I am preaching through the pastoral letters and when I recently began 2 Timothy I was reminded of the concern that Paul expresses about how the gospel will be handled after his death. He not only emphasizes the importance and centrality of the gospel—which he does in all his letters, but he also issues warnings that indicate he is concerned that the gospel might be lost—not in the world, primarily—but in the church.
This is evident in the specific instructions Paul give to Timothy, beginning in the first chapter. Consider his admonitions in 2 Timothy 1:8-14:
- Do not be ashamed of the gospel, 8a,—Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner,
- Be willing to suffer for the gospel, 8b—but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God
- Keep the gospel, 13—Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus
- Guard the gospel, 14—By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
Then in 2 Timothy 2:8, Paul tells Timothy to remember the gospel: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.”
Why does Paul say these things? He has preached the gospel faithfully throughout his ministry. He has taught Timothy the gospel faithfully. Timothy has preached the gospel faithfully and proven himself a trustworthy minister of it (Philippians 2:19-24). Is Paul really concerned that Timothy will forget the gospel or that the gospel is in any real danger?
Paul writes the way that he does about these things because he recognizes that there are always threats to the gospel. He has lived through some (in Galatia, in Antioch with Peter, Galatians 2:11-14, and at the Jerusalem Council, Acts 15) and he sees some on the horizon as he writes his final letter.
We are never beyond the danger of the gospel being undermined, neglected or lost altogether. We need to be alert to this—more alert than we tend to be. We should never think that this cannot happen on our watch. It happened on Paul’s and it could easily happen on ours.
In the 18th century, JC Ryle understood the ever-present dangers that face the gospel. In Knots Untied, he wrote:
“You may spoil the gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith–Jesus Christ–and to substitute another object in His place… and the mischief is done.
“You may spoil the gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honor, and the mischief is done.
“You may spoil the gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done.”
We are facing each of these dangers today, but perhaps the third one more so than the others. Advocates of various good causes within the evangelical world can sometimes present their arguments as if the gospel is incidental or even altogether insignificant. When that happens, Paul’s admonitions need to be heeded all-the-more.
We are always in danger of losing the gospel. Facing that danger is the first step to avoiding it.
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