Note: The following is a sermon manuscript and may contain typographical errors.
The church of Jesus Christ is commanded to disciple all the nations, proclaiming the good news and brining all the peoples to obedience in the context of local churches (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). Yet I am not a missionary.
But, by the grace of God, I have the privilege of serving alongside a dedicated team of staff, former missionaries, and leaders with backgrounds in the local church who have all come together to support a family of 1,000 missionaries in 70 countries extending the gospel to the ends of the earth. Some days the grand opportunity seems too good to be true, and I have to pinch myself to ensure I’m not dreaming.
In spite of this, the global situation in missions is not all sunshine and roses. The task before us is immense. More than 7,000 people groups remain without a gospel witness, representing at least 2 billion people who are likely to be born, live, and die all without ever hearing the name Jesus Christ on the lips of a Christian. Without giving way to despair, we must still ask: how can we reach them? How can we get the gospel into the hostile nations of the world? Here at home, what can we do to stand our ground as gospel witnesses in this “post-Christian” context? What power is available to us?
Where Power Isn’t
We might answer this question in a handful of ways. Perhaps the new power we need for mission lies in primarily in meeting the felt needs of our hearers. Recently, a missionary in a Muslim country sent me an encrypted message pleading for prayer and describing how some missionaries are beginning their evangelistic conversations with the question, “What would make your life better?” When unbelievers respond in typical ways (“A better marriage,” or “More money,” or “Better crops”—etc.), these missionaries are praying with them, in Jesus’ name, to receive those worldly blessings—and so goes the “evangelistic” encounter. In other words, what the discerning among us here would immediately recognize as prosperity teaching—a heretical displacement of the gospel’s heavenly promises with worldly goods and lusts—is able to masquerade as just another creative method of outreach on the mission field.
Where indeed does power for mission come from? Should we look to meeting felt needs, devising new strategies, or mastering the language and perspectives of our host culture? Perhaps the secret is to call down miracles as the apostles did—or even, if only ever so slightly, to modify our message just a bit?
Hopefully by now you perceive the facetiousness in my tone. None of us, if we want to stay faithful to our Lord, would entertain out loud the idea that human pragmatism is the answer to the global plight of the unreached. But what we would blush to say out loud we often, I believe, reason silently within our hearts.
What is the power we need for mission? In the Apostle Paul’s day, churches like the one in Corinth would be tempted to answer rhetoric. For the Corinthians, the turns of phrase, tone, winsomeness, and perceived intellect of a pastor, preacher, teacher, or evangelist—those things comprised real power, so much so that the church itself was split into rivaling factions based on favorite rhetoricians and preferences over celebrity ministers. (See 1 Corinthians 1.)
It’s in this context that the apostle says some striking things about the locus of true missional power:
For 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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 ESV)
We ask again: where are we to find the power of God to engage in our mission? The Corinthian church may have been inclined to define power in a certain way; but for them to mature, be blessed, and be unified as a family of believers, their false trust in human oratory needed to be stripped away. And for us as well, if we want God to use our churches and our lives freely, we must strip away the false hopes on which we rely and reckon ourselves to the true source of divine power.
The power of God for our mission is found in the foolishness of God in the cross, the foolishness of his servants in the church, and the foolishness of the message we preach.
1. The Power of God in the Foolishness of God in the Cross (1 Cor. 1:18-25)
The text greets us in verse 18 with a statement about “the word of the cross.” This is not to be understood as a generic message about the redemptive benefits of suffering patiently endured. We are called to pick up our crosses and follow our Lord, and self-denial is key to a disciplined life, but that is not what is in view here. What is in view is the word of the cross of Christ, where our Savior did for us what we could positively never do for ourselves, in spite of our best efforts.
The word of the cross, for Paul, is synonymous with the gospel. Before we can talk about the power available to us for mission, we must understood the nature of our mission in light of the gospel. I once asked a woman preparing to volunteer with our youth group, “What is the gospel?” After pondering for a moment, she responded, “The gospel is basically ‘love God and love your neighbor.’” This sentiment is not uncommon. Many evangelical churchgoers are tempted to think that the gospel is a generic announcement that God, at this point in history, is no longer so concerned with rules as he is about us simply loving others, trying our level best, and having a personal relationship with him in terms of personal piety. But this is not the gospel; it is law, plain and simple. It is legalism with a smile, yet legalism nonetheless.
God is still just as concerned for his holiness as he was in the old covenant era. “You must be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). God has not lowered his standard; his sole standard remains his perfect, holy character transcribed in his law. We cannot reach this standard—not because it is unreasonable, but because we are corrupt in hateful rebellion against the living God. The gospel is the good news that God made a way for us to be counted righteous apart from law-keeping. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22). Christ kept the law on our behalf, suffered execution under the law, and rose victoriously to vindicate us. Now he reigns as Lord and Judge, so that he is the final arbiter of cosmic justice and that by coming to him we can be forgiven through faith in his sacrifice. If we come to him in simple, empty-handed trust, turning from our sin and confessing our guilt, he exchanges our filth and lawlessness for the perfect legal record of Christ, imputed to our account as though we were in fact perfect in the eyes of a holy God. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The gospel is not a pious-sounding synonym for a message of therapeutic self-empowerment. It is not code for “God loves you” or “God is nice.” The gospel is the word of the cross. Later in our text, Paul uses as shorthand for his gospel the simple phrase “Christ crucified”—which is a synecdoche of the whole gospel message, a part serving as a figure for the whole. In 15:1-4 he elaborates: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….”
Understanding this, why does Paul reduce the gospel to the crucifixion of Christ in this text? The reason has to do with the true source of power in the gospel. The power of our message has nothing to do with our efforts to contextualize, improve our delivery, or attract a crowd of interested seekers. The power is not ours at all. Thus, Paul frontloaded the offensive parts. He did not downplay the jagged edges of the gospel but allowed them to do their cutting work. Paul stressed whatever was most likely to alienate his hearers simply, in part to demonstrate that the efficacy of the message has nothing to do with the typical means of human persuasion. And as we will yet see, in so doing, Paul also directs our gaze to the blazing center of the glory of God.
The Sword Divides
Characteristic of the serrated sword of the gospel is that it divides. We find 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” (v. 18). This is an echo of Paul’s statement in Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16, emphasis added). The apostle distinguishes between two classes of persons: those being saved, and those who are perishing. Note the present tense of these descriptors; Paul is emphasizing the fact that human beings are all on an ongoing journey terminating in one of two destinations. We all are careening towards eternity. The judgment of God is real. Hell is hot. And heaven, eternal life, glory, resurrection—these things await God’s people.
But we who have grown up under the preaching of the gospel should be struck by Paul’s distinction. There are those who “are perishing,” and there are those who are “being saved.” Wait—we might ask—isn’t everyone to be counted among those who “are perishing”? And, of course, the answer is yes. All deserve to perish eternally. “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). “[I]t is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Yet in the final analysis, not all do perish. Every man, woman, and child is careening towards eternity, but not in the same direction. Why?
Another way of asking this question is: Why does the gospel divide whom it divides? Upon what determining basis does it land on some as folly and others as the power of God? Imagine taking a well-sealed jar of oil and water and shaking it vigorously; let it sit, and it will eventually separate based on chemical composition. Or, if you take a jar of sediment and water and repeat the process, it too will separate into two layers based on weight. What is that distinguishing criterion separating those who are being saved from those who are perishing?
One may look at verse 18 and reply, “Easy. It’s those who are being saved; they’ve believed, and they’re on their way to heaven.” But this only begs the question. Why didn’t those who are perishing also believe? One response may be to assume that those who are perishing simply never heard the gospel. We know there is a significant population of unreached persons who have never had a chance to respond to the gospel. But Paul does not seem to primarily have that in view here; otherwise, the gospel would not be “foolishness” to the perishing. That conscious reaction implies knowledge of the gospel. So, what is the difference between these two groups?
First, Paul wants us to know what the difference isn’t. In verses 20-21, he states, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” What separates the being-saved ones from the perishing ones is emphatically not that they are more intelligent or more well-read in the Mosaic law (which is in view in Paul’s reference to the “scribe”). To prove his point, the apostle pulls verbiage from Isaiah 29:13-14, with which his audience would have been familiar:
“And the Lord said: ‘Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.’”
God sees through our outward religious performance, just as he saw through outward piety of the hypocritical Jews in Isaiah’s day in the years leading up to judgment by way of the Babylonian exile. Jesus quoted this same text with regard to the Pharisees, who were also coming under judgment in A.D. 70 (Matthew 15:7-8). The underlying point is that God sees through human pomp. So, in his redemptive plan, in Christ, God acted in history to save in a manner that had nothing to do with human strength or status.
Further Distinction: Jew and Greek
Paul makes another contrast, this one between Jews and Greeks, in verse 22: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom….” So, faced with Christ crucified (v. 23)—a phrase which, in the Greek perfect participial form, emphasizes the finality and ongoing results of the cross—Jews and Greeks both react negatively. Jews demanded miraculous signs, just as they did in Mark 8:11 (“The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him”) or John 6:30 (“So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?’”). On whole, the unbelieving among the Jewish people wanted a dramatic, miraculous spectacle—a sign—to prove that political liberation from Rome was on its way. Given this expectation, the cross of Christ was a stumbling block—a σκάνδαλον, from which we derive the English word scandal. That the long-awaited Messiah of Israel would be flayed on a stake of wood was nothing short of outrageous.
The Greeks (a figure for the whole Greek-speaking world, equating to civilized Gentiles in general) did not react much better. The Hellenized world rightly considered crucifixion to be the lowest form of death, the sort fit only for a criminal. Further, the notion that a spirit being like or god would lower himself by taking on dirty, physical flesh violated their philosophical presuppositions that the higher spiritual plane was superior to and uncontaminated by the natural and material. To top it off, we also know from Paul’s encounter at the Aeropagus on Mars Hill that the Greeks considered the whole idea of a resurrection utter folly (Acts 17:32).
Let us note that we see the same paradigms in the way the gospel is received today on the mission field. To the militant atheist, the cross is foolishness, representing merely the myth of a dead Rabbi. The cross is foolishness to the Muslim, who is told in Surah 4:157 that Isa ibn Maryam was never crucified because Allah would not let such a fate befall a true prophet. The cross is foolishness to the postmodernist, who is appalled that a God would really require moral perfection or demand the death penalty of sinners—or that God would even desire to judge sexual sin, unbelief, or human autonomy such that these things would nail Jesus to the cross.
The Compelling Call
Returning to our earlier question: If being well-educated in philosophy, studied in Mosaic law, ethnically Jewish, or civilized Greek dos not qualify someone to respond favorably to the gospel, what is the criterion? The answer is in verse 24: “…but to those who are called…” (emphasis added). The difference is the call of God. This does not refer to the general call of the gospel, the outward call that anyone can receive through evangelism, but an irresistible, inner call—the call you received in your own conversion that moment your eyes were opened to the glory of God in the foolish, bloody cross and Jesus became irresistibly compelling to you, so that you could do nothing but throw yourself at his feet in repentance and faith. This call is why Paul connects the “call” with the “power” of God; because in conversion, God cannot fail. And who does God call infallibly in this way? Only those whom he has chosen. The criterion is election. The only distinguishing feature between the saved and the perishing is unconditional, divine choice.
Consider how Paul uses “call” just in 1 Corinthians 1: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (v. 2); “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9); “For consider your calling…” (v. 26ff; note the refrain: “God chose…”). God is free to choose whom he saves. “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19, Romans 9:15).
If this doctrine too lands on your ears as foolishness, examine yourself. Ask yourself: Do you truly believe that all those who are apart from Christ are really “dead” in sin (Ephesians 2:1)? Is it really true that that those who are in the flesh cannot please God because they are hostile to him and don’t even want to (Rom. 8:8)? If these things are so—if we really are totally depraved—then God is not obligated to save anyone. The doctrine of election could be the teaching that God elects nobody. But by the grace of God, this is not so! Instead, this holy God freely, under no compulsion, chooses to save some—to demonstrate his grace! He did not desire a world to exist and perish altogether in which the attributes of his mercy and love would not be displayed. Rejoice in this! Your life is not your own. But because humanity in its state of sin is spiritually dead, unwilling to follow God, for God to save his elect means that he must interpose and do all the work.
The question thus arises: What means ought he to use? Perhaps human skill in preaching? The trendiest worship band? Sophisticated strategies of outreach, informed by the best sociological research? Engineering the most culturally diverse church imaginable, to attract the greatest crowd? Or, Paul might ask, perhaps God would resort to the wisdom of Greek philosophy? None of these. “[I]n the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom” (v. 21).
Human history itself is one long case study in human inability. Act 17:26-27 sets up almost a sort of divine test case: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” While we recognize the reality of common grace—the fact that pagan societies can and do grasp truth through God’s general revelation in nature and in the human intellect (cf. Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 1:18-20), humanity still never “found” the living God. Given ample time by God, not a single human society ever truly reached for him, much less made peace with him on their own. No insights of human reason from the realm of common grace can do the slightest bit to keep a single soul from spiraling down to damnation.
Philosophy, rhetoric, human expertise—all these means are “out” for God, lest humanity should receive glory for its own salvation. Instead, God chose a means that would look so powerless and ineffectual from a human standpoint that there would be no choice but to credit him entirely. That means, as we have seen already, is the cross.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (vv. 22-25)
The power of God is located in the foolishness of God in the cross. The cross is the location of our salvation, the place where sins were atoned, the place where the glory of God in judgment was definitively displayed, the place where mercy was purchased, and the ultimate reality with which we must reckon.In contrast, what externals do we usually associate with successful ministry, with gospel preaching, with God’s presence and power? Whatever those externals may be, they are no replacement for the cross. The perceived “foolishness” of God is wiser than the most adept human intellect; the so-called “weakness” of God is stronger than our most straining efforts.
In sum, to see the power of God demonstrated through seemingly foolish things, we may look at the cross—or, as we shall see, in the mirror.
2. The Power of God in the Foolishness of God’s Servants in the Church (1 Cor. 1:26-31)
How do we know that God’s power is located in the foolish cross? In verses 26-29, Paul illustrates the point by asking the Corinthians to consider themselves.
Corinth was the upper crust of the Roman empire. Their sexual immorality was a byproduct of their standard of living secured through trade and industry. But the church in Corinth did not thus represent the “cool table” of society. “Not many” of those in the church were great in the world’s eyes, says the apostle. And the reason has to do with Paul’s thrice-repeated refrain: “God chose.” God assembled the church in this way “so that no flesh may boast” in his presence. The power of God for mission is displayed in the foolishness of God’s servants in the church.
This reminds us that the central missionary task is not only evangelism but the planting, maturing, and reproducing of local churches. And while “church planting” today is the popular route for aspiring new ministers, the local church is not to be understood as a product of human ingenuity but of sovereign grace. The church is supernaturally birthed by the work of God in drawing whom he would draw (cf. John 6:44, 12:32). Yet God is glorified in building this church as he is its builder.
We must take stock and realize the same is true for us. We are not the elites of society. If we were to put all our brainpower towards designing the perfect social movement, this wouldn’t be it. We are like the clueless, hapless Israelites bumbling through the desert and watching enemies fall before them. Recall Deuteronomy 9:4-6:
“Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.”
Thus, the church is the byproduct of God’s unexpected, unconditional election: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus…” (v. 30a). The reason you are “in Christ”—a term which, you’ll recall, refers to our salvific union with Christ—is because of God and his initiative. Just as the sculptor is the determinative cause of a glorious statue emerging from marble, God is the efficient cause of your being in Christ. You did not place yourself in Christ. You did not rouse yourself to take hold of him. You are indeed holding on to him, but only because he took hold of you first, and his grip on you is tighter than yours will ever be.
In light of this, we in the North American church must repent. We must stop boasting as though we saved ourselves or we possess the magic bullet enabling others to be saved. As individuals, we must repent of grumbling to ourselves, “If only the pastor would listen to my sage wisdom, more people would be coming to this church program.” Your creativity cannot bring a single person from death to life. Everyone in the local church who is truly in Christ is such because of the sovereign action of God alone.
Making his case, Paul pulls again from the Old Testament—this time Jeremiah 9:23-24:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.’”
The context in Jeremiah is judgment. When judgment came to the people of God in the form of the fall of Judah and the exile, it was manifest that no one’s wisdom, strength, or riches were relevant. If someone was saved—preserved as part of the remnant—it was purely because of God’s free grace, such that their boast would be in him alone. Paul argues, in effect, that the same is true of us. We saved by grace through faith, and this not of ourselves, so that no one should boast (cf. Eph. 2:8-10).
The local church is a place that must be free from all human boasting or classification. What do we rely upon? In what do we boast? If our physical strength or great tenacity of will, true strength is Christ crucified for sinners. If our education, true wisdom is Christ crucified for sinners. If our good intentions or moral law-keeping, true righteousness is Christ crucified for sinners. In this setting, our pragmatism or our fixation with celebrity ministers has no place.
If we would endeavor to see ordinary power that shakes nations and accomplishes the Great Commission, look at the church—the ordinary, unimpressive, awkward-at-times local church. This is not to say that the power is in us; rather, the power belongs the message that has gathered us together. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Christ crucified is the treasure that unifies and builds up the church, holding together such a disparate, ragamuffin band of sinners of every ethnicity, tribe, and tongue.
Having established the primacy of Christ crucified in the local church, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the content of his preaching—namely, the cross—when he came and established them together as a local church.
3. The Power of God in the Foolishness of the Message We Preach (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
Having discussed the power of God in the foolishness of the cross and the simplicity of the local church assembly, we are zeroing in on the way in which we can practically grasp this power for our mission.
Paul writes: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1). Providentially, the Spirit of God has seen fit to preserve for us an inspired testimony of these evangelistic encounters leading to the founding of the Corinthian church. We are told in Acts 18:4 that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” So while he did not rely upon overpowering oratory or rhetorical flourish, he did in fact make every effort to persuade. To aim to persuade, for Paul, was not to compromise his dependence upon the Holy Spirit to change hearts. Rather, when he did persuade, he came “proclaiming” to them God’s “testimony,” or μαρτύριον, which forms the basis of our English word martyr. We associate this word with death for a cause, but the idea is simply that of a witness’s testimony. It is an unadulterated report, not an original idea or bit of advice with which to tamper in the name of persuasion.
In the course of delivering his straightforward witness, Paul “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v. 2). Why such hyperbole on Paul’s part? Did he really decide to know nothing except for the cross? First, we must recognize that when Paul cites the cross, implied is the entire gospel of Christ’s death, resurrection, and reign unpacked later in chapter 15. This is another example of synecdoche. But it is important to note that in this context, if the gospel can be reduced to anything, it must be reduced to the cross. The glory-fixated audience in Corinth were in need of reminder: there is no crown without the cross. There is no glory without humiliation. There is no harvest without sowing. There is no resurrection without death.
Second, we must also recognize that Paul did believe in some level of what today we might call contextualization. He did not consider his manner of presentation, his lifestyle, or his persona as a messenger to be neatly separable from the message itself. Without compromising the content of his message in the slightest, he did everything possible to accommodate himself to the limitations of his hearers to eliminate any barriers to their receptivity:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:19-23)
In fact, it is in the same context that Paul makes his famous statement which many of us have memorized: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (10:31)—but how does he continue? “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (vv. 32-33). He accommodated himself to his audience whenever and wherever possible, but he never adapted the essential content of the message itself. His consistent proclamation was always Christ crucified. Like the Lord Jesus, who, upon seeing crowds gathering around him, at that very point issued the call for Christian self-denial (cf. Mark 8:34), Paul too was thoroughly uninterested in attracting the type of temporary followers who only listen to gospel preaching as long as their sensibilities remain intact. No; Paul was more than content to lead with the cross, a door-closer for many. And it is in this very foolish-seeming message we preach that the power of God is again seen.
Another way of putting it is that Paul’s evangelistic methodology flowed directly from his theology. Given that there is only one power for salvation, Christ crucified, then Paul’s chosen method was only to rely upon that and little else. God has spoken; therefore, we speak. To add to the power of the gospel is immediately to dilute it; to tamper with the gospel is to pervert it. The gospel is not something we “live” or a clever modifier for Christian goods and services (“gospel-centered small group ministry” as so forth). It is a noun, and as a noun it refers only to God’s message.
Fear and Trembling
Paul’s utter dependence on the gospel is seen in what follows:
“And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (2:3-5)
God’s power is most evident when the servant is at his weakest. Paul was weak and trembling. Can you relate? Have you ever stepped into a spiritual conversation or gospel encounter with clammy palms and knees knocking as you stumble over your words? And yet, don’t we often find a rush of peace after these conversations as we reflect on God’s presence with us in spite of our inadequacy?
But it would be wrong to read Paul’s phrase “fear and trembling” (φόβῳ καὶ τρόμῳ) as referring only to nervousness. In Paul’s typical language, this turn of phrase has more to do with seriousness in humbly undertaking a duty:
- We are to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling” (Philppians 2:12).
- Servants should obey their masters as they would Christ, not with eyeservice but with “fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5)
- The Corinthians received Titus with “fear and trembling” (2 Cor. 7:15)
Paul is not making a general point about weakness itself being an inherent good. Rather, his words show us that when you are fully dependent on God to take this foolish message and make it effectual in the human heart, there is a solemnity and a fearful seriousness that comes over you. You are handling holy things. And it is in this weakness that the Spirit of God shows up.
The Sovereignty of God in Evangelism
The record in Acts of the founding of the church in Corinth again demonstrates for us the power of God using simple preaching to draw his elect people to himself. “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people’” (Acts 18:9-10). Christ had many in Corinth who were his. When Paul trusted the simple means of grace—the means of preaching the cross—God saw fit to bless his efforts.
This continues to be the case in the world. As the Lord Jesus surveys the nations, he knows who his particular, chosen people are. This is the focus of his praise in heaven: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
Dare we think that Christ will not succeed in using this foolish gospel to save the particular people for whom he died—receiving all the glory he is due?
Indeed, he shall. The Great Commission will be finished. The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). The outcome is guaranteed. The church of Jesus Christ is not in the business of polishing brass on a sinking ship. God has his elect people from every tribe and tongue, and he will see that his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Why would we proclaim anything other than Christ crucified? Why not let him show off his immense power—the power to raise dead human hearts and break the chains of Satan deception, idolatry, and the lusts of sin—through our mortal, lisping, stammering tongues? Let us open our mouths and speak this foolish message, in our foolish-looking local church assemblies, displaying the foolishness of God in the cross, and we will see his power in our midst.
The power of God is located not in our strategies or persuasion but in the cross of Christ, the simplicity of the local church assembly, and in the ordinary preaching of the unadulterated gospel message. And this power demands a response.
Let us not gloss over this text of Scripture thinking of the word of the cross only as a message applied to others (to “get them saved”) but not to ourselves. In the cross, we see the holiness of God displayed. He will not be mocked; he does not tolerate sin. We deserve judgment. We all ought to belong to the mass of humanity who are perishing. Yet God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, when we were dead in sin, interposed Christ in our place. God the Father freely chose undeserving sinners to redeem, and Christ took the punishment they had merited in his flesh. Christ has been crucified, Christ has risen, and Christ reigns now to save all who come to him. The only appropriate response to this is repentance from sin, empty-handed faith in him for salvation, and allegiance to his total lordship. The invitation today is to come to Christ and be saved.
Christ also saves us to serve. We have a mission in the world, and our mission is incomplete as long as Christ delays his consummate return. But in light of the stark folly of the Christ, let us cast aside all our pragmatic pretentions. In its place, let us embrace simple proclamation. On this note, it’s striking how the euphemisms we use in evangelism betray what we truly believe about it. We talk of “sharing” the gospel, having “gospel conversations,” and building relationships—all good things, no doubt. But the New Testament speaks differently; it uses language of preaching, proclaiming, calling, announcing. We are not salesmen; we are heralds. Let us speak and act as such and let us be humbly suspicious of any method of ministry that brands itself as a silver bullet.
Finally, do not miss this: because the power of God comes through such ordinary things as preaching and gathering around the word of the cross, if you have the gospel, you have all you need to do missions—in fact, you have the very power of God available to you! This is not to undercut the importance of preparation, training, language learning, and funding. All of these things are assumed. But if you have the simple, powerful gospel message, then this mission is for you.
You can go. You can send. You can pray. The ordinary local church can do this. We are equipped for every good work through the word (2 Timothy 3:17), because the word of the cross is true power.