14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor 2:14-15 ESV)
When I was a brand new baby Christian, about 11 years old, I invited a friend of mine to a weekday Christian club. I very much wanted him to be saved, so after a very stirring message at that club, I turned to Chris to talk about the gospel. Now, the church we attended was a King James Version church, my question to him was:
“Chris, have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb?”
Not surprisingly, he said a bit nervously, “Um, no.” I asked him if he wanted to be, and he said, “ok.” (Brave kid.) So, without further description of what the gospel was, I asked him to pray after me. I basically prayed the “sinner's prayer,” asking Jesus to forgive our sins and to be Lord of our lives. Then I turned to him and asked,
“Do you feel any different?”
“Ok, we got to pray it again.”
So we did.
All this to say that I was not then a natural evangelist. Nor am I now one. I struggle to share my faith, alternating between guilt and fear. When I hear messages on the need to tell the gospel, I get this awkward tightening sensation in my gut. Do you know that one? Are you feeling a bit of it now?
Sometimes you might get that feeling when missionaries come and describe their work. But then they describe the need for financial support, and I start thinking “Phew. I don't need to tell people the gospel. I can pay someone else to do it!”
Now, it is absolutely a requirement that our churches be involved in sending and supporting the growth of the gospel in other lands; the missionary effort is vital and worthy of our sacrificial giving. But supporting missions, at home or abroad, should not be an excuse for our neglecting personal evangelism.
How's the awkward, twisty sensation now?
Everyone finds sharing the gospel a little scary. Sure, some more than others, but we all find it frightening. We're afraid that we may be laughed at, or asked a question we can't answer, or needlessly offend someone, or even turn off or mislead someone we're trying to reach.
Even the Apostle Paul in Eph 6:19-20 says, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”
Even he needed prayers for boldness.
But this same Paul, in our text today, will teach us why we can be truly bold in telling the gospel to those God has put around us. At various points in 2 Corinthians, Paul is defending his apostleship. And in our passage this morning, 2 Cor 2:14-16, he gives us three reasons for a God-focused boldness. We can tell those around us the gospel boldly because:
v.14, God is doing the work through us,
v. 15, God loves the fragrance of witness,
v. 16, God establishes the results of our testifying.
So, let's read 2 Cor 2:14-16.
14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?
The first verse gives us our first point.
(1) We can tell them the gospel boldly, because God is working through us.
As we share God's gospel, then as God was working through the apostles who wrote that gospel, so also God is working through you.
Why can you be bold is talking to your co-worker? Because God is the one working, not you. He is working through you, but it's his work.
And how is God doing that work? Paul uses the striking image of the Roman triumphus, or victory parade. After a successful military campaign, when a Roman general returned to the city of Rome, there would be a procession in his honour. At the head of the procession came the magistrates and the senate, followed by the trumpeters and some of the spoils of war: gold vessels, pieces of captured ships. Then there would be flute players, followed by a collection of captured enemies driven in chains. Finally, the victorious general himself riding in his ornate chariot, followed by his victorious soldiers.
But surprisingly, the language here implies not that Paul is one of the triumphant soldiers, but rather one of the defeated foes. He portrays himself as a conquered enemy, a trophy not of war, but a trophy of grace. God is the victor, and Paul is the former enemy of God, now conquered. And so it is with ourselves. We too were once enemies of Christ (Col 1:21), rebels against God, ignoring him, or railing against him. But now we are his joyful captives. Our rebellion is ended, but instead of being reluctant, defeated foes, we are enthusiastic, privileged subjects of our triumphant, glorious king.
God is holding a victory parade, demonstrating his power and his grace to those rebels who have joyfully surrendered to him.
And as the procession of the Roman victor wound its way through the city, at various times some people would burn incense along the route, others would carry and display spices from the conquered regions, and others still would scatter garlands of flowers and sprinkled perfume along the streets. Thus along the route, pleasant fragrances filled the air. Paul picks up this part of the image, and teaches that God likewise is spreading a sweet fragrance, in this case not of flowers, but of the knowledge of Christ. The beautiful aroma that accompanies the joyful captives is the knowledge of Christ, who he is, what he has done, and so includes the gospel itself.
Notice also how God is spreading that fragrance. “Through us”, Paul says. What a wonderful paradox ... the defeated captive has now become the active evangelist. God's agent is no one other than God's prisoner. And so, likewise, we who have become joyfully submitted to God become the means whereby he himself spreads the gospel, the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. And that fragrance is spreading, as the verse says, everywhere.
So what does that look like? How do we live as God's prisoners who have become his proclaimers? How, through us, does God spread that sweet fragrance, the knowledge of Christ, everywhere? Let me suggest one very practical way: that fragrances spreads as you share the story of your freedom-granting defeat. How did God overcome your rebellion? What has he done in your life, in your heart, since you became his trophy of grace? Tell that story.
Look at the people around you, in this church, and see if there is anyone whose story you do not know. If they are a Christian, you don't know how they became one. Then pick someone, and take some time – say today over lunch – and ask them. Ask them how they became a Christian. Ask them how they were introduced to the gospel. It will encourage them, tie you closer together, and give you encouragement and even ideas of how to take the gospel to those who have not yet heard it.
We can boldly tell others the gospel, because it is God's work through us. And not only is it his work, but Paul teaches us that it is also his pleasure. Look at verse 15.
15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
(2) We can tell those around us the gospel boldly, because God loves the smell of witness.
What does witnessing, giving testimony to the gospel, smell like to you? To me, it generally smells like fear. And nervousness.
What does our telling of the gospel smell like to God? It smells like the aroma of Christ. It smells like the sweet fragrance of his beloved Son. When we embody the gospel, when we live it and when we explain it, we ourselves become to God the aroma of Christ.
Paul has changed the metaphor now. Instead of the fragrance of the Roman triumphal march, we have the God-pleasing scent of the burnt offering used in the worship at the Temple. How do we know? Well, this Greek word was used many times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and most of the time referred to the “pleasing odor” of the sacrifice. Paul says that as the apostles took the gospel amongst the people, those apostles became that pleasing odor. And by extension as we continue that work, taking the gospel as written by these same apostles, we too arise to God as the sweet aroma of his Son.
What a marvelous reason to tell people the gospel! Not just because they need to hear it. Not just in the hope that they may be saved, wonderful as that is. Certainly not to merely discharge a duty. But we give pleasure to God as we testify. We are to God like the pleasing aroma of the sacrifice, greater yet, we are the sweet fragrance of his Son, as we strive and struggle to testify.
Aromas are some of the most powerful stimulators of memory, don't you find? Perhaps the declicous scent of a turkey baking in the oven stirs thoughts of wonderful family gatherings. Maybe the warm, welcoming smell of fresh bread reminds you of home, or the sweet chocolately fragrance of a cake baking brings up happy memories of childhood birthdays.
Yet none of our most appreciated aromas compares to the joy God takes in the sweet fragrance of his Son. And as we testify, as we tell people the gospel, even though we may stink of fear, he breathes deeply of the precious, glorious aroma of his beloved Son.
Notice, please, that Paul teaches that our witness is among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. He does not say that God takes pleasure only in the response of those being saved. Although the Bible teaches that there is great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7), here the pleasure God takes is in the sharing of the gospel, not in the response of the hearers. This is enormously encouraging.
Is God pleased when a sinner repents? Absolutely.
Is God pleased when a sinner hears the gospel, even if he doesn't repent? Absolutely.
Those who share the knowledge of Christ are a pleasing aroma to God, whether the hearer responds or not.
So, as we go amidst those who are being saved and those who are perishing, although we often do not who is whom, how can we be prepared to share the gospel boldly and thus be the aroma of Christ to God? I recommend carrying some tracts with you, and looking for someone with a few minutes to spare who you can talk with.
Why tracts? Because you don't know in advance how long you'll have to speak with a person. If you carry some good booklets with you, ones that explain the gospel with clarity and accuracy, you have something you can leave with the person you're talking to. It gives them a chance to reflect later on what you said, or what you didn't have a chance to say. If you write your name and number on the back, they can always contact you later if they want to. A person who doesn't want to talk will often be willing to take a tract for later perusal.
And where will you find those people to talk to? If you work outside your house, then talk to your co-workers. Lunch times are excellent times to discuss Christ. Grab a friend, or simply an acquaintance, and take them out for lunch. Pray that God would go ahead of you, lead you in as his joyful captive, and spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ through you to this person you're inviting. And know that, however you are received, however far you get in your explanation, however clear or confused you might become, you are giving God pleasure by bringing to him the lovely, precious aroma of his Son.
So we can tell people the gospel boldly because it is God's work, and because it is his pleasure. And as hinted in the previous verse, Paul will teach us quite directly that the results of our testifying are not up to us, but up to God.
15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?
(3) We can boldly tell those around us the gospel, because God establishes the results.
Paul says we have been placed amongst two groups of people: those who are being saved, and those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are the stench of death. Literally, the smell from death to death. And to those who are being saved, we are the fragrance of life. Literally, the smell from life to life.
So Paul tells us in advance that to some people, when we act as the aroma of Christ and share with them the glorious truth of the gospel, in their noses we will stink. We will be the stench of death. To a person currently perishing, alienated from God and hostile in mind (Col 1:21), the Christian represents the smell of death. And will not be well received.
Ah, but if that person should ultimately turn out to be one who is being saved, then one day some joyful captive of Christ will share the gospel with him or her, and it will be the sweet scent of new life!!
What makes the difference is not the skill of the person witnessing, nor the persuasiveness of the gospel tract, nor the care with which the opportunity to share was chosen. What makes the difference is whether this person is at that moment called by God or not (Jn 6:44, “no one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”). We don't need to market the gospel, to sell the gospel, to convince the person to become a Christian. Instead, we need to faithfully tell them the gospel, which is God working through us, which gives him pleasure, and leave the results to him.
You may never know the results of your testifying this side of eternity, as God does not confirm in advance to us who is being saved and who is perishing.
Many years ago, I and a friend held an evangelistic Bible study on our university campus. We invited several people to come and meet with us weekly, where we would read together from the Bible and discuss the passages, always bringing up the centrality of the gospel.
The study really didn't go well. Sometimes there were three people there, more often two, occasionally just one person, and most of the time nobody else showed. We'd be sitting there at a table in the cafeteria, praying that God would send someone while secretly hoping that he wouldn't, because I found the experience rather scary. It was very unpredictable. I was afraid of being mocked, or asked questions I couldn't answer, or of offending the other person, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Plus I was very busy. I had a thousand other things to do, and on and on went this internal conflict.
By the end of the term, we had gotten together maybe 5-6 times with a couple of guys. No evident progress in the gospel. No conversions, or even really deep questions. A failure, right?
About two years later, I was at a retreat with the same university group, when this large fellow named Peter walks up to me and says, “Hi, do you remember who I am?” I was totally at a loss, and admitted that I had no idea who he was. He said, “I was one of the guys in that Bible study you had. The next year I transferred to another university, and there someone shared the gospel with me, and I've become a Christian.” In fact, he had joined the same university ministry to spread the gospel.
My Bible study was one link in the chain that God used to draw him. We were pretty much a stench to him, before God called him. But God was doing his work. And God was pleased by our testifying. And one day God drew him, sent to him another with the same gospel, and it became a life-giving fragrance. As Paul exclaims at the end of this verse, “who is equal to such a task?” No one but God himself.
So, how do we tell the gospel boldly, given that God establishes the results? Create opportunities to tell people the gospel. Don't wait for the perfect time, it will never come. Don't wait until you feel more comfortable, that may never come either. Don't worry about the results ... although we shouldn't go out of our way to insult people, and although we want to be reasonably clear about the gospel, it isn't our job to “make the sale”, so to speak. Our job is just to tell them. Just tell them the gospel.
This week with your coworkers, perhaps you can look for a chance to mention that you heard this message this week about telling the gospel, and ask if you can tell them right now. While chatting to the neighbour at the store, ask them if they know what Christmas is really about. Invite the lady at the grocery store to this church next Sunday. Gossip the gospel.
Tell people, just tell them. To some people, you will stink. But to some, God may bless you with the joy of seeing them receive the life-giving fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. And in all cases, God will be doing his work, and he will be taking pleasure in your aroma.
Perhaps you've been sitting here this whole time, and you're wondering “what is the gospel”? Maybe there are people here, who are still those who “are perishing”, who are still enemies of God and not joyful captives. If you're not sure what the gospel is, then please listen closely:
The word “gospel” means “Good news.” But the gospel starts with the bad news that we are all born sinners, heart-hardened rebels against God. One day, after our death, we will be justly condemned by God and sent to eternal punishment under his well-deserved wrath.
That's the bad news of the Good News.
But, the good news is that Jesus, who lived a perfect life, died in the place of sinners. Now all who turn from their sins and turn to him in faith, trusting in him for their justification, they are received by him. Their sins are removed by his cross, they are made righteous by his perfect life, and will live with him forever. Repent, and believe, and put all your trust in him and him alone. That's the gospel.
What's the gospel? The Gospel is the news that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, died for the sins of all who trust in him, and he rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy. That's the gospel. (Paraphrase from John Piper)
Romans 6:23 -- For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So, all you who are joyful captives of Christ, tell those around you the gospel. Even though it's scary, even though you may be rejected, even though you won't be perfect in your presenting, tell them the gospel.
Tell them the gospel boldly, because you know that God is working through you.
Tell them the gospel boldly, because God loves the smell of witness.
Tell them the gospel boldly, because God establishes the results.
Be bold with the people around you. Tell them the gospel.