The Word of the Cross
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The Word of the Cross

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 6

1 Corinthians 1:18  (ID: 2741)

The cross stands as the definitive point of history, but the Church is in danger of so trivializing the notion of sin that the cross of Christ loses its meaning. Using the example of the Apostle Paul, Alistair Begg explains that pastors must preach Christ and Him crucified at every opportunity. The Gospel, in all of its fullness, provides the only remedy for our greatest need: forgiveness and reconciliation to a holy God.


Sermon Transcript:

Well, let’s turn together to 1 Corinthians chapter 1. And although the focus of our time this morning is largely in the section that begins with verse 18, since verse 18 begins with “For,” I think we better read the first seventeen verses and not assume that we have them fresh in our memory. 1 Corinthians 1:1:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’

“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

Amen.

We’ll leave it there, although we will continue from there, I hope, in our session tomorrow.

Let me begin in two ways. First of all, by saying that I hope all of you have picked up a copy of the two volumes of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. If you’ve been here for these eleven years, or some of them, you know that we’ve press this upon you again and again. It’s not because we have a great glut of them that we’re trying to move, but actually, we think it’s a jolly good biography on the part of Iain Murray. And if you have taken that and read it, you will have benefited greatly from it, and you probably, like others who have read it, found it hard to realize that Martyn Lloyd-Jones of all people should be on the receiving end of criticism concerning his preaching—and particularly on one memorable occasion when a visiting minister attending an evening service in Bridgend in Wales had to speak to him after the sermon. And it wasn’t on account of his style, but it was on account of the content of his preaching. And as a result of that, it was a turning point in Lloyd-Jones’s ministry. I mention that because I’m going to come back to it a little later on. Now, that’s just to intrigue you and to encourage you to go buy the volumes.

Secondly, by way of introduction, most of us realize that Puritan preachers are known, among other things, for the length of their sermons. It wasn’t uncommon for congregations to be under the kind of tutelage where the minister might have said, “Now, twenty-sixthly…” And on one notable occasion, the man who had done that in the morning, feeling some sense of compassion for his congregation, began his sermon in the evening with these words: “Since my sermon this morning had twenty-six points, my sermon this evening will be pointless.” And I mention that because I want to confess to you that although I’ve read Corinthians, although I have expounded Corinthians in the past, or at least attempted to do so, all my endeavors to come up with any kind of decent outline for this passage have absolutely floundered. Everything that I tried was absolutely useless, and so I have no outline. I want to confess that to you up front, and I’m hoping that by the time I finish, you will have an outline, which you can then give to me, that I’ll be able to use on a subsequent occasion. In fact, let’s just take that as an exercise. All right?

The immediate context—obviously, the context of the letter—is that Paul is responding to that which has come his way with information of the church in Corinth, and that gives us an insight into many of the things that he addresses. But in the immediate verses that precede verse 18, we realize that Paul has been confronted with the fact that there is quarreling and division among these Corinthians. And they are apparently placing more importance on the messengers than they are on the message itself, and he wants to take them to task for this.

You’ll notice that he affirms them, first of all, in verse 4—a wise and gracious guide. “I always thank God for you,” he says in the section that follows from there. And having affirmed them in Christ as those who are being sanctified in Christ, which allows us to pick up from last evening, he then appeals to them, and he appeals to them on the basis of the gospel. He’s appealing that they would be, you will notice, “perfectly united”—verse 10—“perfectly united in mind and [in] thought.” That is his exhortation. That is, if you like, an imperative—that the indicative has already been given to them, because he has begun by saying that he is writing “to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” So it is on account of who they are that he makes his appeal to them.

He’s very clear about his mission. He’s also equally clear about his message. He is a preacher of the gospel. He’s seeking to preach the gospel in an unvarnished fashion. And as you read on in the verses where we stopped, you realize that he is absolutely resolute and determined in this matter. So by the time we get to 2:2, he says, “For I was determined,” or “I resolved to know nothing [among you,] while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He recognizes that the Corinthian believers, on the receiving end of all kinds of agendas, could so easily be distracted from the gospel itself, from the simplicity of the message, by the ingenuity or by the complexity of the messenger, by endeavoring to provide them with what they’re hoping for or to bamboozle them with self-oriented displays of intelligence or pseudo intelligence. And Paul will have nothing of this.

He actually passes the test that was given by the late Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1974 and 1980. He has in one of his books “the three Ps of the pew” and “the three Cs of the pulpit.” I think the Ps, from memory, are the puzzled, the perplexed, and the something else. And the three Cs of the pulpit, he says, are to be these: that the preacher is to be candid, so that there is no concealment of the truth; to be clear, so that there is no obscurity of expression; and to be confident, so as to speak without fear of the consequences. And certainly Paul meets all of that. And the clarity of what he has to say is there, both in terms of his emphasis and his repetition.

And so in verse 18, having reflected on the preoccupation of the words of human wisdom, which so easily detract from the message of the cross, he then turns in verse 18 to this “message” or “word” of the cross. Incidentally, if you’re using an ESV, you will notice that verse 18 reads, “For the word of the cross…,” which actually is a more accurate translation, tying in with verse 17: “Not with words”—logos, sophia—“not with words of human wisdom,” and then verse 18, “but, actually, with the word of the cross.”[1] “I’m not coming to you with the words of human wisdom that you may anticipate, but I am coming to you with the word of the cross.”

Jesus did not die as an example. Jesus did not die as a martyr. Jesus died as our substitute. He died in our place.

And he immediately points out that this “word of the cross” produces two opposite effects. When the word of the cross is declared, it is, first of all, regarded as foolishness by those who are perishing. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” Let’s just pause and recognize that this is not a subcategory of humanity that he is describing, but he is describing man as man. You maybe will say, “Well, of course we understand that.” Well, I think we understand it, but we do well to remind ourselves of it continually, don’t we? That men and women, by nature, are perishing. The whole Bible tells us that. The passage of time actually reveals it. Every man is a walking illustration of decay. He might not like his wife to know about it, but he is. When he shaves, he has to wear a T-shirt, because he can’t stand to look at the ridiculous nature of his chest. Why are all these things pointing to the ground? Because you’re perishing, my man, that’s why! That’s why Ecclesiastes says it so wonderfully, doesn’t it? “Remember him,” he says. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth …. Before the silver cord is severed, [before] the … bowl is broken,”[2] before everything goes away.

And at its best in history, the church and the ministers of the word of the cross have ministered in the awareness of that truth—that as M’Cheyne would say, “I preach the message of the cross as a dying man to dying men and women.”[3] So the hymnody of the best of those eras reinforces this:

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, [he’s] mighty to save.[4]

Smeaton in his book on the atonement puts it wonderfully when he says, “To convert one sinner from … his way, is an event of greater importance, than the deliverance of a whole kingdom from temporal evil.”[5] So those who are perishing hear this word of the cross, and they say, “I’ve never heard anything as ridiculous in all of my life.” “But to [those] who are being saved”—and you’ll notice he includes himself in that: “but to us.” “To those who are perishing,” “to us who are being saved.” Men and women by grace. It is the power of God. Until we’re in Christ, we’re foolish, we’re guilty, we’re sinful, we’re responsible, and we’re helpless. And the word of the cross divides mankind into two groups only: “those who are perishing” and those “who are being saved.” “Whoever believes in [Jesus],” writes John, “is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already.”[6] That’s what makes this word of the cross so vitally important.

What Is the “Word of the Cross”?

Now, what I want to do is assume nothing. And therefore, I want to pause purposefully. I want, if you like, to be Spurgeonic in this and try, as it were, to drive in, as Spurgeon used to say to his students, drive home one ten-penny nail that will stay rather than ten pin-tacks that will be out before we finish the coffee.[7] I make no apology for the reinforcement of this. If you’re well versed in it, then be thankful that you are being reminded, and if you find that this is material that you have never really properly considered, you will actually find yourself in the company of some very illustrious souls, as I’ll make clear to you in a moment or two.

“The word of the cross.” What is this “word of the cross”? Well, let’s go to 1 Corinthians 15 and allow Paul just to give us a succinct statement concerning what it was he was referencing in this. First Corinthians 15:3. He begins in 1: “Brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you [have] received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word”—again, this “word,” “the word I preached to you.” What was the word he preached to them? It was the word of the cross. “Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” And then he says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” “Christ died”: fact. “For our sins”: interpretation of the fact. “According to the Scriptures”: explanation of the fact that the whole story of God’s redemptive purposes, which is run all the way through the Old Testament in anticipation of its fulfillment in Jesus, is directly in accord with these things.

So let’s just be clear that this is not something that is in a corner of our Bibles, but this is the recurrent, straightforward emphasis of Scripture when we are giving consideration to the nature of what was taking place in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. We could together just completely run through a whole litany of verses, and we would be able to call them out. It would be tedious, and so we won’t. But for example, Romans 5:8: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” First Peter 3:18: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God.” In other words, Jesus did not die as an example. Jesus did not die as a martyr. Jesus died as our substitute. He died in our place. When Paul writes in his second letter to Corinth, remember, he says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[8] And it is impossible to read Paul without having this confront us again and again: that on the cross the Lord Jesus bore the wrath our sins deserve.

Growing up in suburban Glasgow, it was customary at primary school to be taken to the local Presbyterian Church for our Easter service and for our Christmas service. I always enjoyed it, not so much because it was a service but because I didn’t have to stay in school for another hour and a half. And off we would go, down the road to Greenbank Parish Church, and we sat in there. And I can remember singing this hymn:

There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.

And then this verse:

We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.[9]

And although I never grasped the significance of that then, I was always stirred by the hymn.

And the best of hymnody reinforces this, doesn’t it? So, Isaac Watts, for example:

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.

But Christ the heav’nly Lamb
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.[10]

The writer to the Hebrews drives it home consistently, and classically in Hebrews chapter 10, where he says the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. … Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices.”[11] They never sat down. It was like the painting of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I’ve never been in San Francisco without seeing the thing hanging off the side of it. It seems to me they paint it for 365 days a year, because it’s no sooner that they got to the far end than it’s rusty on the other end, and they start again. And that’s the picture in Hebrews 10. The priests again and again offering the sacrifice, taking their place at the end of the line, and then they’ll come back again, and then they will do it again. And the readers of Hebrews understood that. Hence the immensity of verse 12: “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down.” Finished! Completed! That’s why we have a table and a pulpit: the finished work of Christ symbolized when we gather around that table, and the significance of that truth made clear to us in the Scriptures.

Alec Motyer, who’s a friend of ours, in his commentary on Isaiah has a quite wonderfully purple passage on this, when he writes—page 433, if you want to track it down, in his commentary on Isaiah, IVP—he says, “It is the very heart of our sinfulness that we sin because we want to. … Because of this, no animal can do more than picture substitution: only a person can substitute for a person; only a consenting will can substitute for a rebellious will.”[12] But where is such a person to be found? Who then, with a consenting will, could take the place of those with a rebellious will?

“Father,” says Isaac, “I can see we’ve got the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” What a question! “My son, God will supply the lamb.”[13] And that is the answer. God, if you like, solves his own problem. God deals with the dilemma himself. God substitutes himself in the person of Christ for those who regard the message of the cross as foolishness. He takes the burden of his own wrath, absorbing in the person of Christ the judgment, the righteous character that is demanded. He provides in himself what no sinner can give. He bears the punishment that no sinner can bear and live. In other words, on the cross the Lord Jesus accepted the judgment against our sin and he set us free from its penalty.

Now, I expect that you’re just saying, “Fine,” and you’re affirming this as we go along. And I hope you are. I hope you’ve read James Denney and The Death of Christ. And if you have—a book published in 1911 and arguably never really bettered in its essence—in that book, he makes it wonderfully clear that Christ’s death reveals God’s love inasmuch as “it accomplished something [that] we needed, [and] which we could not do … ourselves, and which Christ could not do without dying.”[14] That, actually, is worth the price of the book: that the love of God is revealed inasmuch as “it [has] accomplished something which we needed, [and] which we could not do for ourselves, and which Christ could not do without dying.” So that the word of the cross, the message that is proclaimed, the gospel of God, is not actually about something we must do, but it is about something that God has done.

And I say to you again that this is not a particular and peculiar emphasis—that somehow or another, it’s an esoteric interest, it’s an obscure idea, it’s just a few folks who’ve been reading too many old books who’ve fastened on this, and that really, the mainstream of Christianity can get on very well without it. No. No. Everywhere you turn around, you bump into it. Galatians 3: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who … [hanged] on a tree.’”[15] What is Paul saying? He’s saying that the curse of the broken law rested on us. Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse in our place. He bore it in order that we might be free from it.

You see, in the cross, God pardons those who believe in Jesus, although we have sinned and deserve judgment. Without that, we would be excluded from God’s presence forever. In the cross, he displays and he satisfies his perfect and his holy justice. Without that, he would not be true to himself.

I suppose we all have notions of what it will be like finally to be assembled in that great throng that is described in Revelation. How it will all work, I don’t know. I’m sure it will be a grand occasion. I’m not just sure how we’ll find everyone we’re looking for, or whether we’ll still want to look for them when we get there. But if everything continues as is in my little mind, I am desperately keen to find one individual in particular, and that is the thief on the cross. I want to talk to that chap. I want to say to him, “What an amazing change in your life, wasn’t it? How did you come up with that? Where did you come up with that idea, when you said to your friend, when you called out from your ignominious position, when you shouted over to him, ‘Don’t you fear God?’” He clearly didn’t fear God: “Get down from the cross if you are such a messiah. Prove it! You’ve saved other people; save yourself and save us while you’re about it.”[16] “Don’t you fear God …? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”[17]

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.[18]

You see, without this word of the cross, we will never be able to explain to people the gravity of sin. The gravity of sin—that what sin has done, that sin has alienated us on two sides: that one, God’s wrath is meted out against it, and we are in rebellion against that God.

Contemporary views of sin are trivialized to the point of being ridiculous. Even attempts at contextualization, which are understandable and commendable in many cases, are in danger of contextualizing sin right out of the Bible, in our honest attempt to try and explain to people what sin is and what sin isn’t. The danger is that when we’ve finished with it, it doesn’t actually sound very much like an offense against God, the breaking of his law, the rebellion against him. And until the gravity of sin is revealed, then the immensity of God’s love is just sort of trivialized. People are saying, “I don’t know why you’re so excited about this. I mean, I know he died up there. I know that. He was an example or something. I don’t know what it is.” You see, the one goes with the other.

Without the word of the cross, we will never be able to explain to people the gravity of sin.

And the message of the cross not only makes clear that sin is grave and that God’s love is immense, but also, it makes clear that the nature of salvation is a free gift. Because the word of the cross chops the legs out from under all of our self-righteousness. And all of our well-heeled congregants who are hoping that God is grading on the curve and they’ll be fine in heaven, because they may not have got a hundred percent, but they got a high seventy, you know, that they will be fine. And the idea that not only the central event of biblical theology but the pivotal event of human history has been contracted on a waste dump outside Jerusalem two-thousand-plus years ago is just regarded as complete nonsense. And it would be one thing if it was regarded just as being marginal by those who do not believe. But the problem seems even deeper than that.

In 1973, J. I. Packer delivered a paper at Tyndale House, Cambridge, on “The Logic of Penal Substitution.”[19] If you don’t have this paper, you should probably try and track it down, because I don’t think it’s been bettered. And he finally summarizes his position after a very long time. I suggest you go directly to the summary, not because the rest isn’t good, but because the summary is brilliant. And since I know that many of you won’t do that, I’m going to give you a summary of the summary. And some of you are going to try and scribble very vociferously; you needn’t do that, because you can get the CD and fast-forward it right to Packer’s summary. But here is his summary of what the cross achieved and achieves. Listen carefully to this.

Number one: “God,” he says, to quote James Denney, “‘condones nothing,’ but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.”

Two: “My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.”

Three: “The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.”

Four: “Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him,’ [that is,] I am justified; pardon, acceptance, and sonship become mine.”

“Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God.” He quotes Owen: “If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.”[20]

Sixthly, “My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: [that is,] the cross procured it.” In the cross, it wasn’t that Christ made us savable, but it was that he saved us.

Seventhly, “Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.”

Eighthly, “Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.”

And ninthly, “Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love, and to serve.”

Now, I say to you again: I imagine that most of us believe we can confidently assert with Paul that we have been and that we are delivering to our congregations of first importance that Christ died for our sins. What I want to ask you to do is just to assess things. You don’t need to do it just now. But as you think about your preaching over the last wee while, and as you anticipate how you’re going forward and what you’re doing, just to see how accurate an assessment that may be. In other words, whether our preaching is actually centered in Christ and centered on the cross of Christ.

It was here that the turning point came in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s early days of ministry. Lloyd-Jones was remarkably used in Bridgend in South Wales. If you read the Evangelistic Sermons from Aberavon and so on, you get a wonderful taste of his passionate and appealing calls of the gospel. But one evening a minister who attended the service challenged Martyn Lloyd-Jones by pointing out that “the cross and the work of Christ [had] little place in [his] preaching.” [21] Can you imagine? You finish; it’s not just the person says, “Oh I don’t like your tie,” but he actually says to you—not he says, “You were long,” or “You were boring”—but no, he says to the Doctor, he says, “You know, I’ve come and listened to you, and it appears to me that the cross and the work of Christ have little place in your preaching.”

To his credit, Lloyd-Jones went out, went to his local secondhand bookshop, having asked one of his deacons for advice, and he secured the two standard works on the subject: R. W. Dale on The Atonement and James Denney on The Death of Christ. He then went into his bedroom and he began to read them. He didn’t come out for his breakfast, he didn’t come out for his lunch, and he didn’t come out for his tea. In fact, his wife sent for her brother to try and get him out of the room because she hadn’t a clue what had happened to him. Eventually, he emerged from his study, and he claimed to have “found ‘the real heart of the gospel and the key to the inner meaning of the Christian [life].’”[22]

What had he discovered? He had discovered that this message of the cross of Christ, whereby he assumes all of the judgment of God and bears all of our sin and gives to us all of his righteousness, whereby we are united with Christ—he basically says, “I discovered the nature of union with Christ. I realized that this is the dynamic out of which I am to preach this good news.” And he said for himself the great question was not Anslem’s question “Why did God become man?” but it became the question “Why did Christ die?” And he went on to say, “I was like Whitefield in my early preaching. First I preached regeneration, that all man’s own efforts in morality and education are useless, and that we need power from outside ourselves”—which is all true, isn’t it? But this is what he says: “I assumed the atonement.” “I assumed the atonement but did not distinctly preach it or justification by faith. [The man who asked that question] set me thinking and I began to read more fully in theology.”[23]

On a personal note, I’ve been challenged, as some of you know, by the work that I’ve read of Goldsworthy, and particularly when he writes in one of his books, “We mustn’t confuse our declaring people’s need of the gospel or the benefits of the gospel with the gospel itself. To preach the gospel is to proclaim the historical event along with the God-given application.”[24]

Avoiding Consumer Expectations

Now, I spent a very, very long time on that, and you say, “Well, are you going to do anything with the rest of the passage?” Well, yes, I’ll just take a moment or two, shall I? We’ll come back and remind ourselves what is going on here.

This word of the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing”; to those who are being saved it’s “the power of God.” It’s always been this way, as he quotes from Isaiah. But you will notice that Paul, in Corinth, doesn’t adapt his message to fit the expectations of the consumers. He hadn’t come to impress them; he’d come to see them converted. He doesn’t serve up a dog’s breakfast of human wisdom along with divine pronouncement—a clever balance of the expectations of rhetoric and clever ideas and philosophical notions and so on, so that everybody would be able to say, “My, he’s really been reading the magazines, you know. He’s up to date on everything. He’s such a contemporary fellow.” No, they probably said, “You know, he’s a monomaniac. Every time you hear him, he’s on the same thing. ‘The word of the cross. The word of the cross.’ You can’t get past the fellow. He’s on the word of the cross all of the time.”

Would that that would be said of us when we’re gone! “He was always on about the same thing. It was always ‘Jesus and him crucified.’” Rather than, “Oh, he was a genius! You should have heard the way he did his introductions. Whoo! And some of his illustrations, oh! He had an illustration about a Labrador dog that was second to none. I’ll never forget it, you know.” What a tragedy to be remembered for that kind of codswallop—and when we could be remembered for being involved in this!

But don’t you say to yourself, “Isn’t this a foolhardy approach?” It’d be a foolhardy approach in Cleveland; isn’t it a silly idea in Corinth? After all, what were the people interested in? Well, we know they were interested in signs. They were interested in miraculous signs, the Jews. “Show us something,” they came and said to Jesus. “Do something for us.” And Christ refused.[25] And the Greeks, looking for sophia, looking for wisdom, intrigued by the latest and the newest ideas. And you see, the people in Corinth within a very short time were being distracted and were being drawn away from the very foundation upon which the church had been laid. “There’s no other foundation,” he was to write to them, “than that which has been laid in Christ Jesus.”[26] And in a relatively short order, they were beginning to move away. And they’re pressed by the culture from the outside, And they give evidence of it in their own wandering hearts from within. And so he tells them, “This is the message with which we started, and this is the one with which we’re going to continue.”

“But listen, Paul. If you want to draw a big crowd, why don’t you do some of the clever stuff? I mean, you’re good. You had a good education. Why are you not doing that? The Jews demand miraculous signs.”

“No.”

“Greeks look for wisdom.”

“No.”

“Well, what is the one thing that nobody’s interested in?”

“Christ crucified. I think I’ll go with Christ crucified.”

It’s a recipe for disaster, isn’t it? There’s no church growth book that would ever tell you to do this, is there? No, you want a big crowd? You want twenty-three thousand? Tell them about their “best life now.” Tell them. Tell them how wonderful they are. Tickle their fancy. Why do you do this, Paul?

Well, he tells us: because the message of the cross, the word of the cross, is “the power of God.” This is the power of God. God’s way has stood in marked contrast to man’s perspective from all of time. That explains the quote from Isaiah here: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” And so he throws down the challenge, doesn’t he? “Where is the scholar? Step up. Where’s the philosopher of this age? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

Well, don’t let’s go wrong here. Paul is not knocking wisdom. He’s not knocking education. He’s not saying the dimmer you are, the better you will be. He’s not suggesting that there is no opportunity for discovery, or for art, or for all of the things that are the evidences of God’s common grace. But what he is doing is pointing out that the totality of human wisdom which sets aside God’s wisdom on the cross cannot bring forgiveness, cannot bring peace, cannot bring satisfaction to the hungry soul. And for that reason, since the Great Commission that is entrusted to him is to see unbelieving people become the committed followers of Jesus Christ—not for them to engage in philosophical ideas, not for them to become a little more religious, not for them to gather and sing songs that make them feel good about themselves, but in order that they might be redeemed from their empty way of life[27]—he commits himself resolutely to the word of the cross. And in that he provides us not only with an apostolic pattern but also with an apostolic precept. Because by the time he writes to Timothy, what does he tell him to do? The very same thing that he’s been doing. And it runs down through the ages to today.

God’s way has stood in marked contrast to man’s perspective from all of time.

You think about the morning newspaper. I haven’t seen it; I don’t like to get depressed just too early in the day. But if you take it, you realize we’ve got more education than we have ever had in the history of the nation, but we’re not more moral. We have more resources, but we’re not any less selfish. We have advanced forms of communication; we can twit, tweeter, and do all manner of things, and yet we can’t talk to our wives in a sensible way. We have better houses, we have more leisure time, but we’re still full of hatred and strife and conflict and relational disintegration. We are alienated from ourselves, we’re alienated from one another, because we are alienated from God. And what we need is some means of reconciliation. You see, the complexity of human wisdom promises what it can’t deliver. It cannot deliver what the simplicity of the gospel makes available at the cross.

We cannot avoid what is said here—namely, that God has made himself unknown to and unknowable by human wisdom. If that were not the case, then you would have to have a certain IQ, and once you had done that, you could get there. I think this is Milne in Know the Truth: “There is … no road from [man’s] intellectual and moral perception to a [genuine] knowledge of God. The only way to knowledge of God is for God [to freely] place himself within [the] range of our perception, and renew our fallen understanding.” In other words, “Revelation is indispensable.”[28] And that’s why when you look at this passage that I can’t outline, you see that the contrast runs all the way through: the foolishness of men, which they think is wisdom, versus the wisdom of God, which men and women think is foolishness. The wisdom of man doesn’t bring him to see his need of a Savior. But when God calls—verse 24—whatever the individual’s background, they discover that the crucified Christ means power.

Last week, in trying to take notes while someone else was preaching in another context, I took a pen out that had obviously not traveled well on the plane, and it squirted all over me, and I looked as though I had made a poor attempt at tattooing myself. And it stained; I tried to get it out in the night, in the morning, and by the time I got to the next thing, I still just was covered in blue. And I had rubbed at it feverishly. And then I just had a wonderful illustration for myself; I said, “This is a Lady Macbeth moment.”

Do you remember how Macbeth in his frustration calls in the doctor? He says, “You’re the doctor. Here’s my wife. She’s roaming around. She’s drooling. She’s gibberish.”

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the hidden troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
[That] weighs upon the heart?

And the physician says, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.”[29]

The filthy hands and the soiled feet of those who ride on buses and trains with us, who sit with us in the coffee shops—when their minds are at their best, they will never conceive of their need of a Savior. They may go for a psychologist. They may look for self-help. They may be intrigued with the idea of a pseudo messiah. But the message of a crucified and dying, helpless, battered, bloodied Savior is complete foolishness. But to those whom God calls, it is the power of God.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” And Paul says, “In fact, I’ll give you a couple of illustrations of that.” And it is to those illustrations that some of us will come tomorrow morning.

Let us pray:

God our Father, to you alone we look. To your Word alone we turn. I just pray for each of us who have the responsibility of pastoral and gospel ministry, that you will help us not to assume the atonement, and not to take any other path than the path that has been marked out for us. Despite the fact that it is regarded as foolish, we think of Christ, who “endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down [on] the right hand”[30] of the Father.

And we pray that we might do likewise—be prepared, in our day and in our time, still to bow beneath the instruction of your Word, so that our confidence might be in the work of Christ alone, and that in the awareness of what it means to be united with him we may be saying to others, “We beseech you on Christ’s behalf: receive the reconciliation which he has made for you as a sinner in the cross.”[31]

Hear our prayers, O God. Let our cry come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.


[1] 1 Corinthians 1:17 (paraphrased from ESV).

[2] Ecclesiastes 12:1, 6 (NIV 1984).

[3] Originally attributed to Richard Baxter. See The Autobiography of Richard Baxter (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1925), 79. Paraphrased.

[4] Fanny Crosby, “Rescue the Perishing” (1869).

[5] Originally from “Messiah Suffering and Wounded for Us,” in The Works of the Rev. John Newton (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 4:228.

[6] John 3:18 (NIV 1984).

[7] C. H. Spurgeon, “Sermons—Their Matter,” in Lectures to My Students (1875–94; repr., Banner of Truth, 2011), 85.

[8] 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV 1984).

[9] Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1847).

[10] Isaac Watts, “Not All the Blood of Beasts” (1709).

[11] Hebrews 10:4, 11 (NIV 1984).

[12] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 433.

[13] Genesis 22:7–8 (paraphrased).

[14] J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): 23n22. The quoted words are Packer’s summary of a point from Denney’s book, not Denney’s own.

[15] Galatians 3:13 (NIV 1984).

[16] Luke 23:39 (paraphrased).

[17] Luke 23:40–41 (NIV 1984).

[18] William Cowper, “There Is a Fountain” (1772).

[19] The nine points quoted below are from Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?,” 42–43.

[20] The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (London: Banner of Truth, 1968), 10:284, quoted in Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?,” 43.

[21] Iain H. Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, vol. 1, The First Forty Years: 1899–1939 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 191.

[22] See John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 10. See also Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1:190–92.

[23] Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1:191.

[24] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 95. Paraphrased.

[25] See, for example, Mark 8:11–13.

[26] 1 Corinthians 3:11 (paraphrased).

[27] See 1 Peter 1:18.

[28] Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 26.

[29] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.3.

[30] Hebrews 12:2 (NIV 1984).

[31] See 2 Corinthians 5:20.

Copyright © 2021, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.