Inadequacy: The Surprising Secret to Being Useful to God
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Inadequacy: The Surprising Secret to Being Useful to God

Reliance on Christ is crucial in the life of a Christian, yet we like to depend on our own abilities instead. In this sermon, Alistair Begg asks us to contrast our modern view of self-reliance with the truths of Scripture. When we face our inadequacies and admit our absolute need of God’s help, we display His glory to those around us.

Series Containing This Sermon

Encore 2023

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25919

Lessons for Life, Volume 4

Biblical Wisdom for Young Adults Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26704

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, thank you very much. It is a privilege to be invited to deliver this lecture in the Scripture and Ministry series, a lecture that I’ve entitled “Inadequacy: The Surprising Secret to Being Useful to God.” And I think you would understand if I said that I feel myself entirely inadequate to give a lecture on the subject. But I want to begin by setting a context in the Bible, and if you are able to follow along, I’m going to read from 2 Corinthians and chapter 2 and beginning to read at the twelfth verse, and I’m going to read through to the end of 3:6. And Paul is describing the circumstances:

“Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia.

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For 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 who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”


I want to approach this subject from four perspectives: first of all, to consider here in 2 Corinthians, and largely in the section that begins in chapter 10, the biblical framework that underpins the thesis in the title; then to change gears from that and move to the cultural setting which is ours in seeking to understand the Bible; then to change gears again and to ask a question concerning the contemporary church in relationship to the biblical framework and the cultural setting; and then, finally, to look at the whole matter in relationship to ourselves as individuals. So I’ll try and make my points clear as I go along, looking, first of all, at it, if you like, biblically.

The Biblical Framework

The Oxford English Dictionary, which is the only dictionary that anyone should really pay attention to, defines inadequacy as “the condition or quality of being inadequate.” And if you think about that: you look up a dictionary for help, and that’s as good as it can do, perhaps I misspoke in commending the dictionary at all. But rather, what it is pointing out is that inadequacy is an indication of being unequal to what a task requires. Being unequal to what a task requires. And it is that very issue that, in the NIV, from which I was reading, Paul addresses at the very end of verse 16, and in a simple sentence, when he asks the question, “Who is equal to such a task?”—or, in the ESV, “Who is sufficient for these things?” What Paul is doing there is he’s addressing the issue of adequacy. And his expressions of confidence, particularly in this second letter, are not displays of self-assumption. He freely admits, as you would have noticed towards the end of our reading, that he is unequal to the task in himself, and he makes it perfectly clear that the secret to his usefulness in ministry cannot be traced to any natural competence. So in verse 5, again: “Not that we are competent”—or sufficient or adequate—“in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.”

Now, this is not an aberration on the part of Paul; this is true to his self-designation throughout all of his letters. Classically, in 1 Corinthians 15, he says on that occasion, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward[s] me was not in vain.”[1] And it is this perspective which underpins Paul’s entire understanding not only of himself but also of the ministry to which God has called him.

And in addressing the Corinthians in his second letter, part of the challenge that he faces is found in responding to those who have opposed him and who accuse him of being cowardly and of being worldly and of being something of a second-class citizen when it comes to the things of Christ. You must take my word for that and then read chapter 10 and see if what I’m telling you is true. And if you have an NIV and you’re open there, chapter 10 has the heading “Paul’s Defense of His Ministry.” And his defense of his ministry is a reluctant defense, because he recognizes, at the very end of chapter 10, that “it[’s] not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”[2] So he says, “It’s really not something that I want to do, to get into a classification of ministry—my ministry—against the ministry of others.” He actually says that directly in verse 12, somewhat ironically: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” They’re actually writing their own CVs. They’re conducting their own interviews. They have decided who they are and how wonderful they are.

Paul’s credential is a credential of weakness. His appeal is the appeal of a back that has been broken open in the service of Jesus Christ.

And so Paul says, “Really, we need to understand that it’s not what you say about yourself that matters.” “What you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work.” “What you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about you that [matters].”[3] That’s how he finishes chapter 10. And so he says, “If there’s any boasting to be done, it mustn’t be about personal achievements, but rather, it must be about the Lord.”[4] And it is the Lord who has been underpinning all that Paul has done all the way through, so that when, for example, in his first letter he writes concerning success and encouragement in evangelism, in the sowing of the seeds of the gospel, he puts it succinctly and with great humility: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”[5] “I did the job of planting,” he said, “and others did their part.”

Now, when we reach chapter 11, we discover that his detractors have been boasting, among other things, about their Jewishness and about their servanthood. And that is why he says in verse 22, “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they the servants of Christ?” And then he says, “(I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more.”

Now, when he then goes to the “more,” what he goes on to describe is his experience of suffering for Christ. He does not list his credentials in terms of the numbers that had emerged to hear him preach, he does not go back through his training with Gamaliel, he does not give a long list of his credentials, but rather, he says, “And I’m out of my mind to say this—if you want to consider my life and my ministry, then consider it distinctly in terms of inadequacy.” And then he goes through his list: “been in prison more frequently … flogged more severely … been exposed to death again and again,”[6] and all the way through.

It’s not dissimilar to what he does when he ends his letter in Galatians. He says, “I don’t want really to have any trouble from any of you that I’ve written to.” And he doesn’t then say, “Because you all know how prestigious I am, because you all know that I am the great, mighty apostle Paul.” No, if you recall, what he says is, “I don’t really want to have any trouble from you, because I bear in my body the marks of Christ.”[7] In other words, his credential is a credential of weakness. His appeal is the appeal of a back that has been broken open in the service of Jesus Christ. “If there is to be any boasting,” he says, “let it then be boasting in the Lord.”[8]

And perhaps to illustrate the very point, at the end of chapter 11 he says, “If I’m going to boast, I’ll boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I’m not telling lies.”[9] And then he says, “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” “But I was taken away in a large limousine.” “But some of my supporters came for me and removed me by helicopter.” No! “But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and [I] slipped through his hands.”[10]

Not exactly an auspicious departure from Damascus. Could he ever have forgotten the great contrast between the way in which he had proceeded to Damascus—in all of the pride of his heart, breathing out threatenings and slaughter against those who named the name of Jesus Christ—and now he leaves, squeezed into a basket and pushed out through the wall and scarpering away to safety? Says Waite, it was “there that the persecutor became the persecuted.”[11] And in that new experience now of persecution, in all of the weakness that unfolds, Paul declares the credentials of his ministry.

And so, in chapter 12—which, of course, you are greatly familiar with—he is aware of the fact that the opportunity for boasting concerning the peculiar experience of being caught up into the third heaven is a wonderful one. If ever you had an opportunity to brag, to go on the equivalent of Christian TV and let everybody know what had happened to you in those strange moments, it is there for you to do. But he says, “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to use that as a basis for self-promotion. I’m not going to use that as a platform to set myself forward and make these people know, who are my detractors, just how significant I am and just what I have experienced of God and all the things that are peculiar to me.” He says, “I’m not going to do that. I could do that, but I choose not to do that.”

It’s along the lines of his arrival in Corinth, isn’t it? 1 Corinthians 2: “When I came to you, loved ones, I didn’t come to you with this or with that”[12]—not because he was incompetent in the term of his intellectual faculty but because he recognized the incongruity in the proclamation of a message that was so foolish.

There is a lesson in this, in passing. My boss in Edinburgh all those years ago makes a wonderful comment on this: he says, “Of all the contexts in which boasting is inappropriate, this surely heads the list. Any genuine experience of God is a gift of his love and provides no basis for us to elevate ourselves.” So he says, “I’m not going to use this as a basis of elevation.”

And then he explains his thorn in the flesh in terms of God’s purposeful intervention in his life: “There was given me”—verse 7—“a thorn in my flesh.”[13] This is his theologizing of his experience. It’s not our jurisdiction here to go into this just now. But the way in which he expresses this is striking. Peterson paraphrases it helpfully: “Because of the extravagance of these revelations, and [to keep me from getting] a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in … touch with my limitations.”[14] I find that very helpful. “Because of the extravagance of the revelations, and to keep me from becoming a fathead, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in touch with my limitations.” Says Bengel, “How dangerous must self-exaltation be, when the apostle required so much restraint.”[15] How dreadful must self-exaltation be if the apostle required such restraint—that God intervened in his life at the deepest level of his physicality in order to ensure that he would understand that actually, it was in the experience of weakness and inadequacy that his greatest usefulness was to be found.

Instead of my insufficiency proving to be a barrier to usefulness, the reverse is the case. Since dependence is the objective, weakness is the advantage.

Now, let’s finish this first point with just a couple of comments. It is in the confrontation with inadequacy that he discovers that God’s grace is sufficient. You will notice that his weakness is not removed. He asked for this thorn in the flesh to be removed; that is not removed. But the weakness becomes the conduit of God’s power. And I think verse 10 gives it to us perfectly in that sentence, doesn’t it? The paradox of grace: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Here, I suggest to you, is the principle of all effective service. And if I may jump outside of my first point for a moment: and this is why some of us will never amount to anything for God—because we revolt against this principle. And I’m going to show you in a moment just why we are prone to do so.

The glory does not lie in our inadequacy. This is not a plea for going around like Uriah Heep, trying to tell everybody, “I’m a very ’umble man, Mr. Copperfield. I’m your ’umble servant, Master Copperfield,” if you know David Copperfield. The glory does not lie in our inadequacy but lies in the adequacy of Christ, which is discovered in our weakness and in our insufficiency. So, again, Peterson’s paraphrase: at the end, he says, “Now I take limitations in [my] stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size …. And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”[16]

Well, there we have it. That’s enough on the first point, I think. Instead of my insufficiency proving to be a barrier to usefulness, the reverse is the case. Since dependence is the objective, weakness is the advantage.

The Cultural Setting

Secondly, let’s look at it in terms of the cultural setting in which we read our Bibles and in which we respond to these truths—a culture that, to borrow a phrase from David Wells, has a “bloated sense of human capacity.”[17] A “bloated sense of human capacity.” In keeping with that assessment, and writing in the Wall Street Journal in July 2009, Peggy Noonan observed in one of her columns, “For 30 years the self-esteem movement told the young they’re perfect in every way. It’s yielding something new in history: an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.”[18] “An entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.”

Those of you who are sociologists will be familiar with the book Therapy Culture, written by a professor from Kent University in the south of England, Frank Furedi. And in that book, he records—at the beginning he has some very helpful graphs, and in one of them he records a search of three hundred United Kingdom newspapers in 1980. He searched three hundred newspapers, looking for a reference to self-esteem. In 1980, they couldn’t find a single one. In 1986, they found 3 citations. By 1990, there were 103. “A decade later, in 2000, there were a staggering 3,328 references.”[19] Who knows how many there are today, eleven years on? But what we do know today is that living for oneself and feeling good about oneself is increasingly the central and controlling feature of human existence. And such an orientation has no place for thoughts of inadequacy, because to tolerate such notions works against the absolute essentiality of maintaining a favorable opinion of oneself. Whatever else happens, we must never, ever lose that; it is the key to everything, our world tells us. Says Furedi in his book, “Low self-esteem is one of the most overused diagnoses for the problem of the human condition.”[20] And if you care to read the book, he works it out very helpfully.

Earlier this year, around the time of college and university graduation, David Brooks wrote an editorial in the New York Times entitled “It’s Not about You.” He described the graduates setting off into the world with what he refers to as the “baby-boomer theology” so often iterated in commencement addresses “ringing in their ears.” And then he articulates that theology: “Follow your passion, chart your own course … follow your dreams … find yourself. This,” says Brooks, “is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant [theme] in American culture.” Again, quoting him: “Today’s [graduates] enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of … life.” But, says Brooks in his concluding sentence, “the purpose in life is not to find yourself. [It is] to lose yourself.”[21] Are we going to have to turn to the editorial pages of the New York Times in order to correct the warped theology of contemporary evangelicalism?

And we shouldn’t assume that this kind of pushback to any realistic proper sense of inadequacy is a twenty-first-century phenomenon, because it isn’t. In 1946, John Sloane [Dickey], who was then president of Dartmouth College, told the graduating class, “There is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”[22] In 2010—last year—the current president of Dartmouth, Jim Yong Kim, referenced the statement from 1946 and then told the graduating class, “YOU are the ‘better human beings’ … we’ve all been waiting for.”[23] Now, if you found the statement in ’46 staggering, what do you make of such a statement in 2010?

The starting point for this mentality, actually, is not high school graduation. It’s beginning a lot earlier than that, as those of you who are doing child psychology know. The time when children could relax and be children and fall off their bikes and fail has faded into the dim and distant past. “Achievement is aspired to from the moment of birth, if not before.”[24] William Cohan in the New York Times says, “Nowadays parents hire tutors to correct the pitching motions of little leaguers,”[25] because the one thing we couldn’t possibly tolerate is for little Freddy to be a failure or to find out that he has an inadequate little left arm and he’s just going to have to live with it for the rest of his life.

Now, you’re sensible people. You read the papers. You review culture. Every so often, a discordant note sounds; someone introduces the idea of inadequacy or failure as important to usefulness—someone as significant as Steve Jobs in his now “legendary graduation speech at Stanford University, in 2005.”[26] Steve Jobs at least moved in the direction of Paul’s perspective when he tied his being fired from Apple at the age of thirty to significant progress in his later life. This is what he said: “It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have … happened to me …. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.”[27] But actually, that perspective is still more than a Sabbath day’s journey away from the biblical framework.

Let me give it to you at the most trivial level that I have noticed it. This goes back to when I was still a teenager, to Bushey in Hertfordshire—the first time that I ever saw an American football game. The army—the United States Army—were hosting a team. I hadn’t a clue, really, what was going on, but I stayed there because I liked the girl who’d taken me. (Still do; she’s my wife! I believe she still likes me as well. I trust so.) But I was struck by the uniqueness of the game and these cheerleaders. As a teenager, you would expect me to be struck by the teenagers, but it wasn’t how they looked; it was what they said. And they must have said more than this, but they definitely had this as their central cheer—and it went like this: “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can! You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!”

The fundamental problem was, they couldn’t. Because they were annihilated by the army. The army thrashed them. And I remember the score becoming so unbelievable. I’m used to football played with your feet, and the score is relatively minor, but they were, like, at 37–3 as the sun began to wane in the sky, but still they were there: “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” Somebody should have had the courage to say, “Stop that!”

The Contemporary Church

Well, that’s enough on the culture. Let’s change gears once again and ask the question: Where, then, does the contemporary church fall in relationship to these things? If there is any sense of accuracy in what we’re suggesting from the biblical model here as it relates to Paul, and if one’s generalizations from the culture hold any water, then would it be fair to say that the church is firmly grounded in its understanding of inadequacy as a foundation for usefulness? Or do you think that the church has capitulated to the spirit of the age and that the average seminarian is about to launch himself or herself on an unsuspecting church and let them all know how brilliant she is or how terrific he is and how they just can’t wait to discover it?

Now, I’m going to spend less time on this, purposefully. I’m also going to put my sentences in the interrogative rather than in the declarative. I am also not going to give specific examples with people’s names, and therefore, I run the risk of falling down in a morass of generalizations. Having said all of that by way of disclaimer, let me play my hand.

You will recall that when Nehemiah was assigned the task for the rebuilding of the walls and the rehanging of the gates in the broken-down context of Jerusalem, the first thing that he did was pray, then he did a reconnaissance, and after his reconnaissance, under cover of night and with little fuss and bother—he didn’t arrive in Jerusalem under a great banner saying, “Your greatest fears are over, I am here; Nehemiah has arrived!”—no, he finally got the people together, and he said to them, “You see the trouble we[’re] in.”[28] Or, in the King James Version, it puts it in the interrogative: “Do you see the trouble we are in?”[29]

Well, the fact of the matter was, they saw it, but they didn’t see it. They had grown accustomed to the trouble that they were in. They had begun to live with it. It was so familiar to them that it took somebody coming from the outside to let them see that the real predicament was not actually in the fact that the walls were broken down, but the broken-down walls were a metaphor for the fact that the glory of God was being dragged in the dust of a Judean hillside. And so his prophetic role is to call the people in the midst of the situation to stand back far enough from it for a moment and to view it from the perspective of God, and then to determine what needs to be done from there. And so it is that in every generation, the role of the prophet is in part to say, “Do you see this? Do you see the trouble we are in?”

I wonder: Are we alert to the way in which our pulpits increasingly sound like popular therapy rather than unpopular theology? Are we aware how little the call of the kingdom rings out? “He who would be first should be last; he who would be master of all must be the servant of all.”[30] The radical claims of Jesus cutting across the preoccupations of our contemporary society—a narcissistic culture that is intensely interested in feeling good about itself—and the incumbent pressure that is on the pulpit to try and make sure that we do not lose the ears of those whose agenda is so different from Christ’s. He is the one who calls for the renunciation of the self: “You want to save your life, then lose it. If you lose your life for my sake and the gospel,” says Jesus, “you will find it.”[31] It is in loss that you find it. In trying to hold on to it, you lose it.

You cannot from the pulpit make people believe that you’re fantastic and that Jesus is fantastic simultaneously.

I wonder: Have we embraced such a notion of triumphalism that we are now embarrassed by any notion of inadequacy or insufficiency? We must ask the question why it is that the least, the last, and the left out in our communities—the marginalized—are not coming in droves into the context of our churches. And it may be a simplistic response—it’s certainly a generalization, and I understand that—but nevertheless, part of the answer may lie in the fact that we portray ourselves as the company that has it all together, as the company that understands everything, that has got it all buttoned down. And so the person says, “Well, I daren’t go in there and tell people how I really am, because if they find out what I’m really like, none of them are like that at all.” No, because, you see, we’re all shiny porcelain pitchers. It makes it hard for an old cracked pot to nestle in amongst all that shiny stuff.

Is it possible that our churches are more akin to Lake Wobegon “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”? I’m just asking you to think, that’s all. Smugness. Evangelical smugness. Such a smugness—such a pervasive smugness—that the smug don’t know how smug they are. It will take unsmugness to expose it.

Are we prepared to tolerate the thought, the observation—again by David Wells—that “efforts to build character have been replaced by efforts to manage the impression[s that] we make on others”?[32] Efforts to build character are sidelined in a preoccupation with personality. What if we are actually focused on the unashamed promotion of ourselves than on the unequivocal proclamation of the gospel? What if we have answered the first question in the Shorter Scottish Catechism so many times that we don’t realize where we are? “What is the chief end of man?” The chief end of man “is to glorify God.”[33] “To glorify God.” Not to glorify myself. To glorify God!

Paul says, “If I want to glorify myself, I can run through my credentials any day you want. I went to the right schools, I came from the right family background, I had everything by the tail. But I’m not here to do that! That’s why I would all the more gladly glory in my infirmities and in my insufficiencies, in order that the transcendent power might be seen to belong to God.”[34] You can’t have it both ways. You cannot from the pulpit—if I may just illustrate it for you for a moment—you cannot from the pulpit make people believe that you’re fantastic and that Jesus is fantastic simultaneously. No, they may look at you and say, “You mean a little pip-squeak like that was able to expound that passage? That’s amazing. We must have a great God—and a great Bible!”

Is it conceivable that we suffer from humility in the wrong place? Humility in the wrong place. Do you remember how Chesterton on one occasion observed that “a man was meant to be doubtful [of] himself, but undoubting about the truth”? “Doubtful [of] himself, undoubting about the truth; this has [now] been exactly reversed.”[35] We are producing a crop of preachers who are very sure about themselves and creatively vague about doctrinal orthodoxy. So they’re very, very sure about who they are, and they believe that it is the great apologetic to let the world know that they are equally unsure about just everything between the covers of their Bible. It’s humility in the wrong place. I think on that occasion Chesterton said, “We are now breeding a group of individuals who are too humble to acknowledge the validity of the three-times table.”[36]

In a strange leap to Ronald Reagan: if you’ve ever gone to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley and put on the earphones and gone into the mock-up of the Oval Office, you will have heard President Reagan’s voice in your ears. And like me, you will have been intrigued by much that is said, and like me, you may have been arrested when he reaches the point and he says, “I never regarded this as my own office. I regarded this as the office of the people. I served in this office.” And then he says, “I took it so seriously that I never removed my suit coat when I was working in the Oval Office.” And then there’s a pause, and he says, “You see, you can take the office seriously without taking yourself too seriously.” Is it possible that contemporary evangelicalism is increasingly fertilized by those of us who take ourselves too seriously while not taking that to which we’ve been called seriously enough?

The Personal Application

That brings me, then, to my final point, as the uncomfortable nature of the challenge turns its gaze on us as individuals. If we consider it in terms of the biblical pattern, and then in terms of the cultural context, and then in terms of, if you like, the ecclesiastical framework, then now what about it personally? It’s the challenge to ask ourselves whether we’re prepared to face up to our extreme feebleness, to face up to our impotence, to face up to what Jonathan Edwards referred to as “the bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit”[37] in our hearts. Or are we going to kid ourselves? Are we going to start to believe our own press clippings? Are we going to start to be imbibing some of this elixir that makes it very difficult for your wife to sleep with you in the evening because she can’t find a pillow big enough to accommodate your gargantuan cranium? Like a grapefruit on a toothpick. Says C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves,

Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than … we have [actually] reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there,[38]

“and so fool both them and ourselves.”[39]

You see, here is one of the arenas in which we face the danger of allowing the world to “squeeze” us “into its own mould.”[40] Many times, when we expound Romans 12:1–2, it has more of a flavor to it of dealing with some of the bits and pieces, and often in a teenager’s life. I remember, I listened to so many sermons on that that was all about a sort of second level of Christianity, and if you wanted to be a missionary, you had to be a “Romans 12:1–2 Christian,” but if you just wanted to be a Christian, you didn’t really have to worry about it very much. I hope we’re all saved from that. But what is striking to me is that after he says, “This is your service of reasonable worship,”[41] what is the very first point of application? “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.”[42] He starts right there, with humility. “You offer your body as a living sacrifice to God—your mind, your influence, all that you have, all of your training, all of your studies, all of your everything—you offer it all up to God, which is your reasonable service of spiritual worship,” then immediately he says, “Now, listen: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought but rather with sober judgment.”

Let’s think about pastors just for a moment. Let’s turn the gaze where it’s most uncomfortable—the searchlight that shines right in my eyes that I cannot avoid. As pastors and church leaders, we have to ask ourselves whether we can honestly say with Paul, “We do not preach ourselves”—2 Corinthians 4:5. “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for [Christ’s] sake.” Can we really say we do not preach ourselves? Let me tell you: We preach ourselves when we seek to advance our own reputation, our influence, and our own well-being. We preach ourselves when our pulpits become the occasion of conjecture and personal opinion rather than the exposition of the text. We preach ourselves when we intrude continually with stories about ourselves or attempts to display our cleverness. The commentator Barnes puts it simply when he says we preach ourselves “in one word, when self is primary, and the gospel is secondary; when [we] prostitute the ministry to gain popularity; to live a life of ease; to be respected; … to gain influence; to rule over … people; and to make the preaching of the gospel merely an occasion of advancing [our]selves in the world.”[43]

So we need to pray, don’t we, that God in his mercy will do whatever it takes in order to drive home to our hearts the reality of our insufficiency? Until we know, not just intellectually but experientially, that Jesus meant what he said when he told his followers, “Apart from me you can do nothing,”[44] we’re in real difficulty.

Sir Malcolm Sargent, on one occasion he’s listening to a very fine singer. The girl is a soprano. She is singing an operatic piece. She is apparently flawless in her technique. The clarity of her tone is exceptional. She finishes to great applause. And the person who had taken Sir Malcolm Sargent to the occasion turned to him and said, “So what do you think?” He said, “I think she will be brilliant when something happens to break her heart.” “When something happens to break her heart.”[45]

You see, fellows, girls, what Paul is displaying here is a reliance on Christ alone for life and power. To rely on Christ for life and for power demands that I cease to rely upon myself, that I renounce my confidence in any of my own wisdom and my own willpower, and I turn entirely to Christ, asking him for the wisdom and power that is needed.

You can do the research on your own now. We started in Corinthians with Paul; we might easily have gone to the psalmist. Psalm 127:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
[the] builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watch[man] stand[s] guard in vain.[46]

In other words, we build and we watch in vain apart from the Lord.

Solomon: “Call out,” he says to his son, “call out for wisdom. Call out for these things.”[47] In other words, “Pray. Seek God. Ask him for this insight.”

Even the Christians we admire most for their godliness and for their giftedness are just as much jars of clay as are we.

Joseph. “I hear,” says Pharaoh, “that you are an interpreter of dreams. I had a particularly bad night last night. Can you help me?”[48] What does he say? “You’ve come to the right man. Boy, if there was ever anybody that knew about dreams, it’s me! I’ve done a couple of books on dreams, and I have a CD series as well. I’ve got to run off at the moment—I’m doing an interview—but I could leave you a CD in your…” Bleh. No. What does he say? “I cannot, but God can.”[49] “I cannot, but God can.” What was Joseph saying there? Was he saying he was irrelevant? No. He was a conduit; he wasn’t the key. This is not some call to passivity. This is not some old-fashioned, you know, early twentieth-century “let go and let God” notion. No, I’m not even approaching that. I’m a thousand miles away from that. “I cannot, but God can.”

Or what about the leadership of Jehoshaphat, when he assembles all the people together in the square, and somebody comes and says, “There’s a vast army coming against you; it will annihilate us”?[50] Jehoshaphat said, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I’m Jehoshaphat!” I mean, did he? No. He called out to God: “O God,” he says, “we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you. We have no power to face this vast army coming against us.”[51] Do you find that in any leadership books lately? Wall Street today has a number of principles of how you’re supposed to be a successful leader; I guarantee you this isn’t one of them. The one thing you don’t do is stand up in front of the congregation and say, “I don’t know what to do. We’re completely overwhelmed.” That’s Jehoshaphat. No surprise, because God—Isaiah 40—“gives strength to … the weak.”[52]

Full circle to Paul: “God chose the weak,”[53] he says—1 Corinthians 1. Two Corinthians 4: he put his treasure in old clay pots.[54] In old clay pots! There you are, Trinity graduate! Take that big diploma, put it up on the wall, and have your wife or your mom or your girlfriend or somebody just draw a picture of an old flowerpot that’s kind of cracked and musty, and put that up beside it, just to remind yourself that that’s what you are. Because even the Christians we admire most for their godliness and for their giftedness are just as much jars of clay as are we. The people that we admire the most are as much jars of clay as ourselves.

This is Stotty, just before he dies. Someone says to him, “Stott, what about you? What are you?” This is what he said: “[I am] simply a beloved child of a heavenly Father; an unworthy servant of [my] friend and master, Jesus Christ; a sinner saved by grace to the glory and praise of God.”[55] How do you explain Stott’s usefulness? Because he got a double first from Oxford? Because he’s arguably the best sanctified scholarship brain in a pulpit in the twentieth century? No, I don’t think so. I think you’d have to explain him in terms of his willingness to accept that all that God had given him still brought him to the place where he realized, “Apart from you, Jesus, I can do nothing.”

And then we will finish with Augustine. Augustine says, “When any one knows that he is nothing in himself, and has no help from himself, the weapons within [him] are broken, and the war is ended.”[56] “When any one knows he[’s] nothing in himself, and has no help from himself, the weapons … are broken, and the war is ended.” But unfortunately, the war never ends, does it? I haven’t found the war ends. That’s why I like the Westminster Confession. It says the Christian is involved in “a continual and irreconcilable war.”[57] It never ends.

And so it is to the gospel that we have to turn, to remind ourselves that Christ bore the sins of our proud adequacy in himself, that he clothes us with the garments of his righteousness, and that it is this unmerited grace that stirs us and enables us to press on to the gates of heaven. But, says Rutherford, you must remember: “Be humbled, walk softly; down … with your top sail; stoop, stoop! it is a low entry to go in at heaven’s [gate].”[58] “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.”[59]

Father, we offer ourselves afresh to you. We pray that under the searching gaze of your Word and in obedience to the direction of the Holy Spirit, you might be pleased to use the considerations of the last hour to help us live our lives to the praise of your glorious grace. And this we humbly pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:9–10 (ESV).

[2] 2 Corinthians 10:18 (NIV 1984).

[3] 2 Corinthians 10:18 (MSG).

[4] 2 Corinthians 10:17 (paraphrased).

[5] 1 Corinthians 3:6 (ESV).

[6] 2 Corinthians 11:23 (NIV 1984).

[7] Galatians 6:17 (paraphrased).

[8] Galatians 6:14 (paraphrased).

[9] 2 Corinthians 11:30–31 (paraphrased).

[10] 2 Corinthians 11:32–33 (NIV 1984).

[11] Joseph Waite, quoted in 2 Corinthians: A Digest of Reformed Comment, ed. Geoffrey B. Wilson (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 147.

[12] 1 Corinthians 2:1 (paraphrased).

[13] 2 Corinthians 12:7 (NIV 1984).

[14] 2 Corinthians 12:7 (MSG).

[15] John Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, trans. Charlton T. Lewis and Marvin R. Vincent, ed. Charlton T. Lewis (Philadelphia: Perkinpine and Higgins, 1860), 2:332.

[16] 2 Corinthians 12:10 (MSG).

[17] David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 52.

[18] Peggy Noonan, “A Farewell to Harms,” Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2009,

[19] Frank Furedi, Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (London: Routledge, 2004), 3.

[20] Furedi, 3.

[21] David Brooks, “It’s Not about You,” New York Times, May 30, 2011,

[22] John Sloane Dickey (convocation address, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, October 1946).

[23] Jim Yong Kim (valedictory to the seniors, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, June 13, 2010).

[24] Richard Brodhead, quoted in William D. Cohan, “The Power of Failure,” Opinionator (blog), New York Times, November 26, 2010,

[25] Cohan, “The Power of Failure.”

[26] Cohan.

[27] Steve Jobs, quoted in Cohan.

[28] Nehemiah 2:17 (NIV 1984).

[29] Nehemiah 2:17 (paraphrased from the KJV).

[30] Matthew 20:26–27; Mark 10:43–44 (paraphrased).

[31] Mark 8:35 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Luke 9:24; 17:33.

[32] David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 217. In this quotation, Wells is referencing the work of Christopher Lasch.

[33] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1.

[34] 2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:10 (paraphrased).

[35] G. K. Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” chap. 3 in Orthodoxy (1908).

[36] Chesterton. Paraphrased.

[37] Jonathan Edwards, “Some Accounts of His Conversion, Experience, and Religious Exercises, Written by Himself,” in The Works of President Edwards, in Eight Volumes (Leeds: Edward Baines, 1806), 1:33.

[38] C. S. Lewis, “Charity,” chap. 6. in The Four Loves (1960).

[39] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 7.

[40] Romans 12:2 (Phillips).

[41] Romans 12:1 (paraphrased).

[42] Romans 12:3 (NIV 1984).

[43] Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible (1834), 2 Corinthians 4:5.

[44] John 15:5 (NIV 1984).

[45] William Barclay, The Plain Man Looks at the Beatitudes (London and Glasgow: Fontana, 1963), 26. Paraphrased. Barclay’s version of this story differs in some details.

[46] Psalm 127:1 (NIV 1984).

[47] Proverbs 2:2 (paraphrased).

[48] Genesis 41:14 (paraphrased).

[49] Genesis 41:16 (paraphrased).

[50] 2 Chronicles 20:2 (paraphrased).

[51] 2 Chronicles 20:12 (paraphrased).

[52] Isaiah 40:29 (NIV 1984).

[53] 1 Corinthians 1:27 (NIV 1984).

[54] See 2 Corinthians 4:7.

[55] John Stott, quoted in “Biography,” Langham Partnership,

[56] Augustine, quoted in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 1:313.

[57] The Westminster Confession of Faith 13.2.

[58] Rutherford to Cardoness, Elder, Aberdeen, 1637, in Joshua Redivivus; or Three Hundred and Fifty-Two Religious Letters, by the Late Eminently Pious Mr. Samuel Rutherfoord, 11th ed. (Glasgow: William Bell, 1796), 214.

[59] 2 Corinthians 3:5 (ESV).

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.