Well we return again this morning to our study of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. And last week we began a study of the final major section of the letter: chapters 10 to 13. Our focus was on the first six verses of 2 Corinthians 10, which I’ll read again here at the outset. 2 Corinthians 10, verses 1 to 6. “Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! 2I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, 4for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, 6and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.”
What you see in this text is a glimpse of the faithful Christian minister as soldier, as warrior. And that concept of the servant of Christ as warrior pervades the teaching of the New Testament. Paul speaks of his comrades in ministry as “fellow soldiers.” He uses that term of Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25, and of Archippus in the second verse of Philemon. In 2 Timothy 2:3 he exhorts Timothy to “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” In numerous places Paul makes reference to the armor that the soldiers of Christ are to put on. In Romans 13:12 he calls the church to “put on the armor of light.” In Ephesians 6:11 he says, “Put on the full armor of God.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 he speaks of believers “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.” In 2 Corinthians 6:7 he speaks of “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left.” Scripture is clear: the Christian life is warfare.
Now, certainly, the people of God are not called to engage in literal, physical warfare. Nowhere does the Bible speak of the Church of Christ as a political or military power. In fact, during His trial before Pontius Pilate, the Lord Jesus Himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting” (John 18:36). No, the Church’s warfare is not physical; it’s spiritual. Paul puts it plainly in Ephesians 6:12. He says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In 1 Timothy 6:12 he calls it “the good fight of faith.” It is not the physical attack of geopolitical territories; it is the spiritual fight of faith against evil, the powers of darkness and wickedness at work in the world, and against the ideologies and errors that set themselves against the truth of Scripture.
Pastor John characterizes this war as the fight “for the truth of God, for the honor of Christ, for the redemption of sinners, and for the virtue of saints.” And because those are the fields of our battle, the warfare that we engage in is constant. It is never-ending. Because the truth of Scripture is always under attack. Because Christ is always deserving of more honor and glory than the sons of men offer to Him. Because there are always sinners to be saved. And because there are always saints to be sanctified. And so Calvin writes, “The life of a Christian…is a perpetual warfare, for whoever gives himself to the service of God will have no truce from Satan at any time, but will be harassed with incessant disquietude. … That man, therefore, is mistaken, who girds himself for the discharge of this office, and is not at the same time furnished with courage and bravery for contending; for he is not exercised otherwise than in fighting” (321, 322).
And the Apostle Paul was well-acquainted with this perpetual warfare particularly in his dealings with the Corinthian church. And I hope, with as many times as we’ve reviewed the historical context and background to the letter, that you’re able to trace the steps in the sequence of events. False teachers claiming to be sent from the Jerusalem church had infiltrated the church in Corinth, and incited a mutiny against the Apostle Paul by making all sorts of outlandish accusations about his character. And the Corinthians were taken in by it and began to doubt the legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship, and therefore the legitimacy of his Gospel. And Paul attempted to quash this rebellion by a personal visit and then by a sternly worded letter, severely rebuking them for failing to properly deal with sin in the church, and for straying from his apostolic teaching and message. And we read in chapter 7 that God had sovereignly worked through Paul’s severe letter, and through the peacemaking ministry of Titus, so that the majority of the Corinthians repented of their sin and reaffirmed their love and loyalty to Paul.
But Paul was discerning enough to know that false teachers are tenacious. Once they have captured a people in the talons of their errors, they do not release their grip without a fight. Though there had been large-scale repentance, there was still an unrepentant minority in the Corinthian congregation who, though having lost the battle, were biding their time and hoping to rekindle their rebellion when the time was right. And it’s in chapters 10 to 13, as Paul seeks to prepare the Corinthians for his third visit to then, that he now turns to address the unrepentant minority—that small but significant group of recalcitrant rebels, who remain tempted to side with the false teachers.
And he begins this new section in the first paragraph of chapter 10 by responding to a particular accusation that they had leveled against him. He sarcastically repeats it of himself in verse 1, and then quotes his adversaries directly in verse 10. In verse 1, he refers to himself as, “I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent!” And in verse 10, he reports, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.’” “This Paul talks a big game, so long as he’s a safe distance away! He writes these severe letters insisting that he has authority to kick people out of the church! But then he shows up in person, and it’s a ‘sorrowful, tearful visit!’ He’s this sheepish, mousy cry-baby who, to be honest, isn’t all that much to look at and who isn’t really a commanding or engaging communicator. He talks big, but frankly, he’s unimpressive on top of being a wimp. He’s like a little dog who barks loudly only from a safe distance, but cravenly runs for cover whenever confronted up close.” They were fixed on casting his genuine humility and compassionate tenderness as cowardly weakness. And the conclusion was clear: nobody who acted like that could be a genuine apostle of Christ.
And so Paul begins this section by responding to these accusations. And we mentioned last week that the way he responds here provides a lesson for us as we seek to serve one another in ministry within the local church. Because if we are faithful to carry out the ministry to which we’ve been called, we are going to face conflict. We are going to need to exercise compassion, and we’re going to need to seek to bring correction. And in responding to these accusations against him, Paul models for us what the minister’s posture is to be in the face of the conflicts of ministry: namely, that the faithful New Covenant minister of the Gospel must be eager for peace, but ready for battle. And that was the focus of last week’s sermon.
In verses 1 and 2, we see Paul eager for peace, as he appeals to the Corinthians by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, and requests of them that he need not come to them with a rod of correction. And yet we also see him ready for battle, assuring them that if they force his hand, he is ready to demonstrate in person the boldness, and the confidence, and the courage, with which he wrote in his letters. And from this we learned that the faithful soldier of Christ is a compassionate warrior. He’s not spoiling for a fight. He’s not a bull in a china shop. He’s got no desire to inflict severe damage upon anyone.
But at the same time, we learned that the faithful soldier will do so. Paul’s tenderness and compassion will not cause him to neglect the responsibility he has to confront error. He recognizes that it is no true compassion—no genuine love—that refuses to confront sin with biblical correction. Genuine love constrains us to have the difficult conversations with our brothers and sisters, in which we patiently and gently make them aware of their sin, and insist upon their repentance. The loving servant of Christ’s flock is willing to endure all manner of conflict for the sake of his brother’s mortification of sin and joy in Jesus—courageous enough to get over his fear of what people might say or do to him if he brings the truth to bear on their sin. But that same faithful minister also takes no perverse delight in delivering that correction. He does not relish conflict and controversy, but he won’t shy away from it if it will tend to the spiritual health of his brothers and sisters in Christ. The faithful minister is eager for peace, but ready for battle.
But in the case that the faithful minister must go to battle—if the soldier of Christ is called off the reserve list and into active duty—with what weapons must he engage the enemy? According to what strategy will the soldier of Christ engage in the battle to which he has been called? We find the answers to those questions in verses 3 to 6, our text for this morning. And let me re-read that as we begin again. I’ll start in verse 2. Paul writes, “I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.”
The faithful servant of Christ is eager for peace, but he is also ready for battle. And in the case that he has to go into battle, he will need to wield the proper weapons, and he will need to employ the proper strategy. And that will be our outline this morning. Two points: the soldier’s weapons, and the soldier’s strategy.
I. The Soldier’s Weapons (vv. 3–4a)
In the first place, then, let us consider the soldier’s weapons. Look with me at verses 3 and 4. Paul says, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” And here we learn that the faithful soldier of Christ does not go to battle with fleshly weapons, but with spiritual weapons.
Now Paul is once again responding to an accusation leveled at him by the false apostles, and that accusation is voiced at the end of verse two. Paul speaks of some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. And in verse 3, he repudiates that charge. He says, “Such an accusation is baseless and unfounded, for though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.” So what precisely was this accusation? What did it mean for the false apostles to regard Paul as if he walked according to the flesh?
Well, in Romans 8:5, Paul tells us that “those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh,” and then in verse 7 that “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” And so at first blush, it seems that the false teachers are accusing Paul of basically being an unbeliever—driven by his own naturally corrupt desires, motivated by self-interest and the pursuit of wickedness. That certainly was the charge that he answered in chapter 1 verse 17. And really, all throughout the letter Paul defends himself against this charge of fleshliness by defending his own integrity. In chapter 1 verse 12 he says, “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.” In chapter 4 verse 2, he says, “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.” And in chapter 7 verse 2 he says, simply, “We wronged no one, we corrupted no one, we took advantage of no one.”
But while that was certainly an accusation that the false teachers had made against Paul, here he’s talking about something a little different. Especially in the context of chapters 10 to 13, where Paul is responding particularly to the triumphalistic accusations of the false apostles, the charge of walking according to the flesh reflects their own inverted and distorted worldview. Throughout these chapters, you have accusations that Paul is timid and weak, that he’s physically unimpressive and at best a third-rate preacher—so much so that he doesn’t even draw a profit for his speaking engagements like all the dynamic orators and rhetoricians of the Greco-Roman world. You have accusations that he doesn’t have the proper credentials to be an apostle, and that he’s devoid of supernatural revelatory visions and spiritual experiences. These are the false teachers’ charges against him, and we can assume that they were the kind of high-powered, dynamic, “super-spiritual” leaders that they reproached Paul for not being.
And the thing was: these false teachers had so misunderstood the Christian life and the nature of Christian ministry, that they thought the truly Spirit-filled minister was led from mountain-peak to mountain-peak in conflict-free “victory” and “success”! They were the original prosperity preachers! Weakness and suffering couldn’t be indications that one was blessed by the Sovereign King Jesus, who had conquered the grave in His victorious resurrection! And so those who experienced outward success in the ministry, who were recognized and admired by the culture—these were those who were being led by the Spirit! But those, like Paul, who were nothing more than earthen vessels—nothing more than frail, unimpressive, easily replaceable, unremarkable clay plots—they were fleshly.
Their worldview was entirely upside-down! Because in fact, it is precisely those weak, broken, unremarkable earthen vessels that the Spirit strengthens to carry the treasure of the Gospel through the severest afflictions and trials! And God does it that way so that the vessel never gets any of the glory, but that all glory and honor would go to the treasure, to the Gospel and the God of the Gospel! “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves!” And so in fact, it is those who live for outward success and worldly approval and eminent displays of power that are the ones who walk according to the flesh! Personal attractiveness, dynamism, and gravitas; slick communication and rhetorical eloquence; boasting of subjective spiritual experiences and revelatory visions; financial prosperity; worldly popularity—these are the weapons of the flesh! So the false apostles had it entirely backwards—a worldview that was entirely inverted from the biblical worldview. Similar to the wickedness of Israel documented in Isaiah 5:20, who called evil good and good evil, these phony prosperity preachers mistook the fleshly for spiritual and the spiritual for the fleshly.
And so Paul says, “No, they’ve got it wrong. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.” And that’s a brilliant play on words. “We walk in the flesh, but we do not war according to the flesh.” To walk in the flesh is simply to be human. It has nothing to do with any moral connotations. In Galatians 2:20, Paul celebrates the new spiritual life he has by virtue of his union with Christ. And he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” You see, to live in the flesh isn’t to live by the flesh, or according to the flesh. It’s simply to have a human existence—to live like any other person, subject to the limitations and frailties and debilitations that characterize the human condition in this world. It’s to confess, as Paul does in chapter 4 verse 16, that “our outer man is decaying,” and that, chapter 5 verse 2, “in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven.”
And again, in the context of the false teachers’ triumphalism, this is a brilliant comment. These false teachers were plagued by an over-realized eschatology. They expected that the physical and spiritual blessings that are promised to the people of God in the eschaton—when Christ returns—they expected those blessings to be available here and now! And so they had no concept for how human weakness could show off the power of God! They were going to show off God’s power by saying, “Hey, look at how strong Christ makes us!” And Paul says: that’s not how Christ’s people glorify His strength in this age. Just like Christ’s cross preceded His crown, so also does the affliction, and suffering, and weakness of His people precede their exaltation. They show off God’s power by saying, “Look at how much our God strengthens us to endure! Look at how worthy and glorious and satisfying Christ is, if He can sustain us even in the midst of these severe trials!” And so Paul sticks his thumb right in the eye of the false teachers’ triumphalism by insisting that he indeed does live in the flesh, with all the weakness and shame and affliction that comes with it.
But, though he does walk in the flesh, he does not war according to the flesh. “For,” he says in verse 4, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh.” He may live in the world, but the weapons of his spiritual warfare are not of the world. The battle for the truth of God, for the glory of Christ, for the salvation of sinners, and for the sanctification of saints is, as we said, not a physical, fleshly, worldly battle. It is a spiritual battle against the forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. And you can’t win a spiritual war with fleshly weapons. So therefore, the instruments by which the faithful soldier of Christ aims to advance the cause of Christ in the world are not of the flesh.
Now, what would such fleshly weapons be? Well, they’re exactly the kind of strategies employed by the false apostles. Pastor John provides a list in his commentary that captures it well. He writes, “The weapons in Paul’s arsenal were not those of human ingenuity, human ideology, or human methodology. Human reason, wisdom, plans, strategies, organizations, skill, eloquence, marketing, religious showmanship, philosophical or psychological speculation, ritualism, pragmatism, or mysticism are all ineffective weapons against the forces of the kingdom of darkness. … They cannot rescue sinners from ‘the domain of darkness’ (Col 1:13) or transform believers into Christ’s likeness” (328). The faithful minister of the Gospel—the genuine soldier of Christ—does not engage in battle with the weapons of the world.
We are not ministerial pragmatists, who just survey the unbelieving community to figure out what they want to hear and then just do whatever “works” to draw a crowd. We don’t market the church by appealing to people’s natural tastes and desires. We do not do entertainment-driven “worship”—where concert lighting, smoke machines, and inane, substanceless pop songs bypass the mind and lull people into a kind of trance that they mistake for spirituality or communion with God. We do not preach ourselves, as Paul says in chapter 4 verse 5. We are not shameless self-promoters, who make our style or our methodology or our subjective spiritual experiences the draw for our ministry. We don’t use psychological manipulation tactics to whip up people’s emotions, so that they’d be more inclined to raise a hand or walk an aisle. We don’t laden people’s consciences with guilt to get them to give of their time or their financial resources. And as much as we love preaching, we don’t pepper our sermons with nifty turns of phrase to magnify our eloquence, or with microwaveable how-to messages that promise practicality and relevance but which never arise organically from the text of Scripture. We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord. We do everything we can to get ourselves out of the way, so as to be merely incidental—just the finger that points to what matters—to the content of the message: that Jesus Christ is Lord.
And if there is one thing that plagues the contemporary professing church in our day, it is an epidemic of preaching ourselves, and of attempting to engage in the spiritual warfare to which we’ve been called with these fleshly weapons. And the commentator Philip Hughes gives an insightful admonition to the church at this point. He writes, “This constitutes an admonition to the Church and particularly to her leaders, for the temptation is ever present to meet the challenge of the world, which is under the sway of the evil one, with the carnal weapons of this world—with human wisdom and philosophy, with the attractions of secular entertainment, with the display of massive organization. Not only do such weapons fail to make an impression on the strongholds of Satan, but a secularized Church is a Church which, having adopted the standards of the world, has ceased to fight and is herself overshadowed by the powers of darkness” (350).
Paul says, “I don’t use those fleshly weapons. My confidence is not in myself, not in human reason or philosophy, not in the power of rhetoric or oratory, not in the ability to lean on someone’s emotions and manipulate them into a favorable response. And you want to know why? Because no matter what it might look like on the outside, those weapons don’t work! They’re impotent! They’re absolutely powerless to advance the cause of Christ in the world! Powerless to subdue sin in the human heart, to make Christ glorious to natural eyes, to strengthen holiness in God’s people!
“No, I don’t use the weapons of the flesh. My weapons are divinely powerful,” verse 4. And what are they? They are the armor of God as laid out in Ephesians chapter 6. These are the spiritual weapons of the unvarnished and un-apologized-for truth of God; the compelling beauty of Christlike holiness; the unadulterated, unalloyed Gospel of Christ which effects peace between God and sinners; the shield of a humble faith that trusts in the wisdom and goodness and sovereignty of God even amidst all manner of affliction; the clear conscience that brings assurance of salvation; the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God! And the kind of desperate, dependent prayer that humbly cries out for the power of God to accomplish what we cannot. Dear friends, these are our weapons! And they get the job done, because as weak and as unimpressive as they are to the natural man, they are divinely powerful when Almighty God works through them.
Paul had said it to the Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5: Dear brethren, when I first came to you with the Gospel, I didn’t come with superiority of speech or of wisdom! I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling! My message and my preaching weren’t in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power!” How was that, Paul? Where’d the power come from? What methodology did the Spirit bless with power? 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified!” All I knew was the foolishness of the cross! All I preached was the shameful death of Israel’s Messiah! Why’d you do it that way, Paul? 1 Corinthians 2:5: “So that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” And dear Corinthians, here you are, tempted to forsake the power of God for the wisdom of men, all because God has chosen once again to wrap His power in the cloak of human weakness!
And GraceLife the application for us is clear. I’ve said it in a number of ways already. We do not attempt to carry out Christ’s ministry in the world’s way. We repudiate all fleshly methodology, all human ingenuity, all pragmatism, all ministerial flashiness and spiritual showmanship, and we embrace the weakness and shame of the cross. Christ crucified is not only our message; it is our model. We lay down our lives in service to one another. We are always carrying about in the body of the dying of Jesus. We who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake. Why? So that the life of Jesus may be manifested through us. In the wisdom of God, the abundant spiritual life that is found only in Christ is advertised in the sufferings of His followers, just as it was in the sufferings of the Lord Himself. Let us trust in the humble arsenal of the simple proclamation of the truth, faith-filled obedience, and dependent, desperate prayer, because those weapons are divinely powerful.
II. The Soldier’s Strategy (vv. 4b–6)
Well, in addition to the soldier’s weapons, we also must give our attention to the soldier’s strategy. And we see that strategy unfolded in verses 4 to 6. Paul says, “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.”
And in these verses we learn that the soldier’s strategy is threefold. Paul outlines three stages of the faithful minister’s warfare: destroying defenses, taking captives, and punishing resistance. Destruction, capture, and punishment. And we’ll work through each of those one by one.
A. Destroying Defenses (vv. 4b–5a)
The first stage of the soldier’s strategy is the destruction of defensive strongholds. Paul speaks of “the destruction of fortresses,” and of “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” Paul borrows the imagery of ancient siege warfare to illustrate the faithful soldier’s battle strategy. In the ancient world, powerful cities were protected from invaders by the thickest and highest of walls. But in many cases, in addition to such defensive walls, the city would also be equipped with a stronghold, or a fortress—that is, a tower that was so fortified that, even if the city’s walls were breached, the city’s inhabitants and defending forces could retreat to this fortress and make a final defense there (Carson, 47). One commentator notes, “Unless one had overwhelming numbers, in the ancient world having a secure fortification was essential to survival in warfare. Correspondingly, the key to victory over a city or a fortress is destruction of such a stronghold’s walls, which must be pulverized, torn down, or scaled” (Guthrie, 474). And Paul says, in the warfare of the Christian ministry, we who serve Christ are in the business of sieging enemy territory, and tearing down the defensive strongholds of the evil world system, of the sinful flesh of mankind, and of Satan himself who energizes the enemies of the truth.
But what are those fortresses? Many charismatic teachers use this verse to claim that believers ought to be in regular spiritual contests with demons and so-called territorial spirits, where we walk around “binding Satan” and casting out the demon of this-and-that everywhere we go. But this verse says nothing of the sort. The strongholds that we have been commissioned to tear down are—look at the text—speculations, logismos: “reasonings.” It is every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God. He says we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. This is not a warfare between Christians and demons. It is a warfare of ideas; it is a warfare of doctrines; it is a warfare between truth and error.
Now, that’s not to say that Satan and his demons have nothing to do with this war. In 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul says that which opposes sound doctrine are the doctrines of demons. In Ephesians 2:2, he says that Satan is “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” 1 John 5:19 says, “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” And 2 Corinthians 4:4 says Satan “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving.” So there is no question that there is Satanic and demonic influence behind all of the thoughts, and reasonings, and speculations that refuse to bow in submission to the Lordship of Christ. But the emphasis is not on hand-to-hand combat between Christians and demons, but ideological combat between truth and error.
But consider the implications of this word picture. The unbeliever is not merely someone who has a different opinion on religion or philosophy. All those who do not worship the one, true God in spirit and truth through faith in the only Savior—the only mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus—have entrenched themselves in fortresses of error and wrong thinking, where, under siege by the truth of the Gospel, they fortify themselves in violent opposition to the truth. They are fortresses of speculations—citadels of false argumentation, plausible fallacies, opinions, convictions, and deductions of one’s own reasoning set against the revelation of God’s mind revealed in Scripture. Paul uses a cognate form of this word in Romans 1:21 to describe what we call the noetic effects of sin—the effects that the curse of sin has on the human mind. Man has clearly observed the invisible attributes of God made visible through the creation. But, Romans 1:21, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations”—and there’s our word—“and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.” The corruption of sin has extended even to the mind of the natural man, so that even our capability to reason properly is damaged by the fall.
And so in Ephesians 4:17 and 18, Paul speaks of “the futility of [the unregenerate person’s] mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” And in 1 Corinthians 2:14 we learn that the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” And so, in this state of futility of mind, of darkness of understanding, of foolishness and ignorance, man has erected fortresses of sinful thought patterns, arguments, and reasonings by which he justifies his rebellion against God and the truth of God. And by calling those fortresses “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God,” he exposes that there is a very clear moral component to this spiritual blindness. Unbelievers do not just haphazardly fall into these fortresses of sinful thinking; they raise up these lofty towers in arrogant defiance of the truth that they know about God, for God has made that truth evident to them, Romans 1:20. They pridefully exalt their own sinful, futile, darkened reasonings above God’s infallible revelation in Scripture, to suppress the truth in unrighteousness—to shut out any knowledge of God that they have by general revelation, so that they don’t have to submit to the totalizing claims He makes on their lives.
And so every ignorant machination of the mind of man that engenders doubt in the existence of God, the authority of Scripture, and the exclusivity of Christ is an ideological fortress by which man steels himself against the truth. Evolution: “No! Creation needs no Creator! Life was randomly produced from non-life via a series of natural processes over billions of years! Given enough time, nothing becomes something!” Psychology: “Silly Christian! Man’s mental and emotional problems are too complex to be addressed with infallible authority by the Bible! There’s no God who created the human heart, soul, and mind! We need to trust the infinite wisdom of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which of course changes from 1952 to 1975 to 1980 to 1994 to 2000!” Skepticism: “I mean, maybe something like the Christian God exists, but I just don’t see enough evidence. Never mind the beauty of creation, the irreducible complexity of life, the fulfillment of hundreds of centuries-old prophecies in the Lord Jesus Christ, His resurrection from the dead as promised, and the changed lives of the millions of His followers throughout the centuries! I’m just not sure!” All of those reasonings are foolish speculations arrogantly exalted above God’s revelation in defiance against the knowledge of Him. And unless that foolish thinking is torn down by the truth of Scripture and the grace of the Gospel, man’s fortress becomes his tomb.
And so Paul says, “This is what Christian ministry is! It is the destruction of enemy fortresses, arrogantly and pretentiously raised up against the knowledge of God!” And those fortresses are not demolished by the impotent, fleshly weapons of human reasoning and ingenuity! They’re torn down only by the foolishness of the Gospel of the cross! 1 Corinthians 1:19: “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And Paul is saying that these false apostles—with their over-realized eschatology and their fleshly triumphalism—they stumble over the foolishness of the cross! And so rather than just preach the message that is offensive to the mind and sensibilities of the natural man, they capitulate to man’s foolish speculations, they adulterate the Word of God, and they aim to attract converts by slick communicative strategies, by impressive personal presence and personality, and by worldly notions of success. Paul says, “They have the strength of their polish, the wisdom of their sophistry. I have the foolishness of the Gospel! I have the weakness of the cross of Christ! For it is only those weapons that are divinely powerful!” D. A. Carson comments, “In the spiritual arena a successful campaign can be fought only when worldly weapons are self-consciously abandoned, and all our reliance is firmly set on the spiritual weapons, which alone have divine power to demolish the strongholds where rebel minds cling to idolatrous, God-rejecting self-sufficiency and manufacture new forms of entrenched evil. Paul sounds a call to return to biblical basics” (54).
B. Taking Captives (v. 5b)
And so the first stage of the faithful soldier’s strategy is destruction. The second stage is capture. Paul says, “We are destroying speculations,” and “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” And here Paul gives us further insight into the nature of conversion from sin to Christ. If man’s natural condition in sin is that he has steeled himself in pretentious intellectual fortresses by which he aims to shield his thinking from God’s truth, then the work of ministry entails not only the destruction of those fortresses, but capturing every rebellious thought, and leading them as prisoners of war out of their native city and into subjection to Christ. If sin has fundamentally infected and corrupted the mind of man—as well as his heart, as well as his will—then conversion consists, in part, in the renewal of man’s mind, and bringing even his thinking into submission to the Lordship of Christ.
You see, salvation does not consist only in the transformation of our affections and desires—though it does certainly consist in that! We are given new hearts and renewed wills, so that we hate sin and love righteousness. But we must not assume that conversion to Christ has no bearing on our reasoning—on the way we think. Jesus Christ is Lord not only of our hearts and desires; He is Lord of our minds! He is Lord of our reasoning! And therefore, there is no such thing as a neutral thought! All thinking is either in opposition to or in subjection to the Lordship of Christ.
And so in conversion, what happens? Those fortresses of pretentions and arguments, all of those plausible objections and vain reasonings about evolution and psychology and skepticism and so on—all of those doubts and questions about how a serpent could talk, how a blind man could see, how a dead man could be risen to life—they are all brought into subjection to the Lordship of Jesus. In the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ, those objections vanish. We see them for the utter foolishness that they are. And we look upon the Gospel of Christ crucified—which we regarded as utter foolishness—and with the eyes of God-given, grace-purchased faith, we see the cross as the highest pitch of the wisdom of God. And friends: no amount of polish, or professionalism, or eloquence, or charisma, or cleverness, or boasts of subjective ecstatic experiences can open blind eyes to embrace the wisdom of the Gospel! Those things might win you a following. They might build a big church. They might get you conference invitations and book deals and a splashy multimedia ministry. But the weapons of the flesh cannot give sight to darkened eyes and transform blinded minds. Only the Gospel, preached in unadulterated faithfulness, undergirded with desperate prayer, can do that.
And so Paul is calling the Corinthians to take their thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. To bring their faulty thinking—which finds the false apostles’ fleshliness attractive—to bring their thinking into subjection to Christ’s Lordship. “You’re not thinking rightly, Corinthians! You’re thinking as if you were still fleshly! As if the Gospel hasn’t transformed your mind and your reasoning to be in line with God’s revelation! Turn away from these phonies and their false gospel, and once again bring your thoughts into captivity to Christ!”
C. Punishing Resistance (v. 6)
“Otherwise, if you don’t, we stand ready to punish all disobedience.” And here Paul comes to the third stage of his battle strategy. There is destruction, there is capture, and here there is the punishment of resistance. Those rebels who persist in their rebellion against the Lordship of Christ by refusing to submit their thinking and reasoning to God’s revelation in the Living Word and in the Written Word will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law of the land of their captivity. Paul says that there is a coming day of reckoning, and therefore that those who persevere in their treachery against the Lord Jesus and His apostle will be held accountable for their treason. He is coming to them soon, and he says, chapter 13 verse 2, “I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone.” Verse 10: I don’t want to have to use severity, but I will if you force me to it.
Paul will come in the strength of a warrior for the truth of God, for the glory of Christ, for the salvation of sinners, and for the sanctification of saints. And if any are found opposed to those virtues, Paul will exercise his authority as an Apostle of Christ to discipline and excommunicate from the church all those who exalt themselves against the true knowledge of God. The shepherd is coming to drive the wolves from the flock. And as tender as the shepherd must be when caring for the needs of the sheep, to that degree and more he is vicious against the enemies who would do the flock harm.
But notice that tender compassion again—that eagerness for peace coming full circle here at the end of verse 6. “We are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.” Paul says, “I’m ready to punish every act of disobedience by the false apostles and those who side with them, just as soon as you come to your senses and side with the truth.” He’s so compassionate. He’s still giving the unrepentant minority time to turn from their rebellion and join the majority of their church in repentance and restoration to relationship. “I don’t want you in the line of fire. Please. There’s still time. Repent. Turn away from fleshly triumphalism and embrace the weakness and foolishness of the cross.
And if you’re here this morning and you remain an enemy of God, fortified in the strongholds of your own sinful thinking, exalting your own reason above God’s revelation, and refusing to submit your mind and your heart to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, I entreat you to lay down your arms! Because there is coming a day of reckoning! Not when you’ll have to face the rebuke and reproof of pastors and elders, not even when you’ll have to face the rebuke and reproof of the Apostle Paul. No, friend, there is coming a day when you will stand before the Judge of all the Earth, the Lord of Glory Himself: Jesus Christ the Son of God! And you will have to give an account to Him as to why you preferred darkness when light was offered to you! foolishness when wisdom was proclaimed to you! ignorance when all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge were commended to you in Christ! And dear sinner, you will not stand in that day! You will not contend with that King!
And yet that King announces terms of peace to you this morning. He stands ready to punish all disobedience, but He also stands ready to forgive sinners of their crimes by the grace of His Gospel. Because He Himself has borne the punishment of sins on the cross—because the arrows of God’s wrath had pierced His soul—you who are God’s enemies may be reconciled to Him through faith alone in His Son. Confess your sins. Confess your powerlessness to atone for them. And trust in this crucified and risen King for your righteousness before God. Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Submit your mind and your thinking to His truth revealed in Scripture. And in captivity to Christ you will find the sweetest freedom that there is to enjoy.
And dear brothers and sisters, fellow-captives of the Lord Jesus, turn away from fleshly triumphalism—from a false Christianity that promises a crown without a cross, that looks with disdain on the weakness and shame of Christ crucified! Deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow Christ to death—to a daily dying to your own comforts and preferences—to laying down your lives in the service of Christ and His church. Repudiate all worldly methodologies and fleshly approaches to ministry, and be content with the divinely powerful weapons of humble, weak, and even suffering proclamation of the unvarnished Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.