Competent Workmen for the Gospel

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Within the walls of the Sforza Castle in Milan, Italy stands an unfinished marble sculpture that attracts the attention of art-lovers from around the world. Although at first glance its appearance may seem rudimentary and unimpressive, its craftsmanship becomes deeply respected when the viewer knows the identity of the sculptor. Known as the Rondanini Pietà, the statue is the product of the great Michelangelo Bounarroti, one of the giants of the Italian Renaissance.

Michelangelo worked on the piece from 1552 until his death in 1564, never bringing it to completion. To study the figure in light of Michelangelo’s more famous works increases one’s appreciation for the labor and design it reveals. The same hands that sculpted the Bacchus, the Madonna and Child, and the iconic David, which stands in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia as an internationally recognized masterpiece, also worked intensely on this column of Carrara marble. It is not difficult to imagine Michelangelo covered in sweat and white dust, striking his chisel into the stone with his hammer, using the routine count of seven blows followed by a four-count of rest, searching for lines that would become perfectly formed arms, legs, torso and head. There is no shame in the unfinished product of Rondanini Pietà,for Michelangelo was a competent workman known for rightly handling marble.

In similar fashion, the minister of the Word is called to be a competent workman for the gospel, rightly handling the word of truth. This is the imagery Paul uses in his exhortation to Timothy in 2:14-19. A minister is not called to be famous like Michelangelo, nor produce sermons that will be recognized by others as masterpieces. But, like Michelangelo, he should labor in his craft with skill, devotion, and diligence, for it is through the minister’s work that Christ is building up his church in the world. 

Understanding Paul’s words in this passage are important for pastors and parishioners alike, for it helps everyone in Christ’s church to have proper and biblical expectations of the minister and his work. Ministers of the Word should be liberated from false expectations so that they can devote themselves to and continually sharpen their expertise in Scripture, and their ability to communicate the gospel with clarity and simplicity. Likewise, those under the care of their ministry need the freedom to become hearers of the Word without being saddled each week with the pastor’s hobby-horses and personal agendas.

Preaching and teaching for the glory of God rather than the approval of man requires the minister to handle the “word of truth” rightly. The verb Paul uses in v.15 for “handling rightly” (orthotomeo) is rather peculiar. This is the only time it appears in the New Testament. The word means to “cut straight.” It communicates the idea of a carpenter who measures carefully and cuts straight lines. He must be skilled in his craft if he wants to build a sound structure. In the same way, Timothy was to be a skilled workman who is diligent and careful in handling the text of Scripture. If wood is the material with which carpenters work and marble is that of sculptors, the text of Scripture is the material with which the minister works. He is to be faithful and accurate in his explanation of the text, for it is God’s “word of truth” (v.15).

Fundamental to the workman’s ability to rightly handle (or “rightly divide,” as some translations put it) the word of truth is his ability to distinguish between law and gospel when interpreting and preaching a text. This distinction was a major component of the Reformation’s approach to understanding the Bible. As Zacharias Ursinus says in his Larger Catechism, the law “requires our perfect obedience to God” and “promises eternal life to those who keep it,” whereas the gospel “shows us the fulfillment in Christ of the righteousness that the law requires” and “promises eternal life freely because of Christ to those who believe in him.”[1]In the gospel, God provides to us in Christ what he demands from us in the law. The law says, “Do this and live,” but the gospel says, “Christ did it for you.”

John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, said that the “ignorance of this distinction between law and gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.”[2] William Perkins, the father of Elizabethan Puritism, urged new preachers to learn and use what he called the basic principle in application, which is the law-gospel distinction. “The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it…The law is, therefore, first in the order of teaching; then comes the gospel.”[3] Perkins believed that it is a mishandling of the Word of God to preach it without making this critical distinction, for doing so will only confuse law and gospel and consequently rob Christ’s sheep of the one thing that offers them hope in this life and motivates them to joyful, godly living. 

As we think of the great need for gospel-preaching churches in Italy, we can see why this distinction of law and gospel is so critical. Burdened on the one hand with Roman Catholic priests who preach works-righteousness, and, on the other hand, Pentecostal pastors who try to control the behavior of their flocks by preaching moralism and legalism, Italy is suffocated by misapplications of Gods law. There is a tremendous lack of refreshing and clear gospel preaching in this country. Let us pray earnestly that God will raise up more competent workmen for his gospel, especially here in Italy.

And let us be confident in Christ, the true workman “who has no need to be ashamed,” for he has promised, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18b). Christ is the Master-builder, and the kingdom he builds cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:25-28). The Master-builder is pleased to call workmen to labor diligently under his care, workmen who will build upon no other foundation but that which he has already laid.

And let be encouraged, for through the means of God’s ordained craftsmanship, namely, his Word and sacraments, the Master-builder is bringing us to completion. You will not end up Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, an unfinished and incomplete work, for “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). 

~ Rev. Michael Brown


[1]Zacharias Ursinus, Larger Catechism, Q.36, as cited in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology, ed. Lyle D. Bierma (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 168-69. 

[2]Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. by James Clark (Lewes, England: Christian Focus, 1992), 41. 

[3]William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (1592; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 54. 

Michael Brown