Vol. 11 — No. 7 February 15, 1970
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
In Christ Jesus, whose power achieves its goal through weak human instruments, Fellow Redeemed:
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard that we considered last week emphasized the basic fact that the governing principle in the Kingdom of God is GRACE. Grace is always undeserved love. We are born in sin. We sin daily, and so we deserve nothing better than God’s wrath, unending misery in our lives and eternal torment in the hereafter. This is what we deserve. And if this is what we got, we would have no grounds for complaining or for charging our God with injustice. But God is love. He didn’t want that to happen to us. That is why He promised and in the fulness of time sent His Son. That is why Jesus assumed the obligation of fulfilling every jot and tittle of the law for us. That is why He willingly drank the cup of suffering and death to make atonement for our sins. That is why both the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts through the Gospel—to change our hearts from unbelieving to believing, from disobedient to obedient, from unwilling to willing. All this activity of God in our behalf is GRACE—revolving about, centered in, and coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Grace, not merit; faith, not works; God’s doing for man, not man’s efforts to placate or bribe or appease God—is the answer to our salvation.
But this way of thinking is diametrically opposed to man’s innate and natural way of thinking. From the beginning of time, in every civilization the world has ever produced, with all the advantages of the accumulated wisdom of the ages man still thinks in terms of works and merits, deeds and rewards. This is the way our flesh thinks, and remember that our flesh, the “old adam” within us, is never converted, cannot be improved. That means that at any time in our lives we may find that our flesh may try to assert itself and get us to think in terms of works and rewards rather than in terms of grace and faith. We observed last week how this way of thinking popped up in the mind of Peter and formulated itself in the question that he asked of the Lord: “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” Matt. 19:27
In our text we find St. Paul contending against this self-same way of thinking—that it does not all depend upon God’s abundant grace and blessing, but that it depends at least a little upon man’s efforts. Paul’s concern specifically was the part that preachers of the Gospel play as agents or instruments of the Lord in preaching and teaching the Gospel of grace. The key sentence is translated thus in the King James: “For my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul is here quoting words that the Lord had spoken to him. The entire quotation is translated thus: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Literally, the Lord had said: “The strength or power is brought to a finish, achieves its goal or purpose in weakness.” In the connection spoken the thought is that the power of God#8217;s grace in Christ comes to full view, can best be seen, when it works through means that are hampered in their operation by some great weakness. To put it otherwise we can say that the effectiveness of God’s grace does not depend upon the preacher or teacher. We can express the thought formally in this way:
Let us observe, first of all, that—
The epistle selection for this Sunday, of which our text forms the concluding part, is a singular piece in Paul’s writing. He was obviously a bit self-conscious when he wrote it. He asked the Corinthians to bear with his folly because the situation compelled him to boast a bit. What was that situation? The Corinthian congregation had been troubled by false teachers, called Judaizers, who had previously troubled the Galatians, also the Colossians. These were the people who came with “another gospel” which really was no gospel or good news at all. They came with that tired formula of faith plus good works as the answer to the question of salvation. Sometimes they presented their law works—such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, observing the dietary and fasting laws of the Jews—as necessary for salvation. Sometimes they presented them as the formula for a superior Christianity. In presenting their claims they regularly downgraded St. Paul and presented themselves to the people as “super-apostles.” This is what Paul was contending with in Corinth. He was being downgraded by these false teachers who spoke of his bodily presence as being “weak” and his speech as being “contemptible.” Paul’s concern was not his personal reputation, but rather that the Corinthians remain the “chaste virgin” for Christ. He wanted them to continue to live by grace in the assurance that their salvation was complete in Christ and had been given to them with no strings attached, so that they could serve the Lord in the joyousness of thanksgiving. He didn’t want them to become “computer” Christians who tally up all their good deeds in expectation of a payoff at the end of their lives. To tear the mask off these false teachers Paul gave them a vivid enumeration of his experiences as a minister of Christ. Who else has ever labored so hard and suffered so much? Who else experienced such visions and such a foretaste of heaven itself? Paul had been blessed beyond measure. Fine! But there was a danger in connection with all his achievements, sufferings, and ecstatic experiences. He could begin to think that the success of the grace of God was not entirely due to the power of that grace, but in part at least due to his heroic, self-sacrificing efforts.
Paul wrote, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” Paul suffered some affliction that he calls “a thorn in the flesh.” That expression suggests a continuing sharp and nagging pain. This physical liability hindered him in his Gospel ministry. So Paul reveals: “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.” What answer did Paul receive? A solid “no” from the Lord, but with that an explanation: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for the power (namely, of that grace) achieves its purpose, gains its results in connection with the weakness of the instrument that proclaims it.” The Lord told Paul: “The success of your ministry does not depend upon you, but it depends wholly and entirely upon the inherent power of my grace.” Paul acquiesced in this answer of the Lord: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities; in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
Here is a truth that must be constantly kept before the eyes of all preachers and teachers of the Gospel. The success of the power of God’s grace is not dependent upon oratorical or teaching skill, upon personality, tact and charm, upon degree of scholarship or powers of salesmanship. It depends upon the power of that grace alone. But this is so easy to forget. If a pastor achieves success and especially greater success than others of his brethren, he may find himself commending himself. Because I know how to deal with people, because I have such a pleasing personality and such great tact, because I know how to put it across, because I work so hard—therefore I am successful. It’s easy for a preacher, who is successful, to begin to think this way. And so the God of all grace may send “a thorn in the flesh” to humble the preacher or teacher. He may send some physical handicap, as he did in the case of St. Paul. He may permit lack of success, embarrassing memory lapses, or other weaknesses to show through so that preacher and teacher are kept fully aware of the fact that the power of the Gospel of grace achieves its results despite human weaknesses and in connection with them. It has been said that the amazing thing in the history of the Church is that anything has been accomplished at all when you consider the misfits, incompetents, and self-seekers that find their way into the clergy. A preacher or a teacher is to sow the Seed of the Word faithfully, in season and out of season, to the best of his ability, and then stand aside while the power of God’s grace works its will in human hearts.
At the same time this truth that the power of grace achieves its purpose through weak instruments is used by the Lord in another way:
What Sunday School teacher or Christian Day School teacher or preacher has not at times felt inadequate? Sometimes people refuse to serve as teachers in the church because they fell so completely inadequate. What a comforting assurance it is for us to know that the success of our teaching and preaching is not dependent upon our educational level, teaching skill, oratory, or what have you—but completely upon the inherent power of God’s grace. This comforting truth dare not become an excuse for unpreparedness or sloppy preparation. A teacher or a preacher dare not say: “Since all depends upon the power of God’s grace, it makes no difference whether I prepare my lesson or sermon, whether I seek to the best of my ability to put it across or whether I just drone on and on. No, having done our best, our very best, we can rest easily in the confidence that the power of God’s grace will achieve the results that the Lord wants achieved.
What a comfort this truth is for our little congregation! Judged by congregations in the area we have little strength. Our membership is modest, so also our budget. In addition we find ourselves called a “renegade” congregation. We find ourselves exposed to innuendo in the public press. We find ourselves bucking the steam roller of the National Council of Churches, entrenched Lutheranism, as well as the secular subversive forces set loose in the community and in society in general. If we consider all that is against us, we really should have one meeting and dissolve ourselves and quit. But we have this word of our text as our comfort: “My grace is sufficient for thee—and the power of that grace unfailingly reaches the God-intended goal, expressly when proclaimed by weak instruments.” So what are we to do? Simply preach and teach, write and read, testify and confess by word and life, pray and give thanks—in the quiet confidence that the Lord will add to our numbers such as should be saved. He will make His grace a savor of life unto life and a savor of death unto death through our humble efforts.
What a comfort this truth is when we think of our work together with others in the fields of education and missions. We are working together with only some 6000 people of communicant age. We have been hearing the groans and laments of the educators’ lobby over the recent presidential veto. How they cry out that schools will be closed for lack of funds! They haven’t got the faintest idea of what fiscal problems are! Our little school, dedicated to train future lay and clergy leaders for the church, has by rights no reason for existence according to human standards. It has no tax base, and its freewill offering base is small and scattered over nineteen states. But we have what the public educators don’t have—this assurance of our God: “The power of My grace never fails. It reaches its goal. It achieves its purpose in the midst of, through the instrumentality of, and despite human weakness.” And so we continue to build our school, increase its enrollment, and send forth more messengers of His grace.
To all appearances we are on the losing side. The odds are stacked against us. But we have that secret, unfailing “weapon” working for us—God’s GRACE. That never fails. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.