“The Double Effect of the Gospel”
2 Corinthians 2:12-17
March 2, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

Text Comment

v.13 Paul now returns to the theme of his itinerary, which, as you remember, had been the grounds for a charge made by some in the Corinthian church that Paul was not to be trusted, that his word was unreliable. He is demonstrating again that his change in plans was in no way the indication of any lack of concern for them. Quite the contrary. When some there were accusing him of unconcern, he was torn by anxiety. At Troas, he had hoped to meet Titus returning from Corinth with news of how the church had received 1 Corinthians. But, Titus wasn’t there. And, though a very fruitful ministry had begun in Troas, he was so concerned about the situation in Corinth that he left for Macedonia, crossing the Aegean Sea at its top, hoping to find Titus on the other side.

v.14 This begins what is really an extended digression in Paul’s argument. We don’t return to Titus and Paul’s itinerary until 7:5. But breaking off a thought and developing another is something Paul often does in his letters. One scholar puts it this way: “There never was a writer whose style more clearly reflected the mood and purpose of the hour. It completely reveals the man, and its rapid changes are just the lights and shadows flitting over his face. It indicates the pulses of his feeling, shows him quivering with nervous excitement, and anxiety, or flashing with indignation, jubilant with Christian triumph, or calm with the hidden depths of Christian peace. It is not polished or careful as to form, rather the reverse; it not seldom labours under the burden of thought, becomes involved, digresses, goes off at a word, draws clause out of clause in telescopic fashion as one new idea suggests another, until the main purpose is almost forgotten, and there is either a violent turn to recover it, or an abrupt conclusion and a new start altogether….the thought straining the language until it cracks in the process – a shipwreck of grammar.” Think, for example, of Paul’s 202 word sentence that begins the Letter to the Ephesians, or his “first” without a second, or a third, at Rom. 3:2.

This digression begins with the correction of a possible misunderstanding of what Paul has just said. His anxiety did not mean that he was living in some state of spiritual defeat or that he had lost his confidence in the Lord or the Lord’s work. Not at all. He remembers how the Lord has led him from place to place, granting power to his preaching, creating the church in city after city where it had not existed before.

As often enough in his letters, Paul mixes his metaphors. First he sees himself as part of the triumphal procession in which the returning Roman general led his captives before the admiring eyes of multitudes of onlookers. Paul sees himself as the Lord’s trophy. Sometimes those processions would be accompanied by the burning of incense in the streets. The thought is that everywhere Paul is led, the odor of Christ is released.

v.15 As one commentator puts it, “grace does not cease to be grace when it is rejected.” [Hughes, 79] The aroma rises vertically to God, as a sweet sacrifice in the OT, and spreads horizontally among men.

v.16 How can a mere man, and one so conscious of his own frailties and limitations, be given responsibility for so stupendous a task, to be the instrument of the eternal separation of human beings, be given the responsibility to bring people to an encounter with Christ and to the prospect of eternal life.

v.17 It is amazing, but Paul is sufficient for such things, because he works in faithfulness and obedience to the Lord, not with selfish motives. No doubt Paul is taking a swipe at those who have come to Corinth and are seeking to aggrandize themselves by undermining the reputation of the Apostle Paul. Paul worked in Corinth for nothing. Clearly he is aware that these men have received some significant financial benefit from their ministry.

Now Paul knew very well of what he spoke in vv. 14-16. The Gospel, everywhere Paul preached it, was like a knife cutting a community or a society in two, separating those who believed from those who did not. In Acts we find him entering one city after another. He would preach and work miracles and many would believe. But others, so far from believing, actually took steps either to drive him out of town or to kill him. More than once Paul “shook the dust of his feet” off against a town or the religious leadership of that town because of their stubborn refusal to believe, as many individuals in their city had done. The very last verses of Acts describe a similar thing happening when Paul was in Rome. As was his custom, he gave first crack at the gospel and its promise of eternal life to the Jews. And some believed. But others became determined to oppose Paul and his message. And so he turned away from them and preached to the Gentiles. Everywhere he went there was this double effect: life on the one hand and unbelief hardening into death on the other.

And so it has been ever since. As Jesus said, he came not to bring peace but a sword. And wherever the message of salvation in Christ has gone it has created this division. To some the gospel is light and hope and peace and joy. They hear it and they believe it and begin to live according to it. But to others, it is foolishness, even positive evil, and many are unwilling simply to ignore it. They want to speak against it, they wish to stamp it out. That is why, though it is supposed to be “good news,” and it surely is, the gospel creates controversy and opposition everywhere it goes. It always has, it always will. We see today, what Paul was describing in speaking about the aroma of life and of death, in the visceral hatred of Christianity among the educated elites of the Western world, and among many practitioners of other faiths. But we see it at a lesser level of passion all the time. The same facts that one person sees as evidence of the truth of God’s Word, another sees as nothing of the kind. Where one sees hope in Christ, another sees only a pipe-dream. Where one finds all his problems with belief, another finds the evidence of things not seen. So it was, after all, when Jesus was in the world. Some welcomed him as the Savior of mankind; others saw him as a menace. Such is always the reaction of sinful hearts to true goodness. They hate what condemns them.

This has been the story of the Gospel in the world. When Paul preached some found new life and others laughed at him. So it was with preachers in every era. So it was with the missionaries who took the Gospel to places before unreached in the 19th century. Some would believe; others would ignore; others still would oppose and sometimes kill. Everywhere the gospel has ever gone, it has been an aroma both of life and of death. The preacher is either bringing glad tidings to those who will believe, or he is ringing the funeral bell of eternal loss. The same message, the same sermon, but this double and opposite effect.

For the gospel poses the great question of life, the real issue for human beings: will they receive the One God sent into the world for their salvation or will they not? That question cannot help but divide the world and, since Jesus Christ is the Prince of Life, it cannot be otherwise but that those who believe in him have life and those who do not, do not.

The Hindu woman in Florida, who was complaining in the paper several weeks ago about Christians urging her to believe in Jesus Christ, feels that everyone should be satisfied to let anyone keep whatever religious views he or she might have. But, of course, the only reason she thinks that is because, as a Hindu, she does not believe that eternal life or death hangs in the balance when one confronts the claims of Jesus Christ. She wishes to be left alone, but no faithful Christian will leave her alone because Christians know she is terribly mistaken. Life does not fall out according to karma, but a decision must be made, a commitment to Christ. It is the great question, it is, finally, the only question that must be answered in life. “What do you think of Jesus Christ? Whose son is he?”

Or take Charles Templeton, Billy Graham’s erstwhile friend and colleague, the promising evangelist turned unbeliever and then for years champion of unbelief. He wrote a book explaining why he didn’t believe the Christian message and why you shouldn’t either. But, when asked in an interview whether he was interested in convincing Christians not to believe, he replied that he was quite happy for folk to believe falsehoods if that helped them to be better people, more hopeful, to live at peace, to love others, and so on. But, of course, that patronizing viewpoint is only possible because he does not think that anything eternal, that life or death in any real sense, depends upon the view one takes of Jesus Christ. So far as life and death is concerned, in Templeton’s thinking, the only life and death there is is in this world and Jesus Christ has nothing to do with that.

But, of course, Paul didn’t believe that. There were many in the world of his day who had Charles Templeton’s philosophy of life. But Paul knew they were wrong. A persecutor of the Christians, he had met the risen Jesus Christ years before on the road to Damascus. Through no doing of his own, his life had been turned upside down by a divine power and grace he neither asked for nor could control. He had served the Lord Christ ever since by spreading among the cities of the Greco-Roman world the news of his death for sin and resurrection to eternal life. He had witnessed its transforming power in the lives of thousands of people. (And, believe me, nothing was more unlikely than that a Jew like Paul should enter a city, proclaim a message about a Jewish rabbi no one had ever heard of, and see hundreds, thousands of people’s lives transformed in the most beautiful way by that message.) Paul had seen those lives transformed by the power of a very present and very real Jesus Christ. From slave girls in the employ of unscrupulous cheats to people in positions of great political power and influence; from soldiers to merchants to philosophers. He had seen them all believe. But, he had seen others who heard the same message turn away in scorn. He was well used to opposition. Paul is writing here of what he had seen with his own eyes: how the gospel is both an aroma of life that some can smell and an aroma of death in the nostrils of others. And who makes the difference?

Well, of course, it is the Lord himself. As Paul said in v. 12 it was the Lord who opened a door for effective gospel work in Troas. It was the Lord that opened the hearts of many to respond to Paul’s message. It was the Lord who drew the multitudes to this utterly unlikely message and convinced them with an absolute conviction that this was the truth and alone the way of life. And it has been the Lord ever since.

As a trustee of our Covenant College, I serve on the Board’s Academic Affairs Committee. One of my responsibilities is to serve on a sub-committee that interviews candidates for faculty positions. We always ask something about a candidate’s personal history, how he or she came to Christ, and so on. Many of these conversations are genuinely delightful as one person after another relates the story of his or her salvation.

This past week we interviewed a candidate for a faculty position. And we asked her to tell us about her Christian history. She grew up in a nominal church, never really hearing the good news, never really being pressed to believe it. Christianity, if anything, was a minor feature of the wall-paper of her life. But one night, when she was sixteen, she and some friends were walking the boardwalk in her home of Daytona Beach, Florida. And they happened to run into a classmate, a fellow they did not know well, but whose reputation as a seller of drugs was well established in the school.

The girls greeted him with, “High, Izzie, are you?” That is, are you high on drugs? They were thinking they might get high themselves, smoke some pot, have an adventure. “No, girls, I’m not,” came the reply. And even more amazing, “Let me tell you how God has changed my life.” He and his two friends then launched away on an account of how their lives had been changed by the gospel’s message of salvation by faith in Christ.

That teenage gal went to the boardwalk with her friends for a good time. The last thing in the world she expected was that her life would change forever. But it did. As she listened to these boys explain what happened to them and what Christ now meant to them, she caught a whiff of life, she smelled life on them and in their words. And before she left the boardwalk she was a Christian and has been a happy Christian ever since.

In fact, like Paul, she has been in different places, for work, to be sure, but also trips for the sake of the gospel to the Caribbean, the Czech Republic, and several years as a short-term missionary in Ukraine, being led by the Lord in his triumphal procession, one of his trophies. And where she goes, the aroma of life goes with her, and, no doubt, for some others she meets and talks to, the aroma of death.

It is not up to us, of course, whether our life and our words will be an aroma of life or of death. We cannot help it being one or the other but only the Lord determines which it will be. As William Gurnall the Puritan put it long ago:

“God never laid it upon thee to convert those he sends thee to.
No; to publish the gospel is thy duty…. God judgeth not of his
servants’ work by the success of their labour, but by their
faithfulness to deliver his message.”

And so it was for Paul and so it has been for every faithful Christian since. I read recently in a study by a Duke University professor of the evangelical church in the United States that most American adults have had at least one Christian present the gospel to them and urge them to believe in Jesus Christ. Most of them say it was an unpleasant experience. I would gather that the same would have been said by the majority of people who met the Apostle Paul in his gospel work. His seriousness, his determination, his unwillingness to accept anything else as truth beside the gospel of Christ would have offended people then as now, no matter Paul’s charm or sophistication or the power of his oratory. No matter, even, his miracles. Such is the grip of unbelief.

But that the message in our life and on our lips may often be the aroma of death and not life is to be no deterrent to us. It is on us, that smell, we cannot help it and should not want to. It is how Christ is known in the world. No doubt many more ignored or opposed Paul’s message about Jesus Christ than believed it. That wasn’t his fault. But, he was so much the aroma of Christ that many also believed and were saved. We can’t have the one without the other. We cannot find those who will believe without looking for them among those who will not.

And who is sufficient for such a responsibility? Not someone with remarkable gifts. Not someone with surpassing courage. Not someone with an unusually dogged determination to do his duty. No, just you and I, seeking to be sincere in our service of the one who gave his life for us that we might live forever.