“Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God, who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:1-6).
The first two chapters, which we have already considered, have been largely occupied with the experiences, the trials, and the victories of the apostle Paul and his companions, while they were engaged in the marvelous ministry committed to them of going out into a world of sin to preach the gospel of the grace of God. And now in this third chapter the apostle develops for us in a very striking way the nature of the ministry committed to them, the ministry of the new covenant. He deals in the first place with the epistle of Christ. Notice how he introduces it.
“Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?” What does he mean? Why does he use language like this? As we have noticed on other occasions, one of the greatest trials that the apostle Paul had to meet as he went around in his ministry was the opposition of false brethren, men who professed to be Christians, but who in reality were Jewish legalists who had never apprehended the freeness and the liberty of the gospel, and they were continually dogging his steps. He would scarcely have left a place before they would come in and endeavor to discredit the message by discrediting the messenger. One of their ruses was to call in question his apostleship. For instance, they might put it like this to these Gentile Christians: Paul! Why, he is no true apostle! The apostles were those who were educated by the Lord Jesus Christ when He was here in the flesh, they had their schooling under His own personal instruction. They kept company with Him for three-and-a-half years, and then after He died and ascended to heaven it was they who went forth with authority to proclaim the message of the new covenant. Paul was not one of them, he did not even know Christ when He was here on earth. More than that, he has no commission from the apostolic college at Jerusalem. Challenge him and see. He will tell you he has received no authority from Peter or James or John or any of the rest, authorizing him to go forth on this mission. He simply is a free lance, and you need to be a bit careful of these free lances; you never can tell just what they have up their sleeves. For instance, when Paul visited you did he have a letter of commendation? Did he have a letter from the church at Jerusalem or from one of the other churches, showing that he was in good standing in the place from which he came?
Paul had been in Corinth for a year-and-a-half, and his life had been as an open book. They had seen for themselves the kind of life that he lived, and knew how genuine his profession was. Now he is away from them and is anticipating visiting them again, and some of these Judaizers have said, “If I were you, before giving him the platform I would at least take the precaution of asking him for his letter, and see whether he has a letter of commendation.” It is perfectly right and proper, you know, to carry letters. When Apollos, a total stranger, was going from Ephesus to Corinth, Priscilla and Aquila gave him a letter commending, or recommending, him to the confidence of the brethren in Corinth, and as Chris- tians moved from place to place it was right that they should carry a letter, but think of demanding anything like that from the apostle Paul! Why, he says, “Do we then have to accredit ourselves with you, you among whom we have labored for a year-and-a-half, you whom we have led to Christ? Is it necessary that now we should have some kind of a letter of commendation? Do we need a letter of commendation to you, or do we need one from you? Is it necessary that we should be commended by you to other people? The fact of the matter is, if it is a letter that is wanted, you yourselves constitute our letter. ‘Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men.’ If people want to know whether we are genuine or not, they can look at you. Who were you when we came to you? You were poor ungodly heathen, lost in sin, in bondage to iniquity of the very vilest kind, and what are you now? Redeemed men and women who have been brought into the joy and gladness of a new life through the message that we imparted to you. Is not that letter enough? Does that not prove that we are divinely sent? Is not that the Holy Ghost’s own imprimatur, as it were, put upon our message. ‘Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us.’ Through you God is showing what Christ is able to do for sinners who trust Him. We, of course, were the instruments.” “Ministered by us, written not with ink, but the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” God, then, is manifesting Himself to the world through His Church.
In Old Testament times we do not have a message going out to the world as such. God revealed Himself to Israel on Mount Sinai, and gave them His message on tables of stone. Stone, you know, is very hard, very cold, and very unyielding, like the message of the Law itself, but that message was never sent out to the Gentile world. Judaism was not a missionary religion. You never hear of the representatives of Judaism going out into all the world to proclaim the glories of the Old Covenant. Not at all. God had not yet come out to man; He was still dwelling in the thick darkness. The veil was unrent, and God was testing man through one particular nation, the nation of Israel, the very best group He could find. “What things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). If the very best people cannot keep the law, there is no use carrying it to the ungodly Gentiles, and so Judaism had no missionary message. Things have changed now. God has come out to men, the veil is rent, the light is shining out, and the message from the risen Christ is, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16: 15). And wherever that message is carried, men read its power in the changed lives of those who believe it. That is what the apostle means when he says that we are the epistle of Christ.
I sometimes hear people pray, “O Lord, help us all to be epistles of Christ.” You never get it that way in Scripture. It does not say that you are an epistle of Christ and I am an epistle of Christ. It takes the whole Church to make His epistle, but each one of us is one little verse in that epistle. I should hate to have anyone judge Christ simply by me. I hope there is a little of the grace of God seen in my poor life, but take the Church of God as a whole and see what a wonderful letter you have. What a marvelous epistle is God’s Church telling the world what the grace of God can do for sinners who trust in Him. And it is such a vital thing, such a tender thing, “written not with ink,” but by “the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” God gives to believers in the gospel a new heart, a new nature, a heart made tender by divine grace, in order that men may go out and manifest the love of Christ to a lost world. The apostle says this gives us confidence, “Such trust have we through Christ to God-ward.” If it were not that we could see the change in the life of a man through believing our message we would lose confidence, but when we see His grace working in this miraculous way, then we have trust toward God that we are indeed His chosen servants sent to make known the exceeding riches of His grace.
The epistle to the Philippians (chap. 2:12-16) gives us a beautiful hint of the way men read the truths of God in the Church of God. “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I am not to work out my own salvation in my own power but, you see, “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain.” Men, we often say, will not read their Bibles, and we are called upon to live Christ so that as they read us they will see that there is reality in the gospel and the message we preach, because of the change that has come in our lives.
I wish we might test ourselves along that line. Is my life really witnessing for Christ? Is it really counting for God? Do the members of my own family see that God has control of me? Do they see something of the patience of Christ, the meekness of Christ, the purity of Christ, something of the love of Christ, the tender compassion of Christ, in me? Am I manifesting these things? As I go out in the world, as I mingle with others in business, in my daily employment, or whatever it may be with which I am occupied, do those with whom I have to do most intimately see any difference between me and those who do not make the profession that I make? Do they say, “Well, So-and-So may be a Christian; if he is I do not think much of Christianity?” Or are we so living Christ that others looking upon us say, “Well, if that is Christianity, I wish I knew something of it in my own soul”? I have heard people give testimony like that at times, I have had them come to me and say, “I have met one of your people, or, I work with him, and there is something about him that appeals to me; I cannot help but believe in the reality of the message you preach because of the effect it has on the people who believe it.” That is what Paul means when he says that we are the epistle of Christ.
We are Christ’s letter. What is a letter for? It is to express one’s mind. And what are some of the important things in a letter? First, legi- bility. You want to be able to read it. If you and I constitute the epistle of Christ the letter should be a legible one, one easily read. People ought not to have to puzzle their heads over it and say, “Well, I don’t know, I really cannot understand that. It may be Christianity, but it does not seem so to me.” And then a letter should contain clear, definite statements. Clearness of meaning characterizes a well-written letter. You do not like to get a letter and go through it all and say, “I can read it, but for the life of me I cannot understand what he means.” You and I are called upon to so clearly set forth the grace that is in Christ that people will not have to puzzle over it, but that they will be able to say, “Oh, now I understand; I see what Jesus does for the soul that trusts Him. If that is Christianity, I should like to know the same blessed life myself.” And then, you know, a real letter reveals the personality of the one who writes it. Somebody has said that we have almost lost the art of letter-writing nowadays. Everything is so standardized that our letters do not reveal our personality at all. Take some of the volumes of old-fashioned letters, what a delight it is to take from the book-shelf some of Carlyle’s or Browning’s letters, and others of the great men of the past. How marvelously they reveal the personality, the mentality of the soul, the spirit of those men. The Church is the epistle of Christ, and the Church is expected to reveal to men the personality, the loveliness, the beauty, the precious-ness of Jesus. Oh, to have men say, “I did not know Christ until I saw So-and-So, and then I said to myself, ‘Jesus must be a wonderful Saviour, for I have seen a little of what He is, revealed in this or that man or woman.’” That is what it means to be an epistle of Christ, to be manifesting Him.
And so the apostle says, it is not that we can do this in ourselves, that we are sufficient of ourselves—“Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.” Let us never get away from that. Christianity is a supernatural thing. I am persuaded that one of the greatest mistakes that thousands of people make is to imagine that Christianity is simply a natural thing, a natural life lived on a higher plane than the ordinary life. A man may say, “I think perhaps I have been too selfish, too worldly; I am going to start in and lead a Christian life; I am going to be a Christian, and so am going to join the church, be baptized, take the sacrament, read the Scriptures, and have family prayer.” You can do all of those things outwardly, and yet not be a Christian at all. Christianity is not the natural life lived on a higher plane. It is a divine life mani- fested in the energy of the Holy Spirit. That is why men need to be born again. That is an old-fashioned theme, but we cannot emphasize it too much. The Lord Jesus Christ said to Nicodemus, a very good man, a very religious man, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The natural man can manifest only what is in his natural heart; there must be a second birth. I ask you, in the name of my Master, Have you ever known that great change which the Bible calls the new birth? If not, you have never taken the very first step in the Christian life. You cannot live a Christian life until you have a Christian life to live. You must receive the life before you can manifest it. “We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.” If you are saying, “I have heard a good deal about that, but my perplexity is that I do not know how I may be born again,” let me give you two or three passages from God’s Holy Word, and may His divine Spirit wing them home in power. John 1:11: “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” How do you receive Him? You receive Him into your heart, open your heart to Him, and let Him come in. John 1:12, 13: “But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Here are three ways by which people do not become Christians, and only one way by which they do. “Not of blood.” You are not born a Christian because your parents were Christians; the grace of God is not transmitted by natural generation. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). In the second place, “Nor of the will of man.” There is no man so great, so good, that he can make another person into a Christian. We believe in Christian baptism, but he makes a tremendous mistake who supposes that any man can become a Christian through submission to the ordinance of baptism, or that any minister can make another man a Christian by baptism, or by giving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the third place, “Not by his own will.” No man can will himself into becoming a Christian. No man can become a Christian by saying, “I have made up my mind, and from now on I am no longer a sinner, I am a Christian.” That will no more make him a Christian than a man, who by birth is an American but has become infatuated with the Russian system, can change his nationality by saying, “From now on I am no longer an American, I have decided to be a Russian.” You are what you were born, and we were born sinners, and have to be born again in order to become Christians, and so the verse says, “Not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” There is just one way by which we become Christians, by receiving Christ Then we are born again. The apostle Peter says, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever…and this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25). When you believe the gospel, when you accept the message that God has given, when you accept the Saviour whom God has sent, then you are born of God, and you become part of this great company designated, “the epistle of Christ.” And the same God through whose mighty power we are born again is the One who sends His servants forth to minister His gospel in divine energy.
The apostle concludes this section in verse 6 by saying, “Who also hath made us able ministers (he is not dwelling on his own ability, but the Spirit of God working in and through him has enabled him to minister in power) of the new testament (we do not belong to the old covenant, we are through with that, we are enjoying the spiritual blessings of the new covenant. The word for ‘testament’ and ‘covenant’ is exactly the same); not of the letter, but of the spirit.” Do not misunderstand that. When he says “not of the letter,” he does not mean not of the letter of the Word of God. They tell us that we take the Bible too literally, and ask us whether we do not know that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” That is what he says here, but by “letter” he does not mean the literal Word. You cannot be too literal in reading your Bible. God could have given it in another way if He meant us to have it that way, but He wants us to take it as it is. What is meant here? “The letter” refers to that which was engraven on the tables of stone, and therefore “the letter” is the law. But now you have the new message, the message of the New Testament, in the energy of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul says, “We are not law preachers, we do not go to men and say, you must give up your meanness, you must be obedient to the law,” but we say, “What you cannot do yourselves God is able to do for you by the energizing power of His Holy Spirit.”
If you will open your heart to Christ, He will give you a new life, and put a new power in you. He will enable you to live Christ, to be a part of the epistle of Christ. The letter, the law, could only kill, could only condemn. It is called in the verses that follow “the ministration of death,” but the gospel of God’s grace preached in the power of the Spirit gives life to all who believe.