This article first appeared as a meditation in the August 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.60, No.19), a special issue on preaching.
A Sweet Savor of Christ
For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish.
To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?
For we are not as many which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.
II Corinthians 2:15-17
Christ exudes a sweet savor, a perfume, which is pleasing to God!
He does this through the preachers of the gospel, so that they, as preachers of Christ, are unto God a sweet savor, a sweet odor, of Christ both in them that are saved and in them that perish, both as a savor of life unto life and as a savor of death unto death, and thus are well-pleasing unto God.
We are unto God a sweet savor of Christ . . . .
The apostle is speaking here of his office as apostle of Jesus Christ. As an apostle he is called to preach. And in and through his preaching he—and the other apostles are included in this—disseminates in every place the savor, the odor, the sweet incense of perfume, of the knowledge of Christ. It is as such that he, the apostle, is a sweet savor of Christ, well-pleasing unto God, whether as a savor of death unto death or as a savor of life unto life, whether in them that perish or in them that are saved. But this is possible, and true, only if he does not make merchandise of and does not adulterate the Word of God, but preaches it sincerely and purely.
The same is true of the minister of the gospel today. It is true of him not in the direct sense in which Paul and the other apostles were called and infallibly inspired. But it is surely true of him indirectly, as he proclaims the word of the apostles. As surely as he speaks the Word of God sincerely and does not corrupt and deal deceitfully with that Word of God, so surely he also is a sweet perfume of Christ unto God.
A sweet perfume of Christ!
This implies, in the first place, that Christ must be preached.
The minister of the gospel must not preach himself and his own ideas and his own experiences. In fact, he must beware of this. Nor must he preach the Christian: there is no saving power in the Christian, and therefore it does no good and is of no benefit to preach the Christian. Nor does this exude any sweet-smelling perfume. And he certainly must beware of preaching all kinds of vain philosophy of men: all of this is contrary to and leads men away from the gospel of Christ and from Christ Himself.
On the contrary, the minister of the gospel must be very careful to take care that he is a sweet odor of Christ Himself! He must preach Christ! Otherwise he cannot possibly be a sweet odor of Christ unto God. In his preaching he must be an odor of Christ as the Son of God; an odor of Christ as the Son of God come into the flesh; an odor of Christ as the Son of God come into our flesh Who suffered and died for our sins, and did so in the place of all His sheep, His elect, and them only; as odor of Christ Who was raised again for our justification; an odor of Christ Who was exalted at the right hand of God, Who received all power in heaven and on earth, Who received the promised Spirit, Who returned in that Spirit unto His church in order to dwell with us and abide with us forever and to fill us with all the blessings of salvation; an odor of Christ Who shall come again to judge the quick and the dead, and Who shall make all things new. In a word, he must preach the Christ Who is the full revelation of the God of our salvation. He must preach the full Christ of the Scriptures. He must preach the Word of God! That Word of God, the God of our complete salvation in Jesus Christ, the minister must expound in all its riches. Only thus can he be and will he be a sweet savor of Christ unto God.
In the second place, this implies that Christ Himself must speak and does speak through the preacher. The sweet odor is exuded by Christ Himself, we must remember: it is a sweet odor of Christ. A man may spread the pure truth of the gospel, and he may preach with all his power of persuasion. But if Christ does not speak through him, there is no sweet savor. Hence, Christ Himself speaks through His Spirit. He spreads His own sweet odor through the apostles and through the preacher. It is in this connection, too, that it must be emphasized that the preacher must be sent. How shall they preach, except they be sent—the apostles directly, and the ordinary preacher through the church? It is always and only this sending which constitutes any man a preacher and which enables men to say, "We are a sweet savor of Christ."
Bear in mind, too, that these two elements are inseparable. Christ is where His Word is preached according to the Scriptures. There, and there alone, does a sweet perfume arise unto God. And Christ's Word is preached only where and when it pleases Christ Himself to speak; and Christ Himself Speaks His own Word only through those whom He has authorized and sent.
Unto God this sweet incense of Christ arises!
Notice that, as always, the apostle ends in God: "For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ." The ultimate question is not whether the perfume of Christ is pleasing to man. Nor is the question whether the preacher of Christ is a sweet savor of Christ to man. No, God always causes us to triumph in Christ. God makes manifest the savor of His knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ.
You will have detected that there is a figure in these words. And according to that figure, the odor of Christ is disseminated through the preacher of the gospel. And as it is thus disseminated, it arises as sweet incense to God—just as in the Old Testament mention is made frequently of the sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savor, acceptable unto the Lord.
The meaning of this figurative language is that God is glorified in and through the dissemination of the knowledge of Christ, and thus in and through the preacher through whom this knowledge of Christ, and thus the sweet odor of Christ, is spread abroad. Why is this? God, we must remember, delights in Himself and takes pleasure in the revelation of His own virtues. And in the dissemination of the sweet odor of Christ it is God's perfections which are made known abroad. God's righteousness, God's justice, God's love, God's grace, God's mercy, God's power, God's wisdom are through Christ revealed to the highest possible degree. The odor of Christ is a sweet-smelling savor unto the Lord!
Always! Always He causeth us to triumph in Christ! And always the preacher is a sweet savor of Christ unto God! No matter what the result of his preaching may be! No matter that the result of his preaching is always twofold. Whether in them that are saved or in them that perish, he is unto God a sweet savor of Christ.
Thanks be unto God!
A savor of life unto life in them that are saved!
Christ is the life! This is His own word: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by Me." And because He is the life, He can be and is the savor of life unto life. And the savor of life is the sweet-smelling savor of Christ arising unto the holy nostrils of God.
Life is not mere existence. Life is harmony, covenant fellowship with the living God, and that, too, on the level of the heavenly. It is life eternal! This life Christ merited for His people, for us, sinners who are worthy of death and who are by nature dead in trespasses and sins. This life is in Him: He is the life. And He makes alive us who are dead through trespasses and sins. Hence, when the gospel is preached, and when Christ Himself speaks through the gospel, the effect in those that hear is that they pass from death into life. And so we, ministers of Christ, are a savor of life unto life. Men, elect men, are saved. And in them that are saved, we are a sweet savor of Christ unto God.
But also a savor of death unto death in them that perish!
Death is not a mere natural process of disintegration. And it is surely not annihilation. Death is the very opposite of life. It is disharmony with God. It is the being cast out of the fellowship of God. Death means that God punishes. Death is the effect of God's curse, the word of His wrath. It includes all the suffering of soul and body which results from that word of God's wrath.
Christ is a savor of death unto death! This is evidently the meaning of this statement: Christ through the minister of the gospel is the savor of death unto death.
What? Is not Christ the savor of life? Is He not Himself the life? How, then, can it be that He is the savor of death unto death? The answer is that for the very reason that He is the life, He kills if He does not quicken. He hardens those whom He does not save. Indeed, this takes place in the way of their own sin. Under the gospel men aggravate their guilt and condemnation, because the gospel reveals that they love darkness rather than light. And so they perish. The savor of Christ is the savor of death in their case, and it is unto death.
But even so the savor of Christ is a sweet savor unto God!
The deepest reason for this?
According to many, it lies in the sin of men. And to be sure, it is to the wicked that Christ is the savor of death unto death. There can be no question about that: it is in the way of their own sin and unbelief that the wicked go to hell. Moreover, the text does not speak of election and reprobation directly.
Yet do not overlook the fact, first of all, that if you end here, then we all go to hell; and then Christ would be only a savor of death unto death. For all who hear the gospel are wicked by nature, dead in trespasses and sins. And Christ Himself must quicken us if the gospel is ever to be a savor of life unto life unto us. And that is a matter of sovereign election! And where there is sovereign election there is also sovereign reprobation. The two are inseparable! Besides, the text and the context emphasize that Christ, in and through the gospel and the preachers of the gospel, is always a sweet savor unto God—in them that are saved and in them that perish. He does not become a sweet savor through the will of men. Nor is the sweet perfume of Christ changed into a horrible stench by the will of men who reject Him. But He hardens whom He will. And even then He is a sweet-smelling savor unto God, unto His glory!
Who is sufficient unto these things?
Surely, the implication is: no one is sufficient of himself! And this is emphasized in the subsequent context: our sufficiency is of God (II Cor. 3:5).
Yet this is not the emphasis in verse 17. The emphasis is rather on the fact that not those who corrupt the Word of God, not the hucksters of the gospel, not the men who make merchandise of the gospel for their own benefit, not the men who preach to suit the fancy of their hearers, and who therefore surely do not want to be a savor of death unto death, are sufficient unto these things.
But the true minister of the Word is sufficient—not with a sufficiency which is of himself, but with a sufficiency which is of God.
He is sincere. The reference is not to subjective sincerity, so that he is sincere for his own mind. But he is objectively sincere, that is, in harmony with the Word of God.
He speaks "of God," that is, out of God, so that from Him alone he receives his message, the message of the Scriptures.
He speaks in the sight of God, that is, as His servant, responsible to Him, not to men.
He speaks in Christ, that is, not merely in the name of Christ, but in the sphere of Christ, so that Christ dwells in him and speaks through him.
Only as such true ministers are we able to fulfill this humanly impossible task.
And then we have the assurance that we are always a sweet savor of Christ unto God!
Thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ!
Homer C. Hoeksema was born in Grand Rapids, MI on January 30, 1923. He was the second son of Herman Hoeksema and born during the turmoil of the Common Grace controversy which led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
He graduated from Calvin College and then the Protestant Reformed Seminary. He served the Protestant Reformed congregation at Doon, Iowa from 1949 to 1955 and later the Protestant Reformed congregation at South Holland, Illinois from 1955 to 1959.
In 1959 he was called to serve as professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, a position he held until his emeritation in 1989. He taught the departments of Dogmatics and New Testament studies. He served for many years as the editor of The Standard Bearer and wrote various significant books--the main one, a study of the Canons of Dordt titled: The Voice of the Fathers.
He was taken to glory on July 17, 1989.