Preaching as Warfare

Paul urges his younger protégé, Timothy, “wage the good warfare” (1 Tim 1:18). Preachers are caught up in a war of words and ideas, truth and falsehood, then as now. And Timothy is being given his marching orders—“stand your ground, because this is a fight to the death,” Paul is saying to him.  

Paul met Timothy at Lystra and became a fellow traveler in gospel outreach and communication. They found themselves in such places as Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:2), Corinth (1 Cor 4:17) and Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). Timothy seems to have been present when Paul was imprisoned in Rome (Phil 2:19), and, together, they cooperated on six New Testament letters—2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Timothy is probably in his thirties when the charge to “fight the good fight (KJV)” is made, “a child in the faith” in Paul’s eyes (1 Tim 1:2). Some looked down on his youthfulness with disdain, but Timothy is urged to remember his calling and keep his focus on Christ and the gospel (1 Tim 4:12; cf. 2 Tim 2:22). Given some kind of supernatural gift at the time of his ordination (when a group of elders laid hands on him, see 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14), Timothy’s life ever since had been that of a preacher.

Timothy’s call to preach came from God. Some, as C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “stumble into the pulpit” instead of being summoned into it. “It is a fearful calamity to a man to miss his calling,” Spurgeon continues, “and to the church upon whom he imposes himself, his mistake involves an affliction of the most grievous kind.”

Every preacher needs an assurance that he is “appointed to the ministry” (1 Tim 1:12). The work is too demanding, too exacting, to enter it without a summons from Almighty God. And what a calling it is! “To me,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones remarked, “the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called.”

Following Paul’s release from prison (the event recorded at the end of Acts), Timothy remained at Ephesus. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy, urging his protégé to battle, Timothy has been the preaching pastor in Ephesus for perhaps a few months. Did Timothy write and ask for help? Or did Paul anticipate Timothy’s potential problems? We do not know. Still, it is of interest to ask, what kind of warfare did Timothy find himself in at this point?

Paul hints at some of problems facing young Timothy—“myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim 1:4), for example, that is, those whose sole interest is Bible trivia and speculative opinions. Then there are the “quarrelsome” (1 Tim 3:3; 6:4), who love to win an argument and demonstrate their commitment to “principle,” but not for love of the truth. Their point is simply to argue for its own sake—for the “fun” of it. Some, for sure, were teaching “different doctrine” (1 Tim 1:3), an activity which Timothy is to do his utmost to stop. These false doctrines include erroneous interpretations of the Mosaic law (1 Tim 1:4-11).

Modern preachers live in similar circumstances to Timothy. They (we!) face opposition and temptation from myth-indulgers and false teachers, beckoning preachers to lose sight of the goal. With Paul’s admonition to Timothy in mind, we need to ask ourselves, what kind of opposition do modern preachers face?

Four in particular come to mind:

1. The temptation to preach about ourselves. This temptation is often a subtle one. Preachers desire to show how approachable they are, declaring aspects of their brokenness and frailty, revealing that they, too, are vessels of clay—a celebratory fragility that shows they have a past. All of this is done in the interest of asserting that the past is “under the blood”—forgiven and washed away. Thus, in the interest of preaching justification by faith apart from any degree of holiness on our part, preachers slide into preaching themselves, making much of past sins and failures in order to encourage equally failing disciples.   

Sometimes, it is less subtle. Illustrations about preachers’ families—sometimes funny, often not—can become the focal point of the message, and suddenly an all-too-human pastor is dominating the sermon.

Paul recognized this dilemma very clearly, and in his letter to Corinth he defiantly opposes a focus on self:  “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5). Preaching must be about Christ and the gospel. Our stance must be to mimic the Master who alone can preach himself: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Jesus may preach about Himself, but we dare not!

2. The temptation to be “well thought of.” Who doesn’t want to be liked? Masochists and misfits, perhaps. Most of us find life goes a lot easier when others speak well of us.

Of course, you can make yourself unlikeable all too easily. Jesus’ warning is not a call to be mean. There are preachers who seem to be permanently angry. Even when preaching the gospel and calling sinners to Christ, they seem to be angry about the state of those whom they address, forgetting that, sometimes, we need to be to be gentle, loving, kind, and persuading in our preaching.

Conversely, preachers sometimes feel the need to cut doctrinal corners in an attempt to be accommodating and tolerant. Hard-edged truths such as the need for eye-gouging repentance (Matt. 5:29), or countercultural loyalty to biblical assessment of homosexual practice, abortion, or the role of women in ecclesiastical office may be blunted in order to soften the contrast with contemporary taboos.

Jesus addresses this temptation to self-congratulation in clear language: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to [a]treat the false prophets in the same way” (Luke 6:26).

3. The temptation to limited vision. Every preacher has pet themes, ones that he is comfortable in addressing. And then there are other issues—equally or more important—that preachers avoid, perhaps because they are “too hot to handle” in a particular context. Every preacher must decide what is “first of all” and what is “second” and “third” (cf. 1 Cor 15:3, “I delivered to you as of first importance”). Not every issue is worthy of sacrificing a ministry opportunity. How, then, can preachers maintain a good conscience (cf. “a good conscience and sincere faith” 1 Tim 1:5; cf. 1:19) and offer loyal commitment to the Lord in all matters? After all, Paul told the Ephesian elders (in the place where Timothy now resides), “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). How can we make a judgment between what is “wise” or “expedient” and what are the demands of loyalty to the truth of God’s Word?

In the long run, a commitment to faithful expository preaching, verse-by-verse exposition of the whole of Scripture, can assist in the prevention of theological hobby-horse preaching. It is not a guarantee against such failure—we can avoid preaching on certain books of the Bible, for example. But expository preaching will help in preventing pulpit mischief that is more about the preacher than it is about the faithful proclamation of the Word of God.

4. The temptation to hypocrisy. Robert Murray MCheyne’s commitment to “faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:19) requires that a preacher practice what he preaches. Paul Johnson’s important book, The Intellectuals—a tour de force examination of the lives of such men as Marx, Tolstoy, Sartre, and Chomsky—demonstrates all too clearly just how many of the leading social-philosopher thinkers were simply attempting to justify their own immoral lives.

Sadly, the same can be said of too many preachers. For example, preachers downplay the need for observable, measurable holiness by obedience to the law despite clear instruction to the contrary: Christ was sent “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). In a laudable attempt to maintain the purity of the gospel, including Christ’s obedience for us, active commands for ethical conformity on our part (as evidence of regeneration and faith) are turned into something passive—the obedience is viewed as Christ’s obedience on our behalf. Active sanctification is constantly turned into a forensic understanding of positional, definitive sanctification. Why? Perhaps—perhaps—to mask the lack of holiness in the preacher’s own life!  

Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s haunting advice remains relevant a century and a half after he uttered it: “What your people need from you most is your own personal holiness.” I have lost count of the number of times I have repeated this to myself. Were I to have a personal philosophy of ministry summarized in one sentence, I think this is more or less what it would be. My congregation needs a pastor who is not only sound doctrinally and resolute in commitment to the truth, courageous in proclaiming the whole counsel of God without the fear or favor of men; it also needs a pastor who is sincere and honest. Paul knew how easily pride can mask the need for godliness, hence his warning to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). The truth is, far too much ministry is motivated by personal ambition—ministry is viewed as another opportunity to promote an image—“selfie-motivated ministry.”

What preacher has not known the curse of Saturday Night Fever! A week spent in diverse (perhaps even legitimate) concerns has kept us away from the very things we wish to tell hurting Christians on Sunday morning. “I desperately spent feverish hours on Saturday evening,” one pastor confessed, “trying to get right with God in time for Sunday!” Have you known this? It is the curse of “busy-ness”—engaging in the good work of ministry (busy work) and forgetting (avoiding?) the best. What preacher hasn’t emphasized with great passion the need for personal prayer and Bible study only to have conscience declare as we preach—“Hello? Hypocrite! Are you listening to what it is you are saying?” It is all too real a possibility: “They made me caretaker of the vineyards, but I have not taken care of my own vineyard!” (Song 1:6). What a tragedy to have to admit: “I watched the flock, but I failed to watch myself. I gave other people fine advice about all kinds of relevant and thorny issues, and yet I failed to exhort my own heart.” Preacher, fight this temptation with every fiber of your being, calling on the Holy Spirit to energize you.

We pastor-preachers find ourselves in a war—culturally, ecclesiastically, homiletically. There are truths to uphold, errors to combat, lifestyles to negate and emulate. Every time we preach, Satan is there attempting to hold us back from declaring the truth. As preachers, we must “resist him, firm in [the] faith” (1 Pet 5:9), confident that the Holy Spirit can empower us above our natural ability. We must believe that God can help us on every occasion to stand firm for Him, no matter what the consequences may be.

Truth—God’s truth—is under attack by contemporary culture. And the fact of the matter is, this truth-denying culture has seeped into the life of the contemporary church. Soldiers are needed, ready to fight and be killed in defense of the truth. These must be godly men of discernment, conviction, passion, and focus who have one aim—to be faithful to the Master who has called them into gospel ministry no matter the cost. Will you be one of them?

*This article originally appeared in Expositor magazine, May/June 2015.

Derek W.H. Thomas is the Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC. He is also the Robert Strong Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and author of many books and articles. He and his wife Rosemary have two children and two grandchildren.