What Is Your Faith Resting On?
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 21, 2003
The church in Corinth was situated in the midst of a community where eloquence and wisdom were greatly esteemed. We should not be surprised then, to see how much attention Paul gives to this subject in the first two chapters of his letter.
It appears that the Christians in Corinth, like their surrounding community, were obsessed with the pursuit of wisdom. But, judging by how Paul addresses them, it appears that they did not rightly understand God’s wisdom. Similar to our day, the church in Corinth was exposed to a myriad of philosophies—all vying to become the dominant school of thought within society. Platonism, stoicism, Epicureanism, cynicism, and Gnosticism all found various forms of expression in Corinth (Quast, Reading The Corinthian Correspondence, 33). But then, along came Paul, preaching “Christ crucified” (1:23).
This simple message of God’s wisdom, Christ crucified for sinners, was “a stumbling block to the Jews, and to the Gentiles (it was regarded as) foolishness” (1:23).
Very little has changed in our day. We, too, hear a myriad of competing voices vying for authority—some new, and some old. And still in the mix, thankfully, is the message of Christ crucified. Yet, this message of God’s wisdom and power appears to confound the ‘great minds’ of our day much like it did the people in Paul’s day.
At the turn of the century, I remember reading an issue of Time magazine entitled, ‘The Century’s 100 Greatest Minds’. I was troubled, but not surprised, to see that there was not a single mention of any teachers of the Bible, individuals who have changed countless lives for eternity. Unfortunately, when people think of the brilliant minds of our day, they do not think of teachers like Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, and R.C. Sproul.
Instead, this issue of Time Magazine focused primarily on individuals whose intelligence had tangible results on society. The issue did recognize, however, some of the more subjective disciplines, such as child psychology. It even recognized the pessimistic philosopher, Bertrand Russell.
Now, I am grateful for those who discovered penicillin to fight infection. I am relieved that a vaccination for polio is now available, but what about those who are concerned for our eternal health? What about those who are preaching the message of the cross?
Paul’s words are no less relevant in our day, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18).
Paul is addressing a group that is enamoured with the wisdom of the world. Paul is writing a group of people who are impressed by higher learning. What will be Paul’s strategy for getting through to them?
We know that Paul was a man of profound learning; we know that he had been educated by some of the most revered Jewish scholars of his day. We are quite sure that Paul had a brilliant mind, and my guess is that he might have been tempted to persuade the Corinthians by presenting them with polished arguments and by excelling in the graces of oratory. He might have said to himself, ‘These philosophers are very wise men; if I would be a match for them, I must be very wise, too.’
But what does he say instead? “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or wisdom, (I came) proclaiming the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:1,2).
First, we observe that Paul did not address the Corinthians with the wisdom of the day; he addressed them by proclaiming the testimony of God. This is a principle for today’s ministers to apply. I spend a great deal of time watching the news and reading the newspaper and, quite often, I am so agitated by what I read that I am tempted to craft a sermon around it. And to be sure, some ministers do this. But this certainly would not be an acceptable approach for Paul.
Paul does not write the Corinthians in order to expose the pitfalls of Epicureanism; he writes them “proclaiming the testimony of God”. Paul does not write the Corinthians in order to shine a light on breadth of his learning; he writes them attempting to shine a light on “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”.
Paul’s qualification here is important. Paul did not preach Christ the teacher, he did not preach Christ the moral example, and he did not preach Christ the author of a new philosophy. Paul preached “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”. Christ dying for our sins was the burden of Paul’s preaching.
Now, when Paul says that he was “determined” only to preach “Christ crucified”, this does not mean that the only thing he mentioned during his 18-month stay was the cross. Because, as we can see from this letter, Paul exhorts them in other matters as well.
What I think Paul means is that whatever else he knew, whatever else he intended to communicate, he would say it and do it in relation to Christ crucified. For Paul, the cross of Christ wasn’t the only thing he preached, but it was at the centre of what he preached.
Paul goes on to say that when he was with the Corinthian church, he was there “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (2:3). That is to say that Paul was no ‘pulpiteer’. Paul did not preach with a self-exalting swagger. Paul’s meekness, and trembling, reveals that Paul understood his own inadequacy, and reveals that he also understood the infinite importance of his work.
This is how Paul describes his teaching, “My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4).
Friends, we know from Paul's letters that he was a brilliant thinker and that he could employ language with great skill. But the point Paul is making here is that he did not preach the gospel with the aim of impressing the intellects of his day. Charles Spurgeon observes the same:
If the apostle had aimed at pleasing an intelligent audience, Christ and Him crucified would not have done at all. If again he had designed to set himself up as a profound teacher he would naturally have looked out for something new, something a little more dazzling than the person and work of the Redeemer.
Beloved, I fear that far too many preachers aim at pleasing an intelligent audience. I do not mean to be unkind when I say that far too many preachers aim to dazzle their congregations by presenting them with new, and unique, theories—theories that more closely resemble this wisdom of this age than the wisdom and testimony of God.
The model given to us by Paul is that we communicate the gospel, not according to our own cleverness, but according to the testimony of God. And why is this necessary? Why must we regard Paul’s approach as the only suitable approach to sharing the Gospel? Why must Jesus Christ, and Him crucified be the centre of the Christian message?
Paul gives us his answer, “that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (2:5).
What we observe here is that our faith rests on something. We observe that our faith is supported by something. In other words, our faith has a foundation. And we infer from Paul’s words that there is a kind of foundation that cannot properly support faith.
Beloved, we have been reminded by recent events of how important a good foundation is. In preparation for ‘Hurricane Isabel’ we were instructed to bring in our potted plants and our lawn chairs. Because these items are free standing, because these items are not fastened to a foundation, we risked the possibility of having these items toppled by the powerful winds of Isabel.
I see a striking similarity in Paul’s instruction. If our faith is not fastened to a firm foundation, then our faith is in jeopardy. Paul warns that our faith should not rest “on the wisdom of men”.
If our faith rests only on persuasive arguments, what are we going to do when faced with a persuasive counter argument? If our faith rests on an occasion when we were emotionally persuaded to raise a hand, or walk an aisle, what are we going to do when we no longer feel like following Christ’s will? What are we going to do; what will happen to our faith when the day of trial comes?
I have even met some whose faith rested on their minister. And what will happen to that person’s faith if the preacher falters? What will happen to that person’s faith, if the preacher leaves?
I have met some whose faith rested on their local church. But what happens to that person’s faith if that local church falters—or even worse—what happens if the local church closes its doors?
Beloved, a faith that rests on human wisdom; a faith that rests on a human being; a faith that rests on an institution, is an unstable faith.
But if our faith rests upon the power of God; if our faith is fastened to Christ, and Him crucified, then our faith will be enduring.
In the same way hurricane winds test the stability of plants and buildings, trials and adversity test the foundation of our faith. If our faith is to survive the hour of trial, we must be fastened to Christ, the solid Rock—all other ground is sinking sand.
If Paul is saying something here about method, I hear him saying that the proper method of evangelism is to set forth the truth concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. Every other method of evangelism must be subordinate to this.
Having read many ‘Church Growth Books’, I have come across some very helpful principles, but none of these principles have the ability to turn an unbeliever into a believer. Church growth principles may attract a crowd; church growth principles may bring people in on Sunday morning, but once they are here, Paul warns that human wisdom and human methodology will not suffice.
For your faith to endure, only one foundation will do: Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. Amen.