The Inexhaustible Psychological Wisdom of God’s Word
One of the many things that continually deepen my confidence in the Bible as God’s word is the ability of Scripture to lay bare the complexities of my heart. The psychological wisdom of the word of God is inexhaustible.
Paul’s Insight into the Human Heart
And today’s text is an example of Paul’s insight. I hope you’ll see, before we’re done, into the complex seemingly contradictory workings of the human heart — mine and yours.
The Problem of Boasting at Corinth
Now here we are at the end of this series on 1 Corinthians 1–3. And if I were to give you a quiz right now and say, “Fill in the blank: The main problem in Corinth that Paul has been struggling to conquer or overcome, you would say blank.” And I think we would all say, I hope: boasting, pride, boasting in men, in particular people.
We saw it first in 1 Corinthians 1:12: “I belong to Paul . . . I belong to Apollos . . . I belong to Cephas.” These people lining up behind their favorite teachers and boasting as though their teacher were the best teacher. Then we saw it denounced in 1 Corinthians 1:29: “That no human being might boast in the presence of God.” And then we saw two verses later in 1 Corinthians 1:31, the positive statement: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” And then we saw in 1 Corinthians 3:4. Paul picked it up again: “When one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” And then here we are at the end of the chapter in 1 Corinthians 3:21, he says it again: “So let no one boast in men.”
So here’s this boasting at Corinth. Boasting that is ruining the soul of the boasters. It’s rending the fabric of the community, and it’s robbing God of his glory. So here at the end of the chapter, he says, one more time, “Let no one boast of men.” And he surrounds this exhortation, this command, with reasons for why we shouldn’t boast in men.
Two Kinds of Reasons Not to Boast
And he’s got reasons in front of the exhortation, and he’s got reasons behind the exhortation. And they’re very different. And those reasons point to root causes of boasting that are very different. And if we can get a handle on the two kinds of reasons, the two underlying roots, and how those two roots really merge into one root, we will have a profound insight into the working of our own heart and the working of everybody’s heart.
1. The Wisdom of Man is Foolishness
Now, reason number one in 1 Corinthians 3:18–20 for why we shouldn’t boast is this: the wisdom in which they were boasting isn’t really wisdom.
If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. (1 Corinthians 3:18–19)
Now we saw that spelled out in 1 Corinthians 1, didn’t we?
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18)
The foolishness of God is wiser than men. (1 Corinthians 1:25)
In other words, if you want to be really wise, he says you’re going to have to think and believe some foolish things. That is, foolish as the world judges. And you’re going to have to do something foolish as the world judges. You’re going to have to think and believe that a bloody crucified Jewish teacher is the Lord of the universe and its maker. Absurd, ridiculous as the world would judge. And you’re going to have to do something, namely, you’re going to have to believe and act upon the belief that the pathway that leads to joy is the Calvary Road, which, of course, the world thinks is also crazy.
So, in order to be really wise with God, you will have to become fools of man which simply means that the wisdom that is causing you to boast — human wisdom — isn’t wisdom. That’s argument number one for why you should give it up.
2. Boasting in Men is a Dead End Street
Number two, it’s a dead end street. You see 1 Corinthians 3:19, he quotes from two Old Testament texts: Job 5 and Psalm 94. He says: “He,” meaning God, “catches the wise in their own craftiness” (Job 5:13). Then he quotes again, “The lord—knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath” (Psalm 94:11). Dead end. They go nowhere. They lead to destruction.
You might be able to get to the moon with human wisdom, but you’ll never get right with God. And which is more important? This world is out of its mind. Like the prodigal son, when he came to his right mind, he came back to God. This world is out of its mind because they boast in things that are of such minute importance compared to what really matters in the world, whether Art Clark is with God. What could be more important in your life than whether you go to hell or get right with God and go to heaven forever? And yet — oh, how we brag about human wisdom that can’t get us to first base in our relationship to God — only the cross can get us to first, third, and home with God, and it’s folly in the eyes of the world. It’s a dead end street.
So there are two reasons in the first half of the text for why this admonition should be obeyed:
- The wisdom in which we are boasting — human wisdom — isn’t wisdom. It’s folly.
- It’s a dead end street. It leads nowhere but to futility and destruction. God catches people and traps them in that way.
The Two Underlying Roots of Boasting That Paul Is Attacking
Now, if you ponder this for a moment and ask, “What’s the root of boasting that Paul is attacking here in 1 Corinthians 3:18–20?” I think the answer would be self-exaltation — an inflated view of human wisdom. Whether our wisdom or the wisdom of our teacher that we were smart enough to line up behind. So what he does is to attack that by saying, “Stop it. Get off it. It’s a dead end street. It’s not really wisdom.” It says, “Oh, he’s crying out while they’re sliding down the slope into trouble, ‘Stop boasting in human wisdom. It’ll get you nowhere. It can’t solve the real problems of life.’” So, in verses 18 to 20, the root of boasting seems to be an inflated self or inflated view of our own wisdom, and Paul opposes it by saying it’s not really wisdom and it’s a dead end street.
All Things Are Yours
Now you move onto the backside of the command not to boast in 1 Corinthians 3:21, and you bump into some reasons for not boasting that are of a totally different kind. Everything seems to change. What is the reason given in verse 21 for why we shouldn’t boast in men? “For all things are yours.” Isn’t that a strange thing to say to a boaster? “All things are yours.” The first the argument against boasting was threatening and menacing. God catches the wise in their deceits. The thoughts of the wise are futile. He’s warning. He’s threatening.
And then you come to the admonition in verse 21, the first half of the verse, and move beyond it and you bump up against a tone and a content of argument that is totally different. “All things are yours.” The first argument says, “Don’t boast because man’s wisdom is folly, and it’s a dead end street!” And the second argument says, “Why would you want to boast? You own the universe.” The first argument is rooted in self-exaltation. Now, what is the second argument rooted in? Or let me ask it more carefully. What route of boasting does the second argument sever?
Suppose you were out in the hallway here between Sunday School classes and I walked by you and overheard you bragging about your Sunday School teacher and putting another Sunday School teacher down. And I walk up to you trying to paraphrase Paul, and I said, “Why do you want to talk like that for? Don’t you realize every teacher in this church is yours? Don’t you realize all things are yours? The world, life, death, things present, things to come — they’re all yours. What do you want to talk like that for?”
Now, what root of boasting would I be trying to sever when I talk like that? What am I assuming? What is Paul assuming about the cause of boasting when he talks like that? I think he’s assuming that the cause of boasting is insecurity at that point. He pictures a boasting person here threatened, endangered by hostile and hopeless circumstances, death, life, things to come, they’re all so unstable and so threatening, the world and all of its future events, death itself, are menacing. So what do we do? We try to protect ourselves by touting our own self-sufficiency. “We’ve got it all together. We’re safe.” Really? Aren’t we? “Yes, we are. Let’s tell each other that all is well and that we’ve got it all together. And I chose a good teacher and I’m pretty smart and I’m making it.”
The Massive Security of Belonging to Christ
And Paul says that the problem here in 1 Corinthians 3:21–23 is the failure to realize that there is a massive — and I mean massive — security in Jesus Christ that should solve that problem for people. I think when he says, “All things are yours,” he’s paraphrasing and applying two verses from Romans 8.
- Romans 8:28: “For those who love God all things work together for good.”
- Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us . . .” What? “. . . all things?”
In other words, Christ has bought for us the universe. He made it for us. He bought it for us when we lost it. He gives it back to us through Jesus Christ.
Putting the Two Arguments Together
So there are two kinds of arguments here, two kinds of approaches to pride. The one person seems to be self-sufficient, cocky, inflated. The other person’s scared, unstable, frightened, threatened, fearful, hopeless. Now my question next was: Are they the same person or are they two different people? Is he addressing two kinds of people at Corinth when he writes here? Does he have in view in 1 Corinthians 3:18–20 cocky people, self-assured people, braggarts? And then does he have in mind frightened, sensitive, broken, humbled, fearful, insecure people in 1 Corinthians 3:21–23?
One Kind People Addressed in Two Ways
And my answer is no. He does not have in mind two different people. My reason for that answer is because I can’t find any break in the text, any clue at all that he has shifted his focus off of cocky people onto insecure people. In fact, as you just read through, he warns the self-sufficient of their boasting and say, “Look, everything you’re boasting in is not really wisdom.” And then he says, “Stop it.” And then without the slightest break, he says, “For all things are yours.” Same people. He’s talking to one kind of people here.
So here’s the tough question that drives the wedge of insight down right to the core of our hearts. How do these both exist in one people? How can there be a root of self-exaltation and cocky self-sufficiency alongside, shall we say, a root of insecurity, fear, inadequacy, giving rise to pride? Well, the answer to how that can be is given in the first phrase of 1 Corinthians 3:18: “Let no one deceive himself.” Cocky, self-sufficient, braggarts have deceived themselves. About what? About their true insecurity. The fact that their life is out of their own control. The fact that there really are menacing circumstances. The fact that they don’t have it all together.
And people all over this world manage to deceive themselves into thinking that they’ve got it all together. Just give them one little success on the market and they’ll feel boastful and proud and secure. But their life is totally out of their own control. They don’t know when they’re going to drop dead. We are very strange people. There are two forces working in our hearts. These two forces. They seem contradictory, but they’re there. The one force is insecurity, vulnerability, fear, the world, and all things beyond our control threaten us. It comes with our creaturehood. There’s not a person in this room — not one — who doesn’t fear life. There’s not a person in this room who is not insecure. There’s not a person in this room who is not vulnerable, threatened, and who has his life out of his own control. We all do. It comes with finiteness, and it’s compounded by sinfulness. And then there’s this other force at work, denial. Denial, denial. “I’m in control. I’ve got it together. I’m okay. And I keep this front up.”
Two Forces Held Together by Self-Deception
And the two forces are held together by the glue of self-deception, according to 1 Corinthians 3:18:
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
Now, what would the fool be in the world’s eyes? The acknowledgement of insecurity, the acknowledgement of weakness, the acknowledgement of vulnerability, the acknowledgement that this world is not run by us, and is outside our control, and could do us in any moment. That would look foolish to the world if you admitted all that. And so we deceive ourselves in order to have the front of wisdom.
Two Roots of Human Pride That Must Be Severed
Now Paul wants to dismantle the pride, the tree of pride, that’s growing up out of these roots. So he must do two things, not one thing, right? He must do two things. He must overcome the deception of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and he must overcome insecurity. Or to put it another way, human pride is rooted in two kinds of self-deception. This gets a little more annoying and a little more complex. But think about it with me. Human pride is rooted in two kinds of self-deception. One is the deception that I can handle my own problems. And the other is the deception that nobody can handle my problems, not even God. Both people are deceived.
Or let me put the problem in another way. There are two ways to dishonor Jesus Christ and his grace. One is to feel no need of him. And the other is to feel that your need is so great he can’t meet it. In either case, you cry down Christ, you bring down grace, you dishonor mercy and sovereign grace.
The Grace of God as Indictment and Deliverance
Why do I say you dishonor grace as a strong cocky person and as a weak person who thinks your problems are too great for Christ to handle? I say that we cry down grace because grace always does two things. And this is the new insight that so many need to get ahold of. Grace always does two things. Grace always says two things, not just one thing, two things. Grace says, “You need help!” and grace says, “There’s help!” Grace does two things. It humbles and it encourages. Grace is always among sinners, indictment and deliverance. Indictment: “You who think you are wise, get off it or you’ll be destroyed.” Deliverance: “All things are yours.”
The Master-Pastor and Counselor at Work
Why do you need them both? Now watch Paul, the master pastor and counselor, move us on to a God-centered conclusion in this counseling session dealing with this distortion of human ego.
To the Self-Sufficient
He began by saying, “The self-sufficient must abandon their ways. Your wisdom that you’re boasting in is folly. Give it up. Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
To the Fearful and Insecure
And then he addressed that dimension of our complex root of fear and insecurity. And he said, “Boasting is a cheap substitute for owning the universe. Come on, wake up. All things are yours.”
Denying One Last Ground for Boasting
But he did not stop there. And we shouldn’t ever stop there because we are so corrupt and so easily self-deceived. You know what we are very likely to do when he says, “The world is yours”? We’re likely to send our thumbs right here. “I’m the owner of the world!” And you’ve turned it right on its head again. And so what does he do to guard us? He goes further up and further in: “All is yours, and you are Christ’s” (1 Corinthians 3:22–23).
What does that mean? That means that the only reason you’ve got the world as an inheritance is that you are a fellow heir with Christ. The only reason the ocean is your wading pool, and the sky is the canopy of your backyard tent, and all the 10,000 species of frogs and toads and fishes and birds are for your enjoyment is because of Christ! No other reason.
Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:31).
And does he stop there? He doesn’t stop there.
. . . and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:23).
The last phrase of the chapter: “And Christ is God’s.” You talk about God-centered counseling and preaching, teaching. There it is. The unfolding of the human heart in its incredible complexity and the carrying of it up into the universe — this is yours made over to you by Jesus Christ. This is Christ in whom you have all things and who bought it for you by his creative power, and his death and resurrection. And this is God the Father, to whom the Son will one day turn over the kingdom. So that, as it says in 1 Corinthians 15:28: “God may be all and in all.”
Applying This to What Lies Before Us
Well, I want to close by applying this to SPAN the Nineties. Let me state in a sentence for you the challenge that is before us in SPAN the Nineties. It goes like this: How can we, in a new sanctuary, be the kind of people who spread the humbling and hope giving grace of God to as many people in this city and as many peoples in this world as we can? Let me say it again because that’s the essence of the issue before us. How can we be the kind of people who spread the humbling and hope giving grace of God to as many people and as many peoples as we can?
Now there are manifold obstacles and dangers to being that kind of people. This text addresses two of them.
1. The Danger of Shifting onto the Building
The first danger this text addresses is the danger of shifting our boast off of God and onto the building, the danger of glorying less in Christ and more in architecture, the danger of becoming space-focused instead of grace-focused. And the answer to that danger given in this text is it’s a dead end street. Watch out. You can kill yourself building a sanctuary that way. You can go right ahead, take your boast off of Christ, put it on the building, take the glory off of God, put it on architecture, take your dependence off of grace and put it on space. And you’ll build a building. And over it, God will write: “Monument to folly.”
2. The Paralysis of Hopelessness and Fear
And the second danger that lies before us is this: the paralysis of hopelessness and fear. “It can’t be done. There are too many obstacles. Money is against us. Parking is against us. Time is against us. Inflation is against us. Fatigue is against us. Can’t be done.” Now to that obstacle, this text gives an answer, which if I had written would be called fundraising hype, would be called grand standing, would be called political exaggeration. I didn’t write it. God wrote it. And it is literally razor-sharp accurate, namely:
For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)
Boast Not, Fear Not
The sum of the matter is this: “Boast not and fear not. Be humble and be brave,” for thus says the Lord to Bethlehem Baptist Church, “for those who devote their lives to spreading my praise to all nations, nothing will be lacking.” Amen.