And such confidence have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God; who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:4-6a).
Few things are as dangerous as when the instrument begins to vaunt itself over its designer and operator.
We see this happen sometimes in the movies. The Terminator series and the Matrix series all presuppose such a situation: humans make computers/robots, computers/robots get too smart, computers/robots try to take over. We have this feeling, deep down, that if our creation to take us over, it would be a very bad thing. We perceive that something is out of place in that condition.
The Apostle Paul understood this danger in his own life as it related to God his Creator and Christ his Savior, and it was a good thing. His ministry featured signs and wonders; many converted to the Lord on at least two continents based on his preaching and teaching. As he writes for at least the second time to the Corinthians, he has spoken of them as a living “letter of Christ,” through Paul’s ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). In that sense, the Corinthians themselves are commendation for Paul, and in that work he has great confidence (2 Corinthians 4:4).
What would happen if Paul rooted this confidence in what he could perceive in the physical realm? What if Paul thought that it was by his own strength, cunning, and persuasive ability that the Corinthians were converted to Jesus? It would be very tempting; it would satisfy the natural conceit that dwells within us all. He could feel quite important, vaunting in his position. In short, his pride could quickly undo all the work that had been done!
And that is why Paul hastens to declare that whereas the conversion of the Corinthians is his confidence in Christ toward God, it was not from his own strength or power; indeed, he declares that he has no sufficiency in himself (2 Corinthians 3:4-5). His sufficiency is from God; God is the one who made him sufficient to minister in this new covenant through Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). Paul recognizes that he is the instrument; God is the power and provides what is sufficient to accomplish His purpose (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7).
Paul’s declarations have become controversial since he established them. Some have taken his words to mean that the believer is able to do nothing at all, becoming entirely passive agents of God. Others, in seeking to avoid this extreme, go the other way, and over-emphasize the free will of mankind and come dangerously close to declaring their own sufficiency, albeit in a limited frame. What, then, are we to understand from what Paul has declared here?
We can all confess as true that everything we have and are come from God; we did not create the universe, we did not give ourselves life, and we did not make this creation for our use (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:3, Acts 17:24-29). Beyond that, since we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, there was nothing we could do in order to save ourselves; God did what we could not do in reconciling us back to Him through Jesus His Son (Romans 3:20-23, 5:6-11, 8:1-3). Therefore, every spiritual blessing comes from God through Christ, and we do not deserve them (Ephesians 1:3).
And yet God expects people to serve Him in Christ, to seek after His will (Romans 6:16-23, Philippians 2:12, 2 Peter 1:3-11). This cannot be forced, for that is not the way of love (John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 1 John 4:8). People must turn from sin and submit themselves to God, seeking His paths, walking as Jesus walked (Galatians 2:20, James 4:7, 1 John 2:6).
But is there any sufficiency in us to accomplish this through our own strength? We still fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23); we still are beset by sin (Hebrews 12:1-2, 1 John 1:8); left to our own devices, we still wander off onto the wrong path (Jeremiah 10:23). Therefore, it is good to agree with Paul: as he understood that he did not have any sufficiency in himself, but only received sufficiency through Christ, we are not sufficient in and of ourselves for anything, but must find our sufficiency through Christ.
That is why the concept of the believer as servant is so consistently maintained throughout Scripture (Luke 17:7-10, Romans 6:16-23, etc.). The slave does all things at the behest of his Master. Another image that indicates as much is that of the instrument (Acts 9:15, Romans 6:13): the tool may accomplish a given work, but only because it has been directed by the One wielding the tool.
So we ought to understand ourselves. Do we work and labor for the Lord? Absolutely. But do we labor by our own sufficiency? Our “sufficiency” always proves insufficient in every respect. Instead, Christ must be our sufficiency. We must do all things according to His direction (Colossians 3:17); we must be strengthened with the strength that comes through Him (Ephesians 3:16-17, Philippians 4:13). Our thoughts, feelings, and actions– our entire being– must be laid at His feet for use to advance His purposes (Galatians 2:20, 2 Corinthians 4:7, 10:5, Philippians 4:8). We may have confidence in Christ toward God for what is accomplished for His purposes through us, but it is no reason for us to glory in ourselves– all praise, honor, and glory are to go to God in Christ, because He is our sufficiency! Let us serve the Lord and use our energies toward His purposes; let us be His instruments to be directed according to His good purpose!
Ethan R. Longhenry