Occasionally, I have reflected that I have spent many Sundays in the pulpit trying to articulate the gospel, through the Scriptures, in such a way to all who are listening, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19).
I am blessed beyond measure that I get to do this; that I have been called to preach the same gospel that was, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints,” (Col. 1:26), which the prophets longed to fully see and hear and understand (Matt. 13:17, 1 Pet. 1:12), angels longed to look into (1 Peter 1:12) and is now revealed fully in Jesus Christ. This gospel of Jesus Christ is, in fact, the greatest news the world has ever received. Paul is right when, thinking of this gospel, he joyfully exclaimed, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).
That phrase, “inexpressible,” is an interesting one. The other parts of the sentence make sense to us. Paul thanks God for the gospel. Those who are saved, of course, recognize that we must abound in thanksgiving toward our Savior. Mercy has been poured out upon us as God has not given to us what we did deserve, namely, justice and death for our sins. Grace has abounded toward us, the chief of sinners because God has given us His unmerited favor. He has given us what we did not deserve and could never possibly earn; namely, the forgiveness of sins, redemption, reconciliation, eternal life, adoption as the Father’s sons and daughters, union with Christ as His Bride, and sweet communion with the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
We thank God because the gospel is full of one gift after another. God gives His Son. The Son gives His life. The Holy Spirit gives regeneration (faith and repentance). God gives over and over again, and all we can do is receive what He has given. The salvation we enjoy in Christ, through the gospel, is a gift; it cannot be earned, bought, or stolen. God gives this gift, and it can never be taken. This gift is eternal, and those who receive it by grace are secured forever to God by God. There is no fear of losing grip on Him because He will hold us forever fast in His hands (John 10:28-29).
As Paul said, we should thank God for the gospel because the gospel is a gift. But that’s not the full verse. Paul says we should thank God for this “inexpressible” gift.
Now, what in the world does Paul mean by this? He himself wrote two-thirds of the New Testament. If anyone understood the gospel, it was the Apostle Paul! Not one of his letters is missing reference to it; in fact, the gospel shaped everything Paul said, wrote, and did. As one of the foremost missionaries and evangelists, it is debatable if any other man has managed to do as much gospel work as the Apostle Paul did. He knew what the gospel was, and he knew how to articulate explanations in various ways to make sure the audience understood the truth of how Jesus died for our sins on the Cross, experienced the full wrath of God for our sins, exhausted God’s wrath against the elect, was buried, rose the third day, ascended into Heaven, and promised to return again. Paul knew how to explain that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:23). He knew the amazing truth that the just shall live by faith and, thus, there is no reason to be ashamed of the gospel but to confidently boast all the more in Christ! (Rom. 1:16-17).
Inexpressible? Paul certainly spent a lot of time expressing the gospel! So what did he mean? The full context of Paul’s expression of praise sheds some light on what he means:
“By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:13-15).
Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the offering that they have agreed to give to the needy Christians living in Jerusalem. Paul is exhorting them to be ready to give the offering they have agreed to give so that when he comes with others to collect the offering, neither he nor the Corinthians will be put to shame if they are not ready.
Thus, Paul also writes, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work… You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (2 Cor. 9:8, 11).
So, the gospel not only saves but by the sovereign grace of God, the saints of God are enabled to do other good works that God has commanded, resulting in even more praise to God. In verse 13, Paul states that this ability to do good comes from, “your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ…” Here is yet another gift of the gospel: confession of God’s truth and submission to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. When others see the reality of these gifts in our lives, demonstrated by the good works we do, they praise God because they see the, “surpassing grace of God upon you.” (2 Cor. 9:14).
Again, Paul has spent a lot of time explaining the gift of the gospel and the multiple ways in which it correlates and corresponds to other spiritual gifts. But the word used here, “ἀνεκδιηγήτῳ (anekdiēgētō),” means something that cannot be explained, is un-relatable through verbal explanation, and even unutterable. These words occur nowhere else in the New Testament.
What Paul means is actually fairly obvious: for all of my explanations, speeches, and words used to explain the gospel, they all fall short of actually unveiling the great profundity of this mystery.
Think of it: The Father sends His only begotten Son to save sinners. What manner of love is this? We have nothing we can compare it to. We may imagine a king sending others to save his son, but here the King of the cosmos sends His Son to save sinful men!
And, remember, this is the King of the cosmos that we are talking about. How is it that the transcendent, majestic, sovereign God could stoop Himself so low to our earthly affairs? How is it that the Son, who is God Himself (what a mysterious union this is, that Jesus is both the Son of God and God the Son, truly God and truly man!), condescends to our lowly estate in the Incarnation to suffer a brutal and humiliating death on a Cross?
Then, this same God sends His Spirit to dwell within us in the act of salvation. The hope of glory Himself now tabernacles within us as Christians – again, how can we use simple words to explain the incredible union we now enjoy?
Paul did not mean that we cannot explain the gospel. We can and do. We should and must. Our mission is to proclaim the gospel to this world, and that means reminding ourselves of the gospel daily.
It is not that we cannot describe the gospel. Rather, Paul’s point is that the gospel is the wisdom of God and is so perfect, so incredible, so extraordinary, so unfathomable, that mere words fail to explain the greatness thereof.
What are we to do? When words fail us and fall short, yet we encounter this incredible gospel of Jesus Christ, what is our response to be?
Simple: Praise God for this inexpressible gift!
Jacob Tanner is a husband, father, and pastor, living in Pennsylvania. Holding to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Jacob is focused on both evangelism and reformation. He is the founder of the Sound of Truth Ministries, where they have regular podcasts and preaches whenever the opportunity arises. His passion and motto are, “To know Christ and make Him known because He has made us His own.” He can be found spending time with his family or with a book in his hands in his free time.