Among the most-quoted and beloved passages of the Pastorals are those that speak of Scripture as formative for Christian life and teaching—II Timothy 3:14–17 and 1:3–7 discuss the authority, traditioning, and transmission of Scripture and its importance for Christian teaching.
Scripture as Formative for Christian Life and Teaching
When things go from bad to worse, the faithful remain true to what has been most reliably learned from the most trustworthy sources. In II Timothy 3:14–17 Paul commended the remembrance of holy teachers and holy Scripture as an aid to steadfastness in sound teaching. He urged Timothy to continue resolutely to stand in the received tradition of teaching amid whatever adversities. “It is not enough to learn that which is good, but we must continue in it, and persevere in it unto the end” (Henry, p. 846). One may count upon those truths received directly and learned accountably from the earliest Christian witnesses to the resurrected Lord.
The personal relation between Paul and Timothy had validated his teaching. The risks they had taken together had bonded them closely. Paul appealed to this bonding, as if to say: Do not forget what and from whom you have learned (v. 14). You have already experienced these truths of the apostolic witness sufficiently that they are not just abstract concepts. They are thoroughly tested in your own experience. Do not lose touch with those who taught you (cf. II 1:13), who all along have been prepared to suffer for the truth they taught. Every Christian can remember the name of at least one person through whom the faith was delivered. Faith became refracted through the personal experience of that witness. Retain that name in memory. Hold that name up in prayer with gratitude. We know how earnestly that one prayed for us, labored for us, patiently bore with us, enjoyed our presence.
From whom had Timothy gained this spiritual education? First at Lystra from his mother and grandmother; then from Paul himself; from the elders of the area, and in time confirmed by “many witnesses.” These witnesses all had personal names and were resident in Timothy’s living memory. To these recollections, Paul appealed: You are not being asked to think up some novel teaching but to resist the deceptions of those who would lead you away from bad to worse. Learn the ploys of the games they play. Do not forget what happened to us at Antioch, Lyconium, and Lystra. Do not change your course with every changing wind of folk theology or faddism.
Such faith did not imply uncritical credulity or archaism or idolatry of tradition. “The Apostle therefore does not enjoin Timothy to defend indiscriminately the doctrine which has been delivered to him, but only that which he knows to be truth; by which he means, that he must make a selection,” wrote Calvin. “Nothing is more inconsistent with the nature of faith than light credulity, which allows us to embrace everything indiscriminately, whatever it may be” (pp. 246, 247).
The context: Paul bore sad news concerning his own imminent death. To ready the pastor for the burden of impending challenges, the Apostle commended that he study carefully the same sacred writings with which he had been acquainted from childhood (v. 15)—canonically received Scripture, a written word, not merely felt or imagined or spoken orally. For in addition to an oral tradition of instruction, Timothy had been taught by a written deposit of sacred writings—Torah, Psalms, and Prophets (the New Testament writings were as yet either unwritten or those written were not yet received ecumenically or duly canonized). The pastor is enjoined to study these, for they will help one understand what is revealed in Jesus Christ (Aphrahat, Demonstrations, XXII.26, NPNF 2 XIII, 411). Such Scripture study is bound to open the way to the faith which justifies, the trust which says yes to Jesus Christ.
All Scripture attests God’s own coming in Christ. The Old Testament looks forward to God’s coming. The New Testament recalls and celebrates God’s coming. The Old Testament is seen in the light of the New Testament. Only the Old Testament was “extant when Timothy was an infant,” yet “how much more are the Old and New Testaments together able, in God’s hand, to make us more abundantly wise unto salvation” (Wesley, p. 794). There was room within the term “sacred writings” for the New Testament to be considered by later Christians as included in this assertion.
No writings are comparable to Scripture in making one wise unto salvation. That is their supreme function, to elicit a wise trust in God that leads to forgiveness and personal transformation. There is no hint in the text that we may be saved by our own wisdom. For that is not the kind of wisdom the Scriptures impart. They are sufficient to impart saving wisdom through faith which is in Jesus Christ (Athanasius, Letter XI, Easter, 7, p. 535). Of no other writings may that claim be made (Westminster Confession, Chapter I.1). They are the perennial ground of Christian teaching, hence to be thoroughly studied by the Christian teacher.
The significance and value of Scripture is founded finally on its being God’s own word, enabled and breathed by God. This applies to the whole collection of sacred books that Timothy had received, in which this letter itself in time would be included.
The Christian community at prayer trusts in inspired Scripture more than in theologians’ theories of how Scripture is inspired. All Scripture is breathed out by the word of God. Paul assumes God’s active influence in the forming and writing of Scripture (cf. II Peter 1:20–22). “The same Spirit, therefore, who made Moses and the prophets certain of their calling, now also testifies to our hearts, that he has employed them as his servants to instruct us” (Calvin, p. 249). “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer” (Wesley, p. 794).
Largely beyond our ken are the particular ways the Spirit works in bringing Scripture into being, ensuring its transmission, and opening our hearts to its gracious word. No adequate analysis is possible. But the fruits of the Spirit are palpable, tastable, enjoyable, visible. As our breath is in our language and mixes with our words, so does the breath of the Spirit enter into the language of Scripture and enable its very words to be means of grace. When we say God breathes or God writes or God speaks, we are speaking metaphorically, but confidently, of the way the heart of God becomes for us thoughts expressed in words. Scripture could not simply be the product of the fertile minds of good persons, for good persons would not say, “Thus says the Lord” if they were speaking merely of their own private opinions (Wesley, Works XI, p. 484).
Scripture is useful and must be intelligently put to use. There are four distinguishable spheres implied in which the usefulness of Scripture is recognized: It is profitable positively for teaching reliable doctrine and training in righteousness, and negatively for reproof of recalcitrance and correction of error (II 3:15). Matthew Henry summarized: “It instructs us in that which is true, reproves us for that which is amiss, directs us in that which is good” (p. 847). When this usefulness is not sought, Scripture is turned into a matter of speculation or historical inquiry alone. “Whenever ingenious trifles of that kind are brought forward, they must be warded off by this shield, that ‘Scripture is profitable,’ ” for the Lord did not give us Scripture to “gratify our curiosity” (Calvin, pp. 249, 250).
The minister can never finally be finished with the Bible. It waits to be sought out afresh in each emergent situation. “Read the divine scriptures constantly; never, indeed, let the sacred volume be out of your hand” (Jerome, Letters, LII.7, pp. 92–93). After centuries of criticism, this one Book and one word is ever more needed, ever viable, ever fresh, ever correcting our misjudgments, as a lamp for our feet showing the right path.
The aim of the Scripture is that the man of God may be complete (II 3:17), fully prepared, adequate, fitted (“perfect,” KJV), “one in whom there is nothing defective” (Calvin, p. 250). By Scripture one becomes adequately equipped for every good work, readied for every task that the work of ministry requires (II 2:21). This is why we study Scripture—not to pile up ever more data regarding the cultural determinants of religion. The working pastor does not study Scripture primarily to discover what the redactor may have added to the text, although that may be an interesting speculation. Rather, the text is pored over because it alone is able to engender faith which makes one wise unto salvation; because it is so useful in regard to life before God, having been given and its transmission guaranteed by the Spirit, that we may be completely fitted for all good works and everything that ministry requires. Whatever the renewal of the church requires, it is being furnished to us through Scripture. This armor is fully adequate to meet the challenges of waning modernity.
Faith as a Transgenerational Family Tradition
Several questions may intrigue the preacher or teacher who closely ponders the first full paragraph after the salutation of the second letter (II 1:3–7): Shall we be grateful even for our chains? Does the Christian gospel imply any diminution of Jewish tradition? Do families play a crucial role in the transmission of the apostolic tradition? Are gifts conveyed in ordination?
Timothy was quietly on Paul’s mind and in his prayers while in Paul was in jail. But the Apostle did not allow that fact to remain forever silent. He disclosed it to Timothy. This young pastor was being recollected gratefully before God without fail—night and day!—in constant supplication. These prayers were bathed in personal recollections and the turns of memory of a close relationship. Paul’s pattern of daily prayer for those at long distance is still fitting for us today (II 1:3b, 4).
For what was Paul thankful in his Roman prison? His chains? Even that. But he is mostly thankful for Timothy himself—for his distinctive personal being and friendship, for a caring co-worker in ministry, for his unfeigned faith, and for the special gifts of ministry God had bestowed upon this young man. These gifts were held up before God in prayer in gratitude for Timothy’s family and for the faith they both received through their Jewish tradition. This moving litany of praise deepened, expressing thanks for Christ who abolished death; for the sound words of the gospel; for Paul’s own apostolic commission; and for those who had brought him relief amid his sore necessities. Bound in chains, he found plenty for which to be thankful.
A burning issue still pertinent to Christian preaching emerges in this passage: Does the Christian gospel imply any denial or demeaning of Jewish tradition? Bluntly: Is there an incipient danger of anti-Semitism in primitive Christianity?
Paul himself had circumcised Timothy as a young man. This suggests that at some point Timothy had become personally serious about his Jewishness and sought circumcision even as a Christian convert. Both Paul and Timothy stood gratefully in their Jewish tradition, grateful for their Jewish parents and Jewish education, for Torah and prophecy which flowed into and toward fulfillment and culmination in Christ. Paul’s dying instruction to Timothy (the second letter) was deliberately set in the context of gratitude for the faith that he received from his training in Torah, which he self-consciously shared with Timothy and regarded as a rich heritage to which he sought to be fully accountable. He was in effect saying to Timothy: “I am Jewish, you are Jewish, we are no less so in becoming both Christian.” Paul did not view Christianity as an abrupt departure from the religion of his forebearers, but rather its fulfillment and development (cf. Rom. 11:23–28). He identified himself as “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6), who continued “according to the Way” to “worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets” (Acts 24:14).
Paul’s sense of the continuity of Christianity with the Old Testament faith (Rom. 2:28–29; 4:9–17; 9:1–9; Gal. 3:6–9) was sharply contrasted with that of the false teachers who pretended to uphold Old Testament law, but upheld it only by constantly distorting it (I 1:7: Titus 3:9). “He does not here lay down a fixed rule, that every person who follows the religion that he received from his fathers is believed to worship God aright” (Calvin, p. 185). For he was not descended from idolaters but from the seed of Abraham, to whom God had become revealed as provident. Paul was not dealing with Jewish tradition as if it were a rigid traditionalism that admitted of no developing historical insight but as a still transmuting, evolving tradition preeminently becoming fulfilled in the preaching of the incarnate and risen Lord.
It is ironic that the one who wrote, “I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience” (v. 3) was the same who had earlier called himself “chief of sinners” (I 1:15). The good conscience Paul experienced at the end of the race was due entirely to Christ’s forgiveness, not to the believer’s good works. It was not as though he had already attained or was already perfect but that he was pressing on to make life in Christ his own, since Christ had made him his own (Phil. 3:12).
The next issue for ministry: Do families have a special role to play in the transmission of the apostolic tradition?
It is surprising that one of the first things we learn from the second letter is that it has a lot to do with grandmothers, mothers, and sons. Odd, is it not, that this should come up so quickly? The Apostle is addressing a young man whose grandmother and mother he knew personally. At this early date Paul had already intuited the importance of the intergenerational character of the mission of the church. He was wondering, as sociologists do today, how faith comes to be passed on from one generation to another.
Note that Paul does not trace Timothy’s line through his father and grandfather but maternally, through his mother and grandmother. Is this a preliminary indication of the importance of women in the earliest generation of hellenizing Christianity? That Timothy was described as the “son of a Jewish woman” whose “father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1) suggests either that the father was not alive or not involved in his Christian education. The absence of the father—physical and spiritual—is a major dilemma of modern society. The family situation of Timothy, according to traditional exegesis, seems dominated by this negative fact. Does this make Paul’s welcoming of Timothy’s sonship all the more poignant? In any case, it is significant that Timothy, not a first-generation Christian, had received the faith from the maternal line of his family; and he was now being charged with transmitting the faith to subsequent generations.
This point is worth savoring. Nobody gets here without a grandmother. The portraits drawn by some modern women of their supposedly oppressed grandmothers tends toward a caricature that does not correspond with anything I knew of my own grandmothers. The grandmother generation is sometimes pictured as so lacking in power that they knuckled under and succumbed to an inferior position. The caricature views the strength and independence of modern women in sharp contrast with the supposed frailty and dependence of their intimidated grandmothers. Some feminists are horrified at the fantasy of trading places with their grandmothers, whom they view as submissive and lacking in clout.
Not my grandmothers. They were imaginative, intelligent pioneer women of independent mind who took risks and prepared the way for milder hearts to follow. There was nothing self-deprecating or unself-assured about them. The vital life of faith flowed in their trek across prairies. But why are we talking about grandmothers? Because the author of Second Timothy says at the very beginning that when he calls to remembrance the unfeigned, undissembled, undisguised faith of Timothy, he knows that this is the same unalloyed faith that first dwelt in Timothy’s grandmother Lois!
Paul knew that the future of the church depended upon the transmission of that faith, not just from Lois to Eunice to Timothy but from Timothy on to the next generation and the next generation. The intergenerational transmission of apostolic faith was of urgent concern to Paul. That is what he seemed to be most seriously pondering in prison. He was constantly reminded of Timothy’s sincere faith (v. 5), untainted by hypocrisy, unmixed by corrupted motives—the same faith that dwelt first in the grandmother Lois and the mother Eunice and then in the son. To these two women we rightly credit the transmission of the faith to Timothy, the precondition of his transmission of the faith to countless others. In Timothy we have a young man from a transitional, cross-cultural family charged with transmitting the faith intergenerationally.
When preaching asks how Christian mission is to be revitalized today, nothing is more central to the answer than being a good parent. We see a model of parenting embodied in the small-scale, inconspicuous transition from Lois to Eunice to Timothy. That such traditioning can occur within a highly pluralistic, syncretistic, rapidly changing environment is clear from this account. They did it. Faith can be passed on through families. Religious instruction in the family unit is crucial to the transmission of the Christian tradition.
In both his comments on Judaism and Timothy’s maternal guidance, Paul was making a single point: Do not lose touch with your roots. You stand grounded in a family and multi-generational tradition. Do not spend that inheritance unwisely.
We are saturated with romanticisms about progress, ideologies of change, and the pretense that all change is positive change and that no change could be regressive. That illusion has deluded us into deliberately throwing away hard-won social structures and historical achievements and wise memories that could have been otherwise extremely valuable to us. An important aspect of contemporary discipling consists simply in recollection, the imaginative remembering and reappropriation of apostolic teaching.
A remaining issue for ministry is raised by this paragraph: Are gifts conveyed in ordination? Timothy had more than a good upbringing. He had been given a calling. He had been ordained by Paul’s own hands, who joined with the presbytery to ordain Timothy to sacred mission and office. Paul knew that Timothy had received grace sufficient to perform his calling. Hence Paul reminded him to rekindle the gift (v. 6), charisma, of God (cf. I 4:14). To stir up actively is the opposite of extinguishing passively.
This logic prevails: God gives gifts. Once given they are not arbitrarily taken away. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29), yet this irrevocability must be regularly rekindled. Gifts may become atrophied due to abuse or non-use. They await our cooperative energies to be reawakened as gifts of grace. Though not harshly withdrawn by God, they do require our daily cooperation with grace to become effective on a daily basis. Lacking exercise, they are prone to decay. They must be exercised to be increased or continued effectively. This corresponds with the saying of Jesus: “For to every one who has will more be given” (Matt. 25:29).
Paul was not implying that Timothy had been negligent. But he wanted Timothy to know how great were the gifts that had been bestowed upon him and how important it was for the future of the church that these gifts be appropriated, owned, embraced, acted upon, and embodied. One assigned the duty of tending a fire keeps on tending it. It is not a once-and-for-all occurrence. I often return a dozen times on a winter evening to stoke and encourage the fire. So it is in ministry—the flame must be repeatedly rekindled, in response to God’s constant engendering, inspiriting activity. Nor was Paul implying that Timothy’s fire had already been extinguished. Once extinguished, a fire is out and cannot be rekindled from the former flame. The rekindling metaphor suggests that the fire has continued to smolder. It only needs periodically to be rearranged, stoked, stirred up.
To what special gift did Paul refer? Was it the gift Timothy received in baptism or was it the gift that came to him when the elders laid hands upon him at his ordination (I 4:14)? Probably the latter. The spiritual gifts that enable ministry are related to, but distinguishable from, those gifts given and received in repentance and baptism. Paul attested firsthand that spiritual gifts had been abundantly given and received in relation to some kind of ordination administered by Paul himself.
This gift of ministry was already within him through the laying on of hands. Modern theology has tried to tone down notions that ordination involves receiving gifts of the Spirit for the empowering and fulfillment of ministry. Yet in Timothy’s case ordination appears to have been accompanied by the gifts required to accomplish his mission. The laying on of hands visibly symbolized the passing on to another the gifts of ministry, accompanied by empowerment through God’s own Spirit. That gift is what Paul was asking Timothy to stir up regularly into a new flame of testimony and works of love. “As fire requires fuel, so grace requires our alacrity,” wrote Chrysostom. “For this grace it is in our power to kindle or to extinguish” (p. 477; I Thess. 5:19).
Athanasius commented on II Timothy 1:3–6: “For as each of the saints has received, that they impart without alteration, for the confirmation of the doctrine of the mysteries. Of these the (divine) word would have us disciples, and these should of right be our teachers, and to them only is it necessary to give heed, for of them only is ‘the word faithful and worthy of all acceptation;’ these not being disciples because they heard from others, but being eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, that which they had heard from Him have they handed down” (Athanasius, Letter II, Easter, 7, p. 512).
Note the stunning parallelism: It is Paul who had ordained Timothy by the laying on of his hands wherein this gift of ministry was received. It was Lois who had passed on to Eunice, and Eunice to her son this instruction in faith. So Timothy is the recipient of the gifts of the Spirit and instruction in faith by two complementary means. One is through his family by means of the teaching of faith from mother to son. The second is through ordination, through the transmission of the apostolic tradition.
The spirit bestowed upon Timothy was not one of withholding or shrinking from the exercise of those gifts in the face of danger; it was a spirit of power and love and self-control. In both baptism and ordination we are given these gifts—of power (grace-enabled energy), love (empathic compassion), and self-control (discipline)—to be reawakened and daily renewed by our cooperative willing, kindled in our affections.
Power needs to be directed, guided, shaped by love and good sense. Lacking love, power is dangerous. Lacking power, love is ineffective. A love that is empowered but lacking a sound mind is apt to be wild and fruitless. Hence these three gifts are complementary. This love is not a frantic emotivity but a balanced, psychologically healthy caring that comes out of wise discretion and self-discipline.
The major hindrance to the stirring up of the gifts of ordination is a craven spirit, slavish fear, a bondage to compulsive anxiety, for God did not give us a spirit of timidity (v. 7, the word suggests cowardice, a chronic phobic aversion felt when overtaken by the imagined prospect of overwhelming threat or difficulty). The spirit of timidity is typified by the unprofitable servant who would not take responsibility for having received his one talent—he buried it out of anxiety that it might be misused (Matt. 25:25).
Paul’s letter invites us anew to pray for power from on high, the same that fell upon the newborn church at Pentecost, changing timid fishermen into world-traveling preachers of the new aeon. If we are going to recover the Christian tradition in the contemporary world, we cannot proceed timidly, but must stir up this flame, this gift of God, this spirit of power (Acts 1:8; Rom. 15:13) constrained by love (Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22) and guided by a sound mind (Titus 2:2, 5).
Part Two. The Heart of Christian Preaching
Several crucial sections of the Pastoral letters deal with fundamental questions of Christ and salvation. These include texts of ancient kerygmatic definition, doctrinal and baptismal summaries, those that distinguish true and false teaching, and the relation of sound doctrine and right living.
Three crucial paragraphs of the Pastorals rehearse the basic proclamation that calls forth the community of faith—Titus 3:3–8 declares the word of justification by grace; I Timothy 1:8–11 sets forth the relation of law and gospel and verses 12–17 are a highly personal attestation by Paul of God’s grace toward sinners.
Justification by Grace
We may think of our own era as inordinately burdened with violence, resentment, self-hatred, and the hating of others. Yet with just these terms Paul described what “we ourselves were once” (v. 3) in the history of sin prior to the coming of grace in Christ. We do well to remember and confess accurately our own history of idolatry, distortion, guilt, and anxiety, lest we despair over the condition of others or grow cynical over the power of the Spirit (v. 3).
Eight descriptive terms track the history of sin, summarizing the human predicament in that condition prior to hearing of grace in Christ: foolish (thoughtless, lacking understanding), rebellious and disobedient to God, led astray (deceived, misled), continually slaving away to satisfy our cravings and vices (cf. John 8:34; Rom. 6:6; Gal. 4:8–9). There is no point at which we feel satisfied under these conditions. The need for acceleration of hedonic benefit is unending, hence always moving toward dissatisfaction. The antisocial nature of the syndromes of sin are here evident. The list builds to a depressing climax: We are found passing our days in malice, filled with resentment, wasting our time in meanness (cf. Rom. 1:29; Col. 3:8) and envy (cf. I 6:4; Gal. 5:21); detesting ourselves and detested by others. This single, compacted verse is a concise epitome of the human predicament (similar to that described in Romans 1—2).
It is in the midst of these alien conditions that grace has appeared. In a single long sentence the gospel is summarized in highly condensed form (vv. 4–7). Whether it was originally a hymn (Guthrie) or liturgical formula (Hanson) or creedal formula (Fee) or a baptismal hymn (Jeremias) continues to be debated. In any case the text sets forth concisely “the basis (his own mercy), the what (new birth, new life, ‘put right with God’), the means (through the Holy Spirit, ‘by his [Christ’s] grace’), and the goal (the eternal life we hope for) of salvation” (Fee, p. 156).
Into our syndromes of sin came the loving-kindness of God our Savior (v. 4), which dawned upon the world (cf. Luke 1:47; Eph. 2:7–8; Titus 2:11). God saved us by a renewing bath (baptism), cleansing from sin and enabling a new birth of life in the Spirit, whereby we have become heirs of the promise. The Savior by his appearing saved us (cf. Rom. 11:14), not by virtue of deeds done by us in righteousness (cf. Eph. 2:9) but by his own mercy (v. 15).
This saving work is set forth in three closely joined metaphors: cleansing, birth, and new life (vv. 5–8). Salvation occurs by means of a washing (cf. Acts 22:16), of regeneration, the bathing of new birth, a renewal (cf. Rom. 12:2) that occurs by the revitalizing power of the Holy Spirit. Paul had similarly written that Christ loved the church and “gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:25–27).
A transformation of character begins the moment of cleansing from sin, so that from justification follows sanctification. All of this is the work of the Holy Spirit, wherein the saving work of the triune God is made effective in our hearts. Three verbs capture the sequence: poured out, justified, become heirs. Or put in a doctrinal sequence: grace, justification, and adoption.
Whether washing refers to cleansing from sin or baptism or the baptism of the Spirit remains a debated point in varied traditions. Classic exegetes viewed this passage as referring to baptism as the bath of new birth leading to a new life of growth in grace. Like abundant water, new life has been poured out richly upon us “through Jesus Christ our Savior” (v. 6; cf. Rom. 5:5)—generously, plentifully, freely—reminiscent of Pentecost (Acts 2:33) all because of what Jesus Christ did. The Spirit was poured out upon humanity as a result and consequence of the work of the Son on the cross, by the will of the Father. The triune God is fully present in the coming of grace (cf. I Cor. 12:4–6; Eph. 1:3–14).
Those who receive and believe this word are made upright, recipients of a new inheritance, which is the ground of our hope of eternal life. This saving act occurred “that we might be justified by his grace” (v. 7), that having been declared righteous, we might come into right standing with God, be counted righteous as if pronounced guiltless in the court by the favor of the Judge who was judged in our place (Rom. 3:24; cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 217ff.). Being justified, we have become heirs in hope of eternal life (cf. Rom. 8:17, 24; Matt. 25:46). A share in the inheritance has already been assigned to us, and even though we have not finally received it in its consummated form, we await the time when we will share in his glory (I Peter 1:3–5).
Law and Gospel
The relation of law and gospel, which Luther regarded as an indispensable key to all Christian teaching, was astutely clarified in the Pastorals. Earlier Paul had written to the Romans: “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). In the Pastorals he developed this thought in a subtle, complex way, first by affirming: “Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully” (v. 8). The law is good for us insofar as we make right use of it, but it is subject to abuse when we seek to make it a means of righteousness. “The abuse which some have made of the law does not take away the use of it” (Henry, p. 808). The abuse of the law needs to be corrected by its right use, not as a basis of salvation but to restrain sin and to point toward God’s mercy. Wesley commented: “Even the ceremonial is good, as it points to Christ; and the moral law is holy, just and good, in its own nature; and of admirable use both to convince unbelievers, and to guide believers in all holiness” (p. 772). Rightly understood, the law “sends thee to Christ. For since its aim is to justify man, and it fails to effect this, it remits us to Him who can do so” (Chrysostom, p. 413).
The law is good provided one keeps clearly in mind that the law was not finally intended for those who live upright by faith in God’s mercy in Christ (cf. Gal. 5:23). Luther commented on verse 8: “The Law is abused when I assign to the Law more than it can accomplish” (p. 232). “Beware of making me righteous by the Law. Rather, use it to restrain. You must not give the Law the power and virtue to justify” (pp. 231–32). The law “really has a double function: in an external way to repress violence and spiritually to reveal sins. It restrains the wicked to prevent their living according to their own flesh, and it shows the Pharisees their sins to keep them from pride” (p. 233). “The just man ought not have the Law except as a restraint and to reveal his sin. But it does not take away sin. But in the case of manifest sinners, it restrains; in the case of secret sinners, it reveals. In the case of the just man, it cannot restrain, because there is nothing to restrain; it cannot reveal, because he has done nothing concealed” (p. 234).
As long as I am not running through stop signs, the stop sign law does not bother or summon me. Only when I run the stop sign do I hear the siren and see the lights flashing behind me (or wonder if I might). The law corrects and curbs only lawlessness, nothing else. As the surgeon is hardly of much use to the healthy, so the law is not urgently needed by those who already keep it through faith active in love.
There follows a series of seven pairs of terms indicating those for whom the law is intended and needed: lawless/disobedient; ungodly/sinners; unholy/profane; murderers of fathers/murderers of mothers (!); immoral persons/sodomites; kidnapers/liars; perjurers/those contrary to sound doctrine. This series appears to be carefully ordered, even if perhaps unintentionally, beginning with offenses against the first table of law—those against God. The law is needed to constrain idolatry, taking God’s name in vain, not keeping the Sabbath holy (Exod. 20:2–8; cf. Gal. 3:19).
The second series of terms deals with offenses against the second table of law—against the neighbor, the nearest and first of whom are parents. The law is necessary to resist those who have such heavy aggressions against their elders that they would, without the law, become murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers (cf. Freud, Totem and Taboo). The extreme nature of this example leads one to think that there may have been patricidal or matricidal individuals of an extremist sort disturbing the peace at Ephesus. The wild and volatile pagan ethos at Ephesus makes it plausible to think that murder may even have been incorporated into cultic acts in some cases. It may simply mean those who beat up on elderly persons—regrettably still a problem in modern society. The law is further provided to resist manslayers, whose aggressions explode in destructive behaviors, offending against the commandment, “You shall not kill” (Exod. 20:13).
Was the law given to constrain homosexuality and sexual perversion? The law, Paul explained, was given to guide and constrain all those who would transgress relationships of covenant sexual fidelity—(v. 10) fornicators (adulterers, pornois) and paederasts (arsenokoitais, perverts, sodomites)—who offend against the seventh commandment (Exod. 20:14; cf. Rom. 1:24–27). The law is also given to constrain false witness and envy—kidnappers (Paul may have had in mind slave traders), liars, perjurers. The list concludes with an overarching category that encompasses all who flaunt the law—“and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (v. 10b; cf. I 6:3; II 1:13; Titus 1:9). Sound teaching is intended to be food to strengthen moral health, distinguished from the law which is medicine to restrain moral sickness. These moral admonitions do not emerge in some realm other than the gospel but as an implication of it, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which Paul had been entrusted (v. 11).
Grace Toward Sinners: A Personal Attestation
A sudden burst of praise splashes across the page, as if the thought of the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (v. 11) made him recall his own experience of that blessedness, mercifully given to him who among sinners had to be counted chief. Several phases are distinguishable in this unfolding litany: a thanks-giving for enabling grace, followed immediately by a personal recollection of his own sin, which became the occasion for a general confessional recollection that salvation is for all sinners, ending in doxology.
Paul was grateful that he had been given strength equal to the difficult tasks of nurturing Christian communities toward good conscience and unfeigned faith (v. 12). Free will was not being obliterated but enabled by grace. “This was the effect of no human power, and yet not of Divine influence alone, but of his own resolution also” (Chrysostom, p. 416).
In celebrating the grace that put him into the service of Christ, Paul offered a brief account of his conversion leading to his apostolic commissioning. Paul stood amazed that as sinner he was accounted faithful! That God had shown confidence in him by entrusting to him this ministry, appointing him to do this work as “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15).
The divine initiative is clear throughout Paul’s account of his behavioral reversal. Paul had been entrusted with this ministry, even though he formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted God (v. 13). Saul had railed at Christ. Through his insults and injuries he encroached upon the tranquil life of innocents. He had lived out the life of the wanton aggressor, the outrageous oppressor (Chrysostom, Concerning the Statues, Homily V, NPNF 1 IX, 373). Just before his conversion Saul was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). His destructive behavior was not an innocent or mild activity: “Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). “Frequently those who are designed for great and eminent services are left to themselves before their conversion, to fall into great wickedness, that the mercy of God may be the more glorified in their remission, and the grace of God in their regeneration. The greatness of sin is no bar to our acceptance with God, no, nor to our being employed for him” (Henry, p. 809).
The Lord made a gentle Apostle out of Saul the persecutor. He received mercy abundantly in relation to the enormity of his sin. That any sinner should receive God’s mercy is remarkable, but for one who thought of himself as chief of sinners, it stunned him even to recollect it. Why had he not been utterly destroyed by the righteous anger of God against sin? Paul answered that he did not fully realize what he was doing, because he had not met Christ personally at that time and had acted ignorantly in unbelief (v. 13). He had cast his lot with those who were “ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own” (Rom. 10:3). Although his ignorance did not finally excuse him, it “left him capable of mercy, which he would hardly have been, had he acted thus contrary to his own conviction” (Wesley, p. 773).
Amid these railings, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for [Paul] with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (v. 14). God’s encompassing love was lavished precisely upon his blasphemies, oppressions, and insults. Salvation came to Paul in a full tide of divine mercy. “Such an example comforts those who are in despair, and causes them again to stand erect” (Chrysostom, Concerning the Statues—Homily XII, NPNF 1 IX, 418).
In the heart of this paragraph, the sin/grace contrast is heightened to intensify the abundance of grace. The crux of the matter is prefaced with a key alerting phrase—the reference to a “trustworthy saying” (a sure word), found repeatedly (five times) in the Pastorals (3:1; 4:9; II 2:11; Titus 3:8), but nowhere else in the New Testament. The saying is, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (v. 15). It is reminiscent of the saying in Matthew’s Gospel that the incarnate Son came into the world “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13).
Among all these sinners whom God became flesh to rescue, Paul viewed himself as chief, sinner number one (prōtos). His language elsewhere tends toward such superlatives: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). “For I am least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (I Cor. 15:9).
How could Paul at one time view himself “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6), yet now “chief of sinners“? Chrysostom supplied an apt analogy: “Suppose a populous city, all whose inhabitants were wicked, some more so, and some less,...” but suppose one poor wretch is especially culpable. “If it were declared that the king was willing to pardon all, it would not be so readily believed, as if they were to see this most wicked wretch actually pardoned”—so it was with Paul, whom God “chose as the object of His mercy, him who was more a sinner than any” (p. 420).
Paul may have borrowed the closing phrase of this paragraph from a liturgical source, an ancient ascription or prayer: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (v. 17). Amid this dramatic reversal of sin, we celebrate the One who is King, not of a particular age but all ages, all worlds, all times and spaces, the eternal One who is incorruptible, immortal, who cannot cease to be (cf. I 6:16); invisible, not yielding himself or reducing himself to be a passive subject of our objective, empirical investigation; hence the only God, the only one worthy to be called God (Augustine, Letters 148.11, NPNF 1 I, 501).