March 8, 1992
History is full of eloquent and passionate orators. Though many would put the apostle Paul in that category, he intentionally set aside persuasive speech and superior wisdom to shine the spotlight on the only thing that mattered: the Gospel of Christ. While many churches are tempted to alter their style to adapt to the current culture, Alistair Begg challenges us to rely solely on divine assistance as we continue to learn and teach from the Bible.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Please turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 2. And as you turn there, let’s just ask God to help us as we seek to study these verses together:
Heavenly Father, we are about to discover in these verses truth that we want to be applied in our very discovery. We want to find that the Spirit of God works in our hearts beyond the power or influence of mere human words. Give us attentive hearts, we pray. May we listen with ears that are attuned to your voice, and may we be different as a result of what we discover. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Consider how much has changed since Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian church. Two thousand years of history and all the developments of science and modern technology mean that we’re not only thousands of miles from Corinth, but we’re also thousands of years from Corinth. And while everything has been changing, in the minds of men there has gone along the simultaneous thought that new is largely supplanting the old, and much of what is old is not only old, but it is obsolete. It is no longer valid. It certainly would no longer be useful to us today. That is true when we think of modes of communication, when we think of means of transportation, when we think of the benefits and blessings of medical scientific discovery.
And because that is so much a part of our thinking in a vastly changing universe, it is uniquely challenging to consider the idea that while so much changes—and so much that was part of Corinth would only be part of a twentieth-century museum today—that in the midst of all of that, the message proclaimed by Paul in Corinth would be equally valid, would be still the message that would needed to be proclaimed in Cleveland this morning. Because of the backdrop against which that notion is set, it’s hard for us to actually believe that that is so. And yet, when we think along other lines, we realize that people still fall in love today the way they fell in love in Corinth. People still face their destiny the way they did so long ago. They still fight their fears, they still wrestle with sin and with guilt. And therefore, for those timeless factors in humanity, we would, I presume, need a timeless truth to answer them. And, of course, that is Paul’s conviction: that although much of humanity had passed him by before he reached the streets of Corinth, still he proclaimed this truth—proclaimed it in such a way that subsequent generations would lay hold of it and proclaim it also themselves.
In 1:17, we saw that Paul was very clear about his mission: he was to “preach the gospel,” despite the fact that this wisdom and power represented in the gospel was regarded as foolish and weak by man. And Paul has wrestled with this antithesis through these verses to the end of chapter 1, this paradox. And we ought not to think of Paul as some mighty man. We ought not to think of him in terms of coming in a procession into Corinth. Rather, he’s the kind of little character that would have been jeered at. People would have mocked him. They regarded his message as absolutely stupid. Despite the fact that Paul understood that, he declares forcefully in verse 25 that “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” And then he immediately provides an illustration: he says, “You want to have an illustration of this? Don’t look any further than yourselves.” “Brothers,” he said, “think of what you were when you were called.” And that we considered last time.
Now, in 2:1, he provides a further picture of strength revealed in weakness, of wisdom conveyed in a message of apparent foolishness. And it is illustrated not only in the calling of those who were in Corinth but also in the coming of the one who was involved in their calling. And so he said, “Let me give you a further illustration of the paradox. When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom.” So there is one central truth that he is continuing to drive home—namely, the notion that this abiding message of the cross of Christ, regarded as foolishness in Corinth and foolishness in Cleveland, nevertheless remains the message, and the only message which the church is given to proclaim, irrespective of technological advance or of scientific discovery.
Let us, then, consider three things: first of all, his manner; then his message; and finally, his motivation.
He mentions the manner in which he came in verse 1 and also in verse 3. And I’d like for you to turn back for a moment to the book of Acts to sketch in what we probably have already forgotten—that when Paul arrived in this narrow neck of land, this intersection of the trade routes of his day, this cosmopolitan and commercial enterprising city, he had come out of a background that was represented not by what you would regard as the most encouraging circumstances. We can’t take time to articulate it all, but a cursory glance at from about the fourteenth chapter of Acts of the Apostles will bear this out.
By the time he gets to Philippi in 16:23, he had already had his clothes stripped off him, and he was beaten, and he had received a flogging that was enough not only to take the wind out of him but to take the skin off his back. That was Philippi. God miraculously intervenes in Philippi, and he moves to Thessalonica in chapter 17. In Thessalonica, his ministry is marked by gangs and by riots. In Berea, to which he moves, despite the fact that people are receiving his message with keenness, his ministry is marked by agitation. And by the time he reaches Athens and discovers a city full of idols, we’re told in verse 16 that “he was greatly distressed” when he saw “that the city was full of idols.” And so he goes on to Corinth out of this background.
Now, hold that kind of sketch in your mind, because it will be important in a moment or two to help us understand what he’s saying. In verse 1, he tells us that in his arrival at Corinth he was traveling light. Traveling light. What did he have in his baggage? Well, he tells us what he didn’t have, and then he tells us what he had. Two items in particular he decided to leave behind: one, “eloquence”; and two, “superior wisdom.”
If you imagine him, in common parlance of the day, checking in at Cleveland Hopkins, and somebody said, “Do you have anything to check?” and he said, “No, I just have a carry-on,” and they said, “Nothing at all?” “No,” he said, “I was going to bring a couple of things with me; I had a couple of cases that I would have checked—one case was marked ‘eloquence,’ and the other case was marked ‘superior wisdom’—but I decided to leave them at home”—we would have a fair picture of what this verse conveys. Because we need to ask the question: Is Paul saying that these factors—eloquence and superior wisdom—were missing because he was incapable of them? Is this a description of Paul incapable of doing these things, of applying this process? The answer is no, not for a moment! Paul was as gifted and as capable as any of his day. Paul stands out as someone who represents giftedness in relationship to these things. And so what he is saying is not that he was incapable of them but that he was unwilling to employ them. He was unwilling to take stock of them and to use them.
Now, the reason that this was significant was because the style and content of the proclaimers that were represented in the Corinthian scene was committed to both these pieces of luggage. If you couldn’t be eloquent and if you couldn’t be smart, then nobody wanted to listen to you. So the temptation was to draw a crowd in much the same way that as I have to speak to you, and I see you out there, and I see some of you already nodding off, and I see some of you already leafing through your bulletins, and I see some of you doing all manner of things to one another, the challenge that is there for me is “How in the world do you speak to this group of people?”
Now, one of the ways to do it is to manipulate them—make them laugh or make them cry, stir them, change them, move them, guide them; use all the tricks of the trade, use all the theatricals, use all natural ability, and simply attach them to yourself. Paul could have done all of that. He was more than capable of that. But he didn’t. He didn’t! He rejected the style and the content which was most acceptable in his day. You say to yourself, “But surely that threatened the possibility of his results. Surely you would do much better if you use the methodology of the time.” Didn’t he risk failure? Yes! Wouldn’t people think he was foolish and not really smart? Yes! But did that allow him to be swayed by it? No!
Now, he uses technical terms here. The word “eloquence” is actually the word logos, with a little bit of an adjective in front of it, but don’t worry about it. It describes rational talk, the eloquent and persuasive oration of the Greek orators. It describes a kind of proclamation which is so up-front that it obscures the content of what the individual’s saying. That’s what he’s saying: “I refused to use a mode of address that would be so in people’s faces that all they could remember was the way in which I said it, and they forgot the very thing that I was called upon to say.”
The kind of Greek oration to which he refers is not the ability of syntax. It’s not a quote concerning his ability with vocabulary. It is not that he is unable to communicate effectively. It is a decision on his part not to use the flowery junk of his day—the kind of thing that Shakespeare captures so incredibly in a number of his plays, and especially in a character which he reincarnates a number of times with different names, but he appears as the father of Ophelia in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. And you will remember that Polonius was a great orator, but he could never say what he was trying to say for stumbling over the way in which he was saying it. So, for example, when he had the responsibility to convey to the queen that her son was crazy, he somehow just couldn’t get to the bottom line. And so he goes at it like this:
My liege and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, [and] night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste [both] night, day, and time.
[And] since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
Okay? Shakespeare writes him so that it’s a joke. It’s a joke in the play: “I will be brief.” Then he goes on to say,
Your noble son is mad.
“Mad” call I it, for, to define true madness,
What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?
And then he goes on to the back end to go and clown around with the whole notion all again. And all that he’s trying to say is “Hamlet’s nuts!” That’s it! That’s his message: “Hey, Queen? Hamlet is nuts!” But the way in which he goes at it obscures the content of his delivery.
And that is what Paul is referring to. “I did not come into Corinth,” he said, “and try and dance your tune. I didn’t come in and play your game. I didn’t come in and set up my stall and stand on my box and go at it the way you like it. I decided I wasn’t doing it. And furthermore,” he said, “not only did I not use logos, but I didn’t use sophos. I didn’t use sophia. I didn’t use the wisdom that they like.”
Tremendous statement concerning his strategy! He knew that to approach them on the basis of “eloquence” and “superior wisdom” would please them and would captivate them. But notice this, and notice it carefully: what he knew would please and captivate he decided not to employ. Now, doesn’t that strike you as ridiculous? It’s supposed to! Because he stands against the tide of his day in doing what he did, not only in what he said but also in the way in which he said it. Again, you must understand that the notion is not that he couldn’t but that he wouldn’t.
So, what was missing from his bags? “Eloquence” and “superior wisdom.” What did he carry with him? Well, you’ll find that in verse 3. What did he check? He checked three things: “weakness,” “fear,” and “much trembling.” “What do you have to offer today, Apostle Paul?” “Well,” he said, “I got some weakness and some fear, and I shake a lot.” Not exactly what you would call impressive, you think? I mean, I think we think of the apostle Paul, and we read back twenty centuries of modern evangelicalism. We think of the apostle Paul coming to Cleveland and staying in the Ritz-Carlton, getting picked up in a limo and dropped off at the stadium, where he will proclaim to thousands, magnify the wonder of his ability, get back in the limo, and go back to his hotel, where he will be ensconced in his room and will only entertain interviews by CNN and those whom his staff of reporters have determined he will meet with. That’s stupid stuff! There’s nothing like that at all in Paul coming into Corinth. Paul came into Corinth obscure, apparently trivial, a strange little man.
Now, when you rehearse the events that we went through—and that’s why I went through them a moment ago—from Acts chapter 14 and following, you can understand why it is that he would be weak. Weak. If you’d got beaten up that much, don’t you think you’d be weak? I mean, how many times can you get thrown down the dungeon stairs? Don’t you think that his body was wrecked? Read the account in Acts. They beat him for dead. He was left for dead. They said, “He’s done,” in Lystra. The people gathered around him, laid hands on him, the Spirit of God raised him up, but he was finished. I’m sure there were parts of his body, if he’d stripped off for the shower and you’d looked at him, you’d say, “What the world happened to you?” And he would have said, “This? The way my knee won’t straighten? I got this in Lystra when they kicked me. And the way my neck is here was from the back of the blow that came to me when they flogged us in the jail in Philippi before they put us in the stocks. And the fact that I look as decrepit as I do is not because I like looking this way, but it is because this is the way they treated first-century evangelists.”
There is a correlation, loved ones, between the kickings and the power. I don’t know how we get at it, but there is no question. There is a correlation between the power in the Eastern Bloc and all the suffering. There is a correlation between the underground church in China and their mighty power. And there is a correlation between our softness and our inability to impact this culture with the gospel. And the very things we run from are the very things that would make us, and the very things that we run after are the very things that make us an irrelevancy.
Paul says, “No, I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.” He’d been through too much. He wasn’t afraid of the context. When it says that he was there in fear, do you think he was frightened to preach? No! He was preaching all the time. Do you think he was frightened that he’d get his head chopped off? No, he’d already decided he was going to get his head chopped off. Do you think he was afraid of what people say? Get real! Everybody had said everything; there was nothing more for them to say. What was he afraid of? I’ll tell you what he was afraid of: he was afraid of the fact that when he looked at himself and saw how impoverished he was, when he looked at people and saw how great their need was, and when he looked at God and saw the calling he’d been given, he was afraid that he would intrude upon the proclamation in such a way that folks would be attached to him and would miss what God was saying. That’s what he was afraid of! That’s what ought to make a preacher fearful!
Somebody said to me on the front row just a minute ago, said, “Don’t you get nervous going up there?” Answer: Yes! “Why are you nervous? ’Cause you can’t stand in front of people?” No, I can stand in front of people. “Because you don’t know what you’re gonna say?” No, I largely know what I’m gonna say. Where is there nerves in this after seventeen years? I’ll tell you where the nerves are: the nerves are right here. The fear is that having done it all and doing it wrong, I may attach people to that which is superficial and transient and irrelevant and fail by my very self to do what the responsibility given me to do is, and that is to attach them to the living God himself. And that is why he dumped the bags: because he knew that if he gave them what they wanted, they may buy it at that price, and having bought it at that discounted level, it would be an irrelevancy to them as they faced the future.
So here he is. He’s run down. He’s a sorry sight. He’s not the kind of individual that you expect to put face-to-face with people who admired strength and creativity and oratory and philosophy. Can you imagine introducing him to a group of people at the Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC? We bring the president, and we bring all the powerful and the mighty. Well, let’s rethink that. They’re not that powerful at economics, so we would want to change that. They’re not that powerful at moral transformation, so we would want to change that. Frankly, they’re not that powerful at all; they just think they are. And we bring all these presumptuous people, who, because of their high estimation of themselves, believe that the only person they would ever be prepared to listen to is someone who is very powerful, very mighty, very eloquent, and very wise. And in we trot this little converted Jew who can neither stand up straight nor chooses to take them on at their own game: “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the apostle Paul.” People would have said, “Away with this wee character. He’s not the kind of thing we like. Give us what we want!” And Paul faced the challenge in his day, and we face the challenge in the day. The culture cries out, “Give us what we want!” And the challenge of the Scriptures is whether we’re gonna give what the Bible says they need.
That was his manner. What of his message? What of his message?
Well, he tells us. He said that he made a resolve. The word is actually an important word. Some have suggested that his resolve is unique to Corinth: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except [this],” as opposed to other places. And those of you who are Bible students over the years know that one of the classic interpretations is that he moved from Acts 17, where he’s been in Athens, and he’s been quoting poets, and quoting the Beatles, and quoting all those people—the first-century Beatles—and quoting literature, and doing all that stuff, and there hasn’t been that great of a response to the gospel, apparently, so he decides to bag that as an approach, and he comes into Corinth, and he says, “Now I’m resolving to do it differently.”
I think that’s an absolutely crazy interpretation of the Bible. I don’t believe that he was doing anything differently except employing the methodology that is a distinction between when you walk down to a group of fishermen by the coast in the northeast of Scotland and you seek to engage them in conversation, you’re going to approach them in a very different way than you’re going to engage a group of people in conversation down on Coventry Avenue in the Heights. If you’re smart you are, at any rate. I mean, I don’t suggest you get a bunch of teenagers down there and say, “Ah, the wind’s blowing today, is it not?” You know? They’re just, like, “Man…” you know? Okay? Or you go to the fisherman and say, “Hey, have you been listening to U2 lately?” Guys are going, “You too, me too?” You’ll be into one of those “Who’s on first?” deals, you know? You tailor your approach.
And that’s exactly what he was doing. When he goes into Athens, he employs a strategy for Athens. He says, “These guys are intellects,” so he goes at their level, and he quotes their poets. But he doesn’t rely upon that as his strategy; it’s merely a door of opportunity. The difficulty comes when the door of opportunity that we create by means of our methodology transcends our message. The only reason he swung the door open was so that he could say the same thing in Athens as he was saying in Corinth. What was he saying? He was proclaiming the testimony of God. The NIV says “the testimony about God”; it’s really the testimony of God. It was God’s testimony. God imparted it to his witnesses, and his witnesses were to impart it as he’d given it. It wasn’t to be tampered with. It wasn’t to be altered, embellished. It wasn’t to be fiddled with, with oratory and worldly wisdom.
What was the testimony of God from heaven when he looked down? This is what he said, seeing his Son in his baptism: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” That was the testimony of God: “Listen to Jesus.” That’s still the testimony of God. Therefore, those of us who have the responsibility—which falls to all who are in Christ—of proclaiming the testimony of God, we don’t need to be in any doubt about what it is. We’re to say to men and women, “This is Jesus. Listen to him!” And when we get to the essence of who and what Jesus is, we bang right up against this phrase, “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
It wasn’t, you see, that Paul just slipped into this. He made a decision. The word “resolve,” ekrina, means to decide or to determine, to employ our will to an eventuality. And he said, “I resolved to know nothing.” You see, it’s in the mind that we channel the resources to change the will. And he won the battle in his mind. He thought it through, and he said, “No, I won’t do that. I will do this.” If we don’t change in our minds—Romans 12:1—we’ll never change in our lives. So as he sat and thought it out, he thought it out and said, “No, I’m not going to do that. I know that’s what they’d like. I know that’s what they want to hear. I know that’ll draw a crowd. I know it’ll be influential. I know they’ll go home happy. But I’m not going to do it. What I’m going to do is I’m going to proclaim this message: Jesus and him crucified. I refuse to play the game. I refuse to get involved in exciting speculation. I’m gonna stick with the program. Jesus said that I was to bear his name before the gentiles, and that’s exactly what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna bear his name.”
Now, he says in verse 4 that neither the message he proclaimed nor the way in which he did so were marked by words that were “wise and persuasive.” This does not mean that he was foolish and unpersuasive. In fact, in Acts 18:4 it says that he wrestled around the synagogue, and he tried to persuade the Greeks and the Jews of his message. So what does it mean that his preaching was not with “wise and persuasive words”? It doesn’t mean either that he just gave them the message in a kind of take-it-or-leave-it approach. Rather, what he’s saying is this: in his message and in his preaching, he displayed nothing that was calculated to impress and capture.
Do you realize how challenging that is if you’re gonna be a preacher of the gospel? Do you realize how everything in you militates against that strategy? Everything in you, as you approach the seven hundredth Sunday of your life, or whatever else it is, as you come again to the same task, everything in you is saying, “Capture them! Grab them! Use this. Read Zig Ziglar. Get smart. You can’t just keep doing that same thing. You just can’t keep going, ‘This is the Bible. Believe the Bible. Trust in Christ. Follow Christ.’ You can’t do that! You’re gonna have to do more than that. These people won’t hang around for that stuff.”
Paul says, “No, I decided that I wouldn’t go for that.” He was going to rely on what God would do, not on what he might accomplish. Because he’s already made it very plain—and he will return to it and underline it in verse 14 of the chapter—that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Do you understand what that verse is saying? It’s saying that you bring your people to the guest service, and they don’t give a rip about the message of the gospel. They don’t understand it, they don’t appreciate it, and anything they grab about it, they think it’s total foolishness. So what are you relying on? The ability of a man to package it in such a way that will break down their resistance? A line of approach, an angle? A clever presentation? A natural talent? A skillful erosion of the mind of man so that we may achieve what the Bible says is unachievable? Is that it?
You see, this is why Paul was at this. He said, “The only way that anything ever happens is when the Spirit of God does these things.” And that’s why he succeeded, in spite of his poor condition physically, in spite of his strange methodology. He succeeded for the very reason that he was throwing aside all human help and relying upon divine assistance. That’s what we need in this pulpit, and that’s what we need in every pulpit. We must have men who are relying solely on divine assistance. We cannot have men who are relying on their ability. They will preach in vain, and people will listen in vain, and congregations will pray in vain, because God will not share his glory with anybody else. So if the man comes to the pulpit and he says, “I’ve got a good one this morning! Boy, I’ll go at them, and I’ll show them, and I’ll do this, and I’ll do that”—God says, “Turn off channel 3,” or whatever it is. “It’s more nonsense again. More self, self, self.” If a congregation begins to focus on an individual and say, “Boy, is that the guy who can talk! Boy, here’s the preacher! Boy, we’ll have this person come, and that person come, and then they’ll listen to him”—nothing, nothing will happen that is of eternal significance. It can’t happen! It’s destined not to happen!
And that is exactly why Paul did what he did. Don’t you think that he could have jammed every amphitheater in Corinth? Don’t you think that he could have shut down the Temple of Diana. Don’t you think that he could have arranged all kinds of marches in the streets? Course he could! But he didn’t. And the question for your mind this morning is this: Is this an incident of historical significance, or is this a description of eternal validity? In other words, is this descriptive, or is it prescriptive? Are we supposed to be doing what he’s doing?
The statement in verse 4, incidentally, does not mean that Paul in his preaching displayed Spirit and power… When it says that he didn’t have “wise and persuasive words” but he had a “demonstration of the Sprit and of power,” as it says in the KJV, what does that mean? It does not mean that in his preaching he displayed Spirit and power in the way that I can get worked up or get excited or something, and people say, “Whoa,” you know, “that’s Spirit! Whoa, that’s power!” No it’s not! That’s personality. That’s all it is. God may choose to clothe it with power, but this is personality. This is who I am. I get worked up like this. I’m sorry! But worked up is not Spirit and power, and quiet is not an absence of Spirit and power.
So it was not that he disdained “wise and persuasive words” but was “whoa!” Spirit and power. But rather, it was that in his leaving aside of all the skillful oratory of the day, in his leaving aside of the human wisdom, in his standing there in apparent weakness, and in his communicating the truth of “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” the Spirit of God made a demonstration in the hearts of men and women. That’s where the demonstration takes place. It’s not a demonstration made by the preacher. It is a demonstration that nobody sees. It is a demonstration in the heart of men.
So somebody goes out from this auditorium, and they get in their car, and they cannot shake the Scripture, they cannot evade the conviction, who’s doing that? The Spirit of God’s doing that. Does it matter who said it? Not at all! Does it matter how they said it? Not ultimately! It matters that they said it in such a way that the Spirit of God said, “Here is a message that I can drive home to the heart of an individual.”
So we don’t want to look for some kind of style as an indication of strength and power. We want to look for the eventuality of people’s lives being transformed by the gospel. Where’s the demonstration of Spirit and power? Changed lives. Reconciled husbands and wives. People coming from darkness into light. People who are enslaved by habits being liberated. People who are standing up and proclaiming, “This Jesus is the Christ! My life is changed!”
But it doesn’t matter who proclaimed it. It doesn’t matter who shared it. It doesn’t matter how they did it. It doesn’t matter if they’re loud or they’re quiet or they’re good or they’re funny or they’re long or they’re short. It only matters that we have the kind of preaching that God by his Spirit can own. And without that, this is the most horrible triviality for all concerned.
Loved ones, I need you to pray to this end. Those of you who are committed members of this congregation, I need you to pray to this end, lest we fall down on the wrong side of this equation, and congratulate ourselves, and miss the point completely. Persuasive words, you see, can never accomplish what God by his Spirit is only able to do. The world is great at persuasion. It accomplishes nothing in the end.
Now let me finish just with a word here in verse 5. His manner was not eloquence and superior wisdom; it was actually weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking. His message hasn’t changed—the testimony of God: “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” a testimony which will bring with it a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power,” not that people can look at it and say, “There it is,” but in the transformation of life.
Why did he do this? What was his motivation? It’s very clear. He says, “I did this for an express purpose: so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom.” Because men’s wisdom changes all the time. And if he simply communicated the wisdom of man and the Corinthians had embraced man’s wisdom, then the Corinthians would fall foul of the next person who came along who was wiser than Paul before. And so he says, “I didn’t take that approach, because I recognize that your faith, if you are to be stabilized and energized, must rest on the changeless grace of God himself.” And so he seeks to minister in such a way that his listeners may have their faith resting solidly upon God’s power.
You see, loved ones, this morning, only, as I say, God’s power can take an indifferent and rebellious heart and transform it. Only God’s power can do that! Man can take religious ideas and communicate them in such a way as to show the pragmatic validity of them to men and women. Men and women can understand the pragmatic notions of faith, can decide that they like that, can commit themselves to a religious journey, and remain completely unchanged by the power of God.
And there are some in our congregation, and that is exactly you. You came along to this church, and this is exactly where you are. You decided that church ought to have a place in your life, for whatever reason. The Spirit of God is at work within your heart and says, “Come on. Let’s get serious.” So you began to get serious. You’ve come along, and you’ve decided that there is a measure of pragmatism in what’s being said: “After all, it gives a peace of mind, and I like peace of mind. After all, it gives me a sense of equilibrium in my week, and I like that. After all, it kind of reinforces family, and I’m American, and I think family’s important. And it also says to me, ‘You know, there’s purpose out there.’” So, embracing the validity of all of that, you have decided of your own volition to commit yourself to a religious journey, and you’re on it.
But here’s the problem: when you started the journey, you were a dreadful swearer, and you swear just as much as you ever did. When you started the journey, you were a liar, and you lie as much as you ever did. When you began the pilgrimage, your life was full of bitterness and of envy and of hate and of rebellion and of guilt, and you’re still the exact same as you ever were. And you know it! And you’re troubled by it.
And I’m here to tell you what the answer is: you have simply recognized the wisdom that is contained in a way of life, but you have never come to learn in Jesus that way to life. So your faith this morning is vacuous. It is resting on man’s wisdom. And preaching such as that that I’ve just outlined may continue to help you to walk that walk and to talk that talk and may lead you into the very pit of hell.
And that is why Paul took the approach he took. That is why he trembled at the prospect of it. He trembled at the thought that men and women could so miss the point under his ministry as to embrace the shell and miss the substance and go on their journey continually lost.
What does this say about the approach that we take to things, as well, in terms of what we do here in the church? I think it says that we may be as imaginative and creative as we can be in creating a door of opportunity, but once we open the door of opportunity, we dare not modify the gospel to make it more acceptable to our hearers. Paul in these verses offers no leeway to those of us who are tempted to eliminate parts of the gospel in an endeavor to attract and reach more than we might if we told them the whole story. Because, after all, half a gospel produces half a Christian. And half a Christian is no Christian at all.
What are you this morning? You half a Christian, almost there, present in your seat, committed to the ideology, interested in the benefits that it brings? That is not it, loved ones. “So that your faith may not rest on men’s wisdom but on the transforming power of the Spirit of God.”
Let us bow together in prayer.
Right where we sit this morning, God calls for a response in our hearts. These messages produce crossroads for us all—decisions to be made, resolution to face, convictions regarding life and faith and family and ministry. I don’t know what God might choose to do in your heart, but you do, and God does. Are you a Christian this morning? Are you transformed by the power of the Spirit? Are you just coming along with your mom and dad, and you like it a bit, and you’re not sure, and God is speaking to you these weeks, and you go away, you get in the car, and you try to turn the radio on and think about something else, change your mind? Don’t do that! Just where you sit this morning, acknowledge what is really the case: that you’re lost, and you need Christ; that you’re empty. Just where you sit, cry out to him, cast yourself upon his mercy.
And those of us who are in Christ and are tempted to play the game, God forgive us. Change us. Silence my tongue, Lord, for once and for all, where there is violation of the very things that we’re wrestling with this morning. Shut the ministry down rather than let us rob you of your glory or deny your name or congratulate ourselves and talk about who we are.
Father, help us today, we pray, that we might live to the praise of your glory.
And may the grace which draws us to yourself, and may the love which fills our lives and flows from us, and may the peace which guards and keeps our hearts and minds rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today, and all the days of our lives, and then forevermore. Amen.
 1 Corinthians 1:26 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 17:16 (NIV 1984).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.
 See Acts 14:19–20.
 See Acts 16:22–24.
 Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 12:2.
 See Isaiah 42:8.
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.