An approved workman

2 Timothy 2:14-26

6 July 2003

Greyfriars Church

It is said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, thus I am highly flattered to find this sermon so closely imitated here — although some attribution would have been nice!


It will help greatly if you could keep your Bibles open at this passage as I'll be referring to it frequently. 2 Tim 2, page 1196.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.ref

Why is it so important that the Bible is "correctly handled"? In short, because it is a very sharp instrument.

In Ephesians chapter 6 we read that the sword of the Spirit is the word of Godref. As anyone who has seen the film Gladiator will confirm, a Roman soldier would have had years of training to learn how to handle a sword correctly.

In Hebrews chapter 4 the word of God is likened to a surgeon's scalpel. It is sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heartref. That's certainly an instrument to be used by skilled hands only, isn't it?

And in John chapter 15 Jesus likens his words to a pruning knife, used for cutting and trimming the branches in the vine that is the church. You'd want to make sure that a person knew what he was doing before letting him loose in your vineyard, wouldn't you?

In our text today the cutting theme is continued, although perhaps it's not immediately obvious. In verse 15 the greek word that Paul uses for "correctly handle" is orthotomeo, which literally means "to cut straight". Again we see that the word of truth is a sharp instrument, a tool that needs to be handled by an approved workman.

So in the context of this passage, an approved workman—a workman approved by God—is a teacher who cuts a straight path with the truth; a teacher who does not wander away from the truth; and a teacher who leads people back to the truth. And those are my three headings.

Cutting a straight path for the truth

If you look at a road atlas of Britain you'll notice that most of the roads are pretty wriggly and windy. But every now and again you'll spot one that's dead straight for miles and miles, and you can bet your bank balance on it that it was originally built by the Romans.

Knowing that a straight line is the shortest path between two points, the Romans built their roads as straight as they could to make their troop movements as efficient as possible. They would bridge across swamps, hack through forests and even cut through small hills.

Perhaps this is what Paul—a Roman citizen himself, remember—has in mind when he says that an approved workman should "cut a straight path" with the word of truth.

In this context the workman is a teacher in the church. To cut a straight path with the truth is to accurately explain the it, and make it plain to others. The Word of Truth is a straight edge, or a surveyor's instrument, a theodolite, that is true and accurate. If handled correctly it will guide the road-builder safely to the destination: the kingdom of God.

I'd like to make a few observations about verse 15.

First, notice that Paul is clear that there is a truth. Not just a truth, in fact, but the truth. This is a deeply unfashionable idea in our day and age, isn't it? But Paul is emphatic: he speaks about the truth six times in this short letter, and three times in this section we are looking at this morning. The truth is non-negotiable.

But, second, notice that what the teacher is to handle correctly is the word of truth. We don't need to guess the truth or search for the truth: we have it written down in words.

What, then, is the content of this truth? If you look over to chapter 3 verses 14 and 15 you can see that first of all it is the Scripture of the Old Testament: as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed...ref These holy Scriptures are our Old Testament.

Added to this is the teaching of the Apostles which Jesus himself sanctioned, and which Paul declares is authoritative in chapter 1. Turn back to chapter 1 verse 13, What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teachingref So to the Old Testament we add the New, and that gives us the word of truth: revealed by God the Father, authorised by God the Son, and witnessed to by God the Holy Spirit.

In short, the truth that defines the straight path the teacher should follow is the Bible as we have it today. The Bible that you have in your hands. This is the truth.

The final remark I want to make from verse 15 of chapter 2 is that for a teacher to be an approved workman it is not enough just for him to teach the truth, he must live the truth as well. As it says, Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamedref.

Teaching and lifestyle are intertwined throughout this letter. So we see in verse 21 that the servant of God should cleanse himself from what is ignoble so he can be used by God. And we see in verse 22 that the approved teacher should flee the evil desires of youthref, such as ambition, self-indulgence, arrogance, sexual temptation. Instead he should pursue righteousness, faith, love and peaceref. Bad teaching will often show up in bad behaviour, and bad behaviour will usually lead us to bad teaching.

That leads into my second heading, an approved workman does not wander from the truth.

Not wandering away from the truth

Firstly, the approved workman is to cut a straight path with the truth, and, second, he is not to deviate from that path. We see that in verse 18 where two characters, Hymenaeus and Philetus are contrasted with the approved workman when Paul says they have wandered away from the truthref.

The picture is that rather than follow the straight path marked out by the clear teaching of the Bible they have instead made their own diverging path that wanders away. Either they haven't got the commitment to bridge the swamp or hack through the forest or cut through the hill, or they've seen somewhere that looks nice over there and decided to head for that instead. The problem is, their path doesn't go to the right place. Some have followed them, and their faith has been destroyed, as it says in the distressing warning at the end in verse 18.

The particular issue on which these two have left behind the word of truth is to do with the future physical, bodily resurrection of believers. They are teaching that the resurrection of believers has already taken place in some spiritual sense. In other words they are teaching people "that's your lot, there's nothing in the future to hope for. This is all that there is to the Christian life. What you see is what you get" . This is in direct contradiction to the Bible which teaches time and time again about a future day when the end will come and there will be a new heaven and earth where we will dwell with God.

For their own reasons they have left behind the word of truth, they have wandered off, and in the end destroyed the faith of those they took with them.

The point is that Christianity is a revealed faith. It comes from God, not from us, and we are not at liberty to change the faith: to add to the faith, to subtract from the faith, or to make it up as we go along. All of these constitute wandering from the straight path of the word of truth. And if it's not the truth, then it must be a lie, mustn't it?

There are all sorts of reasons why a leader in the church might wander from the truth. Often these days it is a misguided attempt to make Christianity more relevant or more inclusive (as if Christ's death for the whole world wasn't relevant or inclusive enough). Sometimes it's sheer laziness or inability to study what the Bible is saying: it's simply easier to go along with what the world is saying, much harder to cut the straight path.

Or it might be intellectual pride in his own ideas that makes a teacher promote them instead of the word: it's much more fun to go a new way than to take the old route! And just occasionally a leader may be unwilling to deal with his own sin, so he will try to excuse it by editing the truth. The unexpurgated version is just too uncomfortable for him.

Lest you think that this is all a bit academic and theoretical I just want to give a few thoughts about how teachers in our own church, the Church of England, have sometimes wandered away from the truth, thus destroying the faith of some.

It's common these days to deny the uniqueness of Christ, isn't it? Of course no-one would ever put it like that, would they. Our leaders instead say nice, inclusive, sounding things like, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity are all equally valid ways to God. Just see what the future head of our church is saying: the "Defender of Faith" himself.

But there is only one way; that straight path is the only one that leads to God. As Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.ref. To teach otherwise is to wander from the straight path, and destroy the faith of some.

It's common these days too to deny the anger of God, isn't it? I often hear church people say things like "An angry god is so Old Testament. Our God is a god of love" . Yet for every mention of God's love in the Bible there is a mention of his anger. The two are intertwined throughout. To make a straight path means to hold the two in tension. To promote the one and ignore the other is to wander from the truth, and to destroy the faith of some.

Related to this is the modern tendency to deny the judgement of God and therefore the seriousness of sin. If there is one thing that has enfeebled our church in this day and age it's that we don't take sin seriously any more. It's not that people are preaching that sin is OK, it's that our leaders just don't talk about it. They are not rightly handling the word of truth in its wholeness, and have as such wandered from the straight path, destroying the faith of some.

The list goes on and on, and it shows that this is far from an academic and theoretical discussion. To reinforce the point I just want to conclude this section by mentioning a particularly current hot topic where the church leadership is in danger of wandering from the straight path: its teaching on sexual morality.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Bishop of Oxford—our Diocesan Bishop—in response to my letter to him about the Bishop of Reading matter. He sent me an article he'd written which, on the face of it, is plausible and persuasive. However, he reveals his agenda when he writes "gay and lesbian people who enter into a relationship of committed, lifetime love do not conform to certain biblical texts. But God takes them and their love, as it is, and blesses it."

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether this is rightly handling the word of truth or whether it's wandering away on another path guided by wishful thinking alone.

Bringing people back to the truth

I'm not going to go on about the present controversy, but I just want to say that in a way I welcome it, because it has made us refocus the spotlight on the issue of truth and what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith. This is good for us.

But being embroiled in a controversy like this makes Paul's words to Timothy all the more urgent for us. Verses 24 and 25 in particular are a challenge to us in our conduct of the debate, and they bring out the third characteristic of the approved workman. He leads people back to the truth.

The Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.ref

The instruction not to quarrel is an instruction to choose our battles. We are to avoid quarrelling about wordsref as verse 14 says, and we are to avoid foolish and stupid argumentsref as verse 23 says. That is, we are to avoid making a big deal about matters that go beyond what scripture says and thus are by their nature speculative. As John Stott puts it, they "inevitably 'breed quarrels' because when people forsake revelation for speculation, they have no agreed authority and no impartial court of appeal" .

However, when matters of revealed truth are at stake we are to gently instructref those who oppose us, in the hope of leading them back to the truth.

It's easy for us to get heated about these matters, but again matters of truth are intertwined with matters of conduct. The approved workman employs righteousness, faith, love and peace, gentleness and hope in the business of trying to return people to the straight path. Let us remember this as we argue our case.


Paul uses the image of an approved Christian teaching being like the builder of straight roads. This brings to mind a strikingly similar image that Jesus gave for the Christian life: the narrow way. In the Sermon on the Mount he says Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find itref.

There is only one road that leads to life: the narrow road. The approved workman, the approved teacher, will be leading his hearers along it, cutting a straight path with the word of Truth. He will avoid wandering from it onto the broad way that leads to destruction, and he will do the best he possibly can to return wanderers to the narrow way itself.

How are we going to make sure that we are following a straight path? First we must examine our leaders. Are they teaching the Bible clearly and plainly and so making a straight path for us to follow, or are they wandering off in their own direction? Are they living lives consistent with that truth?

Second, we are in the end each responsible for our own doctrine, so I just want to finish today by introducing you to a friend of mine called Bert who can give us a framwork for thinking through the various issues that we confront as Christians.

Bert has four parts which are the various sources that influence our beliefs on any particular matter: Bible, Emotion, Reason and Tradition. In the light of the road-building picture we could think of them as maps that show the directions in which we might go. The question is, which map do we trust the most?

Well, on any given issue one or other of the maps might be on the top of the pile and the one we reach for naturally.

So, for example, consider the matter of whether I should sleep with my girlfriend, or whether, if I'm married, I should have an affair. Well, in a case like this our dominant impulse will probably be the emotional one, so we reach first for the emotion map that is likely to lead us in a particular direction.

But the Christian must make sure that it is instead the Bible that is on top of the pile: that it's the one we trust the most. And the Bible is clear: no sex outside marriage. It leads us along the straight path.

What about a matter like fiddling my tax-return? Reason tells me that I won't get caught, and it's basically a victim-less crime. If it's on the top of the pile, I'll reach for it first and be led astray. That's why the Christian must keep the Bible on top, so it's the first map we reach for. "Render unto the Inland Revenue what belongs to the Inland Revenue" .

What about the influence of tradition? Well, we are fortunate in the Church of England that our traditional teachings are pretty much thoroughly Biblical as a result of the Reformation. The tradition map is very similar to the Bible map, although that may now be changing. But perhaps there are one or two differences. Dare I say infant baptism? Would we still do it if the Bible map were on top? Perhaps that's a bit too controversial!

Anyway, the point is, we must examine our beliefs. Which map do they come from? Which map is on the top of the pile? If it's not the Bible, the word of truth, how can you be sure that you are not wandering away on a path of your own?