and the means of grace.

Conserve a Single Mindedness

But there is one more thing about which we must maintain a conservative mindset if we are to be faithful to our callings.   And that comes from what Paul says in verses 7-8:  “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”   Here Paul speaks of discipline; of refusing to be distracted from godliness.  Now in the original context, this had to do with particular heresies that had arisen in the early church.  But it fits an overall pattern in the Pastoral epistles in which Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus to avoid foolish controversies and distractions (cf. I Timothy 6:20; II Timothy 2:16; Titus 3:2, 5).  They are to be single minded about their mission:  preaching the Gospel of Christ and building up His church.

And so in our day, various controversies and fads may serve to distract us from our primary calling.  It does not mean that we cannot have some interest in them, but we must not quarrel, we must not be drawn away into projects and programs that will take us away from preaching the Gospel and discipling our members.  The distractions of our day take many forms in my view.  To name just a few:  political misadventures, church sponsored art galleries and wine parties, and the constant drone of internet controversies.  As Solomon wrote, “of the making of many blog wars there is no end.”  We may have an interest in all of these things, but we must constantly ask if they are taking us off our main task as preachers and pastors.

And so we must remain conservationist here as well.  The faithful Christian minister will discipline himself to remain single minded about his work to preach the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

A Faithful Christian Minister is Progressive

And now we flip to the other side of the coin.  It is not enough to say that a Christian minister must be conservative.  About some things, he must be progressive – someone who seeks change and expects progress in his life and his ministry.  What do I mean?  Again, let us to turn to see what Paul says in I Timothy 4.

Pursue Progress in One’s Godliness

In verses 12 & 16, Paul encourages Timothy:  “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”  Here Paul calls on Timothy to make progress in his character, in his growth in grace.  He is not to remain the same.  We are not to be conservative regarding our own sin; we must root it out, continually repenting and returning to the goodness of God (cf. Romans 6-7).  We are to set examples in our conduct, and where we fall short, make a full-hearted effort to amend our ways and reflect the character of Christ more.   Ministers cannot afford to be stuck in our ways, but must in humility seek to become more and more godly.  And when we fail – as we do daily – we must learn what it means to believe the Gospel even more somehow.  We must be progressive in terms of our character and godliness; all the while resting in Christ and basking in His love.

Pursue Progress in One’s Gifts

In verses 14-15, Paul tells Timothy:  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  Paul cannot mean here that Timothy was in some risk of losing his salvation (cf. Philippians 1:6; John 10:28).  But what it means is that the same way Timothy is to be saved is the same way his hearers are to be saved, by hearing and believing the Gospel.  And he needs to grow in his ability to preach this Good News so that his ministry may be as effective as possible.

So, Timothy is not to be conservative about the gifts given him; he is not to stay the same in terms of his practice.  Paul even uses the word, “progress,” here!   So, surely, a Christian minister is to pursue growth in his gifts.  We do not know precisely what gift Paul is speaking of in verse 14, but it is a good guess that it was nothing particular to Timothy.  It sounds like Paul is describing a regular ordination service and that Timothy was there given the gift to be an evangelist and pastor (cf. II Timothy 4:5).  And so now he is to grow in his abilities, to immerse himself in them, so that his progress is evident to all.

This takes work and discipline and, at times, heart wrenching suffering.  Ministers must progress in their abilities if they are to be faithful to their calls.  Study, prayer and humility are all in order and necessary if they are to remain effective in the pastorate.  Ministers must be progressive in the development of their gifts, nourishing them in the gratitude of the Gospel.

Pursue Progress of the Kingdom

Finally, Paul says this in verses 9-11:  “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.  For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things.”   Verse 10 contains a notoriously difficult phrase to translate, but I believe Paul is saying that Jesus “is the Savior of all kinds of people, namely (Greek: malista) those who believe.”  In other words, the Gospel is worldwide in scope, saving people from every nation, tribe, people and language as the Gospel is preached and believed.   This is one of the trustworthy statements of the Pastoral Epistles that are to be “accepted” and “taught” (I Timothy 1:15; 3:1; II Timothy 2:11; Titus 1:9; 3:8).   And it indicates that Timothy is to be about the progress of the Kingdom.  As God blesses, the church is to prosper and grow under his watch.   The Gospel must get out, and those whom God calls must hear, believe and join the Body of the Christ on earth.  But it does not just happen magically.  Paul says “to this end, we toil and strife.”  We work hard to plant and water all around us, even as we depend on God to grant the growth (I Corinthians 3).

We must seek the progress of the Gospel so that people of all different sorts become saved and get to live forever with God in His heaven.  And we seek to see the Gospel break down barriers, reaching new peoples – people different than us – bringing us all together in One Church (Ephesians 2:11-22; 4:4-6).  This requires progress, work, and a mindset that is open to change.  In this regard, a Christian minister is certainly not to be conservative, but the most progressive person around.  He must set an example of welcoming new and different kinds of people into the church, helping his members to love them and accommodate the changes which will of necessity occur (cf. Acts 7, 15; Galatians 2).  A minister will generously welcome new folks in with the same welcome he himself received from Jesus.

And so we see that a faithful Christian minister is to have both a conservative and a progressive mindset all at once.  He is to conserve the message of grace, the means by which that message is communicated, and to maintain a single minded focus on the Gospel.  At the same time, he is to pursue progress in godliness, the development of his gifts, and the growth of the Kingdom around him, breaking down barriers as God’s grace is proclaimed.  May God help each of us to be faithful ministers of His Gospel that we too may be found to be good servants of our Lord Jesus Christ.

First published on The Aquila Report on January 16, 2014