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Relevance is Irrelevant (Part 6)

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series

"Relevance is Irrelevant"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

This series has been looking at the connection of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 1-3 and the contemporary church’s dependence on relevance for evangelism. In the last post, I argued from 1 Cor 1:30-31 that God deliberately made the gospel message impossible for natural men to accept in order that he alone would get the glory for man’s salvation. And this, I argued, has direct implications for how we go about ministering in the name of the Lord Jesus:

If we set up crutches for the gospel, we are subverting God’s desire to get all the glory. If we think we need to put make-up on the message of the cross to make it more appealing to the unsaved, we are robbing God of his glory, the very thing he is purposing to establish. It is in the very foolishness of the message of the cross that God uses to get glory. Relevance is irrelevant. If we appeal to base desires as a kind of “bait and switch” to get people interested in the wisdom of God, we are actually undermining God’s very purpose in the difficult message of the gospel. What is more, we are showing that we really do not believe that God has the power to continue to bring men to himself through that simple message of Christ crucified.

The Manner of Paul’s Ministry

And as if Paul’s words in chapter 1 were not clear enough, we have in 1 Cor 2:1-5 a description of Paul’s own manner of ministry. There we find that he “practiced what he preached.”

Negatively

First we see what Paul did not do. He says in verse 1, that he “did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.”1 You see how he deliberately avoided a way of speaking that in way distracted from the core of his message. Of course, this is not to say that Paul did not try to communicate the gospel clearly. But Paul did not go further than that. He didn’t want someone to come through any kind of manipulated message. He did not want the way he spoke of the gospel to make it more enticing than it already was in the message itself.2 Paul deliberately tried to avoid drawing attention to himself with the way he delivered God’s message.3 The speech itself had nothing artificial with which to lure people into a false conversion. Paul wanted no one converting to Christianity because of the way he preached, but only because of the cross’ power.

In other words, it is not enough simply that preachers speak in public about the gospel. All the things that go under the name of “preaching” today are not necessary good instruments of evangelism. There is a kind of preaching or public speaking that undermines the very gospel that it is preached. When we contrive devices for convincing men apart from the simple gospel message, we run the risk of doing the very thing Paul explicitly rejects. There is a good lesson here. If we think people come to the church because they like the preaching, we might be in big trouble. People should come (as the saying goes) for the message, not the messenger–it had better be the Christ lifted up in that preaching, and not the mere preaching of the preacher. If people come for us the preacher, we run the risk of building a house of cards rather than a real church of Christ.

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Positively

Positively, in verse 2 Paul tells us what he did do.

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

Look at how deliberate Paul is here. “I decided,” he says. He is taking pains, making plans, and deliberately purposing only to preach the crucified Christ. Ministering the way Paul prescribes takes deliberate effort. Here is the true purpose driven ministry, one that makes a point to make much of Christ and not to bewitch seekers through gimmicks.

We should note again from verse 2 that the crucified Christ is the heart of the gospel. The gospel is not about making your marriage better or getting you out of debt or back on your feet or turning your life around. If you believe in the crucified Jesus, your life will be turned around, but probably not for all the reasons you expect. Sometimes following Christ means that our homes are split apart (Matt 10:34), or that we sacrifice financially for the good of others, or that we suffer through severe trials with the faith of one who is only a pilgrim on earth. There is nothing but the greatest happiness on earth in following Christ, but that happiness means we die to the things of this present age so that we can inherit life eternal in an age to come. And the only way future happiness can happen is through a crucified Christ who reconciles us to God and transforms us into holy saints who bring glory to God through praise and good works.

Historically

Paul next evokes the memories of the Corinthians of his own ministry there in Achaia. If Paul’s own declaration were not enough, he reminds them of how he ministered the gospel in their midst. He says in vv. 3-4,

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.

Just as Jesus the Messiah came in weakness, so came Paul with his simple message of Christ crucified.4 The reference to “fear and trembling” could mean that Paul was a nervous preacher, or it could (better) refer to Paul’s humility in response to the awful majesty of God and his concern to proclaim God’s message rightly.5 Paul preached as one who was speaking on behalf of God. He was more concerned with pleasing God by accurately proclaiming the message rather than pleasing the Corinthians with an eloquent presentation of the message.

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By preaching in this way, Paul reminds them, his message came “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” In other words, because he preached this way, and the Corinthians still believed in the message of the cross of Christ, it all the more showed that the Spirit was powerfully at work in their midst. If he had come with the pride and confidence of a skilled Greek orator, that power would have been masked (if present at all). But Paul’s ministry was vindicated in that the Corinthians still gloriously believed the gospel of grace despite his weak manner of proclaiming this foolish message.

The Purpose of Paul’s Ministry

Why did Paul minister in this way? Verse 5 sums it up:

“. . . so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

If our faith rested on skilled arguments and subtle apologetics, a more crafty argument would demolish it. Paul’s approach to ministry was not to argue a person into the faith, but to simply tell others about Jesus and his death and resurrection and then allow God to use that word to awaken sinners to the glory of Christ in the gospel. This shows the power of God in the Gospel. We must simply preach to others the Gospel, that God is holy and worthy of glory, that we failed to give him glory by sinning and rebelling against him, that Jesus died to forgive us of sin, and that this forgiveness comes through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we do that and God through that Gospel draws helpless men to himself by the Spirit, it shows the power of God. And, to Paul’s point in v 5, then the faith of the new believer does not rest in arguments but in the supernatural work of the Spirit. And through this method of ministry, we ensure that no human being boasts in the presence of God (1:29).

Here is where the rubber meets the road. Imagine yourself in conversation with an unbeliever, perhaps a well-off and “hip” young person indulging in all the worst sins of this age. He clearly has no interest in the Scriptures, God, and Jesus Christ. What do you need to do to get this person to believe the gospel? What do you have to say to show him the truth of Jesus Christ? Paul is telling us something that sounds radical to us in such a situation. We might think we need to do something to “relate” to him or to show him we’re hip or cool or postmodern like him. But Paul is telling us that our responsibility in that situation is simply to declare the Gospel clearly and plainly. That’s it.  We must deliberately act “to know nothing” among him “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul is further telling us that if we add something, it’s actually subverting God’s glory. And he is further stressing that God can gloriously save that person with that simple, unadorned message of Christ crucified. And when he does save that young person, he puts on display a demonstration of the work of the Spirit and his sovereign power.

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Most people today think that saying that homosexuality is a sin is a worse sin than homosexuality itself. And if these unnatural acts are viewed as virtuous today, what do these sophisticated urbanites do with a dying Jew on a cross? They laugh and scorn him. The message of the cross in our day is just as unpalatable to natural men as it was to people in Paul’s day. What was Paul’s answer to this? To preach Christ crucified and watch the power of God work in men’s hearts through this message. We should never be surprised when natural men reject God’s message. Let us never, however, doubt what the gospel simply preached can do, for it is God’s pleasure to demonstrate his power through the very proclamation and exaltation of his Son crucified for sinners.

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Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He also contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).



Endnotes:

  1. All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version. []
  2. C. K. Barrett: “Paul represents himself as a preacher, not as an orator. Preaching is the proclamation of the cross; it is the cross that is the source of its power. The convincing power of the cross could not be fully manifest if preaching shared too evidently in the devices of human rhetoric; if men are persuaded by eloquence they are not persuaded by Christ crucified. Hence Paul rejects wisdom (σοφια) as a rhetorical device.” The First Epistle to the Corinthians, HNTC (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 49. []
  3. See Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 113. []
  4. See Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 113. []
  5. See, for example, Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 115-16 and Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians TNTC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 51. []

5 Responses to Relevance is Irrelevant (Part 6)

  1. You gotta admit though…music will help certain people get saved…especially if you rap gospel lyrics.

    I can play spoons a little too, and I've found that Appalachian types get convicted if I spoon while making gospel points.

    Besides that, good article.

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