October 28, 2011

We Do Not Preach Ourselves

by Mike Riccardi

Two weeks ago, we looked at 2 Corinthians 4:3 and considered what it had to teach us concerning the nature of Gospel ministry. The conclusion to that post was that the purpose of Gospel ministry was not to amuse the goats, but to call the sheep. Last week, we moved onto verse 4 and discovered the world’s problem: they are blind to the glory of Christ. Therefore, the Church’s mission is to solve that problem. If we’re doing something that won’t solve that problem, we need to stop.

The question is, then, what solves that problem? How can the Church be instrumental in the opening of blind eyes? Well, Paul gets to that in verse 5. Just as we must know the purpose and the problem of Gospel ministry, we must also know the proclamation.

For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.
– 2 Corinthians 4:5 –

What does it mean to “not preach ourselves?” It means that we don’t put ourselves—the messengers—forward as the appeal to unbelievers in our ministry. We don’t make our methodology or our style the draw. We don’t appeal to that which is fleshly or worldly in the unbeliever in order to attract and compel their participation. Instead, we do everything we can to get ourselves out of the way so as to be merely incidental—merely the finger that points to the substance, to the content of the message: that Jesus Christ is Lord.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 really sheds light on what it means for Paul that he not be preaching himself. He says,

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

What is absolutely amazing about that is superiority of speech, human wisdom, and persuasive words were exactly what you needed if you were going to get your message heard in first-century Corinth. Remember, eloquence and oratory were the prerequisites of cultural engagement and credibility in that society. And Paul says: I determined—I resolved—to be just the opposite. They were seeking wisdom, and all I knew was Christ and Him crucified. They were looking for rhetorical skills and eloquence and I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling. They wanted someone skilled in the art of persuasion, and my message and preaching had no persuasive words.

Why, Paul?!

“Because if I did that, I’d be preaching myself! And then your faith would rest on the wisdom of men, and not on the power of God!”

And so as ministers of the same Gospel, we don’t preach ourselves. In fact, Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 3:5, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Slaves through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” And back in 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says: Listen, we’re just earthen vessels, just clay pots. We don’t do anything to make much of ourselves, because we want “the surpassing greatness of the power [to] be of God and not from ourselves.”

Christian ministry is not about trying to gain a following, fill seats, and get famous. The problem we’re trying to solve by our preaching is the world’s blindness to the glory of Christ. And so we don’t preach ourselves, because no matter how slick or clever our presentation is, that’s not what saves people. That’s not what opens their eyes to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.

An Epidemic

And if there is anything that plagues contemporary evangelicalism today it is an epidemic of preaching ourselves. One of the greatest marks of the unhealthiness of the Church is that rather than manifesting the glory of Jesus and the offensiveness and foolishness of His cross, the culture-exegetes of today attempt to show the world how much alike we are. In so doing, professing Christians present themselves to the world, and, purposefully or not, implicitly ask unbelievers to receive them long before calling them to receive Christ.

Unbelievers don’t like hour-long sermons and big Bible words, so the seeker-sensitive, church growth strategists say we ought to shorten sermons to 20-minute pep-talks on fixing your emotional problems and personal relationships. On the other hand, the remnant of the Emerging church in conservative evangelicalism reminds us that we’re living in a post-Christian era, and before the 18 to 30 year-olds of this generation darken the door of a church, we’ve got to do all sorts of things in the name of “contextualization” and being “missional.” If your “target audience” likes exotic coffees, put a coffee shop in your church. If they’re into punk rock music and body piercing, buy a couple of albums and think about a tongue ring. If they’re into Ultimate Fighting, go with them to the bar after work and watch a match on the big screen over some imported beer. You see, once we can show them that Christians are like them—that we’re human just like them and can like the same things that they like—well then they’ll be interested in “trying Jesus.”

Little attention seems to be given to James 4:4: “Adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

That’s Why We…

Here’s an actual example from a church’s “About Us” page on their website: “If you’re looking for a place to have some real fun, make some real friends, and explore and experience a relationship with the real God, [this church] is the place for you! We believe that church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person’s week! That’s why we—”

Now, I agree that church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person’s week. But how you finish that last sentence speaks volumes about what you believe about Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Right there I want to insert: “That’s why we faithfully exposit the Scriptures week by week, in order to present an exalted view of God, so that our members see and savor His glory that is revealed in Christ, and as a result become so satisfied with the sweetness of Christ that they willingly lay down their lives during the week to love their neighbor as themselves.”

But no. They believe church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person’s week. “That’s why we use theatrical lighting, sound, and video. That’s why we have cutting-edge music along with creative and relevant messages that speak to real-life challenges. That’s why we designed and built a kid’s theater and village complete with a real fire truck in the wall, and more!” And it goes on.

Do you see how this is preaching themselves? They offer their church, and its various programs and multimedia presentations as the selling point. Paul calls this kind of thing peddling the word of God in 2Cor 2:17. A peddler knows the product he’s trying to move isn’t all that great in itself, so he’s willing to haggle back and forth about its worth. May God keep us from esteeming the glory of Christ so lightly that we’re willing to haggle with unbelievers about His worth, by seeking to entice them by something other than Him. “Theatrical lighting” and “cutting-edge music” will never open blind eyes. Only the gospel of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning as Lord, can solve the problem that the Church is called to solve:

  • Romans 10:17 – Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ
  • 1 Peter 1:23-25 – People are born again by means of the living and enduring word of God.
  • James 1:18 – In the exercise of His will, God brings us forth (i.e., regenerates us) by the word of truth.

And so Paul declares that we Christians do not preach ourselves, because that will never solve the world’s problem. Instead, we preach—that’s our method—Christ Jesus as Lord—that’s our message. That is Gospel ministry, friends. May we not be confused about our task.

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.
  • Paul Stewart

    Well said, “Implicitly ask unbelievers to receive them long before calling them to receive Christ.” Ouch. And we are all guilty of this – no one likes rejection. I feel like I am constantly walking a fine line of being “received” by unbelievers and approaching them with wisdom and understanding.

    Question, is it possible for a church to be culturally relevant while remaining doctrinally pure?

    • I guess it depends on how you define both “culturally relevant” and “doctrinally pure.”

      The Gospel is relevant to all people and all cultures because it confronts their cultures by confronting their sin and offering forgiveness in Christ. So, if we’re defining both phrases rightly, a church can’t be culturally relevant without being doctrinally pure.

      But few people define cultural relevance that way. It’s usually defined (at least in practice) as “appealing or attractive to the culture.” Now, it’s possible to sign a sound doctrinal statement and then, failing to live out the implications of those doctrines, seek to make yourself and your ministry acceptable in the sight of unbelievers. That’s not really “doctrinal purity,” even though you may say you’re a 5-point Calvinist. It’s confessing that you believe one thing and behaving like you believe another.

      So, if “culturally relevant” means “acceptable or appealing to unbelievers in their unregenerate state,” then I think the answer to your question is no. The only reason the Gospel, faithfully presented, appeals to any person — the only way our preaching can be an aroma of life to life, rather than of death to death (2Cor 2:16, see this post) — is if God sovereignly changes that person’s affections to hate their sin and love Him (1Cor 2:14). And the only means by which He does that is the preached Word (1Pet 1:23; Jas 1:18).

      Good question.

  • Brent

    Man, that is such an awesome post! This ties in so tightly with the issue of “rock star preachers” that Thabiti has been covering over at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/

    It’s just sad that finding a church that lives this out is near impossible.

    Great article. Really gets to the root of it all. Thank you.

  • Danieljrossouw

    Brother Mike, challenging but so awesome. It’s like medicine! Not always nice on the pallet but really good for the body (in this case spirit). Keep it up – “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”. – (2Tim 4:2). We need young guys like you standing up for the Truth of Scripture!

  • I think an example of “preaching ourselves” is when well- meaning churches build gymnasiums, sports camps, etc. to attract nonbelievers to the physical church in hopes of creating an opportunity to preach to these lost people during the course of some sporting activity. Jesus didn’t say to bring the world into the church, but for us to go into the world and preach the word. When we bring the world into the church, we fill the pews with unbelievers which can have a negative impact on the believers.

    • Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for offering your example.

      I think there is a difference, though, between (a) a church sponsoring a sports camp for, say, a week during the summer to minister to the kids of the church and to create an opportunity to preach the Gospel to them and their friends, and (b) having a sporting event during the Sunday service to attract people. Would you agree?

      What I mean is, having a sports camp and preaching the Gospel there isn’t sinful. Having a sports camp and calling it a Sunday morning worship service (i.e., calling it “church”) is a big problem. The former need not be preaching ourselves, as long as we’re faithful to the message, and as long as attractional events like those aren’t the primary way we’re seeking to evangelize. You’re right to emphasize that the Church’s is a “Go and Tell” ministry rather than a “Come and See” ministry.

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