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 every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
This is a vital reminder – especially when you consider the manipulative techniques of some “pedlars” of God’s word (2 Cor 2:17). Evangelists must preach without trickery and without compromise. But sometimes setting forth the truth plainly can become a justification for dry, cerebral legalism.
I was at a meeting of evangelists yesterday afternoon where a leading conservative evangelical mentioned a tendency that’s crept into some pulpits. The tendency is to ‘by-pass the heart’ so that the sermon runs straight ‘from the head to the will’. It’s a shrewd insight and I think the kind of preaching he described takes unjustified refuge in these verses.
Here I want to examine each of the terms in “setting forth the truth plainly” (the NIV’s translation). I want to ask whether we have taken these words (and this paragraph) out of context and thus skewed our thinking on preaching.
Let’s consider the first term: “setting forth”
It’s the Greek work phanerosei and it’s related to the Greek word ‘to shine’ (phaino). It’s about bringing something out into the light, making it blindingly obvious, revealing it for all to see. Paul will use the same word in chapter 5:10-11 to speak of the way we will be “made manifest” before the judgement seat of Christ. He also uses the word to describe how Christ is “made manifest” in our mortal bodies (4:10-11). Christ shines out of our cracked earthen vessels. Crucially, it’s also related to the way God shines His Light into our hearts in conversion (2 Cor 4:6).
So Paul is linking the preaching of our lips with the preaching of our lives and linking it with the shining of God in salvation. Paul does not envisage a hard and fast division of labour between God’s work and our work (as is sometimes taught). God reconciles us by His mission and reconciles us into His mission (which 2 Corinthians 5 spells out). We are co-opted into God’s work. Therefore He shines His Light into people precisely as we shine it out to them in gospel preaching. God shines through the Christ we proclaim.
Therefore the “setting forth” of the evangelist is not a deliberately staid and human effort, sharply demarcated from divine, saving activity. It’s actually a vibrant, radiant participation in God’s gospel mission.
The second term is “the truth.”
All too readily we consider “the truth” to be a harsh, unpleasant reality – a bitter pill to swallow. In Ephesians 4:15 when we’re commanded to “speak the truth in love”, we imagine brutal honesty with a smile. But ‘truth’ for Paul is the truth that is in Jesus, the truth of the gospel.
Verses 4 and 5 explicitly tell us the truth to be preached: “it’s the gospel of the glory of Christ”, or to put it another way, it’s “preaching the Lord Jesus Christ”. Yet sometimes an evangelical commitment to preaching ‘truth‘ becomes divorced from the gospel. However, this is precisely the danger about which Paul has been warning us in chapter 3:
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 in verses 7-18 to warn us of old covenant preachers who preside over a “letter-of-the-law” “ministry of death”. Here’s something very scary. It is possible to pursue a “truth telling” ministry that’s not Paul’s sense of “truth-telling” in 2 Corinthians 4 (i.e. the gospel). Instead, in the name of another definition of “truth”, preachers might well fall foul of Paul’s starkest warnings from 2 Corinthians 3. Some, misunderstanding Paul’s use of ‘the truth’, might well find themselves simply killing their flocks with “the letter of the law”.
When we imagine the “distortions” of the false teachers (2 Cor 4:2), what do we picture? Well, whatever errors Paul has in mind, we know for a fact that simply ‘laying down the law’ is chief among them. In other words, Paul might have some liberals in mind as he warns us in chapter 4, but what we know is that he’s warning us about legalists.
So easily, though, “setting forth the truth plainly” can be taken out of context in 2 Corinthians. It becomes a license to be a legalist (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). In other words, 2 Corinthians 4 becomes a mandate for simply sifting through a body of text, noticing items of theological interest and enjoining various commandments as we go. The thing is, this is not the truth of the gospel, it’s not proclaiming Jesus. It’s simply ‘the letter’. And it kills.
The third term is “plainly”
This term is not even there in the Greek. The ESV has “the open statement of the truth”. The KJV has “manifestation of the truth”. The NIV inserts this adverb to help translate the verb “setting forth.” There is no “plainly” in the Greek, but there are many preachers grateful to the NIV for offering them some justification for dull sermons.
“Thank you brother,” comes the encouragement after the service, “that was plain. Very very plain indeed.”
But Paul, in the surrounding chapters, goes out of his way to tell us how intensely emotional he is in his gospel ministry. He’s “very bold” (2 Cor 3:12); motivated by the terror of the Lord he tries to persuade people (2 Cor 5:11); he’s out of his mind (2 Cor 5:13); he is compelled by Christ’s love (2 Cor 5:14); he is Christ’s ambassador, God making His appeal through him. Paul is imploring the world to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20).
“Thank you brother Paul, that was plain.” Can you imagine such feedback? Unthinkable.
So what am I saying? Well 2 Corinthians 4 is a fantastic passage on evangelism. But it comes in a context – a context in which the truth to be preached is Christ and not simply a death-dealing ministry of law… A context in which “setting it forth plainly” is about bold, passionate, gospel appeals. The truth-telling of chapter 4 is the persuasive imploring of chapter 5.
The great irony is that 2 Corinthians 4 – rightly understood – is a very effective critique of so much preaching that seeks shelter under its wings.