Reading 2 Timothy 2:23-26 is a bit like having a behind the scenes DVD for a war movie.
Not that I normally ever have the time or inclination to watch disk two and find out how the film was made. But when Paul gives Timothy instructions about how to handle false teachers, and how to handle himself in a theological fight, he gives him a behind the scenes view of what is really going on. And it is essential viewing. For behind the scenes there is a great spiritual battle going on:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:23-26)There is more at stake than the winning of an argument. In fact much more is needed than sharp reasoning and sound biblical evidence. These will be the instruments that God uses since the goal of this correction is that opponents will be lead to a knowledge of the truth. It will always be by means of persuasive, sound arguments that truth will win the day. One of the great literary examples of this is Thomas Scott's The Force of Truth. But who can free captives from the snare of the devil but Jesus Christ? Who can grant repentance but God alone?
Knowing this should temper a worldy approach to apologetics and polemics. Patience, gentleness, kindness, and a refusal to be quarrelsome are the fruit of consciously knowing that there is a great spiritual battle going on. John Newton provided solid counsel that echoes Paul's concern:
If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy; but if we believe the very contrary to this, out part is not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose.They are of course culpable since they have chosen to embrace error, but they are also deceived. Now, what else but knowing that a change of heart is something solely God-given can temper the approach of the polemicist? What other explanation is there for patience and gentleness as appropriate dispositions? Coming to a knowledge of the truth has never been self-generated. Calvin wrote that:
When we remember that repentance is God's gift and work, we shall hope the more earnestly and, encouraged by this assurance, will give more labour and care to the instruction of rebels.Such gentleness and patience should not be confused with moral weakness and softness. We are to be passionate and inflexible about the truth, but also compassionate toward those tangled up in error and ensnared by the devil.