Gospel Ministry — Part One
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Gospel Ministry — Part One

2 Corinthians 4:1–7  (ID: 2631)

The message we hear from the pulpit may sound compelling and helpfully relevant. All too often, though, it’s also disconnected from the fundamental message of the Bible. A true Gospel ministry should be centered on proclaiming the story of the “great exchange”: Christ paid the penalty for sin on behalf of His people and credited His righteousness to their account. Alistair Begg reminds us that the call to believe in this Good News should be the continual, passionate plea of every pastor.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 5

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23005

The Basics of Pastoral Ministry, Volume 4

Exposition and Evangelism Selected Scriptures Series ID: 28404

Basics 2008

Preaching the Gospel to Ourselves Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23508

Sermon Transcript: Print

Can I invite you to turn to 2 Corinthians chapter 4? Second Corinthians 4:1:

“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. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

“It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Just reading these final verses, 16–18, reminds me of one of the pieces in the second volume of Lloyd-Jones’s biography by Iain Murray, which I hope you’ve already purchased a copy of. And in there, somewhere in the 700s—that is, the page numbers, around there—Iain Murray tells how, towards the end of Lloyd-Jones’s life, in the final days of his life, when his voice was gone, he was no longer able to communicate with his family. And he took his Bible and turned to Corinthians, to the second chapter and to these verses: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…” And Murray records how he took those verses, and in front of his daughter Elizabeth, he pointed to them with his finger. And she said to him, “Is that your experience now, Dad?” And Murray says, “And in response, he nodded his head vigorously.”[1] It’s just a wonderful little picture of the reality of faith. Now, I mention that because there is no possibility that either this morning or tomorrow morning we will get anywhere close to those final verses of the chapter. And so, that’s a little anecdote just to tuck away, and it’s no charge at all. Free.

Now, in coming to these two studies this morning and tomorrow morning, I am almost routinely asked—and usually by younger men, admittedly—why I chose or choose a particular text and how it is that I then come to approach the text. And since in some measure these attempts at exposition are to be a help, and I hope to be a help especially to those who are younger, then I’m going to address those two questions now by way of a fairly sustained introduction, not because I want to draw attention to the methodology but just in case it might be helpful.

I gave considerable prayerful thought to what I would do in terms of turning to the Bible on these two mornings. And for a variety of reasons, I determined that it would be important for me—for us—to tackle material that I had not tackled before. So I then ruled out all of the material that I’ve had the privilege over time of giving expositions from. And since I had never done a series of expositions from 2 Corinthians, I decided that 2 Corinthians was safe territory. So now I had my letter. And then I had to decide, “Well, where will we go in the letter?” because you’re going to have to be selective. So I decided on chapter 4 somewhat arbitrarily, but not actually so, because Paul provides us in some measure, here in chapter 4, with an apostolic pattern for gospel ministry. So now I had my chapter, and I had, I thought, some kind of reason that I could articulate as to why we were in chapter 4: because there is a pattern for apostolic gospel ministry, and we are together thinking about gospel ministry.

Within a relatively short period of time, I was beginning to produce what our good friend Dick Lucas would refer to as a series of “hack sermons”—little sermon outlines that began to pop up all over the pages of my A4 pad in front of me. Incidentally, a hack sermon, according to Dick Lucas, is a sermon that has good material, that is true material, but material which fails to deal adequately with the overarching theme or context out of which that material is drawn. So, for example, we could have had a fairly profitable time thinking about three things that gospel ministers do not do: we do not lose heart, we do not use deception, we do not preach ourselves. But that would actually be completely divorced from why it was here in chapter 4, and why chapter 4 is in 2 Corinthians, and why Paul is writing 2 Corinthians at all.

So, I had to set aside that temptation, and I set about making sure that I understood the chapter. And I spent essentially two entire days reading and thinking about chapter 4 so that I would have a thorough working knowledge of it. But after the two days, I still was going nowhere at all. I was completely unsettled; I knew what it said, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it. And I didn’t like the way the chapter began. Of course, you say, “Well, that’s none of your business.” I understand that. But I didn’t like the beginning of the chapter. I didn’t like that it began “Dia touto,” that it began, “Therefore, since…” Because we all coyly tell our people, don’t we, that little… We love to say, “Every time you see a therefore, you must ask what it’s there for.” And when I asked what the therefore was there for, it just annoyed me. Because I had to reverse back at least to 2:12. We could, I suppose, start there: “Now when I went to Troas…” And then I said, “But you can’t start with, ‘Now when I went to Troas.’” So now I’m back at 1:1: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ.” “Well,” I said, “well, I can’t do…” So then I said, “Maybe I’ll do 2 Timothy. I heard a great sermon on 2 Timothy: why we do it, and how we do it, and where we do it, and…” It’s good stuff, but that was already done.

And then I got it. Then I got it. I realized what I should be doing from the beginning—and some of you will say, “Well, that’s just because of how poor you are.” I’d be prepared to admit that. And verse 2 helped me: “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.” “Why,” I asked myself, “does Paul say that? Why is he telling his readers he’s done that?” It surely cannot be in order to commend himself. Surely he can’t have sat down and said, in relationship to his ministry, “Well, I could, I suppose, do it shamefully. I could do it secretly. I could do it in a distorting way. But I’ll just write and let them know that I’ve decided that among the various options that I have for the execution of this gospel ministry, I’ve decided not to do any of these alternatives.” It couldn’t be that, and of course, it isn’t that.

But until we think about that, we won’t get it. What he’s actually doing is setting out this gospel ministry in contrast with those who, while claiming to be ministers of the gospel, they were guilty of diluting and distorting the message. So he is distinguishing for his readers between true, effective gospel preaching and that which may masquerade as the same but in fact is not gospel preaching. Allo, the French commentator whom I discovered, says of this verse, “Plainly [Paul] has someone in view—and … these rumblings of polemic, still vague and muffled, certainly have the air of [proclaiming] the way for a decisive explanation.”[2] I said, “Now I’m beginning to get somewhere. That is exactly right.”

And so I was then forced to take chapter 4 and set it not simply in the context of chapter 3 and chapter 5 but within the framework of the entire purpose of the letter. Then I had to discover what the purpose of the letter was. And let it suffice for our time this morning to say at least this: that certain false teachers had infiltrated the Corinthian church—probably the church in the Achaea valley. And into the ranks of these believers they had come, promoting themselves in part by discrediting Paul. And these interlopers were the purveyors of a whittled-down gospel.

That in itself would have been bad enough were it not for the fact of the naivety and the gullibility of those who were on the receiving end of that which these characters were offering. And you have to wait until chapter 10 and following before Paul, as it were, comes clean and identifies these people. And in 11:4 he says, “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” “You put up with it easily enough.” It is the very gullibility, the susceptibility, the naivety of the believers that creates the problem, in the mind of Paul, that has to be addressed. And he does so tactfully, he does so with consummate skill and grace, but he does so quite frankly.

These characters were proclaiming a gospel that was similar in sound but radically different in substance. And Paul has to face the fact that the very use of the same terminology in the ears of those whom he loves and to whom he has commended himself from his very beginnings in visiting Corinth are susceptible to this kind of twaddle, and if they are not grounded in this gospel, they may be swept away by this pseudo gospel. And just because people are using the same terminology, just because people are making the right kind of sounds, it is the issue of the very substance of the gospel itself which has to be determined.

Paul, you see, had introduced the Corinthians to the gospel: that all who accept in faith the sacrifice made for them by Jesus on the cross are reconciled to God. And all of this—as we were reminded so forcibly in the opening two sessions—all of this on account of the undeserved grace which alone enables sinners even to trust in him. Yet despite all of his labors to this end, these Corinthians were so quickly, like the Galatians, bending their ears to another gospel—which is no gospel at all.[3]

Now, it was at that point that I said, “Okay, I think I’m ready now to begin the exposition. Because I think I know enough about why this is in here and why we have 2 Corinthians 4. I think I realize Paul’s pastoral concern to protect the flock. And also, I think that it would be fair for me to suggest that that same sense of pastoral concern represented in this apostle runs down through the corridors of time and finds itself in the hearts of all pastors, probably in every generation, and certainly so at this point in the twenty-first century.” Because what Paul addresses here is emblematic of a prevailing problem in contemporary evangelicalism. We are a sound-bite generation, adopting sound-bite theology that is increasingly vague and ill defined. And few are prepared, sometimes for good reasons, to be as bold and forthright as is the apostle here in calling first themselves and then in calling one another to set our proclamations and our understandings against the plumb line of Scripture itself to ensure that we actually are proclaiming a gospel to ourselves which is the gospel.

David Wells has done us all a great favor in the series of books that he has done—God in the Wasteland and No Place for Truth and [Losing Our Virtue] and Above All Earthly Pow’rs, and now his latest book, The Courage to Be Protestant. And I have devoured this book, which will become apparent if you engage me in private conversation at the moment. I tend to talk about just the latest thing I’ve read, and it can be very boring, so feel free to walk away. But he has really helped me, and I’ll just give you a quote from him.

He distinguishes in the book with what he refers to as the spirituality which is “from above,” which he says is Christian, which begins with God and his revelation of himself, and the spirituality which is “from below,” which he says is pagan.[4] And having identified these two aspects, he then writes as follows:

Today the evangelical church is in a life-and-death struggle with this spiritual alternative [namely, the spirituality from below], even as [were] the apostles … in the New Testament period …. Today this pagan spirituality comes … in sophisticated psychological language. … [It] sounds plausible, compelling, … and even commendable, but, let us make no mistake about it, it is lethal to biblical Christianity. That is why the biggest enigma we face today is the fact that its chief enablers are evangelical churches … who, for different reasons, are selling spirituality disconnected from biblical truth.[5]

Now, to the extent that that triggers something in your minds, then you will be now along with me as we turn to the text that we have just read: “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” I have three points. We’ll probably only cover one. We’ll look, first of all, at the ministry itself, and then at the method—I use that word purposefully—and then finally at the men, but that won’t be until tomorrow.

“This Ministry”

Well, first of all, “this ministry.” Two things: first of all, notice the source of the ministry. Paul’s ministry is not the product of human means; it is as a result of divine mercy. Hughes, the commentator, says his “evangelical ministry is [on account] of the evangelical mercy which he ha[s] experienced.”[6] I like that. It’s just a nice turn of phrase: evangelical ministry emerging from evangelical mercy. And what is true of the apostle is true of all who have followed the apostolic pattern and submitted to the apostolic precepts. The days have long since passed when Paul as Saul of Tarsus would have gloried in his credentials or paraded himself in any way at all.

We remember and rejoice in the way he introduces himself to the Philippians when he says, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”[7] And when he writes to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1, he says, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man”—now, here’s the phrase—“I was shown mercy.” And he goes on: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” And here we go again: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy.”[8] He would have been very happy, I know, if he had lived in the era of Augustus Toplady, because he would have rejoiced to sing Toplady’s marvelous words in the hymn that begins,

A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with your righteousness on,
My person and offering to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.[9]

Now, he didn’t have the hymn. But he provided the theology which allowed Toplady to write the hymn: “Although I was this, God in his mercy his done this.”

I wonder why our people think that we’re pastors and ministers? I wonder why we believe we’re pastors and ministers? When we meet somebody and they ask an explanation—you know, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”—where do we start? Do we start with our credentials? “I received a training, and I was this and that.” It would be quite disarming, I think, to say to somebody, “Well, actually, the reason I’m doing what I’m doing is I was shown mercy.” And then someone will say, “Well, what in the world is mercy?” And we’ll say, “Well, I’m glad you asked. I’d love to tell you about mercy, about grace.”

You see, the ministry—all of the ministry of the gospel, because it is this ministry of the gospel—all of it has its source in the mercy of God. There is no gospel apart from the fact that, as he says in the opening verses of Romans 1, this is the gospel from God, this is “the gospel of God.”[10] It is God; therefore, it is gospel. It is the very revelation of his purposes from all of eternity which, generated in the soul of a man, quickens and enlivens him to be about the business of telling out the greatness of the Lord. This is the thing! “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry…” It begins in the counsels of God in eternity. It begins in his unmerited favor, whereby he comes into sinful lives that reject him, works in those lives a willingness to hear his Word, to receive its truth, and to embrace Christ, who is its central declaration.

Well, let’s move from source to substance. One phrase from 3:9 sets us in the right direction, and it is there before you if your Bible is open: “If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!” “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry…” What is the substance of this ministry? Well, there’s a sense in which we do need to reverse all the way back up through chapter 2 and beyond, but can we just simply go, as our helpmate, to this phrase “the ministry that brings righteousness”? Because we have enough there to keep us on track.

In the preceding verses, if you go back through chapter 3, you will notice that what Paul is doing is contrasting the old covenant, which was temporary and imperfect, with the new, which is perfect and permanent. And he makes that point in verse 7 and following:

If the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in [the] letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could[n’t] look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? … For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory … that … lasts![11]

It’s almost like he’s caught up in the whole wonder of it all as he preaches the gospel to himself, and as he processes it through the mind of his whole Jewish background, and as he recognizes all the things that he once held dear and he regarded as absolutely sacrosanct in a knowledge of God—all of the impact and influence of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses. And then suddenly the scales are taken from his eyes, and he realizes that this has all been pointing forward to this great denouement in the coming of Jesus. Therefore, this is a glory that outspans all the glories. This is a glorious glory.

Now, I have always been helped by those who can summarize things succinctly. I wish I was as good. Let me give you Calvin—just a quote from Calvin. And I’m using more quotes this morning, just because you’re such a bright group and can absorb them. “The office of the law is to show us the disease in such a way that it shows us no hope of a cure; whereas the office of the gospel is to bring a remedy to those who are past hope.” “The office of the gospel is to bring a remedy to those who are past hope.” “For the law, since it leaves man to himself, necessarily condemns him to death; whereas the gospel, by bringing him to Christ, opens the gate of life.”[12] The gospel, in bringing a man to Christ, opens the gate of life. And Luther picks up on that, doesn’t he? And he says, “That’s exactly what happened to me! The gate of life was opened to me.” “When I realized,” writes Luther, “this, I felt myself absolutely born again. The gates of paradise had been flung open, and I had entered. And there and then, the whole Bible took on another look for me.”[13]

Now, my brothers, this is at the absolute heart of the issue, not only in our preaching but also in our personal living. And we can be grateful for the beginning yesterday afternoon, can we not, in being reminded of this? Being reminded of what Paul says when he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, and he says in 1:30, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” Therefore, this ministry that we have is a ministry that brings righteousness. It is the ministry of the gospel.

I would have to say that at the early days of my ministry, I hadn’t fully fastened on this. And I confused in my own mind—and, I’m sure, in my preaching—the urging upon people to be born again with the necessity of proclaiming to people the grounds of regeneration and justification. And so I find that I constantly have to monitor myself when I’m hearing myself speaking, often, to ensure that I’m not slipping back into my old ways. So that in declaring a gospel to others that I am seeking to live by myself, I’m reminding myself again and again that the Lord Jesus has achieved all that is necessary for our justification—that the obedience of Jesus is reckoned to the sinner on the ground that the penalty of the sinner’s disobedience has been borne by Christ, who suffered, “the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God.”[14] “The righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God.” Christ died for our sins according to the gospel. He bore in himself, in his own body, the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.[15] God was not counting our sins against us, because he was counting our sins against him.[16]

Now, we can say all of these things and say them to our congregations. But loved ones, we’re at the stage where, as I said to some of our friends yesterday, we take a leaf out of those who have been so careful in teaching their children about so many things, so that when they have their children or their grandchildren with them, they say to them, “Now, if you go down the back road here over towards Chagrin, you will find all these lovely cows. But on the way to the cows, you will find that there are some horses on the corner.” And having shown them the horses on the corner and having taught them, you know, “Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup,” they come a little further, another mile down the road, and find the cows. And their son or their daughter in the back seat says, “Oh, look, Daddy! Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup!” “Oh, no, no, no,” he says, “we have to stop the car right now. No, no, no, no. This is moo, moo; this is giddyup, giddyup. And if I don’t make clear to you the difference between moo and giddyup, you’re gonna grow up to be a real problem—especially if you live in a farming community. ’Cause you’ll be seeking to milk horses and ride cows, and that wouldn’t look good. It’d be hard when you’re applying for university. It wouldn’t look good on your résumé: ‘And what have you been doing?’ ‘Well, I ride cows, and I milk horses.’ ‘No, you may have to take an extra year before we can let you in.’”

Now you’re saying to yourself, “Does he even remember why he started this?” Yes! Yes, I do. Because if we do not tell the person not only what this is but what this isn’t, then, given their limited knowledge, they will make assumptions that may be dangerous to them. Now, listen, and listen carefully. The issue of penal substitutionary atonement is foundational to the heart of the apostolic gospel. It is not a sideline. It is not an idea. It is not a notion that may be tampered with and fiddled with. And therefore, if someone wants to do so, then they fall under the rubric of Paul in 2 Corinthians 11: “I am absolutely astonished that if someone would come and preach another Jesus, preach another gospel, tell of another spirit, that you would be so quickly amenable to such a notion.” How can we blame our congregations for being amenable to such notions when they flush upon them from some of the brightest and most articulate writers and speakers of our day if we have not done the hard work of ensuring that we are preaching this gospel to ourselves all the time, and therefore that we are articulating not only what it is but what it isn’t? It’s not politically correct to point these things out. We understand that. But who invented political correctness in any case? Probably the same guy that wrote that email!

Now, part of the problem in this is that this is not easy. If you get The Great Exchange by these two characters on the front row here, and you set yourself to reading it, I’m not going to suggest that it’s anywhere as hard as John Owen, but it’s up there. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing that you can just work your way through casually. You remember in Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives his character Sherlock certain problems which, when Sherlock sits down with Dr. Watson and he’s confronted by it, remember, the mystery, he says to him, he says, “Watson, this is a two-pipe problem. This is a two-pipe problem. I’m gonna have to smoke two pipes before I can begin to unravel this.”[17] Well, I want to suggest to you that The Great Exchange is right up there. It’s at least a two-coffee-pot problem to read, but it will be absolutely foundational for the future of your ministry, and I commend it to you, and all that is represented in it and from it.

Can I say this to you again? Because this is very important, and you may be falling foul of this as well. In reading Graeme Goldsworthy, whom I’ve appreciated as much as anybody in the last five years of my life in terms of the printed page, it was a significant moment for me when, in reading Goldsworthy, he pointed out this distinction in relationship to the gospel—namely, the distinction between explaining the gospel and telling people their need of the gospel. Some of us are guilty of urging people to receive the benefits of the gospel or warning them about the perils of ignoring the gospel without ever actually announcing the gospel. And the distinction between the message and the demand to believe it is absolutely vital. And it may actually be a key to the notions of easy-believism which are represented in many contexts.

In fairness to the people who are doing the believing, it is actually relatively easy to believe, because they only have to believe that they have issues and God is interested in their issues. “So if you have issues this morning, I just want you to know that God is a God of all the issues.” Well, that’s perfectly true. But that’s not going to help them. Not unless we explain to them what the real issue is: that we are alienated from God on account of our sins and that all our subalienations are indications of that big alienation—the way we may feel disenfranchised from others and from the community and from ourselves and our family members, and even a sense of dissonance within our own psyche. And people are wondering, “Why is this?” And we come to them and we say, “You know that the real issue is that we’re separated from God in his holiness, and that he is so pure that he can’t even look on our sins. But I have tremendous news for you: that in the sending of his Son, Jesus, and in his death on the cross and in his rising for our justification, he has done everything for us that we could never do for ourselves. And I urge you to be reconciled to God.”

You see, telling people about God’s sovereignty is not preaching the gospel. Stressing the importance of regeneration is not the gospel. Urging upon people a higher commitment to Jesus and the necessity of a Spirit-filled existence is not the gospel. All these things are related to it, all of these things are aspects of it, but they’re not the essential message—the essential message that has to be believed for salvation. Let me quote Goldsworthy:

Only the message that another true and obedient human being has come on our behalf, that he has lived … the kind of life we should live but can’t, that he has paid fully the penalty we deserve for the life we do live but shouldn’t—only this message can give [the] assurance that we have peace with God through [the] Lord Jesus Christ.[18]

Because the gospel announces that Christ’s work on behalf of sinners was perfect and completed in space and time.

And when you go forward in your reading after this into chapter 5, you realize how Paul drives this home, beginning in 5:11: “Since … we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” “We try to persuade men.” Do you try and persuade anybody? Persuasion is not in vogue, is it? Persuasive people are dangerous people. The only people you want to be aware of are persuasive people—especially if they’re selling used cars or whatever it might be, and maybe if they’ve become very excited and animated about this gospel message they have. But Paul, he’s unashamed in that. He actually says in 1 Corinthians 9, he says, “What we’re actually trying to do is win as many people as possible.[19] We’re trying to win as many as possible. That’s our stated objective! As many as we can possibly reach. And knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade everybody that we get the chance to talk with.”

And the basis for his persuasion is not the commending of themselves, as he says in [2 Corinthians 5:]12—not that they want to give people an opportunity to take pride in the apostles. No, it’s “Christ’s love” that “compels us.” Why? Because of the gospel. Listen: “Because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died”[20]—that he has provided in the gospel reconciliation.

And on the basis of that work of redemption, the minister of the gospel is then to issue what the late Professor John Murray decided was the distinguishing feature between a lecture and a sermon. He asked William Mackenzie of Christian Focus when they were driving in the Highlands of Scotland one day—William Mackenzie was ferrying the late professor around—and John Murray says to William, he said, “William, what’s the difference between a lecture and preaching?” And Willie tried his best to get out of it as well as he could, and he couldn’t come up with anything at all. And Murray was enjoying it very, very much, and he said, “No, you’re wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.” And eventually William said, “Then what is it?” And he said, “I’ll tell you what it is. It is a personal, passionate plea”—which is uncharacteristic for the late doctor, old Presbyterian that he was. He wasn’t into alliteration—certainly not in his books. But he said it was a personal, passionate plea. And what is the personal, passionate plea? It is there in 2 Corinthians 5, at the end of verse 20, in a sentence: “We implore you,” or “we beseech you,” “on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” That’s what the gospel minister is saying: “Receive the reconciliation that has been provided in the finished work of Jesus upon the cross.”

And Calvin, when a person has been brought under conviction of sin, he describes what happens from there. And at this I’m going to draw to a close. Calvin, again. This is a person who has been brought under conviction of sin; the Spirit of God is at work in them, convicting them of their predicament before God. Then, says Calvin, this is what we do:

We show that the only [safe haven] is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled … to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy.[21]

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry…”

Well, I find myself—and with this I stop—I find myself asking the question that Paul asks there in chapter 2, when he says, “We are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” And I ask myself, “Who is equal to such a task?”[22] “Who is equal to such a task?”

Father, we thank you for your Word. We want desperately to know you, to commune with you, to have the words that come from our lips increasingly be the overflow of a life that is in touch with you, so that in doing our best to understand and to study and to think, that we don’t become some kind of theological pundits, but rather that we feel ourselves compelled by your grace to tell out this wonderful news—news that is increasingly marginalized and confused in its proclamation. And we fear, lest we inarticulately, by our own stumbling and bumblings, further spoil the message. So we pray that you will help us, that you will use the balance of this day, the books we purchase, the conversations we engage in, the thoughtful times on our own to assess life and ministry against the plumb line of your Word, that these will be days of renewal and restoration and refreshment, so that we in turn may refresh the hearts of the saints to whom we return in the places of our appointment. Hear our prayers, and let our cries come unto you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] Iain H. Murray,David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, vol. 2, The Fight of Faith: 19391981(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 746–47. Paraphrased.

[2] E. B. Allo, Saint Paul, Seconde Epitre aux Corinthiens (Paris, 1936), quoted in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 122.

[3] See Galatians 1:7.

[4] David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 179–80, 192.

[5] Wells, 178.

[6] Hughes, Second Epistle, 122.

[7] Philippians 3:7 (NIV 1984).

[8] 1 Timothy 1:13, 15–16 (NIV 1984).

[9] Augustus Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771). Language modernized.

[10] Romans 1:1 (NIV 1984).

[11] 2 Corinthians 3:7–11 (NIV 1984).

[12] John Calvin, quoted in Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle, 104.

[13] Martin Luther, preface to Latin Writings (1545). Paraphrased.

[14] 1 Peter 3:18 (NIV 1984).

[15] See 1 Peter 2:24; Romans 1:18.

[16] See 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[17] See Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Red-Headed League.”

[18] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 83–84.

[19] 1 Corinthians 9:19 (paraphrased).

[20] 2 Corinthians 5:14 (NIV 1984).

[21] John Calvin, “Reply by John Calvin to Letter by Cardinal Sadolet to the Senate and People of Geneva,” in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. 1, Tracts, Part 1 (1844; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 42.

[22] 2 Corinthians 2:15–16 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.