I was recently asked by a church to speak to the topic “Evangelism: God’s work and our work.” They suggested I speak from 2 Corinthians 4. This combination of title and passage has a great pedigree. I first encountered it as part of the excellent evangelism training of Christianity Explored. I think it can trace its roots back through John Chapman to JI Packer – all of these guys are heroes of mine.
I’ve learnt hugely about evangelism from all these sources. And I don’t know nothing about nothing… but if people are wanting to know foundationally about the evangelistic task, I wouldn’t start with “God’s work and our work”. And it’s not because of the teaching of these men. Far more it’s because of how this idea might be understood and executed in our circles. Let me explain.
Here’s the passage:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:1-6)
Here we’re told of the spiritual battle involved in gospel preaching. Satan – the god of this age – has veiled and blinded the world. That’s a fearful fact! What should we do? Preach! How? It should be persevering, honest, above-board, undistorted, plain, servant-hearted, truth-telling. All those adjectives are vital and precious. But I wonder what we think is the “truth” that needs plainly setting forth?
Verse 3 and 4 explicitly name this truth as the gospel. And verse 5 describes it as preaching “Christ Jesus the LORD” (cf KJV). It’s about proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. In other words it’s doing exactly what Paul says he does in chapter 5, namely: persuade people, proclaim the new creation in Jesus, be Christ’s ambassador, make God’s appeal, implore unbelievers, minister God’s reconciliation. Paul’s whole ministry is to urgently deliver the good news of God’s reconciliation.
Paul’s idea of truth-telling is to proclaim the good news! But it seems to me that Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4 can be taken out of context. Where Paul urges us to plainly set forth the gospel, an out-of-context look at the passage might leave us with a different take-home message: “Just be plain.”
At that point it’s easy to imagine that “plain truth-speaking” is about being unpopular yet uncompromising. This is no-one’s fault, it’s just the connotations that spring to mind in our day and age. Truth = cold, hard and uncomfortable. Those are the associations we bring to the word. But if we divide the roles of evangelism into ‘life-giving’ (God’s work) and ‘non-life-giving’ (our work), a preacher might feel justified in not offering “life”, mightn’t they? They might see their role as purely laying down bible truths, mightn’t they? Is that a potential danger? I think it is.
Having taught a division of labour, is it possible that a preacher hears this teaching and then sets about the business of (cold, hard) truth-telling, absolving themselves of the responsibility to offer life? Is that possible? I’m not saying that any evangelism trainer wants to give this impression, but might this be what’s heard by the trainee?
But Paul is not saying: Preach truth in the abstract. He’s just been writing against that kind of preaching:
God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)
Paul goes on to attack the ministry of condemnation he sees peddled by the super-apostles (3:7-18). It’s not just that these guys are boasters and getting rich, there’s a deeper theological problem with them. They’re basically old covenant preachers, laying down the law. Paul is very upset about preachers who merely give “truth” in an abstract sense. The law is truth. Yet simply preaching law kills your hearers.
So Paul says he’s involved in a different kind of ministry: the ministry of justification (v7-18). And Paul’s ministry is life-giving. He doesn’t think he’s treading on God’s toes, getting into ‘the life-giving game’. No, God has invited him into ‘the life-giving game’ and so he’s devoted to the ministry that God has entrusted to him (5:18). True apostolic preaching, new covenant preaching, is that by which the Spirit turns people to Christ. And in Him there is revelation, freedom and life. (3:6-18)
Therefore this is the relentless gospel truth which Paul will preach no matter what (4:1-6). He’s not telling us – “hurl truth at people and God may choose to make it life-giving!” He’s telling us “Preach the gospel of Jesus because that’s where the powerful Spirit of God brings life!” God shines His light (4:6) precisely in and through the preaching of Jesus. Thus preachers should single-mindedly devote themselves to the plain proclamation of the gospel.
I’m really looking forward to speaking on evangelism at this church. And I’m really looking forward to doing it from 2 Corinthians. But I’m not going to use the title “God’s work and our work.” Because even if this isn’t the intention, I think it teaches an unhelpful division of labour: we do our bit – “be plain”. God does His bit – “shine His light”.
This division of labour becomes even more unhelpful when it’s thought of in terms of the ‘natural’ and the ‘super-natural’ elements of evangelism. If it’s spun like that, we’re instantly thinking in Enlightenment categories. We’re down here doing the ‘natural’ business of speaking truth. God’s up there doing a different job: super-naturally zapping people with life (or not). The zapping is kind of connected with the ‘natural’ truth telling: God only zaps when the truth-telling happens. But apart from that, there’s not much connection between ‘what we do’ and ‘what God does.’ Not in our thinking anyway.
Let me be clear: None of the people I’ve mentioned teach these kinds of implications or want to teach them in a million years. I’m just wondering aloud about how the concept of a “division of labour” plays out further down stream. I wonder whether preachers in our tradition thereby feel freed from an obligation to preach gospel truth. Instead we might feel justified in simply preaching “truth.” Safe in the knowledge that God will zap when and where he chooses, the urgency to preach the gospel fades. Instead, many might ‘lay down the law’ and pray that God would save anyway. That couldn’t be further from Paul’s intention and yet I wonder whether some look to 2 Corinthians 4 as justification to “be biblical” in some abstract sense. But if we’re not careful, ‘being biblical’ in the abstract becomes “preaching the letter.” At that point we don’t just have a division of labour – we’re working at cross purposes! We’re killing but praying that God gives life through our death-dealing words.
In Paul’s thinking there’s a massive connection between our preaching and God’s activity. In fact I don’t think Paul teaches a division of labour. Right here in chapter 4 Paul says that it’s the gospel that reveals Christ, the Image of God. The gospel we preach is doing what God does – ie it reveals Christ. Even here it would be very hard to draw a line between “God’s job” and ours. And when we turn the page to chapter 5… well our work is simply to be God’s workers, and God’s work is explicitly entrusted to us.
According to 2 Corinthians 5, God has committed to us His ministry of reconciliation! We are Christ’s ambassadors. We implore on His behalf! God actually makes His appeal through us! (The ESV of 2 Cor 5:20 is correct, not the obfuscating NIV translation which inserts “as though”). God is imploring the world through us. Gospel preaching is the ministry of God’s Spirit, spotlighting Christ, bringing life. To think in Romans 1 terms – the gospel is not sometimes infused with the power of God for salvation. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Meditate on that “is” – it will change the way you think about preaching.
We must speak the truth: persistently, honestly, plainly, servant-heartedly, without dilution or distortion. And this truth is God’s radiant, life-giving gospel which reveals His glory in the face of Christ. To a blinded world, God shines in no other way. So don’t compromise: preach the gospel.