Foolishness vs. What?
By Fred Zaspel–
In the latter half of 1 Corinthians chapter 1 the apostle Paul famously expounds the theme of the wisdom of God in the gospel. Somewhat tongue in cheek he speaks of “the foolishness” of God; that is, the gospel — the message which the world considers so foolish. The gospel, of course, the message of Christ crucified, is the great expression of the wisdom of God, and by this message the world’s pretended wisdom is exposed as utter folly in its inability to attain the knowledge of God. It is truly a glorious passage.
What has long struck me as fascinating about this passage is the specific point of contrast the apostle develops. Of course the larger theme is the foolishness of humanity vs. the wisdom of God. God wisely accomplishes salvation through the very means the world things foolish. But the stated contrast, first, is not foolishness vs. wisdom. Rather, it is foolishness vs. 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” (1 Cor. 1:18, emphasis added).
Now that is a curious way of speaking. “Foolishness” vs. “power” are not normal points of contrast. But the apostle’s argument is just that: the very message that the world considers so utterly foolish actually has great power. It alone accomplishes what human wisdom cannot. Only by the “foolish” message of Christ crucified are men and women brought to the knowledge of God. No human message has such ability. No other message works. The power to bring us to peace and fellowship with God resides only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Human wisdom is foolish. The gospel, by contrast, is powerful. It accomplishes what no human effort or message ever could.
Harry Ironside told the story of the time a famous atheist publicly challenged him to a debate. Ironside’s response was interesting. He did not turn the man down. Nor did he accept outright. Instead he responded with a challenge of his own. He told the man that if he would bring just one man and one woman who had formerly been an outcast and worthless to society but who had been transformed, restored, and made a value to society again as a result of hearing the atheist’s message, then he would be glad to debate him. And for his part, Ironside said, he would bring a hundred such men and women. The atheist, of course, declined.
Whatever you may think of debating atheists, Ironside grasped well the argument of this passage. Ultimately it is not in formal intellectual debate that the wisdom of God in the gospel is vindicated. God’s wisdom in the gospel is most powerfully illustrated in the lives of countless people who by it have been transformed and brought to fellowship with God. This is Paul’s argument exactly — this “foolish” gospel is, in fact, powerful.
And so, Paul argues, we confidently preach the message of Christ crucified not because we naively expect the world to appreciate it but because it alone can accomplish such great things.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim