A Shipwrecked Faith
The question I’ve chosen to answer in this issue of the News is this: “In I Timothy 1:19 we read, ‘Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.’ Arminians argue that a man who is said to have ‘shipwrecked’ his faith is someone who once had true saving faith but who, through his sinful way of life, is now lost and will perish everlastingly. How else are we to understand what Paul is talking about here?”
Before answering the question, it should be noted that Paul is speaking to Timothy as a minister of the gospel and through him to every minister of the gospel. Those who preach the gospel of grace must themselves be examples of what they preach. They must themselves believe the gospel, holding fast to the Word of God, and they must live a life of moral purity. The exhortation of the apostle Paul, therefore, is timely especially today when we hear so often of the lamentable falls of those who bring the gospel and of other preachers who seem to believe nothing.
Most commentators take “faith” to refer to the (objective) faith, the doctrines and teaching of the Word of God, but that is not the way the word is used in the context. In every other reference in I Timothy 1 (2, 4, 5, 14), the reference is to the grace of believing. That, however, makes the question we are answering even more urgent. Those of whom Paul speaks did not just put away the (objective) faith but faith itself. Did they first have true saving faith and then put it away?
Since we believe the great biblical doctrine of the preservation and perseverance of the saints, we know that saving faith and a good conscience cannot be lost, nor can those who really have them go shipwreck. Jesus says in John 6:37-40, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Faith and a good conscience once received as a gift of God cannot be lost (Phil. 1:6; I Pet. 1:5). Faith and a good conscience were purchased for God’s own at the cross and given to us by the Spirit, and neither the work of the Son nor the work of the Spirit can be in vain.
But what does the Word of God in I Timothy 1:19 mean, then?
Some explain the passage by focusing on the word shipwreck and suggesting that shipwreck does not necessarily mean that those who are shipwrecked perish everlastingly. They may only suffer loss. In other words, Paul is describing those who wander from the right way and suffer spiritually as a result, but repent and return, and so are saved. That explanation might work except that Paul is talking about Hymenaeus and Alexander (20), who were blasphemers and heretics (cf. II Tim. 2:17-18), and whom Paul had committed to Satan (I Tim. 1:20), and who, as far as we know, never repented of their evil deeds and doctrines.
Paul uses a word translated “put away,” but this does not imply that these wicked men ever had true faith and a good conscience. The same word is used of the unbelieving Jews in Acts 13:46 and the translation there gives a better sense of what the word means: “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.” The Jews to whom Paul spoke never had saving faith and a good conscience, but, when those things were preached to them, they “pushed them away” and “rejected” them.
That is what the evildoers of I Timothy 1:19-20 did, especially Hymenaeus and Alexander. Though they had been in the church for a time, they had in word and deed rejected faith and a good conscience—they never believed and never lived the kind of life that gives a good conscience before God. One can put away and reject what one never had in one’s heart.
In II Timothy 2:17-18, Hymanaeus is mentioned again, along with another man named Philetus. They denied the future bodily resurrection and so overthrew “the faith of some.” Some believed their lies and not the truths of Scripture, and that troubled others in the church, suggesting to them that it is possible to have faith and a good conscience, but then lose everything. Paul tells those worriers in II Timothy 2 that God’s people cannot be lost: “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (19).
It should also be noted that in I Timothy 1:19 the Word of God does not say that they put away faith. It states that “some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.” In rejecting crucial teachings of Scripture, they also rejected faith in Christ as the only way of salvation, and the necessity of a holy and God-glorifying life. They did not really believe and in their unbelief they made shipwreck concerning faith.
The reference to shipwreck does not mean either that they were shipwrecked but managed to salvage something in the end. It refers to the complete destruction of the “ship” in which they sailed and of themselves. To make shipwreck concerning faith and a good conscience does not leave any hope of salvage.
It is understandable, though, that the apostasy of some distresses the people of God, for men like Hymenaeus and Alexander are often very knowledgeable and prominent in the church, have a reputation for piety and are looked up to by many. They may even be ministers of the gospel whose falls Satan uses to attack the assurance of some.
It is important in such cases to remember what the Word says in II Timothy 2:19. God knows who are His own, and His knowledge of them is eternal, unchangeable, almighty and saving. They cannot be lost and cannot lose what God has given them. Also believers, by departing from iniquity, show that they are different from those who make shipwreck concerning faith and a good conscience. Rev. Ron Hanko