Many sermons preached and worship songs sung in evangelical churches seem to encourage us believers to be weak and helpless. We are almost expected to be tempted and to fall into sin, and then cry out to God for forgiveness. We are taught to expect difficult trials and vicious attacks from the enemy from which we are somehow to trust God to save us. Most of these themes are taken from the Old Testament, as an example, from Psalm 18.
Psalms 18:1 For the director of music. Of David the servant of the LORD. He sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said: I love you, LORD, my strength. 2 The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 3 I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. 4 The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. 5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. 6 In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.
Whether in our sermons or in our worship songs today, we see often variations of this same theme: we are helpless sinners, and all we can do is cry out to God and put our trust in Him to save us from sin and from life’s struggles. Of course for some Christians there is truth in this, but it leaves out “the rest of the story” as we can see in the second half of the Psalm.
Psalms 18:29 With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall. 30 As for God, his way is perfect: The LORD’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him. 31 For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? 32 It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure. 33 He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights. 34 He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. 35 You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great. 36 You provide a broad path for my feet, so that my ankles do not give way. 37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. 38 I crushed them so that they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. 39 You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me. 40 You made my enemies turn their backs in flight, and I destroyed my foes.
After David cried out to God in his helpless state, God heard and transformed him into a powerful warrior who fought and gained victory over his enemies. This is the part so often left out by our sermons, teachings, and songs today. It is as if we remain forever mired in the gospels which ends with the disciples hiding and cowering in fear and confusion after their Lord was put to death on the cross. The Church has forgotten how the disciples were transformed at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them. They became bold like lions for the gospel, they healed the sick powerfully and performed miracles in the name of their Risen Lord as evidence to the world that Jesus is the Messiah. They had received authority over infirmities and demons from their Lord; time and time again they used that authority effectively and fruitfully for the gospel as recorded in Acts. They used that authority to turn the known world upside-down for the gospel.
Sadly, the teaching of cessationism has infected the evangelical Church and emasculated us. We are taught that the abundantly fruitful and powerful ministries seen in the lives of the early disciples are no longer possible today. Instead we are generally taught to be “weak” in accordance with an unfortunate misinterpretation of the meaning of “Paul’s thorn” in his letter to the Corinthians.
2 Corinthians 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
Paul’s Thorn & the Theology of Helplessness
We shall see in a moment that Paul did not suffer from “weakness” in terms of faith, in personal character, or in terms of a weak and fruitless life. Rather, in the very next breath Paul explains what he meant.
10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The “weakness” mentioned by Paul had to do with the outward trials he suffered on account of the gospel. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul provides the context for the meaning of his “weaknesses” in verse 10 above.
2 Corinthians 11:23 …I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. …32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.
Paul, therefore, was anything but weak in faith, in personal holiness and in terms of bearing fruit for the gospel. Rather he was powerful in faith and very fruitful for the gospel. Yet today it is almost presumptuous for us to want to be like him. Rather, we are expected to plod along in our earthly lives, weak in faith and producing little lasting fruit for the Lord. Instead as helpless perpetual sinners we are expected to cry out to God to forgive our sins and to save us from personal trials which usually have little to do with preaching the gospel and more likely a result of our own lack of wisdom and personal shortcomings.
But did Paul not urge us to imitate him?
1 Corinthians 4:16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.
1 Corinthians 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
We are not here teaching the gospel of prosperity or the gospel of personal success. Rather we are teaching that it is very possible to live a very fruitful life for the gospel like Paul or Peter in Acts, contributing to the fulfillment of the Great Commission during these last days. We can in fact preach the gospel with power and authority just like the early disciples, bringing many souls to Christ and then discipling them. We are not weak in Christ, but can be very strong in him for the sake of the gospel.
Unlike traditional teaching today, Jesus did not expect his disciples to be weak. Instead, on three occasions when they were weak—experiencing fear, lack of faith and subsequent failure—he rebuked them harshly.
Matthew 17:14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” 17 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.”
Matthew 14:28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Matthew 8:23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”
If we are going to fulfill the Great Commission soon, we must repent of our unscriptural theology of weakness and correctly divide the Word of God. We must teach, encourage, and train God’s people to become powerful and fruitful like the Lord’s early disciples in Acts.