2 Corinthians 13:6-11 “And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong. Not that people will see that we have stood the test but that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is for your perfection. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority- the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.”
There has been constant talk about ‘renewal’ in the churches in the past thirty years. It has become one of those religious buzz words. Church attenders don’t know about justification but they know about renewal. It generally refers to changes in the structures of a congregation, introducing small groups, and modern hymns, and loadsamusicalinstruments, and loadsapeople taking part leading the congregation in the services, and getting people to chat away to their neighbours at half-time, and each month holding ‘specials’- extra hyped-up events. The acceptance of these changes is attributed to a congregation being ‘open’ to God the Holy Spirit, and resistance to them is judged to be grieving the Spirit. But such changes in worship, as is evident for all to see, are wrought by human engineering. They are not works which God the Holy Spirit alone can do.
Of course we are properly interested in Christians being transformed by the renewing of their minds, and in these verses before us today the Holy Spirit specifies some of the consequences of biblical renewal. The apostle is completing the last sentences of his final letter to the church at Corinth where some were being led astray by a group of men whom he dubs ‘super-apostles.’ They were intent on alienating the church from Paul. “You examine yourselves,” he challenges them, “not me.” What will be some of the consequences of their being renewed by the Holy Spirit? The apostle mentions the following:
1. THE RENEWED CHURCH VALUES TRUE PREACHERS.
How do I arrive at that statement? Consider these words: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you- unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.” (vv. 5&6). They are urged to be examining themselves, and what will be their great find? Not only that Christ Jesus was in them – and that itself is so magnificent a discovery – but this also, that this servant of Jesus Christ in their midst, the apostle Paul, comes up to muster: “you will discover that we have not failed the test.” As well as a renewed assurance of their own salvation they will have a new appreciation of their missionary. “Thank you Father for sending him to be our evangelist and teacher and bring us the truth.” So self-examination is not at all a rather sad and private exercise in introspection. it has benefits for others too.
That discovery that Paul had not failed the test would come about in this sort of way. They would have examined themselves as to whether they were building on the rock or on the sand, and they came to the conclusion that they had been wise builders. But who had laid that foundation for them? It was the apostle Paul. Again, were they resting in the law for their acceptance with God or in the grace of the Lord Jesus? They examined themselves and concluded that they were resting in Christ only. Who had driven them from every other refuge? Their preacher Paul. Again, were they like the people who pressed around Jesus or were they amongst those who stretched out to him and touched the hem of Jesus’ garment? They examined themselves and they concluded that they had indeed reached out to him, and had known his virtue making them whole. Who had fervently urged them, “Close with Christ!”? Paul had been the faithful preacher who had exhorted them to come in faith to Jesus. When Temple Gairdner of Cairo was a student he was leading a students’ Bible Study, and someone went up to him and asked him, “Are you better than these other students to be addressing them?” “Oh no,” he replied, “but Christ is better. I don’t speak of myself but of him.” These Corinthians examined themselves and were assured that Paul had faithfully spoken of Christ to them
So they examined themselves and they passed the test, but in their self-examination they inevitably examined others too: “She’s a Christian, and he’s a Christian, and the blessed apostle brought to us the gospel.” They came to these new assurances about others as a spin-off of self-examination. He too hadn’t failed the test; he was God’s man in their midst. It is the great way of passing judgment on any preacher, to discover that he is God’s man who has taught me the truth.
In the middle of the 19th century in Scotland James Stalker was studying for the ministry. On Saturday mornings the students held prayer meetings for Scottish missionaries, and on one occasion one of their theological lecturers came to speak to them. He had the reputation of being an academic, and they expected he would give them a talk urging them be at their studies in the Manse each morning, but to their surprise he chose to talk to them about his view of the ministry. He was tender, and even lyrical as he described to them the preacher. He told them that the great purpose for which a church calls a man is not that he become a writer, or that he visit the people during the week, or even preach to them on Sundays – as important as those things might be. The greatest contribution the preacher can make, this lecturer told these budding preachers, is to live among them as a good man. He is to demonstrate that in this world a life touched by God is possible, a reality which can only be explained in terms of heaven here on earth.
Then Dr Stalker in the same breath spoke of an experience he had in his first pastorate when he left seminary and he came to the town of Dunnikier. There was an old minister in the community whose name was James Black who had been there for over forty years. This is how he describes him: “He moved through the town, with his white hair and somewhat staid and dignified demeanour, as a hallowing presence. His very passing in the street was a kind of benediction, and the people, as they looked after him, spoke of him to each other with affectionate veneration. Children were proud when he laid his hand on their heads, and they treasured the kindly words which he spoke to them. At funerals his presence was sought by people of all denominations. We who laboured along with him in the ministry felt that his mere existence in the community was an irresistible demonstration of Christianity … Yet he had not gained this position of influence by brilliant talents or great achievements or the pushing of ambition, for he was singularly modest, and would have been the last to credit himself with half the good he did. The whole mystery lay in this, that he had lived in the town for forty years a blameless life, and was known by everybody to be a godly and prayerful man” (James Stalker, “The Preacher and his Models,” p.57, Hodder, London, 1891). He had obeyed Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1).
The early church examined whether they were in the faith, and through that exercise they came to treasure the apostle Paul. There are fascinating indications of that in the New Testament. For example, after he bids farewell to the Ephesian elders we are told, “They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved him most was his statement that they would never see his face again” (Acts 20:37&3) – their heart-ache was proof Paul hadn’t failed the test. Or again there is another even more moving example of the esteem of these first century Christians for Paul when he is walking to imprisonment and trial in Rome. Life or death are in the balances, and the great capital of the Empire comes into view as Paul draws near. What sympathy is he going to meet at the coming tribunal? Probably little more than his Master had under Pontius Pilate. So he is walking along, a little apprehensively, a prisoner with his guards, and then – we are told in the final chapter of the Acts of the Apostles – something special occurred to lift his spirits. Some of the congregation of the church in Rome had heard that he was arriving and they had gone out to meet him. They had travelled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns. When Paul came along they stepped out into the road welcoming and greeting him, and they accompanied him the rest of the way to the city. They would have been able to see about his needs, what creature comforts or legal expenses he was facing. For a while Paul lived by himself with a soldier to guard him. The people valued him, and we are told, “At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged” (Acts 28:16). The sight of loving Christians lifted Paul’s spirits.
Paul had seen the risen Christ on the road to Damascus but he still needed encouragement. He had been caught up to the third heaven and witnessed great glory, but he still needed encouragement. He had been more successful in planting churches and seeing people converted than any of his contemporaries, but he still needed encouragement. He spoke in tongues more than all of them and was filled with the Spirit, but he still needed Christians to conclude about him that he had passed the test. The first mark of a renewed church is that it values true preachers.
2. THE RENEWED CHURCH LIVES OUT THE TRUTH IN RIGHTEOUS LIVES.
We notice how emphatic Paul is on the necessity of this, both negatively and positively: “Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong. Not that people will see that we have stood the test, but that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed … our prayer is for your perfection” (vv.7&9). These Corinthians lived in a large prosperous seaport full of mariners and travellers staying there just a few days before going off an another dangerous voyage. There were temples and priestesses on every corner. It was in this iniquitous sad community of a million people that Christ built his church. He summoned his people out of the world to follow him. He came to Corinth with blessing in both hands, forgiveness in the one, and holiness in the other. They couldn’t choose one or the other. They had to take both or they could have neither. We can readily distinguish the one from the other – holiness is not forgiveness and forgiveness is not holiness. But you can never separate them. Forgiveness leads to holiness. There was a woman who had been a great sinner, and when Christ forgave her she loved him much. Forgiveness leads to our resisting anything wrong and seeking to do everything right. If Christ justifies us then he also sanctifies us. Forgiveness is washing and cleansing us of our guilt and shame. Holiness is ironing out all our wrinkles and creases. God always washes before he irons.
Augustine was a young student at the University of Carthage. The men who studied there were just like those who study at the University at Aberystwyth today. Augustine described the atmosphere like this, “There sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves.” That’s where young men and women are living today, in a cauldron of unholy loves. Then one day the good Shepherd met Augustine, and Augustine said that Jesus introduced him to his own true self. “You set me before my face that I might see how vile I was. I saw myself and was horrified.” Knowing Christ always leads to self-knowledge.
There was a government official in India who stole large sums of money. He had been a religious man and the guilt of what he was doing became an enormous burden. He was tormented by his crime, and one night he broke the whole wretched story to his wife. As he dumped it all on her she physically buckled under the weight of what she was hearing. She could see dismissal, a trial, imprisonment, a future of poverty and shame. She collapsed back against the wall and leaned there, almost fainting under the wretchedness of it all, tears flowing down her face. She looked as if she’d been whipped, and in that moment, as he saw her wilting and breaking up, he saw Golgotha. He saw Love crucified for his sin, and he believed. In a few moments his Christian wife had composed herself and told him that she loved him still and she wouldn’t leave him. He was converted that night.
We are saying that Christ comes with forgiveness in one hand and holiness in the other, and there is no choice: we have to take them both or we shall never be converted. Paul says it so simply in our text, both negatively and positively. “You will not do anything wrong … you will do what is right” (v.7). Imagine that! God the Son visited this world and sent his messengers to take his word to people, and through them God opened his mouth and said, “Don’t do anything wrong and do what is right.” It is too simple, you cry. But we are simple people. You always have those two exhortations side by side in the Bible. Repentance and obedience. Lay aside your sin, and look unto Jesus. Don’t pray like the Pharisees on street corners, but go to your room and pray in secret. Put off the old man and put on the new man. “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Ephs. 4:2). Don’t be cast down; hope in God. You breathe out the poison, and you breathe in the oxygen. You will not do anything wrong … you will do what is right. You must have them both. Sometimes the one is emphasised, and sometimes the other.
Think of two stories from Greek mythology. There was a certain island inhabited by Sirens, creatures that were half woman and half bird. They sang in such an alluring way that any sailors who came within hearing distance were drawn quite irresistibly to them and to their death. The Sirens would tear them to pieces, the moment the sailors arrived on shore. Now there came a time when the ship of Odysseus was entering this danger area. What he did was to fill the ears of his crew with wax so that they couldn’t hear a thing. Then he was bound fast to the mast and he told them that no amount of gesturing or threats should make them release him until they were miles away from the island. So they sailed by the island and the Sirens sang their songs, but the crew rejected the temptation and didn’t go near the island, and they didn’t release Odysseus. They did nothing wrong. That’s fine. Sometimes it is a marvellous achievement simply not to have done something. However, later another ship sailed by that island under a captain called Orpheus. He had a different plan. He took out his lyre and he played such beautiful music to his crew of Argonauts that the men were totally captivated by his music. They had no interest in the Sirens’ voices at all. They filled their minds with something far more beautiful. So we Christians are to be both negative – we won’t do anything wrong; we lash ourselves to the mast in mortification – but positive too – we will do what is right. We look unto Jesus.
Part of our duty after hearing the Word of God preached to us is to act on it, and change our plans and actions, and do with more enthusiasm the things that are right. There are occasions when the timing of a Sunday message is absolutely perfect for a specific need. There are times when we read the Bible and what it says to us in the eeriest of ways is instantly and directly related to our own dilemmas. Mrs. Eileen Hoare speaks of a friend of theirs who in the early 1940s during the Nazi bombing of London was concerned for her children. She had a brother in Canada who invited her, “Come over and live with us until the war is over.” So she booked a passage for herself and her children. But she wasn’t sure whether she was doing the right thing, and one morning she was reading her portion of Scripture for the day and it included Proverbs 27:10, “Do not go to your brother’s house when disaster strikes you – better a neighbour nearby than a brother far away.” I hope you all have a place in your Christian universe for the possibility of reading a portion of Scripture like which leaps off the page so that you know your life is going to change as a result. I know we are all thinking, “If only divine guidance were always as easy as that.” God normally guides us by telling us what sort of preaching we should be hearing each Sunday, and what sort of father or mother we should become, and how we should live, and what sort of counsellors we should go to for advice, and what principles should guide our lives, and so on. That is how God guides us. But I plead with you to accept the possibility of God using a verse which is very directly linked to a trouble we are in: “Do not go to your brother’s house when disaster strikes you – better a neighbour nearby than a brother far away.” This woman read that verse at a time of momentous decision and she stayed in the UK throughout the war, and incidentally, Mrs Hoare thinks that the boat on which the family had booked their passage to Canada was torpedoed with no survivors.
Paul is telling us that a regular part of our Christian lives is to be spent in understanding the will of God for us from the Bible, and then, in the light of that knowledge, not doing certain things and doing other things. After that’s been achieved there is nothing else to be done but love and adore. This is the theme of Paul’s praying for a renewed church: “our prayer is for your perfection” (v.9). Nothing less than that is our goal, body, soul, mind, spirit – all conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
But you see what else Paul tells us here. He does not want his motives in telling them to straighten out their lives to be misunderstood. His main concern is not that they come to the conclusion that the apostle Paul does pass the test. He is not writing all this that they might say, “Paul’s a great guy.” “In fact, we might give the appearance of being failures,” he writes (v.7), “but still you must do what is right.” You imagine a preacher under whom you came to faith and by whom you received many blessings having a great moral fall, for example, leaving his wife and children and going to live with a man. That preacher has failed, but all that he said which was true, all his correct exposition of the Bible and his proper explanation of New Testament behaviour, still stands. Of course, you will read what he has written with an awareness of his fall, and you may be so distressed by the knowledge of his fall that you can get little from what he has written, or you will read it seeing if there are any indications of a flawed attitude to certain sins.
A man’s failure to practise what he preaches doesn’t give you permission to sin. Paul’s point is that even if you think your preacher is a failure then all that he says which is true binds your conscience to do it. “You will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed” (v.7). There were people who became disciples under the preaching of Judas Iscariot. There were folk who received wise counsels from that betrayer. We cannot disregard the truth, because of the flawed pot of clay from which we received it, ourselves acting like degenerates because a professing Christian has let us down. Hasn’t every Christian parent let down his children? Haven’t they all seen us on many occasions speaking and acting like pagans? Yet many of them have become Christians in spite of our inconsistency. An immature Christian mother will say, “I can’t understand it. I gave my daughter the gospel all her life and took her to church, but now she doesn’t believe.” A mature Christian will say, “My children saw me at my very worst, and yet some of them believe in the Lord Jesus in spite of all the ways I let him down. How wonderful the grace of God.”
Did one or two of the servant maids who heard Peter swear at the fireside in the courtyard, recognise him on the day of Pentecost a couple of months later and yet listened to his message and believed? It could have happened. Let us all constantly do what is right and not do anything wrong. Don’t allow the devil to whisper to you that you can ignore all that is true and powerful that the sinner in the pulpit is preaching to you because you know that he is less than perfect. A renewed church is not a perfect congregation with a perfect preacher. It is one in which professing Christians take their faith seriously and live out the truth righteously.
3. THE RENEWED CHURCH HAS CONFIDENCE IN THE EFFICACIOUSNESS OF THE TRUTH.
“We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth” (v.8). Paul is talking about a message that has come into this world from God – the truth! Paul would live for just a few years longer, but this divine truth will endure. In two thousands years’ time, far away from Corinth in northern Europe in a principality called Wales, there would be another congregation founded on the same truths that Paul believed, and they too could only act for the truth. They went onto Aberystwyth promenade on a Friday night and spoke to people for the truth’s sake. They raised their families to serve the truth. They behaved as men in business and education and farming in the light of the truth that God had given them. If they did anything against that truth their conscience convicted them, and their family and friends were sad. They would have to confess their disobedience to God. They would say, “We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.”
Renewed Christians are people who can’t treat the Bible as if it were just a wise book from ancient times. They don’t believe that the Scripture is another idea coming from the mind of man, but absolute truth coming straight from the mind of God. Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable…” (2 Tim. 3:16). The Lord Jesus said, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and says, “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa.55:11).
That is a breathtaking reality. Imagine a special delivery van arriving at your house tomorrow and a man in royal livery giving you a letter personally written by the Queen. How would you react? She is in the midst of much personal grief and she has taken time out to write this personal letter and get it to you. How carefully would you open it? Would you cut it along the top, or would you try to break the glue seal without damaging the paper? Then would you take it out of the envelope slowly and sit down deliberately and read it? What next? Would you call your mother or your children and tell them what the Queen had had to say to you? That letter would become your prized possession. But you can’t compare the importance of the Queen to the importance of God, nor the significance of a letter she has written to a Book that He has written. Here is a truth that has come from the Ruler of the entire Universe.
What can mere mortal men do against that? But the world refuses to believe it without examining it. Dr Wayne Mack says how once he had a Christian woman come to interview him about biblical counselling. She asked him about the basis of his work and he explained what the Bible says about its sufficiency for dealing with the issues of life. After he had finished she looked at him quizzically and said, “That’s fine for the small problems, but what do you do when someone has a really big problem?” In other words, sure, the Bible is profitable for cosmetic troubles but what do you do when someone had deep inner difficulties? “I can only serve the truth,” we say. Whatever the Bible speaks on is true, and it speaks on everything.
William Tyndale was killed on October 6, 1536, because he couldn’t do anything against the truth, but only for the truth, even if it meant he would lost his life for it. When the Bible comes into a situation, it changes things. Corinth was ultimately to be transformed by the truth Paul had taken there. Those who have vested interests in things as they are – in the status quo – can become furious when the Bible changes people and circumstances that they don’t want changed. There were riots everywhere that Paul took the truth. In 1536 both the ecclesiastical leaders and the government realised that if the Bible were widely read their authority would be questioned. As it turned out, that is exactly what happened. The king of England saw the light and commissioned the translation and printing of the Bible in England. The religious and social upheaval that followed was enormous, and we still feel its impact.
The truth is the most powerful force in the world. Truly it is the world-changing Word of God. As Tyndale was about to be executed, his prayer that God would open the eyes of the king of England went straight to God’s throne, and within months his prayer was answered. “We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” No power on earth can hold back the Word of God. It is an utterly honest book, honest to God, honest to ourselves, to others and to our world. The makers of TV programmes and the writers of newspapers claim that they are only giving us an honest record of the human condition. Such honesty marks the Bible too, but with a striking difference. It calls sin by its name. It never glosses over the faults of even its greatest saints. But it is just as true to the marvellous grace of God. Through the costly death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ God can offer us a full pardon
But the truth is not a magical means of grace which works automatically just by having it around. We must do things for the truth. A Bible standing on a shelf in the living room will do us no good. It must be used, paged, studied, handled, worn out by regular reading. A so-called Christening Bible or a Confirmation Bible or a Wedding Bible which looks as good as new after ten or twenty years may be an interesting conversation piece, but its promised blessing will be passing you by unless you do something for the truth. Take it and read it. Read it and obey it. Obey it and worship the God who has given it.
Perhaps tonight you are at a low-point in your life when you have failed everyone who’s important to you – those who depended on you – and you have failed yourself and God. Your will power has practically vanished, and you are powerless to overcome some of the bad habits that have you in their grip. Let me ask you, have you ever taken up the Bible to read it? Don’t wait another day to do so. Maybe you are a visitor today, and I want to urge you to come back, and make this hour on a Sunday a date you are not going to miss, when you come and hear the truth expounded and applied to your own life. From this truth you will meet the one who claimed, “I am the truth.” Jesus Christ is your only hope for salvation. He is the Lord of the universe. He has all authority over you in this world and the next. You cannot do anything against he who is the truth. Embrace him and serve him. A renewed church lives only for the truth
4. A RENEWED CHURCH MAKES OTHERS STRONG ONLY THROUGH AN AWARENESS OF ITS OWN WEAKNESS.
What a constant theme in this letter, and before he finished the final sentences Paul raises it here again. “We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong” (v.9). Let us look at this briefly because we have done so very often. We observe that churches which claim to have benefited from renewal are hardly characterised by a sense of weakness. They are confident, assertive congregations who will tell you of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their midst and what indescribable blessings they are receiving from God. For them it would be a sign of failure to speak of their weakness, but for truly renewed churches the more they grow in their understanding of God the greater is the consciousness of their weakness. Then they become strong!
Where is our strength? It is not in our natural birth. We shall not rely upon the fact that we belong to a certain race or nation. Our natural temperament can’t be the secret of our strength. Our natural position in life, or any powers that have been given to us, they don’t make us strong. We know that we cannot be strong through money or any wealth we have inherited. Our education and academic prowess or the college we went to can’t make us strong. Our post graduate research and the degrees we have gathered don’t make us strong men and women. All that is what Paul called ‘dung,’ a hindrance to true spiritual strength because it had once mastered and controlled him. We are not going to rely on any gifts like those which are referred to as a ‘strong personality’, or intelligence, or special talents. We will not be strong because of our own sense of righteousness, morality and good behaviour. We will not tap the strength of the life we have lived hitherto, or have been trying to live. There is no strength in those things at all. They are all to be regarded as dung. That is the challenge of Christian weakness. There is a complete deliverance from and absence of all that. You will remember Paul lists all those natural achievements which he shared with all his fellow countrymen, though he excelled them all. He tells us he regarded them as enemies to serving God and his fellow men.
Paul felt that in himself he was nothing and had nothing, and he had to look to God in utter submission and total dependence on the Lord and his grace. He was like Isaiah once he had seen the Lord; all his self-worth and self-reliance went. He was like John on the island of Patmos; when God drew near he emptied him of all his life and strength and he collapsed to the floor. How weak and small and insignificant we are. If I am going to live the life of God in this world of hot temptation and deceit then it must be by a strength that comes totally from outside the creation, from the Creator himself. I am strong, yet not I, Christ the mighty one is in me, and the life I am living is by faith in him who loved me and gave himself for me.
That was the strength that Paul could see in these Corinthian Christians, and that was also the weakness he knew was in himself. “We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong,” (v.9). The greatest help I could be to strengthening you as a congregation would be a growing realisation of my own weakness. How do I really feel about myself as I think in terms of the living God and the presence of Christ? And as I live my life, and face the challenges of every day, what are the things I am praying about, what matters do I like to think of with regard to myself? What a poor thing it is, this boasting of the things that are accidental and for which I am not responsible, and that won’t help one other man or woman come to a knowledge of God, and that will count so little when we stand in the presence of God?
The way to become spiritually weak is to look at God. Don’t do anything against the truth but only for the truth. Look at what he expects from us; contemplate the time when we stand before him. View him as we see him in the gospels and in the book of Revelation. When the apostles did this they said, “Lord, increase our faith.” They felt they believed so little, the more hopeless they felt themselves to be. They looked to the Almighty Jesus: “I am weak, but Thou art mighty, Hold me in the powerful hand. Bread of heaven feed me now and evermore.” You cannot truly look at him without feeling your absolute weakness. Empty, naked, hopeless, vile. But he is the all-sufficient one: “Yea, all I need in Thee to find, O Lamb of God I come.” That is the posture of the renewed congregation.
5. A RENEWED CHURCH IS ONE WHICH IS BUILT UP IN APOSTOLIC TEACHING.
“This is why I write these things when I am absent; that when I come I may not be harsh in my use of authority – the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down” (v.10). There are churches like rocking-horses, loads of movement, back and fore, back and fore, but no progress. They still hold to a semi-pelagian view of man, and for them God is a helpless spectator looking down on man’s activities, unable to save people unless they let him. This is what they believed years ago, and all their ‘renewal’ has not changed their theology one whit. Plenty of activity and liveliness: no progress. Think of a sculptor, how he can leave his work and come back to it another day, and take it up where he left off. Nothing has changed. It is not so with the growth of a congregation. The work of true renewal begins in men’s minds, and it is either building up or tearing down.
In the New Testament, churches were built up by the word and Spirit. Paul had never been to Rome. An anonymous Christian had gone there and planted that congregation. Think of it! A Christian preacher whose name is not revealed to us by the Lord, built up such a church that the names of the people in membership there were known throughout the churches of the Mediterranean basin. Paul knew all about them – see the last chapter of his letter with his list of greetings. Paul was able to write to them, without any apology that it was rather dense, that mighty letter to the Romans. It was not addressed to the theological faculty of the university in Rome. It was written to an ordinary gospel church which a forgotten man had planted and watered. The letter was to housewives, and slaves, and teenage Christians, and illiterate people who would store what they heard in retentive minds. It was written to old men and servants, and those who sneaked out of Caesar’s palace to attend the meetings. Paul made no concessions for their age or rank or literacy. He wrote this letter expecting them to understand the whole majestic flow of his mighty arguments, those linking ‘therefores’, taking them through that profound analysis of human depravity, and the work of the Saviour, a free justification, definitive sanctification through union with Christ, the wrestling of the flesh and spirit, the wonders of the unchanging love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord, the sovereignty of God over Jacob and Esau, the future of Israel, the results of all this for Christian living, their relation to Caesar and the powers that be, how the strong and weak were to bear with one another in the congregation. That is what he told them.
That is the gospel according to Paul, and that is the gospel someone else had preached there building up in the shadow of Nero this extraordinary congregation. Everywhere, everything in apostolic times was going up and up and out and out. No encouragement was given to happy little gatherings where nothing was said. They were under pressure and persecution and they had to be strong to withstand it all. “How am I going to be built up this week,” they would ask themselves as they went to the meetings. They set goals for themselves and sought to advance. They were being exhorted to lay aside the weight of sin that so easily beset them and make progress in the race they were running. Nothing was thriving unless their souls were being built up. That was the first essential of their lives. They would not be average. They would not stagnate. Hezekiah’s sun went backwards, Joshua’s sun stood still, but the real Christian is always advancing and increasing in the knowledge of God. They grow less in their own eyes but their trust in Christ is built up and up.
To aid them God gave them all the authority of the apostolic message, not a harsh authority that tears down and humiliates men and women, but Paul praying for them, weeping over them, travailing again in birth until Christ was formed in them, writing to them, preaching to them, teaching them the word, and loving them into the kingdom. His one great goal in everything was to see them no longer dwarfs but built up as giants in the faith to be able to withstand the rulers of the darkness of this world, strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.
What are numbers, and programmes, and meetings, and claims to signs and wonders if they are still like children tossed about by every wind of doctrine. What is a truly renewed church? It is one which values true preachers, lives out the truth in righteous holy loving lives, has confidence in the efficacy of the truth, is persuaded of its own great weakness, and is being built up in our most holy faith. That is renewal, not rocking horse religion, but the faith of the army of those who follow the Lord on his great white horse, going from strength to strength, more than conquerors through his immeasurable love.
14th April 2002 GEOFF THOMAS