We'll consider the first of those today. The first principle for faithful ministry that Paul gives us in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 is to know the purpose of Gospel ministry, the aim. Namely: we are calling Christ’s sheep, not the goats, into the fold.
I get that from verse 3, where Paul says, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” Now, where is that statement coming from? Well, as I briefly mentioned on Friday, Paul wrote the letter of 2 Corinthians primarily to defend his own apostleship against the teachings of certain men of Corinth who Paul later dubbed false apostles (2Cor 11:13). These men were teaching that Paul was not a true apostle, and were advancing many attacks against both his character and his ministry, to the point that the Corinthians began to doubt Paul, and thus doubt the gospel he preached.
For example, these false apostles accused him of being under God’s judgment because of his constant sufferings. The thought was that if Paul was really sent from Christ he wouldn't have such opposition and such turmoil, but rather that God would bless him. And so in 2Cor 1:3-11 Paul defends himself by saying that his sufferings for the Gospel are actually a mark of God’s favor. Far from discrediting him as an apostle, sufferings are a badge of his authenticity as a minister of Christ. Further, they accused him of vacillating, and “purposing according to the flesh” (2Cor 1:17) because he had changed his plans about coming to Corinth. And so in 2Cor 1:15-22 he defends himself by saying his word to the Corinthians is not yes and no, but yes, just as all God’s promises are yes in Christ. They also accused him of being uncredentialed, a sort of Johnny-come-lately apostle who wasn’t part of the original twelve. And so in 2Cor 3:2 he asks the Corinthians, “Do we need letters of commendation to you? You are our letter of commendation. The fact that you now know Christ because of the Gospel we preached to you is evidence of our authenticity.”
And now in chapter 4, we find that another accusation was that his message was obscure. Now remember, 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 looked down upon those who weren’t. And so these men were saying, “Hey, look, Paul, only a few people are believing your message. If it was true, and you were really sent from Christ, more people would believe!” And oh, that sounds like today, doesn’t it? “If God was really blessing you, you’d have more people in your church! If you really had sound doctrine—and if sound doctrine really mattered!—more people would believe!” And Paul’s response to this is to tell the false apostles, “You don’t understand the doctrine of election.” It may be that our gospel is veiled—that is, granted: there are many who do not believe our message—but our gospel is veiled only to those who are perishing.
He says a similar thing in 2Cor 2:14-16: “For 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.” As a preacher of the Gospel, Paul calls himself a fragrance of Christ to God. He 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: those who are being saved and those who are perishing, those whom God chose in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him (Eph 1:4), and those whom He did not so choose. And when the elect of God smell the fragrance of the Gospel, it is to them an aroma of life that leads to life. But when the non-elect hear it, it is an aroma of death that leads to death.
Christ Himself said the same thing to the Jews in John 10:26-27. He said, “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 you don’t believe because you are not of My sheep.” Get that. Not, "You are not My sheep because you don't believe," but, "You do not believe because you are not of My sheep. You are not of those that the Father has given to Me" (cf. Jn 6:37, 39).
And so Paul’s defense is that one should not expect the goats to believe the Gospel; for it is only the sheep that hear the voice of their Shepherd.
Now, understand the implications this doctrine has for our ministry of the Gospel. If we continue to take the unadulterated, Biblical Gospel to the world and they continue to reject it, that is not a sign of the weakness of the message. It’s not even necessarily a sign of the weakness of the messenger, but rather it is the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem a particular people.
Now, there are at least two ways this doctrine is abused, and I’m not advocating either of them. First, there are those who are uncompassionate, who take the precious truth of sovereign election to mean that we just bluntly and uncaringly preach a hard message to people, and if they don’t accept it at first hearing, well they’re just not elect. That is an evil way to think. And if there are some of you reading this that struggle with those kinds of thoughts and that kind of an uncaring attitude, I invite you to repent of them, and to hear the words of Jesus who wept over Jerusalem saying: “Oh Jerusalem. How often I wanted to gather your children! Oh if you had known this day the things which make for peace!” And the words of Paul: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother caring for her children. I did not cease night and day for three years to admonish each one with tears.” Do not let the doctrine of sovereign election lead you to be uncompassionate. It did not lead there for the Lord Jesus or for the Apostles.
Secondly, there are those who are just plain lazy. They're just too proud to examine their understanding of the Gospel. But get this: if we’re preaching what the Bible calls the greatest news in the universe, and nobody is listening, we have to be humble enough to at least examine whether we are getting in the way of a pure Gospel presentation. We must ensure that what we are taking to the world is indeed the Biblical Gospel.
But if we have taken the Biblical Gospel to our neighbors and our community with the patience and the compassion of Jesus, and they reject it, we must not conclude that we need to start playing rock and roll music and having light shows and performing skits and playing videos in church to attract them. The church is not called to amuse the goats; rather we are to sound the Shepherd’s voice in the Gospel message and call His sheep who know that voice into His fold.
Our gospel is indeed veiled to those who are perishing. And therefore the first principle for faithful ministry that Paul gives us in this text is: success in Gospel ministry is measured not by numbers but by faithfulness to the message. Therefore, in what seems like seasons of external failure, we must not ask what offers the greatest appeal or what will fill the most seats. We must ask, “Have we gotten the Gospel right? Are we preaching the message we’ve received?”
Come back for principle number two.
- Principles for Faithfulness in Gospel Ministry: Introduction
- We Are Not to Amuse the Goats but to Call the Sheep
- The World's Problem is that They Are Blind to Glory
- We Do Not Preach Ourselves
- God's Remedy: The Shining of the Light of Life
- The Gospel of the Glory: What Makes the Good News Good News