Theme: A Cruel Theology
This week’s lessons talk about how God’s grace is sufficient for the individual and personal trials that come from our own weaknesses, limitations, and struggles.
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:9
2 Corinthians 12:9 is a verse in which “grace” refers to God’s helping us to live a strong Christian life. It takes us a step beyond merely standing for God against such things as ridicule, hardship, and corruption in the church. Those things are difficult, but they are all nevertheless external. That is, they are in the world about us and attack us from there rather than being deep within ourselves. 2 Corinthians 12:9 takes us within ourselves to individual deficiencies, personal handicaps, and humiliating limitations, telling us that God’s grace is sufficient for us even in these areas.
But let me begin in this way. J.I. Packer has a chapter in Knowing God in which he speaks critically about what he calls the cruelty of a certain kind of gospel ministry. The chapter is called “These Inward Trials,” and the cruelty he is thinking of results from a well-meaning but mistaken theology. It is the teaching that God will save us not only from the punishment due us for sin and the guilt we feel from it, but also from all the burdens, confusions, discouragements, and defeats of this life. As he says, the teaching is usually well-meaning. Its advocates want to commend Christianity. They want to win people to Jesus Christ. But it is also cruel, because the people who teach this way are buying immediate, visible results with false promises. As anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time knows, becoming a Christian does not automatically overcome or eliminate life’s difficulties. In fact, it even creates a few that the new Christian did not have before.
And there is this additional cruelty. People who begin to follow Jesus Christ under a mistaken notion of what being his disciple means in time actually encounter difficulties, and even personal failures. When this happens they are told by such teachers that the problem is in themselves and that all they need to do to overcome it is seek out the secret sins in their lives, confess them, and so get right with God again.
It is true, of course, that Christians do sin and that, when we do, we need to confess the sin and turn from it. But that is not the sole or even the major reason for most of life’s trials. There are multiple reasons. And if they are wrongly over-simplified in the service of such a cruelly mistaken gospel, the result is either Christians who deny reality, sticking their head in the sand whenever tragedies occur, or else Christians who admit the tragedies of life but blame themselves to the point of undergoing spiritual break-downs, hysteria, or even (temporary) losses of their faith.
Packer’s point is that we have a lot of this type of error today, especially in the “superstar,” successful, glamour-oriented approach of much contemporary evangelicalism. It is dreadful aberration. The proper theological name for it is triumphalism.
There were people like this in the church at Corinth, that fellowship of believers located on the narrow isthmus between upper Greece dominated by Athens, and the lower portion of Greece dominated by Sparta, Paul had founded this church on his second missionary journey, and his second letter to the Corinthians has a lot to say about them. Ironically, he calls some of them “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). But they were not actually apostles; they were “false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles” (v. 13). They were promoting themselves in order to collect religious followers.
One thing they boasted about was their “God-given” visions and revelations. This set them apart, of course. It made them awesome. It gave their words what we would call clout, as it always does when someone says, “God told me so-and-so.” To Paul these claims were false and the type of Christianity they encouraged was both mistaken and harmful. But think what the false apostles would have been saying. They would have pointed to their success and Paul’s apparent failure. They would have said things like, “God gives me revelations all the time. Why, just this morning the Lord spoke to me and told me to say what I am about to say to you. What revelations has Paul had in recent years? What visions has he shared with us? As for God’s blessing on his work, well, I don’t see that God has blessed him very much. In fact, if you look at his career, it seems to be just one great failure or disaster after another.”
Study Questions:

What is the cruelty Dr. Packer writes about in Knowing God?
What is another term for this kind of false teaching? How do you see it manifested today?
By boasting about their visions and revelations, what were the “super-apostles” of 2 Corinthians hoping to achieve?

Application: How would you try to instruct someone about the errors of triumphalism from Scripture?
For Further Study: To better learn what Dr. Packer means when he talks about the cruelty of a certain kind of gospel ministry, see his classic study of the character of God, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993).

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