When it comes to how we live our lives, making our day-to-day choices, the world only becomes a tangled and complicated place if we are drifting lazily into a dark confusion wrought by sin. Think about it for a moment. Keep it simple. There are only two kinds of people in the world—sons of God and sons of the devil. There are two destinations, and only two, toward which we are all traveling—the resurrection of life and the resurrection to death. There are only two ways of living—clean and dirty. There are only two outcomes to all of our choices, and those outcomes are “wreckage of human” and “glorified human.” There are only two gospels—one from the wisdom of man that will collapse underneath the weight of your sins, and one from the wisdom of God that will cause your sins to collapse beneath the weight of God’s infinite grace. And there is only one message that will cut cleanly through everything, leaving you always with two alternatives.
“And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1–5).
Summary of the Text:
At the end of the previous chapter, Paul had exulted in the scriptural standard of true pride. Let the one who boasts, do so in the Lord (Jer. 9:23-24). Boasting is inescapable—it is not whether we will boast, but rather which kind of boasting it will be. Will we boast in the flesh, or will we boast in the Spirit of God? Will we boast in the so-called wisdom of man or will we boast in the wisdom and knowledge of God?
Paul then moves on to remind the Corinthians of something they would do very well to remember. He had not come to them in his own name, in the strength of his own powers, or on his own authority. Rather, he declared to them the testimony or witness of God (v. 1). He was a witness to the witness of God. He testified to the testimony of God. And so what was that divine testimony?
Remember that God had spoken from Heaven at the Lord’s baptism (Matt. 3:17). God had spoken from Heaven when Jesus had asked Him to glorify His name (John 12:28-29). God had arrayed Him in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:3; 2 Pet. 1:17-18). Most profoundly, God manifested His darkest glory in the moment of crucifixion, when Christ was lifted up on the cross (John 12:32). And Jesus was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). This is the testimony of God.
This is the testimony of God, and it reveals the wisdom of God. God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5), and at the same time, the most profound revelation of the deepest wisdom of God was that moment of darkest glory on the cross. The righteous made sinful, and the sinful made righteous, and all without any travesty on His holiness.
So Paul had determined, decided, and judged (krino) that he would know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified (v. 2). Paul’s presence in Corinth was not that of some flashy mojo dude, exuding all his surplus charisma, radiating charm. Not at all. He came in weakness, fear, and trembling (v. 3). If you wanted to find something to criticize, there would be something to criticize. His words, and his preaching, were not dependent upon a flattering persuasiveness that naturally arises from sophistry (to those who want to be flattered, man’s wisdom, sophia, will always do the trick). Rather, instead of such sophistry, there was in Paul’s life and demeanor a proof of the Spirit and of power (v. 4).
The basic alternative is therefore presented. Your faith will either be in the wisdom of man or it will be in the power of God (v. 5). It will either be in the power of man, which is weak, impotent, helpless, and frail, or it will be in the wisdom of God, which is profound, eternal, infinite, and deep. So the choice is stark—man’s way or God’s way. And that power which was displayed by God is encapsulated in the message of Christ and Him crucified (v. 2).
Sophistry, Then and Now:
Contrary to a common assumption, Paul’s contrast here between the power of the cross and the enticing words of carnal wisdom is not a contrast between eloquence as such and inelegant truth over on the other side. This is a fallen world, and there are always sophists who want to substitute human eloquence for divine wisdom, which is absurd. This is what the ancient sophists wanted to do, and it is what their postmodern descendants now in our era want to do.
The error is to think, first, that the message of the cross needs to be adorned with human wisdom, and second, when the deterioration has advanced a bit, that it needs to be reinforced or supplemented by human wisdom, and then, in the last analysis, replaced by human wisdom. At the first stage the message of the cross is thought to be true but ugly and unadorned. In the second, it is assumed to be true “as far as it goes” but inadequate. And by the time you get to the third stage, the message of the cross is thought to be false, harmful, pernicious, racist, misogynist, and homophobic.
So what then is the role of human eloquence in preaching the gospel? It is what Paul is actually demonstrating here. The words of the preacher, like the preacher himself, must be a bondservant to the message, and the words of eloquence, if they are to be true and not false, must be driven before the gale of good news that is our gospel, all sails out. The trireme of Christ is a ship of true liberty, and every true preacher of the gospel is chained to his oar.
Take the most striking sentence from this passage, and ponder it. “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” That is elegantly stated. It is most eloquent. Paul did not deliberately stammer something halting and ungrammatical like “I thought, um, that I shouldn’t, uh, try to speechify about any other doctrines . . .” No, Paul was eloquent here, but his eloquence was a bondservant of the message.
A Foundational Caution:
It would be a grotesque mistake to say that Christians should talk about nothing but a truncated message that consists of a mantra-like “Christ died on the cross,” and that all other topics are to be avoided as somehow sub-spiritual. No—far from exulting in the cross, such an approach would actually minimize and insult the cross. Rather, because Christ is the founder of a new humanity, and because His founding obedience was what He did on the cross, this means that absolutely everything that men and women can do—from forecasting the weather to changing diapers, from sailing a ship to digging a well, from driving a car to teaching a class—falls under the shaping authority of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The cross was not just one more event in a world filled with lots of other events. It is not simply another datum, which some people believe and others don’t. Rather, the cross was a new organizing principle, under which all things would be made new (Rev. 21:5).
The Latin word for cross is crux, and the death of Jesus on the cross is the crux of all human history. This is why we should be able to talk about absolutely anything in the world, and within a short space of time find ourselves talking about the death of Jesus, and all without changing the subject.
The Solution First:
So our message is a straightforward one—we preach the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. We declare first, who He is. He is the divine Son of Almighty Jehovah. He is Yahweh with us. He is Himself fully divine, and He entered—forever—into our human condition through the Incarnation. He is the apostle of God, sent to man, and the high priest of the new humanity, gone before us into Heaven in order to ensure our safe arrival there.
He lived a perfect, sinless life, and He did this so that all His people, citizens of the new Israel, could be represented by His obedience. And because they all had been disobedient before His authoritative word gathered them, He represented them also by bending His head submissively underneath all the wrath that a holy God could muster in order to pour out upon Him. In that moment of dereliction, the Lord Jesus was struck hard by the fist of God. And He took it as a dutiful Son, and did not murmur against His Father.
And in the following moment of ultimate vindication, the moment that He knew by faith was coming, three days later, that same hand of God raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His own right hand, where there is an everlasting river of pleasure. Jesus, before He passed through the valley of the shadow of death, saw it for what it was. Before He walked the paths of the dead, He considered the joy that was set before Him. Having done so, He endured the cross. Having done so, He poured out His contempt and scorn on the shame that He was to go through, and He received the wrath of God as your representative. Bring it down to the point. Why did He do this? He did it, not to put too fine a point on it, because of His intention to purchase you from your self-absorption.
He lived a life of perfect obedience in our stead, with our name on that obedience. He went through a hell of exquisite suffering in our stead, also with our name on it. He rose from the dead in a flash of unconquerable and everlasting victory, again, in our stead. And as surely as Adam represented you when he plunged the entire race into misery and darkness, so also the last Adam represented you when He walked out into the light of the eternal day. You are always, necessarily, carried by an Adam. The question is, which one?
Either the old Adam carries you into the darkness and leaves you there, or the new Adam picks you up, and carries you back to the fold.
“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Is. 40:11).
The Solution Related to the Problem:
Now this gospel, this message, is to be declared to every creature (Mark 16:15). And the creatures who are to hear this message are creatures who are lost in their sins. “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Gal. 1:4).
The gospel is good news, but there are two kinds of good news. The first is a “bolt from the blue” good news, and which does not require any kind of antecedent difficulty. The second kind of good news (e.g. a pardon from the governor the day before your execution) is a type of news that requires a full apprehension of an earlier delivery of bad news.
News that they have discovered a cure for cancer will strike a man who has cancer quite differently than it will strike a man who is entirely healthy.
And the Solution Applied to the Problem:
And so in the wisdom of God, He determined that men, women and children are delivered by means of this gospel when they (by the grace of God) do two things. And even these two things that we must do are themselves a gift from God—lest any man boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
We must first turn away from our sins, and secondly we must believe the gospel. These two actions may be performed in one single, solitary motion of turning. If you turn away from sin, really and genuinely, then you are in that same motion, turning toward Christ.
“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
So what is your condition? What is your sad state here today? Porn junkie? Selfish high school girl who has her parents totally whipped and baffled? Embezzler? Malicious and petty backbiter? Manipulator? Liar? Pharisee? Angry husband? Lazy wife? Foul mouthed pervert? Envious snarker? Shoplifter? We are human beings, and we do it all. We are people, and nobody fouls their own nest like we do.
And because you are, in the main, a church-going people, this means that if sin has you by the throat, if you are in desperate need of this message of grace, goodness, and gospel, it may be that you have turned church into a deadly trap. You may well have been maneuvered—by your own selfishness—into that false position where you smile and sing psalms with all the people you don’t know that well, but the people you love the most—well, they get your worst. Wretched man! Who can deliver us? Just a week in, and how many of your new year’s resolutions have you already broken?
So what is the message I have for you? What message is here that is of the sort that makes no sense to your carnal heart but which will nevertheless deliver your carnal heart? Look away from that sin. Turn away from it. In the power of Christ, who is present here today, turn so that the sin can see nothing but your back. And then flee to Christ, so that if the sin is still staring at your back, it is getting smaller and smaller. Flee to Christ. I am telling you, with the authority of Jesus Christ Himself, that you may do this thing.
But the only way this works is when you look to Christ. There is a way of “despising” sin that still looks at it. There is a way of despising sin that still cedes it power. There is such a thing as a Christless repentance, which might be better known as ten minutes of feeling bad about something. But you can be sorry about your state, and sorry tomorrow, and sorry the day after that, and eventually, if you keep it up, you will die in that sorrow. And then you will sink down into it forever.
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10, ESV).
There is a sorrow that does not lead away from death, but which rather is death. But the gospel brings a sharp contrast. There is a godly grief, a godly sorrow, a godly repentance, which leads to what? Salvation, and no regrets.
So repentance means turning away. Repentance means looking at something else. And that something else, that someone else rather, is Christ impaled on a tree outside Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. That is your only hope. That is your only forgiveness. That is your only salvation.
And by Christ, I mean a twisted bronze snake on a pole. I mean a rock in the wilderness, with living water flowing out of it. I mean bread from heaven, falling out of the sky. I mean the Lamb in the midst of the throne. I mean the one who holds the keys to both death and Hades.
I mean the one struck by the fist of God, and the one who was raised three days later—for your justification—by that same hand.