The Sufficiency of God (A Study in the Second Corinthian Epistle)
J. S. Roberts, Wellingborough
IN CONTEMPLATING any study concerning the sufficiency of God, it is acknowledged that we cannot exhaust the infinite resources of our all–creating God and Father. Otherwise we would be superior to His sufficiency, which is, of course, impossible. Therefore there is no revelation of the divine mind, or any effectual call, that finds Him at any time inadequate for its fulfilment. He is all–sufficient for the experimental realization and fulfilment of His purpose in any commission of His. The vision of this may cause us, like the patriarch of old, to prostrate ourselves in worshipping obedience. In Genesis 17. 1–3 Abram took up this position in acknowledgement of the potential result of the commission, “Walk before me, and be thou perfect1”. He acquiesced to it in the obedience of faith, after being assured by God of His all–sufficiency in the progress and fulfilment of the call. “I am the Almighty God”! Almighty God—El Shaddai—has the connotation of adequate sufficiency in the pathway of the patriarch’s call to that progress toward perfection. At the highest peak of his spiritual ascent, he was able to reassure his son Isaac that the Lord would provide in His sufficiency, Gen, 22 8; and at the consummation of this pathway of faith he could survey the scene, and with worshipping heart confess with satisfaction “Jehovah Jireh”—“The Lord will provide”, vv. 8, 14.
In the light of Abraham’s experience of God, we have to confess that we have but trodden the foothills of spiritual perfection, although the commission and the sufficiency are just as much incumbent upon us. Matt. 5. 48. In this context Paul wrote later to the Philippian church from his Roman prison, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded”, Phil. 3. 12–15. When the Risen Lord commissioned the disciples to “Go ye therefore”, Matt. 28. 19, He likewise guaranteed to them His adequacy to be sufficient for them in responding to the call. He assured them that He was omnipotent, “All power is given unto me”, and thereby would be all–sufficient for them in their going forth. In the instruction to “teach all nations” they would still find Him adequate, for in His omniscience He is all–wise; while in the complete discharge of the call He confirmed to His disciples, and to all their successors, “lo. I am with you always”, for He is omnipresent!
No doubt from among all the Lord’s servants to whom this commission has come, there is none more qualified to confirm the sufficiency of God in Christ Jesus than the apostle Paul himself. The Epistle 2 Corinthians enables us to look deepest into the apostle’s motives. and in this most personal of his Epistles we can “lay our hands upon his breast, and feel the very throbbings of his heart”. Small wonder that, in this letter alone, he enlarges upon the sufficiency of his Lord to be adequate to the call and the commission.
Let us consider with Paul
1. The Sufficiency of God in the Furtherance of the Gospel, 2 Cor. 2 14 to 3. 6 By the metaphor of the procession surrounding a victorious conqueror’s return from warfare, the apostle sees himself led as a captive prisoner in the train of the triumph, and then as an incense server in that same procession. He was (i) in bondage to his Conqueror whilst also offering His incense, “For Christ’s is the fragrance which I offer up to God” (Conybeare); (ii) a “savour of life unto life” to those in the way of liberty of so great salvation; or (iii) a “savour of death unto death” to those in the way of death and perdition.
Fragrance is both spontaneous and effortless and does not require self–assertiveness as a means of expression, 3. 1. Paul turns from the furtherance of the gospel without to its fulfilment within, 3. 2, for here the sight confirms that which the smell had anticipated, an “epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men”. As someone has well said, “Christians are the only religious books that the world reads”. In such a city as Corinth, “the Vanity Fair of the Roman Empire”, Paul had planted, Apollos watered, and God had given the increase; and in that debauched setting the testimony stood as a living epistle of Christ. Even so, in this fruit of his labours the apostle in all humility confessed his own inadequacy, and all that has been secured he refers to the sufficiency of God, and supplies the answer to his own question, “who is sufficient for these things?”, 2. 16. “Our sufficiency is of God”, 3. 5.
From his anxious concern for the state and standing of the Corinthian assembly, the heart of the apostle ascends in thanksgiving. His doxologies, 2. 14; 8. 16; 9. 15, convey the relief of his spirit from his present afflictions, and therein reflect a confidence born out of experience. To rest in self or in others, is insufficient and insecure, and does not excite the spiritual faculty and its potential. Human confidence is unreal in that it looks to man for its help and reward, losing sight of the sufficiency of God, and therefore does not respond in glad thanksgiving.
Present–day conditions may vary but little from those in ancient Corinth, yet how many servants of the Lord, having laboured for the furtherance and fulfilment of the gospel, can contemplate the fruit of their labours as a triumph of Christ, as the fragrance of Christ, and also as an epistle of Christ, humbly confessing before all “our sufficiency is of God”?
From the sufficiency of God from a spiritual standpoint, let us turn to His adequacy from a practical standpoint:
2. The Sufficiency of God for the Furnishing of the Gospel, 2 Cor. 9 8. “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work”. No recession here!
Paul is writing this Epistle in all probability from Philippi. No doubt he finds joy in the source from whence, in later years and under far more uncongenial circumstances, he would be refreshed by their fruit. The acknowledgment “I have all, and abound”, Phil. 4. 18, even while a prisoner in Rome, qualified his assurance of the sufficiency of God in reply to their fellowship with him—“my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus”.
Maybe we get complacent and self–sufficient in an affluent society, feeling assured that we have all and abound at least to meet the fundamental needs in life. But in the furnishing and the provision of the gospel, may we depend upon the adequacy of Him who commissions the appointed ministry to be all–sufficient for its furtherance and fulfilment. With what joy Moses heard the claim, “The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the Lord commanded to make”, Exod. 36. 5; we thus realize with Moses that whatever project is in His will, the Lord will be sufficient for its fulfilment and equal to every demand of life, whether spiritual, physical or material.
The apostle’s third doxology in this Epistle sanctifies all that is given up to the fulfilment of the will of God. “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift”, for here is the superlative of all sacrificial giving in His own gift of His only–begotten Son. No doubt many a time George Muller would add his “Amen” to the text under present consideration. Indeed, there would be a multitude more who. throughout the history of the church, have proved the adequacy of the Lord to the call and commission.
It was in a practical situation, when all present circumstances seemed to oppose any fulfilment, that Jeremiah worshipped and confessed “there is nothing too hard for thee”, Jer. 32 17.
In laying hold upon “thou hast said”, v. 26, he is confirmed in his transaction by the reassuring declaration, “I am the Lord, the God of all flesh: is there anything too hard for me?”, v. 27.
We turn from contemplating the sufficient grace in giving, to consider the sufficient grace in withholding, meditating still upon the sufficiency of God.
3. The Sufficiency of God for the Fulfilment of the Gospel, 2 Cor. 12 9.
“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Here the unspeakable gift gives place to unspeakable words, as the apostle is transported to a vision of the ultimate blessedness to be realized in the fulfilment of the gospel. Truly, in that day when faith shall give place to sight, when we see Him as He is, unhindered by the limitations and infirmity of the mortal body, our words will rise in glad thanksgiving to Him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, for “Thou art worthy”.
The extent of the transcendent vision, while enrapturing the soul of the apostle, would become a source of boasting in a lesser servant of the gospel. Paul’s glorying is in the grace given to bear that which kept him in a state of humble dependence upon the resources of God’s infinite grace, enabling him to continue toward his goal of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, Phil. 3. 14. The grace that gives in chapter 9 for an external ministry, is now seen as the grace that sustains through an inward ministry, even to glory in his infirmity, that he may experience increasingly the power of Christ. We may not designate precisely the thorn in the flesh; hence by its very obscurity it may sanctify the suffering of so many that are called to pass this way. Many have to rest content in a lesser appreciation of “the heavenly vision”, realizing that “this is the way the Master went, should not the servant tread it still” and that the promise is still the source of comfort to the suffering one, “My grace is sufficient for thee”. As Dr. Way paraphrases this passage. “It is in the forge of infirmity that strength is wrought to perfection”.
As we have said, it is here that we, as it were, lay our hands upon the apostle’s breast, and feel the very throbbings of his heart. It is here that we understand that the theme of “comfort” with which he commenced his Epistle is but the fruit of a very personal experience. How sustaining in such circumstances is the vision of the fulfilment of the gospel.
When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance.
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love He brings me sweet assurance.
My child, for thee sufficient is My grace.
Paul besought the Lord three times on the matter of his present trial, and then submitted. This reminds us of our Lord’s entreaty three times in Gethsemane, and His acquiescence to the will of His Father. Crucified in weakness (strengthlessness). His taking upon Himself of our weakness was the necessary pathway to His ultimate crucifixion He did not ask for physical strength, but He demonstrated that in man’s strengthlessness God’s power is perfected. Job. experiencing a messenger from Satan, uttered that which he did not understand. Job 42. 3. while Paul, in contrast, could not utter that which he did understand; nevertheless he found comfort in his distress through the light of the eternal glory and sufficient grace.
Sometimes we define grace as the “unmerited favour” of God. but here its ministry takes on a different meaning, “a favourable regard” Thereby the all sufficiency of our heavenly Father in all things may be understood and acknowledged. The soul can be in rest even in circumstances that it cannot understand, and thus eventually with Abraham survey the scene from his spiritual height and proclaim triumphantly, “The Lord will provide”. Job experienced “a messenger from Satan”, Job 2. 7, and was utterly dismayed and despondent as the “thorn” buffeted him. Even knowledgeable advisers only added to his consternation, until with hitherto unrealized appreciation of the sovereignty of God he confessed, “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be restrained”, 42. 2 R.V. In the recognition of this, the burden was lifted.
As the apostle brings this Corinthian Epistle to its close with a loving benediction, 2 Cor. 13. 11, his prime concern for them is, “Be perfect”, a similar injunction to that impressed upon the patriarch at the beginning of this study, and to all who have come to like precious faith. It was no mere transient and passing thought, but an earnest desire which the apostle himself would qualify from a profound experience of the all–sufficiency of God for the furtherance of the gospel, the furnishing of the gospel, and finally for the fulfilment of the gospel.
When this passing world is done;
When has sunk yon radiant sun;
When we stand with Christ on high.
Looking o’er life’s history:
Then, Lord, shall I fully know.
Not till then, how much I owe.
“Our sufficiency is of God”!
1. “This word in Hebrew carries the idea rather of uprightness, sincerity, blamelessness.