Persuasive Preaching — Part One
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Persuasive Preaching — Part One

2 Corinthians 5:20  (ID: 2682)

Personal, cultural, and theological challenges often impede a preacher from being an effective ambassador of God. Alistair Begg explains that persuading spiritually blind men and women to believe and repent must take precedence over all other agendas. A passionate love for the Gospel will enable pastors to speak with clarity, authority, and a sense of urgency.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 5

Series ID: 23005

The Basics of Pastoral Ministry, Volume 3

Preaching God’s Word Series ID: 28403

Basics 2009

Minds Stirred, Wills Urged and Affections Renewed Series ID: 23509

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to 2 Corinthians chapter 5. Two Corinthians 5. Two Corinthians and chapter 5. I’m going to read the whole chapter, although we will only deal with part of it. The chapter divisions in our Bibles, of course, are not always particularly helpful, and this chapter break between 4 and 5 breaks up the thought of what Paul has been saying: “We don’t lose heart, we’re actually wasting away, but,” he says, “in fact, the reality is that what we see is transient, it’s ephemeral; what is unseen is lasting and is eternal.”[1] And then it’s as though his mind moves on from there, and he has a discursus on the whole hope of ours in terms of our heavenly dwelling. And he writes,

“Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we[’re] at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due [to] him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than … what is in the heart. If we[’re] out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”


Well, I’ve taken as our text for this study verse 20. Verse 20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” We’ve set ourselves the task in this session to consider the matter of preaching that confronts people’s stubborn wills. Or, if you like, we have taken to ourselves the responsibility of thinking about persuasive preaching—preaching that persuades. For us to do so is to immediately place ourselves in good company. For the apostolic pattern—and indeed, the apostolic precept—pushes us, urges us, in this direction. And Luke throughout his record of the Acts, particularly in relationship to the teaching of Paul, makes this perfectly clear.

I’m not going to give you a whole host of cross-references, but for example, in Acts 18:4, Luke describes how Paul, “every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, [seeking] to persuade Jews and Greeks.” He was in there seeking to persuade them. He was not like the individual who goes fishing, comes back with nothing, and when his wife says, “Did you catch any?” he says, “No, but I did influence a few.” It is an insufficient exercise. And the passionate longing of Paul was that he might be used under God so to convince and see the Holy Spirit convicting, so to persuade, that both Jews and Greeks might come to bow before Christ.

He ends—that is, Luke ends—Acts 28, right around verse 23, telling us the same thing: from morning until evening in the location in which Paul found himself, people came to him, and “he explained and [he] declared to them the kingdom of God,” trying “to convince”—it’s the same word in Greek—trying to convince or persuade them “about Jesus from the Law of Moses and … the Prophets.” In other words, he was doing biblical exposition. He was turning to the Bible, and he was doing what had become his routine pattern: first of all, arguing with these people, seeking to convince them that the Christ had to suffer and die and rise from the dead; and once he had labored to that end, he would then say to them, “And this Jesus that I am telling you about is that Christ,” so that men and women might be brought to an understanding of Jesus.[2]

Now, what Paul did by way of his own pattern and by example, he also urged upon others by way of precept. And classically, of course, in his swan song, in his final letter, when he writes to Timothy as his young lieutenant in the faith, he gives to him very clear exhortations concerning the performance of the pastor’s primary duty—namely, the preaching and teaching of the Bible. And you’ll remember he says to him in the fourth chapter, “The time will come, seasons will appear—and indeed, you’re in one now, Timothy—where people won’t put up with sound doctrine. They will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. But what I want you to make sure you do is that you continue in what you have been taught, what you have become convinced of, and then that you preach the Word, and do it in such a way that others might come to faith in Christ.”[3]

Throughout the whole Bible, it is manifestly clear that God kicks the legs out from underneath the stools upon which his servants seek to sit comfortably—and almost always to ensure that we are brought to an end of ourselves.

Now, for Paul to do this, to say this to Timothy, was not a call to some easy existence. It was not an exhortation to some soft option. And when you read 2 Timothy from its very beginning and all the way through, you realize that the exhortation to be this preacher and this teacher is set firmly within the context of suffering. Indeed, he hasn’t gone many words into 2 Timothy before he says to Timothy, “Now, I invite you to join me in suffering for the gospel.”[4] Why does he say that? He says it because he knows that that will be the eventuality. He says it because, as he goes on later to say, “This is what I am also doing; this is my gospel, for which I am suffering.”[5] And the nature of his suffering was directly related to the clarity with which he was communicating this news concerning Jesus.

Now, what we find there in that swan song of his, we find also here in 2 Corinthians. And you don’t go very far in Corinthians—that is, in this second letter—without being introduced to this same theme. I’ll leave it to you to look and see if it’s actually there, but I can guarantee you that it is. And he launches into his letter, and here are the words that come jumping out of the first chapter: trouble, distress, suffering, “great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure,” and the despair even of life itself.[6] So it’s not as if he’s saying, “Dear Corinthians, I know you’re all having a wonderful time, and I am having a wonderful time too, and let’s all go out for ice cream.” No. It is something far graver than that. It is something far more significant than that. And it is not an invention. It is not a contrivance. It is a reality. And it is within that context, as he unfolds his personal experience, that he turns then to confront others with this great responsibility of persuasive preaching.

Incidentally, it is quite wonderful the way in which he understands the doctrine of providence, isn’t it? Where in chapter 1—now I’m in it, you may as well look at it—but he says in 1:9, “In our hearts we felt the sentence of death.” And then here’s his theology coming through: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” It is, from page 1 to the last page of the Bible, manifestly clear that God kicks the legs out from underneath the stools upon which his servants seek to sit comfortably—and almost always to ensure that we are brought to an end of ourselves. By the time you get to chapter 12, he’s saying the same thing, isn’t he? In fact, he uses the very terminology: “To keep me from becoming conceited, to keep me from getting a fat head, to keep me,” he says, “from believing my own press reports, to keep me from succumbing to my natural affinity to think it may be about me and what I say, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan.”[7]

And it is in that context that he now finds himself writing to the Corinthians, and he is on the receiving end of criticism and of false accusations that abound. He doesn’t actually identify them in a straightforward fashion, but as you read the letter, you realize that he is responding to some of these accusations. They said, “He’s really a bit of a coward. He writes very well, but if you see him up close, he doesn’t amount to much. He’s frankly incompetent, although he’s a blusterer. He’s really, really not much of a man of spirituality at all. Indeed, we’re not sure that he should even be part of the church. And quite honestly, we’ve heard some of his sermons, and we think that he’s actually lost it. He is out of his mind.” In other words, clearly there was nothing particularly safe about what he was doing. There was nothing particularly orderly about what he was conveying. There was that which called for the reaction of people that said, “You know what? We have no truck with this man. We have no time for this man.”

So, his exhortation here in 2 Corinthians 5—and we don’t want to stray too far from our verse—his exhortation to those who would be on the receiving end of his instruction is set within the context of, one, human opposition, and two, divine compulsion. Human opposition and divine compulsion. And let me just say to you that if we do not share with him the latter, then we will crumble in the face of the former. In other words, if our biblical, expository teaching-preaching ministry does not emerge from a sense of divine oughtness, then I suggest to you that as soon as the battle rages before us, the temptation will be simply to fold up our tents and head home as quickly as we can.

For let us be clear: preaching is unpopular. Preaching is unpopular. Sangster, at the end of the last century, in Britain, said, “Preaching is in the shadows. The world does not believe in it.”[8] I think if he was around now, at the end of the last century into this, he would have said, “Preaching is in the shadows. The church does not believe in it.” The church does not believe in it. “Let’s get it over with as quickly as we can. Put something up on the screen. Show me videos. You’re boring. Try and do something to keep my attention.”

I was golfing some years ago in the south of Ireland, and we were a mixed bag. And on the Sunday morning, some of us went to church; some didn’t. Our Catholic friends went dutifully to the church. I went to a little Methodist church that I found, with a friend, and when we came out and down the street of somewhere in County Wicklow, I think it was, we met one of our good friends who’d come out of the Catholic church. And I said to him, “And how was your service this morning?” He said, “Fantastic!” He said, “He did it in seventeen minutes! He did it in seventeen minutes!” Did what? Well, there was a time when we would have just been able to laugh at that without it actually—the laugh—becoming slightly hollow in our ears.

Now, when I talk about preaching, I’m not talking about anybody that stood up behind a box, a sort of well-intentioned fellow speaking with enthusiasm. We’re talking about Spirit-filled, Bible-based, Christ-exalting delivery of the Scriptures in such a way that it becomes apparent that God chooses to deign to consecrate the lips of individuals to his service, so that as he says in here, the ambassador actually is the one through whom God himself makes his appeal. So it’s not about Mr. Jenkins, it’s not about Mr. X, it’s not about “Who do you think you are?” or “Where do you think you’ve been?” It is about God making his appeal through unlikely folks.

Now, here’s the thing. Incidentally, to quote Dick Lucas, I freely confess that I am “waggling on the tee” quite a bit at the moment. You understand his metaphor, those of you who are golfers. You can fiddle about with a golf club for about twenty minutes, and nobody knows whether you can hit the ball or not. You just stand there and waggle it. So I am waggling a little bit, but I am purposefully waggling. This is not like some of my English essays at school. This is not fooler—filler. It might be fooler, but it’s not filler.

So if preaching is unpopular—if preaching is unpopular, and I put it to you that it is—no preaching is more unpopular than the preaching which addresses the stubborn will of men and women and calls them to repentance and faith in Jesus. If preaching in itself is unpopular, whatever way we might define it—anybody giving a monologue from behind a box—if that in itself is unpopular, then none is more unpopular than the persuasive preaching which we find in the apostolic pattern and in their precepts.

The Challenges of Persuasive Preaching

Now, the very unpopularity of it confronts us with challenges, and I want to just suggest to you three. And then we’ll go to the positive side of things. So here are the challenges, and then we’ll think in terms of the antidote.

The challenges that confront us, first of all, may well be personal. In a sense, they always will be personal. For when we think in terms of the peculiar responsibility of standing between a holy God and those whom God has made and fashioned for himself, then any sense of natural inhibition and fearfulness will almost necessarily present itself. And depending on our personalities, whether we are extroverted or introverted, whatever it might be, it may take absolutely everything out of us and from us and demand everything in us simply to fulfill that to which we’ve been called. And that’s why I think it is so encouraging to recognize that as Paul says back in the previous chapter, “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” in old clay pots, “so that the transcendent power might be seen to belong to God and not to us.”[9]

And just this morning I was thinking again about one of my favorite passages in Numbers, that of Balaam’s donkey. And I just love the encouragement that is there, and also the inherent warning, I think, where it just says, “And then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey.”[10] And sometimes when I feel myself at the very lowest of all, I go to that verse and find it a great encouragement. And also, I find in it a great warning, that God says, “Shut up, Begg. I could replace you with a donkey any day I choose.” And some days a donkey might be a lot more articulate.

No preaching is more unpopular than the preaching which addresses the stubborn will of men and women and calls them to repentance and faith in Jesus.

The personal challenge of natural inhibition and fearfulness. But also, we face a challenge when we’re tempted to self-preservation. Self-preservation. And what I mean by that is an unwillingness to bring the demands of both the law and the gospel to bear upon our listeners. A fearfulness, an unwillingness to bring the demands of both the law and the gospel to bear upon our listeners.

We recognize, don’t we, that those listeners, as Paul has said in the previous chapter, “cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”?[11] And how are they to see? Well, as a result of us opening up the Scriptures. How are we to do this? Well, not only in dependence upon God’s Spirit but as articulately and as imaginatively and creatively and effectively as all of our might and ability might muster. And it’s hard. And every Sunday comes around as if there were only forty-eight hours in between them. And time passes, and we might think that we would be more at ease, that we would find it much more accessible. We find ourselves battling again our own tendencies, our own fearfulness, our own sin, our own incapacities, and so on.

And we recognize too that the minds of men and women are blinded to the glory of the gospel in Jesus. Satan is not blinding people’s minds to religion. Satan is not blinding people’s minds to family values. Satan is not blinding people’s minds to tall stories and emotional exhortations and all kinds of things that pass for preaching in our day. He blinds the minds of the eyes of men and women to the glory of the gospel in the Lord Jesus as he is in the image of God. And it is important for us to remember that, lest we fall foul.

Also under personal challenges, I think we face the challenge—some of us, at least—of familiarity with our material. And yes, let us be honest, a familiarity which, unless we go frequently on our knees to God, on our knees before our Bibles, in the secret place in our room, in the private place in our car, in the hours of the night about which no one knows, unless we are there, we may very quickly become the purveyors of that which does not pass with any sense of conviction through us at all. Because familiarity has bred in us something that has cut, if you like, the nerve endings that are marked by vitality and effectiveness.

In other words, the very understanding of that which we convey, unless we come to it in reverence and in awe and in wonder, we may find ourselves like the gravediggers in Hamlet, laughing and joking and singing at our task. You remember that great scene, don’t you, the gravediggers’ scene? If I could be in a Shakespeare play, I would just like to be, one scene, I want to be one of the gravediggers. It’s one of my favorite scenes. And you remember Hamlet and Horatio come on the scene, and Hamlet says to his friend Horatio, as he hears this fellow singing and joking, and he looks at him and he says, “Has this fellow no feeling of his business [that] he sings at grave-making[?]” “Has he no feeling of his business?” You remember Horatio’s reply? “Custom”—routine, familiarity—“custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.”[12] Custom hath made it easy.

It is not easy. If it is, come and tell me afterwards, ’cause I want to know the secret. It may become easy because we have become so familiar that we have trivialized the very truth to ourselves. If I go one more place to preach and go in what they call “the green room” and have some fellow slap me on the back and say, “Go get ’em!” I’m not sure what I’m gonna do to that fellow. What do they think is happening in the delivery of God’s Word? Who do they think is involved?

Spurgeon can teach us, can’t he? Goodness, Spurgeon was brighter at twenty-four than most of us are on the brink of our graves. Listen to Spurgeon:

The Gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the Gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of [men]. … We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it—the Holy Ghost, changing the will of man. O sirs! we might as well preach to stone walls as to preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word, to give it power to convert the soul.[13]

The challenge that is personal.

Secondly, the challenge that comes to us that is cultural, for we live in a world. We read newspapers, magazines; our companions, our colleagues in ministry, do the same. Our congregations are there and so on. And it is ridiculous for us to think that somehow or another we are able to fashion a citadel which removes us from those influences and from that realm.

Last week, on business—kingdom business—in New York, my wife and I had the opportunity to go and see Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot—although I think you call it “Waiting for God-OH.” But it is actually Waiting for Godot. Nah, I don’t know whether it is or not, but anyway… If you say it with authority, people go, “Oh, yes, I guess it is.” But you know the two characters, Vladimir and Estragon. I must confess, I slept through a significant part of the first half. I did manage, after a coffee, to come through good, just—I breasted the tape just before ten o’clock. But it’s no surprise that you sleep through it. I mean, you do have to be awake. I mean, what is the opening line? Nothing happens. There’s no plot. There’s no play. There’s no movement. Nothing happens! No one goes. No one goes anywhere. No conclusions are reached, and nothing is resolved. And it costs you a hundred bucks to go and see it! I’ve gotta be insane. I can’t believe I went there. I wish I had the money back right now.

But what Beckett is conveying is the fact that all purpose has collapsed. The thing is pervaded by an air of sort of unrelieved emptiness. And I sat there—once I’d wakened up—and, and I wondered whether the people laughed for the same reason when it opened in 1953 in Paris as they laughed 2009 in New York City. I have a sneaking suspicion that there were at least some in 1953 who watched this play and laughed, realizing that it was a spoof—that the reason it was funny was because there was a dissonance between what Beckett put in the mouths of his characters and what people were experiencing in their lives. I don’t know. But I felt that the laughter on Broadway was somewhat strangulated, because I’m not sure that the dwellers in the twenty-first century regard it as a spoof. I think they probably think that it’s an accurate representation: a tumbled-down existence in a world without meaning, life just “a dirty trick,” as Hemingway put it, “a short journey from nothingness to nothingness.”

Now, the cultural challenge that comes to us in being ambassadors of the gospel has to be faced. Do you realize how long has elapsed since the book Amusing Ourselves to Death? Was that Berjer, or Berger, wrote that book? Who was it? Postman, Neil Postman, that’s right. Berger was Rumor of Angels. Neil Postman. And you remember the chapter on Sesame Street, and how the implications of Sesame Street were that when you took the puppet away from the children, then they didn’t want education anymore: “I want the puppet! I want the puppet!”[14] And then he talked about the nature of television itself and education via television, and he said if you’re going to attempt to educate via television, there are three things that you have to make sure that you do not violate: one, “Thou shalt have no prerequisites”; two, “Thou shalt induce no perplexity”; three, “Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt.” Sounds a lot like the average pastors’ conference, encouraging us all to go back to our congregations and make sure that we avoid those things as well. And then this is what Postman says: “The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.”[15] No prerequisites, no perplexity, no exposition; that’s entertainment, he says.

Well, I hope it niggles just a little, and I hope it niggles some quite a lot. You come into church, as represented by the gathering of God’s people. I think time has long since passed in most places, apart from just the stuffy and moribund, where there’s any sense of “Now, I want you to sit up, pay attention, and think.” No, some well-meaning soul who gets up and says a few pleasantries, essentially says, “I want you to sit back, relax, and enjoy yourselves. I hope there’s nothing here today that will be a prerequisite for you to do anything at all. I certainly hope none of you will be perplexed. And you’ll be glad to know that our pastor has had hardly any time to study this week, and he’s got a very long video clip which I’m sure you’re going to enjoy.”

Thirdly, the challenge that is theological. The challenge that comes to us that is personal, that is cultural, and that is theological. This may surprise you, but I think it’s fair to say, and I’m noticing this as I move around the country just a little bit. I keep meeting these individuals who have tripped over a systematic theology and decided that they both believe it, understand it, and feel that they ought to convey it. I don’t know where they were before ever they started to read their Bible or to read the systematic theology, but that’s not for me to be concerned with. Suffice it to say that this particular brand of discovering a biblical theology has had a radical impact on these individuals. They often seem to talk about it far more than they talk about Jesus; they seem to talk about it far more than they talk about just about anything else at all.

And something has happened to them. This may be you. They’ve come to convictions about election, about the depravity of man, about the particularism of the atonement—all biblical truths, all vitally important. But what has happened to them is this: that they find themselves now, in relationship to the prospect of preaching persuasively, virtually tongue-tied. Despite the fact that Paul, as he preaches in Athens in Acts 17 says—and Luke records it for us—that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.”[16] “He commands all people everywhere to repent.” But what has happened to some souls is this: that they have begun to set in juxtaposition, or in opposition—not apposition—to one another the truths of God’s sovereign purposes in election and the truths of man’s responsibility in preaching the free offer of the gospel. And because they have now determined that the one cancels out the other, in the worst of cases, they have virtually ceased from evangelism totally.

In less extreme cases, their diffidence is seen in a sort of conspicuous awkwardness and spontaneity in the preaching of the free offer of the gospel. Somehow or another, we find ourselves—they find themselves—at the point of pressing upon people the claims of Christ, the sneaking suspicion that “Maybe I’m not supposed to do this. Because after all, God has done what is necessary.” And so we find that there is a theological challenge where men are laboring under the inhibitions that arise from the fear that in freely offering Christ to the sinner, we might be impinging upon God’s sovereign purposes in salvation. In short, men are frightened that they might be involved in seeing the nonelect get saved.

Some have begun to set in opposition to one another the truths of God’s sovereign purposes in election and the truths of man’s responsibility in preaching the free offer of the gospel. And in the worst of cases, they have virtually ceased from evangelism.

Now, of all the things you want to worry about during the week, take that one off your list! I may be completely wrong in this, but I don’t think I am. And the necessary and wonderful benefit of the restoration of Reformation principles—not least of all in relationship to soteriology—for which we can be absolutely thankful in our day, carries with it the correlative possibility that people who are unable or unwilling to wrestle with the great antinomies of the Bible may find that they have actually become silenced in relationship to these things.

And as we return to 2 Corinthians 5, let me just take you to Matthew chapter 11. Because I want to show you that this point… The way I always deal with theological things like this, I always say, “How does it work with Jesus?” “How does it work with Jesus?” That’s not the same as getting a bracelet that says, “What Would Jesus Do?” ’Cause we don’t know what Jesus would do, so get rid of the bracelet. The real question is, What has God said? And that’ll do us fine, so you can get a new bracelet. But anyway, you come to this question and say, “Okay, so God’s particularism in the atonement, God’s sovereignty in salvation, God’s elective purposes from all of eternity—how does this work in the ministry of Jesus?” Matthew 11:25:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you[’ve] hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

We dare not hide behind our inability or unwillingness to bow beneath the immensity of Scripture and thus fail to be persuasive in our preaching. Well…

Prerequisites for Preaching to the Stubborn Will

So if the challenges, at least as I’ve represented them, or the enemies to persuasive preaching are confusion, fear, and complacency, then the necessary prerequisites for preaching to the stubborn will are, number one, clarity instead of confusion—and clarity about the nature of the gospel itself. If we are not clear about this, if we are confused in our own minds, we will never be clear from the pulpit. And really, here we find ourselves exactly where we were set up last evening, where John was taking us, aren’t we?

Because here in 2 Corinthians 5:21, following verse 20, gets to the very heart of the matter, making it clear that it is not the mere possibility of salvation, nor simply the provision for salvation that is offered in the gospel, but it is “salvation full and free,”[17] and that that is what Paul is making clear in verse 19. That’s why he says what he says: “that God was … not counting [their] sins against them.” “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”

Why? Didn’t they deserve to have their sins counted against them? Yes, didn’t we? Haven’t we broken God’s law? Yes. Haven’t we spurned his offers of mercy and of love? Yes, and more besides. But here is the wonder. You see—and loved ones, this is so important. Because some of us want to move far too quickly to this notion—biblical notion—that God does not count our sins against us. And we’re hardly two minutes into the service before we want everybody to know that God does not count our sins against us. So the people who’ve been making a royal mess of their lives for the last seven or eight days, they breathe a great sigh of relief and go, “Well, I’m glad I got in here for that. That is absolutely terrific.”

But we have to tell them why and how it is that God has done this. God was not counting their sins against them because he was counting their sins against him—that he was not overlooking sin, that he was not saying it was a matter of indifference, that it didn’t make a bit of difference at all, but no, that what he was doing was charging, as we heard last night, all of our sins to the account of Christ. And it is this, you see, which is wonderful, which is awe inspiring, and which is majestic.

There probably are a couple of books by Goldsworthy through there in the bookstore. I commend them to you. I know some of you will know them. And here’s a quote from Goldsworthy. He says,

Only the message that another true and obedient human being has come on our behalf, that he has lived for us 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 assurance that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.[18]

So that the gospel is not good advice; the gospel is good news.

And that, you see—that clarity—is what gives to Paul his boldness, what gives to Paul the sense of absolute drivenness, if you like, in order that in 1 Corinthians 9, I think it is, he says, “And I want to win as many as possible.”[19]

You know, you can imagine his wife saying to him, “What’re you hoping to do today, Paul?”

He said, “I want to win as many people as possible to faith in Jesus Christ today.”

“Really? Wow! I thought you were just going to answer a few phone calls and fiddle around with one of your sermons again.”

“No, no, no. No, I want to win as many as possible.”

“Well, you don’t mean that you’re going to win them, do you Paul?”

“No, of course I don’t. I told you that yesterday when we were having breakfast. No, I know what God does, but I know what I’m supposed to do. I have to get out and into the marketplace. I have to preach. I have to reason. I have to persuade. I have to urge. I have to give myself diligently to seeing unbelieving people becoming the committed followers of Jesus Christ. That is why he saved me. He made me as a servant to the gentiles. He made me. This is why I exist. This is what I want to do!”

Isn’t there something of that when Paul finally says to Timothy, he says, “Timothy, all of this is going on, but you, keep your head, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of your ministry.”[20] I think you were challenged as I was when our friend Dr. John Lennox looked down at us yesterday and says, “When’s the last time you gave somebody a copy of the Bible?” Now, I have one of my colleagues who could answer that immediately. He’d say, “Probably fifteen minutes ago,” the person sitting next to him, because he just gives Bibles out all the time. But I don’t remember. I think I could think of it, but it was challenging. We’re urging upon our congregations things that we don’t do ourselves.

“In Christ,” says Paul, “God has dealt with our alienation. He’s dealt with our alienation.” Our alienation from God, we have to explain to our people, is two-sided, isn’t it? We’re alienated from God on account of our own rebellion against him, and we’re alienated from God on account of his wrath against the sinner. And therefore, unless there is one who comes in the place, unless there is a mediator… And I’m not so sure that some of us are not actually falling foul of this—and I say it first to myself—that we think that because we tell people the benefits of the gospel, or we warn them about the dangers of rejecting the gospel, that we actually think that we’ve told them the gospel, when we haven’t. And they go away going, “He’s very steamed up about that, but for the life of me, I can’t think what he’s on about.” There’s nothing that will dull the soul of a man more than exhortations minus substance—a hortatory ministry that is not didactic, that does not actually provide the basis upon which the appeal is made. Paul does not fall foul of that. And what he says here in this section is essentially that in Christ, as we saw last night—and we don’t need to go back through it, because our time is almost gone—but everything lacking in us is given to us in Jesus, that everything sinful in us is imputed to Christ, and all the judgment that we deserve is borne by Christ.

As I was listening to the study last evening, I was trying to remember four verbs that I think I got from John Stott, and I can’t be certain that these are right, because I couldn’t find them, and I didn’t have time to look, but I think they’re these. Stotty, talking about the righteousness of God, in the context of our study last evening, says this is a righteousness, first of all, that God requires of us if we are ever to stand before him. Secondly, it is a righteousness that God achieves for us in the atoning sacrifice of his Son. Thirdly, it is a righteousness that is proclaimed to us in the offer of the gospel. And fourthly, it is a righteousness that is bestowed upon those who trust themselves to Christ.[21] It is that kind of clarity that is essential. [Richard] Hooker, in his day, said, “We care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man ha[s] sinned, and God ha[s] suffered; that God ha[s] made himself the sin of [man], and that men are made the righteousness of God.”[22]

Clarity. Secondly, authority or boldness. I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said that preparation is power. What he meant by that is, “You better know what you’re talking about.” And clarity in relationship to the gospel makes it far easier for us to be bold because we’ve been clear. And you will notice that Paul here is absolutely convinced that he is, as are others who have been reconciled, an ambassador of Christ. “We are,” he says, “therefore Christ’s ambassadors.” Why? Because God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” We have become the messengers of good news. God has done this.

You know, I can get a little St. Andrew’s Cross—that is, a Scottish flag—dress up in a kilt, and go to Washington, DC, and offer to speak on Capitol Hill on behalf of the nation of Scotland, and everybody would just tell me, “Go away, little man. You’re a strange little person. You have no basis at all to be here.” But if I am sent by Her Majesty’s government, then irrespective of my dress, I may come as an ambassador, representing an authority that is not my own.

Where does such a sense of authority come from? “Well,” he says, “we fear God.” “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.”[23] Where is the fear of the Lord tied? To the judgment of God. Because Paul was afraid that on that great day of the last assize, he would be set aside? No. Because he was concerned that having preached to others, he would not become a castaway.[24] Because he was concerned that on the day when his work was tested, it would prove to be gold and silver and precious stones and not wood, hay, and stubble.[25] And the sense of authority is that which bows down before God’s judgment and stands to its feet on the strength of Christ’s love. The judgment of God and the love of Christ, verse 14: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced,” and it is on account of this that he makes his appeal through us.

Now, it’s clear that this ministry of reconciliation falls to more than the pastor-teacher. Interestingly, Calvin, in his commentary, ties it almost directly to ministers, and he says that this is the task of the minister to be the ambassador of Christ. And then he says, “Not to glorify the minister but to confront the listeners, so that when they hear the gospel, they may know that God is dealing with them.”[26] “They may know that God is dealing with them.”

There’s all the difference in the world between a kind of bombastic approach, an authoritarian approach that is derivative of our personality, or our peculiar style of delivery, or whatever it might be—there’s a vast disparity between that and what Paul is addressing here. This is not an authority of our own engendering. This is not an authority that comes by way of our schooling or by way of any particular gifts and graces. This is the authority whereby that divine dialogue takes place, in some mysterious fashion that none of us can fully articulate nor even understand, when, when God’s Word is truly preached, that God’s voice is really heard, and that people that we have never met find themselves responding to the voice of God. Responding to the voice of God.

The gospel is not just good. The gospel is not just fine. The gospel is vital. The gospel is indispensable.

If you’re confident in this, if you’re clear in this, then it will enable you not only to be bold, but finally, to be urgent. To be urgent. That’s the significance of the verb. I think in the King James Version, it is, “We beseech you.” Here, it is, “We implore you,” in the NIV. I’m not sure what it is in the ESV. But it’s a strong verb: “We implore you.” There’s no sense of which people coming to the end of the sermon say, “Oh well, that’s it, sermon’s over. Let’s go get a coffee. Let’s go through the bookstore. It’s all done now. Let’s just get on with our day. Where are we going? Brunch. Yes, brunch. Here we go.”

A lot of that has to do with the approach and the style and the nature of the way in which we establish our parameters of gathered worship. But a lot of it actually owes to us. We can’t give the impression that we are clever and that God is great simultaneously. We can’t give the impression that we can’t wait to get home to see the final few holes of the TPC and then expect that our own congregation is not ready to get out too. The urgency that attaches to it is because of the gravity of the situation: alienation, reconciliation; life, death; salvation, condemnation; heaven, hell.

There are not many hymns about hell. In fact, hell is hardly mentioned in hymnody at all. That’s why this verse from an old hymn in England stands out so clearly. And listen to this verse as it pictures unrepentant sinners facing the reality of eternity. And the hymn writer writes as follows:

But sinners, filled with guilty fear,
Shall see his wrath prevailing,
For they shall rise and find their tears
Are wholly unavailing;
The day of grace is past and gone;
They trembling stand before the throne
All unprepared to meet him.[27]

“All unprepared to meet him.”

The gospel is not just good. The gospel is not just fine. The gospel is vital. The gospel is indispensable. Hence, those who have been most effective proclaimers of the gospel have been those who have been clear and bold and urgent.

Now, it would be dreadful if I didn’t just take a moment to read from this book after my dear friend went and got it for me. So here is the end. Here is the end.

Examples, mentors, are vital to all of us, aren’t they? And I’ve sometimes done this as an exercise with some of my friends, and I’ve read them the closing paragraphs from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s evangelistic sermons. And then I’ve asked them to tell me, “Who do you think this was, and what do you think their theological paradigm was?” And most of the time, they get it dead wrong. Because they’re in danger of being tripped up in their own theological drawers.

Listen to how Lloyd-Jones closes a sermon that he has preached—as only he could do—on the gospel from Exodus 3:3–5, which begins, “And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”[28] There’s a good homiletical exercise: go home this afternoon and come up with a good evangelistic sermon from that. But anyway, this is how he finishes up:

If you remain in your so-called objective attitude of investigation and inquiry and are merely interested in religion, you will never know it. You will remain a slave to sin, and you will be in darkness and go to perdition. But if only you stop, if only you listen, if only you take off your shoes and give up your pride of intellect and all these others things, and humble yourself as a little child, and listen to the message concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came from heaven to earth, he will make a new person of you. He will deliver you from the bondage of sin and Satan and evil and take you by the hand at last to present you to God faultless and perfect and to usher you into that eternal bliss.

And then if some of us can still hear his voice, “My dear friend…” He was always saying, “My dear friend…”

My dear friend, have you met God? Do you know God? Are you ready to meet God? Have you heard God’s Word to you? Have you heard God telling you, “I know your sorrows, and I have done this about it”? “I have sent my Son to deliver you, to set you free.” Are you free? Has Christ delivered you? Do you know your sins are forgiven? Have you received life anew? You have but to listen and believe this simple message, to tell God that you accept it and that you’re trusting yourself and your whole life to him, and then you will know it and experience it as a blessed reality. If you have not already done so, take off thy shoes from off thy feet and listen and believe.


He finishes!

Well, you can’t imagine him saying, “You are dismissed.” Dismissed into perdition? Dismissed into your lostness?

Christ commissions us to present Christ to the unsaved sinner, urging, pleading that they might commit themselves to Christ in order that they might be saved. And brethren, in this persuasive preaching there need be no restraint save the restraints of Scripture. There need be no restraint.

Final quote from Professor Murray—the late Professor Murray. And when I read this, it made me want to jump up on my desk. But it was such a mess, I couldn’t: “Wherever there is faith as slender as one strand of a spider’s web, there the fullness of redeeming grace is active.” “Whoever comes to me,” said Jesus, “I will never drive away.”

Well, let’s just pray.

We use as our closing prayer the collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662:

Almighty God, who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, grant to your people that they may love what you command and desire what you promise; that so, among the many changes of the world, our hearts may be surely fixed where true joys are to be found. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 (paraphrased).

[2] See Acts 17:2–3.

[3] 2 Timothy 4:3–5; 3:14–15 (paraphrased).

[4] 2 Timothy 1:8 (paraphrased).

[5] 2 Timothy 1:11–12 (paraphrased).

[6] See 2 Corinthians 1:4–8.

[7] 2 Corinthians 12:7 (paraphrased).

[8] W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1951), 11.

[9] 2 Corinthians 4:7 (paraphrased).

[10] Numbers 22:28 (paraphrased).

[11] 2 Corinthians 4:4 (NIV 1984).

[12] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 5.1.

[13] C. H. Spurgeon, “Election No Discouragement,” in Trumpet Calls to Christian Energy: Being a Collection of Sermons Preached on Sunday and Thursday Evenings at the Metropolitan Tabernacle (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 31.

[14] See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985; repr., New York: Penguin, 1987), 142–44.

[15] Postman, 148.

[16] Acts 17:30 (NIV 1984).

[17] Oswald J. Smith, “Jesus Only, Let Me See” (1914).

[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 9:22 (paraphrased).

[20] 2 Timothy 4:5 (paraphrased).

[21] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1994), 62.

[22] “A Learned Discourse of Justification, Works, and How the Foundation of Faith Is Overthrown,” in The Works of That Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker: With an Account of His Life and Death (Oxford: Clarendon, 1865), 2:606.

[23] 2 Corinthians 5:11 (RSV).

[24] See 1 Corinthians 9:27.

[25] See 1 Corinthians 3:12–13.

[26] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849), 2:236. Paraphrased.

[27] T. Cotterill, trans., “Great God, What Do I See and Hear?” (1820). Lyrics lightly altered.

[28] Exodus 3:3 (KJV).

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.