Pastor John, some people look at the verses in 1 Timothy 1:18-20 and say that if Hymenaeus and Alexander once had faith, but now have shipwrecked it, we must conclude that one can lose true faith in Christ.
How would you respond to this claim? Is there more that can be said about these two men, besides, “Since other Scriptures teach perseverance, then we must assume that the faith of Hymenaeus and Alexander must have been a mere profession”?
I think the last sentence in your question does indeed go a long way towards answering your own question, though I believe much more could and should be said.
The 1 Timothy 1:18-20 passage reads:
This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
To fully exegete the passage would take far more space than a short blog article would allow for, but I would like to draw out a number of points from the biblical text.
By way of background to the theme of apostasy, in an earlier article I wrote:
Christians view apostasy according to their understanding of the work of God in salvation. It is just here where we find a great divide of opinion between those embracing the Reformed doctrines of grace, and those who do not.
According to the Scriptures, Jesus does not ever lose a single one of His true sheep (John 10:28-30). All the Father gives to Jesus will come to Jesus, and the Father’s will is that all those given to Him (Jesus) be raised up (to eternal life) on the last day (John 6:37-39). I can’t for a moment envisage Jesus failing to fulfill the will of His Father. He always carries out His Father’s will. All those His Father gives to Him, will indeed come to Him, and He will then raise all of these up to eternal life on the last day.
Elsewhere, Romans 8:28-30 presents the Golden Chain of Redemption where, in the five links of the chain forged by God Himself, amongst other things, all whom God calls are justified, and all whom God justifies, He glorifies. No truly justified person falls through the cracks and fails to be glorified. God speaks of their final glorification with such certainty that He does so in the past tense “these whom He justified, He glorified”, yet we know that in time, this refers to something that will yet take place in the future. If we can see ourselves somewhere in this golden chain – namely as one who is justified – then all the other things mentioned in the chain, both backwards and forwards, hold true. If we are justified, we were first called, predestined and foreknown. Truly justified people have the utmost assurance regarding their eternal welfare… those whom He has justified, will be glorified, for He who began the good work in them will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).
With that said, the Ligonier Ministries website provided this short devotion on the passage you cited in 1 Timothy 1:
Should we doubt our need to hold fast to faith and a good conscience as we fight for the pure gospel (1 Tim. 1:18–19a), Paul in today’s passage explains what can happen if we attempt to serve the Lord without the weapons of a sound conscience and faith. The apostle issues a sober warning indeed when he warns Timothy that it is possible to make shipwreck of one’s faith if one does not trust firmly in the Messiah, which in turn makes for a strong conscience (v. 19b).
Paul’s caution can make us ask if it is possible for true converts to fall away from Jesus permanently, an issue we will study in the days ahead. Note today that God promises to glorify all those whom He justifies; thus, He preserves to the end all those who cast themselves on His mercy in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:30). But this does not mean we can ignore Paul’s warning because the Lord uses such words to keep us in Christ. Scripture shows us that God moves His people to repent and stand firm in the faith by warning them of the judgment that will come if they remain impenitent (2 Sam. 12:1–15a; Acts 2:14–41).
Hymenaeus and Alexander are examples of those who repudiate their faith when they swerve from a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:20). We know little about these men, but Hymenaeus is likely the same heretic in 2 Timothy 2:16–18 who said the resurrection of all people has already happened. Alexander could be the same person mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:14, but it is hard to be sure as Alexander was a common name back then. Nevertheless, it is clear that both men fell from grace because they had a bad conscience — one driven by personal ambition and hypocritical faith. Perhaps they used the ministry to get ahead and compromised the truth to advance themselves. Maybe they paid lip service to the faith, eventually denying it when the going got tough. Whatever the case, John Calvin is certainly right to say “a bad conscience is…the mother of all heresies.”
Despite their error, Paul apparently did not think Hymenaeus and Alexander had yet committed the unpardonable sin. So he gave them over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20), a shorthand expression for church discipline/excommunication (1 Cor. 5), that in shame they might repent and no longer blaspheme by denying the truth.
I think this is a helpful summary. Please allow me to go a little further by an appeal to sound hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation).
In an another article, I made the point that we should build all of our doctrine on necessary rather than possible inferences. A necessary inference is something that is definitely taught by the text. The conclusion is unavoidable. It is necessary. A possible inference is something that could or might be true, but not something actually stated by the text.
The big question is this: Does the text actually say these men were once genuine Christians who are now lost?
The answer to that is “No.” Though the text does show that a faith once professed was no longer being professed, it does not actually state that a loss of salvation has taken place. This is a very important point to make. We have no right to build doctrine on the sinking sand of possible inferences. Not only in this passage, but throughout the entire canon of Scripture, I know of no passage where it is explicitly stated that a person in the state of grace (saved) ended up lost for all eternity.
What is clear from the 1 Timothy passage is that though a very stern measure of church discipline was needed, Paul remained hopeful concerning these two men. Even though at the present time of writing they had rejected sound doctrine and a good conscience, Paul’s whole purpose for the discipline was that these men would learn all the lessons needed and “be taught not to blaspheme. “
The passage reveals that others too had suffered shipwreck. Their ship had gone down in the stormy waters of life. This should not surprise us.
Amongst the twelve original apostles we have both Peter and Judas who by outward observance seemed to deny the faith – Peter by public denial, Judas by public betrayal.
Peter had a shipwreck. Judas had a shipwreck. Yet the biblical text shows us that according to Jesus, Judas was a devil (John 6:70,71) and Peter was a true disciple of Christ.
Jesus knew this because He knew their hearts. We perceive this only because first of all Jesus tells us, and secondly because of what we observe after their great failure and shipwreck takes place. Judas went out and hung himself, while in stark contrast, Peter, in deep repentance, came back to the fold, even to preach the first sermon on the day of Pentecost (in Acts 2), just a few weeks later.
On this theme of perseverance the Westminster Confession of Faith states:
I. They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved
II. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which arises also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
III. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
Another sound interpretive principle is to build our doctrine on clear passages of Scripture.
On the theme of apostasy, 1 John 2:19 is very clear:
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
If someone straying from the fold, never returns, John’s apostolic and inspired word on the matter is that they were never the genuine article; they were never truly “of us.”
At the time of the writing of 1 Timothy 1, certainly Hymenaeus and Alexander were in grave danger of being exposed as merely former professors of faith in Christ. By outward appearances, they were now acting like enemies of the gospel. Whereas they had once been fervent in the faith now they were not, and indeed, were guilty of blasphemy (blasphemy is a specific sin in the realm of speech).
However, the Lord knows those who are truly His, and the fact is, we often do not. That’s because the elect don’t have the letter “E” stamped on their foreheads. Our earthly eyes cannot see the regenerated heart and differentiate it from the un-regenerated heart. All we can do is observe outward actions. What is invisible to us though is very visible to the Lord. He has never been fooled.
When Paul wrote 1 Timothy, the signs pointed to these men as being false teachers who were never really true disciples. Yet Paul still hoped that was not the case and so implemented church disciple for the purpose of bringing these men to repentance so that they will no longer blaspheme the Lord by their false doctrine. If they were truly children of God, they would heed the Lord as strict discipline is imposed and that is what Paul longed for, even as they were now to be treated as unbelievers.
Let me take this from the realm of theory to where we live today. Perhaps someone is reading this who feels they have gone too far – been far too rebellious and wayward to ever be considered a true child of God. Yet perhaps God is using even these brief words to draw one of His precious beloved children back to His loving arms, even now. Could it be?
If you have once sailed your Christian boat with much enthusiasm, only to see it smashed on the cruel and unforgiving rocks of life, my sincere plea to you is this. Come back to Jesus now in repentance and faith. Come back to the One who still loves you and cares for you, who died for you in your place. Call upon Him now. His grace is extended to you even now, through these words. Can you hear your Lord and Master calling you back to Himself?
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:28-30)
People might let you down. Jesus never will.
When Peter made a shipwreck of his faith, this same Jesus restored him. Without question, He can do the same for you. If you have left your first love; hear the word of the Lord this day, the Lord has never left you (Heb 13:5).
Join with us Christians again and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
For more on this theme, here’s an article entitled “But I have prayed for you.”