This week we look at a single passage in 1 Corinthians as Dr. Myron Houghton continues to examine the Biblical evidence:
(4) 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. Introduction. In this passage Paul is writing to a church that he established that is now badly divided and marked by carnality. In an effort to remedy this situation, Paul points to their salvation. In his earlier greetings, he had already introduced this subject: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (v. 2). Salvation includes the basis for all its benefits, that is, Christ’s death as a sacrifice for our sins and His resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1, 3, 4). Here in verse 2, it is found in the words, “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” This means we are made holy in God’s sight because of Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor. 1:30, where it is said Jesus became our sanctification). But salvation also refers to the application of the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. In verse 2, the application of salvation is viewed in two ways: (a) from God’s perspective, these Corinthian believers were called by God into the fellowship of His Son (see v. 9); (b) at the same time, from the human perspective, these Corinthian believers were people who had called on the name of Jesus Christ (v. 2b).
Baptism versus Preaching the Gospel—1:17–21. Three different words in these verses describe preaching: “preach” (v. 17) is ejuaggelivzesqai (=evangelize); “preaching” (KJV of v. 18) is ) lovgo~ (=logos, which means “word”) and here means “message” (as in, “and now for a word from our sponsor”); and “preaching” (KJV, v. 21) is khruvgmato~ (=kerugmatos, which means “a preached message”).
The gospel is clearly identified as “the cross of Christ” (v. 17) and its proclamation as “the message of the cross” (v. 18). Ths message is like a magnet: it attracts and it repels. To those who are perishing, this message is foolishness, but to those being saved it is God’s power (v. 18). The benefits of salvation are not applied to sinners when they are baptized. Water baptism is not the means by which salvation is applied; rather, preaching the gospel is the God-ordained means (v. 17). This is because hearing the gospel preached can cause faith to come in one’s heart (v. 21b). Thus, Paul can say to the Galatian believers: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1–3).
These verses teach us that God’s Holy Spirit can create faith in our hearts when we hear the gospel being preached [i.e., “before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified”]. The gospel songwriter was correct when he said, “I know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin, revealing Jesus through the Word, creating faith in Him” (from “I Know Whom I Have Believed,” by Daniel W. Whittle, verse 3). These verses, then, tell us that God does not save people through religious rituals—even rituals He has established; rather, people are saved because Christ died for them and rose again, because this message was preached to them, and they responded by putting their trust in Christ.
Signs and Reason versus Preaching the Gospel—1:22–25. Two alternate programs for trying to discern God’s way of salvation are discussed in these verses.
Signs. The first is described in verse 22 as, “Jews request a sign.” According to this program, people will become believers if they experience the miraculous. Recently a book promoting this view and written by faculty members at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, was printed by Gospel Publishing House. In his foreword to this book Thomas E. Trask, general superintendent for the General Council of the Assemblies of God, said, “The Scriptures record that first-century Christians witnessed the promised ‘signs’ (exorcisms, hearings, speaking in tongues, miracles) as they proclaimed the good news (Mark 16:17, 18). Indeed, the New Testament pattern of ministry must be the standard for evangelism and church planting today—the kind of ministry that impacts people in body, soul and spirit.” [1. Thomas E. Trask, “Foreword,” in Signs and Wonders in Ministry Today, edited by Benny C. Aker and Gary B. McGee (Springfield: Gospel, 1996), p. 5.] And in their preface to this book, the editors ask, “What does it mean to be Pentecostal or charismatic? While various distinctives could be mentioned, Pentecostals and charismatics expect the preaching of the gospel to be accompanied by miraculous signs and wonders that will point unbelievers to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.” [2. Ibid, p. 7.]
Paul responds to the Jews (those seeking a sign), “But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block” (v. 23). Preaching “Christ crucified” to the Jews was a stumbling block in two ways: First, the Hebrew Scriptures stated that anyone who hung on a tree was under the curse of God, [3. Deuteronomy 21:23—“for he who is hanged is accused of God.”] yet Christians were preaching that Jesus was God’s Son while at the same time saying that He died on a tree. To the Jewish mind, this was a contradiction. Nevertheless, Paul does not shy away from these truths. He says that Jesus is the Son of God and that He did, in fact, die on a tree, but Jesus was under God’s curse, not for His own sins, but for ours. [4. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—Galatians 3:13).]
Preaching Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews in yet a second way. The Jews were seeking a sign, a display of power. The cross seems to display just the opposite: weakness and defeat. However, to those who are saved [i.e., called by God into the fellowship of His Son, v. 9], Christ becomes the power of God (v. 24), not a signs-and-wonders kind of power externally. That is what the Jews were already seeking. No, this power was internal, produced by the Holy Spirit through the self-authenticating word of God, producing complete certainty of one’s salvation. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul says, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.” Isn’t that amazing? No external signs were needed! When the gospel was proclaimed, it was received as God’s word because it effectively worked in them to bring them to faith in Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5 Paul also states, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance,” making clear that the message of salvation was accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, which produced “much assurance.” [5. “Much assurance” is one word in Greek: plhroforiva, and means “full assurance, certainty” according to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by Walter Bauer, translated and edited by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, revised and edited by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago, second edition, 1979) p. 670.]
Reason. The second alternate way of trying to discern God’s way of salvation is through reason. Paul states, “Greeks seek after wisdom” (v. 22). Paul’s response to using human reason to try to find God’s way of salvation is the same response he gave to those seeking signs and wonders: “But we preach Christ crucified” (v. 23). To those promoting human reason, Paul’s message of the cross was foolishness (v. 23). However, to those who are saved [i.e., called by God into the fellowship of His Son, v. 9], Christ becomes the wisdom of God (v. 24). And this happens by the Holy Spirit using the self-authenticating word of God to produce faith in Christ and to create certainty of one’s salvation, as was described in the previous paragraph.
How is this related to apologetic methodology? A. H. Strong presents the evidentialist approach when he says,
Leibnitz the German theologian and philosopher, gave an illustration a great while ago which has always seemed to me of value. The Viceroy of a province, with credentials from the King, comes to the provincial assembly, and the doors open to receive him. The members of the assembly sit in their seats, the presiding officer sits in his seat. Up the aisle walks the Viceroy; he lays his credentials upon the desk of the presiding officer; he awaits the scrutiny of these credentials. When the presiding officer has scrutinized the credentials, has ascertained that they are properly signed and sealed, and that they attest the appointment of this Viceroy by the King, he rises, announces the fact, and the whole assembly after him rises to its feet in reverence for the representative of the Sovereign. Then the presiding officer leaves his seat, the Viceroy takes his place, and from that moment the Viceroy’s word is law. So the Scripture comes to reason, presents its credentials, proves its credentials to be sufficient; and then Scripture, and not reason, sits upon the throne (emphasis mine). [6. A. H. Strong, “Remarks,” Proceedings of the Baptist Congress for the Discussion of Current Questions, 1892, p. 202.]
Does a consistent use of this approach change the unbeliever into a believer—or does it change a believer into a compromiser? Strong himself answers this question in the paragraph just before his “Remarks” just quoted. In that paragraph he says, “In spite of my belief in the authority of Scripture, I hold myself open to all that science can prove with regard to the actual facts of divine inspiration. I am ready, after full and candid investigation of these facts, to modify my views with regard to the method of divine inspiration, according as the facts shall seem to me to require.” [7. Ibid., pp. 201, 202.]
In contrast to Strong and other evidentialists, Dr. Gottfried Wachler, President of the [Lutheran] Theological Seminary in Leipzig, Germany, states,
The divine authority of the Bible cannot be proved to anyone from the outside, whether by pointing to its age, its spread, the confirmation of its accounts through excavations, and the like, or by resorting to rational proof. It is, indeed, an apologetic task (that is not unimportant) to refute the arguments against the truth of Scripture, especially in the area of history, by means of counter arguments. But in this way it can only be demonstrated to be humanly credible but not the Word of God. Nor will an unbeliever be moved—to acknowledge Scripture’s divine authority on the basis of what Scripture says of itself, that is, by means of a doctrine of its inspiration and divine character. He will not accept statements from Scripture as proof, since he first wants proof that Scripture is the truth. However, when the Holy Spirit opens the human heart by means of what Scripture says to it in Law and Gospel, Scripture authenticates itself as the Word of God to that person. The Scriptural Word of God works within man as a fire, as a hammer, as a sword (Heb. 4:12; Jer. 23:29). But one who has experienced the effect of a hammer and a sword needs no further proof that the hammer is a hammer and the sword is a sword. [8. Gottfried Wachler, “The Authority of Holy Scripture,” translated from German by Herbert J. A. Bouman, Concordia Journal (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, September 1984), p. 171].
This is not a novel view but is clearly taught in The Westminster Confession of Faith written in 1646. In Paragraphs IV and V of the First Chapter (“Of the Holy Scripture”), we read:
IV. The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (emphasis mine). [9. The Westminster Confession of Faith as found in Creeds of the Churches, edited by John H. Leith, 3rd edition (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), p. 195.1]
A Baptist confession known as The Second London Confession of Faith and first printed in 1677 reproduces these paragraphs from The Westminster Confession of Faith almost word for word. The Philadelphia Confession of 1742 (a Baptist confession widely used in America) also contains these paragraphs. [10. William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: Judson, 1959), pp. 250, 348.]
Worldly Qualifications versus Divine Calling—1:26–31. People do not become believers in Christ because it is “reasonable” or because all their objections have been answered. The world’s “wisdom” is opposed to the wisdom of God (v. 21). God’s call into the fellowship of His Son (v. 9) is not based on our wisdom, might, or nobility (v. 26); rather, God delights to choose those who in the eyes of the world’s wisdom are foolish, weak, base [=lowly or insignificant], despised, and nothing (vv. 27, 28).
If we ask why, the answer is: so that God might bring to nothing the things that think they’re something (Houghton paraphrase of v. 28b). And if we probe for deeper reasons, we are given two: (a) so that no people by their own qualifications [literally, flesh] should glory in God’s presence (v. 29) and (b) in order that we might glory in the Lord (v. 31 ). It is because of God the Father that we are saved [or “in Christ Jesus”], and Christ became for us wisdom from God (this “wisdom” is salvation and includes justification [imputed righteousness], sanctification [the Spirit’s indwelling to enable us to obey God], and redemption [setting us free by breaking sin’s hold in our lives] (v. 30).
These verses show how foolish it is for Christians to think that unbelievers are neutral toward God and that with theistic proofs and logic we can persuade them to place their trust in Christ. It is also an impossible task to persuade unbelievers to become believers by means of signs and wonders. Remember that the rich man who died and was in Hades wanted Lazarus the beggar to return from the dead and appear to his brothers so that they would not end up in Hades as well (Luke 16:19–31). He was told that if his brothers would not repent by heeding the words of Moses and the prophets [i.e., the Scriptures], neither would they repent if a dead person were to appear to them (Luke 16:27–31). Wachler rightly comments, “Christ Himself said that not even the word of one risen from the dead and miraculously appearing among the living as proof of the truth of his words can produce repentance and save one from the rich man’s fate; only the writings of Moses and the prophets—without proofs, simply by their content—can do that (Luke 16:27ff.). External proofs compel acknowledgement, but compulsion produces neither repentance nor trust.” [11. Wachler, The Authority of Holy Scripture, p. 171.]