It’s been a pleasure, a privilege, a joy for me to worship with you all and to fellowship with some of you, even pray with some of you. So far this week, we have been immensely blessed already; and now it is a genuine privilege for me to open the Word of God to you. Please take your Bibles and turn to 2 Corinthians chapter 4 as we consider the sufficiency of Scripture for our evangelism.
Well, given the climate in the evangelical church today, one of the most important topics of discussion is philosophy of ministry. A philosophy of ministry is a set of principles that anchor all of the efforts that we make as we aim to serve God in ministry. It’s a set of fundamental commitments that shape the decisions that we make and the courses that we take as we serve Christ’s church and as we serve the lost world around us. You could say, in a sense, that your philosophy of ministry concerns your ministry methodology, how it is that you’re going to go about accomplishing what you’ve been commissioned to do. And the discussion of philosophy of ministry is so important, because it’s so easy to get wrong. Getting a philosophy of ministry wrong can have disastrous effects on the faithfulness and the healthiness of that ministry. And I say it’s easy to get wrong because a lot of people misunderstand the nature of philosophy of ministry.
Not long ago it was popular, and really still to a very large extent is still popular, to speak about philosophy of ministry as a fluid concept. People would say things like, “Well, our theology is fixed, okay. Our doctrinal commitments are held as convictions in a closed hand. They’re non-negotiable. But our philosophy of ministry is in an open hand. We want to be fluid. It’s not set. It’s not fixed. We want to be able to hold the convictions of our theology firmly while also being flexible enough to adapt our methodology to the needs of our own context.” And while that may sound plausible and while there might actually be a reasonable application of that thought, though perhaps needing to be phrased a bit more accurately than that, it’s impossible to capture the myriad of abuses that have come at the hands of that notion.
The concept that one’s philosophy of ministry or methodology has to be adapted, or even may be adapted according to the needs of the culture has been the foundation upon which the market-driven church was built. Maybe it’s the genesis of that sort of ministerial pragmatism that reasons, “Well, look, if we’re going to reach people with the gospel, we need to get them to come to church, don’t we? And they don’t want to come to church on their own, so we need to survey them, we need to find out what they like, and we need to adapt our ministry methodology to their tastes so that they’ll be attracted to us and want to come.”
Sure, we won’t change the message, but we’ll change the methods; and before you can blink your eyes, the seeker-sensitive church growth philosophy of ministry was born. Unbelievers don’t have the attention span for 50-minute sermons through a passage of Scripture, and so pastors began giving 20-minute pseudo-psychological pep talks on living with purpose and finding success. Unbelievers aren’t engaged by old hymns with rich theology, and so we throw out the hymnals and we hire the praise band. The unbeliever was reimagined to be a consumer, and the church was to ape the advertising techniques of Madison Avenue to sell those consumers a product.
Not long after that, the emerging church emerged and told us that the culture was changing. “We’re now living in a post-Christian era, and before this generation’s 18 to 30-year-olds darken the door of a church, we’ve got to show them that they belong before they believe. We’ve got to contextualize the gospel,” which really just meant that we were the nerds who had to figure out a way to get the cool kids to like us. If your target audience is into punk rock music and body piercing, adapt the worship style and think about a tongue ring. If they’re into imported craft beer, have church in a bar, or at least remodel your church so it looks like a bar. See, that’s the philosophy of ministry. “Once we can show them that Christians are like them, that we’re human just like them and that we like the same things they like, well then they’ll like our church.”
And just a few years after that, this ministerial pragmatism has taken an overtly political shape in our day. Now if your pastor’s sermons and your church’s evangelistic efforts aren’t seasoned with the jargon of intersectionality and identify politics, if you’re not preaching the gospel of enfranchising the marginalized and liberating the oppressed, if you haven’t begun regurgitating the talking points of the leftist political lobby, well you’re just a xenophobic, parochial, half-gospel cultural isolationist with no heart for justice. And nobody’s going to care about the message you preach until they can see its affect on your life. But once you can show these millennials that you care for systemic injustice just like they do, then they’ll be interested in giving Jesus a look. And what each of these erroneous philosophies of ministry have in common is that they are a fundamental misunderstanding of, if not an outright disregard for the sufficiency of Scripture, every one of them; and particularly, the sufficiency of Scripture as it relates to our evangelism, which is the topic that, as I said, has been assigned to me for this session.
Each of these unbiblical philosophies of ministry are really unbiblical philosophies of evangelism. I’m almost saying “unbelieving” as I’m saying “unbiblical”; same thing. And they’re unbiblical precisely because they do not behave consistently with the truth that Scripture itself is sufficient to save the lost. We have to add something to the message, or we have to come alongside the message in some way in the way that we present it if we’re ever going to convince people to believe in it. I mean, just the gospel, just the unvarnished, glory of Jesus displayed in His life, death and resurrection for sinners presented from the truth of Scripture, that’s just not going to attract the millennials, it’s just not going to attract the Gen Zers, so we’re told.
All manner of ministerial mischief has been born of the idea that philosophy of ministry is fluid and negotiable; and that is based on the misunderstanding that Scripture doesn’t give us any specific philosophy of ministry. Now it’s true that Scripture doesn’t give us a liturgy. Scripture doesn’t tell us, “This is the way that your order of service ought to be.” But it’s terribly short-sided to suggest that Scripture doesn’t give us clear theological principles, the implications of which directly shape and govern our philosophy of ministry and our philosophy of evangelism. The notion that Scripture is sufficient to instruct as to what we are to proclaim, but that it’s insufficient to shape how we are to proclaim it is a concept born of a willful naivety in entrepreneurial hirelings who want to build a ministry around their own personality and personal tastes.
The fact is the Bible does speak directly to this issue. There is such a thing as a biblical philosophy of ministry; and Scripture is sufficient for every aspect of our evangelism. And I don’t know if there’s a text more suited, more fertile ground for reaping a biblical philosophy of evangelism than 2 Corinthians chapter 4. So if you’re not there already, please turn there with me.
Now the apostle Paul wrote the letter of 2 Corinthians in the context of a great upheaval in Corinth. False apostles had infiltrated the church and began peddling a heretical mix of Judaizing legalism and fleshly triumphalism. And in order to make way for their false teaching they knew they were going to have to undermine Paul’s teaching. But because Paul was teaching the gospel and because you can’t undermine the truth, these men attacked Paul himself and sought to discredit Paul’s character in the eyes of the Corinthians, even going so far as to question whether he was a true apostle at all.
It makes sense. If they’re apostles and he’s claiming to be an apostle, they’ve got to show them that he’s the false apostle and not them; and so they hurled all manner of accusations against him. They accused him of being under God’s judgment because of his constant sufferings. They say, “Paul, if you are really sent from Christ you wouldn’t be beaten and stoned and run out of every city that you go into; you’d have God’s blessing on your life, you’d have God’s favor on your life.” And then, what does he do? He opens the letter in chapter 1, celebrating God’s deliverance of him in his afflictions. The very thing that the false apostles say discredits him, he celebrates as a badge of his authenticity.
They accused him of acting deceitfully toward the Corinthians. They seized the opportunity to style Paul’s change of travel plans as evidence that he was – chapter 1, verse 17 – purposing according to the flesh. “He’s just saying one thing and doing another. He’s not indwelt by the Spirit of God, he’s a fleshly man. He says one thing, he does another.”
They accused him of being uncredentialed. He lacked authority. I mean, he was this Johnny come lately apostle, was not part of the original twelve, didn’t come out of Jerusalem like they did. He had no letters of commendation like they were boasting. And in the providence of God, these attacks on Paul moves him to define and defend his apostolic ministry. And so what we have really from 2 Corinthians chapter 2, verse 12, all the way to chapter 7, is the most glorious treatise on the nature of new covenant gospel ministry anywhere in Scripture.
And so, in the opening verses of chapter 4, as Paul continues to respond to accusations against his character and his ministry in order to defend the gospel, he does so in a way that reveals precious realities about what the church is, about what gospel ministry is, and about how we are to evangelize in a way that’s consistent with the sufficiency of Scripture. So let’s read 2 Corinthians chapter 4. Our text will be in verses 3 to 6.
Paul writes, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
And so, as we look into 2 Corinthians 4 this afternoon I want to observe four principles of a biblical philosophy of ministry, four principles that inform our understanding of the gospel and that shape our ministry so that we can understand precisely how and why Scripture is sufficient for our evangelism, and so that we can be a faithful witness of Christ in obedience of the Great Commission. And that first principle is that we must know the purpose of gospel ministry, we must know the purpose.
Now in addition to the accusations of constant suffering, of being deceitful, of not having the proper credentials, we discover in verse 3 that another accusation the false apostles leveled against Paul was that his message was obscure. And the accusation of an obscure message is it was a substantial one for ministry in Corinth, because the Corinthian culture praised human wisdom and cleverness of speech and oratorical persuasion. They highly regarded those who were skilled in rhetoric and oratory, and they looked down upon those who couldn’t string a phrase together. And so these men were saying, “Hey, look; Paul, only a few people are believing your message. If it was true, it you were really sent from Christ, if you really were blessed by God in your ministry, surely you’d be able to convince more people to believe your message.”
Man, that sounds like today. “If you really had God’s blessing on your ministry there’d be more people in your church. If you really had sound doctrine and if sound doctrine was what mattered, more people would believe. You’d have more sermon downloads; you’d have a major book deal; you’d be doing more conferences.” See, it’s the numbers game. And, in fact, major theological error and, in some cases, even heresy, even the denial of historic Christian doctrines of the faith has been excused in the name of, “Oh, well, you know, he has a fruitful ministry. His church is full. I mean, God must be blessing.” And you know what that means: if a lot of people aren’t coming, God’s not blessing.
And that’s exactly how these false apostles in Corinth aimed to discredit Paul’s ministry. And Paul’s response to this accusation is just so instructive. Look at verse 3. He says, “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” And again, from this we derive our first principle for faithfulness in gospel ministry. As I said, it shows us the purpose, the aim of our ministry. Put simply: the purpose of our ministry is to call Christ’s sheep, not the goats, into the fold. And I’ll explain that.
Paul tells these false apostles who are criticizing him for not having a large enough following, he says, “You don’t understand the doctrine of election. It may be that our gospel is veiled, that is, granted, there are many who don’t believe my message. But our gospel is veiled only to those who are perishing.” And that phrase “those who are perishing,” it’s not just a throwaway phrase, “those who happen to be dying in unbelief.” No. In Paul’s writings, you could say that that’s a technical term, a term that represents a category of people. He uses it back in chapter 2, verse 15. Turn back to that text.
Second Corinthians 2:15, Paul says, “For we,” – meaning those who preach the gospel – “we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” And so Paul likens the preaching of the gospel to the emission of an odor that finds its way into the nostrils of all people. And among those who hear the gospel there are two kinds of people, two categories of people, verse 15: “Those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” We put that in the language of Ephesians chapter 1, “There are those whom God has chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him, and there are those whom in His inscrutable wisdom He did not so choose.”
Paul says here, “When the elect of God smell the fragrance of the gospel, it is to them” – verse 16 – “an aroma of life.” “That smells good. I want that.” But when the non-elect hear it, it’s an aroma of death. “Let me get away from that. Get that out of here.”
And note, that Paul uses this phrase, “those who are perishing,” in his first letter to the Corinthians as well. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, there is a category of people whom he designates “those who are perishing.” And he says to those, to those who are perishing, “The word of the cross” – the message of the gospel – “is foolishness.” To them, the gospel is veiled. “But” – he goes on to say – “to those who are being saved” – the ones he calls in 1 Corinthians 1:24, “those who are the called.” So, “To those who are the called, to those who are being saved, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
Jesus Himself says this same thing. He illustrated this same principle using another of the five senses. Second Corinthians 4 says the gospel’s veiled; that’s sense of sight. Second Corinthians says the gospel is an aroma; that’s the sense of smell. In John chapter 10, Jesus illustrates the difference between the elect and the non-elect by using the sense of hearing. John 10, verses 26 and 27, He says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish. But” – He says to the Pharisees – “you do not believe because you are not of My sheep.”
Now grasp that. Jesus did not say, “You are not of My sheep because you don’t believe.” You know, “If you could just figure it out and believe, then you’d become one of My sheep,” a goat turning into a sheep. No. He says, “You do not believe because you are not of My sheep. Because you’re not one of Mine, you’re not believing in Me.”
In John 6:37, Jesus says, “All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me.” So if we were to put the truth of John 10:26 and 27 in the language of John 6:37, Jesus is saying here in John 10, “You don’t come to Me because you’re not of those who My Father has given to Me. You don’t believe because My Father hasn’t chosen you for salvation.”
And Paul takes up that truth in defense against the accusation that not enough people are believing his message and says, “The church’s purpose in evangelism and in all facets of gospel ministry is to call Christ’s sheep, not the goats, into the fold. You should not expect the goats to believe the gospel, only the sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice.” Now consider the implications that doctrine has for our evangelistic ministry. If we continue to take the unadulterated, biblical gospel to the world and a great majority of them continue to reject it, that is not a sign of the weakness of the message. It’s the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem a particular people, those sheep whom the Father has given to the Son before the ages began.
Now that does not mean that everyone who rejects the gospel on the first hearing is not elect. I mean, someone hears what I just say there and they say, “Yeah, see, that’s the problem with my evangelistic ministry. Everyone I’ve ever preached the gospel to is a goat!” No. We don’t parrot out our evangelistic script and conclude that everyone who doesn’t fall at our feet asking, “What must I do to be saved?” is not elect. This teaching does not excuse us from examining ourselves to see if we’re getting in the way of a pure gospel presentation, whether we’re distorting its content or whether we’re adding unnecessary offense to the gospel by our own personality or our own manner of presentation. We have to be humble enough to consider those realities and adapt accordingly, according to biblical prescriptions.
But if we have examined ourselves and if we have made those necessary corrections and we’ve concluded that as best as we can discern with a multitude of counselors we are taking the biblical gospel to our neighbors and our communities with the patience and compassion of Jesus and they’re just not interested, we should not conclude that we need to turn the sanctuary into a nightclub, turn worship into a rock concert, and to start performing skits and having interpretive dances and playing multimedia presentations to attract people, because the church is not called to amuse the goats. Our task is to sound the Shepherd’s voice as clearly as we can in the gospel message, and then call His sheep who He promises know that voice into the fold. After all, it’s the call of the Shepherd’s voice, isn’t it, that’s the means by which Christ’s flock is brought into His fold.
Didn’t Jesus Himself tell us that in John 10, again, verse 5, “A stranger” – He said – “they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” So if that’s the case, if the sheep, the ones, the only ones who are ever going to get saved, if they come only after the shepherd’s voice and they don’t hear the strange voice of all the dog and pony show, why would we do anything but sound the Shepherd’s voice? Whether in our personal evangelism, whether in our churchwide evangelism, in our programs, our events, why would we do anything but sound the Shepherd’s voice in the preaching of His Word? Why would we ever implement some other means or some other methodology when the only people who are going to get saved are the ones who hear the voice of their Shepherd in the sufficient Scripture?
See, the only answer to that question, “Why we would do something else?” is that we don’t believe the Scriptures are sufficient. We don’t truly believe that the voice of Christ is powerful enough or glorious enough to save sinners. And we think that we can help Jesus, that we can add efficacy to His Word by our cultural relevance and our clever methodologies. Are you kidding me? If we think that, it’s because we’ve forgotten that our gospel is indeed veiled to those who are perishing. But if we understand that our purpose in gospel ministry is to call the sheep, we’ll learn not to measure success like the false apostles did – by numbers, but like Paul did, like Christ did – by faithfulness to the message preached.
And so, friends, in seasons of what seems like external failure in your ministries, we cannot ask, “What offers the greatest appeal?” We cannot ask, “What’s going to fill the most seats?” We can’t ask, “What’s going to have the greatest influence? How are we not going to lose people?” We need to ask, “Have we gotten the gospel right? Are we preaching the message that we’ve received? Are we sounding the voice of the great Shepherd or are we speaking the voice of a stranger?” We need to understand the purpose of gospel ministry.
We also need to know the problem. The second principle for faithfulness in gospel ministry is to know the problem that we’ve been commissioned to solve; and Paul states it in verse 4. He says, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And I forgot that I didn’t get you back to 2 Corinthians, so I’ll read that again.
Turn back to 2 Corinthians 4 and verse 4: “The god of this world” – little, small “g”; god of this world, Satan; the prince of the power of air – the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One, right? So, “The god of this world” – Satan – “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Now what does it mean for unbelievers to have their minds blinded? Well, a few verses earlier in chapter 3, Paul used that same language to describe the Israelites in Moses’ day and the Jews up to this present day. In chapter 3, verse 14, he says, “Their minds are hardened.” In verse 15, he says, “A veil lies over their heart.” Both of those phrases are communicating the same reality of 2 Corinthians 4:4, and also the same reality of Ephesians chapter 2, verse 1, where Paul says, “Those outside of Christ are dead in their trespasses and sins.”
Now what does it mean to be spiritually dead? I mean, think about your unbelieving friends and family. I mean, they walk around, they have conversations, they make plans, they have families, they go to work. What does it mean to say that they’re dead?
Verse 4 of 2 Corinthians tells us the essence of spiritual death is spiritual blindness. The essence of spiritual death is spiritual blindness. What it means for someone to be dead in their trespasses and sins is that the eyes of their heart have been blinded so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. And Scripture frequently speaks of spiritual sight as a metaphor for spiritual life.
In Acts 26, verse 18, Jesus says to Paul, “I’m sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God.” So you see, spiritual life is having ones eyes opened. It’s turning from darkness to light.
John 6, verse 40, Jesus says, “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” Behold, believe: life. And so, when Paul says that Satan has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, he’s saying that the nature of unbelief, that the essence of spiritual death is spiritual blindness. It is refusing what is most valuable, what is most precious because you’re blind to its value. This is the world’s problem; they’re blind to glory.
Consider that. Consider this miserable tragedy. Everybody in the world, whether they know it or not, stands guilty before a holy God. All have sinned, the Scriptures tell us, and they fall short therefore of the perfection of God’s glorious standard of righteousness. And so, outside of Christ, we, humanity, are incapable of doing the very thing we were created to do – namely, to enjoy a relationship with, to enjoy communion with our Creator, the most glorious and satisfying and enjoyable being in the universe. We’re doomed to waste our lives. We can’t live our lives according to the purpose for which we were given our lives. And more than that, ultimately we are doomed to go into eternal punishment.
But in magnificent love, the Father sends the Son to live the perfect life that we should have lived, but failed to live. He sends him to die the horrifying death under the heavy hand of the wrath of God, that we were required to die, but could not ever survive, so that the penalty that we owed would be paid by a substitute, so that if we simply abandon any claim to self-righteousness and trust entirely in Christ alone for our righteousness before God, we can have the restored relationship with our Creator that we were designed to have in the first place. And so you go and you tell people this most glorious news in the world, the greatest news that anybody could ever conceive of, and they say, “Eh, that’s great for you. I respect your opinion. Thank you for sharing that with me, I really appreciate hearing your story. But we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.”
That is the miserable nature of spiritual death. People can look directly at the glory of Christ, whether it’s the ancient Near Eastern Jews witnessing the carpenter’s Son performing miracles and healings and exorcisms, or whether it’s 21st century Americans reading their Bibles or listening to preaching. They can look at Christ and see nothing of value. They behold glory and are entirely unaffected. Jesus looks foolish; or He looks like a mythical, psychological crutch made up so that weak people can get themselves through the day; or He’s just boring. “Okay, yeah, Jesus died, rose again. Okay, fine. Good teacher, nothing special,” because unless we’re born again, unless God shines in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ – as we’ll see in verse 6 – unless that happens, our minds remain blind and we can’t see Christ for who He is.
Friends, this is the world’s problem. This is what the church has been left on earth to solve. At its root, the world’s problem is not that they have unfulfilling marriages or broken relationships. It’s not that they don’t feel comfortable and relaxed in church. It’s not that Christians don’t like the same music that they listen to, or don’t dress the same way, or don’t use the same language, or don’t share the same politics. It’s not even that they don’t have enough evidence of the truthfulness of the Bible or for the deity of Christ. They have that evidence. Since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power has been clearly seen, having been understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Unbelievers don’t lack evidence, they lack the eyes to see that evidence and interpret it properly. Their problem is that they’re blind to glory; they can’t see what is supremely beautiful and glorious and valuable and precious.
Now if that is the world’s problem, then the church’s mission is to solve that problem. Whatever the church sees fit to involve herself in, we must be controlled and constrained and driven by the purpose of eradicating the world’s blindness to the glory of Jesus. Now here’s the question: By what means can the blindness to the glory of Jesus be eradicated? What is the remedy for such a hopeless and miserable condition in which every effort to persuade and to prove and to show love is lost on people because their minds are blind and because a veil lies over their heart?
That brings us to our third principle for faithfulness in gospel ministry. We must know the purpose; we must know the problem; and now, number three, we must know the prescription for man’s predicament, the prescription. And look at verse 6: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
Our spiritual perception as natural people is so disordered by sin that we look upon what is objectively delightful, namely, the glory of Jesus, and we’re repulsed by Him. And yet we see what’s repulsive – the glory of sin, the glory of self – and we’re enamored with it. We love darkness, and we hate the light. We love filth, and we despise beauty.
God’s prescription for such a hopeless prognosis as man’s spiritual blindness is is His sovereign work of regeneration, of regeneration. See, in magnificent love, almighty God who has already sent His Son to die and rise again, and then sent messengers to proclaim the gospel, this good news, this glorious news that has now been rejected, on top of that rejection almighty God comes and overcomes man’s resistance to the gospel by giving us the Light needed to see things as they actually are.
Look at the text again: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ – that is to say, just as in the beginning when God said, “Let there be light,” and then by the creative power of His word, the galaxies leapt into being. In regeneration God sovereignly speaks into the darkened and dead heart, “Let there be light,” and instantaneously He births the light of eternal spiritual life where it had not existed. He gives us new spiritual eyes so that we finally see sin for what’s it in and all of its objective ugliness, and we finally see Christ for who He is in all of His objective beauty and glory. And now with our eyes finally opened, finally able to see and evaluate things as they actually are, we turn away in repentant disgust from the sin and self, and we cling to our glorious Savior with the embrace of saving faith. This is so radical a transformation, something so far beyond natural man’s ability to accomplish on our own, that Paul compares this sovereign act of God to the creation of the world. He’s saying that the new birth, the conversion of a sinner from his spiritual blindness to faith in Christ is just as much a sovereign miracle as was the original creation of the universe by speaking it into existence.
Now, how active or how cooperative was the creation in its creation? It wasn’t. It didn’t exist; and then by God’s sovereign grace, it did. This is why the imagery of the new birth is such an apt illustration for the work of regeneration.
In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Something is so drastically and irreversibly wrong with us that we need to be born all over again. And in the physical realm, a child makes absolutely no contribution to his conception or to his birth. A child doesn’t exist until he’s conceived, and so he’s entirely dependent upon the will of his parents to be brought into being.
In the same way, Jesus chooses this analogy of the new birth to illustrate the reality that dead and depraved sinners cannot contribute at all to their rebirth unto spiritual life. They’re entirely dependent upon the sovereign will of their heavenly Father for regeneration.
So, John 1:13 says, “The children of God birthed in regeneration are born not of blood, not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” “Not of blood” means that someone’s heritage or ancestral lineage has no bearing on regeneration. “Nor of the will of the flesh” means that regeneration isn’t a product of the exercise of man’s will. Sinful man cannot simply decide to be born again any more than a corpse can simply decide to rise to life. “Nor of the will of man” means that no manmade religion or sacramental system can induce the new birth. No, the children of God are born of God. God alone is the author of regeneration. Regeneration is the monergistic work of God. It means one agent working: mono, one; ergos, work. Monergistic: one work of God, not all the work of man.
So, James chapter 1, verse 18 – just mark these references down. It says, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth.” So far from depending on man’s will, sinners are brought to spiritual life by the exercise of God’s will.
Ephesians 2:5, “While we were dead in our trespasses,” – utterly helpless to bring ourselves to life, the text says – “God made us alive together with Christ,” not God offered us that we might make ourselves alive. Second Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he’s a new creature; the old tings have passed away; behold, new things have come.” And then the next verse says, “Now all these things are from God.” And 1 Peter 1:3, “According to God’s great mercy He has caused us to be born again.”
Who caused our regeneration? God caused us to be born again. And when Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again to enter the kingdom, Nicodemus asked Him, “Well, how can I do that? What does that even mean?” And have you ever noticed Jesus doesn’t respond to Nicodemus with a to-do list? Tell him in John 3:8, “The Spirit is like the wind that it blows where it wishes.”
Regeneration is God’s work. This is the prescription, this is the remedy for man’s spiritual blindness. Nothing at all that we can do, the sovereign work of God and regeneration. And if that’s the remedy, then listen: all of our church services, all of our evangelism, all of our outreach, all of our relationships, all of our everything in our ministries must be aimed at regeneration.
This is what the church has been sent out to accomplish as its mission in the world. And if our aim has come up short of that, no matter what good things we might be aiming at, if our aim in ministry is not the regeneration of the lost, we have set our sights too low, we have set our minds on earthly things at the expense of heavenly things. And for all the temporal good we might do, we’ve made ourselves eternally obsolete, eternally useless.
But you say, “Mike, regeneration you just told us is a monergistic work of God, and the Spirit is like the wind.” If regeneration is something only God can do, how are we supposed to aim at it in our ministry? How are we supposed to aim at that in our evangelism? Well, in God’s great kindness, He has promised to affect this marvelous work of regeneration by the use of means; and whatever that means is which brings about the new birth, whatever it is that is the instrument of regeneration, that will define our mission.
And that brings us to our fourth principle for faithfulness in gospel ministry. If the world’s problem is that they are blind to glory and if God’s prescription is to overcome that blindness by regeneration, then the church’s mission is to preach the one and only message by which regeneration is accomplished. Number Four: We must know the proclamation. We must know the proclamation. Purpose, problem, prescription, and proclamation. Look at verse 5: “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.”
By what means does God accomplish His work of regeneration? What is the instrumental cause of the new birth? Answer: We preach Christ Jesus as Lord. Answer: The proclamation of the gospel message of Christ’s lordship. That’s how people get born again. Scripture identifies the Word of God itself and especially the gospel message as the sole means by which God grants the miracle of the new birth. Let me prove that to you by turning to several passages.
Turn with me to James chapter 1. I read it before quickly. I want you to see it in your Bible; and if you’re the type that marks up your Bibles, maybe underline this. James chapter 1, verse 18. James says, “In the exercise of His” – that is the Father’s will. There’s monergism. There’s sovereign grace. “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth” – there’s the language of the new birth, the language of regeneration – “by the word of truth.” In the exercise of His will, He brought us forth by the Word of truth. That preposition “by” expresses the means by which God accomplishes this action. And so this verse identifies that means as the Word of truth. God brings us forth unto spiritual life how? By the Word.
Turn one book ahead to 1 Peter chapter 1. In 1 Peter 1:23, Peter says, “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this” – that living and enduring Word of God through which we have been born again – “this is the word which was preached to you.” It’s the gospel that he proclaimed to them. Brought us forth by the Word of truth, born again through the Word of God.
Turn back to 2 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 and verse 14. Paul says there in 2 Thessalonians 2:14, “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The calling in this verse is the effectual calling of regeneration; and Paul says that God issued that effectual calling of regeneration through our gospel.
And one more, Romans 10:17. You may not need to turn there because you may know it. Romans 10:17, Paul says, “So faith,” – that is saving faith which is the immediate consequence of regeneration – “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the” – what? – “by the word of Christ,” the word of truth, the word of God, the word of the gospel, the word of Christ.
Friends, this is how regeneration happens. It happens through the preached word of the gospel as it’s recorded for us in the sufficient Scriptures. The Word, this Word coupled with the saving power of God the Holy Spirit is sufficient to induce the new birth in those sheep that the Father has given to Christ. The only way, the only way that God will accomplish this miracle of regeneration that overcomes man’s spiritual blindness to the glory of Christ is the proclamation of the Word of God. Friends, Scripture is sufficient for our evangelism. We preach Christ Jesus as Lord. For it is by that preached Word and that Word alone that the God who said, “Let Light shine out of darkness,” now shines in the hearts of His people to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
And notice what preaching the Word, preaching Christ’s lordship, preaching the Scriptures, notice what that’s opposed to in 2 Corinthians 4, verse 5 – let’s get back there. “We preach Christ Jesus as Lord, and not ourselves, for we do not preach ourselves.”
What does it mean to preach ourselves? It means that we don’t – I should say it this way: What does it mean to not preach ourselves? It means that we don’t make our methodology or our style the draw of our ministry. We don’t put ourselves forward as the appeal to unbelievers. We don’t appeal to what is fleshly and worldly in the unbeliever in order to attract them and compel their participation. Instead, we do everything that we can to get ourselves out of the way so as to be merely incidental, to be just the finger that points to what counts.
When somebody points to something, unless you’re a year old, right, you don’t look at the finger, you look at what they’re pointing to. We want to just be that finger that says, “Look over there, not to me, not to us. If we start focusing on the finger, we’re missing it. We want to point to the content of the message, the message by which this new birth is promised to take place.
And I want you to turn back to 1 Corinthians chapter 2, which is a text that really sheds light on what I believe Paul means when he says that he doesn’t preach himself. If you could have asked Paul, “Paul, wait. You said we don’t preach ourselves, 2 Corinthians 4:5. What’s that mean?” I think he would turn you to 1 Corinthians 2:1 to 5.
Starting in verse 1, he says, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”
Superiority of speech, human wisdom, persuasive words – these were exactly what you needed if you were going to get your message heard in first century Corinth. Remember, eloquence and oratory were the prerequisites of cultural engagement and credibility in that society. And Paul says, “I determined, I resolved to be just the opposite. They were seeking wisdom, and all I knew was this foolish message of Christ and Him crucified. They were looking for rhetorical skills and eloquence, and I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. They wanted someone skilled in the art of persuasion, and my message and my preaching had no persuasive words.” Why, Paul? “Because if I did that I’d be preaching myself; and then your faith wouldn’t rest on the power of God, it would rest on the wisdom of men. And that is no sure foundation upon which to stake your eternity.” And, friends, as messengers of the same gospel, you and I, we do not preach ourselves.
Back in 2 Corinthians 4, verse 7, the next verse after the text that we’re considering, Paul says, “Listen we’re just earthen vessels. We are just clay pots. We don’t do anything to make much of ourselves. We don’t want to be these ornate fine china, beautiful, impressive containers. We’re just earthen vessels, we’re just clay pots,” – look at it – “because we want the surpassing greatness of the power to be of God and not from ourselves.”
Christian ministry, the Christian life is not about trying to gain a following. It’s not about trying to win over other people to the same ideology that you have, the way you think. It’s not about moral reform. It’s not about political activism. The problem that we aim to solve by our ministry is the world’s blindness to glory, to the glory of Christ. And so we don’t preach ourselves, because no matter how slick, no matter how clever, no matter how nuanced and savvy our presentation is, that is not what saves people, that is not what opens blind eyes to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. I’m sure that you are wonderful people, but you are not opening blind eyes to the glory of Christ. And if there’s anything that plagues the church today it’s an epidemic of preaching ourselves.
One of the greatest marks of the unhealthiness of the visible church is that rather than manifesting the glory of Jesus and the inherent offensiveness and foolishness of His cross, the culture exegetes of today counsel us to show unbelievers how much alike we are, show them that Christians are just normal people just like them. One very popular preacher who calls himself reformed tells Christians that unbelievers should be able to look at them and think, “Wow, they’re just like me. I suppose I could be a Christian, too.”
Friends, the very last thing that unbelievers should conclude when they look at you is that you’re just like them and they can be just like you. They should look at you and see someone so totally different from them, so set apart from the world, so free from the bondage of this world’s cares and false pleasures. The virtue and holiness of your life should be so evident to them that the only conclusion they could possibly come to is that something entirely supernatural has taken place in your life, and that they have no hope of ever being like you unless that same miracle takes place in their lives.
And the philosophy of ministry that counsels us to conform to the world in order to win the world is a philosophy of preaching ourselves. It’s a philosophy of presenting ourselves to the world and asking for the world to receive us long before they receive Christ; and maybe if they like us enough, maybe they’ll be interested in trying Jesus. That’s why so many churches do the dog and pony show and call it church. They’ve got the theatrical lighting, they’ve got the smoke and the fog. They’ve got the multimedia presentations, the state-of-the-art children’s playground, the rock star worship band. They’ve got the hipsters with the skinny jeans and V-necks and the manbuns, and the 20-minute pep talks about fixing your emotional problems that they call sermons, delivered by a Tony Robbins as life coach – all of that is the selling point, all of that is the bait for their ministry.
But Paul says, “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord.” Our selling point – if you could even call it that – is that God the Son was crucified for sinners, and He’s risen now and He’s reigning as Lord over all. And by trusting in Him, friend, your sins can be forgiven, your eternal punishment can be canceled, and your hope of heaven can be assured. That is the point of contact between believers and unbelievers: “You’re dead in your sins, you need Christ, and I have the message by which you can lay hold of Him.”
Back in 2 Corinthians 2, just after our comments about aroma from death to death and life to life, in verse 17, Paul calls preaching ourselves peddling the Word of God. Think about that. Think about what a peddler is. A peddler is someone who knows that the product he’s trying to move really isn’t all that valuable in itself. A peddler is embarrassed by his product’s deficiencies, so he deceptively displays only the parts of it that appeal to the consumer and tries to hide the things he knows that he won’t like. A peddler esteems his product so lightly, he thinks so little of it that, what does he do? He’s willing to haggle back-and-forth about its worth: “$20.00. Okay, $15.00. Okay, $10.00. Okay, $2.00.” That’s a peddler. What he’s holding is of so little value to him that it doesn’t matter that he gets what he really thinks it’s worth; he knows it’s not worth all that much.
And brothers and sisters, may God keep us from esteeming the glory of Christ so lightly that we’re willing to haggle with God’s enemies about His value, about His worth, by seeking to entice them to Christianity by something other than Christ as He’s presented in the Word. “Okay, you don’t like the real Jesus; okay, how about really, really cool music. How about really, really cool Christians. How about really, really culturally savvy, engaged, authentic people. Okay, whatever; just come. Just make our church big.”
As I said before, as wonderful as I’m sure all of you are, you are not the gospel. You and I in and of ourselves have nothing to offer people that removes spiritual blindness. None of that stuff, none of the bait of contemporary ministry can open blind eyes to treasure the glory of Jesus; only the good news of forgiveness of sins freely offered by faith in a sin-bearing, wrath-propitiating substitute can solve the problem that the church has been called to solve. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ, by the message about Christ. And so, we don’t preach ourselves, we preach Christ Jesus as Lord. Why? Because the Scripture are sufficient.
So your purpose in gospel ministry is to call the sheep, not to entertain the goat; and so you need to measure your success by your faithfulness to sound the voice of the Shepherd, by your faithfulness to preach the gospel as you’ve received it. The problem you’ve been commissioned to solve is not bad marriages, strained relationships, hurt feelings, or societal injustices. Ultimately, the problem you’ve been commissioned to solve is that the world is blind to the glory of Jesus. And the only prescription to remedy that blindness is God’s sovereign work of regeneration. And the only means by which that miracle of regeneration takes place is the proclamation not of ourselves, but of the Word of God, that Jesus Christ has died, risen, and been exalted as Lord over all. Preach that Word; it is sufficient to open blind eyes, and nothing else is. Let’s pray.
Father, grant that we would all believe that message from the core of our being. Grant that there are some within the sound of my voice who need to repent over the way that they’ve thought of ministry, the way that they’ve conducted themselves in ministry. May it not be a preaching to the choir, as encouraging as it may be. May it be that You strengthen the health of Your church via this Word. Grant that all of Your people would esteem the glory of Jesus so highly that we would never dream of offering them anything else to draw them, because we believe that He is the most glorious draw ever. Grant that we would see the beauty of Jesus, and bring that to bear on the way that we conduct ourselves in ministry, in evangelism. Grant that we would evangelize. Make us obedient to our commission to speak to unbelievers about this glorious message of the God who overcomes blindness by sovereign regeneration.
Father, if there are some within the sound of my voice who are yet laboring under the burden of their sins, a lost sheep who has yet to come into the fold, I pray that You would use the power of Your gospel to quicken them this moment. Let light shine in their heart.
And, Father, ultimately, may You sanctify Your church by even this message that we’ve preached this hour, the messages that are being preached this week. Strengthen and sanctify Your church so that You have the church that You are worthy of having, so that Your glory would be magnified among the nations, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This article is also available and sold as a booklet.