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.
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
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;
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.
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…
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.