November 9, 2017 Chapel Service — Dr. Tom Ascol
Posted On November 13, 2017
“God’s Way of Strengthening Faith”
—2 Corinthians 1:8-10
I count it a great privilege to be here today. We thank God for this college and pray for this ministry—we have for Ligonier Ministries for many, many years—delighted to see all that God is doing. I want to thank you also on behalf of Grace Baptist Church for Graham and Sarah Gunden, sending them to us. He’s obviously been well prepared for the things in front of him, and they have been a delight to us. I’m glad he could be with me today and coming back home for him.
Let me lead us in prayer, and then we’re going to look to God’s Word.
Our Father, we thank you for the wonderful privileges You’ve given us because of all that You’ve provided for us in Christ. We ask that today You would help us to remember Christ, to think of Him, to believe Your Word concerning Him, and to set our hope on Him more fully, more wholly. We thank You for His life and His death and His resurrection for sinners—for the hope that is ours because of Him. Thank you for Your Word and Your Spirit. Please take Your Word now and speak to us and give us ears to hear what it is Your Spirit is saying to us through Your Word. For Christ’s sake, amen.
The Christian life is a life of faith. It begins in faith with the call that God gives us from the gospel to turn from sin—to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ—and it continues in faith. And we never advance beyond faith. We go forward in faith, and our desire and need is to grow in faith—to become increasingly steeped in what God has provided for us in Jesus, has revealed to us in His Word, so that more and more, we take Him at His word and believe all that is ours in Jesus. Because this is true, it is an ongoing need in the Christian life to have our faith renewed, to have our faith strengthened, to have it fed and enlarged so that we can more and more grow in it. That’s true for every Christian. It was true for the Apostle Paul. Paul was an effective preacher, he was a successful church planter, he was an experienced apostle, and he performed miracles. Nevertheless, he needed to grow in faith, and he tells us of a time when this was peculiarly true of him and the Lord dealt with him in such a way that his faith did, indeed, grow.
This morning, I want to consider that experience with you, as he records it for us in the opening chapter of 2 Corinthians 1, where the apostle—giving us a glimpse into his life, things that happened to him—reveals to us the way that God grants faith and strengthens faith to His children. So, hear the Word of the Lord from 2 Corinthians 1, as I read from verses 8-11. The Apostle writes,
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
Trials train us to trust the God who raises the dead. That’s what Paul is telling us here, as he reflects upon his own experience, the things that happened to him in Asia. We don’t know exactly what he is referring to here. Whatever it is, the Corinthians must have had some knowledge about it, because he doesn’t elaborate on it. He speaks of it as something that they would have had some knowledge of. But, whatever it was, the point he wants to draw for us is to teach us how God strengthens faith. Because God strengthened his faith through that particular trial. Again, sometimes we might wish we knew the details of it, but God in His wisdom hasn’t given us that. It must have been serious, however. When you stop and think about the things Paul did experience. Prior to his being in Asia, he tells about things that happened to him, and we read about things happening to him in the book of Acts—how he was stoned in Lystra, left for dead (they thought that they had killed him) in Ephesus, he had been the subject of a riot that threatened his very life. But neither of those situations is what Paul had in mind, in this passage of Scripture. Whatever it was, the point he wants to make is to teach us that God uses trouble in order to cause us to rely upon Him. So, I want to look at the passage with you this morning by drawing out two points, specifically. The first one is more self-evident, and so I don’t want to belabor it. But I do want us to dive into the second point with a little greater detail.
The first thing we see here in verse 8 and 9 is that trials are not unusual for the Christian life. I wanna say, they are even inevitable for the Christian life, because we are told that by Jesus, by the Apostle Peter, and it just seems to be the subtext of so much that we read in the New Testament. In verse 8, Paul beings this portion of his letter to reflects upon his own trials with that little word “for” that causes us to back to what he’s connected it to. If you look at verse 7, he just said, “Our hope for you is unshaken for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” Paul knows that these Corinthians have suffered and they will suffer. He’s just instructed them about the comfort that God provides to His children in suffering, and he now connects what they have experienced to an experience in his own life. So, don’t be surprised when sufferings come. Jesus tells us in that promise that so many don’t want to claim, John 16:33, “In this world, you will have tribulations.” The Apostle Peter says, “Don’t count it as some strange thing when the fiery trial comes upon you to test you.” As Christians who understand the Bible and are thinking rightly, we should not be surprised by difficulties. Paul had them. The Corinthians had them. You have them. Every child of God will have them. Paul wants us to know, however, about his own affliction and the lessons that he learned, how God used it to instruct him and to build him up in faith. Though we don’t know the details, he does want us to understand something of the intensity of how it affected him. I think we’re helped here by the way Paul writes, to see how transparently and yet discretely, he talks about his own experience.
I think it’s worthy of a study to see how he avoids the errors that we are so often tempted to fall into to not talk about our experiences, perhaps because we don’t want to detract from the glory of God, we don’t want to set ourselves center-stage, and there’s right motivation there. But you can fall into an error with that so that you don’t ever let people see the work of God in your life, on the one hand or, on the other hand, to become so consumed with your own life and experiences that you talk about that, and especially the painful parts, you feel compelled to almost over-emphasize it because without doing that you’re afraid others won’t really understand how deeply you have suffered. Paul avoids both of these errors by speaking transparently and discreetly. Just quickly look at the language that he uses here. He says, “I was burdened beyond measure, above strength.” Think about what that must mean. “Above measure”—you can’t measure it; “beyond my capacity and strength”—he’s using language here that had been used of a pack mule that was overburdened so that its suffering and its going beyond what it should be required to bear. Language of a ship that loaded with twice the amount of cargo it’s rated to hold. He says, “I despaired even of life.” Think about that for a moment. I didn’t know how I was going to make it out of this situation alive. He says in verse 9, “I had the sentence of death in me.” “Had the sentence of death” like when you go for that console with the doctor and he says, “I’m sorry, it’s terminal.” Or if you’re in a courtroom and the judge is lowering the gavel saying guilty, and the sentence is death. This must have been an incredibly severe trial for Paul.
Whatever it was, he’s telling us transparently, “this affected me in a very deep way.” And especially if you read on in this letter, chapter 11, when he just gives that litany of different trials he experienced. Let me just read through that—verse 23 of chapter 11–he says he, “Suffered countless beatings, often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews 40 lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
And those were just his normal trials. Now, he’s talking about an intense trial. Something that causes those things bot to be in comparison. So, whatever it was, Paul wants to make sure that we understand how it affected him—psychologically, mentally. He’s giving us a glimpse into his emotional life. He thought that this trouble that had come to him might destroy him, might bring his life to an end. Well, if there’s ever a temptation to think that a strong Christian, a faith-filled Christian, has no trials and will not be affected by the serious realities in life, this passage ought to disabuse us of such wrong-headed thinking. Paul is saying, he has come to the end of his emotional rope. There’s no stoicism in Christianity. Being faith-filled does not mean being unemotional or not emotionally affected by what happens to us. Paul here says, he didn’t think he was gonna make it.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt that way. Have you ever been there as a Christian? Where you just say, “I don’t know how I’m gonna go on. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to continue this pathway. And maybe you’re there today, or if not, it could well be that you’ll be there before the semester’s out, before the year’s out. And if so, then the lessons of this passage have much to say to you to strengthen and encourage you to prepare for it. Paul here is transparent, telling us that he thought he was going to die. But he’s also discreet. He doesn’t go into great detail—no prolonged explanation here about the facts. He doesn’t make it about himself. He makes it about God and His wisdom and His power and His grace in delivering Paul and in doing so in a way to train Paul in faith. So, when trials come, it’s right for us to acknowledge them, to let them affect us, and feel deeply, respond properly to them, but to do so with an awareness that God is still at work in and through these circumstances. Paul wants us to come away from this passage not seeing and thinking so much about Paul and all that he went through, saying, “poor Paul.” He wants us to come through this passage, his experiences, and say, “isn’t God incredible? Isn’t God wise? Isn’t God good?” And that’s exactly what happens, because Paul goes on to tell us that trials are not just unavoidable—they are always for the Christian purposeful. Look at verse 9: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death, but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
Trouble is God’s appointed trainer to teach us in the school of faith. One writer has put it like this: “Suffering is a page in the textbook God uses in the school of faith.” It teaches us not to trust ourselves and to trust God—not to rely on ourselves Paul says. Trials have a way of exposing the poverty of our own resources. Troublesome times often destroy the very things that we are relying on. Haven’t you experienced this in the death of a loved one or the lost of some resource, perhaps the loss of health, the loss of opportunity, position? And you may not have even been aware of how much you’ve been depending upon that thing until it is taken away from you. So, often this works in subtle ways in the Christian life. We’re given Christ, we turn from sin and trust Christ as life, we see Him as the way to God, reconciling us to God, and in having Christ, we really know, we believe, we have everything that we need in this world, and we delight in Christ. And God, in His goodness, so often gives us multiple blessings in Christ, with Christ, and He might give health, He might give a marriage, He might give education, He might give opportunity to exercise gifts. Whatever they are, good things come from God, from His hand to us in Christ. And if we’re not careful, subtly, we begin to shift our greatest affections away from the Giver to the gifts, and we begin to rely more upon the gifts He provides than the Source of those gifts. So, when the gift is taken away, the subtlety of that shift is exposed. Paul indicates to us that this is what happened to him. God exposed what Paul had been trusting in. And so, this trial, he says, “came to teach me not trust in myself.” He was brought so low. He was so undone by whatever it was that he thought he was gonna die.
But looking back on this experience, he realized after the fact what he did not realize when he was going through the experience: that, though it was a severe trial, God was not delivering him up for punishment, for some of kind of nefarious purpose. God was using that trial to teach him not to trust himself. Isn’t that amazing? The Apostle Paul had to be taught not to trust himself. But possibly, he goes on to say, He used that trial to train him to trust God. God does that. He says, He did this to make us rely on God, not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead. Now again, fascinating isn’t it? This is the Apostle Paul who writes on the resurrection; this is the Apostle Paul who has seen the risen Christ; and yet, he says there was a time in my life I needed to be taught to rely on the God who raises the dead. That’s a pretty simple lesson when you just deconstruct it. What’s the lesson here? Trust God. It’s easy, right? It’s easy to say, it’s easy to remember, it’s easy to see; it’s just really hard to do sometimes—to trust God. You see how Paul describes God? Not generically, “just trust God.” A generic god won’t help you; the god of your imagination won’t help you. The true God will help you, and that true God, Paul says, is the God who raises the dead. You see what’s in Paul’s mind here. It’s the God of Jesus Christ. It’s the God who has raised the only Man that ever lived, and died, and been raised again never to die again. It’s the One on whom he has staked his life—this God. Christ, having been risen, was raised by God. The One who acted in space and time and contravened the laws of nature and science by doing something that was impossible to do. So, do see what Paul is saying? The reason that trouble came to his life—this deep, life-threatening trouble; this hope-shattering trouble—was to teach him, train him not trust himself but to trust in God, the God who raises the dead.
This near-death experience was used by God to do wonderful work in the Apostle Paul. He needed to learn to rely on God, and God taught him, God made him rely more fully on this God who raises the dead. Now, why is this significant? Why does Paul want us to know this? Well, it’s significant because living like this with a humble confidence in God will set us free—it’ll set us free from crippling worry; it’ll set us free from the temptation to stray from His commands, when it feels like the pathway to His commands is going to end in death. We see this. We see it throughout the Bible, we see it in the life of Abraham especially. In Genesis 22, that story is so amazing, when God tells Abraham, “take your only son up to the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice.” Imagine what must’ve been going through Abraham’s mind: “God’s promised that He’s going to give a great nation to me through this son, and now God’s commanded for me to go and execute my son!” Have you ever wondered what was going through Abraham’s mind? Why he did it? Why he was willing to sacrifice his son?
We don’t have to speculate about that, because the Bible actually answers that question in Hebrews 11, verses 17-19. Listen to what it says: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Abraham trusted in God who raises the dead. He was able to see beyond the things he could not understand to the reality of this God and set his hope in this God. That’s how we’re strengthened to obey God. Even when doing so is difficult, even when the pathway feels like death. Think about this for a moment: If Mark Zuckerberg was your father, would you be afraid of getting a bill in the mail that you couldn’t pay? You know, he owns almost everything, right? He’s a bazillionaire. So, you’re not going to fear a bill if Mark Zuckerberg is your dad. Or Marcus Luttrell, who knows who he is? He’s a Navy SEAL—the lone survivor in that massive, horrific, sorrowful event in Afghanistan, where his unit was wiped out and yet he survived what seems impossible odds in order to bring back intel and get out of that situation. If Marcus Luttrell is your brother, are you gonna be afraid walking down the street with Marcus Luttrell that somebody’s gonna picks fight with you that you can’t win? You’re gonna have confidence. Why? Because you know the person who has your interests at heart. Brothers and sisters, if our Father raises the dead, why should we fear anything? Why should we be afraid of what the world might bring to us through sickness, or loss, or death? Wouldn’t it be a wonderful way to live? Free from fear, being free to obey, to have joy and confidence because we know that if everything goes south and you’re completely wiped out as you travel the path of obedience, the One whom you are obeying, who is walking with you, is the God—the Father of Jesus Christ, your Father in Jesus Christ—the God who raises the dead. To see that, to remember that, to hope in that, sets you free from a thousand things that will keep you from enjoying this life that God has given to you. Its faith: trust God.
Now, I know I’m at a Bible college. I know all of you had to given testimony to get into the classes, and you’ve come from churches who have recommended you. But I also know that in any gathering like this, it’s quite possible that there are those who, though they have been around the things of God, have not ever seriously, genuinely trusted God. If you’ve not trusted Christ, then you’re probably in the midst of a very frustrating experience. And if you’ve never turned from sin to bow to Jesus Christ as Lord, then the gospel call is for you to believe this God, to take Him at His word, to come to Christ, and to give yourself wholeheartedly to Him. Furthermore, the label calls you to acknowledge His Lordship and your dependence upon Him in His life and death and resurrection to save you from your sin and to establish you in the family of God. Brothers and sisters, we began in faith and we must continue in this type of faith. If you find that your faith is subtly been drifting away from the resolute dependence upon the God who raises the dead and is resting more and more in the gifts God has given you, in the circumstances He’s provided you with, and resources He’s entrusted to you, this is an opportunity as well to learn from the Apostle Paul and to turn away from trusting those things and enjoying them with an open hand without clinging to them, so they we might cling wholly to the God who raises the dead. Paul had to learn this lesson. So do we.
The way then we learn this lesson is the way that Paul learned it. God often ordains trouble in order to instruct us this way. His faithfulness in our trials trains us to live in hope. He says it this way in verse 10 and 11: Paul says, “[God] delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” In other words, God’s faithfulness in the past breeds confidence that He will faithfully deliver us in the future. He has delivered us through “such a deadly peril,” he says, as he looks back on that experience. He didn’t know it when he was going through it—he thought he was going to die. But he didn’t die, and as he’s looking back on it now, he says, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. God was faithful there. I was not alone through that. God was not inactive during that. He was working on me, building me up in faith.” And every child of God—if you’ve walked with the Lord very long at all, you know, your testimony has to be that He’s faithful—He’s faithful. Things that we might’ve wanted, set our hearts upon, that He did not grant to us, He was faithful in that. Directing us the way that He has, He’s been faithful to us. And Paul, seeing God’s faithfulness in the past, is very confident that He will be faithful in the future. Having “delivered us from such a deadly peril,” He says, “he will deliver us. [and] On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” So, God will deliver us in the immediate future, whatever that might look like, I can count on the God who raises the dead. And in the ultimate future, when the Lord Jesus returns, we will be finally, fully, completely delivered by His appearance. And between now and then, He will keep on delivering us, according to His will.
You know, in one sense, the pattern of death and resurrection is just the way that Christians are called to live. Trials afflict us; God, through faith, restores us. And each experience of trial and deliverance points us forward to the day when we will once and forever be delivered from all afflictions, when Christ appears. Paul says, God uses the prayers of His people in this process. Verse 11: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” He faithfully delivers His people through trials; He does that through the prayers of His people. And one of the reasons that we should not avoid speaking of our trials and opening up ourselves regarding the burdens that are in our lives is so that brothers and sisters might pray for us because God intends to use the prayers of His people in order to provide for us through trials. And He does it so that He will get glory and His goodness will be put on display. You see how Paul says this here: “so that many will give thanks”—literally, “many faces will give thanks.” The picture here is faces lifted up to God in prayer, and they see the answers of prayer, they see the brother or sister sustained through a trial that might look like it’s going to kill them—might look like it’s going to bring everything to an end that they’ve hoped in.
And God, who is faithful and remains faithful, faithfully moves. So, praise goes to God. That’s what Paul is speaking of here. That’s why we should pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens. And if we think about the God who raised Jesus from the dead being our Father, why in the world would we ever hesitate to pray? What’s too difficult for Him to do? Well, trouble is a stage in which God displays His glory. And He does so by delivering His people through all of our trials. God’s faithfulness in the past gives us hope for the future. He will continue to be faithful as He has been faithful. So, past grace gives us reason to hope in future grace. Isn’t that what we sing in John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace? “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Faithfulness in the past; faithfulness in the future.
Well, trials train us to trust in the God who raises the dead. So often, we want the product without having to pay the cost. That’s not the way God does things. God trains His people through difficulties. C.S. Lewis wrote this: that nothing that has not died will be resurrected. That’s simply God’s pattern. Jesus was not brought into heaven as the risen Lord without going through the crucifixion. God uses trials and trouble in order to show us His faithfulness in raising the dead as He leads us. So, when troubles come into your life, when trials oppress you, when you get to a point emotionally when you’re not sure you can go on, remember this: God has you in school. God is teaching you not to trust yourself but to rely upon Him, who raise the dead. That’s how God strengthens faith. And don’t you want your faith to be strengthened? Don’t you wanna grow as a Christian? Don’t you wanna grow in your confidence in God? Have you ever asked the Lord to strengthen your faith? Have you ever prayed that way? If so, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe the trials in your life are the exact way that God is answering that prayer?
Listen to another one of John Newton’s hymns—it’s not as well-known. He writes, “I asked the Lord that I might grow in faith and love and every grace, might more of His salvation know, and seek more earnestly His face. ‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray, and He I trust has answered prayer, but it has been in such a way as almost drove me to despair. I hoped that in some favored hour at once He’d answer my request, and by His love’s constraining power subdue my sins and give me rest. Instead of this, He made me feel the hidden evils of my heart, and let the anger powers of hell assault my soul in every part. Yea, more, with His own hand He seemed intent to aggravate my woe, crossed all my fair designs I schemed, blasted my gourds, and laid me low. “Lord why is this?” I, trembling, cried. “Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?” “‘Tis in this way,” the Lord replied, “I answer prayer for grace and faith. These inward trials I employ from self and pride to set thee free and break thy schemes of earthly joy that thou may find thy all in Me.”
Paul says, that’s exactly what happened to me. I came to the end of my rope. I thought I was going to die. But in that very experience, God was teaching me not to rely on myself as an apostle, a miracle-worker, a preacher, a church-planter, but to rely upon God who raises the dead. Brothers and sisters, that’s the lesson—the life-long lesson—that each of us needs to learn. And may the Lord strengthen us in it and help us to keep going on in the midst of trial, knowing He never will abandon us, He’s always faithful, and He will do whatever is necessary to get us safely home. He is our God and our Father. And He raises people from the dead.
Let’s pray together. Our Father, we thank you for revealing yourself to us in your Word. We thank you for the Apostle Paul and his experience, his humility in relating this experience, the lessons you taught him through it. We ask that you would teach us this lesson, that you would strengthen our faith, and that you would help us to remember that, in the midst of what sometimes might be oppressive difficulty, that you are our God and Father and that you raise people from the dead. Do this for Christ’s sake, we ask. Amen.
Transcripts are lightly edited.