Turn on the radio or TV, and within minutes you’ll be bombarded with advertising. Each of these commercials has a different look or a distinct sound, but all of them promise essentially the same thing: the secret of fulfillment, satisfaction, success, or happiness. You won’t find the secret, however, by purchasing a product at the department store, taking a cruise, or calling a number at the bottom of your TV screen.
Don’t despair! The secret can be found. It truly is available to you. Paul talks about it in 2 Corinthians 2—and it’s not for sale at any price. It is absolutely free!
The Source Of Our Sufficiency
Remember the five marks of authentic Christianity we just examined: unquenchable optimism, unvarying success, unforgettable impact, unimpeachable integrity, and undeniable reality. These marks came into focus for us as we read Paul’s description of his own experience and ministry in 2 Corinthians 2. Yet Paul also raised an important question in that chapter—a question I deliberately bypassed in order to save it for now. After listing those marks of an authentic Christian, Paul asks the reader, “And who is equal to such a task?” (v.16).
Let’s take that question very seriously. Try to answer it! Who, indeed, is equal to such a task? Who among us demonstrates the kind of unquenchable optimism, unvarying success, unforgettable impact, unimpeachable integrity, and undeniable reality that is supposed to mark the life of an authentic Christian? Who is a consistent model of these qualities? Am I? Are you?
Are you equal to the task of continually, unfailingly, consistently manifesting a cheerful, confident spirit? An ability always to come out on top? A powerful, positive influence on others? Complete trustworthiness? And such a reliable, realistic demonstration of these qualities that no one is ever in doubt about them? Who is equal to such a task?
The question hangs in the air, waiting for an answer. Paul, however, does not leave us groping for an answer to his searching question. In 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 he gives us his forthright answer:
Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
He puts the great secret before us in unmistakable terms: “This confidence is ours through Christ! Our sufficiency is from God!” Lest anyone miss the implications of that, he puts the same truth negatively: “Not that we are competent or sufficient in ourselves! No, our sufficiency comes from God alone.” Nothing coming from us; everything coming from God! That is the secret of secrets—the secret of true fulfillment, satisfaction, and success.
Live It—Don’t Waste It
To live in this way, drawing our sufficiency from God, is what it means to be “competent as ministers of a new covenant.” He sharply contrasts this way of life with the old covenant, the dead written code, the “letter” that “kills.” To live with nothing coming from us and everything coming from God is to live in the Spirit. The Spirit continually gives Life with a capital L. This is the secret that produced the confident spirit that characterized Paul and empowered him to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere he went. The language he uses reminds us immediately of the words of Jesus to His disciples: “I am the vine; you are the branches. . . . Apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Neither Jesus nor Paul means to imply that no human activity is possible without reliance upon God. Both the world and the church are full of examples to the contrary.
But both Jesus and Paul teach that activity dependent upon human resources for its success will, in the end, accomplish nothing. It will have no permanent value. Men may praise it and emulate it, but God will count it for what it is—wasted effort. Just such a life is described in the plaintive question of T. S. Eliot:
All our knowledge brings us
nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance
brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death
no nearer to God.
Where is the life
we have lost in living?
Where, indeed? We are forced to honestly admit that we deliberately waste a good deal of our life in useless dreaming and profitless activity. But not all of it! At times we give it the old college try, sometimes we are earnest and serious and do our level best to act as we ought and do what we should. The results often appear very impressive to us, and even to others, but when we think of our approaching death, it all seems rather vain and futile. That’s when we ask, “Where is the life we have lost in living?”
The apostle indicates that the secret of an effective, meaningful life lies in what he calls “the new covenant.” Jesus referred to this “new covenant” when He passed the cup to His disciples at the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:20). This cup, taken with the bread, is to remind us of the central truth of our lives: Jesus died for us in order that He may live in us. His life in us is the power by which we live a true Christian life. That is the new covenant.
It is important to understand the meaning of the word covenant. There are, according to Paul, two covenants at work in human life. One is the new covenant, which Paul would describe as “nothing coming from me, everything from God.” This is in direct contrast to the old covenant, which could be described as “everything coming from me and nothing coming from God.” The root idea of covenant, both in Paul’s day and ours, is that of an agreement essential to all further relationship.
If two men go into business together, they form a partnership. The terms of their relationship are carefully spelled out so they will have a framework within which to work. Marriage is also a type of covenant in which a man and a woman agree to share all they have and to stick together against all obstacles till death. Nations sign treaties with one another to determine the conditions under which they will work together. All these examples are forms of covenants, and it is apparent from these that a covenant is fundamental and essential to all human endeavor.
But the most fundamental covenant of all is the one that forms the basis of human life itself. We may not often think of it in this way, but no activity is possible to us that does not rest upon an underlying covenant. We could not talk, sing, walk, speak, pray, run, think, or breathe without that covenant. It is an arrangement made by God with the human race, whereby we are furnished the life and energy we need to perform what God wants us to do. We do not provide our own energy. We are dependent creatures, needing a constant supply from God the Creator in order to live and breathe.
Now the great thing that Paul declares to us in this passage— confirmed in both the Old and the New Testaments—is that this fundamental arrangement for living comes to us in one of two ways. There is an “old” way that is linked inextricably with the Old Testament law of Moses—the written code, the “letter” which kills.
But through Jesus Christ, there is a “new” way that results in life that is unquenchably optimistic, is characterized by unfeigned success, makes an unforgettable impact, operates with unimpeachable integrity, and confronts the world with a testimony of undeniable reality. Having discovered the implications of this new covenant, the apostle finds himself qualified to live as God intended him to live, and it is through discovering these same implications for ourselves that we shall find ourselves qualified by God to live as God intends us to live today.
How Paul Found The Secret
Since the apostle uses his own experience as the example of the kind of life he has in view, it will be helpful to trace how he came to learn this transforming truth for himself. If you think it all came to him in that one dramatic moment in the dust of the Damascus Road when he discovered the true identity of Jesus Christ and yielded himself to His lordly claims, then you are far from the truth. It is true that Paul was born again at that moment; it is true that he understood for the first time that Jesus was indeed the Son of God; it is true that the center of this ardent young Pharisee’s life was forever changed from living for his own advancement to desiring the eternal glory of Jesus Christ. But it may be of great encouragement to many of us who struggle in the Christian life to learn that Paul also went through a period of probably 10 years after his conversion before he began to live in the fullness of the new covenant. And it was during this time that, from God’s point of view, he was an abject failure in living the Christian life!
We can piece together from Acts 9 and several other Scriptures the full account of Paul’s conversion experience and what happened to produce the tremendous change in his life. Here is a description of what took place after the experience of the Damascus Road:
Saul [Paul] spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (Acts 9:19-21).
It is clear from these words that it all happened within a very few days after Paul’s conversion and his baptism at the hands of Ananias. Paul began immediately, with characteristic vigor, to proclaim (herald, announce) the deity of Jesus (“He is the Son of God”). This truth he had learned in the glory of the light that flamed about him on the road to Damascus. Then Luke, without giving any indication in the text whatever, goes on in his account to something that did not take place for at least several months after the above events and which may not have occurred for as long as 3 years afterward: “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ” (v.22).
Note that Paul’s (or Saul’s) message is here said to be in the form of “proving” that Jesus is the Christ. There is a great difference between proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God and proving that He is the Christ. Luke only hints at what made the difference in his phrase, “Saul grew more and more powerful,” but Paul himself tells us in more detail what happened in his life. We find his description of that time in his letter to the Galatians.
From Proclaiming To Proving
Many scholars consider the Galatian letter to be the earliest of Paul’s epistles. Whether it is or not is uncertain, but it is clear that in it Paul defends his apostleship and describes what happened to him after his conversion. He writes:
When God, who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:15-17).
We learn from this account that what served to greatly strengthen young Saul at this time was that he went away into Arabia and then returned to Damascus. What did he do in Arabia? Scripture doesn’t tells us, but I don’t think it is difficult to figure out. We need only imagine the shock to this young man’s life that his conversion produced to realize that he desperately needed time to go back through the Old Testament Scriptures and learn how his discovery of the truth about Jesus of Nazareth related to the revelation of the prophets which he had trusted ever since he was a child.
As a Pharisee and based on what he knew of the Scriptures, he had been convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a fraud. Now he knew better—yet somehow, somewhere, he must work out the mental confusion this new discovery produced in him. Arabia supplied the opportunity. So into Arabia he went, the scrolls of the Old Testament tucked under his arm. As we might well surmise, he found Jesus on every page. How the old, familiar passages must have glowed with new light as, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, the Spirit of God interpreted to him the things that belonged to Jesus. It was no wonder that when he returned to Damascus he came “greatly strengthened.” And no wonder too that Paul went into the same synagogues, armed with his newfound knowledge, and began proclaiming for the first time that Jesus is the Son of God. In the Jewish houses of worship, he turned from passage to passage of the Jewish Scriptures and “proved” (Greek: “to knit together”) that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah foretold by the Old Testament.