Sound Teaching for Timid Tongues and Itchy Ears
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The text for today is our Epistle lesson, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Convictions—those things that we have learned and firmly believe in—are important and formative. Some are very helpful because they’re based in truth. But sometimes we must give up long cherished convictions because we find out that the things that we were convinced are facts are not actually true.
For instance: There was a time in my life when I was convinced that you could pop popcorn in water. I argued forcefully with my first grade teacher, Miss Winter when she tried to set me straight. It was about that same time, I believed that you put salt and pepper on your food to cool it off. On the theological side, I also remember a few years later believing the six days of creation were not literal twenty-four hour days, but longer periods of time; and that in the end times, believers would be “raptured” up to heaven, while unbelievers would be left behind for a time of tribulation, which would be followed by a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth.
Now, I have to take the blame for the misunderstanding on the effects of salt and pepper on a plateful of food. Chalk it up to my limited skills of observation and critical reasoning. After all, I was only in the first grade when I came up with that theory. And though I never passed on that bit of “wisdom” to anyone else, I know at least one of my children came up with the same conclusion on her own. Like many other lessons, it was experience that taught me differently. Scorched taste buds and a blistered palate have a way of straightening out faulty thinking!
I’ve never asked him, but my best guess is that it was my Dad, who substituted popped corn for the kernels of corn we left in the water glass overnight, who got me into my heated debate with Miss Winter. Well… that, and the stubborn conviction that anyone who disagrees with me has to be wrong.
But it was my pastor, trained in higher criticism and heavily influenced by Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” that gave me the most harmful convictions. Bearing the authority of the pastoral office and the prestige of theological education, he quickly undid many hours of sound teaching I had received from dedicated Sunday School teachers. He turned the historical stories of the Bible into mere myths and twisted the comforting message of Revelation to the uncertainties of dispensational millennialism.
I don’t know if my pastor ever realized the potential damage caused by his false teaching. I pray that he has! I pray that he has come to know the truth. And I thank God for leading me by His Holy Spirit to recognize the harmful errors he taught and keeping me in the true faith and trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior despite the heterodox teaching (mixed message) that I was hearing
Convictions are powerful things. Some can prove embarrassing; others are dangerous to life and faith. But true convictions are able to make you wise for salvation. That’s why St. Paul admonishes Timothy to continue in the things he has learned from holy Scriptures since childhood: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 14-16).
Every word of the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Therefore, it is absolutely true, reliable, and powerful. The Bible teaches people all that they need to know about the way of salvation. It shows us what things to avoid as dangerous to our souls. It helps us to turn away from sin, and enables us to live holy lives. It equips us to serve our neighbor with good works, and share the Gospel with others.
Having established the importance of the faithful teaching of God’s Word, Paul gives Timothy a solemn charge as one of Christ’s undershepherds: “I charge you in presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word, be ready in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
What Paul means is that Timothy should serve as a herald of the Word, publicly proclaiming only the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. He is to stick to that message, and only that message, whether he or his hearers feel like it or not, for that is the only message that brings forgiveness, salvation, and life. As he preaches the Word, Timothy must preach both Law and Gospel—the Law to show the damage sin has done to his hearers and the Gospel to build them up with the love and mercy of a gracious God in Christ.
Paul goes on to explain why this is so important: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but have itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Paul here distinguishes between what people need to hear and what they want to hear. What people need to hear is “sound teaching.” It is sound or healthy in that it says what God wants said. It comes from Him, and it produces spiritual health. Unfortunately, many people “will not endure sound teaching” because it does not say what they want to hear. It exposes their sin and proclaims condemnation. It does not flatter them with a recital of their great deeds and potential. And when it proclaims deliverance from sin in the Gospel, it does not make sense to human reason. In the face of such opposition, Timothy must stand firm. He must not give in to the temptation to adapt his preaching to what people want to hear, but give them sound teaching according to God’s revealed truth.
Our text certainly applies to our day. We live in a time of itchy ears, where timid-tongued preachers fail to preach the full counsel of God’s Word—the Law in all of its sternness and Gospel in all its sweetness. So for the next few minutes, we’ll be applying our text to you and me—to pastor and parishioners.
Pastors are to preach the Word. Pastors are to apply God’s Law and Gospel from the Biblical text for that week, and administer Baptism and the Lord’s Supper according to Christ’s command, Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year. After hammering out the sinfulness of all persons, they are to announce what Christ’s death and resurrection have done to meet this particular aspect of God’s Law. A pastor is to preach as central the forgiveness of sins wrought by Christ on our behalf. If he does anything else, he is guilty of forsaking his call.
If, for example, he uses the Bible text only for a call to deeper Christian living, he has forsaken his call. If he only holds up Christ as an example of what we Christians are to emulate, he has forsaken his call. If he only preaches Christ as an answer to some perceived need we may have, he has forsaken his call. If he preaches only some laudable social or political action the congregation should take, he has forsaken his call.
A pastor is to preach the Word. This means preaching Christ and Him crucified. Preaching only Christ means there is only one genuine and saving Christ. He is not only sufficient in His bleeding and dying to save us; He is the only Christ. But beware: Many churches and their pastors offer “Christs” who are not really Christ at all. Here are a few to look out for.
The first is Christ the psychotherapist. This is an extremely popular position in today’s evangelicalism. This very practical “Christ” is preached as one who can heal our inner psychological wounds. He can help us overcome our addictions, heal our broken marriages, aid us in communication with our children, and deal with other dysfunctional situations.
Then there’s Christ our example. Far too often Christ is preached as a moral example whom we are to emulate. The idea lying behind this view is that our sin is little more than confusion and that we have within us the moral ability to do whatever should be done, once we are taught it. The “gospel” of this particular “Christ” is actually Law, though few who preach it seem to recognize this fact.
We also see Christ who gives health and wealth. Surprisingly common, especially in America, is the preaching of a “Christ” who always grants health or wealth to those whose faith in Him reaches the proper level.
Preaching the Word and listening to sound doctrine means rejecting such false “Christs.” It means sticking to that message of Christ crucified for sinners, and only that message, whether the timid-tongued preacher in the pulpit or the itchy-eared parishioner in the pew feels like it or not. A pastor is called to preach Christ crucified and to administer the sacraments to the congregation. These are the means through which God’s distributes His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is what it means to “do the work of an evangelist.”
Someone says, “But surely you don’t mean that the pastor should be evangelizing believers from the pulpit? Aren’t they already saved?” The sad fact is that most so-called “evangelical” churches have no category for preaching Christ to a congregation of believers. Their only category for preaching the Gospel is the conversion of unbelievers. But important as the latter is, the former is no less important. Christians need to hear the Gospel, too. For we also are poor miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. We also are sinners in need of the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ on the cross.
What exactly does this involve? It involves what we have already described. Pastors are called week-by-week to preach Christ in His saving office to their congregations and to administer the sacraments to their congregations. While we might be attracted to something else, this is the message we all really need to hear.
Think of the inner self-conversation many Christians experience week by week. “There may have been grace for me when, as a sinner, I was initially converted. But now I fear that things have gotten worse in me rather better. I have horribly abused all of God’s good gifts to me. I was so optimistic in the beginning, when the pastor told me that Christ freely saved me by His death, and the Holy Spirit would aid me in following Christ. I looked forward to so much. But it has all gone so badly. I have used God’s grace and Christ’s shed blood as an excuse for doing things I probably wouldn’t have done even as an unbeliever.
“I guess maybe I never was a Christian in the first place, because if I had been, I would have made some progress in the Christian life. Maybe I was never part of the elect. If I wasn’t, there’s nothing I can do about that. Anyway, I'm losing hope. I’ll try going to church for a while longer, but I think I’ve tried every possible thing the church has told me to do. After that, I guess I’ll just go back to what I was doing before and ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ for the time I’ve got left. What else is there to do?”
How does a pastor preach the Word to this man or woman? What does he or she need to hear? First of all, a wise pastor recognizes that the Law has done, and is doing, its work on him or her. He realizes that what is needed in this case is not more Law but the Gospel. A penitent sinners needs to hear forgiveness.
One of the harmful effects of revivalism in this country has been the common conviction that genuine conversion always shows itself in measurable moral progress. This sort of theology is not only untrue, it is deadly. Any teaching that turns us back into ourselves for assurance is no assurance at all. That’s why we Christians need to continue hearing that the death and resurrection of Christ in our place was strong enough to save us, too! This means that the means of grace must be central to a pastor’s ministry. Christians also need to hear the Good News of Christ crucified for sinners, by grace alone, through faith alone.
One thing that makes this so difficult for pastors today is the influence that revivalist thought has had in our day. The emphasis is on “Christ within” more than “Christ outside of us,” and that appeals to many itchy ears. Luther faced this in the case of Melanchthon, his brilliant co-worker. Genius that he was, Melanchthon was more “inward oriented” than was Luther. In a letter to Luther, Melanchthon fretted, “I wonder if I trust Christ enough? Perhaps I do not? What then?” Luther fired back his famous letter, “Melanchthon, go and sin boldly! Then go to the cross and boldly confess it! The whole Gospel is outside of us!”
Contrary to popular opinion, it is not Christ’s work within us that saves us. It’s outside of us. Extra nos. It’s not Jesus in our heart that saves us, but Christ on the cross who saves us! What saves is Christ’s objective dying, His objective blood shed on an objective cross, His objective Word, His objective Supper, His objective absolution that saves us. Or to put it another way, it is not our faith that saves us, but it is the object of our faith—Jesus Christ crucified—that saves us.
This sounds so simple, but it is the battle between the true objective Gospel and a false gospel of inwardness. When our self-examination results in despair (and well it might, because we continue to sin), Christ’s objective and sufficient work must be preached to us by our pastors. We cannot do this for ourselves. It must be preached to us by pastors who are called to do it for us.
This is God’s gift to His Church. God speaks through the preached Word of pastors. God feeds His sheep the very body and blood of the Lamb of God from the hands of His undershepherds. God absolves repentant sinners through His called and ordained servants. Indeed, in the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of our sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.