Paul’s response to these charges is to describe for us the nature of his ministry. As we shall see, Paul’s ministry bears five unmistakable qualities of Christianity that cannot be successfully counterfeited. These qualities have nothing to do with personality or temperament, so anyone who discovers the secret of authentic Christianity can attain them. They are timeless, so they are just as genuine now as in Paul’s day.
We begin our journey of discovery in 2 Corinthians 2:14. Here we find the first three marks of authentic Christianity: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him.” Let’s examine the marks of authentic Christianity.
Mark #1: Unquenchable Optimism
The first mark is found in the very first phrase: “Thanks be to God.” One unmistakable evidence of radical Christianity is a spirit of thankfulness, even amid trial and difficulty. It is a kind of unquenchable optimism. The world operates by the gloomy principle of Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Authentic Christians operate by a belief in God’s grace, love, and ultimate control. You can see the unquenchable optimism of authentic Christianity clearly in the book of Acts, where a note of triumph resounds despite all the dangers, hardships, persecutions, pressures, and perils that the early Christians experienced. The same continual note of thanksgiving is reflected in all of Paul’s letters, as well as those of John, Peter, and James.
The attitude of thanksgiving evident in these passages is genuine and profound. There is nothing artificial about it. It is a far cry from the imitation thanksgiving often seen in Christians today. Some people think they are expected to repeat pious and thankful words, even when they don’t feel thankful. They assume that’s the way Christians are supposed to act. Many have settled for a form of Christian stoicism, a grin-and-bear-it attitude which even a non-Christian can adopt when there’s nothing much he can do about a situation. But that is a long way from true Christian thankfulness. To listen to some Christians today, you would think God expects us to paste on a smile and go around saying, “Hallelujah, I’ve got cancer!” That’s not what our unquenchable optimism is all about.
Authentic Christianity is rooted in reality. It feels all the hurt and pain of adverse circumstances, and does not find any pleasure in them. But authentic Christianity does see the result being produced—not only in heaven someday, but right now here on earth. That result is so desirable and glorious, it is worth all the pain and heartache. That is why it can do nothing but rejoice! An authentic Christian is confident that the same Lord who permitted the pain to come will use it to bring about a highly desirable end. That is why we can be genuinely thankful—even in the midst of perplexity and sorrow.
There is an outstanding example of the unquenchable optimism of authentic Christianity in Acts 16. There, Paul and Silas find themselves at midnight in an inner dungeon in the city jail of Philippi. Their backs are raw and bloody from a terrible flogging received at the hands of the Roman authorities. Their feet are fastened in stocks. The future is uncertain and frightening. Anything could happen to them in the morning—even torture and death. There is no one around to be impressed by a show of courage, and no one to intervene and rescue them. Yet, despite all these reasons for pessimism and hopelessness, Paul and Silas literally break into song!
No one could accuse them of being phony or of putting up a good front just to keep up their spirits. They were genuinely thankful to God. They began to praise Him at midnight because they knew that, despite the apparent rebuff and lack of success, their objective had been accomplished. Now, the church they longed to plant in Philippi could not be stopped! That fact inspired them to break out in praise and thanksgiving. How could they have known what God had planned for them— an earthquake that would jar their chains loose, topple their prison walls, and set them free? They couldn’t! They had no premonition at all of being set free. They were simply manifesting marks of authentic Christianity: unquenchable optimism and thanksgiving.
Mark #2: Unvarying Success
The second mark of authentic Christianity is closely linked to the first. It is found in the next phrase in 2 Corinthians 2:14, “who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.” Note how strongly Paul puts it: Jesus “always leads us” in triumph. Not occasionally. Not sometimes. Always. The apostle makes perfectly clear that the Christianity he has experienced presents a pattern of unvarying success. It never involves failure but invariably achieves its goals. It involves, as we have seen, struggles and hardships and tears. Sometimes, as on the cross at Calvary, the moment of triumph may even look like complete failure. But our triumph is always assured. Though the struggle may be desperate, it is never serious. It issues at last in the complete achievement of the objectives God has set for us. Even the opposition we encounter is made to serve the purposes of victory.
We must remember that these high-sounding words of Paul’s are not mere evangelical pep talk. They were not uttered by a well-paid, highly respected pastor to a well-dressed suburban congregation in a modern megachurch. These words were not given to thrill and entertain the Sunday morning audience but to embolden and encourage those who were literally risking their lives and their families’ lives every day for the cause of Christ. These words were written by a man who bore on his body the wounds of a servant of Jesus. He had endured much difficulty, endless disappointments, and bitter persecution with great pain. Yet he could write with rugged truthfulness that Jesus always leads us in triumph.
This certainly does not mean that Paul’s plans and goals were always realized, for they were not. He wanted to do many things that he was never able to accomplish. In Romans 9:3, Paul describes how he hungered to be used as a minister to Israel—“my brothers, those of my own race.” He even expressed the willingness to be cut off from Christ if only the Israelites would be delivered. But he never achieved that objective. It is not his plans that are in view here, but God’s. The triumph is Christ’s, not Paul’s. The invariable mark of authentic Christianity is that once we have discovered its radical secret, we can never fail. Our will, our dreams, our goals, our desires may be thwarted—but God’s will and plan? Never! He can even weave our apparent failures into His overall design for ultimate triumph. In the life of an authentic Christian, every obstacle becomes an opportunity. Success is inevitable.
The Liberty Of Prison. The unquenchable optimism of genuine Christianity shines through chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to his friends at Philippi. Writing as a prisoner in the city of Rome, confined to a private, rented home but chained day and night to a member of Caesar’s imperial guard, Paul faces a very bleak future. He must soon appear before Nero to answer Jewish charges that could result in his death. He is no longer allowed to travel freely about the empire, preaching “the inexhaustible riches of Christ.” He cannot even visit his beloved friends in the many churches he has founded.
What a time for discouragement! Yet no New Testament letter reflects greater confidence and rejoicing than Philippians. The reason for this confidence, Paul says, is twofold. He writes, “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (1:12). Then he lists two evidences to prove his point.
First, he says, “As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (v.13). The palace guard (or, in some translations, the praetorian guard) is the imperial bodyguard. Since he is a prisoner of Caesar’s, he must be guarded by Caesar’s own handpicked guard. The guard was largely made up of sons of noble families who were commissioned to spend a few years in Nero’s palace guard. Later on, this select group would become the kingmakers of the empire, responsible for choosing succeeding emperors. They were impressive young men, the cream of the empire, in training for future positions of power and leadership.
Anyone who can read between the lines a bit will see what is happening here. It is clear that the Lord Jesus, in His role as King of the earth, has appointed Nero to be the chairman of the Committee for the Evangelization of the Roman Empire. Nero doesn’t know this—but then emperors seldom know what is really going on in their empires. Remember that when the time came for the Son of God to be born in Bethlehem, His mother and her new husband were 70 miles away, living in Nazareth. So God commissioned Emperor Augustus to get Joseph and Mary down from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Augustus felt strangely moved to issue an imperial edict that everyone should go to his hometown to be taxed—and that did the trick!
In this case, Nero had given orders that his imperial bodyguard should have charge of the apostle Paul. Every 6 hours, one of the future leaders of the Roman Empire was brought in, chained to Paul, and forcibly exposed to the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ!
I suggest that if you want to feel sorry for anyone, don’t feel sorry for Paul. Feel sorry for the young Roman bodyguard. Here he is, trying to live a quiet, pagan life, and every so often he is ordered out and chained to this disturbing man who says the most amazing things about someone called Jesus of Nazareth, who has risen from the dead. As a result, one by one, these young men were being won to Christ. It is what you might call a chain reaction!
If you doubt that this was happening, just look at the next to the last verse of the Philippian letter: “All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22). Here is a band of young men, the political center of the empire, being infiltrated and conquered for Christ by an old man in chains who is awaiting trial for his life. It is not at all unlikely that some of the young men who accompanied Paul on his later journeys came from this very band.
This incident is a magnificent revelation of God’s strategy—and, by contrast, of the weakness of human strategy. No human mind could have conceived this unique approach to the very heart of the empire. We humans are forever planning strategies for fulfilling the Great Commission, but what we come up with is usually banal, routine, unimaginative, and relatively ineffective. The noteworthy thing about God’s strategy is that it is ingenious and totally unexpected.
Aided By Opposition. The strategies of God are so powerful, compared with human plans and strategies, that He is able to take man’s most vicious opposition and turn it to His own advantage. That is what is recorded in the early chapters of Acts. The church in Jerusalem was growing by leaps and bounds. Some 2,000 to 5,000 Christians were gathering together weekly and enjoying the tremendous fellowship and excitement. Yet it was all contained within the city walls. When God wanted to spread these good things among the nations, He permitted sharp opposition to arise. As a result, the early Christians were driven throughout the empire—all except the apostles.
I have learned to glimpse God’s hand in these acts of opposition, and I now read missionary reports from a different perspective. In recent years, I have seen many reports in missionary magazines saying in one way or another, “Terrible things are happening to our country. The doors are closing to the gospel. Opposition is rising. The government is trying to suppress all Christian witness. Our missionaries must soon pack up and get out.” Without question, these missionaries and the national Christians in these countries are being oppressed and threatened, and they greatly need our prayers and support. Yet, when I read such reports, I have learned to say, “Thank God. At last the missionaries are being forced to relinquish control of the churches and the national church is taking over.”
In Ethiopia, before World War II, the missionaries were driven out for 20 years, but when they came back in they found that the gospel had spread like wildfire, and there were far more Christians than if the missionaries had been allowed to stay. We have seen similar stories in other trouble spots around the world, notably China.
Paul makes a second point in his letter to the Philippians to support his claim that the things that happened to him had only served to advance the gospel. He says, “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (Phil. 1:14). Because Paul was a prisoner, the Roman Christians were witnessing far more freely throughout the city than they would have done otherwise.
It was at this time that the first official Roman persecution against the Christians was beginning. Many, therefore, were afraid to speak of their faith. But then they saw that God—not Nero, not the Jewish leaders—was in complete charge of matters. With God in charge, they became emboldened to proclaim the gospel. As a result, there was far more effective outreach going on in Rome than if Paul had been free to preach at will. This fact has always suggested to me that perhaps the best way to evangelize a community would be to start by locking all the preachers up in jail! Other Christians might then begin to realize that they too have gifts for ministry, and would begin to exercise them in effective ways!
Living Letters. Looking back on this incident with the benefit of 20 centuries of hindsight, we see a third proof of Paul’s claim—a proof that even he could not have seen at the time. If we had been with Paul in that hired house in Rome and had asked him, “Paul, what do you think is the greatest work you have accomplished in your ministry through the power of Christ?” what would he have said? I feel sure his answer would have been, “The planting of churches in various cities.” It was to these churches that his letters were written, and it was for them that he prayed daily. He called them “my joy and crown” and spent himself without restraint for them.
But now, looking back across the intervening centuries, we can see that the planting of these churches was not his greatest work after all. Every one of the churches he planted ceased its testimony long ago. In most cases, the very cities in which they existed lie in ruins today. The work of Paul that has persisted to this day has been the letters that he wrote when he was locked up and could do nothing else! Those letters have changed the world. They are among the most powerful documents known to men. No wonder Paul could write, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.” It is an unmistakable mark of authentic Christianity.
Mark #3: Unforgettable Impact
The third unmistakable mark follows immediately. After saying, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ,” Paul continues with this beautiful statement of the impact we have as authentic Christians: “and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him” (2 Cor. 2:14). God tells us that our lives should be spent giving off a fragrance, a perfume, a pleasing bouquet—not only to other people, but to God. Enlarging on this thought, Paul adds: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” (vv.15-16).
Most men have had the experience of being in a room when a strikingly beautiful woman enters. Before she came in, she applied a touch here and there of White Diamonds, and as she passes through the room, she leaves behind a lingering fragrance. Consciously or unconsciously, all the males in the room are affected by that fragrance. Weeks or months later, they may catch a wisp of that fragrance again—and immediately, the image of that beautiful woman flashes into their minds. The fragrance has made her unforgettable.
That is the picture Paul gives here. Authentic Christianity leaves an unforgettable impression on those who encounter it. Christians are responsible for the enduring impact they make. As Paul suggests, the impact may be in one of two directions. Christians either increase opposition to Christ (death to death) or they lead toward faith and life (life to life). If your life is one that reflects radical, authentic Christianity, people become either bitter or better through contact with you. But one thing cannot happen: people will never remain the same. Those who are determined to die are pushed on toward death by coming into contact with authentic Christianity. Those who are seeking to live are helped on into life. Jesus certainly had this quality about Him. No one ever came into contact with Him and went away the same.
Many commentators on this passage conclude that Paul had in mind here a typical Roman triumph. When a Roman general returned to the capital after a successful campaign, he was granted a triumph by the senate. A great procession passed through the streets of Rome displaying the captives taken in the course of the conquest. Some people went before the chariot of the conqueror, bearing garlands of flowers and pots of fragrant incense. They were the prisoners who were destined to live and return to their captured country to govern it under Roman rule. Other prisoners followed behind the chariot dragging chains and heavy manacles. These were doomed to execution, for the Romans felt they could not trust them. As the procession went on through the cheering crowds, the incense pots and fragrant flowers were to the first group a fragrance from life to life, while the same aroma was to the second group a fragrance of death to death.
This is the effect of the gospel as it touches the world through the life of an authentic Christian. Authentic Christianity leaves a lingering fragrance to God of Jesus Christ, no matter what—but to human beings, it is either a fragrance of death to death or of life to life.
But what about phony Christianity? That’s another matter altogether—it’s just a bad smell! You’ve certainly heard the old one-liner: “Old fishermen never die; they only smell that way.” The same can be said for false Christianity: It never dies; it only smells that way.
Mark #4: Unimpeachable Integrity
The fourth mark of genuine Christianity is found in 2 Corinthians 2:17: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.” Remember, that is not a description of Christian pastors but of all Christians. It has great application to pastors and others in the ministry, but its primary reference is to common, ordinary Christians who have learned the secret of authentic Christianity.
Christians can be described in two ways, negatively and positively. Negatively, they are not peddlers. The word means a huckster, a street salesman. Occasionally I hear Christian witnessing described as “selling the gospel.” I cringe when I hear that because I don’t believe Christians are meant to be salespeople for God. The idea here is that of a street hawker who has certain wares that he considers attractive and that he peddles on the corner as people are passing by. He makes his living by peddling his wares.
Much Christian preaching and witnessing can be described that way. People select certain attractive features from the Scriptures and use these as “selling points.” Healing is a case in point. It is a legitimate subject for study and practice, but when singled out and harped on continually—especially when a pitch for large, sacrificial offerings is linked to it—healing can quickly lead to hucksterism. Prophecy can serve the same purpose. I am troubled by anyone who is known only as a prophetic teacher, for that person has picked out something that is attractive (and even sensational) from the Word. If that is all he ever teaches, he is not declaring the whole counsel of God. He is a peddler, making a living by hawking certain wares from the Scriptures. Paul says authentic Christianity does not hawk its truth like a peddler selling goods in the street.
Our integrity as authentic Christians is characterized by four qualities, according to this passage.
First Quality Of Integrity: We speak “with sincerity.” In other words, we are to be honest people. We must mean what we say. The world admires sincerity and feels it is the ultimate expression of character—but according to Paul, sincerity is just the beginning of character, God’s minimum expectation of authentic Christians. The very least we should expect from ourselves as Christians is that we thoroughly believe and practice what we say.
Second Quality Of Integrity: Paul says we are “sent from God” or “commissioned by God” (rsv). This speaks of our purpose as authentic Christians. We are not to be idle dreamers with no definite objective in view. Like military officers, we have been commissioned. We have been given a definite task and specific assignments that constitute our purpose in life and in ministry. We are purposeful people with an end in view, an object to attain, a goal to accomplish. And we do not merely preach or witness as though that were a goal in itself.
Third Quality Of Integrity: Paul says we do all this “before God” or “in the sight of God” (rsv). This indicates an attitude of transparency, of openness to investigation. To walk in the sight of other people permits us to hide our sins and contradictions behind a facade. But to walk in the sight of God requires total honesty with Him and with ourselves, because nothing can be hidden from God’s sight. This does not mean we can live sinlessly, but rather that there must be no cover-up or evasion of the facts of our sin when it occurs. It means there are no areas of denial. All is evaluated and tested by the purity and knowledge and wisdom of God—and what is sinful, we confess and we repent of before God. A man who walks in the sight of God is more interested in his inner reality than his outer reputation. He can be completely trusted. You can even believe his golf score and the size of the trout he caught. If you can teach your young people to live in the sight of God, you will even be able to trust them in the ba ckseat of a car.
Fourth Quality Of Integrity: We speak “in Christ.” What quality does that indicate? Authority! Paul states it clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:20—“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us.” Ambassadors are authorized spokesmen. They have power to act and make covenants on behalf of others. Aut hentic Christians are not powerless servants. We speak words and deliver messages that heaven honors.
All of these qualities add up to unimpeachable integrity. People of sincerity, purpose, transparency, and authority are utterly trustworthy. You can ring a gold coin on their conscience. Their word is their bond, and they can be counted on to come through. They are responsible and faithful individuals. That is the fourth great mark of real Christianity.
At this point in the Scripture text, we come to a chapter division. This is unfortunate, because it divides two chapters that belong together. The apostle has not finished his line of reasoning, so it’s best to ignore the division and read right on to find the fifth mark of authentic Christianity: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?” (2 Cor. 3:1).
Mark #5: Undeniable Reality
Paul is aware that he is beginning to sound arrogant. He knows there are some in Corinth who will immediately take these words in that way. Indeed, it is obvious from his words that some had even suggested in previous correspondence that the next time he came to Corinth he bring letters of recommendation from some of the Twelve in Jerusalem! They were thinking of Paul as though he were a man entirely like themselves. So because they saw him as continually praising himself, no one would believe him without confirmation from more objective sources. But Paul says to them, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
He is saying, in effect, “You want letters of recommendation to prove I have authority as a messenger of God? Why, you yourselves are all the recommendation I need! Look what has happened to you. Are you any different since you came to Christ through my word? Your own hearts will bear witness to yourselves and before the world that the message you heard from us and which has changed your lives is from God.” In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul made reference to “the sexually immoral . . . idola ters . . . adulterers . . . male prostitutes . . . homosexual offenders . . . thieves . . . greedy . . . drunkards . . . slanderers . . . [and] swindlers” he had found in Corinth. “And that is what some of you were,” he added (vv. 9-11). But now they had been washed, sanctified, and justified by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. These changes validated Paul’s message.
The Corinthians had written to Paul about their newfound joy and the hope and meaning that had been brought into their lives. They described to him their deliverance from shame and guilt, their freedom from fear and hostility, from darkness and death. So he says to them, in effect, “This is your confirmation. You yourselves are walking letters from God, known and read by all men, written by the Spirit of God in your hearts.&rd quo; Here is the final mark of genuine Christianity: undeniable reality, a change that cannot be explained by any other terms than God at work. Paul did not need letters of recommendation when this kind of change was evident in the lives of his hearers.
I once heard of a man who had been an alcoholic for years and then was converted. Someone asked him, “Now that you are a Christian, do you believe the miracles of the New Testament?” He answered, “Yes, I do.” The other man said, “Do you believe that story about Jesus changing water into wine?” He said, “I sure do.” The other said, “How can you believe such nonsense?” The Christian replied, “I’ll tell you how; because in our house Jesus changed whiskey into furniture!” That is the mark of authenticity. Such a marked change occurs only under the impulse of a powerful relationship that substitutes the love of Christ for the love of drink.
These are the five unmistakable signs of genuine Christianity: unquenchable optimism, unvarying success, unforgettable impact, unimpeachable integrity, and undeniable reality. They are always present whenever the real thing is being manifested. Mere religion tries to imitate these marks, bu t is never quite able to pull it off. By comparison with these marks, phony Christianity is always exposed as a shabby, shoddy imitation that quickly folds when the real pressure is on. The remarkable thing is not that men seek to imitate these genuine graces, for we all have been hypocrites of one kind or another since our birth. The truly remarkable thing is that becoming a Christian does not of itself guarantee that these Christian graces will be manifest in us. It is not being a Christian that produces these, but living as a Christian. There is a knowledge we must have and a choice we must make before these virtues will be consistently present. The secret awaits us in the next section.