A Workman Approved by God

Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:14-15)

A minister of the gospel is called to communicate with people by speaking and writing. Sometimes theologians and homileticians who wish to exalt the place of preaching attribute what seems to be a mystical power to the very act of speaking the message aloud, as if the same words become more effective once they transform from ink blots on paper to sounds in the air. The motive to exalt preaching is commendable, since the Bible itself stresses its importance in declaring the knowledge and majesty of God. However, unless there is biblical evidence to attribute some special power to speaking the message in contrast to writing the message, such a view of preaching is mere superstition. And there is no such biblical evidence.

Those who advocate this superstition appeal to Romans 10:17, where Paul says, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Faith comes by hearing, they say, and a person hears when someone preaches. The claim is that something unique happens when a person hears the word of God. However, the verse says nothing about reading and writing. Just because faith comes by hearing does not mean that it cannot come by reading, or that it cannot come just as effectively, or even more effectively. The verse does not suggest that there is something mystical, supernatural, or unique in hearing itself. Rather, John says, “these are written that you may believe” (John 20:31).

Thus even the deaf can experience the full power of God’s word by reading it or when someone preaches to him by sign language. The power is in God’s ideas, communicated through words, whether by speaking or writing, by hearing or reading, and made effective by the Holy Spirit. There is power in preaching not because man make sounds in the air as opposed to symbols on paper, but because the words and ideas communicated come from God. Superstition distracts attention from God’s wisdom and power.

So the minister of the gospel is to communicate. What is he to talk about? Many ministers fill their sermons with social issues and superficial concerns. They are useless people. It is a waste of time to listen to them. These topics are not trivial, but a doctrinal foundation is needed to correctly address them. Yet the doctrinal foundation itself is not established mainly to address them; rather, it is valuable for its own sake. The minister is called to handle the word of truth, the gospel, or the doctrines of the Christian faith. This is what he must talk about all the time. The workman who correctly handles the word of truth, Paul says, is one who does not need to be ashamed. This implies that one needs to be ashamed who does not handle the word of truth or who mishandles the word of truth.

This is the defining difference between a good and a bad minister, or one who does not need to be ashamed and one who does. The difference is doctrine. If a minister takes the Bible, validly deduces teachings from it, and then communicates these teachings to others, then he is one who does not need to be ashamed. If he does not do this, then he needs to be ashamed. The matter is simple and clear-cut, but it is of supreme importance, because it sets the standard by which all ministers are evaluated. If we are ministers, then this is what we must become and remain. If we are church members, then this is the kind of ministers that we should follow and support, and we must reject all those who do not correctly handle the word of truth.

It is not rare for some to say about a certain minister, “His doctrine may be a little off, but he has good character.” The assumption is that it does not require good character to recognize and believe sound doctrine, or at least belief of the truth is a minor part of the personality. In any case, the standard used is wrong. Of course a minister ought to have good character, but if he does not first possess sound Christian doctrine, let him show off his good Buddhist character in the pew. Doctrine, or the word of God, is the standard. Does the minister know and believe the word of truth? What does he do with it?

A minister who correctly handles the word of truth is not a child in the things of God. He applies sound doctrine in a serious and mature manner, and faces head-on the reality that confronts us in this world. In the same context where Paul states that a workman should correctly handle the word of truth, he tells Timothy, “Keep reminding them of these things.” If “these things” do not include all that precede the verse since the beginning of the letter, at least they refer to verses 8-13. And in these verses Paul speaks of the doctrinal contents of the gospel, including Christ’s resurrection and royal heritage. He says that it is because he preaches this gospel that he is suffering to be point of being chained like a criminal. He speaks of enduring hardship for the elect, so that they may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. Then, he speaks of the consequence of disowning Christ: “If we disown him, he will also disown us.” This is serious, solemn business, and a minister who correctly handles the word of truth must communicate this to those who hear him.