The sweet of odor of our sermons.
John Calvin on the issue of preaching and its results.
There’s a wonderful passage in 2 Corinthians 2 that every preacher and minister of the Word ought to consider more deeply. It occurs when Paul says, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:14–16). Identifying the proclamation of the gospel with the permeation of a fragrance conjures up an array of redolent images in the mind’s eye. Most notably, though, Paul’s words suggest that a preachers errands to “speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17) and diffuse “the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” is unencumbered by a preoccupation with results. Whether the fragrance — a.k.a. the message of the gospel — leads to life or death, it is the same fragrance that Paul is commissioned to spread. The eminent Genevan Reformer, John Calvin, has an enlightening passage on this same text, where he comments:
Paul’s meaning, on the other hand, is, that he was also a sharer in the triumph enjoyed by God, because it had been gained by his instrumentality, just as the lieutenants accompanied on horseback the chariot of the chief general, as sharers in the honour. As, accordingly, all the ministers of the gospel fight under God’s auspices, so they also procure for him the victory and the honour of the triumph; but, at the same time, he honours each of them with a share of the triumph, according to the station assigned him in the army, and proportioned to the exertions made by him. Thus they enjoy, as it were, a triumph, but it is God’s rather than theirs . . .
The triumph consisted in this, that God, through his instrumentality, wrought powerfully and gloriously, perfuming the world with the health-giving odour of his grace, while, by means of his doctrine, he brought some to the knowledge of Christ. He carries out, however, the metaphor of odour, by which he expresses both the delectable sweetness of the gospel, and its power and efficacy for inspiring life. In the meantime, Paul instructs them, that his preaching is so far from being savourless, that it quickens souls by its very odour . . . faithful and upright ministers of the gospel have a sweet odour before God, not merely when they quicken souls by a wholesome savour, but also, when they bring destruction to unbelievers. Hence the gospel ought not to be less esteemed on that account. “Both odours,” says he, “are grateful to God . . .”
Whatever may be the issue of our preaching, it is, notwithstanding, well-pleasing to God, if the Gospel is preached, and our service will be acceptable to him; and also, that it does not detract in any degree from the dignity of the Gospel, that it does not do good to all; for God is glorified even in this, that the Gospel becomes an occasion of ruin to the wicked, nay, it must turn out so. If, however, this is a sweet odour to God, it ought to be so to us also, or in other words, it does not become us to be offended, if the preaching of the Gospel is not salutary to all; but on the contrary, let us reckon, that it is quite enough, if it advance the glory of God by bringing just condemnation upon the wicked. (2.157–60)
Whether or not our sermon results in a room full of converts, if the gospel of Christ is proclaimed our sermon smells sweet to God. Ministers, then, bear the fragrance of Christ so long as they deliver the goods and diffuse the “aroma of Christ” everywhere. Such is the commission which every minister of the gospel receives. Irregardless the response of those who are addressed, we who preach the good news of reconciliation and redemption in the Christ of God are led in “triumphal procession” by the Word and Spirit of Christ. As we bear and emanate the aroma of Christ’s grace, we proclaim the assurance Christ’s ultimate victory. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him,” the apostle declares (Col. 2:15). Christ has triumphed “once for all” (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). All our victories and successes, then, are but the fragrance of his.
Grace and peace.
John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Vols. 1–2, translated by John Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849).