Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry, Part 1

Desiring God 2007 National Conference | Minneapolis

It goes without saying, I think, and yet it needs to be said, that this is a highlight of my ministry life. I am a recipient of God’s blessing, poured out through John Piper. And I have been, for many years, indebted to him for his writings and his preaching. There aren’t a whole lot of preachers that I listen to. He is one, at the top of the list, and it’s just an honor for me to be here, a joy to come and be a part of the Desiring God conference.

I trust that in the process of me being abundantly blessed already, I may be able, by the grace of God, to leave you with a small blessing, but if not, it will have been well worth it for me alone to be here just to enjoy the fellowship.

The Need for Endurance

It’s a big subject to talk about, to stand and to endure. I remember as a young boy, my dad reminded me of the words of the apostle Paul, “Having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13; all Scripture quotations from the NASB). And he said to me when I was very young, “A lot of people have done a lot of things, but when the smoke clears and the dust settles, they’re not standing.” And he directed me in those early years to the words of the apostle Paul, where he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). And he challenged me very early in my life to make that my goal. He went to heaven two years ago at the age of 91, and into his 91st year was still teaching a Bible class every Sunday.

His father, my grandfather, died at a much earlier age of cancer. I remember as a small boy standing by his bed when I think I was about 9 or 10, and my dad saying to him, “Dad, is there anything you want?” And he said, “I want to preach one more sermon.” You see, he had prepared one and didn’t get to preach it. It’s like fire in your bones. So my dad took his notes, printed them up, and passed out the sermon at his funeral. By the way, the title of the sermon was Heavenly Records. So he preached on heaven from heaven, and that’s how he went out. I have a great legacy of men who have been faithful to the very end.

As John said, I’ve been at Grace Community Church for almost 40 years. Can you imagine those poor souls? I’ve been baptizing and seeing people come to Christ to the third generation. Last Sunday night I baptized two more of my own grandchildren, having baptized my own children. I stood in the waters and heard the precious testimonies of Ty and Olivia from two different families of my children, and could hardly contain my gratitude to God for his grace in their lives through that church. I really do believe that when people say, “What’s been the greatest influence on the life of your children?” the answer of course is, the work of the Spirit of God, but beyond that, it is the tremendous, relentless, comprehensive, and unified effort of a whole congregation of people to bring to bear the truth on their young lives. So it has been my delight to be in one church all these years and to see my family grow in that church.

An Enduring Ministry

I really have lived in my church life on the backside of when you’re supposed to leave and nobody wants you. Several times during the life of our church I thought that I should leave the church. I walked into a staff meeting one day to such a surprise. I had invested in five young guys, discipled them personally, loved them, met with them early hours of the morning during the week and went over spiritual things and prayed with them and built them into a staff of pastors who worked alongside of me. I walked in one day and I said, “I just want to tell you guys how much I love you,” to which one of them responded, “Well, if you think we’re your friends, you got another thing coming, buddy.” And there was a mutiny on the spot. They tried to overthrow my role as pastor and take me out of the pulpit. The sad fallout of that was four out of the five left the ministry for life. It was more than I could bear, and I would’ve gone if there was anywhere to go. That was about eight years in.

About 18 years in, 250 people left the church and I began to question everything. They said my preaching was too long, too irrelevant, too dull, and a whole lot of other things, and 250 people left the church led by elders. Again, I would’ve gone, but there wasn’t anybody inviting me to go. So I’m on the backside of when you’re supposed to go and nobody wants you. And I will tell you this, that I thank God that I’m still there, because this is the best, most wonderful, most satisfying, most fulfilling time in my entire life. I thank God for every day that I can shepherd that church. All those other things I do, just kind of are peripheral. It’s the congregation at Grace Church and the people I work with there, that’s my passion.

And people have asked me, “How do you have a long, enduring ministry?” If I can, I want to speak from a personal viewpoint. I know not all of you’re going to be in ministry, but I only have one life to speak from and this is it. When people ask me, “How do you have such a long ministry?” The first answer I give is, “Well, you have to live.” That’s a divine thing. You have to survive. You can’t be David Brainard and have a long, enduring ministry. So by the grace of God, he’s given me strength and life all these years. From God’s viewpoint, it’s life and health and divine sovereign providence working in a myriad of ways known and unknown to me that has kept me where I am.

But what about from my side? What’s my perspective on an enduring ministry? I will tell you immediately, I’m not here to offer you any clever insights. I’m not here to offer you any novel approaches, or any imaginative or intuitive ideas that I’ve managed to develop. I have no technique that I can turn to. I’ve had no strategy. There’s been no scheme to do this. In some ways, it is as much a surprise to me as it would be to anybody else. But there is one thing that I have endeavored to do, and that is to focus my entire life on principles, on doctrines, if you will — on divine truths. While all the circumstances ebb and flow and the sands shift, the rock is the rock of truth and spiritual principle.

The Model of the Apostle Paul

There is genuinely, I think, a spiritual or doctrinal structure that undergirds everything for me. And Paul the Apostle has been my model for that. From the time that my dad first talked to me about Paul’s final words, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith,” I wanted that to be my goal, but that doesn’t happen, because you wish it to happen. You can’t speak it into existence, contrary to what some people say.

When you come to the end of his letter, his Second Letter to Timothy, and you see him there and he’s at the Everest of his life, breathing that rarefied air of those who have climbed to the very pinnacle and made the climb with nobility and integrity, even though all in Asia had forsaken him, even though those that were closest to him had gone. And the rest of that chapter indicates that it was life as usual with all of its normal disappointments, there was no great crowd cheering him when he reached that epic moment. In fact, the church had largely turned their affections away from him and the world was about to chop his head off. You ask the question, “How did he get there, especially given what he endured?” Turn with me to Second Corinthians for a moment. I want to break this into two parts, one tonight and one tomorrow, and just have you kind of work through this with me a little bit.

Exalted Through Affliction and Humiliation

You have to understand that life was extremely difficult for this man. Obviously, we can’t cover all of those things, but there are many things that are indicated to us in this one letter called Second Corinthians, that lay out for us, in a litany kind of fashion, what he endured. Look at the way it begins in 2 Corinthians 1:3–7:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3–7 NASB).

Now right off the beginning in this letter, it’s just loaded with the words affliction and suffering. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 1:8, he says:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life . . .

Everything that could come at that man came at him. It wasn’t just physical, it wasn’t just persecution, it was massive spiritual battles and struggles and disappointments. Look at 2 Corinthians 4 for just a moment, and we’ll come back to it later. I would point you to 2 Corinthians 4:8–11:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

What he means there is not some kind of spiritual catharsis in which he is dying to self. What he means is, he lived every day on the brink of death — plots of the Jews, plots of the Gentiles, and people endeavoring to kill him. It was relentless.

Afflictions, Hardships, Calamities

In 2 Corinthians 6:4–5, we read how, as a servant of God, he had “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger . . .”

Further down in 2 Corinthians 6:8, he says that he suffered dishonor, was treated as a deceiver, was punished, and was sorrowful. In 2 Corinthians 6:10, he says he was poor, having nothing. It really was an assault that never led up.

One other section is 2 Corinthians 11, which is familiar to you. This will kind of set up where we want to go and talk about how he could endure all this and come to the end in the noble way that he did. In 2 Corinthians 11:23–28, comparing himself to the false teachers who had come into Corinth and paraded themselves as if they were the true representatives of God, he says:

[I have had] far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.

And he’s not talking about some administrative issue here, that’s not it. He says what he means in 2 Corinthians 11:29, “Who is weak without my being weak?” This is spiritual empathy. He is saying, “I feel the weakness of the people to whom I minister. Their pain is my pain. Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” Now you start adding all this up and this is asking a lot out of one person.

Power Perfected in Weakness

In chapter 2 Corinthians 12, he says that because he had seen so many revelations, direct and divine revelations, to keep him from exalting himself, “There was given me a thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). It was given to him by God. He didn’t request it, but he got it to keep him humble. He says it was a thorn in the flesh. What was it? It tells you what it was — “a messenger of Satan,” an angelos of Satan. What’s a satanic angel? A demon. Was the demon attacking Paul personally? I think certainly it’s possible that those things can happen in some way, but I tend to think that in the context of this letter, there was a demonic invasion going on in the Corinthian assembly that was just cutting his heart out.

And he asked the Lord three times to remove it, and the Lord three times said, “No, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). You might say, “Well, isn’t he weak enough? Isn’t there any end to this?” Paul says, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

I just want you to hear all that, because that’s the man who came to the end of his life and said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

A Downcast and Comforted Heart

How? The disappointments were enough to crush him. Go back to 2 Corinthians 7:5–6 for a moment. It says:

For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within.

And then he goes this far:

But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us . . .

Is the apostle Paul depressed? He says back in 2 Corinthians 2:12–13 that he was so depressed and so overwrought about the Corinthian church that when he came to Troas, even though there was a wide open door for ministry, he had no heart for it. He was crushed because the Corinthian church had turned on him to follow false teachers after he had invested nearly two years of his life bringing them the knowledge of Christ. He knew the pain on the inside, the pain of unrequited love. He writes about that in 2 Corinthians 12. He must have been thinking, “So is this how it works? The more I love you, the less you love me.” He knew all of it — outside and inside. They hammered him even for his appearance. They said he was unimpressive and his speech was downright contemptible. He was ugly and couldn’t communicate.

Now if you know you’re ugly and you can communicate, you can make it, or if you’re just handsome and stand there, you can survive for a while. But they just took him on every front. This was the false teachers endeavoring to discredit him so that they could remove the people’s confidence in him and replace him with their own lies. It’s hard to bear that when you poured your life into a congregation. It’s hard to imagine any one human being enduring all of this. How did he do it? How does anybody endure?

I don’t even come close to this kind of thing, but I’ve been in one church long enough to see just about every kind of assault and attack on my life. It’s not anywhere near this, but I have tried to learn from Paul how to survive all the things that come.

We Do Not Lose Heart

I want you to go back to 2 Corinthians 4, because I think this is where we see it. I’ll talk a little bit about it tonight and a little more tomorrow. This is really not a sermon to you, it’s just more of letting you in on where the Lord has directed me to help me survive and be faithful to the end.

Please notice at the end of 2 Corinthians 4:1. It says, “We do not lose heart.” And look down at 2 Corinthians 4:16, which says, “Therefore, we do not lose heart.” We do not lose heart. He was bent but never broken. That’s what he says, doesn’t he? Look down at 2 Corinthians 4:8–9. He says he was “afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed, bent but not broken.” Therefore, we do not lose heart.

Never Defecting from the Gospel

I needed to dig in a little bit there because it’s an important Greek verb. It is enkakeō. If you know anything about the Greek language, you know that the kappa-alpha-kappa root always refers to evil. Kittel would translate this verb “to act badly”, “to act corruptly”, or “to act criminally”. The root means bad, evil, and wrong. It refers to malice, depravity, malignity, wickedness, and corruption, and it is always linked to sin. So when Paul says, “We do not lose heart,” he’s not just talking about, “We don’t get discouraged.” He’s not just saying we’re not experiencing burnout. He’s casting any defection from the pursuit of his ministry, no matter how difficult it is, and the pursuit of Christ and the pursuit of the honor of God, as acting sinfully. It is contrasted in Galatians 6:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:13 with doing good.

Do not become weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9).

Weary is the same word. In other words, “Do not stop doing good and defect.” This always has in view something evil. This is a sinful defection, whether it’s cowardice, laziness, or indifference, or whether it’s the abandonment of calling and duty, or whether it’s immorality. Paul says in the middle of all of this, “We do not sinfully defect.”

How Can We Persevere?

Then you have to ask the question, how? Apart from, of course, the work of the Holy Spirit wouldn’t be possible, apart from the sovereign power of God, it wouldn’t be possible. And as we saw from 2 Corinthians 12, the Lord would bring into his life whatever he needed to do to humble him, to keep him on track. But there’s a human side of this as well. The work of God in sustaining us is not apart from our own commitment to some truths and some realities and some principles. In this fourth chapter, I want to share some with you.

1. The Superiority of the New Covenant

I may seem a little bit puritanical here, because we’re going to just kind of chug along very slowly with a few words to start, but it’ll get a little momentum.

First of all, he embraced with all his heart the superiority of the New Covenant. He embraced with all his heart the superiority of the New Covenant. What kept this man moving? How do you get up every day and face all of this? How do you carry the weight of this disappointment? At the end of his life, he says, “All who are in Asia have forsaken me. Please, Timothy, don’t you forsake me too. Stir up the gift of God that is in you. Be strong in the Lord.” That’s what he has to say to Timothy. He says, “Guard the treasure. Don’t abandon sound doctrine.”

Everybody was defecting all around him. Timothy was on the brink of defecting when he wrote the letter Second Timothy. How do you get up every day and face this massive kind of disappointment as well as the constant debilitating physical pain and the threat of death in a very harsh world where you’re walking everywhere and having to eke out every meal? How do you do this? How do you pour your life into church after church after church and watch them wander away?

The Corinthian church became the church that nobody wanted to pastor. Paul tried to get Apollos to go there and he wouldn’t do it. How do you do that? Number one, you embrace the superiority of the New Covenant. Look at 2 Corinthians 4:1, which says, “Therefore, since we have this ministry . . .” And I have to stop you there. Therefore takes you back to chapter three. The ministry that he’s talking about is presented in 2 Corinthians 3. For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:8, it is called “the ministry of the Spirit.” In 2 Corinthians 3:9, it is called “the ministry of righteousness”, in contrast to the ministry of condemnation. It is the ministry of the New Covenant.

Paul never lost his grip on the reality that the great and glorious New Covenant, salvation in Jesus Christ for which the world had been waiting for so long, and particularly the Jews, had come. And in Philippians 3, he says, “I had racked up all of these achievements and all of these benefits, some inherited, some achieved, and I counted it all dung” (Phil 3:8). He says, “When I came across the imputed righteousness of God, granted by faith in Jesus Christ, it was so stunning, so staggering, so shattering to my past from the Damascus road on, that I never lost the glory of the New Covenant.”

The Letter Kills, the Spirit Gives Life

I mean at the bottom line, it’s this simple. This is the message the world must hear. This is the something better of Hebrews 11:39–40. It is better. Go back to 2 Corinthians 3:6. It is better because the New Covenant gives life. It says:

Who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The law passed a death sentence, the gospel gave life. The New Covenant also gives righteousness as we saw. Second Corinthians 3:9 says that the Old Covenant was a ministry of condemnation. It had a certain glory to it because it is a reflection of the holiness of God, but much more glory is found in the ministry of righteousness. The ministry of condemnation damns, the ministry of righteousness forgives and saves.

The New Covenant is also permanent, as 2 Corinthians 3:10–11 says:

For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.

The old has faded away, the new has come. It is permanent. Never does it need to be replaced. There will never be another covenant to save.

It brings hope. He says in 2 Corinthians 3:12, “Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech.”

It is also clear (2 Corinthians 3:13–14), where the old was veiled. In the new, the veil is gone.

It is Christ-centered, because the veil is removed in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:14).

It is about people turning to the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16), because when they do the veil is taken away.

It is empowered by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17).

It is transforming (2 Corinthians 3:18), and it transforms us into the same image, the very image of the Lord, whose glory we see from one level of glory the next to the next.

He’s just swelling up with the glories of that New Covenant as he comes to the end of that chapter. Then he says, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, you can never lose sight of the glory of the message, the wonder and glory of the New Covenant ministry.” To know that, to believe that, to be redeemed by that and to be called to proclaim that, is the noblest, most exalted privilege that any person could ever have. And here we are on this side of the incarnation, on this side of the cross, having this great privilege.

Always Led in Christ’s Triumph

If you look back at 2 Corinthians 2 for a moment, the end of the chapter, it’s just amazing to Paul. He says, “Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:14). In spite of everything, Christ wins in the end. The end has already been written. He always leads us in his triumph, and he’s got a Roman triumph in mind. And then this, listen to this:

And through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.

How stunning is that? When you, as a believer, show up anywhere with Christ living in you, you manifest the sweet aroma of gospel glory. To one, you’re an aroma from death to death, because you compound their judgment if they refuse the message. To another, you are an aroma from life to life. And I love this sentence at the end of 2 Corinthians 2:16. It says, “Who’s adequate for these things?” Who could make his own life matter that much?

If you ask the people in this town or in any town, “Who are the most important people in the city?” they would probably tell you, “The mayor, or the city council, or the people who run the educational program.” No. There’s a core of people in this city and in every city who influence people for eternity. They have a profound impact on people’s damnation and they have a profound impact on their salvation. They are an aroma of death to death and of life to life. Who in his own strength could have that kind of impact? That’s what he’s saying. He’s stunned by it. I never get over it. I never get over it. I never get over it, that when I preach the word of God, things happened that are divine.

My son Mark came in one day and he sat on the bed when he was 16. He looked at me, and he said, “Dad, when you preach you’re really special, but the rest of the time you’re not so special.” That’s exactly what he said. He was trying to process what happened to his father when he got in the pulpit. In the pulpit, what I say has this divine power. At home, when I have a great idea about how to fix something, it’s usually stupid. This is another world. There’s no human that’s adequate for this level of impact, and Paul never lost the sense of the awesome, staggering, stunning wonder of being used by God to make a difference in people’s eternity. Staggering.

Every time somebody walks up to me and says, “I heard you preach and I came to Christ,” I just want to step back and catch my breath. And if I’m not proclaiming the word of God, I don’t have any of that kind of power. If you want to have an enduring ministry, never lose the sense of wonder and awe over the glory of the New Covenant. The message the world has been waiting for is here and you know it, and God will use you to proclaim it. Sometimes it will compound people’s judgment, even that is an impact. You matter. There’s nobody on this planet as powerful as the people of God. They affect eternity.

2. The Mercy of Ministry

Secondly, Paul embraced the reality that ministry is a mercy. He says, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1).

This is such a simple point. It wasn’t just the glory of the New Covenant, it was the staggering reality that he was given the privilege of proclaiming it. This is a mercy. He never got over that. When he wrote First Timothy, he said:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:12–15).

Ministry is a mercy. Some pastors sometimes will say to me, “You know, my church isn’t treating me well. I deserve to be treated better.” Really? Really? Your salvation is a mercy. The fact that you’re not in hell is a mercy. Ministry is a mercy. It’s a mercy just to survive in ministry. In Philippians 2, he was speaking of Epaphroditus who was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him. If you’re sick and you get better, that’s a mercy, because you deserve to be sick and die. Ministry is a mercy. It is a gift of God’s grace and favor to the utterly undeserving.

You hear people talk about burnout in ministry. Burnout is not because of work. You don’t hear ditch diggers complaining that they’re getting burned out on digging ditches. Labor doesn’t make people burn out. What makes people burn out is discouragement, and discouragement is connected to unrealistic expectations. So if you realize you deserve nothing and that everything is a mercy, that’s all you need to know.

What happens when 250 people walk out of the church? What do you do? Do you react in the flesh and say, “Most people don’t appreciate me. I’m not going to take this,” and go home and complain to your wife? The right response is, “I don’t deserve any of these people. If they all walked out next Sunday, if nobody showed up, I’d get what I deserve.” Ministry is a mercy and it’s never earned.

That’s why it was so hard for Paul throughout this letter. Even though he was forced to defend himself, it was hard for him to do it, because he hated defending himself when he knew how unworthy he was. I look at ministry as a mercy. I don’t deserve it at all. I don’t deserve any of it. It is a mercy that I have not stumbled. It is a mercy that I have not so affected my wife that she walked out. It is a mercy that I have not somehow disappointed my children and made them turn their back on Christ. All of it’s a mercy. It’s a mercy that I haven’t stood in the pulpit and said such stupid things that they ran me out of town. It’s a mercy.

3. The Necessity of a Pure Heart

There’s a third element that I want to mention to you. So first, if you want an enduring ministry, you have to be caught up in the wonder of the message of the New Covenant. Second, you have to be overwhelmed by the reality that you deserve nothing and it’s a mercy. And thirdly, you have to embrace the essential necessity of a pure heart.

Time and truth go hand in hand. Look what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:2. He says, “We do not lose heart. We don’t act badly. We don’t sinfully defect sinfully.” Why? “Because we have renounced the things hidden because of shame.” I can’t tell you how important that is, folks.

Holiness was such a major subject. “Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh, perfecting holiness in the fear of God,” he wrote to them in the first letter, in 1 Corinthians 7:1. He wanted to present them “a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2 NKJV). In 2 Corinthians 12:21, he said that his great fear was that he “may mourn over many of you who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality, and sensuality which you practiced.” He wrote against all forms of sin. He gave them lists. And in his own heart, he had renounced the things hidden because of shame. What does that mean? He had no secret, sinful life.

He is saying, “We don’t defect. But (alla), on the other hand, we’ve renounced the things that lead to defection, and the things that lead to defection are the hidden sins that are hidden because they’re too shameful.” And you know what? This is pretty significant coming from an ex-pharisee who was a master hypocrite. They all were. Read Matthew 23 if you don’t think so. They were whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27). They were masters at hypocrisy, at covering the hidden shame.

He says, “I’ve renounced it. I’ve renounced it. There’s no secret life.” Again, I say, time and truth go hand in hand. Given enough time, the truth’s going to come out. James says that lust conceives on the inside, but pretty soon it brings forth sin (James 1:15). I’ve had 40 years in the same congregation. That’s 40 years with some of the same people who are still my dear precious friends. There are some families in the church that called me to pastorate when I was in my twenties. They’re still there. They’re still our dear friends. They know everything there is to know about me, upside down and backward, about my children, about my grandchildren. That’s just your life. If there’s a hidden life, it’s going to come out and you’re not going to make it. So you have to be dealing with sin in the heart.

The Testimony of Our Conscience

Go to chapter one. Let me show you a verse that has helped me a great deal in this regard. Now, get the picture. Paul is being attacked relentlessly by false teachers. After the writing of 1 Corinthians to straighten out the issues there, false teachers came in. They started a campaign to destroy Paul in the eyes of the Corinthians. They just went after him with everything they had. He made a short visit there. It was such a sad, tragic, humiliating visit there that he left brokenhearted. He knows the false teachers are there. He sends Titus. Titus eventually comes back and gives him a good report that some of the people are turning back to him, and that things are going up. He took a letter with him from Paul that’s not in the Scripture. And so some good things are happening, but he knows the false teachers are still there so he writes this letter.

He writes this letter to defend himself against their accusations. If you read through 2 Corinthians, you’ll find out what they were accusing him of. They were accusing him of a secret, sinful life, of being in the ministry for money and favors from women, etc. Here is his defense. I love this. This is 2 Corinthians 1:12:

For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.

You know what he’s saying? He is saying, “Let them say what they will, my conscience is clear.” That’s the highest earthly court. It’s not the heavenly court, but it’s the highest earthly court. The conscience is the soul’s warning system. Romans 2 tells us that it either accuses or excuses. Everybody’s got one, everybody. It is to the soul what pain is to the body. Pain is a God-given mechanism that says, “Your body is hurting. You’re harming your body. Your body is sick. Your body needs attention. You’ve got to do something different.” Your body needs help and pain is a good thing. If there’s no pain, you die. The conscience is to the soul what pain is to the body. The conscience says, “Stop doing that. You’re destroying your soul.” It makes you feel guilty, anxious, fearful, troubled, and sleepless; it triggers anxiety, regret, and disgrace, or joy, affirmation, peace, and contentment.

I remember reading years ago about an Avianca Airline flying in Europe. It was flying right toward a mountain. They were going to an airport and were supposed to make a turn. Somehow they got confused and they started flying straight into the mountain, a Boeing jet full of people. All of a sudden, a cockpit warning voice said, “Pull up, pull up, pull up . . .” which is what they do. Inexplicably, the pilot didn’t pull up and recorded on the voice box was this, “Shut up, gringo,” because they spoke Spanish. He said, “Shut up, gringo,” and they flew it right into the mountain. It’s a warning device. It’s a warning mechanism. It’s informed by radar. The radar gives you the reality, the mechanism reacts. For us as believers, the Bible gives us reality, we have a God-given mechanism that reacts to that reality.

Calibrating the Conscience

First of all, you want to have a well-informed conscience. That’s why you study the word of God. You study the word of God, and you embrace the truth of the word of God. Why? Because you want your conscience fully informed so that it triggers fear and anxiety and accusation and guilt when you move slightly in the direction of iniquity because if you lose the battle there, you’re going to lose it on the outside.

People say, “You have to have accountability with people.” Sure, it’s fine to have accountability with people, but you can have all the accountability with people going on around you and be losing the battle big time on the inside. If you’re not willing to battle there, all the relationships aren’t going to do it. How many husbands have been having an affair on their wives and carrying on so that their wife didn’t know? Paul could say, “Look, my conscience is clear. I’m winning the battle on the inside.” I love this. He says the testimony of our conscience is that we walked in holiness and godly sincerity. I just say, “Lord, that’s what I want. I want a conscience that affirms holiness and godly sincerity, moral purity. Hagiotēs, or holiness, is a word that means “moral purity”, and “godly sincerity” is elikrineia, which means “transparency” or “openness”.

Paul, he goes back to this very, very often. Do you remember just a couple of verses? In Acts 23:1, he looks at the council and this is what he says. He’s before the council and the high priest, Ananias, is there. He says:

Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.

Wow. You must have control of that life on the inside. When David said, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11 KJV), he meant that when he is loaded with an understanding of the truth of God, it activates his conscience as soon as he takes a step in the wrong direction.

Charles Wesley wrote this hymn, I don’t know if anybody sings this anymore:

I want a principle within Of watchful, godly fear, A sensibility of sin, A pain to feel it near. Help me the first approach to feel Of pride or wrong desire; To catch the wandering of my will, And quench the kindling fire.

From Thee that I no more may stray, No more Thy goodness grieve, Grant me the filial awe, I pray, The tender conscience give. Quick as the apple of an eye, O God, my conscience make! Awake my soul when sin is nigh, And keep it still awake.

Do you ever pray that? “God, give me a sensitive conscience.” Don’t sear your conscience. Don’t override your conscience. Train it to respond. That’s why Paul gives so much instruction to acquiesce to the weaker brother, because you don’t want to train somebody to ignore his conscience, even if his conscience is badly informed. Let the information catch up and then the conscience will catch up, but don’t train him to violate his conscience.

4. The Responsibility of Rightly Handling the Word

There’s just one more thought for tonight. First, an enduring life of ministry is one which embraces the staggering greatness of the New Covenant. Second, it understands that all ministry is undeserved. It is all a mercy. Third, it embraces the need for internal purity. And fourthly, is certain of the responsibility to accurately handle the word of God.

I love this. In 2 Corinthians 4:2, he also says that he doesn’t walk in craftiness (panourgia). It’s a word that came to mean somebody who was capable of doing anything to get his goals. It means someone who is shrewd, unscrupulous, or deceptive. Paul is saying, “I don’t manipulate people. I don’t use an adulterated word of God to manipulate people.” Craftiness (panourgia), is synonymous with kakourgia. There’s that kappa-alpha-kappa root again, meaning an evildoer, a criminal. It’s always, by the way, used in the New Testament in a negative way.

Paul says, “I don’t twist and pervert the word of God.” Go back to 2 Corinthians 2:17. He says:

For we are not like many, peddling the word of God (there are always hucksters and peddlers, kapēleuō), but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.

He will never handle Scripture in a deceptive way. He will never handle Scripture in a manipulative way. Kapēleuō actually is the idea of a street vendor who cheated people. The word means to tamper with, and it was used in relation to those who dilute would wine. They would sell wine that was diluted with water, a popular scam.

He says, “I will not water the word of God down. I will not mishandle the word of God. I will not misappropriate the word of God in any way, but rather, by the manifestation of truth, we commend ourselves (that’s the editorial ‘we’ coming out of his humility) to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. I will be faithful and true to the word of God. I will not twist it. I will not manipulate it. I will not abuse it. I will not adulterate it. I will be committed to the manifestation of the truth.” He had a relentless commitment to biblical fidelity.

Speaking to Every Man’s Conscience

You know if you don’t do that, you can’t survive very long in one place. You have to take your show on the road or on TV, then you can say anything whether it’s biblical or not, and manipulate people at will, but you cannot do that over the long haul with people that know you. Look, if I manipulate the passage of Scripture here and I continue to teach the word of God, I’m going to get caught in my manipulation somewhere down the road. How do you survive over the long haul? It’s that relentless battle, that relentless effort to rightly divide the word of truth so that there’s consistency and constancy over the long haul in your ministry and in your life. And it’s so stunning what he says at the end of verse 2 Corinthians 4:2 — “commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” Do you know what that’s saying? It really is an amazing statement. Hodge wrote on this passage, these words:

He knew that the truth had such a self-evidencing power that even where it was rejected and hated, it commended itself to the conscience as true.

In Romans 2, the law of God is written where? On the heart. And the truth hammers at that heart, even though on the surface there might be rejection. No matter what trials, hardships, difficulties, discouragements, and assaults; no matter how unjustly attacked and criticized, he never wavered on biblical fidelity. Right down to the very end, he was saying the truth with absolute boldness and passion, and he knew that the effect of that was that it connected with the law of God written in the heart and could actually activate the heart of one who even hated to hear it. Of course in the sight of God, it was approved.

Biblical fidelity over the long haul, personal purity over the long haul, a sense of personal unworthiness to this great privilege, and awe of the staggering reality of living in and proclaiming the New Covenant — those were the things that Paul embraced. And because of that, he says, “We don’t lose heart.” Now, I have five more of them to give you. We’ll do that tomorrow.

is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s University and Seminary, and featured teacher of Grace to You.