“Scripture is Sufficient to Sanctify” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
Just a few days ago, I had a conversation about the “big picture” of Scripture. The consensus was that many Christians understand individual puzzle pieces of Scripture but lack the ability to put those pieces in place in order to have an accurate picture of the Bible’s holistic message. I believe that these verses are a prime example of this malady.
Many Christians know these verses and understand them to be the bedrock of the doctrine of inspiration. It serves as a sort of one-stop-shop in order to shut the mouths of liberals who deny the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. That is an accurate identification of this particular piece but let us strive to understand how it fits into the larger puzzle.
Looking Backwards – Remember that all of vv. 10-17 work to focus Timothy’s response to the reality that difficult times and dangerous people will and have come (3:1-9). The church must expect to be infiltrated by hedonistic little devils (3:1-5), some of whom will be viscous false teachers who prey upon the vulnerable as they reject God’s messenger and message (3:6-9).
As a response to these realities, Paul commends Timothy for having followed his example of teaching and conduct as Timothy knew full well the dangers of gospel ministry (3:10-13). In addition to this commendation, Paul commands Timothy to remain standing firm upon the firm foundation of Scripture (3:14-17).
Looking Forward – Paul is building up to a crescendo (4:1-2), and perhaps we will arrive there by next week, but it is important not to skip over the steps Paul has laid out in order to arrive at his summit. Before Paul delivers the one imperative to rule them all (i.e., preach the Word!) he presents the whole counsel of God as being thoroughly and utterly sufficient for God’s people. The Scriptures are sufficient to both save (vv. 14-15) and sanctify (vv. 16-17).
These last two verses contain this last truth, that Scripture is sufficient (i.e., the totality of what is required) for the sanctification of God’s elect. As we examine Paul’s final foothold ascending to his climax we will consider three things regarding Scripture’s sufficiency to sanctify.
Consider Scripture’s Source (v. 16a)
“All Scripture is inspired by God”
More blood and ink have been spilled over this simple phrase. Liberal scholars are drawn to the Greek compound θεόπνευστος (God-breathed) and attempt to alter and weaken the doctrine of inspiration. There is much at stake here for the entirety of our Christian faith hangs in the balance of this single phrase. As we examine it, we are forced to ask two questions: (1) What does Paul mean by Scripture? (2) According to Paul, what is Scripture’s source?
What is “Scripture”? – The Greek term γραφή literally means writing and refers to a written document. This is the first place that liberals strike, suggesting that there’s nothing special about this term. But we must consider how the human authors of the Bible used this same term.
The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses γραφή around forty times, but of those only five occurrences refer to common human writings like personal/official letters and registries (2 Ch. 2:11; 24:27; Ezra 2:62; 4:7; Neh. 7:64). The remaining uses describe specific revelation from God such as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 32:16; Deut. 10:4), prescriptions found in Torah (2 Ch. 30:5, 8), divine revelation through the pen of Moses (Ezra 6:18) and David (2 Ch. 35:5), or an inscription by the very finger of God (Dan. 5:7, 8, 16, 17, & 26). All of this to say that while the human authors of the Old Testament allow for γραφή to be used in a generic sense (writing/letter/record) the overwhelming use of the term is used to describe previous revelation which originates with Almighty God.
The New Testament use of γραφή is particularly interesting. The term is used in the NT fifty times. Of these fifty occurrences, every single one of them (yes, I looked them up) points to divine revelation. The term is used to either introduce a direct quotation from the Old Testament or at least to make a connection to a specific Old Testament text. This shows that the New Testament authors clearly understood the entirety of the Old Testament as divine revelation. But should we include the New Testament in this understanding of Scripture?
There are two key passages that help us in answering this question. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy (5:18) he uses γραφή to introduce two direct quotations of previous revelation. The first comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. There’s nothing unusual about this. The vast majority of the NT uses of γραφή are used to introduce direct quotations from the OT. But the second quotation (and it is a word-for-word quotation) comes from Luke 10:7. Here Paul, making a point based on Scripture to Timothy, calls both Deuteronomy and Luke Scripture. But wait, there’s more.
Peter concludes his second letter by exhorting his audience to “be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (3:14b-15a). He admits that this exhortation is nothing new because Paul has already written such things (v. 15b), yet there are ignorant and unstable people who purposefully misrepresent and distort Paul’s teachings, just as they do the rest of Scripture or γραφή (v. 16). Peter writes that all of Paul’s writings are also Scripture (γραφή); i.e., divine revelation from the Almighty to be taken with the same authority as Moses, the Writings, and the Prophets.
While the sacred writings (v. 15) refers specifically to the Old Testament, here Paul uses a different term that includes the Old Testament, but that also refers to God’s revelation found in the New Testament. It is all Scripture.
What is Scripture’s Source? – The NASB’s “inspired by God”, the NKJV’s “given by inspiration of God”, and the ESV’s “breathed out by God” are all wordy attempts to translate a single Greek noun: θεόπνευστος. This term is seen nowhere else in Scripture, likely because Paul coined it right here. The term literally means God-breathed. The idea is that all of Scripture is breathed out by God as one would naturally speak using the air of an exhaled breath. Our English translates that say “inspired” are using the Latin inspirata, which has a similar though not exact meaning of to breathe upon.
This is a crucial point of understanding. God did not inspirata (breathe upon) Scripture but literally breathed out Scripture. The difference is night and day. It is not as if man wrote Scripture and then God blessed that writing with His breath. The very words themselves originated with God who then used human instruments to record His Word.
There are those who insist that the Bible contains the basic message (ipsissima vox or the very voice) of God because He has breathed upon the words of the Bible. Yet the text explicitly says that the very words (ipsissima verba) of Scripture actually come from God. This is exactly what Moses said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but mane lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3b).
This does not demand some sort of robotic dictation theory on the part of the human agents. It simply means that they (1) knew they were writing/speaking for and from God, (2) were superintended and guided by God the Holy Spirit to say precisely and only what God desired. Is this not exactly Peter’s point? “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
By “Scripture” Paul means (from our perspective) the 66 books of the Old and New Testament. By “God-breathed” he means that the very words, syntax, and structure of these books are directly from God. When God speaks, stuff happens (see Genesis 1). Upon understanding Scripture’s source, let us consider Scripture’s purpose.
Consider Scripture’s Purpose (v. 16b)
“and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;”
The word profitable translates the Greek term ὠφέλιμος meaning beneficial, useful, or advantageous. In other words, not only does Scripture have its source in Almighty God but this exhaled revelation is actually good for something. It’s one thing to argue that Scripture bears the weight of God’s authority but what good is God’s authority if His Word has little to no benefit? Each item in this list is preceded by the Greek preposition πρός, translated as for in our English versions. This simple preposition communicates purpose. What follows is a list that marks what Scripture is beneficial or advantageous for. Or to phrase it in a slightly more accurate way: the following list reveals what Scripture is designed and purposed to do.
To Teach – The Word of God is didactic by its very nature. What were the 2nd generation of Israelites to do with the Mosaic Covenant? Teach it to their children (Deut. 6:6-9). What were the Levites to be doing when they were not serving at the temple? Teach the people (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 17:10-11; 33:10). What was Jesus recognized as, even among His enemies? A teacher (Matt. 4:23; 7:28-29; 8:19; 9:11, 35; 10:24-25; 12:38; 13:54). What did the early church consume themselves with? The apostles’ teaching (Acts. 2:42). What did the apostles do? Teach the Scriptures (Acts 4:2; 5:21, 42; 11:26; 15:35).
The Old and New Testaments (the BIBLE) were given in written form so that they could be read, understood, and taught. The Bible is designed for this very purpose. The question for us is, do we teach it?
To Refute – If Scripture is purposed to teach what is right, true, and accurate, then by the very same logic it is purposed to expose what is wrong, false, and inaccurate. The term usually translated as reproof (ἐλεγμός) indicates an expression of strong disapproval like a rebuke. This is the other side of the coin from teaching.
Note how often Jesus rebuked or refuted by appealing to Scripture. Jesus rebukes or refutes Satan’s commands by appealing to Scripture (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Jesus explains His actions of chasing off all of the money changers by appealing to Scripture (Matt. 21:13). Jesus pronounces woe against Judas who is betraying Him and shuts down Peter’s pride all by appealing to Scripture (Matt. 26:24, 31).
To teach and to refute go hand in hand. The first provides all the information needed for growing pupils. Scripture is purposed to give light, encourage, and strengthen. In so doing Scripture naturally refutes error and wrong thinking. If an idea, doctrine, or action contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture, then that same teaching is used to refute. The main reason that there is so much error in the church today is not a commentary on Scripture’s inability or insufficiency to refute the error. It’s a commentary on the complete lack of teaching going on from pulpit to pew.
To Improve – Most English translations say correction here. In so doing we may have a difficult time separating correction from refutation/rebuke. As we’ve already said, to refute (ἐλεγμός) is to object but to correct/improve (ἐπανόρθωσις) is to move past objection into bringing the objectionable statement/position/conduct into a right and accurate state. Both imply a negative context, but while one points out error, the other seeks to correct it.
Please do not pit one against the other. Paul writes that Scripture is literally designed and purposed for both of these things. Just as teaching is on the other side of the coin from refutation, so too is improvement paired with another quality.
To Train in Righteousness – To train (παιδεία) could also be translated as discipline. This is the exact term used in Ephesians 6:4 which commands fathers to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. To train is to engage in instruction, correct wrong answers and false application, and then re-train over, and over, and over again. But this training is not left to hang ambiguously in the wind. Paul defines this term for us. Scripture is purposed to train in righteousness.
How can we know what actions, thoughts, and words are to be considered righteous? How can a believer know what pleases God? “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
All that is necessary for us to understand about living a righteous life in Christ Jesus has already been written down for our instruction so that we might spend every waking moment of everyday training. But all of this training is leading to a very specific result.
Consider Scripture’s Results (v. 17)
“that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
Don’t overthink that phrase man of God. The term man used here is ἄνθρωπος, the same term used in 3:2&8. The term is generic (man/person) rather than specific (man/male). The emphasis is not on “man” so much as it is upon “of God”; that is, the fact that the rhetorical man/person in question belongs to God. The context already assumes those who have been saved through faith in Christ Jesus (v. 15) and has since moved on to speak of Scripture’s amazingly sufficient ability to sanctify the believer. To put it another way: Scripture is purposed for teaching, for refutation, for improvement, and for training in righteousness so that Christians might be qualified, equipped for every good work.
There’s that phrase again: every good work. This is what Christians are born again to do. Christ has given His people grace for exactly these good works (2 Cor. 9:8). God is pleased in all respects when we bear the fruit of these good works (Col. 1:10). This is the mark of those who have truly been redeemed and regenerated (Tit. 3:1). Every good work is a more detailed way of saying obedience. Scripture has a purpose for believers. It teaches us to obey, refutes disobedience, corrects disobedience, trains in obedience; so that we might stand equipped and ready to obey.
If God needs nothing more than His Word in order to transform a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, then why would He require more than His Word to equip His saints? Scripture is sufficient to sanctify.
Few and far between are genuine bodies of Jesus Christ who actually affirm the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. Most will confess agreement to this doctrine while enthusiastically denying it by their actions.
Walk into any church on any given Lord’s day with a stopwatch and a notepad. How much time is given to the reading of Scripture? Who much time is given to the exposition of Scripture? Is the sermon attempting to explain what Scripture actually says? Do you leave with a better understanding of Scripture than when you arrived? Now, compare that to how much time was given to announcements, singing, “fellowshipping” around the cool coffee bar, or any other myriad of things the Bible never prescribes. If the frivolous outweigh the mandatory, we must provide an answer.
It is not clear to me if the larger visible church practically denies that Scripture is sufficient to sanctify, or if holiness is simply not a priority. The fact that the Scripture is seldom taught, never expounded, seldom referred to, and only used to progress the church’s man-centered ideology is plain to see. Is it because they doubt Scripture’s ability to save and sanctify sinful men, or because they have an altogether different objective?
Praise be to God, who has given us His Word. May we never treat it lightly and always stand firm upon its sure foundation. Soli Deo Gloria!