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Relevance is Irrelevant (Part 11)

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series

"Relevance is Irrelevant"

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

Modern American evangelicalism has a tendency to augment the preaching of the gospel with certain practices and cultural adaptations by which they believe the Word of God becomes “relevant” to unbelievers. I have been arguing that Paul’s “method of ministry” outlined in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians strictly forbids such attempts in principle. This argument does not clarify the differences between, say, acts of welcome and thoughtful hospitality toward outsiders, and the kinds of “gospel augmentation” that Paul explicitly repudiates. Indeed, a discussion of the distinctions between what makes a church considerate in its presentation of the gospel and what makes a church augment the preaching would be very beneficial (even if those lines are not always clearly discerned).1 Nevertheless, I have used this series to focus on the apostolic repudiation of “gospel crutches.”

Last week, I highlighted 1 Cor 2:13, where Paul not only says his message (“Christ crucified”) comes from the Holy Spirit, but further argues that that message is delivered in a way that relies upon the ministry of the Spirit. This manner of delivery rejects lofty speech or human, natural wisdom. The power lies in the message itself, and so it demonstrates the Spirit’s power when it brings sinners to embrace the Savior.

The following three verses (1 Cor 2:14-16) explain further why it is so important that the Gospel be delivered in a spiritual way.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

There are two spheres of existence here: nature and grace, the natural world and the spiritual world. The natural world is the world apart from grace and God’s revelation. The natural world is built upon the denial of God and his revelation. Paul makes three important points about the radical separation of these two realms.

First, the natural person rejects the world of spiritual realities. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” He rejects them out of hand. There is no interest there. He lays aside God’s revelation. Paul has said this numerous times. The ultimate proof is in the dire act of the rejection of the very Son of God. “None of the rulers of this age understood this [secret and hidden wisdom of God], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). When it comes to the revelation of invisible, spiritual reality, the natural man refuses to take what is offered to him. The rejection of God’s grace is not only unfortunate and irrational, but brings the confirmation of condemnation. It is highly insulting and treasonous to reject God and his gifts.

Second, there is something more than a refusal or polite “no, thank you,” to spiritual reality on the part of natural people. Indeed, they find the truths of the Spirit of God “foolishness.” “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him.” Here, natural men and women are guilty of the worst kind of liable–they defame God himself, concluding that God’s wisdom is actually foolishness. It is to be laughed at and pitied, as far as they are concerned. What God has revealed, culminating in the message of Jesus Christ crucified, is regarded as untrue and offensive. Natural men deride this most precious message of our salvation in the dying Lord Jesus Christ.


Third, as if the first two points of separation between the natural and spiritual realms were not enough, Paul insists in the utter incapacity in natural men for genuine apprehension of spiritual truth. “And he [the natural man] is not able to understand them [the things of the Spirit of God] because they are spiritually discerned.” In other words, natural men do not have a working internal mechanism to discern the truth and beauty of what the Spirit has revealed. When they are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” they are unable to do so because that “sense” is broken through sin. These things are “spiritually discerned,” and, because they are unable to discern, natural men and women are unable to see the wisdom in the things revealed by the Spirit.

Surely, such obstacles cannot be removed by the relevant ploys suggested by church marketing gurus and the religious hucksters. The rejection, derision, and incapacity for spiritual reality cannot be overcome by offering the unbeliever a trendy sermon series or hip music or pop culture references. Do you not see? By offering such incentives, American churches are only appealing to the “nature-informed” concerns that already interest the unbeliever. These interests are rooted in their natural existence. It gives the Gospel absolutely no leverage. If anything, it confuses the unbeliever into thinking that their natural concerns are actually most important and compatible with the Gospel itself.

As spiritual people, we who are believers should ourselves be striving to show the world a better way. In fact, in verse 15, Paul shows that Christians have been transformed by the Spirit so that our ability to judge the world is fundamentally spiritual. We are no longer enthralled with world’s message and vain allurements. Verse 15 says, “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.”

A further consequence of the Spirit is that he gives the believer a spiritual judgment. Everything can now be understood in light of the working from God’s Spirit. We do not dare place undue emphasis on the fleeting value system of this world. We now know what really matters. We look at the world in a way that valuates it aright. Moreover, as the second half of the verse goes on to say, natural men really don’t get spiritually people, so their opinion does not matter. We should not be intimated when the world rejects what we embrace or embraces what we reject.

In verse 16, Paul’s citation of Isa 40:13 (also see Rom 11:34) points back to v 15. The reason that spiritual persons cannot be judged by natural men is that natural men do not know the mind of the Lord. The prophet Isaiah confirms this: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” Christians, on the other hand, have been given the mind of Christ by the Spirit, so we see everything from the viewpoint of Christ and the reality of what the cross means for us. At very least, having the mind of Christ means we who are in Christ have been crucified to the world (and the world to us).

Embracing the “mind of Christ” ought to transform our world. We ought to bring everything under Christ: our speech, our manners, our acts, our empathy, our entertainment, our worship, our time, and everything else. We begin to transform our culture into a Christian culture. Our value system must become Christ’s value system.

We should therefore be very careful about employing cultural expressions and methods of communication rooted in this world’s system of pseudo-discernment. Natural people do not embrace the same value system we do. Cultural systems have a lot to do with value. In using some of the world’s cultural expressions, we may betray the mind of Christ for the world’s system of values in ways that are actually harmful to the faith. Paul has taught us that this world’s system is often opposed to the truth we have received from the Spirit of God. These three verses prove more than the importance of gospel proclamation sans relevant tactics, they go on to show that “gospel crutches” are actually detrimental or harmful to genuine Holy Spirit ministry. 

A much better approach is to preach the Gospel, leaving the results in God’s hands. Yes, we must communicate the Gospel clearly, but there is nothing we can do to make it more attractive to natural men. They reject the world of spiritual realities, regard it as foolish, and are ultimately unable to accept it without receiving the Spirit of God.


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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 contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. It should be noted that it is implied in the very word “relevance” that Finney-like methods are necessary to cause natural men to be interested in the gospel. By using the word “relevance,” it is implied that the mere gospel is not relevant. []