From the way many teachers teach and many pastors preach nowadays, you would think the Gospel was something that just makes sense to people, that it’s like a lay up explanation that will solve all of people’s various urgent problems. “First, all you have to do (as if the demands of the Gospel were in our own power to achieve, namely faith and repentance that only come from God to begin with) is 1, then 2, and then 3, and bingo! You’re saved and all your problems will be fixed because God wants you to live life to your fullest potential!” If we can boil the Gospel down into this nice little package, maybe people will more easily accept it, at least so the thinking goes.
Yet, the Scriptures indicate that to the natural person, the Gospel, and the cross in particular, is an utterly foolish message, or a stumbling block. Why is this? Well, for one, we are dead in sins. It is a foolish message to a spiritually dead man until God creates light and faith in the heart of the unbeliever. The Gospel is the opposite of what the world expects. Our culture looks for what’s practically relevant for their problems in the here and now, something they can do. “How can I overcome my stress?” “How do I get a better marriage?” And so on. Preachers like Joel Osteen address this message loud and clear that God’s main goal for your life is to live it to the fullest now, all you have to do is A, B, and C, because God helps those who help themselves, so they say.
The Gospel message is counter to this though. Whereas the world’s gospel is do 1, 2, and 3, and then God will accept you or bless you or whatever, the Gospel message comes in and states that you were so bad off in your sin and innate rebellion against God that He had to do the work Himself in the Person of Christ to redeem you. And He did this not out of compulsion, but out of pure, divine, premeditated love for His people.
Yet many teachers nowadays seem to think that the former message, that God just wants A, B, and C from you before he’ll accept you, is the Gospel of Christianity, when that is actually antithetical to the message! Even the obedience of faith, if not seen as the work of God itself, lends us to the conclusion that we must achieve something apart from the work of God in us, that we must dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in before God will lift a finger. But in ourselves, we can’t see Christ, can’t believe the Gospel unless God reveals Christ to us, creating in us that which was not there: belief. This is the new birth. And it is necessary not only to see the kingdom of God, but also to enter it (John 3).
I was reading through my daily Scripture reading today, that is simultaneously going through the latter part of the Psalms and 1 Corinthians at the moment, and came to the passages where Paul speaks about this very thing.
“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.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (Particularly through the Gospel?)” – 1 Corinthians 1:20
“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 (the Gospel) to save those who believe.” – 1 Corinthians 1:21
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified (the Gospel), 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.” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-24
“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.” – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
Summed up: the Gospel is foolishness, utter nonsense, the antithesis, the opposite of what the world, by default, expects to hear. And therefore, the world regards the Gospel as foolishness. Most in the world assume they know what we’re going to say as it pertains to the Gospel. “Jesus is a great teacher and if you emulate His example of perfection, you will be saved, because God helps those who help themselves.” Yet this is not the Gospel! And how unfortunate it is that teachers in the evangelical church now preach this very thing as Gospel-truth. This is a flat out lie. The Gospel is God’s power through Christ to save us because it was impossible for us to save ourselves. And He achieved our salvation through weakness, temptation, submission, and ultimately, He intentionally gave Himself to destruction on our behalf, in order to raise us to new life through the power of His resurrection.
In verses 22 through 24, Paul distinguishes between how three different groups respond to the message of the Gospel.
First of all, the Jews, particularly in Paul’s time. When the Jews heard the message of Christ crucified for sinners, it was a stumbling block. Their Messiah was not supposed to give Himself unto destruction and punishment in our place. Rather, He was to be the triumphant King who would come into Jerusalem and wipe out the Romans. He was to be the One who would, through a mighty political arm, rescue His people and give those “pagans” what they deserved: the sword. He was not supposed to be a servant but a mighty ruler, a conqueror.
And yet, Jesus, their Messiah, came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. He came as a poor, humble servant, a carpenter. He came not to be honored, but to give that up in order that through His perfect work for us, He might reconcile us to God. This was the opposite of what the Jews thought. This is the Gospel. It is a stumbling block because at the cross, we see how bad our sin nature really is that we would crucify God Himself. We threw the worst we had at Christ on the cross. Yet He willingly did this to rescue us from utter destruction because not only did He suffer physically, but He took the wrath of God in Himself that was owed to us for our rebellion. This message was counter-intuitive to the Jewish culture who thought that righteousness (or a pure and right-standing with God) was obtained through adherence to the Mosaic and Levitcal law. Yet righteousness, as Paul clearly points out, is obtained through faith. This message is a stumbling block and a rock of offense to the Jews because it pulled the rug out from underneath their system of self-salvation.
Then there is another group, the Greeks, or the Gentiles, or in other words, the rest of us. This group considers the message of Christ crucified for sinners as foolishness, utter nonsense. Greeks are known for their many philosophies on life, salvation, man, a whole host of topics. And again, their message, much like the Jews, can be summed up like this: man has the capacity to achieve whatever the deity requires; or man in himself and his abilities can achieve greatness. This presupposed idea permeates Greek philosophy and really all worldly religious systems of understanding God outside of the Scriptures. It is the natural result of depraved minds incapacitated from the fall. As Paul says, it can all be summed up as, “the wisdom of the world.” The wisdom of the world is that man can achieve essentially whatever he wants, including any type of religious salvation through his own strength. So you can imagine that when they hear the message of the cross, that God became man, submitted Himself to humiliation, fulfilled all righteousness, gave Himself unto death on the cross on behalf of sinners, and rose from the grave, it makes absolutely no sense to them, for they want a message of what they can do, not what someone has done for them, especially God Himself. To them it is just silly talk, fantasies and fairy tales.
The message of the cross is counter-intuitive to both Jews and Greeks. Jews expected a political Savior. Greeks expect salvation to be anything other than God becoming one of us and giving Himself in our place. Both of their presuppositions about man are essentially the same though: man has the ability to achieve whatever is demanded of him. The cross of Christ begs to differ. The cross cries out: this is what was required to save your soul because of your own sinful incapacity to do it yourself! The cross shows us how bad off we really are, what was required of us as a result of our sin (the wrath of God), and at the same time this shows how great the love and mercy of God is toward us.
However, Paul then distinguishes a third group, labeling them in essence, “those who are called.” This group consists of both kinds of the aforementioned person, Jews and Greeks. This group regards the cross, not as a stumbling block and not as foolishness, but as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” But how? If this message makes no sense to the world, why do they differ from the other two groups? Was it something they did to make them see? No! They were called of God, born of God’s Spirit, that as a result of His work in them, they no longer regard the cross as utter nonsense like the Greeks, or as a stumbling block to their own self-salvation, but as the power of God for salvation. Now they see the cross as the wisdom of God and the greatest achievement in all the universe. Because of God’s work in their souls to see and hear the truth of the Gospel, piercing through the darkness of their own souls, they see the cross not as the largest defeat in the universe, but as the largest triumph over evil, through which their own salvation was procured and infallibly secured. But it was not their working and toiling and pleasing God that granted them the right and ability to see the cross as the wisdom, power, and genius work of God. Rather, it was God unconditionally granting them the ability to see the truth of what was purchased for them upon the cross. And even more than that, it was that very work on the cross that gained them this very ability to see. They have been born of the Spirit of God and as a result, they believe the message.
If our Gospel message makes sense to the world, based upon the passages above, I cannot see how our message is faithful to the Scriptures. If they world nods their heads in agreement with our message, there must be something dreadfully wrong. If the world does not reject this message as a whole, I honestly think we need to reexamine what we personally believe that message to be. The Gospel is foolishness to the world, a stumbling block, because it tells people the opposite of what the world preaches: that man is basically good and can achieve salvation of himself, whenever he so pleases. The Gospel says you are more sinful, turned away from God, spiritually incapable than you can possibly imagine. But through Christ’s achievement, by God’s mercy alone, you can be reconciled to God by His work in your soul to believe this message. As Jonathan Edwards said, “We are dependent on God, not only for redemption itself but for our faith in the Redeemer; not only for the gift of His Son but for the Holy Ghost for our conversion.”
If you don’t see the message of Christ crucified for sinners as the wisdom of God and even now regard it as foolishness, beg of God to give you eyes to see, ears to hear Him, a new heart that can respond to Him in love, and a new divine sense that can at last taste and see that the Lord is good. Apart from Christ’s work in you, to show you your lost estate, to reveal your depravity, you will continue to regard this message of salvation as nonsense. Beg of God to create faith in your heart. He alone is your only hope of being able to do anything pleasing in His sight.