The Impossibly High Stakes


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“The Impossibly High Stakes”
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
March 16, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

The section which is concluded with the verses we are about to read began at 2:14. There Paul began by acknowledging that a gospel ministry has, inevitably, a double effect. It is an aroma of life to those who are being saved, an aroma of death to those who will not believe. It is death not only because the unbeliever finds the message of the gospel uninteresting, irrelevant, distasteful, or positively offensive, but also because their refusal to believe the message God is proclaiming to them seals their fate.

In chapter 3 Paul went on to elaborate this point by distinguishing between his ministry in Corinth and that of Moses in the wilderness after the exodus. Moses’ was a ministry of death because it fell to him to preach the gospel to an unbelieving generation. Paul’s was a ministry of life because he had the good fortune to preach the gospel to a community in Corinth from which a great many believed and were saved.

Now, in the first 6 verses of chapter 4 Paul completes his reflection on this theme of the gospel’s double effect.

v.1 Since he has been so happily a minister of the new covenant, since the people in Corinth have been truly converted, Paul has no reason to lose heart, even if the work continues to be a struggle in many ways.

v.2 Clearly Paul is taking a swipe at the false teachers who were then troubling the Corinthian church. He is attacking both their motives and their methods. He will elaborate his criticisms of these men at length in chapters 10-13.

By “word of God” Paul meant at the time what we call the Old Testament. The problem was not with the message of that “Word.” The problem was rather with the distortion of it in the hands of the false teachers.

v.4 Well, if the gospel is so powerful and glorious, how come large numbers of people to whom Paul preached it failed to believe it and be saved by it? No doubt the majority of those who heard Paul did not accept his message. Well, says Paul, the problem is as it was in Moses’ day. There is a veil that lies over the hearts of these people. They cannot see the glory of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of sinners. The Devil has blinded their hearts. The problem does not lie in the message, it does not lie in the divine glory that is in it, but in the unbelief and hardness of heart on the part of those who do not believe. That was the problem in Moses’ day and it was the same problem in Paul’s day.

The “god of this world” is obviously a reference to Satan. The Lord Jesus, remember, called him the “prince of this world.” And, without a doubt, the Bible attributes to Satan a certain authority in this world over the hearts of men. It is a relative authority and its manner of working is never described, but we are taught in this way to take the spiritual issues of life seriously. We have adversaries of great power and cunning. As Tertullian said of the devil, “The whole superstition of this world has got into his hands, so that he blinds effectually the hearts of unbelievers.” [Adv. Marc. V, xi]

v.5 Paul was the Lord’s servant and theirs, a view of himself as a minister of the gospel not shared by the false teachers in Corinth.

v.6 Satan may have blinded the hearts of the people of this world, but divine grace is more powerful by far and pierces the heart with light and understanding. That is the reason why there can be no thought of self-glorification in the gospel ministry. It is not by the minister, but by God’s grace and grace alone that one’s native blindness has been overcome, that one has come to see the truth in Christ, believe and be saved. That divine work in the human heart is a work of power like the work of creation itself. It is a new creation, as Paul puts it in another place. You see in vv. 5-6 language Paul has taken from the account of the creation of the world and mankind in Gen. 1.

Paul knew first hand what it was to be blinded by sin. He had once hated the very truth that he was now proclaiming throughout the world. He once despised the very people of whom he had become the champion. He once mocked their struggles to make their message known and now has suffered himself all manner of physical indignity and mental anguish on behalf of that same message. No doubt, when lying abed at night, Paul would often go back to those days before he met the Lord Jesus and remember how blind he was, how impervious he was to the evidence all around him of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. He no doubt knew some of the religious figures who had known Jesus personally, who had even witnessed his miracles and heard his sermons. He had heard their account. He no doubt also knew some of the same men who had become followers of Jesus Christ. But nothing phased him. Nothing made him stop and think. And he would have gone on to the end of his life a bitter enemy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, had not the Lord intervened and lifted the veil that covered his heart and revealed his glory.

And we see the same blindness today. John Newton once wrote, “Perhaps such a one as Voltaire would neither have written, nor have been read or admired so much, if he had not been the [secretary] of an abler hand…” In other words, perhaps we owe more to the Devil’s wiles than we know. Speaking of his own 20th century, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked, “I…learnt at an early age the great truth that the twentieth century is an age of almost inconceivable credulity…” [Chronicles of Wasted Time, 85] That is, people, even smart people will believe almost anything except the truth of God’s Word and the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Why do intelligent people swallow such absurdities? Why is it so often demonstrated that, as Dostoyevsky famously said, “If a man will not believe in God, he will believe in anything.” We have eminent scientists nowadays, Nobel laureates, who will not believe in God, but will believe that aliens brought life to earth! Why? Because, Paul says, men are blinded. There is glory all around them, the truth gets to them, but they will not see it. It can smack them upside the head and they will not feel it. Their minds are open to everything but shut to the truth.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book by Armand Nicholi, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The book, The Question of God, grew out of a class that Nicholi has taught for many years at Harvard comparing the lives, the thought, and the world views of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Both men were among the most brilliant and influential minds of the 20th century. Many of Freud’s ideas are now permanently embedded in our culture and its language, even if many of his theories are no longer widely held. C.S. Lewis was, without a doubt, the most influential spokesman for historic Christianity in the 20th century. His radio talks during the Second World War made his voice second only to Winston Churchill as the most recognized among listeners to the BBC. His books have sold in the many millions, vastly outdistancing the sales of the books of Freud. Both men have graced the cover of Time magazine, both are household names in the Western world. The life of Lewis has been the topic of a BBC miniseries and a major motion picture; Freud has certainly been talked about often enough on television and in the movies.

What is fascinating about these men is that both of them had very similar beginnings. Both grew up into manhood as atheists, convinced that the Bible and Christianity were myths invented to ameliorate man’s fears, projections of man’s wishes; that religious beliefs were, in fact, psychological delusions from which it would be good for mankind to be delivered. Both Freud and Lewis would have agreed that the “word of God” which Paul saw it his great privilege to know and preach, was, in fact, a “fairy tale,” as Freud once called it, a mass of contradictions and absurdities that no intelligent person would believe. The Scripture, again in Freud’s words, “reflects the gross ignorance of primitive peoples.”

But, as you know, in his early thirties C.S. Lewis, by then a member of perhaps the most prestigious university faculty in the world, an intellectual of the first rank like Paul long before him, also like Paul had his life turned upside down by a revolution in his religious views. He came to believe that the Word of God was not, in fact, a mass of contradictory and primitive religious ideas unworthy of the credit of a modern, intelligent Englishman, as he had once thought, but the very Word of the living God and message by which a person comes to know God and live forever. Already by that time Lewis was probably the world’s greatest living expert on mythology and its literary character. He wrote, “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They have not the mythical taste.” “… as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing.” [86-86] This was utterly the reverse of the opinion he had long held and held adamantly. Like Paul before him, the enemy of the gospel of Christ had become its champion.

But Freud never changed his mind. He remained defiantly an atheist until the end of his life. Indeed, he is probably the most influential atheist of the modern world, providing as he intended to, both an elaborate explanation of religious belief as psychological delusion and a defense of unbelief and materialism as the only truly reasonable, mature, and responsible viewpoint.

“In an interview published in 1927, Freud mentioned his lack of faith and indifference to an afterlife. In response, an American physician wrote Freud of a recent experience in which ‘God made it clear to my soul that the Bible was his Word, that the teachings about Jesus Christ were true, and that Jesus was our only hope. After such a clear revelation I accepted the Bible as God’s Word and Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Since then God has revealed Himself to me by many infallible proofs… I beg you as a brother physician to give thought to this most important matter, and I can assure you, if you look into this subject with an open mind, God will reveal the truth to your soul…” Freud wrote back that ‘God had not done so much for me. He had never allowed me to hear an inner voice; and if, in view of my age, he did not make haste, it would not be my fault if I remained to the end of my life what I now was – ‘an infidel Jew.’” [79]

But for all his patronizing writing about religion as delusion, as the projection of wishes, as unscientific, as unworthy of an honest and educated mind, Freud was all his life a contradiction. He had a devout pastor friend whose spiritual experiences he never questioned. He was a great admirer of the Apostle Paul, the only man, he once wrote, “who stands completely in the light of history.” [78] And, he himself, all his life, filled the pages of his written work with references to God. Like Lewis, who was probably a more convinced atheist as a young man than Freud was – who at least during his university years expressed some hesitation on the point – he both denied the existence of God and was angry at God for not existing and for having created the world as he did. “Why?” he asked, as Freud also did, “should creatures have the burden of existence forced on them without their consent?” [113] Freud denied that there was a universal law of morality and yet confessed its existence in his writings. He thought that the sexual mores of Christian Europe were repressive and harmful, but felt compelled to live by them himself. He poured scorn on Christian morality but admitted that his philosophy and his science did not make people better of life more tolerable. The consummate rationalist, the stern unbeliever who counseled others to face the reality of death squarely and to forsake all sentimental hopes of life after death, was obsessed and disturbed profoundly by the prospect of his own death. His own physician described Freud’s preoccupation with his death as “superstitious and obsessive.” [219] And he was very superstitious. He was sure at one point that he would die between 61 and 62 years of age, in part because on a trip to Greece the numbers 61 and 62 seemed to be cropping up all the time. He checked into an Athens hotel, relieved to find that he had been assigned a room on the first floor – there, surely, would be no 61 or 62. But his room number turned out to be 31, which is half of 62! What is more, when he wrote his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams he was 43 years old. Right afterward he received a new phone number 14362. [220]

Death, like it or not, was dread for him. He wrote often of what he called “the terrors of eternal nothingness.” [222] He couldn’t escape it but he couldn’t stop thinking about it either. He wrote to a friend, “As an unbelieving fatalist, I can only sink into a state of resignation when faced with the horror of death.” [213] Earlier, after his daughter had died, he wrote, “Since I am profoundly irreligious there is no one I can accuse, and I know there is nowhere to which any complaint could be addressed. Deep down I can trace the feeling of a deep narcissistic hurt that it is not to be healed.” [223-224] He admitted on a number of occasions that he had no resources to draw on in the face of death.

Lewis, on the contrary, died quite at peace, looking forward to seeing his Savior and the heavenly country of which he had written so brilliantly in his Narnia stories.

Lewis’ last days were days of reading books he loved, spending time with his good friends, getting ready. Not long before his death – you remember he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 – he had a heart attack and lapsed into a coma. As it happened he came out of the coma and lived for a few months more, quietly and happily by everyone’s account. He wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity that I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone through again…Poor Lazarus!” [236-237] To another friend he wrote, “I was unexpectedly revived from a long coma, and perhaps the almost continuous prayers of my friends did it – but it wd. have been a luxuriously easy passage, and one almost regrets having the door shut in one’s face…When you die…look me up…It is all rather fun – solemn fun – isn’t it?” [237]

Utterly similar lives for years, then utterly different lives with utterly different outcomes. Lewis was a man with many friends; Freud made and lost friendships repeatedly. Though before a Christian Lewis struggled with depression, after becoming a Christian he was a man with a wonderfully happy outlook on life. Freud’s outlook on life must be described as morose.

The physician who wrote to Freud to tell him about how he had become a Christian and to urge him to follow him in following Christ, had written, “if you look into this subject with an open mind, God will reveal the truth to your soul…” But, of course, Freud never did that. He never looked at Christianity with an open mind. He never took up the Word of God and read it with an open mind. He was, by his own admission, a rebel against God. As a young man he wrote to a friend, regarding his lack of religious conviction, “I do not intend to surrender.” [208] The last book he chose to read on the day he chose to die by euthanasia was Balzac’s The Fatal Skin in which the hero makes a pact with the Devil. [208] In both Faust, the work Freud quoted in his works more than any other, and The Fatal Skin, the hero, a man of science, depressed over his lack of success, considers suicide. Suicide, not faith, not surrender to God!

What Freud considered to be his rationality and his scientific mind, both Lewis and the Apostle Paul would have considered the very blindness that Paul refers to here in 2 Cor. 4:4. His heart was veiled. He had intimations of the truth all around him and within him. He couldn’t live consistently with his unbelieving worldview, he spent his life in unsuccessful combat with the Christian faith and died deeply aware that he had no answer whatsoever for the questions posed by life and existence. Lewis knew very well the world that Freud inhabited. He had inhabited it himself for many years. But his blindness had been overcome by light, the light of the glory of God reflected in Jesus Christ.

What the lives of these two men so powerfully reveal is the antithesis that Paul has described here between blindness and light and between death and life. There are multitudes of people in our world stumbling about in the darkness. Their hearts are veiled. Like those in Jesus day, if the Son of God himself walked on water before their very eyes, they would not understand, they would not believe, they would not submit to him. And there are multitudes who, though once blind, have had the light of the glory of God penetrate their hearts and illuminate a world, a truth, a future, a glory they had not known before, had not dreamed about before.

Freud always claimed that religious belief was simply a projection of man’s wishes. Mankind wanted there to be a loving God, he wanted to live forever, he was afraid of death and wanted a way to cope with it, and so he invented a system of religious thought that provided hope and consolation for him. At least Freud was honest enough to admit that if one didn’t have this, he had nothing, nothing with which to hold at bay the terrible realities of life and death.

But, Lewis, remembering the years of his atheism, had a very different assessment of the atheist mind. When he was an atheist, he said, atheism, the denial of the existence of God, “gratified my wishes.” He wanted to be free of any authority interfering with his life, telling him how he must live, threatening judgment for misbehavior. What is more, if things got bad – and, as an atheist Lewis admitted that he was generally quite pessimistic about life and had little sense of the beauty or grandeur of life – he wanted an easy way out if circumstances became intolerable. So far from the Christian faith being wish fulfillment, Lewis wrote, it was the other way round. It was the atheist’s world view that was simply the projection of his wishes. “The materialist’s universe had the enormous attraction that…death ended all…And if ever finite disasters proved greater than one wished to bear, suicide would always be possible. The horror of the Christian universe was that it had no door marked Exit.” [222]

That, of course, is true. The biblical message, the gospel of Christ is not wish fulfillment. There is, without a doubt, a great deal of wish fulfillment in human religion. Men invent the religions they want. But, biblical Christianity is most definitely not the religion that people create when they want to feel better about their lives. The simple proof of that is that Christianity is always being corrupted by wish fulfillment into something other than what it truly is. People don’t like Paul’s gospel. They like a different gospel, an easier gospel. They want a gospel in which they retain a large measure of control and in which God is at their beck and call. They want a standard that is lower than that set in the gospel of God. It is precisely because the Word of God is not wish fulfillment that it is so difficult to get it into people’s heads and to make them believe it, and why, apart from the grace and power of God, illuminating minds and hearts, men will believe virtually anything but this message.

And what is the consequence of that. Paul says it. It is to perish. It is to fail to attain the life for which human beings were made. It is to fail to know God as one’s maker, one’s father, one’s savior, one’s friend. It is to miss the fulfillment of all the true longings of the human soul: for love, for joy, for satisfaction, for fruitfulness, and all of that forever.

Lewis, who once both hated God and refused to believe that he existed, later came to see and then passionately to teach that the reason for our existence on this planet, the purpose of our lives is to establish a relationship with the Person who placed us here. Until that relationship is established, all our efforts to find true and lasting fulfillment and joy will always fall short, far short. For what we have been made for is to behold and to be drunk up into the glory of God. He made us to live on that glory, for it to fuel our spirits, to nourish our lives. True happiness can only be found in relationship with God and that relationship only Christ can create.

And so Paul saw himself, as a bearer of this good news. He had come to know where joy was to be found and he now devoted his life to showing others where to find it. In a world of blind and perishing people, nothing can be more important or necessary than finding that light and directing others to it.

We live in a world of perishing people and of other people springing up to eternal life. Jesus Christ and he alone makes the difference between them. That in a nutshell, was Paul’s message, as it is the message of the entire Bible and that is why Christians should always be rejoicing in the knowledge of the Lord and which has been given to them when they were blind and why they should be eager to see others come to that same knowledge.