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Relevance is Irrelevant (Part 12)

This entry is part 12 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 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

The first three chapters of 1 Corinthians debunks the importance of the modern crutch of “relevance.” Throughout this series, I have been arguing that Paul deliberately eschewed artificial props to make the gospel more attractive to unbelievers. Instead, he preached Christ and him crucified. Such a simple proclamation highlights the power of the Spirit.

At the end of chapter 2, Paul explains the crucial difference between people of the flesh and of the Spirit. In verse 14, the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; they are foolishness to him; he does not understand them. This is to say that he does not understand their spiritual truth or beauty. It goes right by him. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.

“Spiritually discerned” does not mean a couple things. First, spiritual discerned does not mean that these are things that relate to the spirit instead of the body. The contrast with spiritual here is not body, but nature. By nature we are depraved and sinful. By spiritual, Paul refers to the work of the Spirit. 2:12 says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

Nor does “spiritually discerned” mean the mere understanding or interpretation of Scripture. It is beyond that. Notice again that Paul says that spiritual things are spiritually discerned. In other words, there is a kind of judgment going on here, whereby there is not only an understanding of the meaning of Scripture, but an appraisal of its worth and goodness and truth. So, in verse 15, the spiritual person is able to discern all things through the change wrought in him by the Holy Spirit. Now he can judge rightly. He is given a spiritual taste, as it were, and so is able to ascertain between right and wrong. At the same time, the world cannot judge him. Although the world throws away Christians and their teachings like garbage, what natural men and women think is of little consequence.

Why does the natural man’s opinion not matter? Because no one in himself, i.e., in his fallen and depraved nature, knows the mind of the Lord. But Christians are different. We have the mind of Christ.

In this context, then, Paul returns to the infighting among the Corinthians. First Corinthians 3:1-4 reads,

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, foryou were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, ESV)


In his rebuke of the Corinthian disunity, Paul first laments their spiritual immaturity and carnality. He knows that they are Christians. He calls them “brothers” and “infants in Christ” in 3:1. Even though he could say with them in verse 12 that “we have received . . . the Spirit who is from God,” and though they were “sanctified” and “called to be saints” in 1:2, in some respects Paul is unable to address them as spiritual. But they are acting “as people of the flesh,” not as spiritual people. They are acting “as infants in Christ,” so Paul must feed them accordingly.

In previous encounters, Paul had acknowledged that they “were not ready” for the solid food of teaching that Paul wanted to give them. So he fed them with milk. This is how Paul initially fed them as babes in Christ. And now he wants to move on. They should be at the point where he is able to give them solid food, but “you are not yet ready, for you are still in the flesh” (3:2b-3a). How does Paul know this? They are marked by divisions and jealousy and strife. Paul is referring back to the problem he mentioned in chapter 1. He asks them in verse 3, Are you not “behaving only in a human way?” Is this not the way people who are apart from Christ act? Is this the way people changed by the Spirit act?

Here we learn that a mark of spiritual immaturity is strife and infighting and jealousy. And this provides a good opportunity to look at ourselves. Are we guilty of strife or jealousy? Are we struggling to get along with others in our church? Do we secretly envy others who have more money or better jobs or better cars or more opportunities in the spotlight?

Paul’s teaching is plain here. Such attitudes and actions are simply not the fruit of the Spirit. They are the way mere humans act, not people changed by the Spirit of God, not those who have been given the Spirit. Spiritual people work for peace, not for conflict.

What does this have to do with relevance? To be honest, not much on the surface. The rebuke for fleshly strife in 3:1-4 leads into a greater point about the nature of Christian ministry that very much touches on the impotence of relevant gimmicks, which I will cover in my penultimate post in this series next week (if the Lord wills). Nevertheless, there is one pertinent point, and that is the strong distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate. We might, in our day of Christian nations and Christian culture and so forth, sometimes miss the great divide between those who have the Spirit and those who do not. Christians have the Spirit, and this ought to result in a momentous change in their actual practice. They are not of the flesh, and so fleshly things ought to no longer hold persuasive and controlling power over them.

Strikingly, in our milieu, it is professing Christians who are most often “attracted” by the fleshly ornaments of relevant church gimmicks. If relevant tactics were really that successful, and if a radical change has occurred in the lives of the new believers who have embraced the gospel as a result of the “relevant presentation” of it, then those people ought not need such fleshly ornamentation to the Christian faith as is perpetuated in such churches. In other words, if the Spirit of God has come to these new converts, the fleshly pizzazz and sparkle of the worship gizmos and shows should be actually distasteful to these young believers. But it is striking that so many churches must keep their converts using the same methods with which they won them. Christians who are driven by the flesh are “infants in Christ.”

We do not say this in a condescending way. It is incumbent upon us to turn the mirror toward ourselves. The marks of the flesh are not limited to the methods we use when we present the gospel. To Paul’s point, to have jealousy and strife present in an assembly itself is a mark of the flesh. It is to act “in a human way.” In addition, these marks of “fleshliness” mark traditional churches as much as “relevant” churches. A jealous church or a church filled with strife can be just as spiritually damaging as a “relevant” church. So the stakes are high in all directions. We must not only guard against resting on natural wisdom in our presentation of the gospel, but we must guard against allowing fleshly, natural dispositions and passions from infiltrating the church in other ways. All of us must be on our guard, and resist remaining “infants in Christ.”

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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).