2 Timothy 2:13
” If we are faithless, he remains faithful.”

I know that I am not very faithful. I want to be, but I have this problem—an infection, an inclination, an uncanny ability to disappoint people. No, I am not just saying that to identify with others . . . I really do have this ability. I have won the gold medal in the triathlon of let-down, disenchant, and flake-out. Be it forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, or just plain selfishness, I can make a mess of things. I am often faithless, to others and to God.

Yet, at the same time, while I have periods of faithlessness, I still believe. In other words, I am never perpetually faithless. Confused maybe, but not faithless. I do know in whom I believe.

I am going to take an odd and probably unexpected turn now. One of the most frequently-quoted passages of Scripture, with regards to our tendency to weaken our grip on faith, is 2 Tim. 2:13:

“If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

Normally, we would turn to this passage and wipe the sweat off our brows in relief. Phew . . . When we are faithless, Christ will remain faithful. Faithful to what? To us! In other words, we may let him down, but he will never let us down. We may let him go, but he will never let us go. While I believe that this principle is true and can be found in many passages of Scripture, I don’t think that is what is being taught here. If I am right, then this verse is misused, and its real (important) message is lost. This has implications concerning the character of God and the reality of judgement.

Scholars agree that this passage, starting in v. 11 and ending in v. 13, is part of a well-established statement of faith, or creed, that was put to a rhythmic hymn. It was probably used at early baptisms. Being such, it is doubtful that it is originally from Paul. Notice Paul’s introduction in verse 11, “It is a trustworthy statement . . .” The “statement” was already in existence. Notice the rhythm and parallel structure.

For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him
If we endure, we will also reign with Him

If we deny Him, He also will deny us
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself

This was part of the early Christian kerygma or “preaching.” It was a creed that was memorable because of its structure. This structure is probably best described as parallelism. There is a parallel construction from one line to the next. There are a few types of parallelisms that are possible:

1. Synonymous Parallelism. The second line repeats the first in words or ideas (e.g. Ps. 24:1, Ps. 19:2, Prov. 1:20)

2. Antithetical Parallelism. The second line contrasts with the first line in words or ideas (e.g. Ps. 1:6, Mark 8:35)

3. Synthetic Parallelism. The thought of the second line supplements, or brings the first line to completion (e.g. Luke 12:49-51, Ps. 92:9).

It seems clear that the first set in this creed is that of a synonymous parallelism. Notice how the second line repeats the same concepts as the first:

For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him
If we endure, we will also reign with Him

In this, we understand that “died” parallels “endure.” As well, “live” parallels “reign.”

The question now becomes Does the second set in this creed follow the same structure? I believe there is no reason for us to state otherwise.

If we deny Him, He also will deny us
If we are faithless, He remains faithful (for He cannot deny Himself)

In this case, “If we deny him” would parallel “If we are faithless,” and “He will deny us” would parallel “He remains faithful.”

In other words, this particular verse does not speak about Christ’s faithfulness to us even when we are unfaithful, but speaks to his faithfulness to himself when we are faithless (i.e., when we deny him). This faithfulness to himself is one of judgment. If we are faithless, we will be judged.

Notice the explanatory addition (which I put in parentheses) to this creed, “. . . for he cannot deny himself.” This explains why it is that Christ would deny people when they deny him. The reason is that he cannot deny himself. The implication is that his righteousness requires judgment. If he did not judge our faithlessness, then he would deny the necessary functionality of his attribute of righteousness, and this he cannot do. In other words, God cannot just forgive sin without basis. He can’t sweep sin under the rug. He cannot wink his eye at rebellion. It must be judged.

This creed represents the early proclamation of many essential elements of the Gospel. We need to ponder the implications. The earliest Christians were taught of God’s salvation and judgment. Both of these were held in balance. In other words, the earliest Christians saw heaven and hell, acceptance and denial, mercy and judgment, belief and unbelief as the essence of the Gospel. This creed evidences that in the early Church one was not taught without the other.

Paul tells Timothy in the next verse to remind the believers of these things. The term remind implies that this was a teaching already well-established in the early Church. As well, the reminder serves as a warning that there are distinctives in belief that the Church must uphold.

Having said all of this, many commentaries do not agree with my conclusion. So, if I am right, this interpretation is not as bad as some others. Those who disagree with me often say that this would not represent Pauline theology. Paul, according to them, believed that Christ is faithful even when we struggle in our faith. While I agree with this general truth—God is faithful even when we struggle—I think they are missing the point of what is being said.

First, this hymn is not necessarily a Pauline original, as I previously mentioned. It is an established creed or hymn.

Second, this passage is not speaking of people who are struggling in their faith, or even have a lack of faith from time to time (which characterizes even the best of us). What it is speaking of is perpetual unbelief or established denial. It is speaking about the reality of ultimate judgment for all those who deny Christ, having never placed their faith in him. The “faithless” in “if we are faithless” is in the present tense, meaning it is a perpetual state of faithlessness.

Therefore, I think we need to be careful how we use this verse. While it is true that when we struggle in our faith, when we let God down, and when we have times of weakness, God will never let us go (John 10:29), it is also true that if we do not ever have faith in him—if we deny him—he will deny us, for he cannot act against himself.

This has significant implications to current discussions about the Gospel and how it is to be presented, especially with regard to the doctrine of hell. Would God really allow people he loves to go to hell? Of course. Why? Because he cannot deny himself, any more than he can hand in his job resignation.

We must have a balance of life and death, love and judgment, rewards and consequences, and heaven and hell. If one of the earliest creeds balanced the Gospel in such a way, how much more should we?

There are some additional implications here. God was pleased to kill his Son because he could not deny himself. And the Son was pleased to die because he could not deny himself. It was a necessary judgment that took place as Christ stood in our place. Those who propose that a substitution was not necessary—that God could forgive without some form of atonement—are essentially saying that God could deny himself. Forgiveness comes at a price because God’s righteous nature cannot be denied.

Next: Rom. 8:16

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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