1 Corinthians 1:17-31
Paul wasn’t interested in baptism or fancy talk. He was not out to impress anyone with his knowledge or his communication skills. He didn’t give a hoot what the world thought of him or of his preaching. This is a lesson that the church has yet to learn—particularly those who appreciate scholarship and credibility.
American Christians lost this battle before the founding of the United States. Harvard University was founded in 1636 by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. To vote at that time required membership in a Congregational church. The Congregationalists of that day were consistent Calvinists, whose Puritan worldview was to be perpetuated in the institutions of higher learning in order to train future leaders of society in Christianity and Calvinism. They intended to build American society upon a Reformed Christian foundation.
An early brochure, published in 1643, justified the College’s existence: “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.”1 With the dawn of the Enlightenment too many Christians in higher education began to believe that science and scholarship were leaving the church in the dust. And they scrambled to keep up with the latest scientific discoveries. Many, like Charles Darwin who wrote in the 1800s, worked to adapt the Christian faith to newly discovered “truths” of science. Those efforts pushed the church down the slippery slope of compromise with the world in the name of scientific scholarship. The church endeavored to impress the world with its ability to adapt itself in order to remain relevant.
Relevancy is a cry that we again hear in the contemporary churches. More and more people are saying that the church must be relevant to the people it is trying to reach. Of course this is true, but the question is, Who are the people the churches are trying to reach? Here is where Reformed theology plays a decisive role. Obviously, the churches are trying to reach the “lost.” But the lost come in two flavors—the unsavable lost and the not-yet-saved lost.
Paul notes this difference when he says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). In other words, there are some people who will not respond the grace of God, period. Others, of course, will respond. But we don’t know exactly who will or who won’t respond to the gospel. We don’t know which individuals will respond and which won’t. But we do know that some will and some won’t, and that is very important information.
Knowing that some of the lost will respond to the gospel we must make our presentations of the gospel appeal to those who will respond, to those who will eventually recognize the truth of Scripture and grow in grace and godliness. By way of contrast, it is futile to make our presentations of the gospel appeal to those who will not respond, to those who think that the gospel is foolish.
In other words, our presentation of the gospel and of ourselves as Christians must reflect the truth of the gospel. We must make our appeal by using the values and aesthetics of Scripture because it is precisely those values and aesthetics that will appeal to those who will ultimately respond to God’s grace. Conversely, to use the values and aesthetics of the world in the presentation of the gospel is a waste of time and resources because those who see the values and aesthetics of Scripture as silly and irrelevant are exactly the people that Paul is talking about in this verse. They are or consider themselves to be “worldly wise,” and they consider the gospel in and of itself—without embellishment—to be foolish and powerless.
Christians don’t need to make an appeal on the basis of worldly values and aesthetics because those who will respond will respond to the power of the gospel alone. They will not be dissuaded by what the world sees as a foolish and irrelevant message. In other words, it is a waste of time and resources to try to make the gospel appear to be wise and/or relevant to the world. It is in and of itself already relevant to those who will be saved.
Many very smart Christians get caught up in trying to impress the world with their learning, abilities and/or stylishness—scientists, scholars, theologians, musicians and artists. They are not trying to be unfaithful. Rather, they are trying to keep Christianity on the cutting edge, to keep it relevant in the face of astounding scientific discoveries, with advances in academic research, and with cutting edge anthropology, with new styles in music and art. We don’t want to sell them short. They are trying to do what they think is right. Most of them are a lot smarter than we are. Nonetheless, the point to be made is that such Christians are chasing the culture, not leading it. They are following the world, not the Lord.
That is the point that Paul makes in the latter half of this first chapter of Corinthians. Paul said that the gospel of Jesus Christ is opposed to the wisdom (sohia) of the world—not intelligence per se, but wisdom that is based on the values and presuppositions of the world, apart from God. Paul did not say that Christians are not intelligent. Many are, and all should be. Paul said that the gospel needs to be preached “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:18). In other words, the power of the gospel is lost through eloquence (sophia) and worldly wisdom. We can extrapolate and say that the gospel does not need to be couched in cutting edge musical forms or with the latest dramatic formulas, it does not need to fit into the latest anthropological theories about the origins of humanity, in as much as those things are driven by Godlessness. It does not need to be relevant to worldly Godlessness. That is not what will attract the not-yet-saved.
But this is not what most people in the churches today believe. This perspective goes against modern evangelism techniques (techniques, I might add, which are not really working very well. The church in America has not grown in raw numbers for decades.). Christians today want their preachers to be persuasive and powerful in their preaching. That’s what it means to be eloquent. It was Aristotle who defined the art of public speaking. He called it rhetoric, and taught the skills of public speaking and argumentation (or persuasion). We might think of it as the art of story telling, both written and verbal.
For instance, public speakers are taught to tell the audience what you are going to tell them. Then tell them. And then tell them what you told them. Keep your messages simple and repetitive. It’s a standard technique to make three points in any speech, and to repeat them three times. You are probably familiar with this wisdom. But is it biblical? Did Paul do this? How about Jesus? No, the Bible doesn’t engage this bit of worldly wisdom.
There are many rhetorical devises—alliteration, allusion, analogy, hyperbole, metaphor, simile, and a host of others. These are the tools of the public speaker and the story teller. Are they biblical? The Bible is filled with such things. The Bible uses them. The Bible intends to persuade through story telling, the telling of His-story. So, is Paul saying that preaching should not use the tools of rhetoric? The issue for Paul is not rhetoric per se, but Godlessness. It is the Godlessness of the world that accounts for its academic folly. It is the effort of the Godless “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18) that is the problem.
The unrighteous suppress the truth. The church, then, needs to proclaim the truth boldly, without equivocation or eloquence, to speak the truth plainly, directly, and without embellishment. And by presenting the gospel as Scripture presents it—simply, plainly, clearly, without dressing it up in the latest worldly fashions, it becomes clear that it works by the power of God and not by the power of dynamic communication skills, rhetoric or marketing techniques.
Paul identifies two categories of people in verse 18: those who are perishing and those who are being saved. For the one, the “word of the cross (Scripture) is folly.” For the other, it is “the power of God” (1:18). These are two very different perspectives. Paul doesn’t say that those who don’t understand Scripture are lost, rather he says that those who are lost don’t understand Scripture. Nor does he say that those who understand it do so because they are saved. Rather, he says that those who are saved are able to understand it. The difference here is critical. It is the difference between works-righteousness and salvation by grace. It is the difference between allowing the power of God to direct the not-yet-saved into salvation and directing the unsavable to go through the motions of religion for the appearance of success in evangelism and church growth.
Paul makes an astonishing statement, “in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom” (1:21). This essentially means that people cannot know God through their own efforts. God cannot be learned through study. God cannot be discerned through science. We cannot build a bridge to God. And that’s exactly the way that God wants it! The only way that God can be known is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). If God doesn’t provide it of His own free will, it can’t get got.
Paul goes on to tell us that people make two kinds of foolish demands on the Lord. “The Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” (1:22). He is talking about the two kinds of people—those in the family of God (the Jews), and those outside the family of God (the Gentiles). Now we know that there are two kinds of people in the family of God—the saved and the lost (Romans 9:6), but there are also two kinds of people not in the family of God—the unsavable and the not-yet-saved (Luke 2:32).
The Jews required signs or miracles to confirm the mission of the Old Testament prophets who were sent to them. That’s the traditional way that they certified their prophets. So it was quite natural for them to insist on a sign to prove that Jesus was the true Messiah. Like the Jews of old, many people in the churches today are still waiting for a miracle to establish their faith. Jesus performed many miracles during His life on earth, and was resurrected from the dead and seated at the right hand of God as the ultimate miracle. Makes me wonder what people are waiting for today!
Paul also said that those outside the church, those who don’t know the Lord seek wisdom—and not knowing the Lord, they seek worldly wisdom. Many of them seek it as a substitute for God, as a way of salvation. Indeed, Liberalism teaches salvation through knowledge or education. The state currently preaches salvation through education in their public schools. According to the state, education is the standard cure for everything—poverty, crime, drug abuse, domestic violence, etc. Again, it is not education per se, or wisdom or intelligence itself that is the problem. The problem is Godlessness. So, Godless education or Godless wisdom is futile. Only God can change the heart. Only God can change the mind.
I’m not trying to undercut the importance of education. It is very important. But it does not save people from sin. Everyone needs education, both categories of the saved and both categories of the lost. The saved need to be educated in Godliness for their own sanctification. The lost who are not-yet-saved need to be educated in Godliness in order to draw them into salvation and sanctification. The unsavable need to be educated in Godliness in order to keep them from being as evil as they can be. Even the unsavable benefit from a Godly education. They aren’t saved by it, but they learn about the role of law and the fact that the state has been instituted to punish those who break the law, and knowing that contributes to their better behavior, which benefits everyone, including themselves. Conversely, there is no need for Godless education. It only serves to encourage Godlessness and sin.
Paul goes on to say that “God chose what is low and despised in the world … to bring to nothing things that are” (1:28). God did not choose what was popular. He didn’t choose successful people, nor beautiful people, nor smart people. He chose what was despised—exoutheneō, that which is contemptible, least esteemed, most unpopular. Why would the Lord do that? Because Scripture teaches that people are sinners and that sin likes to be dressed in wisdom, intelligence, popularity and beauty.
Sinners are caught up in their own thinking, their own values. They are caught up in themselves, and will not yield to a superior wisdom. Sinners will not heed Scripture. They refuse to learn from history. They are unteachable because they think that they know better. They cannot escape the limitations of their own desires. They are proud of themselves, even when they are soft-spoken.
Conversely, Paul tells us that God has arranged things “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1:29). God alone “is the source of your life in Christ Jesus” (1:30). Everything in Scripture and history points to the fact that God is the author and finisher of human salvation, and that people are sinners and completely unable to save themselves. Salvation is by and through Jesus Christ alone, “whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1:30). There is no salvation at all apart from biblical salvation in Jesus Christ alone.
Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:31). All pride is forbidden, except pride in Jesus Christ. We are not to take pride in anything—not in our favorite sports team, not in our own accomplishments, not in our abilities, not in our generosity, not in our Reformed theology, not in our church, not in our nation. The only pride a Christian has is pride in Jesus Christ, and the road to that kind of pride goes through the valley of humility.