Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant…. (2 Corinthians 3:5–6a)
[This meditation is addressed to those who have graduated from seminary and are entering the ministry, some of whom are pictured in this issue. However, it is not just for them, all ministers and officebearers can benefit from Rev. Joling’s words, as can all of our readers.]
In your first year of ministry you may make a shocking discovery: “I’m bipolar!” This diagnosis will not come from a psychiatrist. It will not even require a visit to your family doctor. This assessment will be a simple and accurate self-diagnosis.
Bipolar, not as it is often defined in medical journals, but bipolar in the sense of being prone, by the sinful nature, to crash back and forth between two polar opposites: the one, self-confidence; the other, self-degradation. Or even worse, cast between the pole of self-admiration, even self-aggrandizement and the pole of demoralization, even despair.
Ministers face a set of twin temptations. The first is a proud self-sufficiency. A sermon goes well and the preacher is surprised by how well it went. “I didn’t even put so much work into that one!” he says to himself as the congregation files out expressing deep appreciation for such a powerful and penetrating word. He goes home thinking, “I can do this; preaching is not so difficult.”
Or maybe pride rears its ugly head after a pastoral visit. A troubled soul has been in anguish for weeks, but he confesses relief after a few words of godly counsel from a minister half his age. So the new pastor leaves his home patting himself on the back. Soon an arrogant self-sufficiency grows in his heart, a reliance on human strength, a self-competence which robs God of His glory and cuts Him off from His power.
The next week it will be completely different. The young minister will face the other danger, a surrender to discouragement. Instead of saying, “I can do this job, I have what it takes,” he will find himself saying, “I can’t do this work, what am I doing here?”
This time the sermon does not come together. Endless hours were spent studying the Scripture passage, but all the preacher has to take to the pulpit is a ball of crumbs. Or he goes to the pulpit confident he has written a fine sermon, but when it is delivered it seems as dry, dull, and as lifeless as desert sand.
The pastoral counseling does not go any better. The young pastor is confronted by a sinful situation so messy he does not know where to begin. He tries to comfort a grieving heart, but nothing he says seems to help. He feels like throwing up his hands and giving up, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t do this. Why bother trying anymore?” He is paralyzed by fear and doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
Every minister is prone to be pulled back and forth by the magnetic power of these two poles. That power has a real grip on him as long as he looks to himself, for if the truth be told, the twin temptations described above flow from the very same fountainhead of self-trust, which God hates.
But good news is found in 2 Corinthians 3. Here, the apostle sets an example of looking outside of self to the One who liberates ministers from the bipolar captivity, bringing them to a steady, humble, God-ward confidence in the Lord’s power.
In the confession of 2 Corinthians 3:5–6a, the wonderful truth is proclaimed that inadequate men are made competent—made competent for the new covenant minis-try—through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Depth of Man’s Inadequacy
Appreciating God’s sufficiency for us begins with a realistic understanding of ourselves and a healthy appreciation of our own absolute inadequacy. We cannot learn to say with Paul that God is our sufficiency unless we see our own poverty. The apostle sees it very clearly and is not too proud to confess it.
As he defends his ministry to the Corinthians, he has boasted that unlike so many itinerant preachers of his day who need letters of recommendation to validate their ministries, he does not need such letters to prove his worth. He has something far greater than a letter made of paper and ink. He has a living letter, the testimony of the Spirit in the transformed lives of the Corinthians. This confirmation is the apostle’s confidence before God through Christ (v.4).
But lest the apostle be misunderstood as boasting in himself as the false apostles did, he carefully qualifies his claim in verse 5: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God….”
Although his ministry is fruitful, the apostle makes plain that this success comes from nothing in himself. He says he is not sufficient, not adequate. The word he uses has the sense of not being large enough for the job. But it is not just that he is slightly undersized. No, he claims he is not able of himself to do the slightest good in ministry. He cannot attribute the smallest success to his own powers.
The apostle takes a stance completely contrary to the sinful nature. The flesh always wants to boast in human strength, and seizes upon success in the ministry to do this. For that reason, when things go well in the church, office-bearers, and particularly ministers, are tempted to credit themselves. This is especially true when they have not relied on the Lord as much as they should have, and God, in His great mercy, still gives the increase. Men are tempted to think, “Well, I guess ministry in the church isn’t so difficult. I can do this.” They imagine it is just a matter of human effort, human ingenuity, human skill.
Congregations can also make the same mistake as they think about their officer-bearers. They might assume, “If we just get the right group of men in office,” or “if we just call the right preacher, then things will go well.” At times a member may applaud a sermon in a way that points only to the preacher’s ability.
But Christ’s office-bearers are called to know their insufficiency and to confess, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves…” Yet, even as we begin to make that confession we must beware of a false humility and pretended modesty in which we utter those words without believing them.
Do you know what is the surest sign of this hypocrisy?
Prayerlessness. A failure to get down on our knees and cry out to God for His help. We can say rather loudly, “I’m not sufficient,” but it is all pretension if there is not an urgent and continual pursuit of God in prayer.
The apostle Paul prayed often. His confession of his emptiness was sincere. He meant what he said because he understood the weight of his office and the smallness of his being. Back in chapter 2, a consideration of his God-given assignment brought the apostle to cry out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (v.16).
The apostle described his task of preaching as spreading the fragrance of Christ (v.14), and he noted the eternal consequences: “To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (v.16).
What was true of the apostle’s ministry is also true for every new covenant minister. In your preaching of the gospel people will encounter the crucified and risen Christ, and that encounter will have a lasting (everlasting) effect. Some will be saved unto eternal life; others will be hardened in resistance and condemned by the very word they have heard.
Preaching is no small task. The gates of heaven are open and shut by it. What frail and fallible man, with any sense of his own smallness and sinfulness, can fail to acknowledge that he is utterly inadequate for the task?
What man, relying on his own strength, would dare claim to be an ambassador for Christ, a shepherd of His flock, a guardian of His blood-bought bride, a watchman on Zion’s walls? What human power will prove sufficient for the one who watches over souls and will have to give an account to the Lord of the church?
The responsibility is breathtaking! Think of the puniness of the ones who bear it. Ministers are men, mere men—flesh and blood. They do not have power in themselves to impart grace. They can not influence one heart or convert one soul or comfort one sorrowful person. They may speak the word, but they can not make it effectual. They may preach the gospel, but they can not cause anyone to see its glory.
What is more, ministers are sinful men. They do battle every day not just with sin “out there” or in the lives of God’s people, but in their own hearts. We are prone to be selfish where we are called to love and sacrifice. We are subject to sinful passions like anger. We often follow in Moses’ steps as he yelled at the people of God and struck the rock in his rage. We are susceptible to lust like David, who could not pull his eyes away from another man’s wife. We are open to fear of men like Peter, who denied the Lord to save his own skin.
When we compare ourselves to the task of ministry, we find there is no comparison. Think of a balance. After loading one pan with a thousand pounds of rocks (all the God-given responsibilities of the ministry) place a feather on the other side (the amount of power we have in ourselves).
When we see our task as it really is and when we see ourselves as we really are, then we are compelled to cry out with the apostle, “Who is sufficient for these things? Who is equal to such a task?” And what’s the answer? The first part is unmistakable: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves…”
This answer strips man bare of everything good, leaving him nothing at all. It declares that men are altogether useless to Christ’s cause of themselves.
Clearly then, ministerial competence is not man-made. The best seminaries in the world can not impart it by themselves. As important as good professors and diligent studies are, they cannot by themselves make any man fit for the ministry.
We need to be convinced of our powerlessness in order to appreciate God’s power in us. If once in a while the Lord lets us feel overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy, that is not such a bad thing. If once in a while the Lord lets one of our works fall apart, it is not a total loss. There is something worse, you know, namely the minister who has never felt the need to ask: “Who is enough for this task?”
But for those who ask that question repeatedly, the answer is as sweet the thousandth time as it was the first time: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God….”
The Riches of God’s Sufficiency
Throughout the history of redemption, the servants whom God called rightly felt their own inadequacy. In each instance, the sufficiency of God was to be their confidence. Whether we think of Moses (“Who am I? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue”) or Jeremiah (“Ah, LORD God! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth”) or Paul (“I am the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle”), the grace and power of God was to be their strength.
God’s promise remains the same. He will equip and supply all those whom He calls. He never calls anyone whom He does not also supply. After all, the gospel is about Christ’s saving help and deliverance for sinful, helpless people. Considering that fact, would God expect those who serve in the cause of that gospel to serve in anything other than God’s own power in Christ? To attempt it would be antithetical to the message they bring.
The good news for seminarians is plain. If the Lord calls you, He will make you competent. The God of all power and grace, who is rich beyond measure, will give you all you need.
This is not an excuse for laziness in seminary or in the ministry, but the very foundation for enthusiastic working. Learning from Philippians 2:12, we might say, “Work out your ministerial preparation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.”
And as you look to the ministry, what joys await you! One continual source of happiness in the ministry is being surprised over and over that God uses such weak instruments for such great things. A brother who has never before said a word to you about a single sermon, may suddenly explain the turmoil he’s faced in the past year, confessing, “If it hadn’t been for the faithful preaching every week, I would not have made it.”
God is great! His Word never returns to Him void but always accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it. And this is the God who through Christ Jesus has given the new covenant, and with it, a more glorious and more powerful ministry than Moses ever knew.
If you thought there was power in the Old Testament, if you thought God’s might operated through Moses who parted the Red Sea and caused water to flow from a rock, then what 2 Corinthians 3 teaches is exhilarating. It tells us that the new covenant ministry is exceedingly more glorious and powerful than anything Moses ever saw.
The powerful Pentecost Spirit is pleased to work through new covenant ministers. Notice, the apostle Paul does not simply say, “God is sufficient” or “God is powerful.” If that is all the Bible said we might wonder, “Why have ministers? Let God do the work.” What the apostle does say is even more amazing, not only that God is powerful and sufficient, but that He is our power and our sufficiency.
“Who is sufficient for these things?” The apostle would answer: “Ministers, called of Christ are, through the empowerment of His Spirit.” By God’s power they are made competent for the ministry. By the Spirit’s illumination, they understand the Word, and are made ready to preach it. By Christ’s presence, the word from the pulpit, in the catechism class, on the pastoral visit is made effective. By God’s grace their hearts are made tender and loving toward the flock, and their zeal is for God’s glory.
As God gives us those hearts, we will rejoice that God gets the glory by calling feeble men to such a profound work. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). So then, “If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:11).
Let us say gladly: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God.” Then God will be glorified, His people built up, and we will be delivered from bipolar roller coasters. “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength…. [But] Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is in the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7).
Rev. Todd Joling is the Pastor of the Faith United Reformed Church in Beecher, Illinois.