2 Cor. 2.15-16

How do you measure success? By what standard do you assess how well you’ve done? When you take stock of your life or evaluate the effectiveness of whatever ministry God has given you, how do you determine the outcome? Do you count heads? Or money? Do you apply the criteria typically used in a Gallup poll or Barna survey? Do you size up your efforts as over against those of high-achieving folk in the market place or perhaps line up your congregation, side by side, with the mega-church down the road?

All of us are tempted to measure ourselves by comparing what we’ve produced with that of others, especially those whom we admire or whose names are cited often in the newspaper or on the blogs. Let’s admit it. We invest far too much in the opinion of the power-brokers in our society, whether spiritual or secular. What they think and how well they’ve done, as well as the size of their facility and the impact of their ministry weighs heavily on our minds and typically leads to feelings of inferiority and failure.

I can hardly overemphasize the devastating effects of embracing this perspective in the life of the church. It saddens me to see how many have compromised on truth, cutting corners on the gospel or softening the sharp edge of biblical morality in order to enhance one’s status or increase attendance or retain the support of some significant donor.

Equally as devastating are those who’ve abandoned church and ministry altogether, whether from burnout or the unbearable frustration of thinking they’ve failed God or shown themselves incapable of fulfilling the calling on their lives.

If that even remotely resonates in your heart or if you struggle with feelings of spiritual inferiority, ministerial incompetence, or simple inadequacy as a Christian, heed well the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16. The biblical standard for “success” articulated in this text is a much-needed remedy for what ails so many in the church today:

“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16a).

Do you want to smell good to God? Then be true to the gospel! Be faithful to its terms, articulate its promises, and don’t back down from declaring the eternal consequences that come with its denial.

There are two, and only two, possible responses to the gospel of Christ. When the message is made known, everyone responds. There is no such thing as neutrality. Indifference or apathy is a myth. Not to believe the good news in Christ Jesus is to reject it. Pretending to ignore it is to deny it.

Either you are among “those who are being saved” or you are among “those who are perishing”. The word of the cross is either “folly”, utter and absolute foolishness, or it is “the power of God” unto salvation (see 1 Cor. 1:18). The message of Christ that Paul proclaims (and not the messenger) is itself responsible for dividing the hearers in this way.

Wherever, whenever, and to whomever the Christian proclaims the name of Jesus, a fragrance is released. To some it is an aroma of life and hope and renewal and forgiveness. Nothing can compare with the sweet smell of the Son of God. The gospel of his dying and rising for sinners awakens life and leads to life. To others it is a suffocating, poisonous stench.

Charles Spurgeon reminds us:

“The gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher; otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as to preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word, to give it power to convert the soul.”

But what I want you to see is that Paul is a fragrance to God regardless of the response to his message! When, in the midst of suffering, he faithfully proclaims the gospel and is mocked, slandered, and the name of Jesus is blasphemed, Paul smells good to God. When, in the midst of suffering, he faithfully proclaims the same gospel and is embraced and loved and people bow the knee in love and loyalty to Jesus, Paul smells good to God.

We are a fragrance to God even when our message is rejected. So long as we remain faithful to our commission, we smell good to God. Though our crowds be small and the offering paltry, success is measured by fidelity, not fruit. Whether our efforts lead to “life” or “death”, we remain “an aroma of Christ to God” (v. 15a). We have succeeded when we preach Jesus truly and biblically.

This will be a difficult pill to swallow only if our fear of man is greater than our fear of God, only if our preference is for their praise rather than his. Some of the worst failures in ministry are found in mega churches, where pragmatism often (though not always) trumps principle. Many who appear small in the eyes of man are giants in the kingdom of God. Both success and failure can be found in churches of every size, whether mega or mini.

There’s no escaping the fact that you smell, and so do I. May we strive in the power of God’s grace to be a fragrant aroma, pleasing to him (even if putrid to the world).

– Sam Storms

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