2 Corinthians 4:1&2 “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
One of the most infamous and common enemies the Christian has to meet on his journey to heaven is Giant Despair. That is how John Bunyan portrays the problem of Christian discouragement. Despair is not only a mischievous little elf with cold eyes that pops into our lives now and again. He is a giant of a problem which every Christian is bound to meet. Bunyan will use other images to teach the same lesson, of a swamp of depression into which we may get sucked – “the Slough of Despond” – or Hill Difficulty which gets steeper and steeper so that we fear we are not going to make it. No Christian is exempt from the temptation to lose heart. At the very commencement of the Christian life one may fall into the Slough of Despond. How common it is to meet young believers feeling discouraged when they have all their lives in Christ before them. What a victory for sin. Other believers might have been on the journey for many years when they hit Hill Difficulty.
We have this ministry of telling a dying world where it can find life, and guilty sinners where they can be forgiven. It is a ministry of spiritual freedom and power. It is the muck-racker who does not see the angels, says A.T.Robertson. Elisha’s servant grew afraid at Dothan when he saw the host with horses and chariots: “‘Oh, my lord, what shall we do?’ the servant asked. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered, ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elijah prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” Oh for the vision of the power of Christ, in the midst of the battle.
A friend recently asked me, “What good news do you have for me?” To him there seemed to be so much discouragement about. He publishes a magazine and someone had been sighing to him, “There ought to be a paper which publishes only good news for the Christian to read.” One can sympathise with that remark. We would judge that the biggest problem facing some in our own congregation is that they have lost heart. The symptoms are evident enough: lack of a credible devotional life, failure to tell people why we have hope, sulleness and silence with loved ones, absences from the means of grace, a grumbling spirit – all are the symptoms of Christians who have lost heart. My friend Tom Wells has written a book with the title, “Christian: Take Heart!” (Banner of Truth). It deals with a certain defective kind of theology that tends to discouragement.
It is significant how often the apostle writes about not losing heart. Paul mentions it later in this chapter in verse 16, “Therefore we do not lose heart.” He is saying, “We categorically refuse to give the devil the pleasure of seeing us getting discouraged. We will not get into that kind of mentality and lose our testimony and our usefulness.” In the next epistle in the New Testament Paul exhorts the Galatians, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). The words ‘give up’ are the same in Greek as the words in our text ‘lose heart.’ “Don’t give up!” Remember Bunyan’s defiant words – “There’s no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.” Or again you meet the same word in what is the next New Testament letter to the Galatians – to the Ephesians, where it is translated by ‘discouraged’: “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you” (Eph. 3:13), but rather say to one another, “How bravely Paul bears his pain: what an example he is.” Don’t look for fresh reasons to be discouraged when the man who is suffering is himself at peace. Imagine it – Paul in a Roman jail actually having to write to cheer up free men and women on the outside who had become discouraged by reason of his imprisonment. Or when Paul writes to the congregation in Thessalonica he can see the shadow of Giant Despair there too and he says to them, “As for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right” (2 Thess. 3:13) – don’t lose heart in continuing to do what is right. So there are five examples of Paul using this phrase as he writes to four different congregations.
So we learn that in the New Testament era itself there was discouragement in the churches, at a time when the blessing of God was poured out and many people were being delivered from paganism and brought into growing congregations like those in Corinth and Ephesus. Then how much more today, when conversions are rare, do we need to be on guard not to lose heart? Discouragement is a sin for the Christian. It is as much a sin as to hate one’s brother or to stop praying. So, how can we be delivered from losing heart? That is what this section is about. The answers Paul gives us are not what you’d expect, but they are indispensable for maintaining the rare jewel of Christian encouragement.
1. The Christian Constantly Reminds Himself of the Mercy of God.
“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart” (v.1). Notice how the apostle brings every problem before God, because so many of our troubles are caused by an inadequate view of him. “You are discouraged because you have lost sight of the mercies of the living God,” he is saying. There is the constant tendency of thinking that we’ve done a lot for God and so we’ve won his favour. We judge that we are spending our strength, and maintaining our stewardship, and creative energies, and pastoral skills, and intelligence, and devotion to serve the Lord, and so shouldn’t we be getting good things back from God? It never dawned on the writers of the Bible to think like that. They were conscious of the immense privilege they had of knowing and serving the living God. In this conviction they regained heart, and so must we.
When we pronounce the word ‘God’ then our minds should be flooded with some wondering sense of his infinitude, and majesty, ineffable exaltation, his flaming purity and stainless perfection. This is the Lord God Almighty whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, to whom the earth is less than a strand of dust that sticks to your computer screen. He has no need of anything at all, and nothing we creatures can ever do will affect his blessedness. What we call the vastness of space is only a speck on the horizon of his contemplation. What geologists refer to as millions of years are in God’s sight but as yesterday when they are passed. A distance such as sixty million light years away is to God as inconsequential as an inch. “Serene in his unapproachable glory, arrayed in majesty, girded with strength, righteousness and judgment are the foundations of his throne. He sits in the heavens and does whatsoever he pleases. It is this God – a God of whom to say ‘he is the Lord of all the earth’ is to say nothing at all, of whom the Bible speaks” (B.B.Warfield)
This God is a God of holy love. Think of those two words – holy love – and always put them together. God is never holy at the expense of his love, and never loving at the expense of his holiness. We see his holiness and his love perfectly in Jesus Christ. Never was there anyone more loving, and no one more holy. No one loved sinners more: no one was bolder in his denunciations of Herod and of the Pharisees. We feel a sort of wonder and inadequacy as we draw close to him. Shakespeare has that neat phrase, “Under it my genius is rebuked.”
To know God is a privilege. To be allowed to do anything for him – give a cup of cold water in his name – is a priceless honour. Actually to be the great King’s servant, or his chosen herald, or even his personal ambassador, or an actual co-worker with him is extraordinary, especially when you think of what we once were. Paul says, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (I Tim.1:13). He had loathed the Son of God. He had compelled his followers to curse out loud the Jesus whom they loved. Then that staggering intellectual and moral revolution took place, and the same lips that once had cried for the blood of God’s servants now lovingly preached the atoning blood of the Lamb. There was no reason why God should have used Paul. God didn’t need Paul’s brain or energy. Stephen the martyr was as eloquent, and as intellectual, and as energetic as this man who’d been enthusiastic for Stephen’s stoning. Yet God took Paul and put him in the ministry, and used him more than any other man has been used. The only explanation is God’s mercy. Paul wasn’t knocking on Jesus’ door every day saying to him, “I volunteer. Pleas use me.” Jesus came to him. Halting him in that unholy crusade which Paul had declared on the saints the Lord revolutionised Paul’s whole life giving him a whole new insight into who God is. He commissioned Paul. ‘Twas mercy all immense and free’ that saved him.
Imagine a man on death row pardoned and freed the very morning of his execution. Would such a man lose heart because he was not driven home in a stretch limo, or because he did not also receive free meals cooked by a chef, or was not given a new home to live in? Of course not. He was about to die, but he had received pardon and life. Just to see the blue sky and the faces of his family again and walk on the green grass – those were blessings enough. Those first weeks would he lose heart if were snubbed by someone, or if he had some non-fatal disease, or if someone bumped into his car? Of course not. What are such trivia compared to death and hell? So too with the Christian. God has shown us mercy and saved us from destruction and the pit. But more, God has given us the authority of serving him in this world. Petty troubles will not pull us down. Someone saying to us, “I didn’t get much out of your sermon,” isn’t going to have us lying on the floor of despondency. God calls me his child! Our amazement at God’s grace means that we refuse to lose heart.
“I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how He could love me, a sinner condemned, unclean.”
Once we stood in a graveyard in Olney, Buckinghamshire, and saw the memorial to John Newton’s 16 years of ministry there. On his gravestone in St. Mary Woolnoth in London is inscribed the epitaph which he himself wrote. It expresses the wonder of God’s mercy so movingly. “John Newton … Clerk … Once an Infidel and Libertine … A Servant of Slaves in Africa … Was … By the Rich Mercy of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ … Preserved, Restored, Pardoned, …. and Appointed to Preach the Faith, …. He had Long Laboured to Destroy.” This abuser of young African girls who were under his total power – an infidel and a libertine – was pardoned. Instead of a millstone being tied around his neck and Newton being cast into the depth of the sea it was the guilt of his sins that were cast there, and he was freed to serve this God all his days.
Who is a pardoning God like Thee,
Or who has grace so rich and free?.
By the mercy of the Saviour that same John Newton went on to fulfil his ministry of preaching, letter-writing and hymnody so that literally millions of people have been helped by him. His first biographer and friend, Richard Cecil, closes his memoir of Newton by pleading with young people not to despair. That was the great lesson of John Newton’s life – “Christian, Take Heart!” “We should see that the case of a praying man cannot be desperate – that if a man be out of the pit of hell, he is on the ground of mercy. We should recollect that God sees a way of escape when we see none – that nothing is too hard for him – that he warrants our dependence, and invites us to call on him in the day of trouble, and gives a promise of deliverance” (Newton’s Works, I, p. 126, Banner of Truth).
Newton had a favorite poet who died almost a hundred years before Newton was born. His name was George Herbert. He was born in 1593 into a wealthy Welsh family, lost his father when he was three, became a “public orator” in 1620 and a member of Parliament in 1625. But in 1630 he gave it all away to become a country minister in Bemerton. For the rest of his life he served a flock as Newton did. Newton loved Herbert’s poetry. Small wonder, when you read this verse from his poem “The Bag,” which captures Newton’s message and life so well:
Away, Despair! My gracious Lord doth hear:
Though winds and waves assault my keel,
He doth preserve it: he doth steer,
Ev’n when the boat seems most to reel:
Storms are the triumph of his art:
Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart.”
(Works, I, p. 127, Banner of Truth)
We should never be discouraged when we consider again and again the forgiveness we have been given. “My sins – oh the bliss of this glorious thought – my sins – not in part but the whole – have been nailed to the cross and remembered no more!” To do anything at all for such a holy loving God – to be a mere door-keeper in the house of the Lord – is extraordinary. Let’s all remember what we deserve, that is, the Lord saying to us “Depart from me!” But the Lord Jesus because he loved us did actually stand in the naked flame of God’s rectitude, condemned in our place. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. So God’s mercy to the chief of sinners means he can never lose heart again. Any service for such a Saviour is a privilege. Have we lost heart in our profession of faith, I wonder, because we have never been converted? We have never felt the weight of sin, and so never felt the immense relief “when the burden of my heart rolled away.”
2. The Christian Constantly Seeks to Live a Blameless Life.
“Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God” (v.2). Do you think it is possible for a Christian to live a happy life while at the same time he is carrying on in secret and shameful ways, using deception and distortion? Don’t you think that you are ever going to meet a happy Mr. Facing Both Ways? Don’t you think that that man’s family who look at him are going to say that the joy has gone out of his life?
You see discouragement throughout the world. There is not a society groaning under it. Why do you think the nation is awash with drugs? Why are multitudes of young people hooked on chemical stimulants? Because they are so depressed with their secret and shameful and deceiving lives. They cannot face an evening or a week-end without alcohol or nicotine or cannabis or speed to dull their consciences.
Recently we had a visit from a representative of the Soldier’s and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association speaking at our mid-week meeting. The Christians who belong to that organisation are allowed to go where I am not allowed, to an army or an air force base to speak to men and women in the services about Christ. He told us about a man called Jim Downie who joined the army where he got “the reputation of being a hard drinking, hard-living individual.” Then on a tour of duty in Lesotho his wife Debbie was converted and he says, “I saw in her what I knew was missing from my own life, a security, a sense of peace, in effect a complete change of direction. I sat Debbie down one evening and in total frustration told her that she could have me or Jesus, but not us both. When I think of my arrogance today it makes me shiver…When I was broken, only then did I cry out to God whom I had cursed and hated and asked his forgiveness.”
Jim Downie said, “Some have since said to me that my turning to Christ was only a crutch and I can see how they might think that. But for me, there was so much more involved. The old Jim Downie would never had bent the knee. I fought with God, like a wild horse. I kicked and turned. I never needed a crutch. I needed a Saviour.” All the chemicals in the world could not give him the security and the peace which he saw Debbie get in Christ. We are saying that there is no way that you can live in a secret and shameful way and not lose heart. Jim Downie said, “When I had tried all my own ways and failed; when I thought I had lost everything; when I was broken, I cried out to God.”
The apostle writes to the church at Thessalonica and reminds them how they discovered encouragement. What happened to them? It was this – they turned from idols to serve the living God. That is the only way. That is the biblical means of finding life, first, by repentance – turn from idols – and second, by faith – serve the living God. Paul is telling us in our text that there is no way of deliverance from discouragement without abandoning our sins. There were three sins he utterly rejected:
i] Paul renounced secret and shameful ways. The Lord Jesus said you may put a choice before a person who lives without God, and you say, “You have to choose one of these two options.” One is a brightly lit way and it leads to the living God. The other is a long day’s journey into night. Many men may protest that they admire the way to God, but their choice shows they “love darkness rather than light” because that is the broad path many take. Paul addresses the Christians in Ephesus and he says to them, “You were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord: walk as children of light … for the things which are done by them in secret it is a shame even to speak of” (Eph. 5:8ff).
Psalm 19 is a wonderful psalm of David’s. It begins majestically, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” But David in that psalm goes on to pray, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults” (v.12). There was a man born in Marlborough in Wiltshire in the year 1600 called Obadiah Sedgwick. He went to Oxford and then became a preacher in Coggleshall in Essex and later in St. Paul’s in Covent Garden. That building was filled with the crowds listening to him. Many were converted through his ministry, and once he preached to them a series of sermons on that text “Cleanse thou me from secret faults,” which series he called, “The Anatomy of Secret Sins” and in 1995 those sermons were reprinted (Soli Deo Gloria). It is a searching book. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Christ shows us that sin is not just outward, displayed in our actions, or heard on our lips by our words, but sin is sin if it is in the heart, in the imagination, in the feelings. It may never express itself by the flickering of an eyelid, but if it in the heart it is sin. We can inwardly lust after another person, though it never shows. Our minds can be bitter, though it never shows. We can let the roots of jealousy go down into our souls, though it never shows. It does not have to register in the public domain, but if it is within us it is sin. Obadiah Sedgwick makes some powerful observations: “The main battle of a Christian is not in the open field. His quarrels are mostly within, and his enemies are in his own breast.” He says, “The least sin is further than a man should go, and the higher he mounts in sin, the deeper are the wounds.” He says, “The way to be kept from a high sin is to fear the least sin.” He says, “Men have usually been wading in lesser sins who are now swimming in great transgressions.” He says, “If temptations do not drive you to your knees, they will drive you easily to the ground.” We have to wage warfare against inward sins
But there are other sins in which we get involved in private. There are things we do only because no one can see us. Disappearing to our rooms or sneaking out of the house when there are unpleasant duties to be done. Hiding our sins at a time when we need to be confessing them. Idleness. Giving the impression that we are having a quiet time when we are reading magazines. Sulking on our beds like Ahab in covetous self-pity. Sexual sins. Using the Internet to visit chat lines on the web where you can meet members of the opposite sex – and we are married people! Secret intimacies. Privately grumbling about other church members. Concealing the truth. Secretly not loving one’s enemies. Paul renounced sins in the heart and sins in private. He would have nothing to do with secret and shameful ways. There is no way we can be delivered from discouragement unless we do that.
ii] Paul did not use deception. You can deceive people by telling them what they want to hear. After king David had sinned so greatly the prophet Nathan could easily have deceived him by saying to him, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Religious language can cloak great sin. Nathan did not say that. He told the story of a rich tyrant who stole someone’s only lamb and then said to David, “You are the man.” He did not use deception.
Life was unbearable for many people who lived in Corinth. The truth was harsh and cruel. It was easy money to tell people’s fortunes and bring them messages from the gods that told them all would be well, because that is what they wanted to hear, though it were utter fantasy. David Searle says that about forty years ago he was applying for a British Council scholarship to study in Indonesia. He himself was guaranteed an entry visa but not his newly wed wife. There was no way he was going to go to Java for two years without her. So off they went to the Indonesian Embassy in London to ask the cultural attache what were the chances of her also being given a visa.
David Searle says, “We had two hours of frustrating conversation with an extremely polite and charming gentleman, in which all he could say was, ‘By all means, let your wife apply for a visa,’ or ‘With all my heart, I hope your wife is granted a visa.’ At last I cornered him into admitting that she would never be given a visa. But here is how he put it: ‘I hope with all my heart that your beloved wife is the first ever student’s wife to be granted an entry visa into my country.’ You see, truth for that Indonesian was what he believed I’d like to hear and what I was hoping to hear. What he said bore little or no relation to the real state of affairs” (David Searle, “And Then There Were Nine,” Christian Focus, 2000, p.162). That is typical deception, and the Christian can also sweet-talk people in private and from the pulpit. Preachers can make lying promises of health and wealth to poor believers. They can deceive by never telling the world Jesus’ own terms of discipleship, such as taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following him, or loving him more than anyone else.
We can resort to trickery when we never do what the Lord Jesus always did, that is, setting before men and women the cost of following him. Let the devil be cunning when he speaks to Eve and all her children, but let the children of light be straight with people. One of the most important beatitudes is, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake,” and come that blessedness will if we would live righteous. As the hymnist asks,
“If I find Him, if I follow, what his guerdon here?
(‘Guerdon’ is an old English word meaning ‘reward’ . What will be God’s reward for this?)
Many a sorrow, many a labour, many a tear.”
(John M. Neale 1818-1866).
Paul determined he would not resort to trickery to gain followers for Jesus. How could he take heart if all he’d achieved in life would have been a result of deceit? Zacchaeus was a quisling who stole so much through taxes. When Jesus came to his house, and Zacchaeus was converted, he vowed to pay back the people he had deceived four times the amount stolen. There was no way he could live with a guilty conscience and not lose heart.
iii] Paul determined not to falsify the word of God. That was the wickedness Paul’s enemies were claiming that he was committing. The Old Testament, they said, required men to be circumcised, and its food laws to be rigidly observed. The apostle was falsifying the Scriptures, they claimed. He is here anticipating this allegation. “We don’t resort to that,” he says. Many have. It has been the greatest sin of the professing church this past century. How does the church falsify the word of God? Three ways:
A] By psychiatric manipulation or ‘brain washing.’ You change people’s attitudes to religion by taking them out of their familiar environment, by loosening their ties with their families, by hours of singing and rhythmic music, by building up a dependence upon the leaders, by depriving them of sleep, by stirring up their emotions, by threatening them with terrible judgements if they ever were to forsake the group, by forcing a daily and weekly regimen of study and devotions and street-witnessing upon them. So much of the programme degrades and insults people. No Christian, believing the biblical truth that men and women are made in the image of God, would want to come within a million miles of that.
B] By marketing techniques. We live in a consumer society where advertising tells people that what they admire and want is being offered to them right here and now. The church can pick this up and begin to major in offering people help in relationships, handling loneliness, advice on becoming successful, recovering from addiction or depression, etc. But that is not the Christian message and can never become it. God who is our Creator and our Judge has given us his own message.
The Bible is not for sale, and so it does not need effective salesmen. The Bible is not seeking patrons. There can be no price cutting, no special times when sinners can get something at a price they like. It is always free, but was bought for us at terrible cost by the Lord Christ. It has no need of a middleman. The Bible does not compete with other commodities which are being offered to other consumers on the bargain counter of life. The gospel is not here to be sold at any price to the highest bidder. The world has difficulty in getting men up to its price, while we have difficulty getting men down to God’s:-
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked come to thee for dress,
Helpless look to thee for grace,
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
C] By modernist unbelief. You have heard the true story of a recent German academic called Dr Eta Linnemann who is still alive today. She was a student under Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Fuchs belonging to that same anti-supernatural school of philosophy as them. She had entered upon a career as an author and professor of theology in West Germany, and her basic approach to both Old Testament and New Testament was this, that whatever the text itself says it cannot be true. So you continually find difficulties in the text of the Bible and then ingeniously solve them. That is what those who falsify the word of God do.
Two months ago there was a Welsh-speaking students’ Christmas carol service in the town. It was recorded and broadcast all over Wales the following week. The choir from Pantycelyn Hall was invited and they beautifully sang the old Welsh carols about the Son of God who was born of a virgin, and the angels appearing, and the wise men too – all the familiar events as recorded by Matthew and Luke. Then the visiting preacher got up and he said that it was quite impossible these days to believe any of these things about which they had been singing. A Christian student had gone along with a friend who never went to church and this non-Christian was very disquieted by all she heard, and she turned in perplexity to the Christian student and asked her for an explanation of why there had been this attack on all the Bible teaches, and all they had been singing about from the very pulpit itself. How is it that this Christian preacher thought the church had got it wrong for 2000 years? She was not aware that this modernist delusion has been all too common for a century and had emptied the churches.
Falsification is the essence of modernism, and it almost destroyed Dr Eta Linnemann until she met some vibrant Christians who knew Jesus personally as their Lord and Saviour … She said, “God took my life into his saving grip and began to transform it radically. My destructive addictions were replaced by a hunger for his Word and for fellowship with Christians … Suddenly it was clear to me that my teaching was a case of the blind leading the blind. I repented of the way I had misled my students. About a month after this, alone in my room and quite apart from any input from others around me, I found myself faced with a momentous decision. Would I continue to control the Bible by my intellect, or would I allow my thinking to be transformed by the Holy Spirit? John 3:16 shed light on this decision, for I had experienced the truth of this verse. My life now consisted of what God had done for me” (Eta Linnemann, “Historical Criticism of the Bible”, p. 18&19). Dr Linnemann labeled her former teaching as ‘poison’, destroyed her published writings, and she became a missionary in Indonesia. That is exactly in the spirit of what the apostle says here, “we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God” (v.2). There is no way someone can be delivered from spiritual discouragement while they still cling to a false attitude to the Bible.
3. The Christian Sets Forth the Truth Plainly.
“On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (v.2). This is how we will not lost heart as a congregation as we fulfil what is the prime duty of the church to the world, to plainly set forth the truth to every man. Let there be unanimity between the pulpit and the pew about this. It is essential for a happy congregation. “On Sunday I will meet with fellow Christians and we will hear the truth plainly set forth.” Let me describe such a situation: in 1584 a new ministry commenced in Great St. Andrews Church in Cambridge which was to have immense repercussions for the success of evangelical Christianity in England. The new preacher was 26 year-old William Perkins and he began to preach in a revolutionary new way. Until then sermons were measured by their wit and eloquence and classical rhetoric. Perkins believed that preaching should be according to these very words before us – “setting forth the truth plainly” and so his soon to be widely copied kind of preaching came to be called “Plain Style”. In fact this approach was not at all revolutionary. Moses had preached in a plain style. Elijah had preached in a plain style. Isaiah had preached in a plain style. John the Baptist had preached in a plain style and so did his Master. The apostle Paul says, just a few verses earlier, that he used great plainness of speech (3:12). The hallmark of “Plain Style” preaching was that a text of Scripture was unfolded and applied in a straightforward and simple, yet vigorous and direct, style of speech.
The impact of Perkins’ ministry on Cambridge was such that when the then unconverted John Cotton heard the church bell tolling to announce that William Perkins had died at 44 years of age he rejoiced because his conscience would no longer be smitten by the preacher’s sermons. A decade after Perkins’ death, a twelve-year old boy called Thomas Goodwin came to Cambridge where he discovered that many of the people in the town were still talking about Perkins’ sermons. “Do you remember such-and-such a sermon?” “Of course, but such-and such a sermon was a true help to me at the time.” “Oh, I was converted through his sermon on this particular text …” The preaching remained fresh in people’s memories because it had been so lucid.
Think of the same impact Dr Lloyd-Jones’s preaching was to make in the 20th century for the same reason. In the best book on the subject of preaching to be written that century, “Preaching and Preachers”, he magnifies the “Plain Style” of preaching, saying, “We must be honest with our texts; and we must take them always in their context. That is an absolute rule … You must discover the meaning of the words and of the whole statement … you have to learn how to ask questions of your text. Nothing is more important than this. Ask questions such as, Why did he say that? Why did he say it in this particular way? What is he getting at? What was his object and purpose. One of the first things a preacher has to learn is to talk to his texts. They talk to you, and you must talk to them. Put questions to them. That is a most profitable and stimulating procedure. What I am leading to, the things I am concerned about, is that you make certain that you really are getting the main message, the main thrust and import of this particular text and statement” (p.201).
But surely something more than correct exegesis, that is, the explanation to the congregation of the bare meaning of the truth, is needed. That alone, indispensable though it is, is not what made preachers from Perkins to Lloyd-Jones memorable. Paul says that he “set it forth”. That is, he casts its light on the lives of his hearers. He applied what it said to them. He was a practical preacher. He never preached academically. In Corinth there were philosophers all around him, but Paul cared nothing for the unfolding of ideas unless he could apply the truth to the thinking and conduct of individuals and the life of a congregation. All over the world there are Christians who have lost heart because their preachers are failing to set forth the truth plainly to the congregations they pastor, so that sin and error thrives undealt with within the church.
One great benefit that immediately comes from setting forth the truth plainly – Christian churches are united in what they believe and how they should live. You go to a strange church in a strange town on a Sunday, but you know that this congregation is a ‘plain truth’ church and you will receive food for your soul and you will be spared heresy there. There would be far less divisions amongst Christians if we did what Paul does here. No longer would the cynic be able to say, “You can prove anything from the Bible.” That is only true if men fail to set forth the truth plainly. The view of God of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and of the Mormons and the Christian Scientists would be blown to pieces and demonstrated to be a fantasy and the making of a terrible idol once preachers stuck to the plain meaning of the text.
Now all of us would agree that plain speaking of the truth cannot mean presenting it in a mechanical, unyielding manner. We do not say that correct explanation of a text is all that is needed. No one believes that. How did Paul set forth the truth plainly? Very wisely and subtly and creatively, as he tells us, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those under the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (I Cor. 9:20-23).
Always and everywhere his motive was to make the Christian message more plain and intelligible and relevant. He did what would prosper gospel understanding in every context. So to fulfil his end of becoming a plain speaker of the truth he would adapt himself – not the truth – to the culture which he was meeting. The Christian father will speak the truth plainly to his three year old son in a different mode from the way he will bring the same truth to a colleague at the hospital. Paul made himself a slave to all that he might win more of them. He chained himself as a slave to the limitations of his hearers to bring home to them the truth.
The apostle was enormously flexible in plainly setting forth the truth: “sometimes he claimed the privileges of Roman citizenship, sometime he ignored them; sometimes he circumcised others, sometimes he did not; sometimes he ignored Jewish ceremonial law, sometimes he obeyed it; sometimes he baptized converts, sometimes he left others to do that; sometimes he stressed his apostolic authority, sometimes he pleaded as though an inferior. None of this was ever flippant or unthinking behaviour” (John Appleby, “…to Tell The Truth”, Grace Publication Trust, 1996, p.42). All this was to the end that the truth might plainly strike the consciences of his audience.
Underneath this inspired flexibility there was no inconsistency. The one consistent basis of all his behaviour was: what, in this situation, best serves the plain declaration and application of God’s truth? He did not hesitate to adapt his approach for the truth’s sake. Think of the Lord Jesus speaking to the woman at the well in Samaria and how different was that to his approach to the rich young ruler or to his conversation with Nicodemus. The Lord Jesus served his Father’s truth by becoming a man, entering our darkness in which a father will actually chop the arms off his baby son in order to make more money from his future begging. This is the world where the Son of God came. He lived under the same Roman yoke; he also wept at sin and death, and he attend a joyous wedding. His feet were dirty with the same filth from the streets as sinners’ feet, and needed to be washed away as theirs also did. God came in our likeness to speak the truth plainly to man.
So when Paul speaks the truth plainly to the Jews (Acts 13:16-41, for example) then from their own Scriptures he takes them through the history of God’s dealings with their forefathers; he speaks of promises concerning the Messiah and of the evidence that Jesus is that Messiah. He is setting forth the truth plainly to these particular hearers. He was commending himself to their particular consciences. When Paul presents the truth to non-Jews he uses the revelation of God’s creation (Acts 17:22-31) with which they would be familiar. “In the light of the wonders of the natural world Paul shows the logical absurdity of thinking that lifeless, man-made idols can have any significance at all, compared with the power and wisdom of a God who created such a world as ours. And consequently if there is not repentance to their folly, there can only be the judgement of the Creator for them to look forward to” (John Appleby, “…to Tell the Truth”, p.49). He was commending himself to their consciences. Paul never ceases to think of the culture of his hearers as he plainly sets forth the truth to them – consider how he used his knowledge of secular Greek poetry to great effect on Mars Hill.
The apostle must do this for the simple reason that he knows every man has a conscience. If a Jew’s introduction to Christianity was to have paraded before him our liberty to play games on their seventh day Sabbath, or to enjoy pork chops and fresh lobster he would not hear anything else from us. His conscience would say that our religion was libertine and not worth considering. If a Gentile, on the other hand, had to listen to readings from the book of Leviticus, or the opening chapters of I Chronicles, or the closing chapters of Ezekiel he would not easily understand the relevance of the truth about the life and death of the Lord Jesus. Yet that truth is what Paul wants to bring to both groups and to all mankind, as soon as possible. You see an application to us today? At a university evangelistic meeting you do not try to get 30 cynical engineering students to sing “If I were a bumble bee” before bringing the truth of Jesus to them. They would think you were some crazy juveniles. Do you ask them to listen to your singing at all? Again, you do not say to yourself that you have no gift to speak to children and ignore them – you learn how to speak to them. So, declaring the plain truth to sinners is certainly lifting up your voice and being utterly faithful to the plain text of the word of God, but it is also richer and more subtle than people make out.
Let no one wrest this concern to set forth the truth plainly so that it becomes a justification for repeating the same narrow theme of messages each week. There are those who feel that the best form of communication is to shoot the truth at people often enough, simply enough and loudly enough and that thus they will be converted. This has been called the ‘Bullet theory’ of communication. Yet so often those who are being hit with these bullets fail to fall over. The audience clearly does not consider itself to be a group of unreasoning morons. They swiftly become an obstinate audience. After 30 minutes of hearing the very same ideas declaimed to them which they had heard only the previous week, and every other week as far as they can remember, all they want to do is shout right back at the preacher. Such an approach is not setting forth the truth plainly in Paul’s great definition of New Testament preaching. That simplistic method produces the very reverse effect, a growing belligerence and resistance to what is being said.
See where Paul sets his whole ministry to the church and to the world, it is – “in the sight of God.” “Therefore … by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” We might be in danger of losing heart but we quickly set our ministry Coram Deo and we don’t get discouraged. “I am doing this for Him who ever loved me and loves me still.” We might have used secret and shameful things to assist our own ministry – but we set our evangelism in the sight of God and we rejected all that was fleshly and devilish, and so we commended ourselves to our hearers. We will not use deception when we stand in the sight of God, and that commended us to those who listened. How could we distort the word of God in the very sight of God? The natural man will find our message foolishness. He seems the last person ever to be converted, but how different his rejection appears when we set him and other pip-squeaks in the presence of the life-giving God! A Jew requests a sign but we preach Christ to him, in the sight of God. A Greek will seek wisdom but we preach Christ crucified to him, in the sight of God.
There is a higher judge of our ministry than those who count the number of those sitting and listening to us. There is another court to which we must give an account, not the elders and deacons of a hostile congregation. We evangelise and shepherd and write and labour to set forth the truth plainly, and we do it all in the sight of God. Living in his presence delivers us and our hearers from losing heart. There is no other way.
11th February 2001 GEOFF THOMAS