We began by referring to the problems encountered by Paul in the Corinthian church. It was these problems that caused him ultimately to instruct them to examine themselves to see whether they were in the faith. I believe that there are two reasons in particular for his concern. One was simply his knowledge that not everyone who follows even a true ministry really comes to heart-faith in Christ. That is why he wrote in 2 Cor. 6:1 urging them “not to receive God’s grace in vain.” It is one thing to hear and go along with truth but quite another to embrace it from the depths of one’s heart.
That is the particular concern of the book of Hebrews, especially in chapters 3 and 4. The comparison is drawn between the would-be followers of Christ and those who followed Moses out of Egypt and into the wilderness. The latter received a sure word of divine promise accompanied by powerful miracles yet the indictment was, “Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” Heb. 3:10. Their persistent unbelief caused them to be rejected. These were not believers who fell away: they were NEVER believers at heart.
Heb. 4:1 warns us, not of falling away from genuine faith, but of stopping SHORT of really entering in. The true gospel message must be received into our heart of hearts with genuine faith. That is the problem with so many. They make an outward profession, they give mental assent, they give of their money and time, they reform. In short they do everything BUT the one thing that matters: surrender unreservedly to Christ.
Imagine our life is like a house. We are like the man who owns that house. Some want Christ to come and live in their neighborhood and spread His good influence for their benefit. Some would like Him to come and actually live as a guest in their house. They want the sense of security of having Him living on the premises. They imagine that His presence frees them from the fear of divine judgment and disapproval as long as they honor Him in this way. They give Him the very best guest room in the house and consult with Him whenever they have a problem that needs solving. They believe that He must be pleased and satisfied with them for providing this accommodation.
The problem with this is that it falls far short of illustrating real salvation. Men will do about anything religiously speaking as long as they don’t have to give up the throne of their lives. Yet anything short of this is in vain. It stops short of salvation. What should the man do? If he truly understands his need before God and Christ’s perfect provision and just Who Christ is he will gladly sign over the deed to house and property and move into the servant’s quarters. He will then say, “It is no longer my house to do with as I please. You are Lord and Master. What do you want me to do?”
Paul was well aware that some people could gravitate to his message for one reason or another and yet stop short of salvation. He knew that they had experienced a measure of God’s grace in their lives but also that it was possible that it not result in salvation because they had stopped short of unconditional surrender.
The second reason for Paul’s concern has more to do with an overriding theme of the whole book of 2 Corinthians, namely, the influence of false ministries among the people. Paul was deeply burdened about the spiritual dangers brought about by the influence of these ministries and so he returned again and again to the subject. Against his desire and even his better judgment he felt compelled to defend his own ministry, not because of human jealousy but, as he puts it in 2 Cor. 11:2, “a godly jealousy.” The real issue he saw was not their affection for and attachment to him but to Christ Himself.
Way back in the beginning of the first letter to the Corinthians Paul had to warn them about the kind of divisions that resulted from different ones preferring one ministry over another. This tendency betrayed their spiritual immaturity at the very least. The judgments that led to these preferences were purely carnal and natural and not based on a true spiritual discernment of the inspiration behind the ministries. The ministries Paul particularly mentions in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians were all genuine yet the people were seeing them too much through natural eyes.
This tendency is bad enough when true heaven-sent ministries are involved but it certainly opens the door for Satan to send in his counterfeits. All he has to do is to tailor his counterfeits to the natural preferences of the people! Paul gives a very broad hint of this in 1 Cor. 1:17. There he tells us that Christ sent him “to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Paul didn’t say this, nor the many things included in the following passage, for no reason. He saw the great danger.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of the truth he sets forth here. Remember that Paul is talking about the gospel, “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), the good news, the message of life and hope from God to man without which men will perish. Paul had a most particular interest in the integrity of the gospel and in the effectiveness of its proclamation. God took special pains to reveal to Paul the message he was to preach and to prepare him for his special calling. Galatians 1:6-23. The issue for him was not academic, not just a subject for theological debate: men’s souls depended upon it.
I think any reasonable person would agree that actually perverting — or changing — the gospel is a horrible and dangerous thing. To misdirect people regarding their relationship with God is surely the devil’s work. However, Paul, in 1 Cor. 1:17, introduces a different danger: that is, preaching a true message, BUT preaching it with human ability, “words of human wisdom.” And what is this terrible danger? THE CROSS OF CHRIST IS EMPTIED OF ITS POWER! Think about that! If the cross is emptied of its power, what happens to the hearers? Is it possible for them to be saved through such a message? Can words alone save?
Think about what Paul is saying here! He is saying that it is possible to preach a message that is absolutely scriptural and technically accurate so far as the words are concerned yet is completely empty of God’s power! Men employ their own clever abilities to communicate with other men what they call the gospel while God is totally absent from the whole affair. I am persuaded that in many religious circles today that is the real problem. They actively condemn false doctrine while themselves preaching an empty gospel devoid of any power to save their hearers. They may be eloquent, sincere, innovative, persuasive, engaging, and scriptural — and still be spiritually dead. And dead orthodoxy is just as dangerous to men’s souls as is false doctrine — and far more deceptive.
Do you think all the “workers of iniquity” in Matt. 7 necessarily preached false doctrine? I don’t. That’s one reason they were so dumbfounded at being rejected! How is it possible to sincerely, even zealously preach Bible truth and be rejected as a worker of iniquity?! They couldn’t imagine. Paul knew. Words are more than mere ideas. They convey spirit. What spirit is that? The spirit by which the speaker operates. Jesus said that his words were “spirit and...life.” John 6:63. Unless the gospel is impregnated with the very life of God and actively conveys His Spirit to the hearers it is powerless to save them. It may convert them to some form of religion but it cannot save them.
Paul spoke about “words of human wisdom.” What wisdom was he talking about? HUMAN wisdom. Human wisdom is utterly captive to human depravity. It is centered in self, man, and the things of this world. It looks at things from man’s viewpoint, not God’s. It promotes man’s interests, not God’s. It does things man’s way, not God’s. In short it is a fruit of what Paul calls “the sinful mind,” that is “hostile to God.” Rom. 8:7.
It is human wisdom that tailors the modern “gospel” to the natural interests of man. It is human wisdom that leaves out — or “soft-pedals” — those parts of the gospel that would confront the desperately rebellious and sinful condition of men’s hearts, demanding true repentance and surrender. A wise woman once wrote to me, pointing out that what people are converted BY is what they are converted TO. You can’t entice people into the church through natural means and then hope to somehow make Christians of them.
That is why Paul wrote in I Cor. 2:4-5, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” What good is a so-called faith that rests on men’s wisdom? Will God recognize it? Will it take you to heaven? No! We need the real thing.
One very reasonable question that may be asked is whether this preaching with human wisdom always means that the preacher is a lost hell-bound false prophet. I think the answer is no. While it is true that every devil-sent false prophet ministers in harmony with human wisdom it is yet possible for someone who genuinely knows the Lord to do so.
In Col. 2:8 Paul warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Paul is writing to Christians here. He is warning that it is possible for a Christian to be “taken captive,” to be wrongly influenced by ideas and principles of human origin. Naturally, that includes outright false doctrine like that affecting the Colossian believers but it also includes anything from the realm of human wisdom — man’s ways of thinking and doing.
I believe that this includes many of the principles we can readily observe operating in the modern church world. Modern religion values education, psychology, and natural speaking ability over childlike dependence on God to reveal His Word, prayer, and the anointing. Many of today’s churches are built and advanced through principles of marketing. Many religious activities rest upon their entertainment value with little or no real life. Some forms of religion rely heavily on intellectual respectability and appeal. And the list could go on and on.
A man may grow up in some religious system or other, by an act of God’s grace be genuinely converted to Christ, yet be affected by the ways of religion all around him. To the extent he relies on such things and not on God Himself he may be very zealous and active in his religion and yet do little eternal good. This is what Paul warns about in I Cor. 3:10-15.
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
God has many ways of testing and proving the true spiritual character of religious works. Of course, when we speak of religious works we’re really talking about PEOPLE. God doesn’t care about fancy buildings and impressive organizations. The work of His kingdom is all about bringing lost sinners into right relationship with Himself through the preaching of the cross. God is far more interested in five people who really know and walk with Him than in some mega-church with five thousand people playing church.
While Paul does indeed seem to indicate that it is possible for a real Christian to build not only with gold and silver but also with wood, hay or straw it surely should be clear that a false ministry, one sent by Satan, will produce nothing but wood, hay and straw. He knows nothing of God’s wisdom nor His ways. God’s Spirit will be totally absent from his ministry — and its results. An evil tree simply cannot produce good fruit.
One of the ways in which Paul distinguishes his own God-given ministry with that of the false ministries is set forth in 2 Corinthians, chapter 3. His ministry was a ministry, “not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Cor. 3:6. Again, Paul highlights the great danger of false ministries. Not only do they not minister life, they actually KILL! What Paul is saying is that a minister may actually use words from the Bible to kill his hearers spiritually. The words themselves may be true yet without God’s Spirit of life in them they impart death and not life.
Genuine ministry is a ministry of revelation — revelation of our Lord’s glory — that brings freedom and inner transformation. Believers who feed on such ministry grow ever more Christ-like. It does not impose “commandments” on them as did the law but rather pours the very life of God into their hearts, changing them from the inside out. It writes, not on stone tablets, but on the heart.
Let’s note briefly some of the other things Paul either said or implied about these false ministries:
2 Cor. 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.” (Money is a powerful motivation in much religion in our day.)
In 2 Cor. 3:1 Paul refers to their practice of relying on letters of recommendation whereas he relied on the results of his ministry of life being evident in his converts.
2 Cor. 4:1-2—”Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” A very clear contrast!
2 Cor. 4:5-6—”For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Think of all that is implied here! We have only one message — Christ! Paul wasn’t interested in them exalting him but that they serve Christ. He regarded himself as a servant — a slave — to that end.
2 Cor. 5:11-12—”Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart.” I wonder just how many ministers understand just what Paul was saying here.
2 Cor. 6:3-13—”We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.” The spirit of true ministry is surely evident here.
2 Cor. 6:14-16—”Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’”
This passage is followed by the oft-used exhortation to separation from the world and sin. However, in its context, I believe it most particularly concerns false ministry and the need of God’s people not to be “yoked together” with that particular kind of unbeliever. Their inability to discern the satanic origin of these ministries was a great grief to Paul. He longed to see them in proper relationship to God and free from such influence. We need God to lead us in our day that we might be free from all such yokes.
In chapter 10 Paul is forced to deal with the practice of these ministries to criticize and demean him in order to build themselves up. They relied on natural comparisons between ministries and the believers needed to see beyond such superficial things. They accused Paul of being bold when he was away and timid when he was there. They considered him to be a poor and unimpressive speaker and were obviously not shy with their opinions since Paul was able to quote them! Among other things this is a terrible spirit of division in the body of Christ, something God despises.
In chapter 11 Paul gets really plain. 2 Cor. 11:1-6—”I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that. I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles.’ I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.”
Now the real issue is out in the open! He speaks of the “serpent’s cunning.” He accuses these “super-apostles” of preaching a Jesus other than the one he had preached, of ministering a “different spirit,” of preaching a “different gospel.” Obviously this goes far beyond personality clashes between ministers. This was a matter of life and death. Paul discerned the efforts of Satan at work among the Corinthians and wanted to expose those efforts for what they were before any more damage was done.
In verses 13-15. Paul continues, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” This highlights the problems that Satan’s tactics create in recognizing his evil work. Outwardly what he inspires appears to be “many wonderful works” done in Jesus’ name. The only problem is that Jesus is not the author and the spirit ministered is not God’s Spirit. How many know the difference? Not many, I’m afraid. That’s why so many travel the broad road.
How can we tell the difference? Jesus reveals the principle: John 7:16-18—”Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.’”
He spoke there of the motivation of a true “sent one”: to work for the honor of the one who sends him. However, the central point of what he said is that God will make it known to one who truly desires to do His will those who speak for Him and those who don’t. Merely speaking ABOUT Him, however impressive it may be, is no good. Only those sent BY Him who speak FOR Him can help people.
Modern religion is filled with substitutes for God’s simple plan and great impressive religious works have been produced. Multitudes have been gathered — but to whom and to what end? Psalm 127:1—”Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.”
It is very evident that those Paul was concerned about were given to boasting about who they were and what they had done in order to advance themselves. Paul, to achieve his ultimate objective of helping the believers, resorts to “boasting” about all the things he had suffered to advance the cause of Christ.
Yet in 2 Cor. 11:30 he introduces a principle that I’m sure was totally foreign to the false ministries: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” How many will boast about things like that?! This introduces the passage in chapter 12 where he discusses the great revelations he had experienced and what the Lord had to do to keep him in a humble and usable place. The Lord allowed him to be relentlessly and grievously attacked by a demon. This drove him to prayer until the Lord revealed to him the reason. He then told Paul that His strength was made perfect through Paul’s weakness! It was only then that Paul understood and was able to glory in the weakness that allowed Christ’s strength to be seen in him. Human wisdom knows nothing of this.
Now listen to what Paul says in 2 Cor. 12:19-21: “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.”
Paul’s real concern wasn’t about himself but about them! How different from the false apostles that so concerned him. He was afraid of the fruits of their influence in the lives of the people and hoped to see God work in them before he came for his visit. This is evidence of the true spirit of Christ. He is deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare of His people. Christ is not concerned about numbers, nor about outward appearances but about inward spiritual reality.
Now do you see why Paul was concerned? Why he wrote what he did in 2 Cor. 13:5? “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” He knew that the influence of false ministries — not sent by Christ — meant that it was likely that some to whom he was writing were products of those ministries and didn’t really know the Lord. An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit.
My aim and desire is to cause people today who profess to be Christians to examine themselves before it is too late. I do not want, however, to paint such a dire and extreme picture that some genuine Christians will be driven to despair. If salvation depended on “New Testament perfect” ministries then no one would be saved! God is in the business of saving His own in spite of conditions.
I have witnessed men that had a measure of life and anointing on their ministries, yet who were clearly hindered by the ways and traditions of men. Though they are thus hindered, yet there is some genuine fruit. The fact is that there are no perfect ministries (just in case you didn’t know that!). There is an awful lot of “wood, hay, and straw” around but there is also some “gold, silver, and precious stones.” The Lord knows those who are His.
My mind goes back to something Bro. Thomas experienced many years ago. He had an unusual dream and then was made to know that it was a picture of modern evangelism. As well as I remember it Bro. Thomas saw a very flashy modern fishing boat. It also had an unusual method of fishing. It would submerge, then allow a net to float over a certain place, then cleverly emerge from the water under the net, thus trapping its catch. As he observed this in the dream he saw what had been caught. It consisted of all kinds of creatures including vultures! He also noticed that among all of these creatures was one little flopping fish!
The basic lesson is obvious: the flashy, clever methods of modern evangelism may bring in large “catches” but the overwhelming majority of it is false. However, there WAS the one flopping fish. I see the mercy of God in reaching His own in spite of the way things are done. Somewhere, that “fish” encountered God’s Spirit and had the seed of the Word sown in his heart.
The fact that there are some genuine conversions in no way validates the ways of the modern church. For every one that is genuinely saved, how many others are given a false hope? That is a sobering question—one I hope you will prayerfully and personally consider. God wants you to know — and you can!