2 Corinthians 3
There are two characters to be noted in Christian life down here: one is running a race towards glory, as in Philippians 3:14, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”: another aspect of Christian life is the manifestation of the life of Christ in the world. The apostle shews how it is that the Christian thus becomes the manifestation of the life of Jesus. He is reconciled to God as the starting-point of his course. Both these characters are real. We are the epistle of Christ; men are to read Christ in our lives, we are to be the “imitators of God as dear children”: there, in Ephesians, we are looked at as seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. On the other hand, in Philippians 3, Paul says, “That I may win Christ… if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus”: He has laid hold of us for glory. We are running the race through the wilderness, but sitting in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Men had been calling in question Paul’s ministry, and he had been forced to commend himself. “Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we as some others of 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.” If I want to prove my apostolic service, you Corinthians are my epistle. They were the epistle of commendation of Paul, because they were the epistle of commendation of Christ; “Manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not on tables of stone [like the law], but in fleshy tables of the heart.” He puts Christians in contrast with the law. The Christian is a person in whose heart Christ is engraved. Just as they could read the ten commandments in the tables of stone, so they are to read Christ in you.
Such is the thesis of the chapter that takes up the special side I refer to. That is what Christians are, the epistle of Christ before the world, Christ being engraved by the Holy Ghost on their hearts; therefore, in going through the chapter, he puts before us the contrast between the ministration of the law and the ministration of the gospel. We cannot understand what it is to be an epistle of Christ unless we have Him written on us by the Spirit. What is the world to read in us? Christ; but what kind of Christ? How far do you know Him?
The apostle puts the law as the ministration of death and condemnation, not from any fault in the law (the law is holy, just, and good), but from fault in us. The law wrote nothing on men’s hearts; it was the testimony of what men ought to do, the perfect rule of what the children of Adam ought to be. It takes up the general principles of relationship to God and to our neighbour, which were obligatory all through before the law was given, so that “sin by the commandment” became “exceeding sinful.” The law said, Do this, and live; and if you fail to do it, you will be cursed (Gal. 3:21). The law is the perfect maintenance, with the authority of God, of the relationship in which men stand; the righteous measure of what they ought to be: it forbids sins, it forbids lust even. Paul, as touching the righteousness of the law, was blameless; but when the law said, “Thou shalt not covet,” then, as he said in Romans 7, “sin revived, and I died.” The moment he got hold of the fact, that the law went to the inner man as well as to the outward, it brought death and condemnation. The law does not tell us what we are; it tells us what we ought to be, and, if it really comes home to my conscience, I know I am not that.
It is not only that the things we have done are bad things, but they are open violations of God’s commandments. The law pronounces God’s sentence of judgment on the person who has not kept it; and none of us have kept it. It is all well when we keep to outward commandments, like the young man who had kept them from Jus youth up, but who went away sorrowful because he had great possessions. There we get what the law does as a perfect rule for the children of Adam down here. That connects itself with judgment: Christ bore the curse of the law. But the gospel is just as opposite to the law, as coming to pay £10,000 for one who was in debt would be from coming to demand it. The law comes and demands; Christ comes and pays—more than that, He gives eternal life. When the gospel comes, it does not say merely what we ought to be, but what we are. It says all are guilty, Jew and Gentile, “that every mouth may be stopped”; none are righteous. That is where the testimony of the gospel comes and deals with man; it comes and tells us what we are, and tells us of propitiation through the blood of Christ. It is a ministration of righteousness, and a ministration of the Spirit; thousands of blessings, moreover, are connected with it. The moment we get the least reflection of the glory of God with the law, we cannot stand it: Moses had to put a veil over his face when he came down from the mount. In John 8 the light of God comes in, where the Lord says, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her”; and they went right out, beginning at the eldest even unto the last: they got out of the way, out of the way of mercy too. Bring the testimony of what God is really in the light, and man cannot stand it.
Well, you see Christ comes to detected sinners. God is light and love; He cannot be the one without being the other. He comes as light to shew us what we really are. ‘There you are, sinners before God’; then He comes, and says, ‘Now that is the reason I have come to save you.’ Before the day of judgment the Lord comes to be a Saviour; He has not waited for the day of judgment; the person who is to be the Judge has come to be the Saviour. The question now is, What has He done? Whether through the natural conscience or the law, or by Christ, I am a convicted sinner. Has He come to judge me? When I am a convicted sinner in His presence, the question is, What has He done?
Then I get the ministration of righteousness. I find Christ at the right hand of God, not now on the cross. I see a Man (much more than man, the blessed and eternal Son of God, but still a man) on the throne of God: how came He there? He came by the road of the cross; He came there as the propitiation for our sins. Man is not now in a state of probation; he is lost, and God has visited him. What part had I in the cross? Well, my sins, and the enmity that slew Christ. When we look at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only part we had in it (morally I mean—we were not there in fact) was the sins and enmity of heart that put Him to death. There I find God using this wickedness of man to bring about His own work. Full enmity was brought out, but where my sins and enmity were brought out (at the cross, I mean) before God, God was doing a work that put them all away. Looking at the cross on God’s side, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son.” All my sins, and my sinfulness too, came out, but all has been put away. God is there meeting me in my sins, making me feel them as He is light, but He is there as love too, putting them all away. I get the blessed Lord Jesus becoming a man to suffer death, and put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself; and I see Him now at the right hand of God. Suppose I am brought to feel that my sin has been the occasion of His death (He is not there on the cross now), I find that He is sitting at the right hand of God: is He there with my sins? No; that will not do, I find them gone—God raised Him from the dead: all is settled, blessedly settled. It is the Person who is to be the Judge who has put all my sins away; it is impossible that the Person who put away all my sins could impute sin to me.
Mark, beloved friends, how this righteousness comes in: “When he had by himself purged our sins,” He “sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high,” Heb. 1:3. That is where I know Him now; that is where I get righteousness— God’s righteousness; I own I have none. Taking men as men, “there is none righteous, no, not one,” Rom. 3:10. Where is righteousness then? It is in God: then God must condemn me, as I am a sinner. People seem to think that, because God is merciful, a man with fifteen sins may be let off, while a man with twenty sins must be condemned. You let loose thus all the iniquity of man: all sin is condemned of God—is, and must be so. People say God is merciful; and that means with them that He is perfectly indifferent to good and evil. Where am I to find the testimony and witness of this righteousness of God? In Christ at the right hand of God. “When he is come, he will convince the world … of righteousness, because I go unto my Father, and ye see me no more,” John 16:8-10. The world sees Him no more in that character. I get righteousness manifested—how? By putting Christ, who bore my sins, at the right hand of God. Christ so perfectly glorified God on the cross, that God in righteousness set that Man at His right hand.
Supposing this righteousness of God places Christ at His right hand, where would the Redeemer be without His redeemed? This places us there—not at the right hand of God, that belongs to the Son of God, but in the glory of God. The gospel is thus the ministration of righteousness. In it the righteousness of God is revealed, and the sin of man is revealed too. Wrath being revealed from heaven (Rom. 1:18), in comes God in love to sinners, bringing righteousness, because we had none. In Christ He brings in eternal life, but divine righteousness too. The law came, and required human righteousness, but did not get it; sovereign grace in the gospel ministers righteousness to us.
There is a second thing in Christianity—it is “the ministration of the Spirit.” The moment Christ sat down at the right hand of God (it was ten days after, in fact, but morally speaking it was the same thing), the Holy Ghost came down on the day of Pentecost, and sealed all who believed the gospel. “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father,” Gal. 4:6. In virtue of this work of Christ, I, through grace, believing in it, am sealed by the Holy Ghost to the day of glory. “In whom also, after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of the inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory,” Eph. 1:13, 14. Mark the effect of the presence of the Holy Ghost here. I see Christ sitting at the right hand of God; I am between the work of Christ and His coming again, and I have the Holy Ghost, the blessed seal of the efficacy of all He did at His first coming. I own in myself that I deserve utter condemnation; not only am I guilty, but lost. It is not a question now of what I -can be for God. The gospel has come, and told me what God did when I was lost. The love of God is now shed abroad in my heart; I see the infinite love of God. Who put it into His heart? He has given the very best thing in heaven out of His own heart to save us, and now He has given His Spirit that we may believe in this love. That is not all: I find in John 14:20, “At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” People say that I cannot know; Christ tells me I shall.
Further, He is the Spirit of adoption: I know I am in Christ before God, and I know I am a son; I cry “Abba, Father.” Mark the practical power of this. Suppose a child with his father; if there is a question as to whether it is his father or not, he cannot have the affections of a child. A child has a nature capable of those affections, but he cannot have the feelings proper to a child till he knows his father. We are in the consciousness of relationship: the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. I know I am in Christ, and Christ is in me, and I cry, “Abba, Father.” In the gospel of Christ I get the ministration of righteousness from God to me, and I get the ministration of the Spirit; I get the Holy Ghost sealing me for the day of redemption. There is no question as to love now, for God has given His Son; none as to righteousness, for Christ is at the right hand of God; nor as to relationship, for the Spirit teaches us to cry, “Abba, Father.”
Mark where we have got now. We have got righteousness; we have got life; we are in Christ; we are loved as Christ is loved. When we appear in the same glory as Christ, the world will know it, but He gives it to us now. The love of Christ is perfect. I may love a little, then I shall give a little; I may love much, then I shall give much; but if I love perfectly, I shall keep nothing back. This is the way Christ gives; this is the meaning of the sentence, which is very sweet to me, “Not as the world giveth give I unto you,” John 14:27. The way Christ gives is to introduce us into all He has Himself. I do not speak of His eternal divine glory, but into all He has as man. “My peace I give unto you,” John 14:27. “For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me,” John 17:8. “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them,” John 17:22. All that He has as man He has introduced us into; He has given Himself for us: when He comes He brings us with Himself.
I am looking for this, “That I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:9); I say ‘That is mine—it is my portion; I must get that.’ I have got it in title, but not in fact yet. We are in Christ before God; but then another thing is true, Christ is in us. The Christian is running the race towards glory, and he has to manifest the life that is in him. Duties always flow from the place we are in. You never could make yourselves my children, or even my servants; but if you were my children, then the duties would follow. When I am a Christian, then I have Christian duties: I had duties as a man, but I was lost on that ground. Redemption puts me on higher ground. Christ is in me; I am to shew Him out. I cannot shew out Christ if I have not got Him. The great principle for us is Christ in glory. I am redeemed: glory is mine. Christ is our forerunner: I am in Him before God (every Christian, I mean). Now I have one single object (“a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways”). I want to win Christ in glory: I want to win Christ, and to be with Himself. You cannot have two objects and run after them. The only thing I am looking for is to “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29); that is the reason that there is no such thing as perfection here. If I have got Christ here, I cannot be satisfied till I get Christ there. “We all beholding the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord,” 2 Cor. 3:18. This is where progress comes in. Suppose I am in a straight passage with a lamp at the end of it, every step I take I shall have more of the light of the lamp, more of the lamp too, though I do not get the lamp till the end. There is a great deal in 1 John 2 about “children” and “young men”; but what is all the apostle has to say about “fathers”? That they “have known him that is from the beginning.” Real knowledge of Christ is the thing. The thing that characterises the Christian as such is that he has been made “meet for the inheritance of the saints in light.” What made the thief meet? We have blessed testimony of conversion in his case (we do not get, perhaps, so striking an instance as this in the word of God); but there was no time for progress: yet he was fit to be Christ’s companion in paradise. The Christian who has the Spirit of Christ is running after Christ in glory. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our body,” 2 Cor. 4:10. Men are to read Christ in me. There is progress there.
Still the principle from the beginning is that Christians are the epistle of Christ: Scripture does not say ought to be, but are. You are my son; do not dishonour the family. The Christian is to manifest Christ in everything. There I find (not the running after Christ in glory, as in Phil. 3 but) in a world of temptation, a world that does not know God, that I should be a constant witness of what Christ is. The way of that is seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. I have got settled in my place before God; I have got Christ in me—Christ is my life. We have the two things in Galatians
2:20: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” You are the epistle of Christ: the world is to read Christ in you. We “beholding the glory of the Lord are changed.” The Spirit of God works, making me see these things; there is progress here—there ought to be, of course.
Such is the Christian, Christ’s epistle in this world, in which men are to read Christ; the living expression of Christ because he is in Christ, “accepted in the Beloved.” There is no perfection till we get to glory. There is nothing before me as an object of attainment but to be like Christ in glory. “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure,” 1 John 3:3. Every step he takes he sees more of what Christ is.
Are you thus before God in the sense of the infinite love that gave Christ, and that, Christ being our righteousness, we are before God in the value of what Christ has done, brought thus into divine favour? If your souls are before God on this ground (conflicts you will have, and ploughing too, the deeper the better), then are your hearts content to say, ‘I want nothing but Christ; I do not care what it costs me?’ While we have Christ as our life, the flesh is there still, but I am not in the flesh, I have got into a new place before God. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus,” Rom. 8:1. Not only is the blood on the door-posts, but we are out of Egypt, “delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of his dear Son.” It is not only that life is in me, but that I ought to be “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” I must apply the cross constantly to the old man. God has “condemned sin in the flesh,” Rom. 8:3. It does not now disturb my peace, but I am to reckon myself dead. Faith puts me where God has put me: the flesh is not changed, but I put the cross on it. Paul could say, “We which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake”—we must often say for our own sake—there we get the apostle practically carrying it out. Let me ask the question, Are you content to be this? Are you content to be the epistle of Christ, or would you like a little of your own way? It is most important to remember, that there is positive strength in Christ to deliver us from every temptation.
I would like to leave on your hearts the sense of the perfect-ness of God’s love, and that His love has done all that is needed for us. God’s love was not exhausted—it was proved at the cross.
The Lord give us to know what it is to have fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.