In the previous articles on the antithesis we defined its meaning, pointed out its manifestation in the world and especially within the church, and showed that the cross of Christ preached is its source.
We now turn to the basis of the antithesis. How do we know what the thesis and the antithesis are? How can we know how to live the antithesis?
The answer is found in Paul’s instruction to the young minister Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2–4: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall the heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
Paul speaks of the preaching of the word. This is the preaching of the word of God in Christ by the church through the office of the ministry. It is the word of salvation and eternal life in Christ, as that word is recorded by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures. It is the true, complete, and authoritative rule of all doctrine and life, containing all that is necessary to believe unto eternal life.
The content of the word is doctrine (v. 2), sound doctrine (v. 3), and the truth (v. 4). The idea is that the content of doctrine is the whole truth and the only truth. But what is doctrine?
Serious misconceptions about the meaning of doctrine abound today in the general sphere of the church, and to a certain extent exist also in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Doctrine is considered to be dry and dull; it is sterile, having no application to everyday life; it is difficult to understand and meant only for the learned. Churches that preach doctrine, including our own, have a bad reputation. Ministers who preach doctrine are often unpopular. All of us have probably heard it said, “Reverend X is so doctrinal, but Rev. Y is so practical.” The implication is that Rev. Y is a better minister than Rev. X. I am not sure of the source of this kind of reasoning. Perhaps it is due to the fact that we are often lazy; we do not want to put forth the effort to think; we want to be spoon-fed easy preaching. Whatever the cause, this thinking is often used to justify opposition to so-called doctrinal preaching. It is also used to create an erroneous dichotomy between doctrine and life and between doctrinal and practical preaching, so that the two are seen to be mutually exclusive. The emphasis of the preaching is either practical or doctrinal, and it is only reasonable to want the practical variety.
This, young people, is wrong thinking, and it has no place in our attitude toward the preaching. We can understand this if we have the correct idea of what the Scriptures means by doctrine. The word translated in the KJV as “doctrine” is in the original simply “a teaching.” Teaching can take different forms: long, short, easy, or hard. It can apply either directly or indirectly to our lives. It is never dry, dull, or sterile exactly because it applies to us. If you say that is does not, then you say that the Scriptures, which are full of teaching, do not apply to us. Nor is there any opposition between doctrine and practice. Often it is said that doctrine is the basis for practice. This is not strictly true. Doctrine (teaching) is practice. This is also true regarding the preaching. If the preaching is practical, then it must be doctrinal, because it teaches us. For example, the book of Romans is usually considered to be doctrinal. In it Paul sets forth, among other truths, the doctrine of sin in many of its aspects. Some of what he writes is difficult to grasp. Even the apostle Peter says that in Paul’s writings there are some things that are hard to understand. Yet, simply put, Paul writes teachings regarding sin, with application to our lives as sinners. An example of an easy teaching is the sixth commandment, which says very simply, “You may not murder your neighbor.” There cannot possibly be any misunderstanding of this teaching. With application to the subject at hand, Scripture teaches everywhere the truth of the antithesis, and instructs us that we are to stand for the thesis and oppose the antithesis. Every page is full of teachings that are at the same time doctrinal and practical. Such is the positive idea of the word of doctrine; it is the thesis, the positive truth that Scripture teaches.
Why is it necessary to place such emphasis on preaching and maintaining “sound teaching” and “the truth” antithetically?
Negatively, the reason is a dislike of doctrine. The time will come, says Paul, when they will not endure sound doctrine. When he speaks of “they,” he is not referring to the world or to men in general; they never like sound teaching. Rather, he refers to the church. He assumes the thesis—that sound doctrine is preached in the church. But some cannot endure it; they do not want it, and they cannot stand it. Therefore they apostatize and fall away from sound teaching. They do this by heaping to themselves teachers (the same root word used for “doctrine”), substituting them for the teachers who preach the sound word of the truth and who tell them what they want to hear, which is the doctrine of man. Paul describes this by the down-to-earth figure of scratching an itch. Their ears itch for false doctrine, and they scratch the itch by obtaining false teachers. Nor are they satisfied with one or a few such teachers. Rather, they heap a multitude to themselves. If one does not scratch their itch, they go looking for another who will.
They do this according to their own lusts, that is, their sinful desires. They want to be told what they like to hear; they want to be praised as good people; they want to be able to do what their sinful hearts desire without being forbidden or rebuked; they want to have their desires satisfied. The teachers who do this are popular and successful because people like to be told how good they are, not how sinful they are. The result is that they are turned to fables. They hear fairy tales from the pulpit, the myths and lies of the devil.
Thus the antithesis shows itself with regard to the preaching of the word. The thesis, the truth, the word of sound teaching comes through the preaching. That teaching is not according to man’s lust and does not consist of fables. Instead of telling us what we want to hear, the word of truth boxes our ears soundly, telling us that we are sinners redeemed by grace alone. Many, even most do not want to hear any of this. Instead, they substitute the word of man and seek to destroy the thesis, to blur the sharp line of the antithesis, and to water down the word of God.
The time for this will come, says Paul. Undoubtedly he is referring not to his day, but to the last days in which we live. Scripture refers to these days as being characterized by a great falling away or apostasy from the truth, which is taking place right before us, if only we have eyes to see. Thus there is here a word of warning for us. All around us we see deterioration in the sphere of the church. Even those churches that have been historically conservative and faithfully Reformed are compromising fundamental truths of sound teaching. Until now we as churches have been preserved in the path of faithfulness by the grace of God. We still hear the word of doctrine preached from our pulpits, and we have no significant itches that need scratching. This word of warning comes especially to you, young people, because you are the church of tomorrow. Upon your shoulders as members and leaders of the church rests the burden of maintaining the faithful preaching of the word of doctrine and holding to the antithesis. Do not become lazy and think that we are immune to itching ear syndrome. History says otherwise.
Positively, the necessity of preaching the word of doctrine is necessary for faithfulness in the truth. This is stated negatively in verse 3: some do not want sound doctrine. The implication is that such preaching is necessary. The content of this preaching is described as “sound” doctrine. The word means “healthy.” It produces health in the spiritual sense. It is nourishing spiritual food, the opposite of spiritual junk food. According to our sinful natures we may not like this healthful teaching any more than a child likes his spinach, but God knows what is best for us, as parents do with a child.
Doctrine is necessary because it gives the knowledge of salvation. It teaches us what we must know and how we must live. This is why catechism is so important in the lives of you young people. Ignorance has results for all of life, for if we do not know what the truth is, how can we live according to it? The word of doctrine not only gives the knowledge of salvation, but also maintains and increases that knowledge. We need constant reminding of and further instruction in the doctrines of Scripture. Only in this way do we know how to walk in the way of sanctification and how to walk antithetically as God’s people in the world. This is essential. Most, if not all of life’s problems are rooted either in ignorance of what the Scriptures teach or in a refusal to obey what they teach. True doctrine produces a proper, Godly walk of life, while false doctrine produces a sinful walk of life. The compromise or loss of the antithesis, whether in doctrine or in life, means that almost any heresy or wrong practice is tolerated. In contrast, the strengthening of our faith is worked and maintained by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of sound teaching, so that we are able to stand for the thesis and against the antithesis.
How must the word be preached? Be reproving, rebuking, and exhorting, according to verse 2.
Reproving is to call someone to account by testifying against sin. Rebuking is to convince of sin unto repentance. Reproving and rebuking are similar ideas. Together they are the word of doctrine that steps on our toes when we do wrong. Exhort, their positive counterpart, is to admonish and encourage, to urge us to obey the word of doctrine. We need all three of these because we are weak sinners. Constantly the word must reprove and rebuke us because we are so inclined to do what is wrong; we need to have our toes stepped on, sometimes very hard. We must also be encouraged and taught to walk in the path of sanctification.
The word must be preached constantly—in season and out of season, with all longsuffering, that is, time and time again, patiently, without giving up. And we must constantly hear that word and obey it, applying it to our lives. For this is the only way to maintain the antithesis; it is the only way to keep purity of doctrine and of life; it is the only way of obedience and submission to the word of Christ; and it is the only way of salvation for us as God’s people.
Hold fast, therefore, to the antithetical word of sound doctrine, remembering the words of 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”