by Tom Ascol
American evangelicals need to be honest. Despite all of the great accomplishments that we tout, all of our incredible resources and all of our imposing statistics, we have made very little impact on our world and culture. In fact, just the opposite is true. The world has had far greater influence on our churches than our churches have had on the world. And while the world is getting worse and worse, the church has lost its voice. Consequently, we live in desperate days.
Self-centeredness and selfishness are the norm today. Greed and pride are regarded as virtuous. Many in our land would prefer to blaspheme God than to attempt even one right thought about him. This generation despises authority and largely has an entitlement mentality. Many if not most glory in immorality and in the things that ought to shame us. Our culture finds death and destruction entertaining. People hate what is good. They love what is evil. Our time is marked by the widespread denial that there is such a thing as absolute truth (depending, of course, on what the definition of “is” is). People deny the existence of truth, and live for pleasure.
Furthermore, these very attitudes flourish not only in the society at large, but they have also infiltrated and are flourishing in our churches. All across our land religion is now regarded as a private matter which may, or more likely may not, have anything to do with a person’s public character, life and activities. As one single man told Tony Campolo recently, “Yeah I do a lot of things that are wrong, you know, a lot of stuff sexually. I’m really into it. But, you know, I believe its all taken care of on Calvary.” We’ve sold a nation cheap grace for so long that the real thing is no longer recognized or appreciated by many religious people.
Study after study has demonstrated that there is no discernible difference between the morality of evangelicals and those in our land who make no religious profession. Josh McDowell has surveyed teenagers who are actively involved in their evangelical churches only to discover that more than half of them are deceitful to their parents and sexually immoral. Recent studies have also indicated that the divorce rate is actually higher among evangelicals–especially those who live in the “Bible belt” states–than among the general population. What is a church to do in such days? How are we to respond? What is a pastor to do?
The Bible does not leave us guessing at answers to these questions. It speaks very clearly, very simply, very straightforwardly to this issue. The Scripture is very clear: extreme times call for extreme measures. And the extreme measures which the Bible sets before us for such days as this can be summarized in one word: preaching. Desperate days call for determined preaching of God’s Word.
In his second letter to Timothy the Apostle Paul makes this point quite emphatically. From the beginning of chapter 3 through the first part of chapter 4, Paul warns Timothy of the desperate times which are coming and instructs him to be steadfast in the important work of expositing God’s Word.
Preaching is God’s ordained means of spreading His gospel throughout the world and accomplishing His purposes. Whatever else may be done, this always must be done. No matter how desperate the days become, the church of Jesus Christ must continually insist that God’s Word be preached in and through the congregation.
Paul uses most of the third chapter to warn Timothy of desperate times that are coming in the life of the world in which he lives and in the church in which he serves. Timothy is at Ephesus, serving as pastor of the church which Paul planted. Paul is near the end of his life, being held in a Roman prison.
In the world
In the first four verses of chapter three Paul writes about the coming of some very severe problems in society. He says, “Timothy, know this, that in the last days perilous times will come.” What does he mean by this? He is not referring to the last days as those moments or days immediately preceding the coming of Jesus. Rather, he has in mind those “last days” which have existed since the first coming of the Lord Jesus and that will go on until the second coming of Christ. If he only meant those few days or years immediately prior to the second coming of the Lord then the rest of this chapter would make no sense.
Paul describes the perilous times which will mark the last days by cataloging some of the more odious sins which will characterize people during such seasons. People will be “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). Then Paul tells Timothy to separate himself from those who are guilty of these kinds of immoralities, a command which Timothy could not obey if the apostle had exclusively in view the days immediately preceding the return of Christ.
What Paul is saying is that there will be grievous seasons that will come in the last days–those days in which we live which extend from Christ’s first coming to His second coming. Timothy was going to live to see some of those perilous times. Such seasons have appeared throughout the history of the church. They are happening again in western civilization, more particularly in our own American culture.
Paul’s description of people in verses 2-5 sounds very familiar. It is as if he were reading the headlines from one of our local newspapers. What Paul predicted that Timothy would see has also come true in our own day. Increased public immorality is once again plaguing our society. It is evidence that we are living in desperate times. But that is not the only evidence. In perilous times selfishness and lawlessness are not restricted to the boundaries of the world. Sadly, they penetrate the church.
In the church
Paul tells Timothy to turn away “from such people” (v. 5). Who are these people? Who does Paul have in mind? He gives us some clear indications by further describing those who are guilty of these kinds of attitudes and immoral actions as “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (v. 5). Paul is talking about church members! He is talking about people who have made a religious profession of faith but who refuse to walk by faith. They say they know God, but they refuse to obey God. They say that they have become Christ’s but they will not live for Christ. They are religious hypocrites.
They are unteachable. They have a problem with the truth. Though they are always learning they never come to a settled knowledge of the truth (v. 7). In fact, they actually resist the truth (v. 8). They are opposed to truth. It is as if they have a phobia regarding truth.
Consequently, they are intolerant of sound doctrine (4:3). Again, we must remind ourselves of whom Paul is writing. He does not have in mind the people out there on skid row. He is not talking about the agnostics or the open atheists. He is talking about people in the churches. The time is coming, Paul warns, when church people will not put up with sound doctrine but will surround themselves with teachers who will tickle their ears. They will prefer to believe fables instead of the truth.
Paul describes two things in these verses: 1) a society that is coming apart at the seams, that is disintegrating, and 2) a church in that society that has been completely infiltrated by the world. It does not take much imagination to recognize that the apostle’s warnings have come true in our own day.
What is Paul’s advice to Timothy in the light of such difficult circumstances? Does he suggest some new plan? Does he come up with some unusual, brand new never-before-tried strategy to meet the difficulties of this new day? Some new measures, perhaps. Hardly. In essence, what Paul says is simply this: “Timothy, order your life and ministry by the Word of God.” When things get this bad, there is only one solution.
Continue in the Word personally
He challenges Timothy to press on in his devotion to the Word of God, to live by that Word (3:14-17). Paul charges him to remember the source of the Word. Scripture is inspired of God. The NIV is appropriately literal in translating Paul’s description of Scripture as being “God breathed.” God exhaled it, so that God Himself is the author of the Word collectively and of the words individually.
Convinced that God is its source, Paul also reminds Timothy of the nature of this Word. It is holy. This separates it from other books. It is divine, unique revelation from on high. He further reminds Timothy of the power of the Word. It is able to make you wise unto salvation. How do people have their lives changed? It is not by going to a new psychiatrist to get the latest counseling techniques imposed on them. Rather, it is the ministry of the Word which reveals Jesus Christ and His salvation to sinners.
Paul also tells Timothy to remember the usefulness of this Word. It is profitable for doctrine (what we must believe in this life and what we will believe gladly for all of eternity), for reproof, for correction and for instruction and training in righteousness, with the result that the man of God might be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Paul says, “Timothy, continue in this Word, live by this Word.”
When everything seems to be coming apart at the seams around you, cling to the Word. When it seems like the church is not responding and things are not going the way they ought to, cling to the Word. When both the world and the church are in a mess, continue to anchor your life to the Word of God. It is completely sufficient for your spiritual life and ministry.
Preach the Word publicly
Not only is Timothy to continue in the Word personally, but Paul goes on to tell him to preach the Word publicly (4:1-2). The first verse of chapter four sets forth the seriousness of the charge that he is about to give. Paul piles image upon image to rivet Timothy’s attention on the admonition which he is about to give.
It is given “in the sight of God”–which in itself would be enough–and before the Lord Jesus Christ, “who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing at His kingdom.” God will one day require an accounting from Timothy for how well he heeded this apostolic charge.
Every God-called preacher of the gospel should feel the weight and seriousness of this apostolic charge. Together with the apostle’s young colleague we stand before God, in the sight of the very Christ whom we know and love, who has come into our lives to save us and change us. We are being commissioned by the authority of and before the face of the One to whom we must one day give an account not only for our personal lives but also for our public ministries.
And what is the nature of this charge? Simply and forcefully, Paul declares, “Preach the Word!” This is the first of five quick imperative verbs in verse 2. The first one comprehends all the rest and they in turn help elaborate the nature and content of preaching.
Paul uses an official word for preaching. It is a word that was used of a herald, an emissary, an ambassador that went in behalf of his king to make known a matter of great importance. Preaching is the divinely authorized proclamation of God’s message to men and women. It is nothing less than heralding the oracles of God to men.
Paul ties the nature of this work to its content when he instructs Timothy to preach the Word. What is to be preached is not the prerogative of the preacher. The messenger does not originate or create the message. His job is to accurately communicate it. He is the deliverer of the message. The success of his work is measured by the degree to which he accurately communicates that which the One who has given him the message has actually said. Deviation from the message which he has been given is nothing less than insubordination to his King.
The content of the message comes from God Himself. “The Word” consists of the Holy Scriptures, which are “God-breathed.” In verse 3 Paul identifies this Word with “sound doctrine,” which is nothing less than the Word accurately understood and applied. To preach the Word is to teach sound doctrine which, he warns, some will not put up with in the last days.
What this means is that if the man of God is going to preach the Word of God, then he himself must be a sound theologian. He must be willing to do the hard work of study so that he can draw out of the text God’s truths and explain and apply them to his hearers.
One of the greatest maladies that has befallen evangelical life in the last century is the church’s abdication of the work of theology to the academy. Praise God for academicians and those who give themselves day in and day out to the study of matters which can equip churches and those who serve in them! But theology, sound doctrine, the Word, belongs to the church. Those who would preach the Word must commit themselves to being the best students of it. They must commit themselves to understanding it, to knowing sound doctrine.
A preacher must be a sound theologian if he is to draw out of the text God’s truths and explain and apply them to his hearers. This means that he must be committed to letting Scripture interpret Scripture. He must be so familiar with the Word that no one passage is taken out and explained in contradiction to other passages. He must refuse to twist or treat superficially any portion of Scripture. He must measure all his thoughts and conclusions by the standard of the inscripturated Word of God.
This kind of work in preaching is what John Owen calls a “sweaty kind of preaching.” It is a charge to be an expository preacher. Expository preaching has almost become a shibboleth among conservatives and evangelicals in our day. No self-respecting, conservative, Bible believing pastor would admit that he does anything less. But, as the old song says about heaven, so it is equally true that, “not everybody talking about expository preaching is doing it.” There is more to it than merely using the Bible as the starting point of the sermon.
When many preachers prepare to preach they take their texts from the Bible and their sermons from the newspapers. To “preach the Word” means more than merely preaching from the Word. Rather, the Word itself must govern and guide that which we would say in behalf of God.
The Scripture must be studied so that it is accurately understood, simply explained, and legitimately applied. The great nineteenth-century, Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Dabney aptly summed up the work of preaching: “The preacher’s business is just to show the people what’s in the Bible.”
Paul then adds four more imperatives to flesh out the concerns of this work. He says that the preacher is to do his work with a sense of urgency and readiness–he is to “be ready in season and out of season.” Proclaiming God’s Word is never to be “out of season” for the preacher. When times are good and when they are bad; when it is easy and when it is hard, he must always be willing and prepared to declare God’s message.
Further, he is to “convince” in his preaching–to bring truth to the conscience in order that his hearers might repent of sin and trust Christ. He is to “rebuke”–to deal with sin sharply and forthrightly. And he is to “exhort.” Just as a father would tenderly encourage his child to do that which is right and to pursue the right course.
These are the extreme measures which extreme times demand. What is a church and a pastor to do when the world around them becomes increasingly immoral? Preach the Word! What should we do when we see the church becoming more like the world? Preach the Word! But what if church members are not interested in learning sound doctrine, what then? Preach the Word!
A pastor may be called simplistic, archaic, unrealistic, irrelevant and insensitive, but if he would be called faithful to the charge which he has been given, he must never allow the church to do away with God’s solution to perilous times. He must confidently and joyfully insist on the priority of preaching God’s Word.
Given the situation that Timothy is facing; given the difficulties which emerge in the world and in the church, why does Paul give the counsel that he does? Why does he instruct Timothy to continue on living by and proclaiming the Word of God? The only answer is that Paul is obviously convinced of the things he has just written.
First, he is convinced of the authority of the Word. He believes that when the affirmation is made that all Scripture is given by inspiration (is “breathed out” from God), that this Word is God’s Word and it has the authority of the Creator and Redeemer behind it. It is God’s call to us and we must give allegiance to it. We must submit our minds and our very lives to it. Paul did not doubt or equivocate on the authority of the Word of God.
Second, he is convinced of the sufficiency of the Word. He believes that this Word is enough, that this is what God has entrusted to His churches. This is what the man of God is called to understand and to handle expertly, that he might be not partially equipped, not helped along the way, but thoroughly equipped, and that not just for some work, but for every good work. The Scripture is enough for doctrine. It is enough for reproof. It is enough for correction. It is enough for disciplining ourselves in righteousness. Paul was convinced of the authority and the sufficiency of the Word.
Consequently, Paul has confidence in the preaching of the Word. These three convictions go together. Expository preaching is a necessary corollary to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. The absence of such preaching betrays a lack of conviction in the Bible’s authority and sufficiency–no matter how loudly a man may profess his allegiance to the Word of God.
What D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said nearly thirty years ago remains true today. “The most urgent need in the Christian church is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.”
We need a renewed confidence in preaching the Bible today. What we desperately need are men who are fully committed to preaching the Word; men who unhesitatingly believe that God still uses the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe; men who are willing to pay the price to study and discipline themselves to become effective, faithful expositors of the Word of God.
Such preaching is God’s means for accomplishing God’s purposes in desperate times. Pastors must take it up as their chief duty. Churches must insist on it and settle for nothing less.
In his masterful work on preaching, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, John A. Broadus said this:
In every age of Christianity, since John the Baptist drew crowds into the desert, there has been no great religious movement, no restoration of Scripture truth, and reanimation of genuine piety, without new power in preaching, both as cause and as effect.
If we hope to see genuine revival and reformation, there must be a return of power to the pulpit. Spirit-anointed preaching of God’s Word by men fully committed to the task is the great need of the day.
We preachers humour fancies instead of trying to crush them. We act like a father who gives his sick child a cake or an ice, or something else that is merely nice to eat-just because he asks for it; and takes no pains to give him what is good for him; and when the doctors blame him says, “I could not bear to hear my child cry.” … This is what we do when we elaborate beautiful sentences, fine combinations and harmonies; to please and not to profit. …
John Chrysostom, Homilies on Acts