October 12, 2011

Amusing the Goats or Calling the Sheep?

by Mike Riccardi

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.
– 2 Corinthians 4:3 –

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes primarily to defend his own apostleship against certain men whom he later dubbed false apostles (2Cor 11:13). These men were teaching that Paul was not a true apostle, and were advancing many attacks against both his character and his ministry, to the point that the Corinthians began to doubt Paul, and thus doubt the gospel he preached.

For example, these false apostles accused him of being under God’s judgment because of his constant sufferings. The thought was that if Paul was really sent from Christ he wouldn’t have such opposition and turmoil, but rather that God would bless him. And so in 2Cor 1:3-11 Paul defends himself by saying that his sufferings for the Gospel are actually a mark of God’s favor. Far from discrediting him as an apostle, sufferings are a badge of his authenticity as a minister of Christ. They also accused him of vacillating, and “purposing according to the flesh” (2Cor 1:17) because he had changed his plans about coming to Corinth. And so in 2Cor 1:15-22 he defends himself by saying his word to the Corinthians is not yes and no, but yes, just as all God’s promises are yes in Christ. Another accusation was that he was uncredentialed—a sort of Johnny-come-lately apostle, not part of the original twelve. And so in 2Cor 3:2 he asks the Corinthians, “Do we need letters of commendation to you? You are our letter of commendation. The fact that you now know Christ because of the Gospel we preached to you is evidence of our authenticity.”

In chapter 4, we find that another accusation was that his message was obscure. And that’s a substantial accusation, because the Corinthian culture praised human wisdom, cleverness of speech, and oratorical persuasion. They regarded highly those who were skilled in rhetoric and oratory, and looked down upon those who weren’t. And so these men were saying, “Hey, look, Paul, only a few people are believing your message. If it was true, and you were really sent from Christ, more people would believe!”

Sounds a bit like today, doesn’t it? “If God was really blessing you, you’d have more people in your church! If you really had sound doctrine—and if sound doctrine really mattered!—more people would believe!”

The Church’s Purpose Defined by God’s Purpose

What’s so interesting to me is how extremely instructive Paul’s response to this accusation is for how the Church can be faithful witnesses of Christ in our various spheres of life. He tells the false apostles: You don’t understand the doctrine of election. It may be that our gospel is veiled—that is, granted: there are many who do not believe our message—but our gospel is veiled only to those who are perishing.

He says a similar thing in 2Cor 2:14-16: “For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” Paul likens the preaching of the Gospel to the emission of an aroma that finds its way into the nostrils of all people. And among those who hear the Gospel there are two kinds of people: (a) those who are being saved and (b) those who are perishing; (a) those whom God chose in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him (Eph 1:4), and (b) those whom He did not so choose.

The word of the cross is foolishness to “those who are perishing,” but to “those who are being saved”—the called (1Cor 1:24)—it is the power of God for salvation (1Cor 1:18). And so when the elect of God smell the fragrance of the Gospel, it is to them an aroma of life that leads to life. But when the non-elect hear it, it is an aroma of death that leads to death, because the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.

Christ Himself said the same thing to the Jews in John 10:26-27. He said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish. But you don’t believe because you are not of My sheep.” Get that. Not, “You are not My sheep because you don’t believe,” but, “You do not believe because you are not of My sheep. You are not of those that the Father has given to Me” (cf. John 6:37, 39).

And so Paul’s defense against the accusation that not enough people are believing his message is simply: the Church’s purpose in evangelism—and in all facets of Gospel ministry—is to call Christ’s sheep, not the goats, into the fold. You shouldn’t expect the goats to believe the Gospel; only the sheep hear the Shepherds’ voice.

The Implications

Consider the implications this doctrine has for our ministry of the Gospel—for the way we “do church.” If we continue to take the unadulterated, Biblical Gospel to the world and they continue to reject it, that is not a sign of the weakness of the message. It’s not even necessarily a sign of the weakness of the messenger. Rather, it is the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem a particular people: those sheep whom the Father has given to the Son.

And so if we have taken the Biblical Gospel to our neighbors and our coworkers and our communities with the patience and the compassion of Jesus, and they seem uninterested, we shouldn’t conclude that we need to grow a soul patch, start playing secular rock songs, having light shows, performing skits, and playing videos in church to attract them. The church is not called to amuse the goats. Our task is to sound, as clearly as we can, the Shepherd’s voice in the Gospel message and call His sheep who know that voice into His fold. It is the call of the Shepherd’s voice that is the means by which Christ’s flock is brought into His fold. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers. So why would we adopt a ministry methodology other than sounding forth the Shepherd’s voice in the preaching of His Word? Why would we implement something else—something that Scripture promises will not attract Christ’s sheep, but will attract the goats? Perhaps it is because we have failed to understand the implications of 2 Corinthians 4:3.

Our gospel is indeed veiled to those who are perishing.

And so a principle for faithful Gospel ministry that Paul gives Christ’s Church in this text is: success in Gospel ministry is measured not by numbers but by faithfulness to the message. Therefore, in what seems like seasons of external failure, we must not ask what offers the greatest appeal, what will fill the most seats, or what will have the greatest “influence.” We must ask, “Have we gotten the Gospel right? Are we preaching the message we’ve received? Are we sounding the voice of the Great Shepherd, or the voice of a stranger?”



Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
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  • Great post man! Such a great compliment to my own devotional series on 2 Corinthians I’m doing on my blog Sight Regained (http://sightregained.com). It’s scary to think how many Christians are content to remain in ignorance when it comes to studying the Bible. While the threats to spreading the Gospel for Paul were perpetual and severe, here in America we really fail to really empathize with the type of suffering he writes about in His letters. We have a plethora of tools available to us to understand God’s Word in order we might live more pleasing lives to Him, yet most Christians are content being “amused” like you said. One of my prayers and constant encouragements to other believers is spend quality time in the Bible. It’s essential. Thanks Mike!

  • John Goodell

    Good post, I found it challenging and encouraging!

  • John

    i have a question about this statement:

    “we shouldn’t conclude that we need to grow a soul patch, start playing secular rock songs, having light shows, performing skits, and playing videos in church to attract them”

    Are these things all equally wrong an inappropriate in and of themselves? Or, is it only if they are done to attract “them”? Did you toss in soul patch just to be funny or is it aimed at a certain “elevated” Pastor?

    I did follow the link and read the previous post on the topic of the soul patch and consider that to be a balanced view.

    • Hey John, thanks for your question.

      I think the motivation is huge. What I’m primarily taking aim at is those who make surface-level adaptations thinking that it will achieve spiritual ends. So to answer your question, these things are “wrong and inappropriate” because of the attractional motivation.

      Regarding the soul patch, I don’t even know which “elevated pastor” you’re referring to, so I guess that takes care of that. I just threw it in there to be funny, and because I really liked Clint’s post. But also to poke a little fun at the stereotypical “culturally relevant,” young, restless reformer with the spiky hair, black-rimmed glasses, and the soul patch.

      Having said all that, playing secular rock songs, having light shows, performing skits, and playing videos — all in the Sunday morning worship service — are all, in my opinion, extremely unwise and don’t serve to cultivate the atmosphere of reverence and gravity that should attend a worship service.

      Thanks again for your comments. Hope that helps.

      • John

        Ok, got ya. I thought the soul patch mention may have been for comic effect but I also think we have to be careful. There are some out there who truly believe it is a sin to sport such “worldly” facial hair. I grew up in their churches. That’s not you, is it? As for light shows, videos, skits, and secular music I think some if not all of those do or can have a place within solid biblical teaching. I think it is a huge leap to accuse all who employ these tactics of “amusing goats” as seems to be implied here. I recently attended a community worship service affiliated with an “urban transformation” ministry. The Pastor taught verse by verse and word for word. He even used the word “exegesis”. Point is, it was solid biblical teaching from Isaiah 6 IMHO. The praise and worship included a modified version of a Black Eyed Peas tune. Guests of ours commented that this was the most “real” church experience they had ever been a part of, not because of the secular music, but due to the teaching and authentic worship. Come to think of it, there was a video too. It was Saturday afternoon, not Sunday morning, I hope that makes it okay. Seriously, the leaders of this ministry are the greatest examples of actually living the Christian faith that I have ever seen. These people are turning their back on the American dream and showing sacrificial love to “the least of these”. They are sold out for Christ. To suggest that they are misguided or worse “wolves” because they use videos and secular music is deeply offensive to me.

        • Well, of course I can’t comment on that case specifically, and I’m not calling anybody a wolf. But I will say clearly that I think the employment of the forms I mentioned in my post and previous comment are misguided. I’m sorry if that is offensive to you, but in some cases offense might be necessary.

          The notion that as long as the preaching is “on point,” everything else is merely incidental or neutral, is naive. I hope to post a few more times on the principles for ministry we see from 2 Corinthians 4, so look out for a fuller development. But the long and short is: methodology flows from theology. The method of presentation must adequately bespeak the message. And so we must be careful.

          Incidentally, if the positive response came from the teaching and “authentic” worship (I suppose we can have varying definitions of authentic), then even by pragmatic ideals there’s no need to focus elsewhere.

          Where I think some of these more pragmatic models of church and ministry go wrong is that they’re designed with the people/congregation as the audience, rather than the people as the participants and the triune God as the audience.

          • “Where I think some of these more pragmatic models of church and ministry go wrong is that they’re designed with the people/congregation as the audience, rather than the people as the participants and the triune God as the audience.”

            This is a remarkable statement. I had never thought of it that way. These pragmatic teachers do in fact treat their congregations as audiences instead of fellow partakers in Christ. This is what spurs them on to be creative in their approach to ministry.

            I forget who said it, maybe John MacArthur, that there is no need to embelish the Word of God, it is just too fascinating in and of itself.

            Good post, Mike.

      • Paul clearly defines the components of a church gathering in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, and I think Mike rightly states “playing secular rock songs, having light shows, performing skits, and playing videos — all in the Sunday morning worship service — are all, in my opinion, extremely unwise and don’t serve to cultivate the atmosphere of reverence and gravity that should attend a worship service.” As Christians, we have to be extremely careful that Christ is central to our gatherings as a church body and not people-pleasing. If by contextualization, we mean seeing how the Gospel affects the indicatives for the culture we live in, then I’m all for it. But if contextualization is just a fancy way of saying that we’ll craft Christ’s message to suit our needs, then that’s problematic.

  • S_tromburg

    Very well thought out and helpful article. Particular redemption so clear in scripture, yet so often overlooked or mis-construed. I stand in awe of the grace and mercy that allows me to “get it” when I do.

  • Daniel

    This was an excellent and edifying read! Thank you brother

  • Robert Sakovich

    “The notion that as long as the preaching is “on point,” everything else is merely incidental or neutral, is naive.”

    How true this is. If we are bringing worldliness into the church as part of the presentation, then we are contradicting Scripture and misleading people.

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  • This post is both challenging and thought provoking. Maybe I will be able to use this example to reach out to my friends confused on this matter. Thank you.

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  • Alan Clark

    An excellent item and well presented but there is something that I need to say as question/warning.

    You have made the statement that I have copied below:-

    “…He tells the false apostles, “You don’t understand the doctrine of election. It may be that our gospel is veiled—that is, granted: there are many who do not believe our message—but our gospel is veiled only to those who are perishing.”…”

    It almost indicates that the sentence you have put in quotation marks is actually a verbatum quote from Scripture – would that it were! I know of no such complete statement!
    We have to be so careful when we are paraphrasing, that we don’t make statements that can be criicised by those who would disagree with what we say as “making our interpretation appear to be actual Scriptural quotes”.
    We would leap on the mis-quoting of Scripture, and rightly so, but we must guard ourselves against the danger of falling into the same trap.
    Election is a matter of such debate and it would have been good to pass this on but the proposed recipient would simply dismiss the article as a mis-quote.
    Sad
    But thanks
    Alan

    • Alan,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I would have never thought it would have come off that way, especially since I quote the verse in full at the beginning of the post. But I see where it could be confusing. I removed the quotes and used a colon instead. Do you think that helps?

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