Teaching the Devil’s Captives

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

Sometimes people criticize me for obeying the biblical teaching that I should sharply rebuke certain individuals and for following the examples of the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus, even when I merely repeat the harsh words that they used to condemn unbelievers and heretics. According to them, the practice is against Christian teaching on kindness and gentleness. Their criticism against me, sometimes just as harsh as the harsh words that they criticize me for using, amounts to saying that it is unbiblical to obey biblical commands and follow biblical examples.

Here Paul says, “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone.” This poses a tremendous problem for my critics. The modern church equates kindness with the use of non-threatening and non-condemning words, preferably accompanied by an effeminate tone and posture. They have confused a homosexual stereotype with the kindness of Jesus Christ. This is a blasphemy that in itself demands harsh rebuke and punishment. If this is the definition of kindness, then the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus himself were never kind. The definition is unbiblical.

Consider the two letters to Timothy. Paul writes, “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Is this kind? Then, he says, “Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.” Is this gentle? Later, he adds, “Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron.” Is this polite? “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done.” By the standard of my critics, is this even “Christian”? Then, he writes to Titus, “‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply.” Is this not offensive? And of course, he just got through comparing unbelievers and heretics to dumpsters and toilets. Why am I not allowed to do the same? Also, what about that time when he told the Judaizers to go all the way and castrate themselves? Was Paul “kind” to everyone in the sense understood by my critics and by contemporary believers? There are hundreds of similar examples in the words of the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus, many of them stronger than those cited above.

Given the unbiblical definition of kindness, the biblical instruction to “be kind to everyone” presents some troubling options. If the biblical examples and commands are consistent with kindness, then we cannot use the unbiblical definition of kindness, which means that there is no biblical criticism against me, the biblical writers, or the Lord Jesus. But given the unbiblical definition of kindness, one must regard the biblical examples and commands as inconsistent with kindness. If this is the case, then those who hold this definition must either limit the application of the verse in question to the point that no criticism can apply against me, or they must say either that Paul is a hypocrite, or that Scripture contradicts itself. In either case, they have exposed themselves as heretics, and I recommend church discipline against them. The truth is that Scripture does not support the definition of kindness that can be used to contradict or criticize my approach.

You may answer that the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus were exceptions because they had the benefit of infallibility through divine inspiration. On the other hand, we are fallible, and we do not know the hearts of men, so that we ought not pronounce judgment on anyone. However, if I must not say something negative about people, even though my judgment is based on the word of God, then why can I say anything positive about them? What gives me the right to say “kind” words to them? Lacking infallibility, will I not make the mistake of approving something or someone that I ought to disapprove? And while we are at it, why are you judging me for being harsh? Are you infallible? Hypocrite! You have no respect for the word of God. If my judgment is based on the word of God, then my judgment is correct, and the judgment that I pronounce is in reality God’s judgment against people, and God is always right. If you say that my understanding of Scripture is imperfect, then the same criticism applies to you. Your interpretation of those biblical passages on kindness and gentleness is also fallible, so how can you apply them to me?

You are using the infallibility of the prophets and the apostles as an excuse not to believe and apply the word of God. You are a coward and a hypocrite, and you are unfaithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. But I say, let us not be cowards and hypocrites. Let us use our fallibility and their infallibility, not as an excuse, but as a motivation for us to cling ever closer to the word of God, so that we will praise what God praises, and condemn what he condemns. Is it better to condemn God, or to worship the devil? You tell me to refrain, lest I condemn God, but do you say that I should worship the devil? Is that what you do? But I would rather worship God and condemn the devil. The word of God tells me the difference.

The passage does not negate the testimony of the whole Bible, but is rather consistent with it. It does not forbid reasoned debate. And it does not exclude the place of rebuking false teachers and their followers in the harshest terms and tones imaginable when appropriate. Paul would soon tell Timothy to include “rebuke” when he preaches the word of God (4:2), and again, he tells Titus to sharply rebuke the Cretans. Instead, Paul is telling Timothy to avoid “foolish and stupid arguments,” and specifically to avoid “quarrels.” It is in this context that he says to “be kind to everyone.” This is different from the application that some people make out of verses like this.

Those who follow false doctrines are the devil’s captives. To use a convenient term, they have been “programmed” to process ideas a certain way, so that their minds think in directions that always lead them to the wrong conclusions no matter what you feed into them. The phenomenon is pronounced when dealing with cult members, but a similar pattern is seen in anyone who affirms false doctrines. They are impervious to unbiblical kindness and persuasion. If you act like a pervert around them, they will miss your point or laugh at you. Biblical kindness is so much greater than a non-offensive vocabulary and an effeminate tone. It entails instruction, pleading, reprimand, and warning. It persists in wrestling the demon within the other person hour after hour after hour, determined to extract him out of the devil’s snare. Even when it screams harsh insults at the person, it does so for the benefit of his soul and for the honor of God, and not out of resentment or for the sake of personal vindication. This is biblical kindness and patience.

We must give it a good effort. Nevertheless, it is God who decides whether to grant repentance to the person. Repentance is not something that a person decides to do by himself, but it is something that God decides to cause the person to do. It is true that man makes a decision, but it is God’s decision that causes man’s decision. Again, the folly of compatibilism is evident. Of course the fact that man makes a decision is compatible with the fact that God makes a decision. But since it is God’s decision that determines and causes man’s decision, this is like saying that God’s decision is compatible with God’s decision. God is compatible with himself. The effect of his control is compatible with the fact of his control. Of course that is true, but how is this useful to the person who affirms compatibilism?

Repentance means a change of mind. Since God is the one who grants repentance, this means that it is not the person who changes his own mind, but God who changes a person’s mind. What does he change his mind to? Paul says that repentance leads to “a knowledge of the truth.” Again, it comes down to a matter of doctrine. This is how we are to recognize true repentance. There is no repentance unless the person turns to affirm true doctrines. If he does not affirm true doctrines, then he has not repented, and he remains in his sins.