“the old, old story” that never gets old

“The Old, Old Story” That Never Gets Old

For those in vocational ministry, there can be something unappealing about the basics. After all, many of us are educated, well-read, and (if only on our best days) reasonably thoughtful. We want to be able to demonstrate an advanced understanding of the material we’re preaching and teaching. People may begin to wonder why we are in the pulpit if we don’t offer some unique insight, some intriguing idea. Why should we need to tell them again and again what the text plainly says?

But when the apostles sought to ensure that Christians in the early churches were walking in the truth, they frequently took their readers back down well-worn paths. They wanted the recipients of their letters and teachings to be grounded in essential truths of the faith. That is what the basics are: they form the base. They’re the fundamentals, the elements without which everything else falls apart.

Pastors today shouldn’t ignore this apostolic example. We have the privilege and responsibility of establishing our congregations in the truth of the Bible and in the work of Christ. If we would do that, we cannot grow bored with the basics. We must turn ourselves and our congregations to them again and again.

This three-part blog series will consider how 2 Peter 1 urges upon us the importance of going back to the basics. In this article, we’ll examine the biblical pattern of reminder and its implications for pastoral responsibility. In part two, we’ll reiterate the Gospel message that we are to return to again and again. And in part three, we’ll remind ourselves of the importance of always grounding our teaching in the Scriptures.

Memory Matters

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Peter 1:12–15)

In 2 Peter 1:12–15, Peter unashamedly tells his readers that remembering matters. Seeking both to guard them and to put them on guard, the apostle reminds them of the truths that form the necessary basis for stability and maturity. “If you’re going to be stable,” he says, “and if you’re going to go on to maturity, then you need to pay careful, continued attention to what you already know.” What he has in mind are the teachings of the Gospel that he has surveyed in the first eleven verses of the chapter and that are expressed in Scripture and made certain by the ministry of Jesus, as he will go on to say.

We cannot grow bored with the basics.

Peter is advocating a kind of spiritual preventive medicine. In healthcare, prevention is always preferable to reactionary treatment, saving patients a great deal of time, money, and grief. Peter is likewise concerned to keep his readers from ever being infected by the destructive voices that fill the air with false teaching. In chapter 2, he’ll begin to warn them directly about “false teachers … who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1)—that is, denying even Jesus and His atoning work on the cross. By knowing the truth well, his readers will be able to guard themselves from such lies. Today, it is still critical for Christians to grasp and to be grasped by the essentials, even as we still are confronted by voices urging us to forget or deny them.

As a faithful Jew, Peter understood that God had given markers all throughout history as pointers to recollection. God established the Passover so that Israel would “remember the day” they “came out of the land of Egypt” (Deut. 16:3). God commanded Joshua to set up stones as “a memorial forever” (Josh. 4:7), to remind Israel that He had brought them safely across the Jordan. And Jesus Himself, of course, established a meal of remembrance so that we would not forget His work on our behalf: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). These sorts of reminders were necessary because Israel—and the church, too—is quick to forget (Jer. 18:15Ezek. 23:35Gal. 1:6Rev. 2:4).

Jesus once expressed understandable frustration with this tendency among Philip and His closest disciples to forget : “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me …?” (John 14:9). The incarnate Lord of glory, with all His power and all His ability, with His day-to-day interaction with twelve men, found Himself saying, “Do I have to go back to the basics with you again?” And in their frailty, they did need to hear the basics again. It is no surprise, then, that the apostles would have to continue to remind themselves and others of fundamental truths.

This is a matter of some urgency on Peter’s part because, as he says in verse 14, “I know that the putting off of my body will be soon.” When he wrote this letter, he was making the most of every opportunity so that after his departure, people would be able to remember the Gospel he preached. You’ll find the same concern from Paul in 2 Timothy as he anticipates “the time of my departure” (2 Tim. 4:6) and so urges Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel” (2 Tim. 2:8). And for Timothy’s congregation, he tells him, “Remind them of these things” (v. 14). The apostles wanted the truth of the Gospel to be carried on in the next generation, and in all the generations after.

Christopher Green has written that Peter’s “fear is not that the second generation will codify and fossilize the truth, but rather that they will become so careless about it that they will forget it altogether.”1 The worry was not so much that people would become too vigorous in guarding the Gospel as it was that they would neglect it. Peter’s solution is to present them again with the same truth they had heard—to “err” unapologetically on the side of laborious repetition rather than letting them forget it.

The Responsibility of Reminder

If all of this was a concern for Peter in the first century, is it any less a concern for us in the twenty-first century? The human weakness that made such reminders necessary is no less present today than it was in Peter’s time. Whatever else a pastor’s responsibility may be, he is a man set apart by God to care for souls.  It is that which ought to make him lie awake at night, and it is that which ought to energize him in the morning, on the one hand shying away from the awesome responsibility and on the other stepping forward to the immensity of the privilege. Despite all of the pressures pastors may feel from within their congregations or without, it’s very, very important that we don’t fail those under our care by forgetting to remind them of the basic truths of the Gospel.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “The business of the church and of preaching is not to present us with new and interesting ideas, it is rather to go on reminding us of certain fundamental and eternal truths.”2 The pastoral ministry is not a course of education in which we take students from one degree of understanding to another. It is more like an athletic practice in which we drill the fundamentals again and again and again because there is no chance of competing without them. It should be every pastor’s ambition to see their congregation reach great heights of faith and understanding. But every pastor needs to know that no one will get there by leaving the basics behind.

Whatever else a pastor’s responsibility may be, he is a man set apart by God to care for souls.

Yet today, it’s not unusual for a pastor to be scurrying around the neighborhood reminding himself about his social media following, reminding himself about his evangelism strategies, reminding himself about his leadership tactics—and forgetting Jesus! There are countless ways to talk around the Gospel and beyond it, perhaps even with the intention of spreading the Gospel, but to forget the Gospel itself. The empty nature of so much biblical presentation in our day is the direct result of shepherds forgetting what the apostles have urged us to remember: “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David.”

All teachers inevitably leave their mark on their pupils, for good or for ill—and pastors leave their mark on their congregations. If our teaching has forgotten Christ, if it has fallen unsuspectingly into moralism, if we are urging our people to a lifestyle and worldview (however high-sounding), but our teaching has actually become unmoored from Christ, then the mark we leave will not be for good. “And so,” says Peter, “I am especially eager that you have all this down in black and white so that after I die, you’ll have it for ready reference” (2 Peter 1:15 MSG). To remind everyone of these basics is the pastor’s God-given responsibility.

Do You Believe This?

Tell me the story slowly,
That I may take it in—
That wonderful redemption,
God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often,
For I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning
Has passed away at noon.3

“I ought to stir you up by way of reminder,” says Peter. We need to ask ourselves whether we feel the same oughtness, because many do not. If we believe it, then it will be apparent in our preaching and in teaching. Instead, what we find is that too often, God’s Gospel is not proclaimed, the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God is ignored, and churches are slowly degenerating as a result. We are too quick to forget and too slow to remember!

The apostles were adamant that we must remind ourselves of the basics, and we must do so deliberately. We cannot coast to victory on what we heard at first; we must hear it again and again. So let’s remind ourselves of the old, old story.

Alistair Begg is the Senior Pastor of Cleveland's Parkside Church (located in Bainbridge, Geauga County, Ohio), a position he has had since 1983. He is the...

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