How pastors save their people (and yes, they really do save them).

“Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in them. For by doing this, you will save both yourself and the ones who hear you.” -1 Timothy 4:16

This verse has caused problems for many readers of scripture. It sounds a little unorthodox to hear Paul tell pastor Timothy that Timothy can “save” the people he preaches to. Indeed, some commentators have tried to avoid this difficulty by suggesting that the word translated “save” isn’t talking about eternal salvation. But I think that interpretation is incorrect. We have to work with what the text says, not with what we think it ought to say. Paul routinely uses this term to talk about eternal salvation (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:15, 2:4; 2 Tim. 1:9, 4:18; Titus 3:5), and there’s no reason to read it any differently here.

Still, how can Paul attribute someone’s salvation to their pastor’s ministry? Doesn’t that go against everything else we know from scripture about God’s grace and sovereignty? As we think about this apparent problem, it’s important to remember that Paul has used this language elsewhere to speak of one human being “saving” another:

Romans 11:13-14, “I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (NIV).

1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” (NASB).

Even though Paul speaks of himself “saving” people in 1 Corinthians 9:22, he says elsewhere in the same book that he is not the one ultimately responsible for the salvation of sinners. Of his own preaching, he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). When Paul speaks of “saving” sinners through preaching, he is not claiming that he is the ultimate cause of anyone’s salvation. He is merely speaking of himself as the means by which God brings salvation to people.

Think of it this way. I’m not much of a carpenter, but when I was a graduate student, I built a small table for our home. I used a hammer, nails, a saw and wood. The finished product turned out to be as sturdy a table as you will ever see. Over a decade later, we still have that table and use it.

Suppose you visit my house, and I show you the hammer that I used to build it. And I tell you, “This hammer drove the nails that are holding this table together.” It is true that the hammer drove the nails. But when I say that, you know that I don’t mean that the hammer by itself floated over and drove the nails in. You know that someone swung the hammer that drove the nails in. In this case, that person was me. You know that I picked up the hammer as a means to construct a table that I designed and built.

When Paul talks about the preacher “saving” those who hear him, that’s what he means. The preacher is the hammer in the hand of the God who is building his house. The preacher delivers the message that brings salvation, but the preacher is not the ultimate cause of salvation. He is the means that God uses to bring salvation to sinners.

God’s sovereignty does not negate the means that He chooses to bring salvation to people. God has chosen to use us to bring His word to sinners. We are the means by which God saves people. In that sense, preachers “save” those who hear them.

John Calvin says it best in his comments on this text:

“True, it is God alone that saves; and not even the smallest portion of his glory can lawfully be bestowed on men. But God parts with no portion of his glory when he employs the agency of men for bestowing salvation.

“Our salvation is, therefore, the gift of God alone, because from him alone it proceeds, and by his power alone it is performed; and therefore, to him alone, as the author, it must be ascribed. But the ministry of men is not on that account excluded… this is altogether the work of God, because it is he who forms good pastors, and guides them by his Spirit, and blesses their labour, that it may not be ineffectual.”

–John Calvin, The First Epistle to Timothy, XXI:118

Pastors, this means that your perseverance is not only necessary for your salvation. It is also necessary for the congregation’s salvation. As you persevere in love and good works, people see it and glorify God who is in heaven. As you preach and teach the word of God, people hear it, repent, believe, and are saved. This is the work of God, and He chooses to use you and me to do it. We are the tool in his hand. And God can strike a straight lick with a crooked stick. God infallibly saves sinners and enables them to persevere through the ministries of fallible men. That is his prerogative, and He does it all the time.

18 Responses to How pastors save their people (and yes, they really do save them).

  1. Brian Holland June 15, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

    Awesome post Denny! I’m relatively new to Reformed Theology, and I still have lots of unanswered questions (as I’m sure I always will) but your post provides real clarity here, and it is much needed!

  2. Joe Blankenship June 15, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

    Thanks Denny – persevering faithfulness in ministry is so necessary & so scary. The journey is often long and the potential for failure in ourselves (myself) is great. The keeping power of God ought to be daily sought – when before us is such a daunting responsibility.
    One old preacher told me 25 years ago – “your church needs you to live better and preach better and their salvation rests on you doing so.” Lord help us!

  3. Christiane Smith June 15, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    Our Lord called men to Himself, and having formed them according to His own mind and heart, sent them out into the world.

    Philippians Chapter 2:

    “5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
    6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
    7 But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
    8 And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

  4. Nathan Cesal June 15, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

    So it would seem an extension of this would mean that you would strive to engage your readers rather than turn them off.

    • Brian Holland June 15, 2015 at 6:18 pm #

      Cheap shot much? Is he supposed to compromise the truth to make people feel better?

      • Christiane Smith June 15, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

        Hi BRIAN,
        I can’t speak for Nathan, but maybe he is thinking along the lines of St. Ambrose, a fourth century Father and Doctor of the Church? Take a look:

        “““ . . . he who endeavours to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off. For we read that the Shepherd in the Gospel (Luke 15:5) carried the weary sheep, and did not cast it off. And Solomon says: “Be not overmuch righteous;” (Ecclesiastes 7:17) for restraint should temper righteousness. For how shall he offer himself to you for healing whom you despise, who thinks that he will be an object of contempt, not of compassion, to his physician?
        Therefore had the Lord Jesus compassion upon us in order to call us to Himself, not frighten us away. He came in meekness, He came in humility, and so He said: “Come unto Me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28) So, then, the Lord Jesus refreshes, and does not shut out nor cast off, and fitly chose such disciples as should be interpreters of the Lord’s will, as should gather together and not drive away the people of God. Whence it is clear that they are not to be counted among the disciples of Christ, who think that harsh and proud opinions should be followed rather than such as are gentle and meek; persons who, while they themselves seek God’s mercy, deny it to others . . . ”

        St. Ambrose (340-397 A.D.)

        • Brian Holland June 15, 2015 at 11:59 pm #

          Christiane, your point is well taken in that we should all strive for such compassion and tenderness in our dealings with people, however there are very stern warnings throughout Scripture, for anyone who is a teacher of the Word (either formally or informally) that they must not fail to declare the full counsel of God. Those who do teach will be held to a higher standard. Specifically this means that we can’t deny any attribute of the character of God. He is a God of love, and mercy but also a God of wrath, perfect righteousness, holiness. We do people no favors in not calling them to repentance before a perfectly holy and righteous God. That is probably the most loving thing we can do for people.

          • Christiane Smith June 16, 2015 at 11:43 am #

            Hi BRIAN,
            the problem with your argument is that ‘we’ and ‘those people’ are BOTH sinners and when ‘we’ assume positions of talking down to others, that is when ‘we’ lose our identity with the Lord Who assumed our broken humanity in order to save us, and Who even now calls us to humility in imitation of His Way.

            When the people you are trying to help feel that you see yourself as superior to them, they do not, they cannot, accept your message

            . . . but if you come to them and pray with them
            ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner’,
            then they begin to understand Who it is that you are pointing to.

            In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in the temple, it was the humble publican who received God’s blessing, not the one who saw himself as ‘approved’ and ‘not like that other sinner’. We all need that blessing. Every moment. Every day. And on into eternity.

            Remember: Christ did not judge our humanity; He assumed it. And then He died in order to save it. That was the KIND of love that breaks the hearts of sinners and brings them to their knees in repentance.
            Nathan is right: We need to PROCLAIM the Good News.

            • Brian Holland June 16, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

              Hi Christiane, I strongly disagree with your premise. I think the reason that Christianity has been so throughly disregarded by so many is that so much of the church has compromised the truth of Scripture. Moral relativism has invaded so many churches, that even many people who attend regularly don’t want to be convicted. This is very different than the Gospel that was preached in the NT, where Jesus said (just like John the Baptist) “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!” And it’s a far cry from Ananias and Sapphira being struck down for their dishonesty and idolatry. I don’t see much if anything that is really “seeker friendly” in reading through either the Old or New Testament. I think what we see today is often a message of “hyper-grace” that doesn’t even require that we repent. It makes a mockery of God’s mercy.

      • Nathan Cesal June 15, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

        No, don’t compromise the truth — proclaim it — engage in dialogue with the people that disagree. Shutting people down by deleting comments is going to be taken as vinegar rather than honey. I realize there is a limit — there are crazies and trolls whose only intent is to mess up a good conversation.

        The extension of this blog post that I see is what can be at stake when you write people off.

        • Brian Holland June 16, 2015 at 12:06 am #

          Nathan, I have my own blog, and I have people comment sometimes that are not interested in honest dialogue. I am not saying this is the case with you, but that everyone has their own criteria for what comments they allow on their blog. I generally allow anything except spam, vulgar obscenities, and hate-filled rhetoric. I’m not sure where Denny draws the line, but I’ve had some of my comments deleted as well, and it can be frustrating, but he’s also allow me to criticize him pretty harshly when I thought he was wrong, and he’s allowing you to criticize him here. At the end of the day, it’s his blog and if we don’t like the way he moderates the comments, we are always free to leave.

          • Nathan Cesal June 16, 2015 at 10:40 am #

            I sense that the moderating isn’t always done with charity. I thought I’d mention that there is more at stake than Denny’s sensibilities and patience.

  5. James Bradshaw June 15, 2015 at 6:36 pm #

    There are implications in this post in terms of perseverance

    Primarily, one cannot truly be sure one is saved in this lifetime. After all, there is no guarantee that one’s faith is in reality a deception of one’s own mind (or, if you’re a hyper-Calvinist, God Himself). In the end, you may stick with it for a decade or two only to toss it aside in middle age or later. There are sometimes even deathbed apostasies, so I’ve heard.

    I’ve sometimes teased Catholics for insisting that salvation hinges on having a good sense of timing and making sure one dies in a “state of grace”.

    I’m not sure this is all that different.

  6. Robert Karl June 16, 2015 at 1:35 pm #

    I with St. Ambrose over John Calvin any day of the week.

    • Brian Holland June 16, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

      What makes you think they are in conflict? Can’t God be both a God of Judgment/Wrath and also a God of Mercy and Love as laid out in Scripture?

  7. A. Amos Love June 17, 2015 at 11:18 am #

    Hi Brian

    You seem to like this post…
    And, I kinda agree when you write @ June 16, 2015 at 1:55 pm…
    “…so much of the church has compromised the truth of Scripture.”

    In this article about “How pastors save their people…”
    Timothy is referred to as **pastor** Timothy…

    “It sounds a little unorthodox to hear Paul tell **pastor** Timothy…”

    Was wondering…
    Has this article also “compromised the truth of Scripture?”

    Since, in the Scriptures…
    Timothy never calls him self **pastor?** Or, shepherd?
    Paul never calls Timothy **pastor?** Or, shepherd?
    ———-

    Haven’t you ever wondered? Why? In the Scriptures?
    NOT one Disciple of Jesus ever took the “Title” pastor? Or leader? Or reverend?
    NOT one Disciple of Jesus ever called them self pastor? Or leader? Or reverend?
    NOT one Disciple of Jesus ever called another Disciple pastor/leader/reverend?
    Like so many do today?

    If WE, His Sheep, His Ekklesia, want to be as one His Disciples? In the Bible?
    Why would WE, His Servants, His kings and priests, His sons, take a “Title”
    NOT found in the Scriptures? For one of His Disciples?

    What did His Disciples know 2000 years ago?
    That those who call themselves pastor/leader/reverend – Miss today?

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