2 Corinthians 4.1–6
Thesis: Salvation results from a God-given apprehension of the beauty of the gospel, revealed in the face of Christ.
In Acts 17 the apostle Paul preached clearly the truth of the gospel to the people in Athens. Results varied. Some sneered at him. Others wanted to here more. And yet others believed in the message that he proclaimed.
What differentiated people in this group? They all heard the same message presented by the same individual in the same manner. Why did some believe while others did not?
That is the question I want to answer today from Paul’s own words: What is this gospel message, and why do some people reject it and others believe it?
My message today is aimed at two groups of individuals. The first group includes those who are curious about the gospel. Perhaps you know the facts of the gospel — you know about Jesus and His life on earth, but you have not yet been persuaded that you should turn your life over to Him. Or perhaps you don’t really know the gospel or what it means to accept it. If you can identify with any of this, than this message is for you.
The other group to whom this message is aimed includes those who have already submitted to the truths of the gospel, but who are unsure of how to present the gospel message to unbelievers. Perhaps you just don’t know what to say or how to say it. Or perhaps you have tried to tell people about Christ, yet you feel frustrated that you have not seen anyone submit to the gospel. Maybe you’re doing things wrong; maybe there something better or more persuasive you should do when presenting the gospel. If you can identify with any of this, than this message is for you.
In this passage we are going to study, Paul is defending his work among the Corinthians. He is attempting to prove that he did not come to them with salesman techniques or trickery, but served them through clearly presenting the gospel message. In his defense, Paul gives us a glimpse into the saving power of the gospel of the glory of Christ.
The gospel of the glory of Christ is set forth plainly in the truth about Jesus Christ.
Salvation is never the result of human persuasion.
As Paul describes how he presented the gospel to the people at Corinth, he first tells how he did not present the gospel.
1 – Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
2a – Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.
When the gospel doesn’t seem to “work,” temptation often arises to supplement the message or water it down or conceal its more “offensive” elements.
There is an appeal by some prominent Evangelicals, even some good theologians, that we need to “contexualize” the gospel. What they mean is that we need to adapt the gospel message and make it more accessible for unbelievers in our culture. We need to make the gospel “relevant,” they say. And so they promote using attractive pop music with good lyrics in order to make the gospel seem “hip.” Or they make their services more casual and entertaining in order to make unbelievers feel comfortable at church. Or they move away from a preaching style that is authoritative and direct in favor of a more comedic, light preaching style that is conversational and more humorous. Perhaps you have wondered why our church does not try to adopt some of these things that seem to work so well in other growing churches.
The temptation is not limited to pastors and churches, however. Individual Christians with honorable motives of winning their friends and neighbors to Christ, are often tempted to water down the message of the gospel or lead someone to pray a quick prayer. Perhaps this is you. Perhaps you have become frustrated because telling someone that they will be judged if they do not submit to Christ may alienate your friend. Or perhaps you have tried to give the gospel message to people and you have been rejected over and over again. Maybe this is leading you to wonder if you should try something else, something new and fresh and exciting.
But we must remember that salvation is never the result of human persuasion! No amount of “contexualization” will ultimately persuade a person to submit to Christ. Oh, we might get people to make decisions if we water down the gospel and remove offensive elements, but then are they really submitting to the gospel?
The gospel itself is always relevant because it appeals to the basic needs of all people in any time period in any geographic location in any culture — needs like freedom from sin and forgiveness. The gospel does not need to be contexualized.
So perhaps you are here today — maybe you’re a believer or maybe you’re an unbeliever — and you wish that our services were a bit more “hip” or that our music reflected better the current pop styles or that we were not so serious and authoritative in the preaching of the Word of God. Perhaps you have good motives — you think that your friends and relatives would be more open to coming to church if the service were designed more to appeal to them.
Yet this is exactly what Paul says that he renounced. Any attempt to water down the message of the gospel or make it more attractive will not result in true conversions and does harm to the very message that were are trying to persuade men to believer!
Salvation results when the truth is plainly set forth.
We need not adjust or change the message of the gospel, because salvation results not from human persuasion but only when the truth is plainly set forth.
2b – On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
Paul renounced clever human means of persuasion in favor of clear, plain proclamation of the truth.
This truth concerns Jesus Christ.
Now what is this truth that Paul faithfully preached? What is this truth that all people everywhere need to hear clearly explained? What is this truth that you need to hear today? It is truth like what Paul preached in Athens in Acts 17.
It is truth about God. How He created all things. How He rules all things, and how all men were created to serve Him. How He will judge all people because of their rebellion against Him unless they repent and submit to Him as King.
It is truth concerning Jesus Christ. How he was born, not in the normal fashion as a product of the union between a man and a woman, but born of a virgin mother. How he grew up and lived a perfect life, healing the sick and doing other miraculous signs. How this man Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, coequal and coeternal with God the Father and Spirit. How He claimed that He had the authority to forgive sins.
It is truth about redemption. How this same man Jesus Christ, 100% God and 100% man, voluntarily gave Himself up to be murdered, not so that he would simply be a martyr of some religious cause, but to take the punishment for people who refused to submit to Him as King.
It is truth about salvation. How if any man believes in Jesus Christ, turns from his own sinful ways, and submits to God as King, he will be saved from his sin.
This is the clear, unadulterated truth of the gospel. It is ultimately truth about Jesus Christ.
This truth penetrates people’s consciences.
This truth needs no adjustment. It is perfect in its sufficiency for the salvation of mankind.
This truth needs not be dressed up or made more attractive. There is nothing more attractive than the glory of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on our behalf.
This truth needs not be made more persuasive by human techniques and methodologies. As Paul points out, this truth alone penetrates the consciences of men. All men possess an innate knowledge of God and His demands. It is not enough knowledge to save them, but a confrontation with the gospel message activates the conscience, which bears witness to the truth of that message.
The point is that we need not add anything to the clear, plain message of the gospel. The truth of the gospel alone is sufficient.
However, as we all have experienced, and as Paul experienced in Athens, the plain facts of the gospel are insufficient to bring a perishing person to salvation. Just because people hear the facts does not guarantee their salvation. In fact, just because people believe the facts of the gospel does not guarantee that they will submit to those facts and to Jesus as King.
Why is this so? If, as Christ Himself said, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, then why doesn’t the clear preaching of the gospel inevitably result in salvations? Let me phrase the question another way. If you preach the gospel, and no one is converted, does this mean that your presentation of the gospel was not clear enough or presented well enough?
I’ve known people who have worried about this. I’ve known people who have become frustrated and discouraged when their gospel presentations do not result in salvations.
You see, this is exactly what happens when we think that it is the cleverness or persuasiveness of our method that convicts people — we trust in ourselves and our methods, and if they don’t work we either get discouraged, or we search for some new method that will work.
But Paul has already made clear that it is not through the persuasiveness of men that people come to Christ. It is simply through the clearly presented gospel truth that people are saved. And Paul indicates in the text what it is that prevents people from submitting to the message even if they understand and believe the facts of the message.
The beauty of the gospel of the glory of Christ is veiled to those who are perishing.
3 – And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing,
The first point we must recognize from the text is that the reason people don’t respond to the gospel has nothing to do with any deficiency in the gospel itself. The reason people reject the gospel even when it is set forth plainly has to do with a deficiency in the people who reject it — these people are in the condition of perishing.
Everyone is born in this condition. Everyone is perishing. You see, there is no such thing as someone who is neutral. Some have the idea that people are simply neutral, and if we can just give them enough evidence or proofs about creation or the historical Jesus, or if we can just show people how life is so much better for Christians, then we can convince them to accept the gospel.
But I say again, no amount of human persuasiveness can convince a person to submit to the gospel. Why? Because all men are perishing; all men are depraved. The Bible says that no one seeks after God; the natural mind cannot understand the things of God. The gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.
Now does this mean that people cannot understand the facts of the gospel? Does this mean they cannot use human logic to comprehend the truths of the gospel? Of course not. But as we have noted, it is not simply the facts of the gospel that persuade people to submit to it. So what is it that is veiled to those who are perishing? Our text tells us in verse four.
4 – in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
If we set forth the truth of the gospel plainly, the reason people still reject it is not necessarily that they do not understand it or even that they do not recognize that the historical facts are true. The reason that they reject the gospel is that they do not see value in its truths. They understand the facts, but they do not apprehend the beauty of the gospel.
Unbelievers cannot apprehend the beauty of the gospel.
This is what the text means in verse 4 when it says that they do not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” They do not perceive its wonders and its value and its beauty, and therefore they do not submit to the gospel since they do not recognize its value.
This is a very important concept to get a hold of, not just with relation to the gospel, but in other areas as well. We submit to things only when we appreciate their value, not when we just know about them or even believe in them with out minds. We do what we love, not just what we know.
It’s like this: Becky has recently been looking for a rug for our living room. She enjoys doing it. She knows in her mind that our living room needs a rug, but that is not what compels her to search the internet and visit all the stores in town to find just the right rug at the best deal. I know in my mind that our living room needs a rug, but that knowledge certainly does not compel me to spend hours looking for one. Becky finds pleasure in the beauty of rugs. I see only their practical worth. Since Becky recognizes the beauty and value of a rug, she is willing to spend time committed to finding one.
Now that’s a silly illustration, but it makes the point. Someone may understand the facts of the gospel, but unless they recognize the beauty and value of the gospel, they will not submit to it.
The god of this age has blinded minds.
But unbelievers cannot perceive the beauty of the gospel, not only because they are perishing, but also because, as the text states, the god of this age has blinded their minds.
The god of this age is Satan, who controls the direction of the world. He controls the world’s systems of philosophy, psychology, education, and ethics. He also controls all the false religions and heresies. So not only do all people have their own depravity veiling the beauty of the gospel, but they also have the powerful god of this age working against them to keep them blinded.
Now of course, God controls Satan. Nothing is outside the sovereign plan of God. But God has given Satan free reign on this earth, and Satan is no dummy. Centuries of deception has given him plenty of practice as he moves the world’s ungodly systems in his favor.
So we need not be frustrated when our gospel presentations are met with blank stares or angry scowls. We need not be tempted to look for newer methods or better programs. People naturally reject the gospel — it is in their nature to do so. We should not be surprised when people do not accept our message, because they cannot apprehend its beauty. Our responsibility is to simply set forth the plain truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I had the opportunity to travel with a mission team in Europe for two summers when I was in college. We helped missionaries and preached the gospel and witnessed to individuals. I remember one distinct occasion that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about.
One particular woman in Germany seemed to be very receptive to the gospel message, and several of the team members spent considerable time with her plainly setting forth the truths of the gospel. After hours of talking about the things of Christ, this was her response: “I understand everything about God and the gospel and Jesus Christ, and I believe that it is all true. And I understand about my sin and my need and what I need to gain forgiveness. But I just cannot do it. I cannot give up my life and follow Jesus.” She understood the facts of the gospel, but that alone did not convince her to submit to the gospel.
We have experienced that kind of response in our own church — individuals who knew everything there is to know about the gospel, and believed that it is all true, but are simply unwilling to give up their sin and turn to Christ.
Is that a frustrating position in which to be? Yes! It is very frustrating! But we must trust that we have fulfilled our responsibility when we simply and plainly set forth the truths of the gospel.
So then how is it that people are saved? If acknowledging the facts of the gospel is not enough to compel someone to submit to it, and if all men are depraved and blinded to the light of the gospel, then how can people overcome that?
Perhaps you know the facts of the gospel but are yet unwilling to submit yourself to Christ as King. What is it that will motivate you to do so? We will find the answer in verse six.
The beauty of the gospel of the glory of Christ is revealed when God miraculously shines light in veiled hearts.
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 the glory of God in the face of Christ.
This is why rejection of the gospel should not tempt us to adjust our message in order to better persuade people — God is the only one powerful enough to break the blinding power of Satan and depravity and reveal the beautiful light of the gospel to unbelievers!
God has power to create physical light out of darkness.
Do you doubt the power of God in this regard? Do you doubt that God can overtake Satan and sin and depravity and darkness, and make the beauty of His Son known?
Paul uses the perfect illustration in this text to rid us of any doubt. If God had the power to create physical light out of darkness, then surely he has the power to illumine hearts so that they apprehend the beauty of the gospel.
Think about the amazing power and might that God displayed in the first chapter of Genesis. From eternity past there was nothingness. There was no light, there was no space, there was no mass, there was not even time. Only God existed.
And then amidst the silence and the darkness and the nothingness there came the voice of Almighty God saying, “Let there be light,” and there was light! God did not require tools or materials or anything outside of Himself. All it took was the authoritative, irresistible command from His lips and light appeared.
God has power to illumine hearts so that they apprehend the beauty of the gospel.
And this very same God, this God who created light with mere words is the same God who said “I will call out a people for my name’s sake,” and who said “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion (Exodus 33.19).” And what God says, he will do. If He had power to shine light out of dark nothingness, then He has the power to shine light in dark hearts.
And when He does this, when God illuminates the heart, then the beauty of the gospel of the glory of Christ is revealed!
It’s as if men are groping around in a pitch black cave desperately searching for the treasure that they know to be there but cannot find. And then suddenly a spotlight is shown directly in front of them to reveal a magnificent diamond that was there the whole time. All men are born in blackness. They are blinded as to the beauty of the gospel of Christ. They are empty, they are searching. In their heart of hearts they know that there must be something that will satisfy their longings, something that will fill the void in their souls. But they are unwilling and unable to accept that it is God Himself who will satisfy that longing, God Himself who will fill that void. All they must do is submit to God as King and they will find that treasure. But they hate God and they reject their knowledge of Him. They are unwilling to submit to the gospel because they do not recognize the beauty of the glory of Jesus Christ.
But then just as God created light at the beginning of time, with just his voice He says, “Let there be light,” and light shines on a dark heart. And when that happens, that perishing person looks up and sees the truths of the gospel literally in a new light. No more does he see mere facts about a man who once lived and died. No longer does he see God as a terrible taskmaster. No longer does he see the demands of the gospel as unreasonable. That light that has been shined upon his heart reveals the magnificent beauty of the gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ.
Such a miracle inevitably results in salvation.
When such an illumined person apprehends the beauty of the gospel, he is drawn irresistibly to its splendor. No one turns away once he has seen the beauty of the gospel. Such a miracle of illuminating the heart inevitably results in salvation, because when a person really sees the beauty and value of the knowledge of the glory of God, he cannot help but give himself entirely over to that God.
And ultimately, this beauty and glory and value is revealed in the very face of Jesus Christ. He is the beauty. He is the glory. He is the value. And when someone sees Christ for who He really is, he will fall down on His face before Christ and say, “What would you have me to do?”
The apostle Paul experienced such a miracle in a very literal sense. Before Paul submitted to Christ, he persecuted Christians and imprisoned them and killed them. He knew about the gospel, he knew about Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul was a very religious man. But he hated Christ, and he hated the gospel. Maybe this describes you. You know the truths of the gospel but you are unwilling to submit yourself to them.
But then one day as he was traveling to a city in order to take Christians as prisoners, a light from heaven flashed around him. Paul fell to the ground, and at that moment he recognized the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ and submitted himself to whatever God had for him.
And so I ask you today, have you seen the beauty of the glory of the gospel of Christ? Have you seen its value? Have you recognized its worth?
You may know the truths of the gospel. You may even believe the historical facts of Jesus Christ. But Satan believes these as well. Yet he certainly does not submit to Christ, and you do not submit to Christ. Why? Because you have not recognized the beauty of Christ.
My friend, what is holding you back from submitting to Christ? Do you not see that submitting to the gospel is worth far more that wealth or prestige or freedom or even family or friends. And it is certainly of more value than the temporary pleasures of selfish sinful indulgence. Turn away from those things. Turn to Christ who is the source of all-satisfying joy and beauty and pleasure!
But you say, “I want to! I want to see the value of the gospel! I want to see the beauty of Christ!” Then simply ask Him. He will not turn you away.
I can do nothing more today to persuade you to submit to Christ than I have already done. I have set forth the truth of the gospel as plainly as I know how.
But I cannot persuade you that the beauty of Christ brings far more pleasure than the fleeting pleasures of sin. I cannot persuade you that the value of submitting to God is worth far more than worldly acceptance or prestige. Only God can do that.
The only thing that we can do is set forth plainly the truth and pray that God will shine light on your dark heart and reveal to you the beauty of the gospel of the glory of Christ.
I once had the privilege of hearing the Bach Chamber Chorale perform two Reformation Cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. One section in the first Cantata had a prayer that well-expresses the kind of prayer we must pray after a message like this:
God be praised, we know the right way to blessedness;
for, Jesus, you have shown it to us through your word,
therefore your name forever remains praised.
But since many still at this time
must bear a foreign yoke through blindness,
ah! have pity on them graciously
so that they come to know the right way
and name you as their only mediator.
Oh that God would have pity on some today and shine light in dark hearts that they might see the beauty of the gospel of the glory of Christ.