Below is the transcript of my opening keynote address at my church’s recent Engage event – the theme of the event was “Make a Difference”. My lesson was from 2 Cor. 4:1-7.
Hello, friends – you are here today because you are a leader. You may be a GROW group leader, a student ministry leader, or a children’s ministry leader. Or, you may simply be here because you want to do everything you can to help lead other people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. And if you are a leader, then you care about whether or not you are making a difference. Leaders are those who desire to use their time, resources, and energy for the most effective impact possible. And we want to help you with that.
Ministry while wonderful, can be very tough and at times exhausting, but knowing whether or not you are really making a difference, will make or break you. If I tell you to dig a hole in the ground, without explaining why, you may start for a bit, but after awhile, you’ll get hot, start to feel a blister coming, and you’ll ask yourself why you are doing this, and walk away. Now, imagine I tell you to dig a hole, but I explain that six feet under the dirt there is a buried treasure worth millions. Suddenly, a new kind of enthusiasm and purpose would inspire you to start digging! The heat wouldn’t really bother you as much, and the blisters would seem a small price to pay for such a great thing! If you know that what you are doing really matters and will really make a difference, you’ll be able to punch through the walls of frustration, difficulty, and exhaustion that would stop someone else.
So, the question for us in our specific areas of leadership is this – how do you know you are making a difference? I am hoping to help with that by looking at the Impossibility of our Task, the Temptation of our Task, and the Miracle of our Task.
Leading others into a growing relationship with Christ is no small task. In fact, as strange as it may sound at an event that is meant to encourage you, it is actually an impossible task. Paul tells us, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (4:1). The phrase “we do not lose heart” is used six times in the Bible, and each time it is used when there are clear opportunities for people to be discouraged, but are exhorted to look beyond their immediate circumstances, trusting in God’s good plan. Paul immediately hints at the difficulty of the ministry of Christ and His gospel. It can be so easy to lose heart in ministry; if you let them, there are a million things that can take the wind from your sails. Maybe it feels like no matter what, people aren’t changing. Maybe you feel overwhelmed and under-qualified for the burdens and responsibilities that come with leading. Or maybe you lead a GROW group and people just simply aren’t opening up and your group feels like it is defined by nothing but awkward silence. Ministry is tough.
But Paul doesn’t just stop with talking about how ministry is tough – he pushes it to the point where it seems impossible. “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” (4:3-4). Paul reminds us that the reason that ministry is so hard is because what we are doing is actually impossible – we are asking blind men to see. There is the old story of a seminary professor who takes his preaching class to the local graveyard, and one by one has each of his students try and command the dead people to rise from their graves, only to remind them that this is exactly what they do every Sunday. We are asking dead people to live, and blind people to see.
If we do not realize that, we may arrogantly assume that with if we are just good enough leaders, we can change people. And that is where Paul warns us of a temptation.
Right after Paul hints at the difficulty that comes with the ministry of the gospel of Christ, he quickly adds a sidebar, “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” (4:2). Paul is clearly trying to defend, that despite the difficulty of the nature of ministry, he has not attempted to soften or change the gospel. He has renounced “disgraceful, underhanded ways, cunning, and tampering” with God’s Word. “Underhanded ways” is a really good translation; the word used for the phrase means to literally “protect, or keep hidden”, and used in this context, it is intentionally done to deceive. If you are trying to sell a car that makes this really funny sound, but you just turn the radio up all the way whenever someone comes to look at it to cover the sound – that’s underhanded. Paul refuses to use the bait-and-switch method for evangelism. The word he uses for “cunning” is used by Paul elsewhere to describe the tactics of Satan in Eden (2 Cor. 11:3) – so think of how the serpent spoke to Eve in Gen. 3: deceitful, manipulative, and dishonest. Our consciences must be clear – we will not bend or change God’s truth, nor employ dishonest methods to dupe people into Christianity.
This is done in a number of ways, but I tend to see two main ways this is employed. First, you can tamper with God’s word by actually manipulating the message itself. John Piper talks about how since the 60’s, every ten years or so there seems to be some new scholar who is claiming to have found a more accurate reading of the Bible – but every reading is just nothing but a capitulation to the cultural trends of the day. So now, our culture prizes the sexual expression, and what do you know, scholars have just so happened to find out that Jesus didn’t actually say anything negative about sex outside of marriage or homosexuality. If we succumb to the temptation of tampering with the gospel to appeal to the world, we will lose the gospel.
Second, you can deal with God’s word in “underhanded ways” by minimizing it into the background, and placing something else forward as more important. A talented preacher, really cool worship band, slick production, and new buildings are not inherently bad, but if they have become more central to our ministry than the gospel itself, we have put the cart before the horse. If we handed out hundred-dollar bills, pistols and six-packs to everyone who came to church, I promise you we would pack out our services. We would see revival in western Nebraska breakout. We would have church growth experts coming to us, asking us to speak at conferences and write books. But what have we done? Have we connected these people to Christ – or to our cool new church program? Friends, write this down and do not forget it: in your areas of leadership, what you win them with, is what you win them to. If you win them over with flashy cool gimmicks, you have not won them to Christ – you have won them to the cool flashy gimmicks. And God is not honored by that.
What matters most is not our numerical growth (though we should care about that; we want as many people possible to believe in Christ, but increasing numerically should not be the only dial we watch); what matters most is our unflinching commitment to the purity of the word of God.
But, you just said that people are blind anyways – so what does it matter? Why does it matter if we are faithful or not, if nothing we do will change anything?
God hasn’t called us to an impossible task just because He enjoys watching us squirm. Rather, God has called us to an impossible task in our home, GROW groups, church, and community, so that in an impossible situation, He could magnify His ability to do the impossible. Paul says, “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” (4:5-6).
Let’s think back to how you became a Christian. You were at one point blind to the glory of Christ in the gospel; when others spoke of it, all you saw was darkness. Spiritually dead, blind, hard-hearted, not desiring God. But then suddenly, you heard the gospel, and maybe you had heard it a thousand times before, but your darkened heart lit up – just a pin-prick of light shone through. Then, like the rising of the dawn, the warm beams of the glory of Christ began to shine upon you, and you believed! How did that happen? How did you go from blind, to seeing? The same God who spoke into the void of creation, and out of nothing created light, spoke over your soul, “Let there be light!” And suddenly, you could see. You didn’t do that. The person who shared the gospel with you didn’t do that. That was a miracle. That was God’s pure sovereign power on display – accomplishing what cannot be accomplished, achieving what is impossible. Dear friends, God sovereignly, single-handedly saves – if we forget this truth, we will succumb to temptations of tampering and fiddling with the gospel.
But the most stunning reality of all, is that God works this miracle through those who proclaim His gospel, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Paul tells us that when we lift up Jesus Christ, something miraculous happens – God sovereignly gives sight. Thinking through this, we may say, “Hang on – if it is ultimately God who changes hearts and saves – then don’t I seem a little unnecessary to the whole process? If God is the only one who does the miracle, it must not really if I share the gospel or not.” Paul doesn’t think so – he sees God’s sovereign work in the hearts of unbelievers coming through the channel of gospel proclamation. Jesus exhorts us, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38). The passage doesn’t say that we just pray that God would reap the harvest Himself, but that He would send laborers into the harvest to preach the gospel. In Romans 10 Paul clearly tells us that people will not believe unless they hear, and they will not hear unless we are preaching, for “faith comes by hearing”.
This doesn’t mean that every time we share Christ and His gospel we will always accomplish spiritual victory. It does, however, mean that we should expect no spiritual victory if we are not regularly proclaiming Christ and His gospel. The train of the Holy Spirit rides the rails of the Gospel. If we want our people to be impacted by the Spirit, we must position them on the Gospel, day in and day out, and wait for the Spirit to come.
Why would God do it that way? Why be sovereign over heart change, but still have us participate? He doesn’t need us if He can do it on His own. Two reasons: God gets glory, and we get joy. Paul ends with, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). The treasure of the glory of Christ as seen in the gospel is housed in jars of clay; fragile, little, lowly jars. God is glorified because He works through remarkably broken people like you and me to show that it is not the vessel, but the message that is glorious and powerful. When God achieves the impossible, through us, it should be evident that it was Him who did the work, and He is glorified. And we receive joy because God, though He doesn’t need us, invites us in to be a part of His glorious work. So we proclaim His glorious gospel.
In closing, you may be thinking, “That’s great Marc, but the people I’m leading are already Christians – they don’t need to hear the gospel again.” That’s an understandable question, but consider this: earlier in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul says that it is only through Christ that we can behold the Lord, and beholding Him we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:14-18). Our daily transformation and sanctification, whether it’s the person who has known Jesus for 5 minutes or 50 years, will only happen through Christ. Paul reminds the Colossians of his desire, “[in Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 3:3). All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ. Paul tells the Ephesians to grow up in maturity in the “fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Jesus repeatedly tells His followers that all Scripture points and testifies to Him and His work (Luke 24:25-27). Paul’s pattern in his epistles typically looks like spending the first half explaining the gospel, and then spends the second half explaining “in light of this truth, live then like this”. All our life, our whole task is to keep returning to the fountains of wisdom and knowledge found in Christ, lifting Him up, and trusting God to continue to transform us from one degree of glory to another.
Our workshops that we will be attending will help us process through how this looks in our specific areas of ministry.
So, the question is: How do you know that you are actually making a difference in your ministry? Proclaim Christ and His gospel. This is what we need for ourselves, and what those who we are leading need. So, dear friends, I encourage you: work hard, struggle, sweat, and strive to lead others into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, confident that it is God who is in charge of giving life, convicting of sin, and leading to repentance. If you do that, the Lord promises, you are making a difference.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.“