This is the desire and passion of my heart, that the glory and majesty of God mediated through the preaching of the Word of God, would be on display for all to see!
Soli Deo Gloria!
This is the desire and passion of my heart, that the glory and majesty of God mediated through the preaching of the Word of God, would be on display for all to see!
When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia. But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.
II Corinthians 2:12-16 ESV
After a very long break we return to our journey through II Corinthians. In this passage I want to look at the theme of missional living and then I may treat the topic of discerning God’s will in a later post, for which this passage also gives insight.
An Open Door
Many people, including myself, have often used the term “open door” to refer to an opportunity from the Lord to advance in life situation or ministry. This is not a bad term and it is used in Colossians 4:3 where Paul is expressing a desire for an “open door” to preach the Word. But we often treat the “open door” as a sure sign of God’s will and walking through it is a matter of obedience not subject to prudence. We often elevate the concept of an open door to the level of Scripture and bemoan when we allow open doors to pass us by as having “missed” the will of God for our lives.
However, Paul did not see it this way and in fact he saw some things, namely finding Titus, as more important the walking though this open door! For Paul there was a much more important principle in play. There was an open door “in the Lord” but Paul, as a matter of prudence, was not at rest in his spirit.
Paul goes on to make clear that not finding Titus and not walking through the open door was not a defeat or setback. After speaking of leaving this open door he breaks out in praise, much in the same way as he did in 1:15-20. He explains the circumstances that led to his diversion from Troas to Macedonia and instead of being regretful he inserts a “but” declaring “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere”. Focus hard on the words always and everywhere. As we saw in 1:15-20, Paul is much more concerned with purpose than he is with place. We spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere we go and it is never in vain for he always leads us in triumphal procession!
Place is not important, purpose is. Paul understood that, this is why he was able to spend so much time in prison with steadfastness. This is why when Agabus warned Paul of the impending trouble in Jerusalem and the Caesarean believers begged him not to go (Acts 21), that he was able to stay focused on the purpose before him, knowing that whether in the market, in the synagogue, or in jail he was always being led in triumphal procession, spreading everywhere the aroma of Christ! Regardless of where we are, according to God’s plan working through our purpose, we are the aroma of Christ. As messengers of him this does not change. Missionary activity is not confined to the location of our “calling” or where there are “open doors” but as “ambassadors of Christ” we are the aroma of Christ wherever we go spreading the knowledge of him.
Aroma of Christ
We see then that everywhere we go at all times we are to be the aroma of Christ. We see that we are not bound to any one location. If prudence dictates that the accomplishment of our purpose, namely obedience to the Matthew 28 commission, be better advanced elsewhere, our conscience is not enslaved and we are free to go, having confidence that wherever we go we are led by Christ as his aroma to the world.
Now what is the nature of this aroma? Getting this right has very real missiological implications. If we are to get this passage right we must see that we are a singular aroma. The aroma of Christ is not in of itself a smell of life and death. For the perception of stench or sweetness is in the one smelling, not in the smell itself. We are not the ones, then as the censers of Christ, that determine whether we are an aroma of life or death. Our goal thus is not to change what people smell, but only by faithfulness to the Word to make certain that what they are smelling is indeed Christ; whether that be to them a smell of death or a sweet perfume of life!
This knowledge relieves a great burden in reality, for in it is a reliance upon God for his work through our spreading of the aroma of or Word of Christ. For indeed the sovereignty of God in salvation is found in this passage, for I cannot on my own volition decide that a rose smells like dung or vice-versa. The smell is what it is. My perception of smell is determined by sensory, biological traits common to man. If what I perceive to smell like death is to turn to the smell of sweetness, then I must be altered on a biological, psychological level that cannot be willed. Thus if I am to smell Christ and deem him to be the aroma of life, then I must be a different creature than the one who would perceive him to reek of death. If to the natural man, dead in sin, Christ is commonly known to stink of death, then it is only a different category of man, the spiritual man –alive in Christ- that commonly knows the smell of Christ to be a pleasing aroma.
Do not then dare attempt to manipulate the essence of Christ to make it more pleasing to a perishing world, for in doing so he will fail to even be the essence of life to some! It is only by spreading the aroma of true knowledge of him that some will smell life!
Finally, like Paul, do not fret about open doors. Do not hunt for them, sitting paralyzed until God opens a door for you. This is not the life that you are meant to live. No, for Christ always leads you wherever you are in triumphant spreading of his aroma. Do not allow your life and ministry to be dictated by place or circumstance alone, though these may be legitimate factors, instead have a single, biblical purpose that you pursue with sincerity of heart, not in self-confidence, but with confidence in the one who always leads you in triumphal procession.
Western Christians have bought into the lie that they have inalienable rights.
Some may consider that to be a startling statement. But it is true. Christians, particularly conservative Christians in America, have given themselves over to the idea that they have rights. I think we all have a good sense of what is meant when I refer to “rights”, but I will clarify. By the word “right” what is meant is those things which are good, proper, and fitting in light of being. We think of this as also being what is justly deserved (an example of which would be of a murderer who we may say has given up his right to live). In this case the idea is that as a human being I have certain things which are good, proper, and fitting for me to demand.
But can I make demands? Do I actually have any rights that are inherent? There are two ways that we can categorize rights: vertical and horizontal. Vertical rights are those which I have from God and are exercised in relation to God. Horizontal rights are those basic rights which I have as a human among humans, this is where the real meat of my point lies, but we will get there in time.
This one should be simple. As a creature I have no rights that I may demand of the Creator. “Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”(Romans 9:20 ESV). We see rights bestowed by God, such as the right to become sons of God (Jn 1:12), but these rights are conditional and are freely given by God. They are not inherent rights. In fact, if we consider a right as we have defined it, then any right bestowed by God is an act of grace and mercy that goes against that which is good, proper, and fitting for a rebellious creature. This places it in a very different category of thought than the typical conception of a right, for you can make no demands on the basis of a gift.
Any rights that man may have had as a result of being image bearers of God and of His glory, he relinquished such rights when he rebelled and exchanged the glory he was to reflect for the glory of himself, the created. Mankind is now like a helpless beggar, with nothing to demand and only for mercy to plead. Man can make no demands of God. Even as the redeemed stand before the judgment bar, it will be Christ that will vouch for them. They will not be able to say, “I am your child. You must let me enter your eternal blessedness”; indeed one Word is all that will suffice “Christ”. I have no demand to make but can only defer to the One who has every right.
But does the reality of my having no vertical rights have any bearing on my rights among my fellow man? Can I not, as a fellow in equal created order and being, make demands? Have I no rights among my peers, fallen though we may be?
The problem with this for the Christian is that it assumes there are two spheres of life; one in which God is central and one in which man is central. The problem with believing that we have horizontal rights is that the exercise or protection of those rights horizontally (among peers, fellow man) will eventually become a vertical issue.
Let us take as our primary example, especially to a western audience, the Enlightenment summary of quintessential, “inherent” rights; the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What happens when my fellow man stands in the way of either of those being fulfilled? Can I as a Christian demand that right? What about when the government denies me one of those three rights? Can I then rebel? Let us carry the usual argument to its logical end. What happens when an unexpected pregnancy gets in the way our your right to live the life you want? What about the law not allowing you and your same sex partner to get married, thus disrupting your liberty? What if you find out that the baby inside of you has down’s syndrome, disrupting your pursuit of happiness? Don’t you have any rights? What happens when my annoying neighbor is getting in the way of my happiness? How do I responds to the dozens of ways that my basic rights are encroached upon?
Here we see where there are many instances where the protection of horizontal rights becomes a vertical issue! Beloved friends, Christ shows us a better way.
If I am correct and we have no rights which we may demand, how then do we treat each other? There are three main ways that we are commanded to interact horizontally as mankind: Love you neighbor (Mt 5:43, Rom 13:10, 1 Cor 10:24), Submit to rulers and authorities whoever they may be by God’s sovereign decree (Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1-2, 1 Pt 2:17), esteem others higher than yourselves (Rom 12:3, Phil 2:3,4). This is the standard for the believer and thus the name of this post is what it is for I believe that the protection of the one is at odds with the other. In fact they war against each other!
The second greatest commandment is that “You love your neighbor as yourself”(Matt 22:39). This is a command that is binding to all and that can be applied to wherever you live as a Christian, whether it be the United States or North Korea. Wherever you are you have the right to carry a cross and to love your neighbor. Christians, that is what we are called to.
Finally I want to leave you with the following admonition. When it comes to our horizontal relationship with man I offer this comparison. If our foundation for a our relationship with man is based in individuals rights that we see ourselves as having, then we will eventually defend those rights if they are challenged as we see them as inseparable from who we are. On the other hand, if we take the Biblical perspective, we realize that we have no rights to demand as we realize that God is supremely sovereign. So setting aside any notion of rights that I have, I treat others in a “Gospel way” as I view myself in a “Gospel way”. What I mean by a Gospel way is that as a believer, I realize that I have no rights to claim God’s mercy and only the right to perish as a result of my fallen state. The great Puritan John Owen said that “Man by his sin has forfeited his right to all the ends of his creation, both on earth and in heaven”. In light of that is the knowledge that I have been made by God’s sovereign call a recipient of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus is God and he has all the rights and he came down and did not exercise his rights as God and became a man who has no rights in order that we might be saved. Christ could have laid claim on any number of rights as God at any time, yet he did not, and he laid them down all the way to that tree on Golgotha where his blood was spilt for the sins of fallen, God-despising man. Now I am commanded that the same mind that was in Christ be in me. (Phil 2:5)
Primarily when we think of what regeneration and sanctification have in common we should conclude that the answer is that both are works of the Holy Spirit. In regeneration the Spirit, working through the Word, creates new life. In Sanctification the Spirit, working through the Word, brings about the effects or fruit of new life.
We could talk of the different means by which the Spirit works regeneration and sanctification. But I would like to devote my time to what I consider to be the primary means of both. That is to say what happens, what shift takes place when one goes from death to life, dark to light, bondage to freedom and then continues on to higher heights and greater resemblance to the one through whom all this was obtained, Jesus Christ.
This primary means is where the commonality lies between the Spirit’s work in Sanctification and His work in Regeneration. The means is the revelation of the “glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ“. Or the Gospel.
When we think of Gospel, or Good News, I hope what we are thinking of is the message that God the Creator of all things, redeems rebellious man to himself through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. So what then does Gospel and glory have in common? Even more so what is meant by the Gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God? In short the glory of God is the holiness, majesty, perfection, might and transcendence of God. His infinite worth to which nothing can compare. In Christ we see the good news of this worth and perfection displayed. For in perfection Christ displayed the glory of God in the salvation of sinners by satisfying the justice of God by displaying the love of God through his vicarious, atoning death on the cross. At the cross the perfect love of God and the perfect justice of God met in perfect harmony. Then Christ rose from the dead as a testament to the perfect righteousness of God. It is only through what Christ has accomplished that we can behold God’s glory and enjoy Him forever in all his beauty and boundless worth! God created us for His glory. To praise him for it and to reflect it as his image bearers.
The problem with us fallen humanity is that without the regenerating, revelatory work of the Spirit through the Word we would never desire God or see him as the infinite treasure that he is. As those that had fallen “short of the glory of God” we were “dead in our trespasses and sins“. Instead of treasuring the boundlessly glorious and lovely One, we exchanged what we refused by nature to see the value in for images of cheap imitations of glory – created things. Like the cosmos before creation in Genesis 1, we were “formless and void” and “darkness covered the face” of our being. There was no single cell organism floating around. There was not even a random collection of elements waiting to be mixed. There was deadness. There was void. There was darkness. But God was still at work. His Spirit was hovering over that inky blackness and then… the command came.
“Let – there – be – Light”.
And there was light. Where there had been death, void, and inky blackness was now life, substance, and sight. The Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel message, brought vivification and for the first time we were able to see what was beautiful, to perceive what is worthy, and to respond appropriately to such sight and perception. This response is nearly simultaneous and it consists of faith and repentance.
It is not true that saving faith is blind faith. Rather saving faith is that which is informed by spiritual sight and not physical sight. That spiritual sight is this very sight that we are talking of. The first thing that these new eyes behold is the radiance of God’s glory in the revelation of Jesus Christ through the Gospel word. Jesus said “He who has seen me has seen the Father” and Hebrews tell us that “He is the radiance of the glory of God”. Faith is thus an irresistible response to Spirit-given sight in regeneration, for it is a sight that is based on what is seen with the eyes of the heart. Faith is a response to spiritual reality in the heart.
Repentance also is an inevitable response of this regenerating work, for as you behold the glory of God your sin is made plain for what it is. Though you may not see all your sin in one moment, you see the state of your depravity and are made to stand in fear as you consider your rebellion before God. One day “every knee will bow” because they will behold the glory of the Lord, but for the regenerate soul that submission begins when their spiritual senses are vivified and brought to a perception of the majesty and holiness of God. Isaiah, when he beheld the glory of the Lord filling the temple, was struck with fear at the sight and cried “Woe is me! For I am lost!”.
Therefore, we see that when we become a new creation in Christ, the Spirit grants us spiritual sight that we might believe and such sight as beholds the holiness and majesty of God which brings about repentance.
But. The Spirit does not stop with that initial sight-giving act but sustains it and it is by this sustaining that we persevere in sanctification.
Just as the primary means of our regeneration is the spiritual sight which brings about a “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”, leading to repentance and faith, so also this sight continues and by it we are sanctified; transformed more and more into the image of Christ. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen defines it this way “The sanctification of the Spirit is peculiarly connected with, and limited to the doctrine, truth, and grace of the Gospel, for holiness is the implanting , writing, and realizing of the Gospel in our souls”. True regeneration will always lead to sanctification. For as the Spirit brought life to all things at creation and now also sustains the life of all creation (Job 34:14-15), so also the elect owe their spiritual life and growth to the ongoing vivification of the Spirit.
Again, as I set out to prove, like in regeneration, the primary means of the Spirit in sanctification is in the revelation of the glory of God in Christ. For “we all (those regenerated), with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit”(2 Cor 3:18). In theological terms it could be said that the initial sight at regeneration, that burst of light that God declares over the inky blackness of our souls, produces a repentance that comes about as a result of our definitive or positional sanctification by the Spirit. Then the continual viewing of the glory of God in the Gospel brings about progressive sanctification which results in a daily repentance; a daily turning from sin and turning to God. As we behold him, we become more like him. For the verse above say that we are “transformed into the same image“. Also, just as beholding him brought an awareness of our sin and undone state, so a continued beholding, a deepening knowledge of God, leads to a deepening knowledge of self and of sin.
The question we must ask then is, “How do we continue to behold the glory of the Lord?” There are certain means by which we do this and it is due to lack of use of these means that many a regenerate person is carnal and weak. The primary means is that by which we were at first brought to life, the Word of God which is the Gospel. Just as God spoke over us and said “Let light shine out of darkness”, so God has spoken in His Word to His church for all time. It is through Christ, through the Word, that God is revealed. What God has spoken about himself is how we know God; how we see him with that spiritual sight that has been given to us. Thus if we neglect the Bible, then we neglect to grow in the knowledge of God, which means that transformation will stagnate. As time passes and our vision dims as a result of our finitude and abiding corruption we may find ourselves even beginning to backslide. Progressive sanctification is the Spirit’s work in our hearts as we behold the glory of God by His word and respond accordingly, just as we did at the very beginning. Other means that could be discussed are prayer, communion, and fellowship of the saints but I will save that for another time.
In this life we can scarcely remove our eyes from that which is beautiful. When standing on a mountain peak or looking toward the stars on a clear night we are in awe and at times wish that the moment would never end. So the Spirit has revealed the glory of Christ to those of us that were blind until God spoke his creating decree and breathed out his Spirit, creating new life. Now that sight has come and we gaze upon the splendor of this God who has displayed his glory in Christ for His chosen people to see. The Spirit’s work of revealing the holiness, worth, splendor, love and justice of God does not end with the initial creating work in the new birth, but he continues to sustain it so that with spiritual sight and understanding we may continue to behold the glory of the Lord in a way that only increases. As we behold this radiance we begin to reflect it in our own lives until one day when we see Christ face-to-face. Then in that wonderful moment “we shall be like him“. Why will we be like him? For no other reason than why we began to look more like him in this life -because we saw him. Only on that day when we really see him “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2) in that place where there is no sun “for the glory of God will give it light” (Rev 21:23).
I have been often helped and encouraged by the timeless words below, written by one of the greatest theologians the Lord has granted the church. Read and be encouraged as well. You are not you own… you belong to the One who created you and bought you with his precious blood.
“If we, then, are not our own but the Lord’s, it is clear what error we must flee, and whither we must direct all the acts of our life. We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us…. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone.”
John Calvin (1509–1564) Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), III.VII.I., 690.