It was Grace that did it! (2 Cor. 1:12)
“For our boast is this: the testimony of our conscience that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (2 Cor. 1.12).
This passage is one more example of those many biblical texts that are typically ignored but carry a powerful word of both rebuke and encouragement to the church. I hardly need remind you of the crisis that exists in pastoral ministry today. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t hear of another moral failure or theological compromise. Of course, one wouldn’t expect to hear much about that faithful servant who toils silently for the sake of God and his people, most often in a church of fewer than two-hundred souls. But regardless of the size or seeming insignificance of many churches, this statement by Paul needs to be loudly trumpeted for all to hear.
A quick word of reminder is in order concerning the context of Paul’s comment. He is dealing with several accusations that had been launched at him by his detractors in Corinth. We saw in a previous meditation that some had charged him with being self-serving and unreliable for having changed his plans about making a visit to Corinth (see 1:15-2:4).
He also responds to rumors that he was duplicitous and evasive in the way he wrote to the Corinthians (1:13). He wants them to understand that there’s no need to read between the lines. There are no hidden meanings or secret agendas in his letters. He writes what he means and means what he writes.
The charge that concerns us here is that Paul was either dishonest or insincere or both, perhaps even given to worldly pragmatism in his conduct and the decisions he made in ministry. There’s so much in this one text, but I’ve reduced it to seven observations.
First, don’t be put off by the fact that Paul “boasts” (v. 12a; this and related terms appear throughout 2 Corinthians: see 5:12; 7:4,14; 8:24; 9:2,3; 10:8,13,15,16,17; 11:10,12,16,17,18,30; 12:1,5,6,9). Some might immediately conclude that this of itself proves that Paul is of dubious character. However, a closer look at these many texts indicates that he is mimicking the bragging of his opponents and that merely using the terminology is something he finds inherently offensive (see esp. 11:10-12:9).
He’s also careful to point out that if he does "boast" it is only "in the Lord" (10:17; 11:17). In fact, as we’ll note below, he explicitly traces the source of his "simplicity" (or possibly “holiness”) and "sincerity", on the basis of which he "boasts”, to the grace of God, not his own fleshly efforts. Thus when Paul “boasts” of these virtues, in view of which he has a clean conscience, he is obviously boasting in what God has done by sheer grace alone (cf. 1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17; etc.).
Second, Paul labored with a clean conscience, both in terms of his relation to the world in general and to the Corinthians in particular. Of course, conscience alone is inadequate. Self-delusion is always a threat. Only the Lord ultimately can judge what’s in the heart (see 1 Cor. 4:4-5; 2 Cor. 5:10). This mention of his conscience, therefore, is “a reference to the objective work of God in his life as manifest in his outward behavior” (Hafemann, 82). Paul is confident that his conduct is consistent with the intent of his heart.
Third, Paul was quick and clear to the effect that whatever “simplicity” and “sincerity” he displayed came from God. Literally, both of these virtues are “of God” (the ESV renders it “godly sincerity”). Some argue this should be rendered “before God” or “in the sight of God,” while others follow the ESV and insist that these qualities are God-like or “godly” in nature. While either of those is possible, I think Paul is stating starkly that he isn’t ultimately or personally responsible for his virtuous conduct: God is. He’ll willingly take credit for his failures, but only God is to be praised for his success. This is in confirmation, as noted above, that whatever “boasting” he does is in celebration of what God has accomplished through him.
Fourth, Paul’s life and ministry were characterized by “simplicity” (ESV). Whereas some manuscripts read “holiness” (hagioteti), I’m inclined to believe the more accurate reading is “simplicity” (haploteti). Paul is the only NT author to use this word and five of its eight occurrences are here in 2 Corinthians (1:12; 8:2; 9:11,13; 11:3; see Romans 12:8; Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22).
Would that pastors and leaders everywhere might heed this example! Paul knew that few things were more destructive to Christ-exalting ministry than duplicity and deviousness. With Paul there was a singularity of purpose, a single-minded commitment, a simplicity of devotion that he refused to compromise. Isn’t it amazing what simple honesty can do to adorn the gospel and how one deceitful deed can undermine it!
Fifth, all his dealings were conducted with absolute transparency, or what the ESV calls “sincerity”. Murray Harris has pointed out that this word (heilikrineia) is derived from “heile” (the sun’s heat) and “krino” (I judge), “denoting the state of something which has survived the searching and searing light of the sun, ‘judged by the sun’s splendor/heat’; thus ‘sincerity,’ ‘ingenuousness’” (185).
Perhaps we all need to pause, put life on hold for a moment, and subject our souls to the searing, searching light of God’s analysis. If we were to do so, what would be revealed? Pride? Fear? Secret agendas? Self-promotion? Greed? Or perhaps (again, only “by the grace of God”) a life and approach to ministry that is wholly above board, self-effacing, Christ-exalting, and as devoid as can be this side of heaven of hypocrisy and superficiality.
Sixth, much of the church today is infected with “earthly wisdom”: be it pragmatism (“if it works, do it; regardless of whether or not it is biblical”), compromise (“cutting corners doesn’t matter, so long as giving increases and our building program succeeds”), or elevating cultural trends and preferences above the truths of God’s Word (“after all, we don’t won’t to offend anyone; they might not come back next week”).
Seventh, and finally, Paul draws a stark and vivid contrast between “earthly wisdom” or “human cleverness” on the one hand, and “divine grace” on the other. Either you live by man’s wisdom, according to the dictates and desires of human nature, or you are energized by God’s gracious power.
It’s important to note that Paul envisioned his entire existence, both in public and private, whether in the mundane affairs of life or in the ministry he discharged at Corinth and elsewhere, as being energized and sustained and guided by “the grace of God”! His conduct or behavior was governed by the power of God’s gracious presence.
The word “grace” is not here a reference merely to a principle by which God operates among us or even the truth that he saves us according to his kind intentions in Christ rather than on the basis of alleged good works. Grace is God’s sustaining, empowering energy through the Holy Spirit by which Paul was enabled to resist the temptation to boast of his own accomplishments or trust in his own insights or yield to the pressure to conform to the world’s expectations.
If Paul was single-minded, it was grace that did it! If Paul was sincere, it was grace that did it! If Paul was governed by God’s will and not the ways of the world, it was grace that did it!
Some find it easier and more appealing to capitulate to the pressure and fashion their ministries according to the latest Gallup poll. Standing resolute and firm against the fashionable trends of religious life in America is hard. Setting Scripture to the side and tickling the ears of one’s audience requires less effort and often reaps greater rewards. But Paul will have nothing of it, and neither should we.