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The Fragrance of the Knowledge of Christ

Category Articles
Date June 18, 2010

I read some time ago in James Denney’s commentary on 2 Corinthians these words:

as Paul moved through the world, all who had eyes to see saw in him not only the power but the sweetness of God’s redeeming love. The mighty Victor made manifest through him, not only His might, but His charm, not only His greatness, but His grace.

These are surely striking words. Denney is reflecting on the phrase in 2 Corinthians 2:14, where Paul speaks of God, through his saved people, spreading ‘everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.’ Just as the sweet smell of burning incense filled Rome when a victorious general returned from battle, so, says Paul, the triumph and truth of the Crucified is proclaimed fragrantly by the lips and lives of Christ’s captive people.

That Paul should speak of the ‘fragrance’ of the knowledge of Christ is both deeply striking and profoundly searching. We are accustomed, and rightly so, to think of the profound importance of gospel truth being proclaimed accurately. Truth is at a discount in our so-called post-modern world. Christians need more than ever today to assert, and to do so passionately, the objective, unassailable truth of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. But when we proclaim the gospel, and when we live out the gospel (the gospel inevitably issues in a transformed, that is commandment-obedient, life), do we always succeed in manifesting it fragrantly? Or, is the truth that the gospel’s fragrance, sweetness, winsomeness, charm and attractiveness, is the very thing that is most easily and often missing?

We all surely have known the compelling appeal and power of a sermon, a life, that has radiated the ‘fragrance of the knowledge of Christ.’ The truth has come to us, not coldly or clinically, but clothed in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have heard the dark and solemn truths of sin and righteousness and judgement; but we heard them come from lives which expressed the fragrance of the ‘Rose of Sharon’. The truth was clothed with grace and winsomeness. Why is it then, that Reformed Christians, Calvinists if you will, are so often accused of being cold and clinical, ‘the frozen chosen’?

The answer could well be, of course, that our fellow Christians are simply reacting against our unyielding commitment to let God be God, and to reverence him who is a ‘consuming fire.’ But the answer could also be that we have been guilty of divorcing the truth of Christ from union with Christ. Let me explain. In 2 Corinthians 2:15, Paul speaks of God leading ‘us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spread(ing) everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.’ Everything in the Christian life flows from our union with the Lord Jesus Christ. All the saving and sanctifying blessings we enjoy in the gospel, come to us in union with Christ. He is the vine, we are the branches. The sap of his life, by the Holy Spirit, flows through the believer’s life. This is why Paul can write of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (see Gal. 5:22-23), and give us a description of the life of the Saviour, with all its grace, winsomeness and charm. If gospel truth is not clothed then with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is it really ‘gospel’ (‘good news’) truth? This in no sense means that gospel truth will never be stern or searchingly humbling. But it does mean that we will speak it and live it as men and women humbled by its grace, filled with its joy, excited by its possibilities, harnessed to the One who is ‘full of grace and truth’.

James Denney was not over-stating the point when he wrote:

We miss what is most characteristic in the knowledge of God if we miss this. We leave out that very element in the Evangel which makes it evangelic, and gives it its power to subdue and enchain the souls of men.

How ‘fragrantly’ do our lives and our sermons commend the Saviour? He is the ‘Rose of Sharon’.

Ian Hamilton is Pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in the Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday

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