Relevance is irrelevant (Part 3)
In part 1, we looked at Paul’s ministry model in 1 Corinthains 1:10-17. Paul took deliberate steps to preach the gospel in such a way that minimized himself and emphasized Christ and his redeeming work. Part 2‘s post showed why Paul went about ministry in this way. The message of redemption through cross of Christ is what imparts Christ to us. Through believing that message, we are united to Christ and the benefits that Christ brings (1 Cor 1:18). So Paul believed that if he was to add a layer of “eloquent words of wisdom” (or anything else) to make the message more palatable, it could by distorting that message derail the very power of the message. Paul is warning us not only to be careful about our content (preach the gospel!) , but also to guard our method of proclaiming that content (preach the gospel!).
This leads to another important point: there are two kinds of wisdom in this world. Worldly wisdom is the struggle of man to figure out truth, life, and even God by himself. The wisdom of God is a wisdom possessed by God alone, undiscovered by natural means, and necessarily revealed.
God is against the first kind of wisdom. He is not neutral towards it, but opposes it. When we read verses 19-20, we might be tempted to think that Paul is saying God is opposed to all wisdom:
For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:19-20 ESV)
But the words of Proverbs are still true:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. . . . Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding. (Proverbs 1:7; 3:13 ESV)
And Paul himself makes clear that wisdom is still a good thing:
. . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:24-25 ESV)
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (1 Corinthians 2:6 ESV)
So Paul’s point in vv 19-20 is not that all wisdom is bad, but that God is opposed to certain wisdom. Paul calls this anti-God wisdom “the wisdom of the world” in verse 20. In 1 Cor 2:5 he describes it as “the wisdom of men.”
To reiterate the point above, men exercise worldly wisdom when they attempt to figure out by themselves the things of God (for example, God, man, virtue, sin, judgment, redemption, and salvation).1 The things of God must be revealed. God hates it when men proudly attempt to discern God’s nature and his saving work by themselves. That’s why Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14. God wants to “destroy the wisdom of the wise.” These men are nothing before God, and so he asks rhetorically, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of of the world?”
I certainly do not take Paul’s words to mean that everything unbelievers say is false or untrue. But his main point stands: when men try to know God, his nature, and his redemptive work apart from revelation, they produce a bankrupt system opposed by God at the end of the day. There may be bits of truth here and there (and perhaps even bits of truth that correspond to the supernaturally revealed doctrines Christians believe), but natural religion, generally speaking, is a pipe dream.
Worldly wisdom is bankrupt. Paul makes that clear in verse 21:
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21 ESV)
So Paul returns again to the solution: in preaching the revealed message of the cross God will save those who believe that supernaturally revealed message.
How does this relate to the irrelevance of relevance? People find certain things relevant because of their value system. Relevance, it seems, is a kind of heightened interest that people find in a message or object because of the value that message or object has in relation to themselves. Relevance hangs on self-interest and perspective. People value certain attitudes, beliefs, styles, expressions, and even things, and whatever connects with that value system is relevant. Again, the problem is that for every unbeliever this value system is corrupted and depraved. For unbelievers, this value system is constructed by personal and social forces that most often reflect worldly wisdom. Most importantly, God is not valued. God’s revelation is scorned. Jesus Christ and him crucified is utter foolishness. Evil is good and good is evil. The things to which worldlings are attracted nearly always reflect this depraved system of values.
By dressing up our presentation of the gospel with the so-called relevance and value system of this age, we are actually trying to make it attractive based on a bankrupt system of values. Even more concerning, in so doing, Christians themselves become guilty of adapting the empty wisdom of the world as good and neutral, all in the name of preaching Christ. And so when we try to make the message of the cross relevant, we are actually embracing what God sought destroy in the cross of Christ and the “foolishness of preaching.”
Moreover, Paul’s main point in verses 18-25 is that worldly wisdom cannot save. It is a spiritual dead-end. When this layer of worldly relevance is added to the gospel, Christ and his message are distorted, and what attracts the sinner is no longer Christ and him crucified (“the message of the cross,” v 18), but the value system to which this relevance is hinged. Thereby we empty the message of cross of its power. Of course, the reason such “relevant tactics” are injected today into so many presentations of the gospel is because, it is assumed, unbelievers find the mere preaching of the cross irrelevant. But, as we will see in the next post, if the Lord wills, that is precisely why Paul explicitly rejected dressing it up with the trappings of this world’s wisdom.
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).
- See John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Sisters, Oreg.: Multnomah, 2000), 274-78. [↩]