Aim for God’s Approval
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Aim for God’s Approval

2 Timothy 2:14–26  (ID: 2081)

As our culture pulls us in many directions, we sometimes lose track of our priorities. Alistair Begg challenges us to not miss the most important target for followers of Christ: the Gospel’s advancement. A workman who is useful to the Master, Paul wrote, is one who does not wander from the truth. These convicting words remind us that godliness and holiness are trustworthy benchmarks of faithfulness. Are your priorities in line with God’s?

Series Containing This Sermon

Useful to the Master

2 Timothy 1:1–18, 2 Timothy 2:1–26, 2 Timothy 3:1–17, 2 Timothy 4:1–22 Series ID: 15501

Sermon Transcript: Print

“Make the Book live to me, O Lord. Show me thyself within thy Word, show me myself, and show me my Savior, and make the Book live to me,”[1] for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, as we resume our studies here at the fourteenth verse, you will notice that Timothy is to be concerned more with the matter of affirmation than he is to be concerned about innovation. And that is the emphasis of Paul here in the opening sentence: “Keep reminding them of these things.” One of the great dangers that confronts perhaps particularly a young man in pastoral ministry is that he falls foul of the notion that if he is going to be useful in nurturing God’s people and in seeing unbelieving people become committed followers of Jesus Christ, that it is going to be imperative for him to be constantly, as it were, on the cutting edge of thinking up new ways and means of doing things, and even worse than that, of perhaps tampering with the very gospel itself, as if somehow or another as a result of innovation we might be able to make it more useful. And it is quite striking how many times the Bible reminds pastors particularly of the crucial responsibility that they have to remind their people that the key to usefulness in Christian living largely is to be found in them being enabled to do the basics well most of the time—that the Christian life is not an easy life, but it is a straightforward life, and that the role of pastoral ministry is so much a role of reminding God’s people, “Now, come on, and make sure that you’re continuing to believe this, and to hope this, and to do this, and to live this.”

It’s true not only of Paul’s words, but it’s also true of Peter. When he writes his second letter, he says to those readers in 2 Peter 1:12, “So I will always remind you”—there’s that word again—“of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think [it’s] right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.” You see, the prospect of death is clarifying his vision and determining his priorities. “And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.” Therefore, Timothy, in the midst of confusion both moral and doctrinal, is to labor, says Paul, to ensure that those under his care in Ephesus will understand that the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. And this, of course, is a matter of great concern at a time when there is so much that swirls around us and can draw people in all kinds of directions.

A Warning about Words

Now, part of the ministry of reminder is to exercise a word of warning. And the warning is clear, and it’s reiterated in the verses before us: “Warn [your people] before God against quarreling about words.” And he says, “Why?” First of all, because these kinds of quarrels are absolutely worthless. They’re of “no value,” ultimately, to the people who engage in them. And also, they “[ruin] those who listen.” So, you have this picture of Mr. Levi and Mr. Simeon talking with one another in the community of Ephesus, and they get into a major discussion over some extraneous and peripheral matter. And as they do so, it becomes apparent that it’s a futile exercise. And at the same time, there are others—perhaps young believers, or maybe even unbelievers—standing around listening to this dialogue, and frankly, it may become the very ruination of them. “Warn them,” he says, “about quarreling about words and issues that are not of the essence of things.”

Now, probably all of us could bring to mind circumstances like this where we have been guilty of engaging in this kind of dialogue, or where we have a vivid recollection of overhearing this kind of dialogue. As I prepared for these studies, one of the pictures that came to my mind—and it’s funny how your mind can go back a long, long way—but it went to a Sunday school trip that we took from somewhere in Glasgow, and we went on a boat from the Broomielaw down the Clyde. And we went on a Saturday morning that looked much like this morning: people saying, “Aye, I think it’ll clear up,” you know. (Absolutely groundless expressions of hope, but…)

I very quickly became aware that morning of consternation on the boat in my immediate environment. I was aware of some kind of theological indigestion which had taken over some men, particularly. And there were furtive glances and huddled conversations, and the men were becoming increasingly distressed, and not a few women had added themself to the group. And the one word that I kept hearing as a wee boy was an interesting word to me, and I’ve always liked words, and it registered with me—I tried to say it myself—and it was the word pertaineth. Pertaineth. And I didn’t know what it was, or what it was pertaining to, but it was very, very important, and these men were, “Well, not the pertaineth, the pertaineth, pertaineth, pertaineth…”

The key to usefulness in Christian living largely is in being enabled to do the basics well most of the time.

And then I saw the problem coming to me, towards me: a lady wearing trousers! (You see, you didn’t realize how old I am, did you? I can remember when this was on the top ten list. Might still be on your top ten list!) But it wasn’t that she was wearing trousers; I remember they were saying she was wearing men’s trousers. I wanted to know how they knew they were men’s trousers. But the inconsistency of it annoyed me even as a small boy, because it struck me that these men with the red faces had apparently overlooked the glaring inconsistency, because as I recall, at least one of them was standing there wearing a kilt! But it didn’t matter. And the great quarrel ensued, and marred, I think, for some the journey “doon the water.”

Now, it is one of the sorry features of evangelicalism, is it not—and since 1952, I’ve lived through a wee bit of it—but I have observed that conservative evangelicalism, both here and now for fifteen years in the United States, has become adept—more adept than any other branch of Christendom—at making the peripheral central and making the central peripheral, and engaging in dialogue and discussions about issues that frankly, I think, are to be set aside if we will take seriously the instruction of Paul here to Timothy as a young man.

“Be clear, Timothy, about what you’re aiming towards, and also about what it is you’re avoiding.” That’s verse 15, and on into verse 16, is it not? “Do your best to present yourself to God.” Or in the King James Version, which was inscribed in a Bible given to me when I was fifteen when I left Glasgow for Yorkshire, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” When I took that Bible as a fifteen-year-old, I would never, ever in my wildest dreams have imagined that this privilege and responsibility would fall to me some thirty-one years later. And here I take seriously both the privilege and the responsibility. I must endeavor to do what verse 15 says, and in doing so encourage you to do that in your lives and in your ministries.

An Encouragement to Work

What is this “work”? What is the “workman” doing in verse 15? Well, the nature of the work is in “handl[ing] the word of truth.” It is imperative that the Lord’s servant goes about the task with a genuine desire to work in relationship to the Word in such a way as not to be ashamed on any occasion when the work is opened up to scrutiny.

I don’t want to fill your minds with just a bunch of illustrations, but I had a teacher in England called Mr. Lumsdun. He was an art teacher, and he did pottery with us. My interest in pottery was right up there with my interest in the periodic table of the elements. And I remember he introduced us first of all to thumb pots, or as he called it, “thum-pots.” And we were to take these pieces of clay and mold them into these beautiful little pots. I confess that I wasn’t particularly excited about it and decided that I would make mine just a little more avant-garde than some. And it seemed such a bright idea until he brought them all, on a subsequent day, out of the kiln. And I remember mine sitting there by itself, and him saying, “And ’ose is this one?” And what had seemed to me a great idea when I was clowning around two prior Thursdays back actually made me smart with shame when I saw the sorry thing coming out of the oven.

Now, consider in that respect the nerve-jangling statement, then, of the apostle Paul, when concerning his understanding of ministry and the responsibility of ministry he says in 1 Corinthians 3:12, “If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.” Not the quantity of his work, not how well known was his work, not how apparently influential was his work, but “the quality of his work.”

And it is one of the most stirring and striking statements, I think, in the New Testament. It may be that the response of men and women who don’t know our hearts—because frankly, if you knew my heart, you’d never listen to me preach; and if I knew yours, I’m not sure I would want to talk to you either. But the God who searches our hearts and knows us completely, he knows whether what people may regard as gold and silver and precious jewels is actually in fact wood, hay, and stubble, and “the Day will bring it to light.” Therefore, the exhortation, “Make sure that you’re a good workman, Timothy,” is no arm’s-length theology; it is no superficial exhortation; it is at the very heart of the matter. And Timothy’s life, and his destiny, and his influence, and the church in Ephesus rests upon the fact, under God, that he takes these issues seriously. Are you and I this morning aiming for God’s approval, in light of the fact that we move towards a day when it will be obvious, in the light, just exactly what it was we were doing?

Now, the word here, as you will know, is translated variously. Phillips has it in another way. The word is orthotomeo, which means “to cut a straight line.” If you imagine having some shrubbery in your garden that separates one little patch of grass from another patch of grass, then if you go out on a Saturday morning to deal with it so that you can get your lawnmower from A to B without interference, unless you’re planning on creating a maze, then you will take the shortest point between the two little patches of grass, and you will cut a straight line so that it will be possible, then, from that point on to move directly between part A and part B. And so it is that in the opening up of the Scriptures, says Paul to Timothy, “You need, then, to cut this kind of straight line.”

It’s a call to clarity. It’s a call to accuracy. It’s a call, probably, to simplicity—that the good workman, in handling the Bible, does not seek to bamboozle the people, does not seek to impress the people with his knowledge of the Word. For we cannot make people impressed with ourselves and make much of Jesus and his Word simultaneously. Therefore, we must make a choice. “Timothy, handle it like a good workman: with clarity; yes, with authority; with accuracy; with humility; with simplicity.”

Professor Barclay of Glasgow University—who made a super contribution, I think, often in the realm of historical background and textual things, although we would want to be careful of many of his theological assertions—left Glasgow University very successful and began in his first parish ministry in the Church of Scotland down the Clyde. And having earned a PhD, and fairly learned, he began to teach his congregation. And he records in his biography how he was walking down the high street one day soon after he had arrived here, and he met an elderly lady from his congregation. And in the course of conversation she said to him, “Mr. Barclay, I think you’re a very nice man, but you need to know, I cannae understand a word you’re saying.”[2] And it was as a result of that encounter, he said, that he went away and then wrote the Plain Man’s guide to prayer and the Plain Man’s guide to the Gospels,[3] and he determined that if he was that clever then he would be able to make it that simple. Anybody can make something sound difficult; you really gotta be quite smart to take difficult material and make it simple enough to be understood.

Now, that is part, I think, of the charge, and this is in contrast, you will notice, with a bad workman: “Do your best to present yourself … as one approved, a workman.” That’s what we are: we’re workmen. “What’s your dad?” they asked the pastor’s son. “He’s a workman.” “And what does he do?” “Well, he works in the Word.” So, you’re a workman. The question is, are you a good workman, as Timothy is exhorted to be, or are you a bad workman like Hymenaeus and Philetus. They’re all workmen. The distinguishing factor is the way in which they’re “handl[ing] the word of truth.” This is the test.

An Admonishment against Wandering

Now, in contrast to the idea of cutting a straight line, these individuals, in verse 18, have “wandered away from the truth.” They have missed the target. Now, the verb that is used here for “wandering from the target” comes from a noun which is essentially the whole picture of a bullseye. And whether they began aiming for the bullseye or not we can’t say, but we do know now that they missed the target altogether, whether by small degrees initially, and then having no interest in firing towards it at all. But they had diverted from their objective. And the inherent warning is this: “Timothy, make sure that you stay on-target. Don’t be like these individuals who have missed the target.”

For example, in his first letter, in 1 Timothy 6, he talks again about those who have “an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words”—the “words,” again. What’s the result? Well, it’s “envy,” and “strife,” and “malicious talk,” and “evil suspicion,” and “constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”[4] At the end of the chapter he talks of those who having “professed” the faith have actually “wandered [away] from the faith.”[5]

Now, again, how sad is it to find your name in the record of Holy Scripture, but only, once again, as someone who has missed the mark—somebody who has been a hindrance to the church? All of us, I say to you again, are leaving a legacy. People are keeping notes. They’re remembering your contribution at the deacons meeting. They’re going to remember you when your seat is empty at the PCC. They’re going to remember things about you and me. They’re going to remember if all you ever had to say was, “I want to register in the minutes my disagreement with this. I want you to know that I abstained from this.” And when the record books are opened in time, and people are just sitting on a rainy Sunday afternoon going through the minute books, they find that the legacy we left was largely disagreeable, largely cantankerous, and marked more with a concern about words and trivialities than with an overarching concern for the well-being of God’s people, for the advance of the gospel.

Hymenaeus and Philetus had been guilty of robbing some of their early beginnings of faith, and the reason is that “they[’ve said] that the resurrection has already taken place,” and as a result people’s faith has been unsettled. Still at the end of the twentieth century, and now at the beginning of the twenty-first, the cornerstone of Christian conviction is this matter of the resurrection. No matter where we may want to start with our people in a postmodern culture—whether like Paul we want to start in Ephesus on the fringes of things, and to say, “I can see you’re very religious, because I notice that you’re interested in angels and in reincarnation, and I’ve been reading some of your contemporary writers, and I know that you have an interest in deity, or in spirituality, or in God”[6]—if we choose to start there, and quote the poets, and quote the pop songs, eventually we will move to the point that Paul reaches: “God has appointed a day when he will judge the world, and he has given proof of this by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.”[7]

And this matter of the historicity of our faith is crucial. Certainly, it is good to be able to affirm our personal experience of Christ—to be able to say, you know, “Well, Jesus has changed my life. I was once darkness, but now I am light in the Lord.” But be very, very careful of using that as your ace in the hole—you know, “Well, ‘You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.’[8] So there! …” Because the person at the other side of the coffee table says, “Well, funnily enough, Buddha lives within my heart. So there! …” Now, where do you go at that point? You’re left in a sea of subjectivism, unless you are able to articulate and affirm the verities, the historical truths, of our Christian faith.

We cannot make people impressed with ourselves and make much of Jesus and his Word simultaneously.

And so those who undermine the matter of the resurrection pull apart the very cornerstone of that which underpinned Paul’s life and ministry. “If Christ has not risen,” he says in 1 Corinthians 15, “then those who have died are dead in their sins; our faith is futile, there is nothing to look forward to at all. But,” he says, “Christ is risen from the dead.”[9] And these little books, you know, like the books that Michael Green wrote in the ’60s… He got about five books out of one book, it would seem to me, or the publishers did. It’s the same stuff with a different cover. It’s very, very good; I have them all. But you need to go and find them, and read them, and “be prepared to give an answer for those who ask a reason for the faith you have,”[10] so that you’re not left just simply proclaiming your subjective experience.

You see, the undermining of the conviction’s relationship to the resurrection were not coming from people outside the framework of the church; they were coming from people who were naming the name of Christ and pulling apart the fabrication—from within! That’s why Paul’s warning is so crucial. “It’s ugly,” he says. “Their teaching will spread like gangrene.” Do you like that picture? No! God forbid that any of us would ever experience it. Some of our loved ones have had it. We’ve visited people in hospital with it. And it has eaten them away; it is a distasteful picture. “It’s like blood poisoning,” he says. “It’s like the sepsis that seeps from a wound and demands that we wear masks and plastic gloves in dealing with the predicament—not because we want to be disdainful of the one who has the condition, but because we want to prevent the condition from spreading.” That’s what Paul is saying. You don’t muck around with this stuff! You don’t play with it! You’re not going to put the effulgences [sic] from seeping wounds on your toast, are you? No, you’re going to stay as far away from it as possible.

Now, you must consider the implications of this for you as an individual in your life and in your ministry. You’re sensible people; examine the Scriptures and “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”[11] But it is the responsibility of Timothy as a young man in pastoral ministry to ensure that the people aren’t quarreling; that he’s aiming; that he’s correctly handling the Word of Truth; that he is pointing out the issues here; he is doing so, but he’s not allowing himself or his people to become preoccupied with this concern. Because it is possible for us to get our heads turned away by this thing. And for a pastor, a good chap, to find that all he ends up doing is constantly pointing out this and that and the next thing, and he never nurtures his people in the truth of the Word of God—it’s just a long litany of who’s doing everything wrong, you know—and it doesn’t build the church, it doesn’t stir within people a longing after Christ. So yes, we do warn, and we do watch out, but we do lead, and we do feed. That’s all the balance of pastoral ministry.

And Timothy needs to remind himself, in verse 19, that the solid foundation of God stands firm. “When all around is sinking sand, on Christ the solid rock I stand.”[12] The allusion here would appear to be that of the ancient practice of engraving inscriptions on buildings to indicate either their date or their purpose. And he imagines, as it were, the construction of the framework of the church, and he says, “And on the fabric of the church is inscribed this: Number one, ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’”

In other words, let’s be clear, especially when we’re dealing with error and confusion around us: it is only the Lord who knows the genuine from the spurious, for it is ultimately only the Lord who sees the heart. However, there is an observable factor, because “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” And by the observation first of our own lives, and then in part in the lives of others, we can see that it is by our departing from wickedness that we bear testimony to the condition of our hearts.

Isn’t that the story of Pilgrim? “Where are you going, Pilgrim?” “I’m going to the Heavenly City. Do you see yonder Wicket Gate? Do you see yonder shining light?” “Why are you going there, Pilgrim? And where are you coming from?” “I’m coming from the City of Destruction.” “Why have you left it behind?” “Because it has been made aware to me that there is no hope here.”[13] And it is the fact of Pilgrim’s journey that declares, in his departure from wickedness, that he is one of the Lord’s very own.

An Insistence on Purity

Now, having used an illustration from the world of the military, from the world of athletics, from the world of farming—agricultural—he now uses a domestic illustration in verse 20 as he pictures a large house, concerned not now with the superstructure of the house and what might be chiseled in on the outside, but concerned about what’s going on in the inside.

Now, I think this picture of “bad versus good” runs through all of this. “You can be a good workman; don’t be a bad workman.” Now he says, “There’s different kinds of china. Be the noble china; don’t be the ignoble china.” And then he comes to servant: he says, “Be a good servant; don’t be a bad servant.” So, the picture runs all the way through, I think, if you consider it carefully.

“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; [and] some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble [purposes].” When I see this, I have to confess to you that it takes me to things like Daffodil Teas in Dalkeith, organized by ladies. And when I think of “noble” china and “ignoble” china, let me tell you what I think of: I think of being a young minister invited to the Daffodil Tea, and being embarrassed by the fact that, first of all, I have to sit with a large, rather rotund lady by myself at a little table in isolation from everybody else. It’s bad enough to be sitting up there with her, first of all; secondly, at this table; thirdly, isolated from everybody else; and then worst of all, I drink out of the “noble” china while the punters drink out of the “ignoble” china. And I’ve always felt—and I suppose this is the Clyde side in me—I have always felt that either we’re all having the noble stuff or we’re all having the ignoble stuff. But don’t sit me up here with you, Mrs., drinking out of the noble china while all my friends have got the wally mugs. (Ask somebody next to you, they will translate for you.)

Now, with that as probably a most unhelpful analogy, let me try and get back to the text of Scripture. What is he saying here? Well, the key—or, if you like, the condition of usefulness, picking up on this notion—the condition of usefulness, you will notice in the opening phrase of verse 21, is not giftedness. It’s not background. It’s not prominence. It’s not influence. What is it? Purity. Purity. “Timothy, you gonna be a good workman? Timothy, you gonna warn and watch and lead and feed the people of God? Timothy, you gonna finish the course? Timothy, you gonna take the baton from my hand and run the next 440 meters with all your might? Then Timothy, let me remind you,” as Stott puts it so helpfully in a sentence, “The master of the house lays down only one condition. The vessels which he uses must be clean.”[14] So the distinction between “noble” and “ignoble” is not the shape of the handle, it’s not the fluted nature of the cup, nor is it the very basic nature of the utensil; the issue is the purity of that out of which we drink or that from which we eat—or, in this case, the life from which and through which we minister.

Now, it is in light of that that we then have to go back and ask the question, What then are we to do with the contaminating influences of people like Hymenaeus and Philetus? Does this not at least suggest the possibility of the need to disassociate ourselves from the likes of these people? Is it not somehow akin to the final phrase or sentence in verse 5 of the next chapter? Having outlined these people who are religious hucksters, who are shams, who have a form of godliness and deny its power, who say the right thing, who quote the right creeds, who affirm the right articles and live in total denial of what they proclaim, what does he say? “Have nothing to do with them.”[15]

The cornerstone of Christian conviction is the resurrection.

Now, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that sentence. Every child knows when his mother says, “Now, listen. I don’t want you going with those kids down behind the shed behind the playing field.” “Oh, but Mom, I’m not really… you know, I’m…” “Hey! Have nothing to do with them.”

Now, I’m just going to leave it right there, because we must all “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”[16] Does this mean physical separation from these individuals? Does it mean ecclesiastical separation from these individuals? That’s not my domain right now. John Stott again is very helpful, I think, in pointing out that what we are to avoid is not so much contact with these men as it is involvement in their error and in their evil[17]—so that we mustn’t, then, in the framework of ministry give their falsehoods a place in our thinking, nor give their wickedness a place in our hearts and lives.

Now, in this—indeed, in all of this—the imperatives are striking, are they not? The sense of responsibility—certainly energized by God’s Spirit—but the sense of responsibility is undeniable. Look at the opening phrase, again, of verse 21: “If a man cleanses himself…” In other words, this is something that we do: that we take ourselves in hand; that we think the issues out; that we ask the Spirit of God to bring the Word of God to bear upon our minds in such a way that we might be men and women of the Book. This idea that somehow or another we’re just flushed to and fro by all the influences, we can’t disengage ourselves from them, we’re not really responsible for where we end up—somehow or another our people say to us, you know, “If you lived in the real world, vicar, if you lived in the real world, pastor, then you would know that it’s not as easy as you believe it to be…” Believe me, I don’t think it’s easy.

But I love the little semi-poem in Derek Prime’s commentary on James, where he records the story of the Navy chaplain down in Portsmouth, and of the sailors coming to him in the cafeteria. And as he engages him in conversation, he’s challenging them about their walk with God and about their need to “[avoid] what is evil [and] cling to what is good,”[18] and they say to him, “You know…”—essentially what I’ve just said—“Oh, but the influences are so strong on us, pastor.” And he takes them outside, and they stand at the coastline and they watch the sailboats plying back and forth across. And he says to them,

One boat goes East, and one boat goes West,
By the self-same winds that blow;
It’s the set of the sails, and not the gales,
That determine which way they go.[19]

And that’s why, you see, it is so imperative for a young man in pastoral ministry to be nurtured and surrounded by the likes of a Paul to say to him, “Now, listen: the wind is blowing all over the place. That thing at the airport is going one way, and then the other way, and then the other way. It’s imperative that you set your sails. Set your course by the very North Star of Scripture—all of its sufficiency. Set your course with a deep conviction in the absolute sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Lay hold on all these things, young man, and write them into the very tablets of your heart. And then you will be ‘useful to the Master’; and then you will be ‘prepared to do any good work.’”

That would just be super, wouldn’t it? To be useful to the Master? We were talking about epitaphs, or things on your tombstone; it would be nice just to have, “She was useful to the Master.” I’d like that. Or, “He was ready for anything. He was the go-to guy. He could play right-back or inside-left. He could try the goalie’s jersey, he would play center-forward. He was so thrilled to be on the team. He was your man, ready to play any position, ready for any good work, ‘Happy, if with my latest breath I might gasp his name, and preach him to all, and cry in death, “Behold, behold the Lamb!”’”[20] “Timothy, come on now, son. This is the kind of fellow that you need to be.”

Now, the key to it… (And with this we wrap it up. We’re in the final approach now. The flaps are not just down, but we are on final approach.) Isn’t it interesting that verses 20 and 21 come in between verse 19 and 22? (That’s just for some of you that I lost earlier. I thought it might bring you back. Some of you have been in the third stages of anesthesia for some time. We’ll meet you in the recovery room.) But you will notice that this illustration is nestled in between the recognition that “everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness,” and then in verse 22 he comes back to the very same thing and he says, “Flee the evil desires of youth.”

So this matter of personal holiness and purity is not a sideline. If you like, the message of Keswick at its very central conviction—in the inculcating in the lives of God’s people a concern for and a commitment to a life of practical holiness—is the very call that Paul is issuing to Timothy as a young man. “And the key to your usefulness,” he says, “Timothy, is in what you’re running from, what you’re running to, and who you’re running with.” I tell my teenage children that all the time: “Your whole life is being determined by what you’re running from, what you’re running to, and who you’re running with. I can sketch the rest of your life, just to see you run.”

Now, he says, “Flee the evil desires of youth.” Do you remember when you were young?

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now I’m older, and I’m not so self-assured;
Now I’ve found I changed my mind, I opened up the door.

Help me, if you can, I’m feeling down,
And I do appreciate you being ’round.
Would you help me get my feet back on the ground?
Would you please, please help me?[21]

I bet that’s the first time John Lennon has been quoted here for a few years. (“Aye, he was quoting the Beatles. Disgusting!”) I avoid the slip road to which that takes me, but it remains one of the most grievous cries of the my heart to this day that that cry from that young guy’s heart in 1965 was never answered by anybody that had anything good to say about the Lord Jesus or about what it would mean to find “the life that is truly life.”[22] And still in our generation we drive searching, hopeless, drugged-endued young men and women into the arms of New Age mysticism, because our churches so often are sitting arguing about words which these people don’t really appreciate, or understand, or want to have anything to do with.

It is only the Lord who knows the genuine from the spurious, for it is ultimately only the Lord who sees the heart

But I’m off the point, so let’s get right back on it. Youth. Well, I did that little run there because it made me think that one of the proclivities of youth is pride, is it not? Every pastor wishes he could start again, I’m sure. And most congregations wish their pastors could start again. Young people want power. They desire to be number one; they think it’s so important. They think, “It’s our voice that needs always to be heard, our voice that comes last in the conversation, our notion that will become central.”

“Run away from your desire for power. Run away from your desire for pleasure—making yourself and how it’s going the judge and the scope of all things. Run away from the real danger, Timothy, of thinking that the amassing of possessions is what it’s all about—especially when you see people around you who are making a lot of money in the way in which they are approaching ministry. They think that godliness is a means to financial gain, and you as a young man, Timothy, you could get sucked into that; you could begin to believe that, too; you could start to preach for cash. You could start this and start that, and hope that this would generate that. Don’t do that,” he said. “Run away from it.”

I love this, you see. It’s so realistic. There’s no “Oh, well, I would never, ever consider this, you know.” No, it’s “Hey, Timothy, I know your mind, man. Flee the evil desires of youth.” If you’re gonna be a successful Christian, you need to have a healthy dose of skepticism. Not cynicism—skepticism. We must always be skeptical, because we live in a fallen world. You don’t need to be skeptical about your next-door neighbor; just be skeptical about yourself. That’s a good place to start: “Why did I carry the lady’s shopping bag across the street? Was it because I really wanted to help her? Or was it because I want her to say, ‘There’s a fine fellow’?” Skepticism says it was probably because I wanted the accolade.

Now, in relationship to sin, the reason for ruthlessness is because, as Genesis 4 says, “Sin is crouching at [the] door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”[23] Every sin is an inside job. That’s what Ron Dunn said at Keswick many years ago—I wasn’t here, but I got the tapes—used a picture, an illustration of a post office, somebody robbing a post office: the guy hid inside the post office, and the accomplice was on the outside of the post office; at the prescribed time the guy on the outside banged the door for the guy on the inside, who opened the door, and he said, “And that’s it, every sin is an inside job.” That’s how it happens.

That’s why we bombed the runway in Port Stanley. Why would we bomb the runway in Port Stanley in the Falklands Crisis? I thought Port Stanley was ours? Margaret said, “Send the bombers. Bomb the runway.” You only need to think about it for a couple of minutes. It was brilliant—brilliant! We bombed our own runway to prevent enemy aircraft from landing. That’s the key: bombing the runway of power, and pleasure, and passion, and possessions, and prominence. Bomb your runway! Because if you don’t, all these ugly jets will land on it, and there will be all kinds of people that descend from them, and they will permeate your life and your ministry and your church, and they will wreak absolute havoc. “When should I bomb it?” Immediately. “Like, now while I’m sitting here?” Absolutely. God brings something to your mind, drop a bomb on it. How do we deal with sin? Immediately, ruthlessly, consistently.

Do I have time to tell you about a large man that was in a church I served before? (Some of you will know him; I can’t use his name. Doesn’t matter—you’ll know who he is anyway. But at least it won’t go on the tape.) And as a young man of… young… I went on pastoral visitation to this gentleman’s house. I hadn’t met him in the church; he’d been unwell. And I was told he was a fairly interesting gentleman. (Incidentally, I loved and appreciated this man and enjoyed my every visit with him, including the one I’m about to recount.)

But in the course of conversation, this very large man, who had a stick by his seat—which worried me—wanted to make sure that I understood he’d be with me in my ministry. “But,” he said, “I have to warn you: if you come away with any funny stuff, if you miss the target, if you get off the track,” he said, “I’ll take this stick here, and I’ll rattle it against the pews, and I’ll shout, ‘Heresy!’” So, I said, “Well, thank you for sharing that with me, I uh…” I’ll never forget going home and recounting to Sue, you know. She said, “How was your day?” I said, “Very interesting, you know.” I said, “There’s a big guy I need to warn you about. He has a stick…”

But I’ll never forget, he preached to the church congregation, and in the course of his same direct approach to life he said to young people in relationship to the inroads of temptation and sin, he said, “Some of you are out there, and you’re having prayer meetings about whether you should do this or whether you should not do it.” He says, “I’m telling you, don’t pray about it. Chuck it! Chuck it!” And some of us are playing around with sin. And I’m telling you: chuck it!

If you’re going to be a successful Christian, you need to have a healthy dose of skepticism.

Wasn’t it humbling last night to have our dear Korean brother—with such a lovely smile! I’d give a lot to be able to smile like that. It came from inside here, that smile. What should we pray for the church in Korea? Pray purity for the church in Korea. What should we pray for the church in the West? Purity. What should we pray for our local church? Purity. What should we pray for our pastor? Purity. What should we pray for ourselves? Purity.

Run away from these things, and run towards this lovely quartet: “righteousness, faith, love and peace.” And run “along with those who [love the Lord and] call on [him] out of a pure heart.” [24] In other words, just make sure that you’re in a good fellowship. Make sure that you’re establishing good friendships. Make sure that you’re endeavoring to walk the walk.

Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scoffers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and on his law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in season, and all that he does will prosper.
The wicked are not so: for they’re like the chaff that the wind blows away.[25]
Remember that the wicked will not stand in the judgment, and “without holiness no [man] will see the Lord.”[26]

Let’s just pray together.

I want to use as my closing prayer a prayer that I pray regularly when I’m driving in my car. It was taught to me in Sunday school in Scotland. I remember singing it with great fervency as a boy, I remember struggling with its implications as a teenager, and now as I seek to take to heart, and as you do too, this strident call of God’s Word:

Cleanse me from my sin, Lord,
Put thy pow’r within, Lord,
Take me as I am, Lord,
And make me all Thine own.

[And] keep me day by day, Lord,
Underneath Thy sway, Lord,
[And] make my heart Thy palace,
and Thy royal throne,[27]

for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1944).

[2] William Barclay, A Spiritual Autobiography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 74–75, 86–88.

[3] See William Barclay, The Plain Man Looks at the Lord’s Prayer (London: Collins, 1964) and The Plain Man Looks at the Beatitudes (London: Collins, 1963).

[4] 1 Timothy 6:4–5 (NIV 1984).

[5] 1 Timothy 6:21 (NIV 1984).

[6] Acts 17:22–23 (paraphrased).

[7] Acts 17:31 (paraphrased).

[8] Alfred Henry Ackley, “I Serve a Risen Savior” (1933).

[9] 1 Corinthians 15:14–20 (paraphrased).

[10] 1 Peter 3:15 (paraphrased).

[11] Philippians 2:12 (KJV).

[12] Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (1834). Paraphrased.

[13] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Similitude of a Dream (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1900), part I, chapter 1. Paraphrased.

[14] John R. W. Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy: Guard the Gospel (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 72.

[15] 2 Timothy 3:5 (NIV 1984).

[16] Philippians 2:12 (KJV)

[17] Stott, 2 Timothy, 73.

[18] Romans 12:9 (NIV 1984).

[19] Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “’Tis the Set of the Sails,” quoted in Derek Prime, From Trials to Triumphs, Bible Commentary for Laymen (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1982), 32. Paraphrased.

[20] Charles Wesley, “Jesus! The Name High over All” (1749). Paraphrased.

[21] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965). Paraphrased.

[22] 1 Timothy 6:19 (NIV 1984).

[23] Genesis 4:7 (NIV 1984).

[24] 2 Timothy 2:22 (NIV 1984).

[25] Psalm 1:1–4 (paraphrased).

[26] Hebrews 12:14 (NIV 1984).

[27] R. Hudson Pope, “Cleanse Me.”

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.