Saving Ourselves and Others
Those who take the Bible seriously believe that its message is coherent and consistent. It does not contradict itself. Although it is presented through the multiple voices of its human authors, those voices ultimately speak with one voice: that of God himself. So, when we come across statements in the Bible that appear to clash with its other assertions – especially those of central importance – we should quite rightly be concerned.
One such statement occurs in Paul’s charge to Timothy, his young protégé and pastor of the church in Ephesus. Reminding him of the far-reaching dimensions of his ministerial duty, he says, ‘Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do so, you will save both yourself and others’ (1Ti 4.16).
Paul’s choice of the word ‘save’ in this admonition is what sets our theological alarm bells ringing. Given that, in Jonah’s words, ‘salvation belongs to the Lord’ (Jon 2.9), and that there is nothing that we as sinful human beings can contribute to it, how can Paul suggest that Timothy can be an agent of salvation?
It is, of course, possible to ease the tension of this apparent contradiction with regard to the second part of Paul’s statement. Timothy and all ministers of the gospel can be seen as agents of salvation in the sense that they are heralds of the gospel message. Elsewhere Paul argues, ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one [of] whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”’ (Ro 10.14-15). So although salvation is indeed ultimately ‘of the Lord’, the Lord has seen fit to employ human agents to declare its message and so become ‘links in the chain’ of how people receive this precious gift. But this does not help when it comes to the first part of what Paul says.
The idea that Timothy (or any gospel minister) can somehow save himself seems untenable by any measure of the Bible’s integrity. Not least because Paul does not merely exhort Timothy to get his doctrine right, but also to seek to live a life that is consistent with it. If he had only spoken of the need for orthodox teaching, we could more easily cope with what he says. Salvation does not come through a heterodox message. So if Timothy the preacher is to preach the message to how own heart first in order to be saved, then it must be consistent with Scripture. But the fact Paul adds to this the need for a life that is consistent with the message would seem to suggest that salvation requires more than faith alone, but faithful living as a necessary ingredient as well. The gospel simply says: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’ (Ac 16.31).
As with all the often-troubling conundrums of the Bible, the answer to this one does not lie in some form of exegetical gymnastics to understand what Paul is saying, but to let the book explain itself. Too often we forget that although the individual human authors God used to give us his word were in men of their moment they were also part of a continuum. God was utterly intentional in his decision to reveal his word over a 1500-year period using multiple human authors. His revelation is progressive and it is also integrated. It unfolds over vast ages, yet it is utterly coherent: empirical in the way its message builds and consistent in all its detail. All this only serves to enhance the fact it is not self-contradictory in what it has to say.
So, as we try to fathom why Paul expressed himself in this way to Timothy, he was simply reaching under the Holy Spirit’s direction, for language God had already used in the Old Testament.
In the course of his charge to Ezekiel as a minister of the gospel under the Old Covenant, God says to him, ‘Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them a warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself’ (Eze 3.16-19) [italics added].
In other words, God is reminding the prophet of his accountability as a minister of God’s word. Although it is beyond his power to make the message effective in the lives of those to whom he is sent, he has no excuse for selective obedience in terms of to whom he delivers that message.
The whole idea of a preacher’s being a herald – keryx – is a solemn reminder to those called to preach that the message they have been given is for all. It must be proclaimed without fear or favour. And one day we as preachers will be called to account for our stewardship of God’s words (Jas 3.1). But in a derivative sense that same responsibility devolves on all God’s people as recipients of God’s word. It has been given not merely for us and for our salvation but that we might in turn declare that word to those around us.
God’s words to Ezekiel and the way Paul cites them to Timothy remind us that, although salvation is indeed ‘of the Lord’, all who receive it through the gospel are called to share it with those who are not yet saved.