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Human Ingenuity and Gospel Preaching (part 2/4)

By Fred Zaspel–

In our previous blog we highlighted the difference between two prominent evangelists of the early nineteenth century, Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney. Finney carried “revival in his briefcase,” convinced that the mere application of stated means could produce results. Nettleton, by contrast, decidedly removed himself from any “revival” that seemed to be grounded in excitement that centered on him.

All this is precisely the issue Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. In his day the issue was not manipulative music or sad stories that make people cry. But it was a question of carefully polished oratory designed to move the audience. It was not the rough, coarse language of Finney, but the principle was the same — human ingenuity designed to get results. New methods of “helping” the gospel. Fine spun rhetoric of the day which was in itself impressive and therefore persuasive. And, judging from the results, it was very helpful!

Paul says, “No, when I came to you, I did not come as orator – I came as a preacher” (v.1).

Now we should not misunderstand. Paul is not making excuse for poor preaching. Nor is he placing premium on ineptitude in pulpit. I have little doubt that Paul worked hard to speak well and improve his gifts. If he were to lecture us preachers today, I am sure would exhort us, “If you’re going to say it, you may as well say it well!”

But when Paul says he “did not come with superiority of words or wisdom” he refers not just to the content of his preaching, the message itself, but also to the form — packaging the message in a way that itself is impressive and, therefore, more persuasive. Paul would have none of that. He was convinced that it is the “foolish” gospel itself, the message, that is the means God uses to save, and so it must be proclaimed in a way that does not distract from it. It needs no help. This is the means God uses. And if this is the message God uses to save, then we needn’t — we must not — seek to make it more palatable, as though that would help. Our preaching must not be such that distracts from the message or otherwise becomes an instrument of human manipulation.

And so laying out his own ministry as a model for Christian ministers everywhere, Paul says in verse 1, “I came to you preaching.” That’s it. That’s all. “I came preaching a message about God.”

Next, in verse 2, Paul takes it a step further. Here he says, “I came to you preaching a message about God in the cross of Jesus Christ.”

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

That is to say, “So far from giving you something impressive, I came preaching about a cross — a cross, which is to the world foolishness.”

Paul has already explained in the previous chapter (1 Cor. 1) that the preaching of the cross, though foolish to the world, is nonetheless the wisdom and power of God. It is the message that works. It is what God uses to call his people to himself. And so now, he says, in effect, “I came preaching only Christ crucified precisely because this message is the means by which God works.” I will explore this more fully in my next post.

Next, in verses 3-4, Paul says takes us a step further again. “I came to you preaching a message about God in the cross of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 “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.”

To learn that Paul entered the city of Corinth with a conscious sense of weakness and fear even to the point of “much trembling” is a surprising thing to us. This mighty apostle?

Corinth was an infamously wicked city, and as the apostle approached with its first gospel contact, he sensed his inadequacy. He did not come as one bounding with confidence, convinced of success. No, he approached the city with a keen recognition that he was in over his head. He was out of his league and out-matched. It was not in him to do what he came to do, and he knew it. No man is able to loosen the bonds of sin or open the eyes of a sin-darkened heart. No amount of human ingenuity, no matter how impressive or how clever, can raise a man or woman from spiritual death. The opposition would be instinctive, and it would be strong, and Paul knew there was nothing he could do to overcome it. Simply put, making his “foolish” gospel work was altogether out of his hands. So far from bounding with confidence, this great, inspired apostle was very aware of his inadequacy. He knew there was no revival in his briefcase.

And so he says in verse 4, what happened was this: there was a great “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4). Not my abilities — “not in plausible words of wisdom” — but a mighty working of the Spirit of God. As he said earlier, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,   but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:23-24).

What confidence Paul had, the confidence that took him to Corinth, was not a self-centered one at all. It had nothing to do with anything human. It was a confidence in the power of God. The salvation of the lost is due not to the right use of the constituted means. Preaching alone accomplishes nothing. Even this gospel, powerful as it is, accomplishes nothing by itself. We might polish the oration, just the most moving atmosphere, and repeat the hymn a thousand times, but only God can open the human heart to the gospel. What is needed must come from him.

Why was this a concern to the apostle? Very simply, he would not seek to “help” the gospel by human ingenuity, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (v. 5). That is to say, Paul came preaching a testimony about God in the cross of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit to the glory of God.

Paul had just finished emphasizing that God saves in such a way that only he receives the glory for it (1:29-31). And this consideration dictates content of the message, its form, and also his own motive and mode of preaching. If we used ingenious methods of manipulation, we could produce decisions, but these “results” would not be decisions of a faith anchored in saving power of God — they would be anchored in the preacher himself. And that kind of faith does no one any good at all. It will not save. And so Paul says, “I will proclaim this message of the crucified Christ in such a way that when men believe, their faith, necessarily, will be in the God who has saved them.

Unlike many preachers today who have taken the supernatural out of salvation, Paul was very concerned that no one “make a decision” because of him. He would have no one “believe” simply because he had said so. If people “make a decision” because we have talked them into it, their “faith” will be only that good. Such “converts” may look good as another notch in the preacher’s belt, but that would steal glory that belongs only to God and leave them with a faith that does not save.

Here, then, is the apostolic shape of Christian ministry. We —

proclaim the message from God
in the cross of Jesus Christ
by the power of the Holy Spirit
to the glory of God.

 We cannot improve on this. And we dare not try.

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); Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.

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