Will God “Remain Faithful” to Save the Disobedient?

If we are faithless, he remains faithful.

2 Timothy 2:13

This verse is sometimes used to communicate that God will be faithful to save Christians despite any faithlessness or unfaithfulness on the Christian’s part. In the words of Brad McCoy (Grace Evangelical Society), “Verse 13 is a remarkable (re)affirmation of the absolute security of every believer.”1 Or in the words of Zane Hodges, “If we Christians were ‘faithless,’ this in no way affected His loyalty to us. Every guarantee that had been made to us in grace would still be ours, regardless of our lack of faith or fidelity.”2Grace in Eclipse: A Study on Eternal Rewards, p. 973 In both cases, verse 13 is being used to support the idea that our salvation is not in question despite faithless or unfaithful lives.

These interpretations are both great examples of forcing one’s interpretation onto the text instead of going where the text leads. To understand what the statement in verse 13 is actually communicating, we must look to the immediate context, starting in verse 10,

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

v.10

Paul sets the stage by telling Timothy why he is willing to undergo the suffering and trials he has faced. It’s for the sake of the “elect”. Paul’s next phrase, “that they also may obtain the salvation” is an interesting one. Notice Paul’s use of the word “may”. This word expresses that the elect obtaining salvation is a possibility, not a certainty. Paul is communicating that his reason for enduring what he is facing is to give them the best chance at obtaining salvation. Paul then gives his endorsement to what follows:

The saying is trustworthy

v.11a

In Paul’s time, this “saying” must have been a commonly known set of statements. The body is broken into two distinct couplets, the first is clearly positive:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

vv.11b-12a

The second couplet, however, changes to the negative:

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself.

vv.12b-13

The first couplet of this “statement” points to the promises made to those who are faithful to Christ, faithful to die and to endure. Those individuals will live and reign with Him. The second couplet then, must equally point to the promises made to those who are not faithful to Christ, those that deny him and are faithless (or unfaithful) to him. This is apparent from the first piece “if we deny him, he also will deny us”. A clear allusion to Jesus’ own warning in Matthew 10:33. Equally so, the second piece communicates Christ’s commitment to His promises in relation to the unfaithful. Notice, “he remains faithful–for he cannot deny himself.” The point of this statement is in relation to Christ’s faithfulness to Himself, not His faithfulness to us. The point of Paul’s words is that Christ is trustworthy, He remains faithful to His promises because He cannot lie, cannot misrepresent Himself, and cannot deny Himself (Num 23:19; Tit 1:2). Put another way, Christ is no less faithful to keep His Word just because we don’t believe or teach that He will (i.e., if we are faithless). The emphasis missed entirely by Hodges and McCoy, however, is that the promises Christ makes to the faithful (e.g. Mat 11:28-29, 25:20-23, 34-40, Joh 3:16-21 w/3:36) are altogether different from those made to the unfaithful (e.g. Mat 13:41-42, 49-50, 22:11-14, 24:48-51, 25:29-30, 41-46; Luk 13:24-27; John 3:19-20 w/3:36). To the unfaithful, or the “faithless”, Jesus promises that they will be denied before the Father and sent into eternal punishment. Ironically, the idea that verse 13 communicates a believer’s “absolute security” or that Christ will always be loyal to us is the very thing being struck down in the words “for he cannot deny himself.” For Christ to depart from the promises and words He made while on earth would be just that, a denial of Himself. For Christ to treat someone as faithful who is faithless, or to not deny someone who has denied Him, would be a violation of His own promises and words.

It’s no surprise that Paul drops this sober warning and reminder in the middle of chapter two. The first part of chapter two consists of Paul instructing Timothy to train up men who can be entrusted with God’s Word and “teach others” (v. 2). Paul then gives the “saying” (vv. 11-13) and tells Timothy he should remind these men of it (v. 14a). Then in the second portion of the chapter, Paul shows what happens when teachers depart from the “trustworthy saying”. Paul specifically brings up Hymenaeus and Philetus, two men spreading the gangrenous doctrine (v. 17) that the resurrection “has already happened” (v.18) (i.e., there would be no future resurrection). The connection between Paul’s condemnation of their belief and its propagation of the kind of unfaithfulness he warns against in verses 12 and 13 cannot be overlooked. Preaching no resurrection is the same as preaching there will be no punishment for disobedient believers (cf., 1Co 15:32). Paul therefore concludes the chapter by calling Timothy to “correct his opponents” in the hopes that “God may perhaps grant them repentance,” and that they might, “escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured to do his will” (v. 26).

So, on which side of the “trustworthy saying” do Hymenaeus and Philetus fall? Are they the faithful and enduring? Or are they the deniers and faithless ones? There is no question they are the unfaithful that Paul is referring to in verse 12. On the other hand, if verse 13 is speaking about Christ’s faithfulness to save us regardless of our faithlessness, are we really to believe that we’ll see Hymenaeus and Philetus, men doing the devil’s will, in Heaven if they continued to live how they’re described here? This is a ridiculous conclusion. Christ will most assuredly be faithful to follow through on His promises to the unfaithful when He judges men like Hymenaeus and Philetus.

Clearly then, 2 Timothy 2:13 is not a “(re)affirmation of the absolute security of every believer” irrespective of their behavior. It is a grave mistake to use this verse in this way. This new understanding, however, offers great encouragement to those with the right interpretation. One cannot trust anyone who fails to keep their word, good or bad. Our trust in His promises to the faithful is entirely contingent on God keeping all of His promises, even to the unfaithful. We can have no true confidence that God will fulfill His promises of blessings and eternal life to the faithful if He fails to keep His promises of punishment and denial to the unfaithful. For God to fail to punish or hold people accountable for being unfaithful would be an act of corruption, not grace.

Not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. But just as all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the LORD will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the LORD your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God…

Joshua 23:14-16

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.

Deuteronomy 7:9-10

Have Christians been forgiven of all past, present, and future sins?

In talking about forgiveness of sins, a popular way of referring to a believer is that their past, present, and future sins are all forgiven at the time of their conversion. For example “Before the judgment throne of God, the sins of believers are forgiven even before they are committed and even if they are never confessed…”1This belief manifests itself in a variety of views. The logical conclusion, however, is the same across the spectrum. If all future sins have already been forgiven, then our future sins have no effect on our salvation.

A verse that comes up often in this context is Hebrews 10:10-12:

We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins…

Hebrews 10:10-12

Notice, the primary contrast is that the priests used to offer sacrifices over and over for sin. Jesus’ death on the cross is instead, a “single sacrifice” and His sacrifice can take away sins where the former sacrifices could not. Notice also the author says that we have been sanctified through Jesus’ sacrifice. Clearly Jesus does not have to repeatedly come back and die to sanctify subsequent generations, but there’s nothing here that explicitly says that future sins are already forgiven. If we continue on in the same context and move down to verses 26-29 we find these words:

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

Hebrews 10:26-29

Herein a problem is presented with saying our future sins are already forgiven. To start, the author isn’t talking about unbelievers. This is the same “we” that he’s already said have been sanctified up in verse 10. The author says if believers go on sinning deliberately, there is no more sacrifice for sins (v. 26). The author isn’t saying there never was a sacrifice for sins, he’s saying there no longer is a sacrifice for sins. The author says that instead of having a sacrifice for sins, individuals in this category are guaranteed “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire…” (v. 27). After all, he says, those who rejected the Law in the Old Covenant received death, so those who have been sanctified through Christ’s blood should expect even worse punishment should they go on “sinning deliberately” (v. 28-29). The author makes it clear that saved believers who have been sanctified from their past and present sins but choose to go on “sinning deliberately” will be cut off from Jesus’ sacrifice and guaranteed judgment, fire, and a punishment worse than death.

Consider the ridiculous conclusion that comes from this section if Jesus’ sacrifice guarantees that future sins are forgiven at conversion. If this is true, and yet there is still a possibility of no longer having a sacrifice for sins, it must be an issue with the sacrifice. Like an insurance policy, there is a limit to coverage. Exceed the given amount and you are no longer covered. Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient so long as you don’t exceed the policy’s limit. In essence, the author of Hebrews would be communicating that Jesus’ sacrifice is insufficient in some cases. All of this is ludicrous. Clearly, the author of Hebrews is not communicating a lack of sufficiency in Jesus’ sacrifice. But equally so, the author is not communicating that Jesus’ sacrifice has already counted toward future sin. Hebrews 10:26-29 is not talking about future sins being “unforgiven” but instead losing the ability to have those sins forgiven in the first place. The author of Hebrews is saying there’s a point at which someone can exhibit the kind of rebellion and unrepentance that Jesus finally says, “You are trampling me underfoot, and profaning the blood that I sanctified you with. You are cut off from the sacrifice.” The issue is not Jesus’ sacrifice running out, but rather being cut off from accessing it. Jesus’ sacrifice has provided an inexhaustible source of blood to cover sins for all time. The issue is continued access to the source. It is simply untenable to say that someone’s future sins are already forgiven.

This conclusion is hardly surprising. Moving beyond Hebrews, John makes future forgiveness and cleansing contingent on our confession of sin when he says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1Jo 1:9). In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus tells us we are to ask the Father to “forgive us our sins” (Luk 11:4). In yet another example, Peter tells Simon to “Repent…and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (Act 8:22; emphasis mine). The point not to miss, Christ’s sacrifice has made a way for past, present, and future sins to be forgiven, but future sins are not already forgiven. Our continued faithfulness, confession, and repentance are what determine if we have access to this inexhaustible resource.

Is Christ the End of the Law?

One controversial question in Christianity is what obligations Christians have to the Old Testament (OT) Law. One objection brought up is that Christ’s death removed our obligation to the OT Law. Paul is often cited in support of such thinking due to statements that sound as though he’s either speaking negatively about the Law or speaking in ways that sound as though we no longer need to follow the Law. His statement in Romans 10:4 is one such example of this:

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4

Interpreting Paul’s words here, however, to mean that the OT Law is “no longer binding on Christians in any way” fails to capture Paul’s true intention. Earlier in the book, Paul has established certain truths that prove essential to understanding Paul’s words and the key phrase, “for righteousness”. In Romans 3, Paul explains that God’s righteousness has now been revealed apart from the law (3:21). God’s righteousness is shown in the fact that He has provided a way to be truly justified by having faith in Jesus Christ (3:22, 24). Paul then makes the famous statement “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (3:28). The point not to miss here is that Paul’s use of the phrase “the righteousness of God” refers to what God did in creating a new way to be truly justified, and that the manner in which people receive that justification is through faith “apart from the works of the law”. Paul goes on in Romans 5 to show that being justified and becoming righteous are synonymous, in other words both refer to having a right standing with God (5:18 w/19). Just before Paul’s words in Romans 10, Paul reveals that he is not only dealing with the same question, but the Jews’ stubborn attempt to go back to the Law (9:30-33). Though the Jews had “a zeal for God” (10:2), they refused to submit to “God’s righteousness” (10:3). As we saw in Romans 3, God’s righteousness refers to God’s new way of becoming righteous: faith in Christ. It is in this sense that “Christ is the end of the law”, He is the “end” of the Law only for righteousness. Neither Jew nor Christian can be made righteous through the old “law for righteousness”, they now enter into a righteous standing through faith in Christ, the new “law for righteousness”.

The context of Romans 10 shows that Paul’s intention was to answer a limited question. From Romans 10:4, it’s just a short three chapters later where Paul commands his audience to live out their lives in accordance with the Law’s commands as the means to fulfilling our “debt” to love our neighbor (Rom 13:8-10 w/Ex 20:13-17 & Lev 19:18). Among other examples, Paul even uses the OT Law to tell the Corinthians that he has a right to get paid for his pastoral services (1Co 9:6-12). Paul cannot use the Law authoritatively unless the Law is still authoritative. To say otherwise puts Paul in the rather morally compromising position of extorting money from Christians using something that has no authority. Such a thing, surely, would be unconscionable for Paul. It is clear then that Paul’s reverence for the Law went beyond just its place in history, he instead was preoccupied with ensuring it was properly upheld, fulfilled, and obeyed in the lives of the New Covenant Christians (e.g. Rom 3:31; Act 21:20-26, 23:1-5). This is not to say that Paul believed Christians are under the Mosaic Covenant, or even that the Christian carrying out the Law looks exactly the same. But to say that Paul didn’t believe in the Law’s authority for the Christian entirely misses the concern Paul has in Romans 10:4. Paul’s purpose in Romans 10:4 is not to provide a sweeping rejection of the OT Law, but to communicate the end of the Law as the means to justification.