Apostasy and God’s faithfulness


The National Director of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES), Richard Chin, has begun preaching through 2 Timothy at our church. When he covered chapter 2, we received a couple of questions. I ended up answering them as the pastor here.

Question: 2 Timothy 2:13-14 says, “if we are faithless, he [Christ] remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself”. Can you explain to whom is God faithful?

Sometimes people have taken verse 13 as saying that even when we sin and let God down (which we all do), God will stick with us. He won’t ever let us down. Instead, they suggest that (as verse 13 says) he will remain faithful to us. We might be unreliable, but God won’t give up on us.

These thoughts can be comforting, and you can probably find other passages of the Bible to underwrite them (e.g. Rom 5:8-10; 1 John 1:9). Yes, even when we fail again and again, God is willing to forgive us if we repent!

However, I am certain that this is not what 2 Timothy 2:13 is talking about!

Rather than offering assurance despite our continuing struggle with sin, this verse is offering a solemn warning about the dangers of apostasy. (The Macquarie Dictionary defines apostasy as “a total desertion of, or departure from, one’s religion, principles, party, cause”.) I’ll see if I can explain. It becomes more obvious when you print the verse in its context (using the NIV):

2:11 Here is a trustworthy saying:
    If we died with him,
        we will also live with him;
2:12 if we endure,
        we will also reign with him.
    If we disown him,
        he will also disown us;
2:13 if we are faithless,
        he will remain faithful,
    for he cannot disown himself.

You’ll notice from the layout that this section of Paul’s letter to Timothy seems to be quoting a common Christian saying, or perhaps an early Christian hymn. You can tell this by the indented layout in the English translations. But you can also tell it has a poetic style by noticing the so-called parallelism.

In English, basic poetry most often uses rhyme. But poetry from biblical times often uses parallelism. The most basic form of parallelism is where the same thing is said in two slightly different ways. The ideas run in parallel! That’s exactly what’s going on in verses 11-13.

Let’s see if we can outline the pattern.

v. 11B If we died with him (i.e. Christ) something good by us, then
v. 11C     we will also live with him     something good for us from Christ
v. 12A If we endure something good by us, then
v. 12B     we will also reign with him     something good for us from Christ
v. 12C If we disown him something bad by us, then
v. 12D     he will also disown us     something bad for us from Christ
v. 13A If we are faithless, something bad by us, then
v. 13B     he will remain faithful …

The pattern should be pretty clear. There are two positive actions by Christians followed by two positive outcomes for us. Then there are two negative actions by us. The pattern suggests that if the first of these is followed by a bad outcome for us, then the second should also be followed by a bad outcome for us.

By the parallel between verse 12D and verse 13B, we ought to understand “he [i.e. Christ] will remain faithful” as meaning something bad for us—that is, Jesus disowning us. Verse 13C confirms this when it gives the reason for the prior statement: Christ cannot disown himself.

That is, the answer to the original question is that Christ will be faithful to himself—to his own character and promises, rather than to those who are faithless.

In this context, by the parallel, we can now also see that us being faithless (v. 13A) means disowning Christ (v. 12C). In other words, it’s talking about the very particular sin of apostasy—the public and settled denial of Christ—rather than the general fact that Christians continue to struggle with sin and failure this side of heaven.

This fits the context of the letter where Paul is urging Timothy to “not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me [Paul] his prisoner”, even if it means suffering for the gospel (2 Tim 1:8). In contrast, we discover that “all who are in Asia turned away from [Paul], among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes” (1:15; see also 4:10, 4:16). Denying the gospel of Jesus and betraying those who preach him is the big temptation.

This also matches up with the sobering warning of the Lord Jesus himself in Mark 8:38: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”.

(By the way, I discovered my understanding of this verse was confirmed by an excellent book on how to understand the Bible: Dig Deeper: Tools for Understanding God’s Word by Nigel Benyon and Andrew Sach. You can read the particular reference, courtesy of the publisher, Crossway. You can also browse information about the book and all 16 of its tools for good Bible reading here. I recommend it highly.)

3 thoughts on “Apostasy and God’s faithfulness

  1. Sandy – a helpful analysis! But that won’t stop me quibbling wink

    Granted (yes, pun intended!), a pattern clearly exists. However, if I were arguing the ‘conventional’ line, I can support my argument by saying:

    a) the breach of the pattern demonstrates the surprising, undeserved nature of grace

    b) the pattern is broken anyway by v. 13c, so clearly Paul is not constrained by his pattern…perhaps even, he’s keen to break it

    c) in light of all the sober warnings against apostasy, the ‘comfort’ is all the more comforting!

    None of this is conclusive, and I’ll have to think about the rest of your suggestion, but I thought it worth a mention.

    Incidentally, I can cite a parallel where I think a pattern is deliberately broken to establish the danger/certainty of apostasy: Deuteronomy 28. So perhaps what I takes with my left I gives back with my right!

  2. Hi Anthony, and thanks for commenting. I’m glad there was one!

    I get so annoyed when people would quote v13 (and just the first two parts) without any attention to the context to prove that God would never let us down, no matter what we do.

    So I’m glad you’re thinking about the context with me.

    Now’s there’s been a bit of time to think, can you provide any examples of where a pattern of parallelism is breached to show the surprising nature of grace?

    (By the way, I am not sure Deuteronomy 28 is straight parallelism, rather a series of positives followed by a series of negatives. But I might have missed something you noticed.)

    Further I don’t think the pattern is broken at all. There are two positive parallels (11BC + 12AB) followed by two negative parallels (12CD + 13AB). This is a series with perfect and complete balance (2 + 2).

    The last negative couplet is followed by a reason (13C).

    But that itself does not seem to be part of the parallelism, but supplying a reason for the comment in 13AB, by picking up language (of ‘denial’) already used in the first part of the parallel in 12CD.

    So I think I will stick with my exegesis at this stage.

  3. Ah, but if this was the expected pattern continuing, would Paul need to supply a reason?!

    I’m not really arguing with your exegesis…I think just saying that the larger context (ie the letter) seems stronger than the parallelism evidence.

    Deut 28: it’s the waffle version of parallelism. There are clearly sections in the blessings and the curses that are linked to each other, it’s just that there are other bits in between. What’s striking about the chapter is the way that after the ‘waffle parallelism’ is finished, there’s another pile of verses outlining in not very hypothetical terms what will take place when they turn away.

    (But one man’s waffle is another man’s ice cream cone. It may be true only in my eyes!)

    As for an example, I’ll be cheeky and cite the Good Samaritan. I got there by thinking that parables in general often trade off the back of such disrupted patterns, but once I’d got my example I got lazy (too much going on at the minute, I’m afraid). I’m sure there must be others…;-)

Comments are closed.