Letter of Recommendation

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

2 Corinthians 3:1-6 | July 18, 2021 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
July 18, 2021
Letter of Recommendation | 2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Heavenly Father, that is our prayer, that You would break forth and shine with brighter beams from worlds above. So as we have prayed many times before, we ask that You would by Your Spirit through this sacred page preach a better sermon than the one that I’m about to preach. Give us ears to hear, that we might be built up, that we might be changed, transformed, encouraged, rebuked, comforted, and we might serve You. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

We come this evening to 2 Corinthians chapter 3, verses 1 through 6. We already saw this at the end of chapter 2 and now even more clearly as we move into chapter 3 and then, Lord willing, in the weeks ahead chapter 4 and even into chapter 5, and other parts of the book. It’s a section of Scripture where Paul is talking at length about Gospel ministry, in part to defend his own ministry, but as he defends his own ministry, he helps to define and establish the nature of the Church’s ministry, and of his own apostolic preaching of the Gospel.

And when we come to passages like this, and there’s actually a lot of them in Paul’s letters, it can be difficult to know how to preach and even more so may be difficult for you to know how to listen, because if I just automatically take ministry and immediately make it the equivalent of a Bible study or a blog post, well, that’s not exactly what Paul, he is talking about something formally in his called apostolic ministry.

And yet, if we just, I just preach and the other pastors preach for weeks on end about what we should do, then you think, well, that’s interesting, but what about us? Most of us are not pastors, not going to be pastors. So how ought you to listen to sermons that talk about the ministry, as have here?

Well, one way is some of you are here training for ministry, perhaps there’s young people who will feel a call to full-time ministry, maybe you will marry someone, find a young man who will be trained up as a pastor in ministry, so you can listen in a certain way. That may not be most of us.

Well, then you may listen to think, well, what should a church look like? What does a good, Gospel church, shaped by the same realities that shaped the Apostle Paul, what should it look like? And that may help you to know how to pray for this church, how to support not only this church but other churches around the world being planted with this kind of aim and ministry, and as some of you perhaps will move off someday and go somewhere else and you’ll look for another church or perhaps you’re passing through here for a season on your way to somewhere else, this helps you to understand, well, what is the sort of model of a good, Gospel church that Paul lays out.

And then, by way of application, all of us, though we may not be called to a formal preaching ministry, all of us, I hope, are servants of the Word in some other sense, with your children, maybe you’re an officer in the church, maybe you have a Bible study, maybe it’s through praying, through sharing. Maybe it’s through a letter. Hopefully, all of us have opportunity to Gospel the words of Christ and to share, and so this has some application for us.

So as we think about Paul’s ministry in particular, listen with those ears.

Verse 1.

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

I want to talk this evening about the proficiency, sufficiency, and efficiency of our ministry. I was very proud of that. the proficiency, sufficiency, and efficiency, or you can think of it as these three questions: What are the results of a Gospel ministry? What is our basis for Gospel ministry? And what is our power for Gospel ministry? Those are our three points.

First then. Proficiency. What are the results of good Gospel ministry? Paul says the answer is people, not paper.

Look at Paul is defending his ministry. We’ve seen already, and we’ll see again, they’ve questioned his integrity, his sincerity. He’s tried to explain why his change of plans were really for their good. He’s talked about the nature of his ministry at the end of chapter 2 and will continue, and now he’s focusing very explicitly to defend his ministry.

In particular, there are some false teachers and those who think that he seems rather weighty in his letters but unimpressive in person and they want to know, “Paul, what are your credentials?” So he asks the question, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?”

There’s probably a double complaint, both from some that Paul doesn’t have the credentials they want, and then from others, “Well, here we go again, Paul talking about his credentials.”

So he brings up what was very common in the ancient world, and we can understand the concept, letters of recommendation. We think of them in formal situations today. I’ve done, I don’t know how many references for students going off to school or job interviews, college applications, resumes. Many of you have provided similar things, or asked for them.

But these were often used in the ancient world in personal, informal settings because you traveled somewhere, you don’t have the internet connecting you all, you don’t have daily papers, you don’t have cable news. How do you know who this person is? It’s something that we don’t face because we have formal government ID’s and we have ways to get in touch with people quickly, and so we go somewhere and we immediately start to make connections. But here when you travel in the ancient world, and people are, travel is difficult, how do you know, in particular, when you come to this new church, are you someone we can trust? Are you someone who is going to teach the truth? Are you a fake? Are you going to fleece us? Who are you?

And so not just for Christians, but anyone traveling around the ancient world, would have these letters of commendation. Oh, okay, so I can trust you, so and so has said, all right, you went to college together, you’re one of his best friends, you were an apprentice.

And we tend to make these connections. Sometimes we do so and it happens just naturally, sometimes it’s almost comical if, you know, you meet somebody, it especially happens if you’re traveling overseas and somebody, oh, you’re, you know, say, “You’re an American. You know, I have a brother who lives in San Francisco. Do you know him?” Well, probably, probably not. “Oh, you’re from Texas. You know, I read about the Alamo one time. Interesting.” We’re always to make some sort of connection to say, “I’m somebody you can trust.”

Well, here, instead of word of mouth, you actually carried letters. Here it is, here’s my commendation. And Paul’s not against the practice. He’s always commending people in his own epistles. That’s of the reasons he probably does so.

But he doesn’t have these letters, and it seems that some of the super-apostles probably carried exaggerated credentials, some diploma mill or some back cover book blurb that was completely hyperbole. Maybe they were even fake, had manufactured them themselves.

Paul was always thought a little suspect. After all, he was an apostle but he said that he was one as of untimely born. He had actually persecuted the Church, so you can understand why there is some suspicion. “This Paul guy? Are we sure? I’ve heard about this Paul before. I know he’s been doing this preaching thing for a number of years, but are we so sure? Who is he?” “He’s an apostle.” “Oh, really. Was he there at the cross? Was he there following with Jesus? Let me see some paperwork. What are your credentials?” Especially when the relationship with some of the Corinthians had deteriorated.

So you can hear Paul almost feeling a little, a little hurt, a little put out. “You know me, now you’re asking for my letters of recommendation?” It would be like if after being here for four years suddenly there was clamoring, “Oh, we want to see your seminary transcripts, Pastor.” “Okay, well, we’ll try to find them.” “All right, we want to see your actual diploma. Where are you from? Is this for real?”

Well, Paul did not want to talk paperwork, he wanted to talk people. That was his measure of proficiency. So notice brilliantly how he uses their plea for letters of recommendation and he turns it back and he says, “You know what? You want me to show you a letter that I’m for real? Look at your lives.”

He says, in verse 2, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation.” Notice the nature of this letter. From Christ, that is Christ in you, delivered or ministered by us, that is through our ministry; written not with ink but with the Spirit, by the power of God; not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human heart.

In other words, you have been changed.

Paul is claiming, “You want to know the very best thing I can say about my ministry? It’s you.”

And it’s a good word for any of us, whatever sort of ministry we have. What do we really rely on? You know what really makes me someone that you can trust? I have a certificate, I have something framed, I have a diploma, I know important people, I have accomplishments… Or is it ultimately that people’s lives have been changed? And it’s worth asking the question, whatever sort of ministry we’re in, are you proficient in this way? Not just that you may have a lot going for you in terms of intellect or influence or a winning personality, but have you seen results? Results maybe sounds too corporate. Have you seen fruit?

There are many ways that we can fool ourselves and not really show any proficiency. One is simply to do nothing. There are plenty of Christians, professing Christians, all over this city, I hope not many in this church, who show up on Sundays. Actually the don’t show up on Sundays, they show up every third Sunday, and they count down until the 75, 80 minutes are done. They don’t serve, probably don’t give. They’re not invested in people’s lives. They come, perhaps, because of some cultural expectation that they would, or maybe someone’s making them come.

But if someone were to say, “Show us by way of people, not paper, show us by way of people your proficiency in ministry,” they would have very little. Who has been helped, shaped, changed?

Now given your season of life, you may say, “I have just one small toddler that I’m working on right now. That’s what I have.” Or “I’m caring for my aging parent. That’s the one person that I am focused on.” So we go through different seasons, but over the course of our lives, we ought to ask not just what do you know, what do you do, but who has been helped.

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that being very smart and being well-educated theologically is the same thing as being fruitful. But the two don’t always go hand in hand.

Others make the mistake to think that being very nice and people like you is the same thing as helping Christ be formed in others, but it’s not. You can be a very smart person, read lots of the good books, and not actually be invested in people’s lives to see them change, or you could be a very nice person, no one, hardly anyone has anything bad to say about you, people in the church like you, but you’re not really there to say the hard thing, to pray the hard prayers, to show up at the hard times.

Paul’s point here is that he values people more than paperwork. Isn’t it true there’s nothing wrong and I think there’s good reasons that we insist upon education for our pastors and there’s a rigorous process before a Presbytery, all of those things are good. Just so long as we don’t mistake degrees and credentialing as being the same thing as being a disciple.

Hopefully, people would say more than, “Wow, you are impressive and you have been to the right schools and have passed the right tests,” but they would say, “I have been helped massively by your life, by your teaching, by your hospitality, by your grace, by the way you’ve carried yourself in the midst of suffering, by your evangelism.”

That’s Paul’s proficiency. You, Corinthians, you are my letter.

And then he talks in verses 4, 5, and the first part of 6, not of proficiency but of sufficiency. And if the answer to proficiency, that is what are the results of our ministry, he said people, not paper, here the question is what is our basis for ministry, and his answer is God, not us.

Now you look back at verse 16 of chapter 2. Paul asks this question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” He’s thinking of the verbal proclamation of the Gospel, which will mean life for some and death for others. Oh, who can preach such a message where eternal realities hang in the balance? Surely he’s not sufficient in himself.

But look at what he says here. “Such is the confidence,” verse right, “that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves… but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient.” So Paul dares to express confidence in verse 4.

Someone coined this phrase several years ago that some Christians are into ecstatic failure-ism, that is they think it’s spiritual to talk about how they just fail at everything all the time and they’re no good at everything and their whole lives are just epic failure after another and they just relish in all the failures.

Well, Paul doesn’t talk that way. He says we have confidence through Christ toward god. He says, “No, no, no. I’m not sufficient in myself, but God has made me sufficient.” He doesn’t pretend that God can’t use him or God hasn’t given him gifts or there’s nothing in his training and experience. Sometimes we mistake humility for a kind of groveling, self-loathing. No, that’s not what God is after. Some people act as if they can’t do anything for God and others forget that as they do things for god it’s actually God going it through them.

When God works through you, there are two ways you can rob God of His glory as He works through you to others. One way is to deny the work altogether, and the other way is to deny that God was the one actually doing the work. Both rob God of His glory. The first, when someone says, “Thank you so much. You have cared for me so well, and when I was sick you brought a meal, and thank you, that’s wonderful,” and you say, “I didn’t do anything.” Is that humility? Is that sort of a false humility? Denying that God actually did something through you.

Well, the other sort of more obvious pride when someone thanks you for it and you say, “Oh, really.” So, if, you know, say, “Pastor, thank you, that was a very good sermon.” “Really? You think so? Tell me more about that. Really? I did, I thought it was, I thought it was a little extra good. Did you sense that?” [laughter] “Just, enough about you, more about me.”

Of course we understand that. But sometimes in our kind of Christian or maybe it’s Southern sort of nicety, we feel like, well, nobody can ever encourage us, no one can ever compliment us. You just put up a stiff arm.

I remember a wise pastor saying one time, “When someone gives you that sort of Gospel encouragement or compliment, you know that the truly humble person says? Thank you.” You don’t have to deflect at all, say “Thank you, praise God, I’m glad He used, oh, that’s wonderful.” You stir in it, you don’t ruminate in it, you simply say, “Thank you.”

Paul says, “I am sufficient. God has given me. I’m not a complete failure.” It’s not like there’s nothing. It’s not like the qualifications for being an effective minister are you don’t know anything and you can’t speak very well and you don’t love people and you don’t treat them nice. No, Paul had a sufficiency. But it was not from himself. It was from God.

1 Peter chapter 4: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”

God’s given each one of you, if you’re a Christian, you have gifts from the Spirit, and He has a sufficiency, not in yourself, but from Him. And as He gives you His varied grace, if you don’t use that, if you don’t serve others with it, if you don’t look to build up the body of Christ, you are keeping away some of what God means to use to glorify Himself.

The sufficiency comes not from us, but from God.

And then here’s the final point. Proficiency, sufficiency, efficiency.

So what are the results of our ministry? People, not paper.

What is the basis for our ministry? God, not us.

What is the power for ministry? The Spirit, not the letter.

What makes ministry effective, efficient? He says, look at the end of verse 6, “Who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

When he mentions there the new covenant, he’s going to go in much more detail in the verses ahead, think of Jesus saying, “This is the new covenant in My blood,” Paul means, “I am a minister not of the Mosaic covenant, as if the Torah defined the people of God, but my message is about Jesus Christ and faith in the Gospel defines the people of God. I’m a Gospel minister.”

And he gives that famous line at the end of verse 6, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Let’s not misunderstand because I have heard over the years this sort of slapped on as a bumper sticker theology and used in all sorts of ways it shouldn’t be used.

Back in the early Church origin used this to say well, we shouldn’t look at a literal sense of Scripture but the allegorical sense. Or some people in our day will say, “This is why we shouldn’t be so precise and careful in our theology when what we really need to embrace is all the ambiguities and the mysteries and the journey, not laws, but liberty.” Or not the Bible, why are you people so hung up on the Bible? Haven’t you read the letter kills? Why are you so hung up on trying to get every jot and tittle of the Bible? It’s the Spirit that gives life.

Or people use this line to mean “pay less attention to the commands of Scripture and more attention to your own personal experience, and whatever your personal experience tells you, that is God’s revelation to you today.”

Obviously, I hope it’s obvious, Paul does not meant to communicate any of those things. How do we know that? Well, context is king. He’s going to go on, verse 7, to talk about the ministry of death carved in letters on stone, which came with glory so that Moses’ face was aglow. And if that came with glory, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory. So he’s clearly not comparing a literal interpretation of Scripture with allegory, or the Bible versus the Holy Spirit, or commands versus your personal experience. He’s talking about old covenant, Mosaic covenant, versus the new covenant power of the Spirit.

The law condemns us because we cannot, on our own, accomplish what it demands. That’s what he means when he says “the letter kills.” He doesn’t mean that to pay careful attention to things is bad, he means this Old Testament, and in particular he’s thinking the Mosaic covenant, written on stone, these commandments, you love those commandments, they’re good commandments. Paul says in Romans chapter 7, “The law is holy and righteous and good.” So he’s not against the law in its proper place.

But he says, “Look, this law which you love, which you celebrate, written on tablets of stone, came with glory, so much glory, Moses’ face was radiant. You couldn’t keep it. You couldn’t do it perfectly. The letter killed.”

If that’s your religion, to keep the letter of the law, it will kill you. There will be no life in it. You may fancy yourself for a time, if you compare yourself to others, to be making some sort of progress, grading on a sliding scale, but even just 10 commandments, properly understood, just 10. You take those 10, they’re written on the wall out there. I’m glad they are, but if you just take those 10 and you say, “Here’s what it is to be a Christian, is I work so hard every day to keep those 10 commandments, and then God will be pleased with me.”

Now some of you have heard that your whole life, that that’s not the Gospel, and yet it is amazing how many times not just in our culture at large, that’s to be expected, but among church people. You ask, “Why are you going to heaven?” and the first thing out of their mouth is something about “I’ve tried to be a good person.” Very good for trying to be a good person. The Bible tells us you weren’t, and I am not, not in a righteousness that God would reward.

The letter kills. If that’s your religion, you have a religion that only can lead to damnation, Paul says, and yet it came with glory, this letter.

Contrast that. How much more now, and here he’s referencing the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31, which is really an intensification of all that had been promised in the Abrahamic covenant, that God would circumcise the foreskins of their heart and they would have a religion that was truly from the inside out.

If that message of the law came with glory, and you could not keep it, imagine how much more glory when the law gets written by the Spirit on your heart. That’s the point of the comparison. External regulations versus inward transformation. The letter kills because those words on the tablet of stone we cannot keep in our strength. The Spirit gives life because He writes the law on tablets of human hearts.

Jeremiah 31: Behold the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. Not like the one I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand out of the land of Egypt. But He says I will put My law within them, I will write it on their hearts.

Ezekiel 36: And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I well put within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statues, be careful to obey My rules.

Every parent understands at some point, well, hopefully you do understand and I understand, there comes a point when you realize I’m not in control. Actually, we weren’t all along but you can think you are. All right, I’m not in control, I can’t live my life for them. You have to see what sort of life they want to live. And as much as you want to say, and perhaps hand them a list when they leave the house or even now you want to call them up later tonight and say, “I thought of some more things that you could do and I have some more rules for you and some ways… ” and it comes out of a good place usually, and out of a good heart. You don’t want them to make some of the mistakes, perhaps, that you made.

But if you just give them the letter, if you just give them the law, they can’t keep it. And there must come a place and a time that the Lord works in their hearts and this is our prayer for everyone that we know, that we love, that God comes and they want to obey His commandments, they want to go to church, they want the right things. And isn’t it a sad reality in many of our churches, and you ought to consider and I ought to consider this week, whether this would be true of any of us, people going through all the external motions of religious exercise and never with the power. They’ve never actually had a new birth, actually been reborn.

In some of the Christian Counseling Education Foundation, the CCEF, material they use this metaphor all the time. They talk about bearing fruit, and some of us in church we’re fruit staplers. We think, oh, I want you to have fruit, so we find them and can I, can I staple this onto your life? Can I staple peace and love and joy and kindness and staple the right things? You can’t be a fruit stapler for your whole life. The fruit doesn’t stick and the people don’t like to be stapled.

You need new soil, seed, water, sun, life. A new tree that will then bear its own good fruit, not stapled on to try to convince people that you’re an apple tree when you’re not. We must have the work of the Spirit.

What does this mean for us? It means the glory of the new covenant ministry cannot be reduced, must never be reduced, to a list of simple do’s and don’ts, and perhaps there’s a danger on one of the spectrum we might fall fundamentalists. Now I don’t use that as an automatically negative term, but some fundamentalist who maybe just tried to reduce Christianity to a list of movies you can or can’t see, better just not to see any of them, or sports or television or what you do on Sunday or music, and all, just a list, just don’t do these things.

Well, it’s not just people who are maybe very conservative who do this, but it’s also people on the other end of the spectrum, maybe we call them progressives. Now they don’t have a list of those kind of personal piety, but they might give you an equally long list for personal and global self-improvement, all the things you must do under the banner of social justice in order to prove your worth and that you’re really a good person.

You ever spend any time on social media? Not saying you maybe should, but if you do you see there is a lot of letter that kills, sort of person you ought to be. You better not make a mistake, no matter how long it’ll live there forever, there’s no Spirit that gives life. We must be born again.

It can be people on the right, on the left, who can reduce Christianity to nothing but a letter, a list, and it can be any of us. Why? Because that is endemic to the human heart. We need to be born again. We need to be transformed from the inside out. We need the Spirit to be at work in Christ Covenant. Pray for the Spirit to be at work in the preaching of your pastor, for the Spirit to be at work in your family, for the Spirit of the living God to breathe life into dry bones, for the Spirit to be at work in our communities to bring people to life.

You understand that what we are about in the Church requires miracles. We can’t do it. You cannot convert anyone. You can’t ultimately even keep them from sin. We are endeavoring to call upon God to do miracles in our midst. We try our best to have the right trellis, to be organized, to be mature, to follow through, to have the right organization, the right committees, the right structure, the right people, but ultimately it requires the Spirit.

Or to use another analogy, all of those are the sails, and if there’s no wind blowing, you can have the biggest, most beautiful ship with all of the most amazing sails, and you don’t go anywhere until the Spirit blows. May the Holy Spirit descend upon us, to fill us, and to write on our hearts with the very finger of God all that we should do and be by His grace.

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we pray for the work of the Spirit in our midst. We thank You of the Word, for every word in this book, we are always want to be people of this book. O Lord, we need Your Spirit if we are to truly understand this book, if we are to truly live according to this book. You don’t call us to just try harder, staple more apples up on the branches, but You call us to new life, and we pray that You would give it to us, by Your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.