Toward Theological Endurance

True North - Part 6

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Chris Oswald

Feb. 18, 2024
True North



February 18 2024 Sermon

Introduction: The Unkillable Soldier

Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian de Wiart, was a British Army officer born of Belgian and Irish parents. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" in various Commonwealth countries. He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War. He was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; was blinded in his left eye; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor declined to amputate them. Describing his experiences in the First World War, he wrote, "Frankly, I had enjoyed the war.”

Today I want to talk about how to develop theological endurance. What I mean by theological endurance is a commitment to biblical doesn’t change when the culture changes, when your circumstances change, etc…

Doctrine that can endure many battles over many years, doctrine that can take a bullet and keep on keeping on.

It was about this time of year, way back in 1974, that Charles Spurgeon wrote the following to his students:

We must be ready to give up anything and everything for the sake of the principles which we have espoused, and must be ready to offend our best supporters, to alienate our warmest friends, sooner than belie our consciences. We must be ready to be beggars in purse, and offscourings in reputation, rather than act treacherously. We can die, but we cannot deny the truth. The cost is already counted, and we are determined to buy the truth at any price, and sell it at no price.

That’s what I mean by theological or doctrinal endurance.

Now when I say doctrine, you might think of the biggies. The divinity of Christ. Justification by faith alone. Penal substitutionary atonement. And of course, I do mean these things. But we are living in an age where things we don’t even think of as doctrine are under attack:

Doctrine of marriage. Doctrine of gender. Doctrine of conflict resolution. Doctrine of biblical justice. So on and so forth.

It is very important to me that you build theological resilience. And that you live your whole life as faithfully as possible.

Endurance is a great theme of this little book. In vs. 1-3, we see that Timothy is to find faithful men who are able to teach others.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

The word faithful is just another way of talking about endurance. Faithful not flakey.

And in vs. 11-13, the endurance theme appears again —

The saying is trustworthy, for:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

And Paul tells Timothy to remind these faithful men about the importance of endurance.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Remind them of the importance of all kinds of endurance. Including theological endurance.

I. The Nature of Human Perception: Belief & Belonging

One way we can develop theological endurance is to understand there is always a connection between our beliefs and desire for belonging.

There is copious amounts of psychological data, especially following WW2, on the problem of groupthink. It is really shocking how quickly someone’s need to belong can twist their perception of reality. Those studies usually involve the perception of naked facts.

It only gets more complicated when discussing things like doctrines. Which are even more complex in some respect than naked facts. If our perception of color is that susceptible to our desire to belong, how much more our perception of spiritual things.

I actually don’t believe there is anything to be done about that. It is a fundamental to human nature. And it something God gave us for a very specific purpose. Our desire to be loved and accepted by him — works in favor of our theological fidelity. In God’s perfect design, there is no gap between our relational needs and our perceptual capacities. We were created to belong to God. To walk with him. To know him. To feel and seek his approval. And in that context, the human connection between our beliefs and longing to belong are suited for one another.

That’s what Paul is commending to Timothy in vs. 15

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

The image of an approved worker is tied into the principle of apprenticeship. The apprentice is doing his work for an audience of one. He is trying to please his teacher.

Paul is giving us a simple but powerful key to theological endurance. Remember who it is you’re trying to please. Remember who’s test you’re trying to pass.

Look at vs. 16-18

16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.

Now I plan on dropping a podcast on some of the theological stuff happening here related to the resurrection in particular. But I don’t think we need to get into all of that here. What I think it is most important to see is this link between beliefs and belonging.

There were many resurrection related heresies in that day. We aren’t given enough information to know the specifics of this situation. But let’s just quickly consider two possibilities.

We know there was Jewish heresy that taught a limited resurrection. Namely the patriarchs and a few other special people would be resurrected during the time of the Messiah.

Let’s suppose this was the idea going around in the Ephesian church. Let’s carry this idea of belonging motivated beliefs into that possibility.

If these so-called Christians were adopting a Jewish idea, we need to hasten to add that the Jews were at that time religious bullies. The majority of heat on the early church came from the Jews. Do you see what I’m getting at? One motivation to depart from sound doctrine would be to make your beliefs more like the people most likely to pounce on you for disagreeing with them. To appease those with the most cultural power.

Who are the bullies of this age? The rainbow mafia to be sure. The marxist guilt manipulators. There are areas of Christian doctrine that are simply incompatible with these perspectives. And our drive to belong is so strong that we can convince ourselves that we aren’t compromising — we’ve just arrived at a “new understanding.” And that new understanding just so happens to be less offensive to the bullies.

Now there’s another possibility with this resurrection heresy. Rather than being specifically Jewish, it could’ve been gnostic. The gnostics spiritualized everything. The resurrection wasn’t a physical thing but rather a purely ephemeral thing.

Now supposing this was an adoption of the gnostic principle. Then we can draw another important lesson. The gnostics were the intelligent ones. Their entire religion was built on intellectual pride. And so we have another motivation revealed. To be thought of as smart.

Who are the intellectual cool kids?

The point I am making is that when it comes to perception and epistemology, we are not mere computers. There are emotional, relational issues at play. These desires for acceptance and approval are an inescapable part of human cognition.

All we can do is choose who we’re trying to please. Who’s acceptance we’re going for. Etc….

I heard about a terrible thing done by a company’s IT department. Some of you know about Phishing. Emails sent to workers meant to entice them to click, provide confidential information, etc… And this has become such a problem that IT departments proactively send out phishing emails to their own employees to weed out the most gullible. Well, just last week, I heard about an IT department in what sounded like a decent sized company — send out a phishing email to its employees to the effect of — “you have a Valentines delivery waiting for you downstairs. Hit this button and then come pick it up.” So all of these people immediately felt like someone loved them and their hearts lifted a little bit thinking — wow, so and so remembered or wow, I have a secret admirer. They pranced down to the lobby of the business with anticipation in their hearts — only to find Kyle from IT waiting down there to give them a stern talking to.

The part of you that wants others to love you, appreciate you, etc… is going to affect your judgment. There’s no way around it.

It would be a shame to face God one day and realize that you failed the test. You bit the hook of worldly approval.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

II. The Nature of Ideas: They Bite

These ideas have power. Look back at vs. 14

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.

The word for ruin is catastrophe.

And then in vs. 15-17

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus,

When someone in the hospital develops gangrene, or something less serious like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) — the whole medical staff treats that situation with the upmost seriousness and caution.

“…who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.”

Look for a moment at the word upset. I really wish the English translators had chosen a different word. To me, that sounds like a kind of pearl-clutching emotional thing. The word upset is the exact word used for Jesus’ turning over the tables. This is serious.

Let’s say a little more about this phrase in vs. 16 — “avoid irreverent babble”

The ancient world at this particular time was very similar to our world in this respect. There was a high view of cosmopolitanism. Projecting a high degree of openness to new ideas. We see in the book of acts, the Athenians gathered for the sole purpose of discussing anything new. The concern with this kind of culture is that it can create a kind of casualness and irreverence around issues that require a kind of humility and awe.

When it comes to thinking about theology, one should never be fully relaxed. We don’t need to be fearful. But we do need to be careful. People don’t seem to understand that the ideas they think about are kind of like powerful forces that capture an unsuspecting person. You ever see one of those videos of a person getting sucked into a jet engine? Ideas have power. You can’t just casually play around with stuff.

Let me put it this way. Thinking about theology is not like going to the zoo to look at lions. That whole thing is built for safety. That lion is well fed. He is not climbing that wall, etc. So that you can stand there in your flip flops with your overpriced slushy and just casually take it all in.

Thinking about theology is more like going to the African Savannah to look at lions. Whenever we think about theology, philosophy, metaphysics, etc… we need to understand — these ideas bite. They consume people. Be careful. Don’t be overly casual. You need to be respectful. You need to be sober-minded. You need a good guide.

III. The Korah Story

19 But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”

These statements are almost certainly references to a story recorded in Numbers 16. A story usually referred to as Korah’s Rebellion. This story was used throughout Judaism and the early church to talk about theological schisms. Let me close our time together with that story.

This is all taking place when the people of Israel were in the wilderness with Moses. Korah was a levite, a priest who attended to the sacrifices and to the tabernacle, etc… And he fomented an acute sense of dissatisfaction amongst many people toward Moses. And when he felt like he had gathered enough malcontents, he rose up against Moses and Aaron saying, “They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16)

So the usual charge goes out — Moses and Aaron are elitists. They are full of pride. It’s all projection of course. But it is all washed in the language of democracy and equality. This reminds me of an Edwin Friedman quote:

“It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathy, consensus, trust, confidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted these humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them.”

Real abuses of power do occur. But from the very beginning (Garden), false accusations of power abuse are used by those who would 100% abuse their power if they got it.

Moses does what a good leader does. He says, “well, the Lord knows who are his.” Let’s all just go stand before the Lord and let him sort it all out.

So the whole congregation gathered and the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, stand back, I’m just going to destroy them all. And Moses and Aaron fall on their face and cry out to the Lord and beg him to spare the people. Only punish those directly responsible. So the Lord says, “well then you’d better tell the people to move away from Korah and his gang.” So Moses tells the people, stand with who you want to follow (this seems to be where the second line in vs. 19 comes from — Depart from the iniquitous ones — Numbers 16:26)

And then the ground splits open and consumes all of the Korah’s people. And then fire falls from heaven and destroys another 250 co-conspirators.

Now that whole thing went about as well as it could possibly go. It turned out to be a kind of surgical strike. It appears the gangrenous toe had been amputated just in time.

But that turns out not to be the case. The next day all the people arose and grumbled against Moses and Aaron — “You have killed the people of the LORD.” — the Korah bacteria had spread. The toe was amputated, but enough necrotizing bacteria had already gotten into the blood stream.

And so God sends a plague of judgment on them, and it seems to spread exactly like gangrene does. It moves over the people. Starting in one place and moving across the plain. Aaron runs into the middle of this. He’s described as standing in-between the dead (at his face) and the living (at his back). And he holds up a censer that is burning with fire that came from the altar — and he’s just holding back the plague with this thing. A real “You shall not pass” kind of moment.

And thankfully only about 12,000 people died.

So what is the point of this story?

Firstly, let’s just take a moment to appreciate the artfulness of Paul’s referencing this story.

People getting incepted/infected with an idea.
Bad ideas working through a people like gangrene through a body.
The only way to save the body is to cut off the disease. BTW, that’s what church discipline is for.

But I think Paul’s reason for citing this story goes deeper.

Some suggest Paul inserted this as a way of suggesting that people should be respectful of him — like they should of been of Moses. Ok. Fair enough.

But here’s another way to think about it. Moses is routinely a stand-in or personification of God’s word. I think that’s the best way to think about this. Moses = the Bible. Korah = you and your own understanding.

We become Korahs when we accuse the word. When we bring our own definitions of love, our own definitions of justice, etc… up against the Bible.

You could look at the word of God and think — well that’s just harsh and unloving, etc… You could lead your little rebellion or follow someone else’s. You could be a Korah.

But how exactly do you expect that to go?

The Lord knows who are his.
Therefore let everyone steer clear of that iniquity.


You are a relational perceiver — our beliefs are always mixed up with our need to belong. Who do you want to belong to? Friendship with the world is enmity with God.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Ideas have power. When you think about theology, you’re not at the zoo, your on the Savannah.

Avoid irreverent babble

You vs. the word — never a good idea.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.


The thing that cut off the plague was fire from the altar burning incense. This is a picture of the cross. What? Fire = judgment. Incense = pleasing to God.

Jesus Christ stops the plague of theological compromise. He says, “here and no farther…”

Romans 5:17-18

17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

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