In 2 Corinthians 4:1–6, we find Paul making a series of great declarations concerning the ministry of the Gospel—declarations that stand to encourage today’s pastors in their vital work:
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
“We refuse to tamper with God’s word.”
We have already noticed that loss of heart may sometimes tempt ministers of the Gospel to practice outright deception. At the same time, however, Paul also acknowledges a subtler, yet equally dangerous, temptation faced by pastors: the temptation to distort God’s Word.
Scripture makes clear that ministers of the Gospel are not to dilute God’s Word so as to make it palatable. We do not engage in the kind of preaching that responds to the “itching ears” of 2 Timothy 4:3. We are not called to tickle people under their chins, pat them on their backs, and make them feel that they are the most wonderful persons in the world. Instead, we have been given the privilege of being heralds; we must bear testimony to God before men and women, for we will answer to God for what we have said to them.
We see this commitment in Paul before Felix and Drusilla in Acts 24. Imagine his situation in contemporary terms: You’re in the White House, you’re shut away, and suddenly the President and the First Lady invite you up. They’ve been playing checkers in the evening, they’ve been watching TV, they’ve been keeping themselves occupied, but now they’ve run out of stuff to do—and so one says to the other, “Why don’t we get the apostle Paul up and see what he’s on about? After all, he’s apparently a wonderful preacher.”
And so Paul enters in Acts 24:24. You can imagine him coming in: not a particularly pre-possessing kind of individual; he’s certainly, by all accounts, not the kind of person who would have made it as the quarterback in the high school football team. And he comes in and says, “Thank you for inviting me up. I’m glad to have the opportunity of talking with you. I just have a three-point sermon I’d like to give you, and my first point is righteousness. I want to talk to you about the moral law of God, and how you stand in an abjectly horrible situation in front of it, because God calls us to be righteous in his sight.”
And then, as the beads of perspiration start coming out on the brow of Felix, and as he sees that Drusilla is wriggling around on her throne, he continues: “I come to my second point: self-control.” And of course, they were living in an adulterous relationship; Felix, you may know, had stolen this woman away from her husband as a result of the work of a magician.
And still he goes on: “And as my third point, I’d like to tell you that there is a judgment that you are going to face when you will stand before God.”
Paul’s approach is not the one that begins by saying, “I wonder what it is that Felix and Drusilla are into. Perhaps I should talk to them about stress; I’m sure they must be very stressed out. Perhaps I should talk to them about finances; they seem to have a lot of money.” No, Paul goes right up the stairs and says, “Thank you for the opportunity. Number one: righteousness. Number two: self-control. Number three: a coming judgment.”
You may have heard people say, “I don’t like to hear all these hellfire and damnation sermons.” Let me ask you: When was the last time you heard a hellfire and damnation sermon? When was the last time you preached one? When’s the last time you were bold enough to stand right up to the members of your congregation—sleek, wealthy, self-assured—and tell them, “You have an appointment with the risen Christ, you are out of line with his righteous law, and your lack of self-control is an indication of the fact that you need Christ!”
The sad reality is that in many congregations today, the people are sitting there singing with Fleetwood Mac, “Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.” As pastors, may we respond by boldly rejecting the distortion and dilution of the Gospel, and instead preach God’s Word with conviction and clarity.