This portion of the ‘faithful saying’ in 2 Timothy 2:13 is difficult to understand: should we take it positively or negatively? In other words, is it saying that God will be faithful to save the unfaithful, for he cannot deny his saving work (positive); or is it saying that God will be faithful to judge the faithless, because he cannot deny his just character (negative)?
I find the aesthetic impact of this ‘faithful saying’ to be uplifting, so I am inclined to hear it in the positive sense: God will not give up on you, because he’s more faithful than you.’ But then the analytical part of me thinks, ‘Wait, is it really characteristic of the New Testament to say that God saves the faithless?? Of course not!’
It comes at the climax of a movement of three parts:
- If we die with him, we will also live with him
- If we deny [him], he will deny us
- If we are unfaithful/faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot deny himself
What is the rhetorical effect of the three steps? Do they form a crescendo? If so, we should take the final step as an ultimate judgement from God:
- Life from God
- Denial from God
- Judgment from God
But this seems hard to sustain, because judgment is already inherent in ‘he will deny us.’ This very wording is used in the Gospels to depict eschatological judgment.
So does the third step act as a qualifier of the second step, reinforcing the ultimacy of God’s grace? If so, it would perhaps be better (for my ears at least) to read apistos as ‘unfaithful,’ rather than ‘faithless’:
- Your death, God-given life
- Your denial of God, God’s denial of you
- BUT: God’s faithfulness is bigger than your unfaithfulness
This seems to cohere well with other parts of 2 Timothy, and I am leaning towards this way of reading the text.
Just looking at Towner’s NICNT commentary now, I see that he makes exactly this point (513):
‘unbelief’ as such does not really fit. More likely the verb refers here to lapses in loyalty to Christ that amount to unfaithfulness. The wordplay between human ‘unfaithfulness’ (apistoumen) and the description of Christ as ‘remaining faithful [pistos]’ would seem to confirm this as the chief concern….
If ‘to disown’ is to be understood in terms of desertion because of fear of suffering, then ‘to be faithless’ is possibly meant to express something less grave.
So there you have it – let’s go for the positive reading.