May 3, 2022
While pastors have the ministry of preaching the Gospel, men can talk about the cross in ways that empty it of its power. In this message, Alistair Begg explains how the apostle Paul embraced his weakness as a vehicle for the Gospel and encourages pastors to pray for the gift of studied simplicity. True salvation and redemption for sinners can only be found in one place: the cross of Christ. Therefore, it must be the central message from the pulpit.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, let’s read the Bible together. Acts chapter 18, and then from there briefly into 1 Corinthians 2. What a wonderful day we enjoyed yesterday. How helped we were. And now it’s Tuesday.
“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” All of his ways were known to God. “And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.
“While Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now I will go to the Gentiles.’ And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months teaching the word of God among them.”
And then in 1 Corinthians 2:1:
“And … when I came to you, brothers,” or “brothers and sisters,” “[I] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
And this is the Word of God. Thanks be to God. (It’s always good to have some Anglicans here to help us with that.)
We say from our hearts,
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, our text this morning is actually the section there at the beginning of the second chapter of 1 Corinthians. I don’t know that there could be anything more basic than this particular text, because this is material that is not only familiar to people, but it is often the kind of phraseology that marks particular occasions, often at the commencement of pastoral ministry. For example, some of us, on the occasion of our ordination to the gospel ministry, may have said that our intention was that we would preach Christ and him crucified. And perhaps if you had been recently inducted to another congregation—installed, as they say here—and in that installation, when they inquired of you, perhaps in a formal way, “Now, Pastor, what is your intention in ministering among us?” it would not be at all surprising if Paul’s statement here came from your lips as well: “Well, I have decided to know nothing among you,” we might say, “save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Of course, the familiarity of it contains an inherent danger, and that is that we might be tempted to simply think that by our ability to articulate that, we both have understood its implications and that we’re actually taking pains to ensure that we’re doing what we’ve said.
And so it is that on an occasion such as this, convened under a heading like “Basics,” it is almost inevitable that the ministry that we exercise amongst one another is a ministry of reminder. I mean, my task is not to stand before you and try and tell you things that you’ve never known, but it is that we would together be reminded of things that we must never forget. And that important ministry of reminder, of course, runs throughout all of the letters. Paul, when he writes his swan-song letter in 2 Timothy, actually begins by saying what he has been reminded of. Remember, he says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith that dwelt first in your grandmother and in your mother.” And then he says, “And for this reason I want to remind you of these things.” He actually says quite strikingly, “Remember Jesus Christ.” And he goes on to say, “[And I want you to] remind them of these things.”
One of the strange things about aging is that our capacity for memory diminishes. It’s disturbing, but it is real. And so I’m glad when people remind me again and again of things that I need to be reminded of. My history teacher at the grammar school in Ilkley in Yorkshire was a man by the name of Norman Salmon. He was a Yorkshireman himself and very proud of it, and he taught us history—basically, British history. And he was a very good teacher. He used to, of an afternoon, hoist himself up onto a radiator in the corner of one of the buildings, in one of the classrooms, I think so that he could look out of the window and wish that he was out there rather than look back at us and realize what he was doing.
But this is what he said to us, and with relative frequency: he said, “Lads”—because he was from Yorkshire—“Ayup, lads. If you forget everything that I have told you in this classroom, never forget this: that Bradford City won the FA Cup in 1911.” And I stand here to testify to you that I’ve forgotten everything else, except that. But I’m very comfortable, because that’s what he told me to do.
Now, let’s look at this text. Incidentally, I don’t have much of an outline. I tried it a few times. It wasn’t very good. I feel like the Puritan who had, you know, seventeen points in the morning, and feeling sorry for his congregation in the evening, he said, “I did you a disservice this morning with all these points, so my sermon tonight will be pointless.” And it’s not quite that. I think we could… If you want three c’s, it could be, first, we consider the context in which this comes, then we could consider the content of what it is he’s saying, and then we could perhaps recognize the concern with which he writes. Or, in sort of contemporary idiomatic speech, he tells us where he’s coming from, he tells us what he’s focused on, and he tells us what he’s aiming at. But you can make up your own outline, all right? And we’ll go from there.
Now, notice: “And … when I came to you, brothers,” past tense. I think it’s Phillips who paraphrases this “You will remember, brothers, when I came to you.” So he is actually reminding them of the events that we have just read of in Acts chapter 18. And it is good for us to understand that context, and that’s why we’ve read it. He “found a Jew.” He clearly was purposeful in looking for those who would be friends and partners to him. He “went to see them.” He worked with them. He took the opportunity of the Sabbath services to be involved in the synagogue, and his message was very straightforward: “The Messiah, the Christ, is Jesus.” That, of course, is Paul’s pattern all the way through, laboring from the Old Testament to explain to his congregation that the Messiah had to suffer and die. And then, once he has brought them along that line, he then says to them, “And this Jesus is that Messiah.” So we’re not surprised to find him doing the same here in Corinth.
When his friends have arrived, then he’s able to give himself wholeheartedly to the task. In doing so, of course, he faces opposition. As a result of the opposition, there is an opportunity for relocation. He relocates very close by, and as he begins to minister in the house next door, would you believe it that the one who was the head guy in the synagogue, along with his family, turned to faith in Jesus Christ?
Now, the record of that is there for us by Luke so that when we read here, “And … when I came to you, brothers,” we’re not left saying, “Well, I wonder what that was like,” because we know what it was like, as it has been recorded for us. We not only know what it was that he was doing, but we also have an understanding of where he was doing it. It’s often tedious for us to try and impress one another with the geographical background, you know, of the ancient Middle East or of the Mediterranean regions. I mean, all our congregation know we don’t really know much about that at all. We got it in a book. Why would we waste five minutes of our sermon trying to explain everything that we don’t know about Corinth? And you say, “Well, you better not be doing it now.” Oh, well, I might, just for a moment!
Okay. An isthmus of land. Trading route. Lots of sailors. Lots of nonsense. Lots of games. Lots of filthy stories. Skyline dominated by the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual promiscuity. And that is his context. Not an easy spot, I wouldn’t say.
And it’s no surprise, then, that given who he is, given where he is, and given what it is he’s about to say, that God very graciously comes to him at, essentially, three o’clock in the morning. It doesn’t say three o’clock in the morning, but I like to think of it as three o’clock in the morning. If you like to think of it as earlier, that’s fine, or later, that’s entirely up to you. But sometime during the night, the Lord appeared to him in a vision. How gracious, that even in the watches of the night, all our ways are known to him! In our sitting down, our standing, and in our lying down, and in our waking again, he’s the God who watches over our going out and our coming in, today and forevermore. And so he appears to him. He says, “I don’t want you to be afraid.” How gracious is that? “I want you to go on speaking. Don’t let them silence you. Realize that I’m with you. No harm will come to you. And I have my people there in Corinth. You sow the seed; I’ll grant the harvest.” And so what do we read? “And so for eighteen months he stayed teaching the word of God.” The reason that our people come to church is first of all to sit under the Word of God. It is to be met by God in the context of the worship of God among the people of God.
And so it’s no surprise that we’re told, then, that the church was established. And it is this church that he now addresses in this letter, 1 Corinthians. We had a wonderfully helpful introduction to 2 Corinthians yesterday, and we need to read both of these letters in conjunction with one another. His beginning to the people who are there is warm, and it is encouraging. You can read that in the first nine verses of the chapter. It’s especially interesting that he greets them in such a kind and encouraging way in light of the fact that they were, as we discovered yesterday, facing a variety of issues. There were all kinds of distractions, and inevitably, there were declensions. We know that he had already written to them to deal with their moral laxity in a letter that has not been preserved for us. That’s mentioned in chapter 5 of this letter. And now he’s going to go on and address what is happening among them: that there is quarreling, divisions, factions, whether they were divided on the basis of their preoccupation with various preachers (“Who do you like best?”), whether it was on account of their style, as some have suggested—that Apollos was perhaps very, very effective, very able with language, supremely articulate, and so on, and people would have said to one another, “You know, I love it when Apollos is preaching. It’s so much fun. That other fellow, Paul, he’s a little slow and somewhat turgid to go through it with him.” It may have been that, but chances are it wasn’t that. It was substance.
Some of these false teachers hadn’t been able to reckon on the paradox which runs through the entirety of these letters that we, again, were helpfully reminded of yesterday: that strength is made perfect in weakness. And so, in order to show just how strong and influential they were, they wanted to direct their listeners to their abilities. And Paul, of course, is taking a different tack altogether.
Now, what he’s doing, of course, is he is appealing them to be united: “no divisions among you,” 1:10, “but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” You see, they’ve already begun to move away from the gospel. And it is essential that if they’re going to be “united in the same mind and [in] the same judgment,” that union is in Christ, and it is in the Word of Christ; it is in the gospel itself.
Now, it’s important to recognize that he felt duty-bound to write in this way to Corinth, but it is important that we’re reminded of it this morning in Cleveland. Because we are not immune from these things. I’m not going to deviate from course and talk about the various ways within contemporary evangelicalism there is all kind of division amongst those who hold to a biblical perspective, and it is distinctly unedifying, and it’s dreadfully unhelpful. And that is why it is of vital importance that we understand that Paul’s preoccupation, if you like, with “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is not only in order that the unbelieving world might encounter God where he has made himself known, but it is in order that those who are the proclaimers of that Word find themselves united in judgment and in thought.
And I think, without going into any of the rest of that, it is surely worth our consideration that he’s going to go on and deal with these everyday issues—difficult issues. He’s going to go on and deal with them. But he’s doing so from a gospel perspective. He’s recognizing that the real need for these people is that they are absolutely convinced and committed to the message of the cross. Because it is only there that disharmony will be tackled and that union of perspective will be enjoyed.
“The testimony of God.” He says, “When I came to you, … [I] did[n’t] come proclaiming to you the testimony of God.” “The testimony of God”: “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world [to] himself.” It’s interesting he starts with a negative, isn’t it? “When I came to you, … [I] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.”
So, his focus. His focus—the content that is his focus—is essentially… His approach is one of studied simplicity. Studied simplicity. Some of us are geniuses at making simple things sound dreadfully complicated. Only few of us are able to take the complicated and convey it in a way that even a six-year-old boy or a ten-year-old girl can understand. It is a peculiar gift, and we might ask God to give it to us.
He’s confined himself—confined himself—to a straightforward presentation. When he went to them, he said, “I want you to know that the Messiah is the Lord Jesus Christ, and I want you to know that this Lord Jesus Christ is the one who has borne the punishment for our sins; that he is ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’; that he is the fulfillment of all these things; that he is,” as we saw yesterday morning, “the ‘Yes’ and the ‘Amen’ to all of God’s promises.”
Now, again, he’s doing this in a context—in Corinth, as in the rest of the Greco-Roman world—that was fascinated by philosophy and by rhetoric. There’s nothing they liked better than for somebody to come in and give them some speculative material or—and along with it, perhaps—to be able to do so in a way that was compelling by virtue of its oratory, so that they would be caught up by this and carried away by this, enthralled by it.
But Paul doesn’t do this. And he doesn’t do it purposefully. Because he actually tells us that he knows that there is a way of talking about the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ that empties it of its power. You say, “Well, how can that possibly be?” Well, I’m quoting 1:17. He says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” In other words, a preoccupation with the packaging may cause people to lose interest in, lose sight of, lose the benefit of what’s in the package.
One of the great things about America is its generosity. People are so kind and generous here. It’s quite alarming for me as a Scotsman. I’m not sure I like that, all that generosity. At least, I don’t like to have to do it. I like to receive it. But they give you things. People come and give you bags. They give you a bag from Hallmark or whatever it is, and it’s gushing with tissue paper all sticking out of the top. And you take it into your room, you say, “I’m so excited about this. Look at this amazing bag, and look at this amazing tissue, and look at this tissue, and look at… Oh, for goodness’ sake, a Snickers bar? I thought it was at least a Timex watch, with all of that stuff around it. That’s a lot of effort for a Snickers bar!”
Now, in Scotland, in reasonable places in the world—and I think this is true in Australia—if you’re getting a Snickers bar, you just get a Snickers bar. We don’t have to put it in a special bag and waste all that money on the bag and the thing. The jolly bag costs more than the Snickers bar! So he says, “I’m not doing all that stuff.” It’s not that he can’t do it. Oh, he could do it. For sure he could, at one level. But he doesn’t do it.
Now, as an aside, let’s just notice something here. Some of us who are not as able as others of us take this as a kind of free pass for, like, “Dumb is good.” You know, like, “I am not eloquent, and I’m really proud of it. I just, I’m, you know…” Well, let’s have a little Spurgeon here just to disavow that kind of silly notion:
Whatever you may know, you cannot be truly efficient ministers if you[’re] not “apt to teach.” You know ministers who have mistaken their calling, and evidently have no gifts for it: make sure that none think the same of you. There are brethren in the ministry whose speech is intolerable; either they rouse you to wrath, or else they send you to sleep. No [anesthetic] can ever equal some discourses in sleep-giving properties; no human being, unless gifted with infinite patience, could long endure to listen to them, and nature does well to give the victim deliverance through sleep.
I heard one say the other day that a certain preacher had no more gifts for the ministry than an oyster, and in my own judgment [that] was a slander on the oyster, for that worthy bivalve shows great discretion in his openings, and knows [just] when to close. If some men were sentenced to hear their own sermons it would be a righteous judgment upon them, and they would soon cry out with Cain, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”
Says Spurgeon, “Let us not fall under the same condemnation.”
Okay? Now, that was just a little aside, because I don’t like to get through a conference without giving Spurgeon his place.
Phillips, again, paraphrases it, “You [might] as well know … that it was my secret determination to concentrate entirely on Jesus Christ [himself] and the fact of his death upon the cross.” Well, of course, this is in keeping with the Gospels themselves, isn’t it? Insofar as the great preponderance of the material is focused on the final week of the life of Jesus. Everything, really, before that is a prologue leading to it. And therefore, it’s no surprise that Paul’s preaching should be so directly focused in this way—that wherever you would meet him, whether he’s taking on the opportunity of the peculiar circumstances of Athens or whether he is in Antioch or whatever he might be, I think if we tracked him down and we had a chance just to be in earshot of him, it would not be very long before he was directly here: “I need you to understand who Jesus is, and I need you to understand what Jesus has done.”
I wonder how many of us can quite honestly say what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. Can we really say this before our congregations? Will our congregations, after we are gone, ever say that this was true of us? First Corinthians 15: “I delivered to you of first importance that Christ died for sins according to the gospel” and so on—the primary emphasis. Some of us, if we are honest, if we will go back through the last three months, six months, or whatever it is, of our sermonic attempts, may find that were it not for the inbreaking of the Easter week, there really would be very little of the cross of Jesus Christ.
“Oh,” you say, “well, give me a break. We’re doing 2 Kings. I mean, what is there there?” That’s why we were here last night. What is the answer to our broken world? What was the need of the man that was brought paralyzed to Jesus by his friends? I wish I was there to see the reaction on those fellows’ faces when Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” They said, “No, no, no, no, no, we didn’t come here… We came here to get his legs fixed. We did not come here for an invisible transformation.” What was Jesus doing? Well, he was putting his finger on the man’s greatest need, and everybody’s greatest need, which is answered only in one place: at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s be clear that to preach the gospel faithfully means at least this: proclaiming the historical event with the God-given interpretation of that event. It involves declaring its necessity. It involves establishing its meaning. It involves not shying away from its offense. And I was helped by this quote from Goldsworthy when I read it years ago: he says, “We mustn’t confuse our declaring people’s need of the gospel or the benefits of the gospel with the gospel itself.”
We have to be prepared to explain that by nature we stand guilty before God, that we deserve judgment, that his punishment would be just. And in doing so, we declare a view of the world that is in direct opposition to the framework in which we are living now, in a broken world, in a foolish world. And that folly is revealed from, if you like, academia all the way down through our media, through our business world, through our schools, through our education, into the realm of the arts, and so on—all the way, if you like, from Dartmouth to Disney.
I hope we were able to make sure that our grandchildren did not swallow all that hogwash in Frozen. Remember that little girl? She’s no longer going to be the good girl her family wants her to be. She says,
It’s time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
That’s what the woman at the well thought: looking for love in all the wrong places, five husbands and a live-in lover, desperately in need of living water, provided by Jesus on his way to the cross, where the full and free forgiveness and radical transformation of the lives of that lady and all other men and ladies like her is to be found. How wonderful that she said, “Come, [and] see a man who told me [everything] I ever did!” How could she ever face that? I don’t want somebody to come and tell me everything I ever did! Who can do that? Well, the mercy and grace of God. Because at the cross, the innocent takes the place of the guilty in order that the guilty might be treated as the innocent.
Now, it is this, you see, which drives Paul. If he had taken the market approach, if he had decided that he was going allow the pew to control his preaching, then he would have gone in all kinds of different directions. But he didn’t have a consumer approach. He knew what people wanted. He knew they wanted signs. He knew they wanted wisdom. He understood that the message that he proclaimed was actually foolish. He said, “It is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” He understood that the message of the cross was an insult to their intelligence and an insult to their morality.
That’s the problem that we face every day as well, when you have a congregation that their default response to the predicament of the world is along these lines: “A good God, if he exists, will reward nice people if they do their best.” If that is the mindset of the congregation that sits and listens to us, and we stand up and proclaim the fact of God’s just wrath, the fact of his mercy as displayed at the cross, and so on, you’ll find the people walking away going, “Are you suggesting for a moment that I can’t be good enough?” “No, I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just telling you what I learned in the Bible.” “It really is quite an insult to me.”
That’s why you will find that in the framework of evangelicalism at the moment, you will come across people who have actually never encountered the gospel. So when you ask them about their testimony, they say things like, “Well, it’s been just a revelation to me. I’ve begun to connect to a higher power. I’ve made a private decision to be more spiritual than I have ever been.” Well, what has that got to do with the work of Christ?
No, when a person has understood the gospel, when a person has received to themselves God’s promises of redemption, they know that that has taken place at the only place and in the only way that it can be taking place. For that which the Father has planned the Son has procured and the Spirit has applied.
I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory,
Of Jesus and his love. …
I love to tell the story,
For those who know it best
Seen hungering and thirsting
To [believe] it like the rest.
Luther said, “When I hear this message proclaimed, I feel as though Jesus died only yesterday.” Lloyd-Jones said, “When I hear the cross being preached, I feel like being saved all over again.”
We’ll just stay with Lloyd-Jones for a moment. You know, Lloyd-Jones—if you don’t have his biography, you should pick that up before you go, either the two volumes or the single volume. Either way, it’s worthy of your consideration. When you read that, you will discover what I’m reminding you of, and that is that Lloyd-Jones, who was the assistant as a doctor to Lord Horder, who was the physician for the king, for the royal family, was called of God into pastoral ministry. He left that. People thought he had lost his mind. And he went to a Calvinistic Methodist chapel in Bridgend in South Wales, and there God blessed his ministry. It was a heavy emphasis on preaching. He pressed upon people the need for new birth with great frequency.
And it was there, after an evening service, that another minister, who had been present in the congregation, came to speak to him. And he had the temerity to suggest to Lloyd-Jones that the cross and the work of Christ had little place in his preaching. Instead of becoming defensive, Lloyd-Jones went out to a local bookstore, and he bought James Denney’s book on the death of Christ, he bought R. W. Dale on the atonement, and he took them into his bedroom, and he began reading them. And he stayed in his bedroom, and he didn’t come out for the meals. His wife sent for his brother to try and get him out of the bedroom, because she felt something had gone dreadfully wrong with him.
Well, actually, by his testimony, something had gone wonderfully right. Because when he finally emerged from the study, he claimed “to have found ‘the real heart of the gospel and the key to the inner meaning of the Christian faith.’” And as a result, the content of his preaching changed, and with it his impact. The basic question, he said, was not Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo but was actually “Why did Christ die?” Well, that is in the apostolic pattern. And it is that which needs to be our proclamation.
If you think about this in relationship to what he goes on to do in the balance of the text, you realize that in many ways, it’s a recapitulation: “I didn’t come using lofty speech or wisdom, but I actually, if I’m honest, came in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” I find that really hard to believe. I believe it. But it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Because when we think of Paul, we think of his amazing influence—a powerful influence in the church. But yet, if you think of all that has led up to him showing up in Corinth: you talk about having a bad day! You go to the very beginning: his first appearance is in a basket coming over a wall in Damascus. You know, “And our speaker at the conference this evening has come to us directly from a basket. They dropped him off the wall, and we’re glad to have him here. He’s just jetted in, in his basket.” He’s persecuted and he is driven out of Antioch and Pisidia. He escapes a stoning in Iconium. He’s stoned and left for dead in Lystra. He’s imprisoned in Philippi. He’s the focus of a riot in Thessalonica. The same happens in Berea. In Athens, they said, “What has this babbler got to say?” In Corinth, he shows up, he meets with opposition, relocation, salvation. So is it any surprise that he says, “You know, when I came to you, I really didn’t come across as particularly special”?
If the picture given of him by the second-century writers is at all accurate, it surely adds to it. This is what they say. I don’t know, because I wasn’t there, and neither were you, so you can’t contradict it. But he was apparently unattractive. He was small and even ugly, with beetle brows, bandy legs, and a hook nose. Not your average high school quarterback in Kentucky! I don’t know why I said Kentucky, but it’s… You can hear the organizers saying, “Yes, Paul is going to be giving two talks, but we’ve decided to leave his picture out of the brochure. We don’t want people put off by looking at him—and particularly those bandy legs. No.”
He had a massive intellect, he was forceful in his personality, but he was simultaneously physically frail and emotionally vulnerable. That’s why, as we saw yesterday, his opponents said, “Letters? Impressive. Up close, he’s a pushover.” These things were, if you like, unintentional weaknesses. Unintentional weaknesses. This is how God had made him, how he’d fashioned him. He could have tried to overcome them by taking them on at their own game: fiery oratory, rhetoric to tickle their ears, enflame them with passion. But instead, he embraces what we might refer to as intentional weaknesses: the message of a man dying on a cross, penal substitutionary atonement, the manner in which he delivered it. Paul’s intentional and unintentional weaknesses serve to provide the most convincing demonstration of the Spirit’s power. That’s what he said: “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” He was, if you like, a living testimony to the work of the Spirit in him and through him. He knew about being an old clay pot.
So it is imperative—isn’t it, brothers?—that we get this right. To get it right, we need to keep a close watch on ourselves and on our teaching. Because you will notice that his great concern, or what he’s aiming at, there in verse 5 is that their faith—these folks that he loves, that he’s written to encourage, that he must now deal with some of their issues that are bedeviling them—he realizes that a faith that depends on clever reasoning will simply be demolished by a cleverer argument.
And whatever and however capable we may be in the matter of apologetics, the fact of the matter is, as one of our previous speakers at Basics reminded us so forcefully—and it’s become a catchphrase among us here in this church—only God opens blind eyes; only God softens hard hearts. And nobody—nobody—will be amazed by the impact of this gospel message until they have been embraced by this gospel message.
When you stand at the west end of Princes Street in Edinburgh and look at the Anglican church building that is beneath the castle, if you look at it from the outside and somebody were to tell you, “You know, the windows in that building are magnificent,” standing there on a rainy Tuesday, you’d say, “They don’t look like much to me.” And they say, “Well, wait a minute. Let’s go inside and let the sun shine through the windows, and on the inside you will realize how splendid they really are.”
“Once I was blind and believed I saw everything, proud on my own, and a fool on my part. And then the gospel came and opened me up.”
Well, let me end with just a word of warning. I don’t want to deviate from course at all, and I left the other sheet behind. But in Britain, long ago, there was a student movement called the Student Christian Movement. It was very, very effective. It was very, very effective until it took its eyes off the ball. It started—and we’re talking long ago, now, in the ’50s—it started to say, “You know, if we’re going to really reach the student movement, we need to devalue our preoccupation with, you know, Jesus and him crucified. Let’s make sure that we build bridges into the community by speaking to them about alternative lifestyles. Let’s speak to them about the importance of racial harmony. Let’s make sure…” And they had a whole host of things that, when you read it now, you say, “Goodness, I thought all this was new!” No, it’s not new.
And what they discovered, of course, was exactly what we would expect to discover: that in giving up the only message that saves, they had nothing at all to say. And they vanished. They have vanished. It was trendy at that time for people to declare themselves as Christian Marxists. And so they would reach out to people—and the piece that I read, which was a PhD thesis written at the University of Sterling, the fellow chronicles the fact that what actually happened was that the Marxists didn’t become Christians, but the Christians gave up their Christianity and became sold-out Marxists!
Well, let’s be careful here. Let’s be careful. I guess I’m not going to be around for the eventuality of all of this stuff, but I can at least sound a cautionary word to my younger brothers that are coming behind me: Remember “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
“Well,” you say, “what’s going to happen? Everybody’s going to fall apart and go away, and all the old guys will be gone.” I mean, Sproul’s gone. Who knows how long… No, I won’t go there. I’ll just leave that alone. But… Okay. Well, it’s dark, isn’t it? And it’s foolish and stuff, and… Do you know what it was like in England in the 1700s? What a dreadful place that was? How chaotic the culture was? How cold the church was? And what did God do? Well, a lady had a baby. “Lots of ladies had babies.” Yeah, but not everybody had a baby called John Wesley. Not everybody had a baby called Charles Wesley. Mrs. Whitefield had George. And as a result of the birth of these little ones, untold thousands were touched and changed as a result of the proclamation of the gospel.
J. C. Ryle, years later, in the nineteenth century, he says,
Fear not for the Church of Christ, when ministers die, and saints are taken away. Christ can ever maintain His … cause. He will raise up better servants and brighter stars. The stars are all in His right hand. Leave off all anxious thought about the future. Cease to be cast down by the measures of statesmen, or the plots of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Christ will ever provide for His own Church. Christ will take care that “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” All is going well, though our eyes may not see it. The kingdoms of this world shall yet become the kingdoms of God, and of [our] Christ.
Oh, that’s so good, isn’t it? It’s wonderful. [Applause.] That’s one of the reasons we don’t have clapping.
So, let’s take it down to a very personal, personal level, and with this I will stop. I mentioned Lloyd-Jones, what happened—his refocus and so on. And this is in his little book Truth Unchanged, Unchanging. He writes,
There is but one cure for the ills of man. When my conscience accuses me there is but one thing I know of that can give me rest and peace. It is to know … Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, … has forgiven me. It is to believe, and to know, that because He loved me and died for me, I am clear of accusation. And, conscious as I am of my weakness and my failure, and my lack of power to live a life worthy of the name, I am again driven back to Him. It is only from Him and the power of the Holy Spirit which He imparts that I can be made more than conqueror. And as I contemplate myself lying on my deathbed and going on to meet my Maker and my Judge Eternal, my only hope is that I shall be clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and that He will take me by the hand and present me “faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.” It is always, and only, in Christ that I find satisfaction. It is only in Him that my problems are solved. The world, with all its methods, cannot help me at the moment of my greatest need. … Christ never fails. He satisfies always and in every respect. [Wesley was right]:
Thou, O Christ, [are] all I want;
More than all in thee I find!
Well, may it be that that which undergirds us personally will become the increased focus of our pulpits.
Let us pray:
Our God and our Father, we thank you that we might hear the voice of the Lord Jesus in and among and beyond and around, perhaps even through, all these many words. Thank you that you’ve given us a story to tell. Thank you that you’ve given to us, sent down from heaven, the Holy Spirit to aid us in our weakness. And thank you that we’re able to affirm that any good that we are enabled to accomplish is “not I but through Christ in me.” Bless us, Lord, we pray, now, as we go on with this day and as we stand together and sing. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 2 Timothy 1:5–6 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 2:8 (ESV).
 2 Timothy 2:14 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 2:1 (paraphrased from Phillips).
 See Acts 17:3.
 See Psalm 121:8.
 See 1 Corinthians 5:9.
 2 Corinthians 5:19 (KJV).
 John 1:29 (ESV).
 See 2 Corinthians 1:20.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Necessity of Ministerial Progress,” in Lectures to My Students (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 252.
 1 Corinthians 2:2 (Phillips).
 1 Corinthians 15:3 (paraphrased).
 Mark 2:5 (ESV).
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 95. Paraphrased.
 Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, “Let It Go” (2013).
 See John 4:1–26.
 John 4:29 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 1:18 (paraphrased).
 Arabella Katherine Hankey, “I Love to Tell the Story” (1866).
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th anniv. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 15. Stott’s book provides this account of the change in Lloyd-Jones’s preaching on pp. 15–16, drawing from Iain H. Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1, The First Forty Years, 1899–1939 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 190–91.
 See Acts 9:25.
 See Acts 13:50.
 See Acts 14:5.
 See Acts 14:19.
 See Acts 16:23.
 See Acts 17:5.
 See Acts 17:13.
 Acts 17:18 (paraphrased).
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1994), 58.
 2 Corinthians 10:10 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Corinthians 4:7.
 See 1 Timothy 4:16.
 Stuart Townend, “I Will Sing of the Lamb” (1997). Paraphrased.
 John Charles Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, 3rd enlarged ed. (London: William Hunt, 1887), 320.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Truth Unchanged, Unchanging (London: James Clarke, 1951), 117–18.
 Jonny Robinson, Michael Farren, and Rich Thompson, “Yet Not I but through Christ in Me” (2018).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.