The Doctrines of Grace: Four Commands and Five Points

One of my favorite passages to preach for an ordination or installation service is 2 Timothy 4:5.  The context is significant, since in it Paul acknowledges the challenges of pastoral ministry and the apparent success that many false teachers will achieve.  In essence, the verse is set against the backdrop of discouragements in ministry.  This dose of realism is especially important, I think, when new ministers are ordained or new ministries begun; it reminds us of what the Bible teaches us to expect.

But not only is the context of suffering significant, the instruction itself is memorable.  The verse contains four imperatives, four commands that are to shape the pastor’s life and calling in the midst of discouraging times and apparent failures.  At one level, the implications are easy to understand; at another, they contain depths which can hardly be fathomed.  Paul writes, quite simply: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”  These four commands act as a frame for gospel ministry, and obedience to them will set apart the gospel minister in the midst of opposition.

But what has struck me more recently is that in order for these commands to be understood, let alone carried out, certain theological underpinnings are necessary.  In fact, I would argue further that these four seemingly simple commands can be best understood only in the context of a broader and deeper theological framework. 

It seems to me that the framework that best makes sense of these commands is what we often call the five points of Calvinism.  Now certainly, many godly pastors have carried out Paul’s commands without a knowledge or acceptance of these theological truths; but the five points do make sense of the commands, and the commands seem to naturally follow from the points.

The first command is to, “be sober-minded.”  The primary idea here is that the gospel minister is to keep his head even when everyone else seems to be losing theirs.  In the midst of opposition, when it seems as if everyone is gathering around false teachers instead of true ones, it becomes almost impossible to find men who refuse to panic.  But the sovereignty of God in salvation should certainly give us perspective.  After all, God chooses people for his own purposes, God’s saving grace is irresistible, and those whom God saves will persevere in faith.  How can we panic when we know God is in control?  His work will surely prevail.

Second, “endure hardship.”  Once again, Paul acknowledges that there will certainly be hardships in pastoral ministry.  Endurance is possible because we know that our eternal future is in the hands of our loving God.  This is one of the truths that both Limited Atonement and Perseverance of the Saints teaches us.  Our salvation is not the result of anything we have done or will do; it is the sovereign and definite work of the Triune God.  In addition, while suffering may dim our view of the future, making us believe that relief will never arise, the gospel truths about perseverance remind us of our future hope remains sure in the midst of suffering and hardship.

Third, pastors are commanded to “do the work of an evangelist.”  In some ministerial traditions, this role is downplayed, but the apostle Paul clearly addresses it to Timothy as a command he needs to carry out in pastoral ministry.  It is here, perhaps more than in any of the other commands, that the doctrines of grace play their clearest role.  Every aspect of evangelism is deeply affected by the biblical account of God’s grace.  Total Depravity reminds us that there is no aspect of unfallen human beings which remains unaffected by the Fall.  By nature, human beings are set against God, turned inward to their own desires.  But God has gloriously elected some to be his children, apart from any merit they possess.  More than that, these doctrines remind us that Christ has died for his sheep; there is no further price that could be demanded or paid on their behalf.  In addition, for those whom God has chosen and Christ has died, the grace of God in the Holy Spirit’s work will be effectual in their lives.  And God will cause them to persevere to the end.  What better incentive could there be for evangelism than that!  God has done what no one could have, and when God commands his servants to evangelize, he is calling them to be the means to a glorious end which he has already ordained and paid the price for.  Our call to evangelize – to continue in the work of evangelism – is similar to the command of Paul to minister in Corinth.  He could do so with confidence because God said, “I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”[1]  Paul could share the gospel with confidence because God had people in the city whom he had chosen, Christ had died for, whose hearing of the gospel would be met with faith. 

Finally, Paul commands pastors to “fulfill your ministry.”  In one sense, this adds nothing particular to commands he’d already given, except the element of time.  These were not just commands to be done once, but to be continued through a lifetime.  Paul understood that it wasn’t just that the duties of faithful ministry were difficult, but that they were difficult to continue doing year after year, as opposition increased and false teachers prospered.  And here the whole measure of the doctrines of grace must grip us.  If the salvation of sinners – their justification, sanctification, and glorification – were not ultimately in God’s hands, then we surely would lose heart over time.  The discouragements and apparent failures would be overwhelming, and even the moments of seeming success would be considered ephemeral and superficial.  But how comforting it is to know that God is at work.  His work has been planned before the foundation of the world; it has been made manifest in the cross of Christ and in the preaching of the gospel; and it will come to glorious fruition on the day of the resurrection, when the saints of God will be made like the One in whom there is no darkness at all.

Jonathan Master is dean of the school of divinity and professor of theology at Cairn University. In addition, he is executive editor of the online magazine Place for Truth and is host of the podcast Theology on the Go.  He is the author of A Question of Consensus (Fortress Press), and editor of a new volume, entitled, The God We Worship (P&R Publishing).

[1] Acts 18:10, italics mine.


Jonathan Master