From Think on These Things, March 2017; used with permission.
I concluded my article titled “Biblical Illiteracy” with these words:
Biblical illiteracy is well recognized today. There are many reasons why not only the general population but also the evangelical church has little understanding and knowledge of Scripture, and I have tried to identify some of these in the body of this article. With all of the attacks on the trustworthiness of Scripture, coupled with general lack of biblical knowledge and apathy toward what it proclaims, it would be easy to despair for the future of the Scriptures.
But God’s Word always accomplishes that which it is sent forth by the Lord to accomplish (Isa 55:1) which is to teach, reprove, correct and train His people in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). We have the promise of Jesus that His Word will never pass away (Matt 24:35). Rather than despair we should make every effort to pass along the Lord’s truth to the next generation (Deut 6:4-9; Psalm 145:4). At this point we need to consider some means to do so. What can we personally, and corporately as the church, do to address the issue of biblical illiteracy?
It is to this subject we now turn.
We first need to establish the importance of biblical literacy. To many believers today it seems to be optional: one of those things that is nice if you have it, but hardly necessary for vibrant Christian living. But that is not the position expressed in the Bible itself. We could turn to many texts in Scripture to demonstrate this but let’s focus our attention on the Pastoral Epistles: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
The Biblical Mandate
The centrality and importance of scriptural knowledge and understanding, as well as the directive to teach it clearly and consistently, permeate the Pastoral Epistles. One of the most important things we can do when determining where the Lord wants us to place our emphasis is to study carefully where He places His. Many extremes could be avoided if we would lay aside our own ideas and the popular fads of the moment and simply look at what God did and taught. With that in mind I have found the Pastoral Epistles to be very instructive. Here we are given the final inspired written words of the apostle Paul, a man who had dedicated his life to spreading the gospel, establishing churches and giving instruction to the disciples of Christ. As he neared the end of his earthly life what did he think, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, was most important for those he had mentored to emphasize after he was gone? I believe these letters give us the answer.
Paul said that the Lord had entrusted him with a message and a mission (2 Tim 2:2) and he repeatedly proclaimed he was entrusting the same thing to Timothy and Titus (1 Tim 1:11, 18; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12, 14; 2:2; Titus 1:3). What was he entrusting to them? While there were a number of items he discussed in these three epistles, such as church leadership and finances, the theme he returned to time after time was that of theology. Approximately sixty times in these three little books, through the use of four synonyms, he emphasized the importance of sound doctrine. Without solid theology, drawn directly from the Word of God, the church has no reason for existence. The four synonyms demonstrate this well:
Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus, while he moved on to Macedonia, for the express purpose of having Timothy provide instruction to the church (1 Tim 1:3). Paul begins with the negative, writing “That you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1:3). The word for “strange” is an unusual word in the New Testament, found only here and in 1 Timothy 6:3. It means “different, or of another kind.” Some at the church were engaged in teaching things that did not come from Christ or the apostles. Worse yet, they were claiming their teachings were as authoritative as those of the inspired apostles’. Timothy was instructed to refute and expose these teachings for what they were: myths and false pronouncements (v. 4). Titus was given similar instructions in his selection of elders. Elders were to be men who could “refute those who contradict” sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). On the positive side, both men were charged to preach the Word (2 Tim 4:2), and exhort in sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). At the close of 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you” (6:20). And what had been entrusted to Timothy that he was to guard? Sound doctrine. What happens when instructions concerning guarding and teaching biblical theology are neglected? We have a people who claim to be Christians yet have no idea what they believe. And because they do not know what they believe they ultimately do not know how to live. As Paul wrote, “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). Doctrinally sound instruction leads to biblical living.
Doctrinal teaching and instruction has fallen on hard times in the modern church. But according to the New Testament a church which neglects biblical exegesis and theology is not fulfilling the function that the Lord has given it. The elders of a local church must be able to teach the Word (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). This is the only qualification for elders that concerns giftedness. All the others are character requirements (see Titus 1:1-9 and 1 Tim 3:1-7). Timothy is specifically commanded to prescribe and teach doctrine (1 Tim 4:11), to devote himself to reading, exhortation and teaching (1 Tim 4:13), and to pay close attention to himself and his teaching (1 Tim 4:16). He is to preach the Word even when it is not popular or desired (2 Tim 4:2-4). In addition, it should be observed that doctrinal teaching deals not only with systematic theology but with everyday issues such as finances, family and work (1 Tim 6). Found on the pages of Scripture is instruction addressing every issue imaginable, all based upon a biblical worldview. What happens when a biblical worldview that relates to our everyday lives is not taught? It becomes a free-for-all concerning how we live and what we expect out of life.
Many people in our world reject the idea that universal, absolute truth actually exists. Even some biblical scholars will say that, if it does exist, it is knowable only to God and not accessible to humans. But the Scriptures do not agree with this view. Below are some examples drawn from the Pastoral Epistles:
- To be saved we must come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Salvation is not possible where the knowledge of the truth of the gospel is not understood. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.” One of the most important mandates for the church is the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth, but we have no gospel to proclaim if we do not know the contents of the good news – its saving truth.
- Repentance is necessary if we are to know truth (2 Tim 2:25). Closely aligned with the previous example, Paul calls on the Lord’s servants to gently correct those who oppose the Lord with the hope that He will “grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” The roadblock to the knowledge of the truth is sin and sin is removed through repentance. When that happens those held in the bondage of sin will come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil who has held them captive to do his will. Such freedom is not possible without the knowledge of truth.
- The church is the pillar and the support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). While the local church can do many things, it has been specifically designed to be the “pillar and support of the truth.” Many fine organizations can fight for justice, work toward good government, provide for the needy and focus on any number of social issues, but only the church has been commanded and equipped by God to undergird and showcase God’s truth. It is fulfilling this design that should be front and center for the church.
- We are called to accurately handle the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15), for if we don’t we will be led astray from the truth (2:18). The haphazard and sloppy way many, including pastors, handle the Word of God today is a travesty. Without serious study, Scriptures are routinely ripped from their context and presented to unsuspecting sheep as messages from God. Rather than a message from God, too often it is a message from a preacher who has failed to do diligent study. Paul made certain to Timothy and all of us by extension, that such careless teaching is not an option. We must be serious students of Scripture so that we present what the Word of God teaches. We must “accurately handle the word of truth” (v.15).
(1 Tim 1:2, 19; 3:9, 13; 4:1; 5:8; 6:10, 21; 2 Tim 2:18; 3:8; 4:7; Titus 1:1, 13; 3:15).
“The faith” is a term often used in the NT denoting the body of New Testament truth. It is a synonym for doctrine. The Lord warns us that in the latter times some will fall away from “the faith” and will instead turn to demonic doctrines (1 Tim 4:1). Practically speaking, striving after riches can be a cause for the believer to wander from “the faith” (1 Tim 6:10), as can involvement in nonsensical philosophical discussions (1 Tim 6:21). As one of the stated purposes of Scripture is to reprove us when we are headed in a wrong direction, so the servant of Christ will have cause at times to use the Word to reprove others (Titus 1:13). Personally, Paul was thrilled to confirm that at the end of his life he had kept “the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).
(Next week, Part 2)
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.