“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.