Qualified for Ministry (Mike Riccardi)

2 Corinthians 3:4-6   |   Sunday, May 31, 2015   |   Code: 2015-05-31-MR

Well we return again to our study in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in which we are learning more and more about the nature of true Christian ministry. This is what the letter of 2 Corinthians is about: it’s about understanding the true character of biblical, apostolic Christian ministry. And not just vocational ministry; not just full-time ministry as a pastor or a theology professor or a missionary. If there’s anything that the New Testament teaches us over and over again it is that the ordinary, run-of-the-mill, nobody-special Christian life is a life that is to be laid down and lived in ministry. If you are a Christian, you have been called to minster in the service of your brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, and in the service of your unbelieving neighbors who do not yet know Christ.


And it continues to be my prayer for you, as we study this great epistle together, that you would all be confronted with your duty to minister to the body of Christ in sacrificial service and to proclaim the Gospel to the lost who need the Savior; and that as we learn more about what true ministry looks like, that each of you would be asking yourself how you can be more faithful in the ministry that God has called you to. How can you dedicate more of yourselves to the spiritual growth of your fellow-believers? How can you discipline yourself to be more intentional in preaching the Gospel to those the Lord puts in your path? These are the kinds of questions that I hope you’re asking as we study this magnum opus on the Christian ministry from the pen of the Apostle Paul.


And 2 Corinthians really is just that: a magnum opus on the Christian ministry from the greatest Christian minister in the history of the Church, apart from the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Apostle Paul has been driven to define and defend his own apostolic ministry, as he had recently come under attack by false teachers who had wormed their way into the church at Corinth. In order for these men—whom Paul describes as peddlers of the Word of God—in order for them to successfully hawk their wares to the Corinthian believers, they have to discredit the ministry of the Apostle Paul. And so they throw accusation after accusation at him in order to sow doubt into the Corinthians’ minds about whether Paul is even a true apostle sent from Christ! “After all,” they’d say, “Paul wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles! He wasn’t sent out from the original church in Jerusalem! He’s not qualified to minister as an apostle!”


And so one of Paul’s key concerns in this section of his letter to the Corinthians is to answer the question: “Who is qualified to serve as a minister of the Gospel of Christ?” To use the imagery of chapter 2, verses 14 to 16: Who is qualified to march alongside Christ, the conquering general, in the triumphal procession over sin and death throughout the world? Who is adequate to be the instrument through whom Almighty God Himself manifests the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ in every place? Who is competent to be a fragrance of Christ to God—both among those who are being saved and those who are perishing? Who is sufficient to speak the message of the Gospel as if he were the very mouth of God Himself, declaring to men and women that they are sinners, that they’ve offended the holy God of heaven, and are so characterized by spiritual and moral depravity that they will justly pay for their sins by suffering God’s wrath in eternal torment?


This is what Christian ministry is, friends! This is what you and I are called to! And under the weight of such enormous significance and responsibility, Paul then erupts in a rhetorical exclamation in verse 16: “And who is adequate for these things?!” Who is competent? Who is sufficient? Who is qualified for Christian ministry? And in verse 17, he gives an abbreviated answer to that question. In that single verse, Paul gives a condensed profile of the sufficient servant of the Gospel, made adequate by God’s grace. He says he is one who does not peddle the Word of God, but who preaches it with integrity and sincerity, who is commissioned by God, accountable to God, and who ministers in the strength of his union with Christ. These are the qualifications of those who would undertake the Christian ministry.


And though the false apostles might be able to produce letters of commendation from a sect within the church of Jerusalem, the credentials of Paul’s apostolic authenticity isn’t a physical letter written by man on paper and with ink. No, the transformed lives of the Corinthians themselves are Paul’s letter of commendation—written by the Lord Jesus Christ with the Spirit of the living God Himself. The true measure of a man’s ministry is the Spirit-wrought Christlikeness of the people who have been influenced by that ministry. The certificate of authenticity that certified Paul’s apostolic ministry was the sanctification of living, breathing Corinthian men and women—once enslaved to sin and self, now laying their lives down to serve one another and to preach the Gospel of Christ’s saving grace into the debauched paganism of first-century Corinth. And that change has happened because of the Gospel that Paul preached to them.


Now, with that in mind, we’ve again picked up the flow of thought as we come to our passage this morning. After citing the Spirit-wrought fruit of the transformed lives of the Corinthians as his letter of commendation, Paul returns again to answering that question that he asked in chapter 2 verse 16: “Who is adequate for these things?” What marks the man or woman who is qualified for this ministry to which we have been called? And though he’s already given an abbreviated answer to that question in verse 17 (as we just mentioned), in verses 4 through 6 of chapter 3, Paul amplifies that abridged response and further elaborates upon the characteristics of the qualified minister.


Let’s read our passage in its full context, starting in 2 Corinthians 2:16, going all the way down to chapter 3 verse 6. Paul writes, “And who is adequate for these things? 17For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God. 3:1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”


And so in addition to proclaiming the Word of God in integrity, in sincerity, as commissioned from God, accountable to God, and in Christ—and in addition to being used as an instrument of God for the salvation and sanctification of His people—Paul expounds on three more characteristics of the servant qualified for Christian ministry.


And as you continue to press on in pursuit of greater faithfulness in the ministry that God has called you to—both to the saints in the church and to the lost outside the church—my prayer is that these three characteristics of the qualified minister will be a helpful aid in equipping you for the work of the ministry.


I. A Confidence in Christ’s Calling (v. 4)


First, the qualified minister is characterized by a confidence in Christ’s calling.  Look again at verse 4: “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God.”


The trials of ministry are real. We spoke a number of weeks ago about battling discouragement in ministry, as we saw Paul’s restlessness of both body and spirit outlined for us in chapter 2, verses 12 and 13—as he waited with bated breath for Titus to meet him at Troas, and to inform him of how the Corinthians received his letter. Paul faced the gauntlet of ministerial trials, outlining just some of them in 2 Corinthians 11: labors, imprisonments, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks; dangers from rivers and robbers, dangers from Jews and Gentiles, dangers in the cities and in the wilderness; sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, in cold and exposure. In chapter 4 verse 10 he says he is always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus. And in verse 11 he says he is constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake. And apart from such external things, he says back in 2 Corinthians 11:28, there is the daily pressure on him of concern for all the churches—there is that kind of perennial sanctified anxiety that a spiritual father has for the well-being of his spiritual children, whom he knows to be in spiritual danger. And now, on top of all of that, he’s being persecuted by these false apostles, who have even succeeded in persuading the Corinthians to doubt the legitimacy of Paul’s ministry.


Were there any times that Paul reflected on all his trials—all of the challenges and pressures that seemed to never let up in his ministry—when he began to doubt whether he was doing what he was supposed to be doing? Did he ever ask himself if, with all of these constant difficulties—both from friends and enemies—if he was really the man for the job? The answer to that question is: Not at all. No matter what the discouragement, no matter what the obstacle, Paul’s confidence was sustained by the reality of Christ’s call on his life.


There was a time when Paul’s confidence resided in his own abilities and ministerial accomplishments. While he was persecuting the church of God, and advancing in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries (cf. Gal 1:13–14), Saul of Tarsus believed he had reason to “put confidence in the flesh” (cf. Phil 3:4). But it was on the Damascus road that the risen Christ burst out of heaven in a flash of blinding light and bowed this proud Pharisee to the ground (Acts 9:3–4). And by the sovereign, effectual call of the Lord Jesus Himself, though Paul couldn’t see anything with his physical eyes, the eyes of his heart were finally opened to behold the glory of the Messiah that he was persecuting. And at that point, whatever things were gains to him, he counted as loss for the sake of that risen Savior, and he was saved.


And along with that call to salvation came a call to ministry. As Paul recounts his conversion story to Agrippa in Acts 26, he recounts the Lord Jesus saying, “But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness. . . . I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:16, 18). That was an unforgettable encounter with the Lord Jesus. It was a call to ministry that would anchor Paul’s heart for the next 30 years of his life. And though such an extraordinary interaction with Christ surely would be sufficient to anchor one’s heart for a lifetime, Paul’s resolve was only strengthened through repeated times of communion with Christ. And as he wrote of his confidence in Christ’s calling, I’m sure Paul remembered that instance recorded in Acts 18, when, during his original visit to Corinth in which he founded the church there, Christ came to him by night in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you.” And then on top of all of that, Christ has certified Paul’s ministry by writing him a letter of commendation on the hearts of the Corinthians.


You see it was Paul’s union with Christ in his conversion, and his communion with Christ in the sphere of his ministry, that gave Paul confidence in the midst of all the conflict he had to face on the road of service to Christ. No wonder he says in this verse, “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God.” The confidence to continue on in ministry even in the midst of the greatest challenges, heartaches, and persecutions came from the reality that Paul knew he was exactly where the Lord Jesus Christ had called him to be. All of his confidence was in the sovereign providence of the Lord who called him to ministry and now sustains him in ministry.


And the same should be true of us, GraceLife. As ministers who seek to be found faithful to the task we’ve been given—qualified to ride alongside our conquering general in the train of His triumphal procession—we also ought to have confidence in Christ’s calling of us. The challenges of the ministry you’ve been called to are real, are they not? We have been tasked with penetrating below the surface of superficial, polite conversation with professing Christians who, for the sake of hiding any number of sins in their life, would rather not get too deep with you at all. We are called to be in one another’s lives, and to sharpen one another—to strengthen one another’s hands in exposing and putting off sin, and putting on righteousness. And yet we are much more content, in our flesh, to keep the mood as light as can possibly be. “How’s work going?” “Did you see the Dodgers game the other day?” “Where you going on vacation?” And the moment someone attempts to turn the conversation toward Scripture—the moment someone senses that the levity is giving way to gravity and things that matter—the person who’s trying to get beneath the surface is looked at as an enthusiast or a fanatic—or, worst of all, a “legalist.” And you can be tempted to lose confidence. And so you keep quiet when you know you should speak. Your fear of man causes you to withhold the benefit of biblical instruction and correction from your brothers and sisters—to fail to love them by proclaiming the Word of God to them, by showing them Christ—because you’re afraid of how they’ll react.


How do we fight that? We draw confidence from Christ’s calling. We let the word of Christ richly dwell in us, and bring our minds to the directives of Scripture, which tell us, Hebrews 10:24: “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” And Hebrews 3:13: “But exhort one another day after day, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” And Romans 15:14: I “am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.” Friends, this is our ministry! This is what Christ has called us to do! And so when it gets difficult, and when it gets messy, and when we are tempted to lose heart and fail to carry out our duty, we can draw confidence from Christ’s calling.


The same goes for our ministry to the lost! Oh how rampant are the feelings of inadequacy in the church for doing the work of evangelism! We have an utterly foolish message to bring to the world! That the God of the universe has Himself become man in the Person of a Jewish carpenter, who was executed as a criminal on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago! And not only is that message foolish in the blinded minds of the world. It’s also extremely offensive to the pride of man. We are tasked with going to our neighbors, and simply declaring to them that they have so offended the Holy God of the universe that they deserve to perish eternally in hell. And that nothing they can do of themselves is sufficient to earn them heaven, but they must confess their own utter inability and look entirely outside of themselves to Christ alone for righteousness!


Oh how inadequate we feel for this task! “Well, what if I say the wrong thing? What if they ask a question that I don’t know the answer to? What if they raise an objection that I can’t refute?” And our flesh concocts all manner of excuses that tempt us to withhold the message of life from our neighbors who so desperately need to hear the Good News of salvation granted freely through faith in Christ alone! But we can fight that temptation, dear friends! We can fight it by drawing confidence from Christ’s calling. He has saved us, brothers and sisters, for precisely this purpose. 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are ‘a chosen race,’ A royal ‘priesthood,’ ‘a holy nation,’ ‘a people for God’s own possession,’ so that. . . .” In other words, You are the people of God—God has made you His people—for a particular purpose, for a particular so that. And that is “that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Dear friends, you were saved by an excellent God, for the purpose of tasting His excellencies, and then proclaiming those excellencies to all who will listen!


Or 2 Corinthians 5:18: “Now, all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” GraceLife, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation! God has acted in Christ to reconcile the world to Himself, and He has committed to us the word—the Gospel—of reconciliation! And so we have been called as ambassadors for Christ! And so we beg people—we plead with people—to be reconciled to God through the Gospel of Christ! This. is what we do! And so when those temptations come—when we are tempted to lose heart and to be beaten into hateful silence—we can draw confidence from Christ’s calling! We can know that that difficult, uncomfortable, tense evangelistic conversation is exactly where Christ has called us to be! 2 Corinthians 4:1: “Therefore, since we have this ministry”—since Christ has called us to this ministry of Gospel proclamation—“we do not lose heart.” “Such is our confidence through Christ toward God.”


II. A Dependence on God’s Strength (vv. 5–6a)


A second characteristic of the qualified minister comes in verse 5. Not only is the authentic minister of the Gospel characterized by a confidence in Christ’s calling. He’s also marked, number two, by a dependence on God’s strength.  Look with me at verse 5, into the first part of verse 6: “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6who also made us adequate. . . .”


Paul has just spoken about his resolute confidence in Christ’s calling—that even in the knowledge of the sublime responsibilities of the ministry, and the difficult challenges of the ministry, he nevertheless possesses the confidence for the meeting of those challenges and for the discharge of those responsibilities. And he’s sure that the false apostles are ready to pounce on that statement, just as they did with others: “He spends all this time explaining how glorious and exalted and difficult and challenging the ministry is, and then the first thing he says is: ‘I’m confident I can do this.’ What arrogance! What self-congratulation! What braggadocio!” And so because Paul doesn’t want to be misunderstood or give anyone the wrong idea, he immediately clarifies his statement about his confidence in verse 5: “Not that we are adequate in ourselves . . . but our adequacy is from God.”


The source of Paul’s confidence is not Paul’s self-sufficiency. Yes, he is confident in the ministry that God has called him to. But that’s not because he surveys his abilities and talents, and finds the resources within himself as equal to the task he’s been given. Not at all! “Our adequacy is from God,” he says. “The only way that I can have any confidence in this glorious ministry to which Christ has called me is because I know the Almighty, all-sufficient God is the one who makes me sufficient by His sovereign enabling grace.” 1 Corinthians 15:10: I am what I am—how?—by the grace of God. “Whatever confidence I have for ministry is not based on self-sufficiency, but on God-sufficiency.”


Now it’s true, Paul was a man of towering intellect; he was the prize student of the most respected Rabbi in all of Jerusalem. But he says, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” 1 Corinthians 2:2. He was obviously a gifted communicator; we see evidence of that all over his letters. But he says, “My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom,” verse 4. Why? Verse 5: “. . .so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” “My ministry is not built upon my talents or my abilities, because I wanted to make sure that when God’s blessing came, it was plain to everyone that the source of that strength was His power, and not my wisdom!”  You see, the qualified minister must abandon any notion of self-sufficiency—any notion of being adequate in oneself. Because it is then, as we are eminently aware of our own insufficiency and weakness that the all-sufficient power of God might be put clearly on display!


And that helps us in our ministry as well, doesn’t it? In the first place, it teaches us to abandon any notion of self-sufficiency. It teaches us to rightly esteem ourselves as those who could never have anything in our ministry as coming from ourselves. That no matter what our natural abilities and talents are, we don’t build our ministry on our personality. We build our ministry on God’s strength, which is only ever magnified in our weakness. And so we, like Paul, boast in our weaknesses, so that the power of Christ might dwell in us. We can be well content with weakness, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor 12:9–10).


But then, in the second place, it also teaches us that no weakness or insufficiency in ourselves can be an excuse for failing to fulfill the ministry we’ve been given. You see, some of you will be tempted to fail at the ministry that God has given you because you have an over-inflated view of yourself, and you’re attempting to serve in your own strength, rather than in the strength that God supplies (1 Pet 4:11). But others of you will be tempted to fail at the ministry that God has given you because you have an over-inflated view of your weaknesses. You say things like, “Oh, I could never do that. I could never do what he does. Go door to door and preach the Gospel to strangers? No, I’m terrible with words; I wouldn’t know what to say; and I have a terrible memory and so I wouldn’t know which Scripture passages to turn to. . . .” “Go and strike up conversations with people so I can preach the Gospel? I don’t know, I’m just a very shy person, I’m more introverted, I get nervous when I don’t know what to say. . . .”


You know what? God’s heard it at all before. Turn briefly to Exodus chapter 4. God commands Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt—a ministry he’ll accomplish primarily by speaking to Pharaoh on behalf of God. And Moses felt his insufficiency. Look at verse 10: “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” “God, I can’t carry out this ministry that You’re calling me to! I’m a terrible public speaker!” What’s God’s response? Verse 11: “Who has made man’s mouth? . . . Is it not I, Yahweh? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.”


And we could spend the rest of the sermon looking at how that principle is illustrated all over the Scripture. God calls Isaiah to preach repentance to wayward Israel, and Isaiah says, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips!” (Isa 6:5). And immediately God sends an angel to purify Isaiah’s sin by touching a burning coal to his lips. God calls Gideon to deliver Israel from the Midianites, and Gideon says, “Lord, My family is the least in Manasseh, and I’m the youngest in my father’s house” (Jdg 6:15). And God says, “Surely I will be with you.” God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nation that will endure the Babylonian invasion, and Jeremiah says, “Alas, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, because I am a youth” (Jer 1:6). And God says, “Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you . . . Behold, I have put My words in your mouth” (Jer 1:9). Are you seeing a pattern here?! God seems to be interested in calling real losers to ministry, doesn’t He?


You see, God is not interested in the self-sufficient, self-reliant, got-it-all-together super-Christians to do His ministry! He is looking for weak, helpless, inadequate people who will humbly bow before the enormity of their ministerial calling, and will obey faithfully, and even boast in their weaknesses, because they know that then God’s strength will be on full display. The Lord assigns His ministers such impossible tasks precisely so that He can magnify the sufficiency of His grace against the backdrop of our own helplessness. To use the language of 2 Corinthians 4:7, He transports the treasure of the Gospel in unimpressive, weak, earthen vessels. Why? “So that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” So that when something amazing happens—so that when sinners are regenerated and the fragrance of Christ is an aroma of life to them—there will be no doubt about who is responsible for such blessings! Not us! But God alone!


III. A Message with the Spirit’s Power (v. 6b)


Well, we’ve seen that the faithful, sufficient, qualified minister of the Gospel is characterized first, by a confidence in Christ’s calling; and secondly, by a dependence on God’s strength. A third characteristic of the authentic Gospel minster has to do with the message more than the man himself. The qualified minister preaches a message infused with the Spirit’s power. His message is infused with the Spirit’s power. Look again with me at verse 6. Paul says, “. . . God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The qualified minister who is sent into the world by Christ preaches a New Covenant message.


Now we spoke about this last week. The false apostles who had infiltrated Corinth were Judaizers. Paul speaks about them preaching “another Jesus” and a “different gospel” in 2 Corinthians 11:4. And that different gospel—which, of course, Paul says in Galatians 1 is really no gospel at all—was that, Yes, you had to believe in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in order to be saved. But that wasn’t enough. You also had to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses, and to keep the customs of the Mosaic Covenant. And of course we know what Paul thinks of that. In Philippians 3:2, he calls the Judaizers dogs, evil workers, and—in a wordplay on the Greek word for “circumcision,”—mutilators of the flesh.


Why is he so severe? Because if we make commandment-keeping any part of the ground of our righteousness before God, we nullify grace and empty the cross of its power. That’s what he says in Galatians 2:21. He says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” And then again in Galatians 5:2: “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” You see, it’s all or nothing. It’s Moses or Christ. It’s law or grace. Because Christ will do everything, or He will do nothing. The Lord Jesus will not share the glory that is due to Him as Savior, with anyone or anything else! Romans 11:6: “But if [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” And if grace is no longer grace, then God is not magnified as the Supreme Giver and fountain of salvation. He must share that glory with the one who is obedient to the law. And this He is unwilling to do.


 But this is what the false apostles were preaching! That believers in Christ had to keep the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant in order to be saved! And so beginning here in 2 Corinthians 3, and all throughout the rest of the chapter, Paul sets up this contrast between Moses and Christ (3:13; cf. 4:6), between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant (3:14; cf. 3:6), between—as he says here—the letter and the Spirit. And his great burden is to show why the ministry of the Spirit—the New Covenant—is vastly superior to the ministry of the letter—the Old Covenant.


Now why is that? Why is the “letter”—and we see in verse 7 that what Paul means by “the letter” is the Mosaic Law; he refers to giving of Moses Law as “the ministry . . . in letters engraved on stones.” This is referring to the same thing he mentioned in verse 3, when he spoke of letters written on “tablets of stone.” This is the Mosaic Law, represented by the Ten Commandments, which, Exodus 31:18 tells us, were inscribed on tablets of stone by the very finger of God Himself. So why is the “letter” inferior to the “Spirit”? Why is the New Covenant, so vastly superior to the Mosaic Covenant? The answer Paul gives here, is that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.


How does the letter kill? Well, when the Mosaic Covenant was given, it was given as a means for those who were already God’s people to receive the promised blessings of God’s kingdom. God had already joined Israel to Himself in covenant by means of His promise to Abraham. And He ordained that the means by which the blessings promised in the Abrahamic Covenant would be enjoyed would be obedience to the Law that He had given to Moses. Covenant blessing is for the righteous, and the standard is perfect obedience to His Law (MacArthur, 88). Now, the problem with that is not anything having to do with the Law itself. Paul says in Romans 7:12 that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” The problem is: us. The problem is you and me. The problem is that man, in the natural state of his fallenness, has a heart of stone. He can’t keep the Law perfectly! Even though it is holy and righteous and good, and even though the promise of life attends obedience—Leviticus says the one who practices my statutes shall live by them (Lev 18:5)—we are sinful! And so Galatians 3:10 says, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.” James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”


And so the Law kills because when it is met with sinful human nature that fails to meet its standard of perfection, it pronounces upon us a sentence of death. The law of commandments contained in ordinances (cf. Eph 2:15) merely informs us of our duty. It showed us the perfect, righteous standard of a holy God, and showed us the way we were to walk if we were to be in relationship with Him and receive His blessings. But because it was merely a letter, written on stone, it could never provide the power for obedience. It could only show us how far short we have fallen of the glory of God! And so the Law aroused the sinful passions and exasperated the sinful nature. It brought frustration, guilt, and shame for not keeping it, and it promised eternal damnation and separation from God for all of humanity who fell short of its standard.


And that is what we all deserved! To be left, helpless before the righteous standard of God’s law, powerless to avoid the condemnation of hell. But by God’s amazing grace, the last word was not given on Sinai. Turn to Jeremiah 31. Starting in verse 31, God says, “Behold, days are coming. . .when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them. 33But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” And then in Ezekiel 36, verses 26 and 27: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”


The promise of the New Covenant is that we will not be left to ourselves—in our sinful hearts of stone—to deal with the imposition of external commandments. No, the promise of the New Covenant is a renewed heart—a new nature—in which God Himself will put His own Spirit within us, and will write His law on our hearts! Now, under the New Covenant, God’s command to obey Him in righteous living is no longer merely pressure from without—only informing you of the duty which is impossible for you to do—but now is power from within. By the power of the Spirit working in your heart, you are empowered to live a life of joyful obedience to God, with eagerness and gladness!


Charles Hodge captured the contrast nicely. He wrote, “The law as written was something external and objective. . . . It was not an inward principle or power. It held up the rule of duty to which men were to be conformed, but it could not impart the disposition or ability to obey. It was, as it were, a mere [letter]. On the other hand, the gospel is spiritual, as distinguished from what was external and ritual. . . . The one was external, the other spiritual; the one was an outward precept, the other an inward power. In the one case the law was written on stone, in the other on the heart” (431–32). Another writer said, “The distinguishing feature of [the New Covenant in Christ Jesus] is that for every precept there is power and for every statute there is strength and for the otherwise impossible task of saying ‘yes’ to God’s commands there is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit” (Storms, 86).


And so, dear friends, the faithful minister who is qualified by the grace of God for his task, is the one whose message is infused with the Spirit’s power! The authentic Gospel minister preaches a New Covenant message! A message that does not deal in behavior modification, in mere external duties, in prescribing lists of moralistic do’s and don’ts. No, the faithful minister made sufficient for the task by the grace of God, preaches the grace of God by preaching the Gospel of regeneration! Of the new birth! Of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit of God, changing sinners at the very core of their being, and breathing into them the breath of the divine life—giving them eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to obey with joy and gladness. That is the Good News of Jesus Christ! Not that we’ve found a way for people to clean up their act a little! Not to give people a more fulfilling, more wholesome social calendar! The Good News is that rebel sinners who are dead in sin, and hopeless before the perfectly holy standard of the perfection of God’s law, can be entirely transformed from the inside out, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works!


Oh dear friends, have you believed that Gospel? Have you believed on that Christ? Have you experienced the radical transformation of your entire being—at the very depth of your soul—that can only be attributed to the sovereign work of the Spirit of God? Oh if any of you here remain strangers to the marvelous grace of the New Covenant in Christ Jesus, bow your hearts this very moment before Him, and beg God to receive you for the sake of Christ!


But you who have received New Covenant blessing—my brothers and sisters who are saved—you are not only beneficiaries of the New Covenant, but you are ministers of that New Covenant. And that means you yourselves must preach a New Covenant message, infused with the power of the Holy Spirit. You see, because of our fear of man, we can so often be tempted to try to evangelize in such a way that removes the offense of the cross—that focuses on things that unbelievers will find useful. We constantly battle temptation to peddle the Word of God (cf. 2:17). We say things like, “You should follow Jesus, because I gave my life to Jesus and He has totally changed me for the better. I don’t drink anymore; I don’t do drugs; I don’t cheat on my wife; Jesus totally fixed my marriage and my family; my children actually respect me now. You should follow Jesus, because He can totally make your life better.” Or, “You should become a Christian, because we really care about making a difference in the world. We battle poverty; we fight for social justice; we care for the disenfranchised of society. You should be a Christian so you can minister God’s mercy to the world.”


Dear friends, the Gospel does not deal in such external realities! All of the things I just mentioned above are good things! But they are the consequences of Christianity! They are not the essence of Christianity! People can get off drugs and alcohol, they can improve their marriage, they can fight for social justice—they can do all those things—and still be dead in their sins!


No dear friends, our message, first of all, is the message of the New Covenant. It is to declare to people: You are a sinner! By nature and by choice, you have violated the holy law of Almighty God! And you are accountable to pay the penalty for that violation. But the problem is: the just penalty for your sin is eternity in hell, experiencing the consummate wrath of God. And you can’t pay that penalty! No matter how many rules you follow or how much your life changes or how many externally imposed moral standards you live by! Your only hope for rescue—your only hope for salvation—is to own your insufficiency in yourself to consider anything as coming from yourself, and to put all your trust for righteousness in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who obeyed God’s law for you, precisely because you couldn’t obey it, and who paid the penalty of the experience of the consummate wrath of God for you, precisely because you couldn’t pay it, and who was raised to life on the third day, victorious over sin and death, for you, precisely because you couldn’t conquer it! And all of the saving benefits and blessings achieved by the work of Christ and wrapped up in the Person of Christ are yours—freely!—if you will have Him by faith alone.


That is the message we take to people! The authentic minister preaches a New Covenant message—a message infused with the Spirit’s power! Dear friends, the world doesn’t need the Spirit of God to improve their marriages! There are plenty of unbelievers who have gone to counseling and improved their marriages by entirely natural means! The world doesn’t need the Spirit of God to be convinced that they ought to care for the environment, to battle poverty, or to fight for social justice! There are plenty of unbelievers who take up these causes, and count on them for their confidence before God!


But, brothers and sisters, the world does need the Spirit of God to remove their heart of stone, and to give them a heart of flesh! The world does need the Spirit of God to overcome the spiritual deadness that reigns in every one of their souls, and to quicken in them the new spiritual life of sovereign regeneration! The world does need the Spirit of God to open their blind eyes, so that they can see, and know, and treasure the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ—so that they no longer feign obedience to Him out of compulsion, or begrudgingly, but so that they delight to follow His commandments—so that they joyfully and eagerly obey the God that by nature they hate and despise! Friends, preach a message that depends upon the Spirit’s power!


If, in your evangelism—in your presentation of Christianity to your neighbor—you are calling people to do something that is possible by purely natural means, you are not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ! You don’t have to be born again to change your bad habits and be a more pleasant person! The authentic Christian minister is the minister with a distinctively Christian message. The authentic Christian minister is the minister who preaches a message that calls for a supernatural change in the very heart and soul of man! And so the authentic Christian minister is the minister who preaches a message infused with the power of the Spirit of the living God Himself—a message divinely powerful to accomplish only what divine power can accomplish: the regeneration of sinners.




Who is adequate for these things? Who is sufficient for this ministry? Who can be qualified for the ministry of the Gospel as a servant of the New Covenant? One who is confident in Christ’s calling, one who is dependent upon God’s strength, and one who preaches the New Covenant message, infused with the Spirit’s power. May God grant that these distinctives characterize our lives, as we seek to glorify Him in the ministry He’s given us.