The Wisdom of Men and the Power of God

Inaugural Sermon at Bethlehem Baptist

In coming to you brothers and sisters, I come proclaiming to you the testimony of God not according to excellence of word or of wisdom. For I decided not to know anything among you but Jesus Christ and this one crucified. I come to you in weakness and in much fear and trembling. My word and proclamation are not in persuasive words of human wisdom but by the demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith might not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God!

I would consider my life well spent if I could preach and live and die like the apostle Paul, who wrote these words in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5. If you would open a Bible to this passage in the New Testament, I think we could get a glimpse of what a preacher should aim at in his work and how he and his people can be sure to hit this target.

Under the Authority of the Word

W.A. Criswell, the pastor of that giant church in Dallas, was asked one time by a man who had a business across the street: "Dr. Criswell, I thought you were the pastor of a Baptist church. How come all your people carry prayer books to church on Sunday?" Criswell smiled and said, "Sir, we are Baptists and those are Bibles not prayer books."

Baptists the world over have a reputation of urging every man and woman to read the Bible for themselves. And I want to preserve that great tradition. If I could choose a symbolic sound that Bethlehem Baptist Church would come to be known for, you know what it would be? The swish of the pages of 500 Bibles turning simultaneously to the morning and evening texts.

The reason is this: the source of my authority in this pulpit is not—as we shall soon see—my wisdom; nor is it a private revelation granted to me beyond the revelation of Scripture. My words have authority only insofar as they are the repetition, unfolding and proper application of the words of Scripture. I have authority only when I stand under authority. And our corporate symbol of that truth is the sound of your Bibles opening to the text. My deep conviction about preaching is that a pastor must show the people that what he is saying was already said or implied in the Bible. If it cannot be shown it has no special authority.

My heart aches for the pastor who increases his own burden by trying to come up with ideas to preach to his people. As for me, I have nothing of abiding worth to say to you. But God does. And of that word I hope and pray that I never tire of speaking. The life of the church depends on it.

Dr. Criswell gives an admonition to pastors which I think is right on the money, and I take it as a great challenge. He says:

When a man goes to church he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines. On the TV commentaries he hears that same stuff over again, yawns, and goes out and plays golf on Sunday. When a man comes to church, actually what he is saying to you is this, 'Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week. Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.'

The Aim of Paul's Ministry: Faith in the Power of God

So let's look at 1 Corinthians 2:1–5. Paul had spent about 18 months in Corinth on his first visit there. Now he writes his first letter to warn the believers against basing their faith on the wisdom of men instead of God's power. One of the ways he does this is to remind them of what his aim was in first coming to them and how he came. First we'll talk about the aim of Paul's (and our) ministry.

Verse 5: his aim, his purpose was that "your faith might not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." Paul stated it again and again: "I was given the grace of apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations" (Rom. 1:5). The aim of Paul's life is the aim of mine. And it should be the aim of every pastor, every seminary intern, every Sunday School teacher, and every believer who speaks to another person: to beget and build faith.

But it was possible in Paul's day and I believe it is rampant in our day—in churches and TV and radio—to try to build faith by calling attention to the wrong things. This has a devastating effect on the mission of Christ and the church, as I think we can see by looking more closely at verse 5.

Why is it so crucial that our faith not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God? Does it really matter what your faith is based on as long as Christ is the object of your faith? For Paul it made a great difference what a preacher offers as the basis of faith. Why?

The reason can be found in chapter 1. It is this: if you try to base saving faith on the "wisdom of men" it ceases to be saving faith because the content of that faith is regarded as foolishness by the world's wisdom. The genuineness of faith, and with it eternal life, is at stake in the basis we offer for faith. It is possible to offer a basis for faith which ruins faith. There is a kind of foundation which will destroy the superstructure of faith. That's why it is so crucial for our faith not to rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God—because if it rests in the wisdom of men it is a mirage, a bogus faith.

The Wisdom of Men

Why? What is it about the wisdom of men which makes it destructive to faith? In verses 1 and 2 there is a contrast between trying to deliver a testimony of God with superior words of wisdom on the one hand and preaching Jesus Christ as crucified on the other. Would it not be right, then, to say that for Paul the "wisdom of men" is, at least, a use of the human mind which comes up with ideas contrary to the meaning of Christ's death. Or to put it another way, if we are following the dictates of merely human wisdom, the claim that the King and Creator of the world was executed like a criminal because we are such horrible sinners will simply be regarded as an intolerable foolishness.

Look at 1 Corinthians 1:18 for a confirmation of this. Remember, what we are asking is: What is it about the wisdom of men that makes it so destructive when we try to make it a basis for faith? Verse 18: "The word of the cross is folly (or 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 and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart. Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" The way God made foolish the "wisdom of the world" (which is the same as the "wisdom of men" in 2:5) is by planning a way of salvation which would be offensive to the wisdom of the world: namely, salvation through the ignominious execution of a lowly Jewish carpenter's son turned preacher, who happened to be the Son of God.

The word of the cross is foolishness to the wisdom of this world. That's why the wisdom of men is destructive to faith and why Paul was, and we should be, very eager that no one turn to the wisdom of men as the basis of faith but that all turn to the power of God.

So the wisdom of men is destructive to faith because it regards the word of the cross as foolishness. But why does it? What is there about human wisdom which causes it to regard Christ crucified as folly? Paul gives us the answer, I think, in chapter 1, verses 26 and following: "Consider your call brothers: not many of you were wise according to the flesh (i.e., worldly standards), not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise." Now drop down to his purpose in verse 29: "so that no human being might boast in the presence of God." God has set himself against the wisdom of the world so that no one might boast before God. The clear implication is that at the root and core of what Paul calls the "wisdom of men" is pride.

So from all these verses, then, I suggest this definition of the "wisdom of the world": it is the use of the human mind to achieve and maintain a ground for boasting before God and man. Now it begins to become really clear why merely human wisdom regards the cross of Christ as foolishness. The death of Christ on the cross is such a radical indictment of the hideousness of our sinfulness that human wisdom has to mount all its biggest guns to destroy the cross, lest it lose its ground for boasting.

There are two possible responses to the death of Christ for our sin: we can regard it as foolish and so maintain our self-sufficiency and pride, or we can regard it as wisdom and die with Christ. There is only one way that leads to life. Here's how Paul expresses it in Galatians 6:14: "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." If we put our trust in the crucified Christ for salvation, we die to the world; which means we give up every ground for boasting that the world, including our own minds, can offer. But since the "wisdom of men" is devoted 100% to maintaining its ground for boasting, it will always reject Christ crucified and attempt to defuse his power by calling him foolish.

So, here is what we've seen so far: First, the goal of Paul's ministry and mine and, I hope, yours is to win and to strengthen faith. But, secondly, it is possible to try to win faith by calling attention to the wrong things and giving a faulty basis; in this case the wisdom of men rather than the power of God. And it's destructive to faith if we try to base it on merely human wisdom. The reason that this is so, thirdly, is that the wisdom of the world regards the word of the cross as foolishness and so leads men away from the cross. And fourthly, the reason the wisdom of men regards the cross as folly is that human wisdom is the use of the mind to achieve and maintain pride, but faith in the crucified Christ is death to pride and the giving up of all grounds for boasting, except one: Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord!

The Power of God

So is it not reasonable and is it not very urgent that in all our efforts to win and to strengthen faith we draw people's attention not to the wisdom of men, but to the power of God? And so now we must ask, what is that? Chapter 1, verse 18: "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Verse 23 and following: "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."

Therefore, the power of God in 2:5 in which our faith should rest is the divine power unleashed by the death of Christ to save sinners, to justify the ungodly. When Jesus was at his weakest in the agony of the cross, God's power was at its strongest, lifting the infinite weight of sin and condemnation off the backs of all who would believe on him. Because Jesus died and bore the punishment of our sin, all the power of God, who created the universe, was loosed for the benefit of God's elect. As Paul said in Romans 8:32: "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, surely (by his infinite power) he will give us all good things with him."

But don't make a mistake here. Just as the wisdom of God is foolishness with man, so the power of God is viewed by men as weakness. God wills it that way: chapter 1, verse 27: "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." The divine power in which our faith rests is not the power of a May Day in Red Square; it is not the power of big business or bloc voting; it is not the power of personal savvy and cool self-assertion. The power in which saving faith rests is the power of divine grace sustaining the humble, loving heart and radiating out through weakness. That is the inimitable power that we see in Christ—meekly, humbly, lovingly mounting the cross for our sin. The power of God's grace sustaining the humble, loving heart of Christ and radiating out through his weakness: this is the resting place of saving faith and this is the demonstration of the Spirit and power (2:4).

So I commit myself as your pastor and call upon you to commit yourself as ministers in the church to act and speak in a way that will lead people to trust not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

The Means of Paul's Ministry: Suffering and Weakness

Now let's shift the focus from the aim of Paul's work to the way he achieved it. I mentioned earlier that in our day, just as in Paul's day, there are peddlers of the gospel who seem to have forgotten that at the heart of our faith is "an old rugged cross, an emblem of suffering and shame," and that to trust Christ crucified is to be identified with him in the humiliation of his death, and that only in the age to come will we be glorified with him, and that while this age lasts we walk the Calvary road. Oh, to be sure, not without joy—indescribable joy and full of the hope of glory—but always joy in weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities.

Watch out for the slick preachers who never mention these things, for whom the cross is a mere token symbol, for whom the exceeding sinfulness of all our hearts is scarcely mentioned, who use power, wisdom, fame, and luxury to beckon the self-centered middle-class American to consider himself Christian at no cost to his pride and self-sufficiency.

Contrast the apostle Paul: 1 Corinthians 2:3, "I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling." Paul would have never made it on the major networks. You remember what his enemies said of him in 2 Corinthians 10:10, "They say, 'His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account.'" There is a brand of Christianity today that would have asked of Paul, "What good can he do for Christ? Why, he'll just turn everybody off. What Christ needs is shiny people, people with education, power, status, flair. Otherwise, how are we going to be able to sell Jesus to the public and get America Christianized?"

Paul's question was not so much, "What good can I do for Christ?" but rather, "What good can Christ do for the world through unworthy me?" It was not, "How much power can I muster for Jesus?" but, "How much power can Jesus show through my weakness?" Remember 2 Corinthians 12:8 and following? Paul said about some special infirmity that he had: "Three times I besought the Lord about this that it should leave me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. I will all the more gladly boast in my weaknesses that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

Paul knew that, if he was to be an agent of the crucified Christ to win people to faith in him, then he had to follow the way of Calvary. That is, he had to draw people's attention not to his own power, wisdom, status or flair, but to the power of God made perfect in weakness. He knew that if human power or beauty or intelligence or class got center stage, whatever conversions happened would not be conversions to the crucified Christ.

If it is the power of God manifest in the weakness and death of Christ that kindles and sustains saving faith (as 2:5 says), then the way to reflect that power in our lives for the sake of others is to carry the death of Jesus in our own bodies. This is how Paul described the power of his own ministry. He said in 2 Corinthians 4:7–11: "We have this treasure (of the gospel) in earthen vessels (our weak bodies) to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh."

Now I hope you will understand when I say: I come to you as your pastor today with weaknesses (which you will learn soon enough) and in much fear and trembling. Not that I distrust the power and promise of God but that I distrust myself. Not so much that I will fail—as the world counts failure—but that I might succeed in my own strength and wisdom and so fail as God counts failure.

There is a kind of paradox here. We are told: Be anxious for nothing. "Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold you up with my victorious right hand." Yet Paul trembles as he undertakes to preach the gospel, I tremble at the awesome responsibility of ministering the word to this church. Is it because Paul and I lack faith? Partly, yes. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

But there is another reason why we tremble. During this age in which the sinfulness of the human heart remains even among God's people, and in which the temptation to self-exaltation and self-sufficiency is relentless, God has appointed that his servants tremble with a profound sense of insufficiency so that we will never forget that it is God's power and not man's wisdom which creates and sustains saving faith.