2 Timothy 2:1-7 “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No-one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share. Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.”
Often the Christian stands alone, like Abraham at Ur, Lot at Sodom, Daniel in Babylon, Peter in the courtyard on a cold night, Timothy in Asia, like Athanasius against the world, like Luther at Worms, like Lloyd-Jones for much of his ministry, and at those times strength of personality is needed and strength of faith is essential. You can no longer get by with the protection afforded by older, braver, more mature people. There was no other leader in the whole province of Asia for Timothy to look to, no one he could quickly contact as we can – even in Grand Rapids or Colombia. We can exchange three letters in a day. Timothy got two letters in his entire ministry because his mentor, Paul, was a thousand miles away, in prison, and soon to die. There’d been widespread defection in the surrounding congregations. So Timothy, standing alone, had to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. It was essential for his survival, for his usefulness, for his sanity to be strong in grace.
It’s a splendid challenging exhortation and we all need to hear it and understand it today. It is asking us if we are strong in the grace of Christ. There are these two entities so very different; there is a young church leader and there is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. What does it mean for any Christian to be strong in Christ’s grace? We have our image of Timothy, that he was a beginner, and timid by nature, and yet that God had put him in a place of exemplary leadership in the very area where Paul’s apostleship was being repudiated. It’s as if the apostle were saying to him, ‘Now listen Timothy. Never mind what other people think. Never mind what other people say. Never mind what other people do. Never mind how many of them there are, and never mind how weak or inadequate you feel, Timothy be strong! Your strength is the paramount need of the hour.’
But notice what he says, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” If he had simply said to Timothy, ‘Be strong Timothy,’ then it would have been absurd indeed. I have been reading the new biography of J.I.Packer and he relates how his non-Christian mother encouraged him to be confirmed and he was, but the vicar (who explained to him what confirmation was all about) simply talked about the morality of Christianity, good living and good conduct. Little explanation of why we should live like that; no motivational power from the dying sacrifice of the Saviour for us or his living ministry praying for us. No stress on the mercy of God that we’d received – “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” John Stott talks of the futility of saying to an unregenerate man, “Be strong.” Stott says these words, “You might as well tell a snail to be quick, or a horse to fly, as tell a weakling to be strong, or a shy man, ‘Be brave!’ Paul’s summons to Timothy to fortitude is Christian, not stoical. It is not a call to Timothy to be strong in himself [to search for the hero inside himself], to grit his teeth, to clench his fists, to set his jaw. Literally in the Greek the call is ‘Be strengthened,’ but to be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, to find his resources and his motivation for nailing his colours up in the Lord Christ’s grace alone, in divine omnipotence, making a real man out of a callow youth. How then are we strengthened in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ? Let us clear up some of the confusion first of all, and here I believe that Al Martin can help us . . .
- THERE IS NO MASTER KEY TO GROWING IN GRACE.
You might have had the misfortune to have been going nowhere in the Christian life for a long time, and then a time of dissatisfaction arose and you read a book or heard a message in which you learned that there was a sure way out of the doldrums. There was a master key to the Christian life. Maybe you were told that it was John 15 and being a branch abiding in Christ. “Just abide!” And the point was so emphasized that being in Christ did touch you in a new way; it was new life to you, the fact of union with Christ and his graces coming into you. It really impacted you so that you made more progress in the next six months than in the previous six years. From then on there was this one string on your banjo, abiding in Christ. “That is the secret to the Christian life,” you told your friends.
Or it may have been a sermon or book on Romans 6 and its exposition of our new status as Christians, that our old man had died in Christ and our new man has been resurrected in him. This truth was mind blowing and very helpful to you, and after you saw that it became for you the one and only way any Christian could grow in grace. This is what you talked about and recommended to others. I am saying that all sorts of books and conferences and theologies of the Christian life and testimonies are built on the mistaken notion that there is somewhere in the Bible one master key which, if anyone grasped it and turned it then the door was opened to our becoming strong in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I am insisting that the Bible presents to us no master key to Christian growth. What it does is offer us a key ring on which hangs every text of the Bible. When Jesus Christ was being strong in the grace of God and resisting the devil he quoted the words of Moses, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). In other words, the whole Christian needs the whole word of God. All Christians need all the means of grace. It is the totality of the inspired word read, preached on, applied and lived out that makes us strong men and women. The blessed man of Psalm 1 delights in all the law of God and meditates in it all day and night. There is no master key which only an elite group of Christian initiates come to know. There is not a single gate into the city of God; there is a gate on the north and a gate on the south and a gate on the east and a gate on the west. In other words, there is a gate before you today, at this moment, hearing and heeding this word from God for you to go on and become strong in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
- THERE IS NO DESERT ISLAND PARADISEIN THIS WORLD.
We don’t become strong because we’ve found a place where all the enemies are weak. In the city of the blind the one eyed man is king. You know the pathetic places where one man rules, and the little group who are there with him are feeble yes-men. He’s not a strong man. He is simply the weak living with the weaker. He is simply in a place where the inhabitants are all yes-men. They have laid down their arms. They’ve left the battle field. They’ve surrendered that whole place, and so one man of the slightest convictions is stronger than all the rest because they have no convictions at all. But every Christian who is strong in the grace of the Lord Christ is on the front line armed for the conflict. He is a watchman; he is on duty; he has all his armour on and is ready to meet the foe, day by day. The enemy is relentless and constantly regrouping and inventing different devices to pull us down. I tell you we will be fighting against principalities and powers on our deathbeds. That roaring lion will invade and attack every area of our lives. Nothing is sacred to him. But we have other enemies; there are the activities of our remaining sin and that means that our flesh will always war against our Spirit. There can be no release from that internal tension and conflict. Again, there is more, there is this fallen world we live in and it will focus all its aggressive, restless pressures upon us. The world will hate you if your lifestyle as a disciple of Jesus Christ contrasts with the lifestyle of the society you live in. You will be a constant irritation to the world if you’re refusing to listen to what it tells you, “Just get enough religion . . . simply be polite and kind and moral . . . no extremes . . . no fanaticism.” I tell you that battles with the world and the flesh and the devil get no easier when you get older. I am fighting at 77 with enemies I fought at 17. There is no desert island of tranquility that I can escape to.
We are saved in hope. That is the context for growing in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ; the best is yet to come. When God is done with us then we’ll be like the King of peace, but not before that. The fight to keep growing in grace is the great evidence that you have the Holy Spirit, and that you are in touch with reality. We grow in grace in God’s gymnasium through exercise and sparring and racing and training and the whole experience of the holy war.
- THERE IS NO AUTOMATIC PILOT WHO’LL TAKE YOU TO GROWING IN GRACE LAND.
When we are born again then immediately the Holy Spirit who has given us this new birth, influences every part of us, our bodies – our eyes and hands and loins – our intellect and thinking and judgments, our emotions and affections, our will and our decision-making faculties. He affects the lot. There is no no-go area in us that the Spirit cannot access. The Holy Spirit is now at work in all of those faculties without exception. God creates no new faculties when he regenerates us; he destroys no old faculties. The grace of Jesus Christ gets to work strengthening body and mind and intellect and thinking and creativity and judgment and will and affections and personality. He doesn’t cancel or annihilate what we are. I seek to use fully my mind with my feelings, my inclinations, my members (hands and feet etc) and my thought processes, and I ask God to strengthen, in his grace, every part of who I am. That is being strong in the grace of Christ. The Lord Jesus died instead of me, but the Holy Spirit does not live instead of me. He works relentlessly and effectually in me and all the elect to move and motivate and strengthen us to will and to do of his good pleasure. He is responsible for growing Christ-likeness in all of us.
What am I getting at? It’s this. There is a kind of religious teaching you are going to come across – not in this church but it is all around the Christian world – that says, “Oh, the problem with many Christians is that they are trying to strengthen themselves, but the wonderful news is in the word substitution. God never intended you to save yourself by going to the cross for your sin. Jesus went instead of you. So also now, as a Christian, God expects you to let go and let Jesus be your strength. He never expects you to live the Christian life, he just expects you to let Jesus pour his life into you.” They speak like this; “The problem with you is that you are using your mind. Now don’t use it! Let your mind go into neutral and let Christ’s mind be your mind.” Or they say, “Your problem is that you are using your will, and that is what is getting in the way of being strong in the grace of God. Now you have to negate your will and let Christ will his will through you.” What nonsense! What confused thinking!
That used to be an even more common error, called the secret of the Christian life, but we all know that what goes round goes round, error is never original. It is still floating around the Christian world. It will soon be announced as a new discovery with a few populist spokesmen. We call it ‘quietism’, it tells us to stop trying to put to death remaining sin and keeping on track. Relax! Hand everything over to Jesus the automatic pilot and let him control your life and take you safely home.
Then there are all the vivid pictures they use, for example they ask. “Have you ever seen your apple tree struggling and fighting to produce apples? Have you ever seen an agitated apple tree saying to itself, ‘I must produce apples . . . I’ve got to produce a crop’? No. They just hang there and grow. Well, that that is how we grow in the grace of Jesus Christ.” Now that picture of the apple tree is an unwarranted absolutizing of one picture or one metaphor of Jesus’ teaching about union with him.
We are the ones who are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, not hand everything over to the automatic pilot. Our comfort is that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is working in us to will and to do of his good pleasure. We work because he is working in us. We fight against sin because he fights against it. He is assisting us to look to him day by day. He is helping us to put to death remaining sin, the flesh, by the power of the Holy Spirit. “Help me,” we often say to God, “to keep going on the narrow way. Make me strong in your grace.” What does Paul tell Timothy? “Flee youthful lusts.” And how do you flee? With your feet and legs and flaying arms hurrying away from the temptation, like Joseph running away from Mrs. Potiphar. God says that the best way to overcome temptation is with your feet! Not by the automatic pilot. You don’t lie back and get warm and say, “Now Jesus take over.”
I am bringing to you again a massive biblical truth that is central for any understanding of being strong in the grace of Jesus Christ. The Christian life is a matter of what I call ‘dependent responsibility.’ Two truths; I am dependent upon God for any strength I have; and I am responsible before God for any weakness I have. Dependent and responsible. So Timothy be strong (responsible), in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (dependent). Whatever you are doing as Christians, worshipping, serving other people, witnessing, doing good works then you do so using every possible resource at your disposal – your education, your mind, your bodily strength, your influence in your community, your devotion – and you do so at the same time in utter, humble, dependent reliance upon the grace of God. Dependent responsibility. God expects us to engage ourselves to the fullest of our energies for his purposes. Timothy is to be strong, but what God requires he also supplies. He strengthens us with the might of his Spirit in our inner man. So we pray, “Command what you will, but give what you command.” Timothy, work by grace. Lead by grace. Resist the false teachers by grace. Be faithful to the pattern of sound teaching by grace.
This was the message of dependent responsibility that Timothy heard from Paul. Timothy learned it from the apostle and he charged the memory cells of his brain to retain it. Then he in turn was to teach it in Ephesus to a third generation of reliable and qualified men – as I preached to the more than thirty men who have gone into the pastorate and mission field over the last five decades – and their task where they are is to continue in these doctrines and manner of life and then to teach others. That is the pattern. We owe our faith to someone who witnessed to us, and someone else had testified and taught him or her, and then someone had testified to that person, and so on, back and back ultimately to Paul and to Pentecost. That is how the gospel spreads and will spread in the future. This is how we are taught to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
- THE CONSEQUENCE OF US BECOMING STRONGER AND TEACHING THESE TRUTHS WILL BE THAT WE WILL EXPERIENCE HARDSHIP.
“Endure hardship with us,” Paul says to Timothy (v.3). All who were in Asia turned away from Paul and it is a great reminder to us to expect occasional disappointments in the Christian church. Too many Christians are stunned when fellow members in their own congregations or their ministers let them down. They act as if it’s a cataclysm unparalleled in human experience! It’s never happened before, when the Christian church or its preachers lets people down! And Paul is saying, ‘Timothy, I’ve been let down by everybody in Asia Minor! I led most of them to Christ. I started most of their churches. Then they’ve let me down.’ And so it’s a word of warning to Timothy: ‘Timothy, be prepared for disappointments. Don’t go into the Christian ministry thinking that the church will always come through for you.’ Paul is speaking about the natural hardships not only of the Christian life in general, but of the pastorate, and he’s saying something like this, ‘Here’s a mindset I want you to develop, Timothy. I want you to have a new covenant mentality that expects hardship, that is familiar with taking up your cross. You’re not to be surprised by it when it comes along. When building up a church turns out to be hard work, don’t be discouraged by that. Certainly, Timothy, don’t be surprised! Expect it, because the Christian life is a life of hardships. And Timothy, here’s the attitude I want you to have: be ready to suffer with me, in other words, enter my sufferings.”
And that’s so important for us. We live in an affluent society that cherishes its ease and comforts. And when hardship comes along, typically we are surprised by it. We say, ‘Oh, something must be wrong. It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s supposed to be easy – the church is supposed to grow easy, the church is supposed to work easy, the Christian life is supposed to be easy. I’m supposed to become strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus in an easy way, but this hardship, I don’t understand it. I don’t know why this is happening to me.’ Don’t be surprised that God’s blessing and hardship go hand in hand. Hardship is never a mark of blessing withdrawn. Blessed are you when men reject and criticize you. Endure such hardship as a mark of God’s blessing. Remember the progress of the Christian life is from the hard-going to the difficult and from the difficult to the impossible, and it is a sad Christian life that is any different from that.
- PATTERNS FOR GROWING CHRISTIANS ARE FOUND IN THE WORK OF THE SOLDIER, THE ATHLETE AND THE FARMER.
You see this in verses 3 through 6, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No-one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share.” Does a soldier stroll into battle with his laptop in his hand, in his suit with his patent leather shoes? Does he think, “I will let go of all I have been taught and let God watch over me”? He’d better not or he would soon become another casualty of war. Does an athlete put on his kit to run for the first time in a year the morning of the Games? Does he say, “If God wants me to win this marathon then I shall win?” He’d better not or he’d never even finish the race. Does a farmer say, “The sheep and the cows can look after themselves while I go to Las Vegas for a month”? No way. Being a farmer is a 24/7 vocation.
i] Being strong in the grace of Christ is like the life of a soldier (vv.3&4). This metaphor is often found in the New Testament in reference to our warfare, and the armour we are to wear, and the weapons with which we fight. The soldier is a dedicated man. He is willing to suffer. The Christian expects opposition and ridicule. He takes his share of these things. In Paul’s day, soldiers for the Roman army were recruited away from their jobs. They might have been farmers, and they’re recruited by a captain or a general into their service, and they’re paid for while they’re in the service of the Roman army, but they’re not thinking about that farm that’s back home. In the film The Gladiator Caesar says to Maximus, “How long have you been away from your wife and your home?” Maximus’ response is, “Two years, 246 days, and this morning.” His service of Caesar had taken him away from home for almost three years, but he’d endured that hardship as a good soldier. And Paul is saying, ‘Christian, being strong in grace is being ready for the kind of sacrifices and hardships that is the life of a soldier.’
The soldier doesn’t get distracted by civilian affairs (v.4). He doesn’t tell his sergeant major that he can’t come to the parade ground or be on duty that night because he has a darts match at the local tavern. His first calling is to please his commanding officer. As they used to say when I was a child, “There’s a war on!” and so there had to be austerity and self-denial because this was an emergency. So with us Christians there are entanglements, innocent and acceptable in themselves, but take care that your hobbies and sporting interests and musical tastes don’t weaken your resolution to please the Captain of your salvation. So every Christian is to keep his shoulders back and have the bearing of a man who’s been enlisted to fight for his King against a terrible enemy.
ii] Being strong in the grace of Christ is like the life of an athlete (v.5). “Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” I discovered that athletes in the ancient Greek games were required to come before the judges before the contest even started and they had to swear to Zeus that they had been in training for at least ten months. This is probably what Paul means when he says that ‘you can’t win the prize unless you compete according to the rules.’ Unless you can come and you can acknowledge that you have been in serious training for ten months, you couldn’t even compete for the prize! No rules, no evergreen wreath. You have been dedicated about being an athlete and competing and winning an award. This is not an occasional jogger. This is the professional athlete.
And every sport has its laws. Those laws don’t spoil the game, they make the game. The phrase ‘according to the rules’ is a translation of one Greek word, nominos, which is the adverb of the noun ‘law’ – so it is simply ‘legally’. The Christian is to be strong in keeping the grace of law. In other words, he is strong in having only the Lord as his God. He is strong in refusing to bow down to idols – like the three men in the book of Daniel. He is strong in not taking God’s name in vain. He is strong in having one day a week in which he doesn’t pursue mammon. He is strong in honouring his Mum and Dad. He is strong in not retaliating in violence, in being pure and faithful to his spouse, in not lying, and stealing, and being content with what he has. Living like that is being strong in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, living by the commandments of God. Don’t be a cheat. All sports are full of cheats – cricket, tennis, soccer, snooker, rugby, athletics – you name it, wherever money and gambling is involved then there is the temptation to break the rules of the game. There were a husband and a wife in the early church who cheated in the grace of law and lied about how much money they had got for selling some land. They told the apostles in a church meeting they’d got much less for the land than they’d actually received, and they had given every penny to the Lord. They were lying keeping back some of it for themselves, and so far from being blessed by their gift to God they were judged by the righteous condemnation of God.
iii] Being strong in the grace of Christ is like the life of a farmer (v.6). Before that farmer gets any yield from his fields he’s got to break up the soil. He’s got to prepare the land, he’s got to clear it of stones, he’s got to fertilize it, he’s got to plant it, he’s got to endure all the threats of weather, he’s got to harvest it and separate the ears of the crop from the stalks; and finally it goes to market and is sold so that finally the farmer receives his reward. He can’t stop half way through that process, however disinclined he may feel to go to his fields, he cannot afford to put his feet up and watch daytime TV from 9 through 5. If he has put his hand to the plough he cannot look back. He has a great incentive to keep going, that the first one to be rewarded by the sale of what he has harvested is himself!
What do we have here? The long term goal of the farmer from his spring ploughing and sowing is on the autumn harvest when finally all is safely gathered in ere the winter storms begin. An athlete’s race may be less than ten seconds and he has won the 100 metres. A soldier’s skirmish may last half an hour and the enemy turns tail and runs, but a farmer’s duties endure for hours each day, and they last for months.
All of these images are images that Paul gives us to remind us of the single-mindedness and courage and sacrifice and hard work that is part and parcel of the Christian life. Think of the holy Puritan preacher, Joseph Alleine, lying in bed in the morning and hearing a man working at his job and saying to himself, “He is at work and here am I lying in bed!” Shake off dull sloth and joyful rise to make your morning sacrifice! Endure hardness just as a good farmer does, and set your eyes on the joy of harvest. That is the fruit of being strong in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our labour in the Lord is never in vain. So be steadfast and unmovable and strong in the grace of the Lord.
So let me say this to you, “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (v.7). I am of course quoting to you from the text, from verse seven of this passage. I have told you some important truths and now I have finished, but our work is not over. I have to pray that God will bless to you what I have preached, and your responsibility is to reflect on what I have said. You might say, “Lord I haven’t understood it all. Please give me insight into what I have heard,” and then you will take home and read the copy of the sermon and reflect on what you find and that is another way you grow in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ – reflect! Gain insight! As boys say to one another, “Use your nut.” As men say, “When all else fails read the instructions.” Use your minds to study God’s word and look to God for grace to grow. What are those buzz words? ‘Dependent responsibility.’
24th January 2016 GEOFFREY THOMAS