The Gospel: The Fragrance of Life and the Stench of Death

The words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17:

“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. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (ESV)

Check out how some paraphrase-ish translations put it:

“Our lives are a fragrance presented by Christ to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those being saved and by those perishing. To those who are perishing we are a fearful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?” -NLT

“In fact, God thinks of us as a perfume that brings Christ to everyone. For people who are being saved, this perfume has a sweet smell and leads them to a better life. But for people who are lost, it has a bad smell and leads them to a horrible death. No one really has what it takes to do this work.” -CEV

“For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” -NIV

Eugene Peterson doesn’t pull any punches in his interpretative-translation:

“Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation–an aroma redolent with life. But those on the way to destruction treat us more like the stench from a rotting corpse. This is a terrific responsibility. Is anyone competent to take it on?” -The Message

We are indeed a fragrance to those “who are being saved and among those who are perishing”, but as v. 16 shows, to those who are perishing, we are the fragrance (i.e. stench) from death to death. Of course, we are the fragrance of life and a stench of death via a life of God-exaltation, Christ-defined love, the exercising of a good heart, a pure conscience, and a sincere faith, and declaring the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-28). An unbeliever has to be controlled by the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Ephesians 2) to find such beautiful things ugly!

“If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart. The reason why men are not affected by such infinitely great, important, glorious, and wonderful things, as they often hear and read of, in the word of God, is undoubtedly because they are blind; if they were not so, it would be impossible, and utterly inconsistent with human nature, that their hearts should be otherwise than strongly impressed, and greatly moved by such things.” –Jonathan Edwards