In 2006, lawyer Michael J. Kline informed two of the brand managers for Coca-Cola Classic that they could sue their own company's Coca-Cola Zero brand. What ensued was an unprecedented reality TV-styled marketing campaign. In “Candid Camera” like settings, two actors, posing as Coke Classic brand managers seek to establish the case that the sugarless Coke Zero tastes so much like the Real Coke Classic that they have a legitimate intellectual property suit. The charge? “Taste infringement.” In a number of mildly humorous to quite hilarious encounters, attorneys are captured on tape, with responses ranging from stumbling nonsensical utterances to verbal aggression.
A couple of things stand out from these advertisements, offering a revealing peek into our culture. First, our escalating lawsuit freneticism. The self-absorbed sue for whatever you want posture of our society has made the blatant violation of basic Law 101 prohibitions almost believable. Sure, why not sue your own company for intellectual property violations?
A second lesson from these ads is subtler and arguably more dangerous. Underlying the advertising premise is the following notion: an artificial, sugar-free drink can actually taste like the real thing. Put otherwise, you can have it all, be fully satisfied, and not pay the price on your body. All the sweetness; none of the cost. How good is that?
Many have drunk the notion that life works the same way. Duped taste buds betray duped hearts. Glorying in our freedom of choice, we have conjured up an artificial existence, centering all of reality within ourselves. Reality is not something objective, but something I create. I am the center of the equation. Because I am the real thing, I can make choices regarding life, profession, even morality – all with impunity. When it comes to matters of faith – my taste is my lord.
To be sure, with such gross idolatry we have zeroed out the almighty, transcendent God from our worlds. We live in a God-zero culture: I can drink the artificial because I choose to do so. And it is OK because it tastes, feels, and sounds good to me. The god of my creation, an impostor, is the real thing because I say so. In this radically reductionistic and idolatrous world of self-adulation, a world in which I am lord simply because I want to be, the transcendent God becomes transcendently absent.
Not surprisingly, there is a cost, a cost that exceeds caloric intake. When I am lord of my existence, something in me actually changes. How many times have we heard people remark that after they become accustomed to the Coke Light, Diet Coke or Coke Zero, they no longer like the real thing? Taste buds change, and after drinking in the artificial for so long, the return to authentic Coke becomes wholly unpalatable. The real thing actually becomes distasteful. Relishing septic subterfuge, we imbibe the sewer of our own hearts, call the taste sweet, and refuse our parched tongues the Living Water.
And we call that freedom.
Exalting myself as lord of my choices, all too late I discover that I am a slave of these very desires. Preferring my own created god, I no longer want the real thing. The apostle Paul describes this process with rigor in Romans 1, where not only does the impostor god of my own creation lead me to false worship, this same god becomes my master. The true God is zeroed out, and the Gospel substitute becomes the preferred choice. This tyranny is what Paul describes as the idolatrous suppression of truth. Sadly, our western world and its churches are filled with people and ministers enraptured by such self-worship, such God-zero thinking.
The Scriptures, however, zero in on such idolatry and zero out its legitimacy. No impostor, no matter how enticing, can eclipse the Gospel. Organically woven from Genesis to Revelation is redemptive grace that is singularly divine in origin. Its truth is not contingent on human taste buds, but by its divine origins and in its divine message, surpasses and engages all. The gospel is an invasion from heaven, an intrusion into the world. This pure sweet Gospel is transcendent, authentic, powerful; it defies twisting, nuancing, reformulating, perverting. It rebukes paganism, prosperity-gospel perversion, pragmatism, generational fads, marketing methods, and emergent reformulations. As the Gospel zeroes in on human hearts, it zeroes out any human ingenuity. The Gospel is from God, by God, and for God. No impostor will do; there is no room for substitutes.
The apostle Paul clearly captured this uncompromising man-zero orientation, and it exhaustively defined his notion of calling, his method of ministry, and even his reckoning with suffering. I have highlighted some key words in Ephesians 3:7-13 (ESV):
7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
Three points to drink in. First, his making as a minister was man-zero. In verses 7-8, Paul revels in the gracious calling to ministry that was his.
Modern psychology will perpetually debate the nature versus nurture question. Do children develop as they do because of genetics or because of their environment? Is it their make-up or their work-up? Is it what we as parents give them or is it what we do to them? Whatever the answer to these questions in the making of a man, Paul denies either nature or nurture as the basis of his calling. Nothing in him made him an attractive candidate, and in fact, he counts both his character and credentials as devoid of value in the face of the “unsearchable riches of Christ.” Paul assesses his position before Almighty God, and declares its value as zero, zilch, nada, nothing.
In describing himself as “least of all the saints” and foremost of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), Paul does not spill out contrived humility. Rather, he is stunned, awed by the grace of God in view of his consummate unworthiness. Preaching in a God-zero world, Paul recognized that his making as a minister was entirely man-zero. It was a gift according to God’s resurrection power in Christ. Dead in his sins apart from Christ, Paul claims that a preaching ministry apart from God’s gracious work in Christ and in him is nothing more than a dead man proclaiming impotence. And any sense of self-worth in Gospel proclamation marks a septic commandeering of God’s divine calling, betraying idolatrous taste buds longing for the taste of self-aggrandizement. But while the initial sip of such self-worship is sugary, the aftertaste is repugnant.
The great news? The pressure is off! We don’t minister to impress the church, the presbytery, the Joneses, or our wives. Yet while treading the parched earth of ministry, suffering the dehydration of pastoral isolation, and longing for the saccharine of kudos and accolades, the temptation to imbibe the tonic of earthly praise persists. Seeking succor for our shriveled souls from our abilities and influence, we are driven to drink. Addicted to human praise, we move about in a drunken stupor, seeking that next drink merely to keep us going. God free us from the tyranny, idolatry, and foolishness of such thirst!
The early 20th century traveling evangelist Gypsy Smith preached three marvels about heaven. First, the marvel of who is there that you didn’t think could possibly be. Second, the marvel of who isn’t there that you thought surely should be. But third, and most marvelous of all, that you are there. The gypsy preacher caught the man-zero character of the Gospel. In a God-zero world in which substitute gospels carry more brand recognition and universal allegiance than Coca Cola, the reminder is timely. The gospel, and the calling to ministry are fully man-zero. Neither our calling nor success in ministry is due to our nature, our giftedness. Neither our calling nor success in ministry is due to our nurture, our credentialing. Ministers, we are who we are, what we are, and where we are because of God and his grace. Oh, to remember the sweetness of divine dependence; it is of Him that we are to drink.But not only is the making of a minister man-zero. Second, as highlighted in verses 8-12, the method of ministry is man-zero. The method of Gospel ministry springs entirely from the font of God’s wisdom.
A man who shepherds the church of God must know his world, his culture, and the context of his congregants. A minister must be a man for his time, and such contemporary awareness requires him not only to interpret the biblical text, but also to exegete his hearers – their professions, pressures, worldviews and wares. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, was renowned for his reading of the newspaper and the Bible side-by-side. Giving ear to daily words, Spurgeon was able to speak the transcendent Word into his world with clarity. Spurgeon carefully contextualized.
Such cultural exegesis is a sine qua non of excellent preaching. But it is also a double-edge sword. While properly examining culture, the minister will discern trends and cutting edge new techniques that urge incremental, or at times radical, adjustment to his ministerial methods. Cultural analysis exposes the heart of the minister to innovation, and can generate an insatiable thirsting for relevance. Hey, if people like video, why not use video instead of sermons? If drama speaks the language of today, why not use drama to portray the Scriptural text instead of doing the bland work of reading the Bible while peoples’ eyes glaze over? After all, this is a visual age. Get with it!
Retorts to such temptations frequently regress to slippery slope arguments. But, as Paul implies in Ephesians 3, hazards from drinking the cultural Cool-Aid are not ahead of us, but actually occur the moment ministry method becomes a matter of choice. A popular lie in evangelical ministry is that if I have the message correct, then the method of delivery to the church is purely a matter opinion, and can properly be driven by culture, preference, and generational analysis. The assumption? God is concerned with the message – the Gospel is divine; but God entrusts the methods to us. Gospel contextualization enables, nay, requires me to change methodology to meet parched hearts. Like spoiled children, people expect ministry to meet them where they are. This form of contextual ministry addresses contemporary needs, promoting methods that creatively engage people along their existential journey, speak their language, and please their taste buds.
But at its very core such contextualization is not Gospel-neutral. And for this reason, Paul never divorces his calling to ministry from his task as a minister. His calling was “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (v. 8, my emphasis). Preaching the Gospel was non-negotiable, but so was preaching the Gospel. Why? Because it is God’s method, and it is incumbent upon the preacher both to deliver the message and to cheerfully implement the divinely chosen delivery tool.
Clearly, as a preacher extraordinaire, Paul appreciated the apologetic value of cultural study, and adapted the thrust of his sermons accordingly (see Acts 17). But he never compromised the preeminence of preaching. Not only would Paul deny his competency to contextualize his method in such a fashion, he also understands a transcendent actuality about preaching that contextualizes contextualization! This transcendent commitment to the method is more than inferential. Read again from Ephesians 3:8-10.
8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
A couple of things. First, the method serves to enlighten both Jews and Gentiles to the previously hidden plan of God. In other words, the preached Word opens the eyes of all peoples to the unsearchable riches of Christ. Preaching remains paramount, because it is the tool for Jews and Gentiles. It transcends boundaries – historical, ethnic, cultural, educational, and spiritual.
Next, and all too frequently ignored in consideration of Gospel preaching, is the audience of the hidden, spiritual world. Here Paul contends for the preaching of the Gospel, because in the enlightening of the Church, God’s inscrutable wisdom is put on display for the unseen world, the angelic hosts, the principalities and authorities of the invisible realms (cf. Colossians 1:15ff). The point? When we preach the Gospel from our pulpits around the world, and the minds and hearts of people are awakened and enlightened to the treasures of Christ; when we pour forth the living waters, and the Church drinks in the sweetness of Christ’s inscrutable riches, angels listen and marvel. God is praised when his word is preached, and in this preaching, the unseen world witnesses his impenetrable wisdom. This is cosmic contextualization!
Hence, while cultural analysis should have impact on our sermon deliveries, Christ-centered preaching is the permanent divine method. All temptations to equivocate on ministerial priorities or to marginalize preaching in worship services must be zeroed out. Impostors come in self-absorbed ministers and in culturally driven methods. Sadly, God-zero thinking on ministry method has all too frequently drowned out the preeminent priority to preach. What is at stake? Among other things, real contextualization. When we preach, we must remember that the congregation is not our only audience. Angelic onlookers attest to the message and the method, and in the work of the Spirit through the preaching of the Word, not only are Jews and Gentiles enlightened, but these hosts of heaven are also awed at the disclosure of God’s unsearchable wisdom.
From start to finish, God’s method of ministry is man-zero. To accept the message and to decry the method is to denigrate the Gospel. It is not our role to offer qualification or alteration; to do so is to elevate the messenger and to fail the heavenly contextualization test. God’s message is the gospel; God’s method is preaching. Despite the cultural pressures to limit, to squeeze, or to deconstruct, PREACHING CHRIST remains our primary and cosmically contextualizing task.
Thirdly and finally, suffering in ministry is man-zero. Paul’s closing words in this section are nearly so foreign to our comfort-seeking ears that we may well question his sanity. In 3:13, he pleads with the Ephesian church, “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” After contemplating the eternal purposes of God in Jesus Christ, and the invisible audience of the preacher, Paul begs his hearers that they not lose heart at his suffering! How can Paul possibly zero-out his own interests to the degree that he is troubled over the perseverance of those who witness his suffering? What could possibly produce such a perspective? What has he been drinking?
Any who have served in pastoral ministry could produce a list of pains, sorrows, sadnesses, rebellions, discouragements, and disillusionments. The shelves of a pastor’s mind are lined with volumes, which document church members’ intoxication with self-centeredness, pride, idolatries and adulteries of all sorts. The impact of such drunkenness is often directed with laser precision at the heart and ministry of the pastor. From disregard to outright assault, the minister is the most frequent object of self-intoxicated, sinful blasts.
When facing these attacks, these disorienting discouragements and the mounting monotony of thankless days, months, and years, pastors face temptation to sip from the cup of worldly honors, acknowledgments, strokes, and pleasures. Did God really call me to this? Does this same old method of preaching really work? Isn’t there a better way? Emerging from an arid ministry, the thirsts for relevance, zero discernible change in peoples’ lives, and the lack of simple appreciation can easily lead one to drink from the promising well of contextualization, emergent relevance, and reconstituted fads or methodologies. Paul will have none of it. He drives us in an entirely different man-zero direction. Is suffering an indication that God has abandoned our ministry? Surely suffering whether by perceived irrelevance or violent attack simply can’t be right. Or can it?
Having reveled in his undeserved calling as a minister, and having grappled with the divine method of Gospel preaching and the cosmic implications of such preaching to the Church and the unseen world, Paul is not thirsty for self-assuring strokes. As he articulates elsewhere, Gospel suffering is a privilege because in such misery, the apostle joins himself to the sufferings of Christ. Moreover, he is aware that in preaching the Gospel and suffering its consequences, God’s eternally impacting purpose and mission are accomplished. There truly is glory in suffering for the called servant carrying out the called ministry by the called method. In the face of Paul’s man-zero reorientation to God, the cosmic nature of Gospel ministry, and the mystery of God’s kindness, what really is a little suffering? It is a welcome savor to Paul, because out of suffering emanates resplendent glory.
With only a cursory glance at contemporary evangelicalism, it is evident that peoples’ taste buds have been duped. As people drink their artificial gods, stir in their artificial methods, and create artificial suffering-free theologies, they delight in the synthetic sweetness of their idolatry, disastrously losing interest in the pure milk of the Word. To such a generation, we must preach the Gospel of God, the unsullied Gospel of Jesus Christ. And to such a generation, whose contextualizing demands drive many to a watered-down, God-zero version of ministry, we must remain resolute in our commitment to the pure Gospel of grace – in its calling and in its method. In this God-zero world that desperately needs the gospel but desperately yearns for a substitute, it is only in a man-zero ministry that Jesus Christ is exalted, hearts are enlightened, and God receives the glory due Him. And in this world, let angels watch us preach.