As we look at the state of the culture around us, we sometimes feel like we are locked in the graduate school of sin, in what appears to be some kind of demented calculus course. Believers look at this in dismay, thinking that we somehow need to come up with some sort of super-wise, uber-godly biblical worldview answer to all of it. We want to come up with our own righteous calculus course, one where the answer key is most tidy, and entirely correct.
But this is an optical illusion—what we actually need to do is take all our so-called urbane sophisticates back to kindergarten, and teach them all to draw a straight line between the carrot and the bunny. And before that can ever happen, we must come back to mere gospel. We must return to the basics, but by this I do not mean the truncated basics. It must be a gospel with blood in it, and sap, and salt.
“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness. But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:21–24).
Summary of the Text
Pascal once said that it was the mark of true philosophy to make light of philosophy. He and the apostle Paul would have been on good terms. Paul tells us that God in His wisdom made a determination about the wisdom of man. God determined that man, with all his pursuit of wisdom, would not be able to attain to the knowledge of God (v. 21). God settled our philosophy, which was the same thing as settling our hash. But God then determined that He would add insult to injury. Not only would He prevent man from climbing up to Him on that rope of sand called philosophy, He decided that the way that men would be enabled to come to Him would be through the foolishness of preaching (v. 21). We couldn’t come to Him through our wisdom, but He would bring us to Himself through the vehicle of preaching.
Men would come preaching, and God would save those who believed the message (v. 21). There were two kinds of men that this offended. The Jews wanted a sign up in the sky, or something like that, and God said no (v. 22ff). An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign (Matt. 12: 39; 16: 4). The Greeks wanted an argument in their brains, one that flattered their brains. Again God said no (vv. 22ff). Instead of all this, we preach a Messiah on a gibbet, Christ crucified. Think about that, just for a minute. This is a skandalon to the Jews, and it is lunacy to the Greeks (v. 23). But from among the Jews and Greeks, there are the elect, the called ones (v. 24). To them this crucified Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. As the power He is the answer to the Jews, and as the wisdom He is the answer to the Greeks.
Listen, O Man
You are a finite point, o prideful man. Above your head is the endless expanse of sky, and beneath your feet is absolute nothing. You are not at the mid-way point between infinity, which you do not understand, and nothing, which you don’t understand either. But you are a lot closer to nothing than to everything. On the scale of being, we all live near the nothing-end. If fact, you even used to be nothing. The observable universe contains an estimated 200 billion galaxies, with an average galaxy containing about 100 billion stars. You cannot explain that, can you? But if we take you down to the other end, and ask you to explain nothing, you can’t do that either. Let’s give you just one electron, or one quark, keeping things simple for you. Explain that—why is it here, rather than not here?
Compounding your struggle with finitude is the fact that you are a selfish and prideful finite point. You are much more important than all those other finite points. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that you think you are. And your brain—a subset of your finite point—is filled with big thinks. But with all your big thinks, you do not know God. Moreover you cannot know God until He brings you face to face with your own sin, and humiliates you with that vision.
The lesson that must be learned is this. You must learn to look at your sin. But if you look at it there on your hands, you will despair. If you try to go muckraking in your heart, you will surrender all hope. If you look at it in the temptations that are so alluring to you, you will be sickened by how you are still drawn to it, even though you know it to be death.
You must look at your sin, straight at it, but you must look at where God has impaled it—on the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the only way a sinner can look at his sin and yet live. When the fiery serpents were afflicting the Israelites, God did not tell them to look at the place on their hand where they were bitten. He did not tell them look at the serpents on the ground, or in the air. He commanded that they look at the bronze serpent, transfixed on a pole (Num. 21:4-9; John 3:14-15).
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
John 3:14–15 (KJV)
To look at the sinless Christ on the cross is the same thing as looking on the sinful Christ. This is because He never sinned, and He was always holy and pure—He knew no sin. But He was full of sin, covered with sin, buried in sin—God has made Him to be sin, as Paul says here. So the catch is that all the sin was ours. So when we look at our sin there, what happens is that God imputes the righteousness of His Son to us here. It is a stupefying exchange.
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
2 Cor. 5:21 (KJV)
This is the mystery of our salvation. When you look at the cross, you are looking at damnation, which is why you are looking at salvation. You are looking at utter defeat, which is why you are looking at victory. You are looking at death, and it is your life to look at death. You are looking at His stripes, which is why you are healed. The cross is God’s great repudiation of the wisdom of the world.
What Gave Jesus Joy
God delights to tumble the powerful from their seats. He loves to knock square academic caps off of learned heads. He catches the wise in their craftiness, and ties them up hand and foot.
This is not because He is sadistic. No, He also loves to save men, but He never saves the proud ones, at least not while they remain in their pride.
“In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.”
Luke 10:21 (KJV)
It gave Jesus joy to think of the fact that the Father has hidden these simple things from the savants, and parceled them all out to the toddlers. And if it gave Jesus joy, shouldn’t it give us joy? If it doesn’t, then let us rethink our understanding of the gospel.
Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin. Without an evangelical faith that is united to Christ the vine or olive tree, there is no sap. Without the promises, there is no reason that any of this should be connected to anything else.
So does your gospel have the blood of the cross in it (Heb. 13:20)? Does it respond with the sap of a living faith in it (Ps. 92:14)? Does it have the salt of the covenant (Num. 18:19)?