Because of the ministry of Christ and who we are as his people, we can know who we are and what we were meant to do.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died.2 Corinthains 5:14
 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.  We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.  For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.  For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;  and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Let’s remember where we are in this letter to the Corinthians church. Back in the first verse of chapter four, Paul said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” “This ministry” was referring to the daunting task of proclaiming the new covenant of Christ, the ministry of the Spirit that replaced the ministry of death, a ministry that offers life but also alerts people to their own condemnation under the law and under sin. It is a ministry that proclaims the righteousness of God, the love of God, and the power of God to save. It is a ministry that brings with it a burden, what he calls in 4:16 “a weight of glory.” But this ministry is a glory and a grace, and so we don’t lose heart in carrying that weight. But so that the Corinthians—and so that we also—would not be discouraged, he has been explaining since 4:1 how we can have courage in the discharging of our duties.
Last week we talked about the substance of that courage, a promise of a new home that enables us to strike out into the darkness and death of this world. We learned that every day we make a choice about whether we will live according to what is seen or what is unseen. Take a moment and ask yourselves, which is better? What is seen is concrete, it’s tangible, you can be sure of it. But Paul says that it is transient, temporary, fading. What matters, what makes a difference, what is indispensable, is what is unseen. Not unreal, just not visible. For what is unseen is eternal. And by the promise of the eternal, we aim to please him in all that we do. We cry out yes to the promise of heaven and no to the offerings of this world. We live according to the hope of the resurrection and we die to what is earthly in us. And we do this because we know that we will one day stand before the judgment seat of the Lord Jesus Christ to give an account for how we have used these days.
And that’s where our text picks up. Paul is going to defend and delight in the ministry he’s been given until we get into chapter seven. He wants to build a confidence in the Corinthians that what has happened in Christ is worth giving your whole life for. And that’s what we’re asking this morning. We’re asking for your whole life. If you have thought that Christianity is a series of good deeds, or a handful of meetings, or even a greater integration of spirituality in your life, you have not yet understood what Christ offers nor the claim that he makes on you. But this is the beauty: All that he demands, he provides above and beyond what we need. So, the point of our text this morning is this: Because of the ministry of Christ and who we are as his people, we can be confident of our ministry. We can know who we are, and what we are meant for. Today, you can know who you are and what you are meant to do.
We’re going to see three movements in this passage, each a set of claims about what we know about ourselves, and then a grounding of that knowledge in the gospel of Jesus Christ. First, we’re going to see that we know our motives. Then, we’re going to see that we know our identity. Finally, we’re going to see that we know our message. Together, they give Paul an unbelievable amount of confidence and energy to be bold with his gospel message, despite the reality that he’s a small, ordinary, clay pot. This is what we need in our day now. But let’s take them one at a time.
We Know Our Motive
First, we know our motive. Look at verses 11–15 with me. Verse eleven reminds us of his ministry. “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” That is, knowing that we will stand before Christ, we persuade others, going back to 4:2 where Paul says that we speak by the “open statement of truth.” This speaking, this proclamation, this commending, this persuading, is the ministry of the Christian. Remember 4:13, “we believe, and so we also speak.”
But he is still defending his ministry, and he’s reminding the Corinthians that they should be evaluated, he says in verse twelve, not by “outward appearance”, but by “what is in the heart.” Though he knows he will stand before God, Paul also knows that he knows. This is his confidence, in that he will be able to give an answer for the work that was given to him. He is not trying to win over the Corinthian church. He is not worried about what they think about him. But he is helping them understand how to respond to those doubting this new ministry of the apostles.
Outwardly, there are accusations about the legitimacy of this faith and the zeal of Paul. Didn’t he use to be Saul, the killer of Christians? Wasn’t this a sect of Judaism squashed out by the Romans? What are all these people doing carrying the message of a resurrected Jew to every corner of the empire? Has Saul lost his mind? But Paul is convinced not only of what he experienced on the way to Damascus, but he has been convinced by studying the Scriptures and by witnessing the work of the Spirit. When Jesus is beginning his ministry in Mark 3, and people are flooding his house, this is exactly what his family is saying about him in verse 21, that “he is out of his mind.” But Jesus is on a mission and Paul is on a mission, and their motives are nearly identical. They are both motivated by the love of Christ.
Look at how Jesus is driven by his own love for his sheep. Listen to John 10:14–16.
 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.  And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is the same love that drives Paul. This is the love of Christ. Paul knows that Jesus laid down his life for his sheep, because he says in the next verse, “he died for all.” This is the love that governs his whole life, because he has become convinced, in his heart, of the power of the gospel.
What does Paul mean in verses fourteen and fifteen? How is he understanding the gospel message here, particularly in the words “all”? I think it hangs on how you interpret the second half of verse fourteen. Is Paul speaking of the death of Christ on behalf of all people everywhere? Some interpreters see it that way, and I think there is some legitimacy to that. They compare the passage to Romans 5, and see this as a sort of inverse logic to Romans 5. Romans 5 talks about how we all died in Adam as our head, and so Christ’s death was necessary to potentially open the way for new life. Here the logic would be that because Christ has died for all, it reveals that all have actually died in sin. That the necessity of his death reveals the depth and crisis brought about by our sin. All of that makes sense, and I would agree with those ideas.
However, I think that there are better reasons to read this “all” as speaking about the church, and believers more broadly. Rather than reading the meaning of “therefore all died” as a reference to our death in Adam, I read it as a reference to our death in Christ. Four reasons. First, the love of Christ “controls us”, that is, we were bought at a price. The verb for “controls” is a very strong word that is sometimes translated as “constrained” or “contains”. The idea is that in his death, we too have died. Second, the parallelism of the verses suggest that the same group is being spoken of in both halves. Therefore, “those who live” is the same group as all who have died. Third, the argument that follows is about becoming a new creation, something that happens when we die in Christ. We become a new creation in our dying and living again with him. Therefore, we would see not a parallel in Romans 5, but Romans 6, which talks about our sharing in the death of Christ.
The point then, is that if we are to be Christians, then we recognize that we are motivated by a powerful love. In the death of Christ, he united those who were dead in sin and buried them along with Christ, and then in glorious resurrection, we shared in his new life. And this life, we spoke about last week, is an eternal life that we have through the Spirit right now. We no longer live for ourselves. We live for him. He is our Lord, and our Master, and our King.
Notice that there are two motives here. In verse 11 we see that we persuade others because we know the fear of the Lord. But we are also controlled by the love of Christ. Does that jar anyone else? Can we be motivated by love and fear? And note that this is towards the same person, Jesus. Jesus is going to judge us, and he loves us with a sacrificial love. And so, because of both those things, we take up the cause of Christ. He has died for us, so that we might live for him. And living for him means that we are happy to fear him alone and no one else. When Nehemiah needed courage to stand before the king and plead for his people, what did he pray? He says, in Nehemiah 1:11,
“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”
He is worthy of honor and awe, both in his fearful majesty and his majestic love. And so these two motives are really one, reverent and adoring worship, giving us a freedom to persuade others apart from the insecurities or fears we might have in presenting the gospel.
We Know Our Identity
So we know our motives. And though there is a hint at it in what we’ve looked at already, in verses 16–17, we can see that our motives reveal our identity. Our loves reveal who we are. And our identity is the core of who we are, generating and creating our love and our affection. We can know who we are.
Just think of the impact of verse sixteen on our spiritual vision of our brothers and sisters. In a meeting this week I was talking about the priority of spiritual kinship over physical kinship. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus asks. “The one who does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and my brother,” he says in Matthew 12. We no longer regard people according to their outward self. In fact, this is what was happening to the people questioning Paul, doing exactly that, regarding people according to the flesh. But we don’t see people that way. Physical beauty or strength, worldly accomplishment, intellect, financial success, these are transient, light and momentary. These are poor things to stake your value and worth on. Paul once regarded Christ that way, a blasphemer, a false Messiah, a crucified criminal. But Christ is alive, and that changes everything. There is an eternal, permanent, unfading, glorious identity that is available to anyone that would choose Christ. Give your life to him, give your death to him, and he will give you his death and his life.
So we come to one of the most simple and yet profound verses in the New Testament, in verse seventeen. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come.” If anyone is in Christ—if they have been bonded, by faith, through no work of their own, to his life, death and resurrection—if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. You are a new creation. Yes, your body still looks the same, and you have the same physical traits, and the same personality and disposition, but you are a new creation. The old has been brought to an end. The new has been brought into existence.
If nothing outward changes, what is so new about this creation? I’ll make two points. First, Paul tells us what this transformation is already in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. It is the end of the ministry of the old covenant of the Law, and the beginning of the ministry of the new covenant of the Spirit. It is the freedom of beholding the Lord without the veil of death hanging over us. It is, according to 2 Corinthians 4:6, the ability to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Paul even quotes Genesis 1:3, “Let light shine out of darkness,” to point us to the work of a new creation taking place. In other words, and we just finished Exodus up, so we know the tabernacle, the light of the glory of God, his indwelling presence, was behind a curtain, and we could not see it because of our sin. But in Christ the veil is gone, the curtain has been torn, and the curse of sin has been removed. The old creation, stained and broken, is gone. You are a new creation, where sin no longer stands between you and God’s presence.
But, and this is my second point, we know that sin is still in our lives. We know that it is still with us in this body of death. We know that the stain and curse of sin still lingers. And we know and long for what is left of the old creation to be swallowed up by what is life. So when Paul says that we are a new creation, he means that we are following in the wake of Christ into a new creation. We are not going back to Eden, but further up and further in. That spiritual heartbeat that is pumping inside of you is the firstfruit of a pure, perfect, and playful new creation. For me, the most helpful analogy is that of a banged up old factory that is bought by a wealthy and brilliant new owner. Outwardly, it may look dilapidated, but inside, everything is changing. The old way of things in that factory has passed away, and the new has come, but it has not yet completely transformed the place. But if you look through the windows, life is at work. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
We Know Our Message
So, because of the powerful work of Christ, we know who we are. And if we have confidence in who we are then we can be confident of what he has made us to be. We know our ministry, and we know our message. So look at verses 18–21 with me. He grounds this new creation not in our acting, but says “All this is from God.” For by grace you have been saved, by grace you have become a new creation. And let me just pause and say how significant it is that our identity comes from outside of us. It is not something that we decide for ourselves. It is not something that we choose for ourselves. We are defined by another, but his love is so perfect and his power so effective that it is a better identity than we would ever choose for ourselves. And it is a better identity than never knowing who we are at all.
It is God who reconciled us to himself through Christ. And so we are reconciled to God, and we are in Christ. And because we are in Christ, we follow in his footsteps. And so, because he was in the business of reconciliation, we too are in the business of reconciliation. His ministry is our ministry. He presented himself as the way, the truth and the life. He said in John 14:6, “no one comes to the Father but through him.” He was the means of reconciliation. And so we present, not ourselves, but Christ, as the same means of reconciliation.
Consider the extent of this reconciliation. Normally, in a conflict, a mediator is required as a third party to help reconcile the two parties. But God is the one who initiates the work. And what is the conflict? It is our sin and offense. We are in the wrong, one hundred percent, and God does the work of reconciliation. He removes the offense. He removes all hindrances between himself and us. This is the point of verse nineteen, when he says “not counting their trespasses against them”. If you would return to God, he has nothing against you in Christ. Your sins have been swallowed up. Death has been swallowed up. The old has been swallowed up. Only the new remains.
Are you holding out against God? Paul speaks to Christians, to the Corinthian church, in verse 20. We can hold out against God. He has torn down the walls that keep us from him. He is making all things new. But if you cling to your sin, to your possessions, to your claims on this life, you are rejecting that act of forgiveness. You are rejecting that act of love.
We have been given the message of reconciliation from the God of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors. We are the first signs of a new creation coming, and our churches and church family are an outpost of the new creation. This too is our identity. We know who we are. As a church, are we proclaiming the message of reconciliation? Are we letting others know that God has made a way for the world to be reconciled to himself?
And how has God reconciled us to himself in Christ? Here is the content of our message. It fits on a business card, on a napkin, it can be memorized. Verse twenty-one. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” It has the same beats as John 3:16:
- “For our sake” → “For God so loved the world”
- “He made him to be sin who knew no sin” → “that he gave his only son”
- “So that in him we might become the righteousness of God” → “that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life”
God forgave us by putting forward his son as a substitute for us. We were Adam eating the fruit, Christ was the animal slaughtered to cover us. We were Isaac on the rock, and Christ was the ram caught in the thicket. We were the first-born son in the Jewish homes during the Passover, and Christ was the lamb’s blood on the door-post. We were God’s son, Israel, trapped beneath the power of sin, and Christ is the offering for sin once and for all. He was reckoned as having our failures so that we would be reckoned as having his faultlessness. In him we are now a new creation. In him we are seen as having his own righteousness. In him we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. And one day, that transformation will be complete.
As we close, I want us to think about the layers of implication here. I see at least three. First, there is the layer of individual ownership of this ministry. Paul is retelling his own experience. When he says, “We once regarded Christ in the flesh,” he is referring to himself and his experience when he was Saul, persecuting the Christian church. Paul is recollecting his own thoughts about the ministry God has given him. For you, what does being an ambassador look like? How do you persuade others of the love of God in your actions, your words, your choices?
Second, there is the layer of implications for the local church. Paul pleads with the church to respond to God’s reconciling work and to own that message. Do we lift up the love of God in the gospel as a church? Are we the aroma of Christ in our community? On campus? In the East Valley? Are our ministries and our efforts calling people to be reconciled to God? What will it take to make this more real for us as a church?
Lastly, there is the layer of implications for the evangelical church in our country. Paul understood that this ministry was not an option for some Christians, but was to be the marching orders for all people who have identified with Christ, who have died and risen with him. Does the church in America seem like an ambassador for God from the new creation? Do we persuade others of the gospel message? And are we willing to look out of our minds as Christ and Paul did?
Each of these layers begins with the everyday decisions you and I make. And these everyday decisions are shaped by our affections and our motives. And our motives are shaped by who we are. The message and mission lay before you. Will you be who you already are?