Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
A convocation is an assembly called together by official summons to perform a specific task. The assembly in this instance is the professors and students of our seminary. God, we believe, has summoned us through our churches. God has called us together to perform a specific task. The professors have a divinely ordained task to perform and so do the students God in His mercy has given to our seminary and churches. The text upon which we base our address this evening speaks of both the task of the professors and the students. It reads: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2). What the Lord says through the apostle Paul to Timothy He says to the professors: and the things that you have heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men. The faithful men who are able to teach others are the students whose task it is to prepare themselves to do just that.
The apostle Paul is nearing the end of his life. He is concerned that his spiritual son, Timothy, a young minister, remember what he had been taught: the gospel of God’s sovereign grace in Christ Jesus. The truth of the gospel must be preserved by Timothy. And that truth must be committed to faithful men. These faithful men are future ministers of the gospel. They must be faithful and they must be able to teach others. All of this is highly necessary because in this way, by means of the preaching of the Word, the Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves the church, the elect out of every nation. God is pleased to save His church by means of faithful men who are able to teach others. Hence, it is essential that the truth be committed to these men.
To whom must the truth be committed? The text answers: “faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” These are faithful men. They are men full of faith. Men who are therefore trustworthy and reliable. Faithful men are men upon whom the churches can depend. They are men whom the churches believe to be men of faith and men who possess the ability to teach others. They are men upon whom the church can depend to do the work of the ministry faithfully.
Certain essential spiritual gifts characterize this kind of man. These are gifts from God apart from which a man cannot be considered to be faithful. The first of these is spirituality or genuine piety.
A faithful man is a child of God. It is true there are hypocrites in the ministry, and God even uses false prophets such as Balaam to bless His people. Two things, however, may be said about this. These never last. Sooner or later but inevitably they are exposed and leave or are put out of the ministry. These are not the rule but the exceptions to the rule. Ministers must be spiritual, pious, godly men. They must be men saved by grace through faith, God’s gift. Men in whose hearts burns the love of God in Jesus Christ, men who love God and God’s people, His church and cause. Ministers must be men who have, as one writer put it, “a fascination with the Bible.” They must be men who live exemplary Christian lives. A faithful man must possess the gift of humility. There is no room for pride in the ministry! Pride, the Bible says, goes before a fall. That is true also in the ministry! Self-seeking pride, selfishness, the seeking of the praise of men, all these are abominable sins among God’s people, and especially among ministers. If one wants the praise of men, honor, fame, he must not seek the ministry of the gospel. Faithful men are humble men. As the apostles, they are slaves of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, of His church. They know the truth of what J.J. Van Oosterzee said: “The flock does not exist for the pastor, but the pastor for the flock.” Faithful men give their lives in the service of Gods church! Thus faithful men are men of prayer. They know that all they have and are is of God. They know that they cannot preach one sermon or perform one pastoral task apart from God’s grace! They pray without ceasing for God’s grace and Holy Spirit to enable them to be faithful men who are able to teach others.
Faithful men are men of sympathetic understanding. Jesus, our great, merciful high priest, is touched with the feeling of our infirmities and He was tempted in all points as we, yet without sin. This is why we can pray and find mercy and grace to help us in our need. The servants of Christ must know God’s people, know their needs, their struggles, joys, afflictions, and sorrows. And faithful men must feel with God’s people. They must understand God’s people so as to bring God’s Word to their needs. They must weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.
Faithful men who are spiritual men, humble, and sympathetic, are men of spiritual courage or boldness. The apostle admonished the Church at Ephesus to pray for all the saints, and for me, that I might have boldness to make known the mystery of the gospel. This must be the prayer of every faithful minister. A minister needs boldness to preach and teach, the truth of the gospel which declares that we are sinners who can do no good at all and that our salvation is all by the grace of the sovereign God in Christ to His own glory. To preach this takes courage, boldness. Ministers stand in the front line of the battle of faith. This is why Paul tells Timothy in II Timothy 2:3 to endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ.
Faithful men must be able to teach others. They must have that ability, and this too must come from God. A minister needs the ability to study. A faithful man must be able to teach others by means of preaching. He needs the ability, therefore, to read and understand the Holy Scriptures, to think, to organize his thoughts clearly and logically. The minister needs a broad background in history, philosophy, literature, the original languages of the Bible. He needs to know the history of the church, the doctrine of Holy Scripture as set forth in the creeds. All this and more he must make his own. And then he needs to explain the Word of God to God’s people. This takes hours and hours of hard, prayerful work. To produce a good sermon takes about twenty hours per sermon, at least for a beginning preacher. This constitutes forty hours per week plus the other aspects of the work. The bulk of a faithful minister’s time ought to be spent in his study.
The faithful minister also needs the gift for public speaking. His chief task is to preach the Word twice per Lord’s Day and he needs to teach the children and youth of the church in catechism. The minister must have the God-given ability to do this. We teach courses in the seminary on how to construct a sermon and deliver it. We also teach the students how to teach catechism. But a man needs those gifts from God. The seminary courses only help him develop those gifts and use them properly.
What must be committed to these faithful men? The text answers: “the things thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men.” What Timothy heard from the apostle was the Word of God. Paul taught him Christ from the Scriptures. He instructed him in the faith. Timothy heard the truth of the inspired, infallible Scriptures. Timothy heard that truth not just with his ears, but he heard it in the sense that he learned that truth. He acquired a spiritual knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of a true, living faith. And Timothy learned those things among many witnesses. Literally these witnesses were martyrs. They were not mere spectators or observers, but witnesses who testified to the truth of what Paul taught Timothy. And these martyrs were many. There was Timothy’s grandmother, Lois; his mother, Eunice; Paul’s co-workers, and the saints in general. And above all there was the witness of the Holy Spirit of Christ who testified in Timothy’s heart and worked faith in him. From a child Timothy knew the Holy Scriptures which were able to make him wise unto salvation.
This is what we too have heard, learned among many witnesses. We have much more than Timothy. God has given to us the entire canon of the infallibly inspired Scriptures. We have learned the truths of Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirits that these things are true. We have learned these things among martyr witnesses. There is the testimony of the martyrs whose souls are under the altar and who cry: how long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? (Rev. 6) They have testified to the truth of the gospel and sealed that testimony with their own blood. There is the witness of the fathers of the church who expounded the truth of Scripture over against various heresies and who under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth formulated the great creeds of the church. There is the witness of the Reformation fathers: Luther, Calvin, and others. There is the witness of the English divines and our Dutch fathers and out of that witness came our precious Three Forms of Unity as well as the Westminster Creeds and other Confessions. And yes, make no mistake about it, we have the witness of our Protestant Reformed fathers. Through, these we have been given by God rich, profound, brilliant, even, I dare say, unique insights into the truth. Think of it. God’s unilateral, unconditional covenant of friendship and fellowship with the elect in Jesus Christ. God’s sovereign, saving grace by which alone the elect are redeemed in Christ. Preaching as the means by which the voice of Christ is heard and by which power the elect are brought to repentance and faith while the reprobate are hardened and condemned in the way of their own rebellion and sin. The absolute antithesis: God versus the devil, faith versus unbelief, Christ versus Belial, the church versus the world, good versus evil, light versus darkness. What a rich, wonderful heritage of the knowledge of truth God has given to us. Now is no time for compromise either in doctrine or practice, and now is no time for bickering, fighting over non-essentials. That sacred trust of truth needs to be taught others in the churches. Without shame that truth needs to be proclaimed in the mission fields wherever God in His good pleasure sends us.
If that is to happen, this truth must be committed to faithful men. The verb commit means: to place down, deposit, intrust one’s charge. Notice this is an imperative. This is not something we may or may not do, or have choice in the matter. It is God’s command to us to intrust the truth to faithful men.
This has serious implications for both the faculty and the students of our seminary. For the faculty this determines the proper method of teaching. What we have learned is a discernible body of truth out of Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Reformed confessions. This truth is not subject to various interpretations or applications, nor is it merely to be discussed or debated. It is not up for grabs. Much less is this truth to be contradicted or denied. It must be faithfully intrusted to the charge of faithful men who shall thus be able to teach others. This is utterly crucial, for at least two fundamental principles, restored by the Reformation of the sixteenth century are involved. There is the formal principle: sola Scriptura—infallible scripture is the soul authority for faith and life. Closely related is the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture. Scripture is not an enigma. It is not hidden, obscure, able to be understood only by highly educated experts in the fields of hermeneutics and exegesis. Scripture is uncomplicated, simple, clear, and easy to understand. When one stand before Holy Scripture he either wrests Scripture to his own destruction in unbelief or he believes it with a childlike faith, and that is by grace alone.
For the students this means you may question, debate, and discuss, probe; in fact you must feel free to do this. But we are free to do this only within the bounds of Scripture as interpreted by the confessions. What is committed to you must be learned and understood. What you are learning is under the ministry of the Word, and it must be mixed with faith. That precious truth, the Reformed faith as given to our churches, must become the burning conviction of your hearts by the grace of the Holy Spirit. When it becomes that, you will be faithful men who are able to teach others.
This is the seminary’s calling and place in the midst of the churches. It is an indispensable place for the life and well being of the churches. It is a sacred trust God has given, a holy calling, and a task utterly impossible. None is worthy to commit the truth to faithful men, none is worthy to receive it and teach it to others, and none is capable to do it, either. Brothers and sisters in the Lord, this means we need your love, concern, support, and above all we need your constant prayers. We need the prayers of the congregations on the Lord’s Day. In this way God gives us His grace to do the work for the gathering of the church to the glory of His ever-blessed name.