To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

My Photo
Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Word of the Cross

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Preached Sunday morning, July 16, 2006
By Milton Stanley

Long ago a poet wrote, “The sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds/Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” How true, especially in the church. There may be something uglier than a proud Christian, but I don’t know what it is. By that meaure, the Corinthian Christians were pretty ugly. I’m sorry to say, there are many of the same kind of Christians in the Lord’s church today.

Pride is a sad condition. Second Timothy 3:2 includes pride among a long list of ugliness, including those who are abusive, disobedient, ungrateful, heartless, unholy, brutal, reckless, treacherous, and appearing godly but denying its power. James 4:6 says that "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Pretty strong words. But then, pride will tear a church to pieces. When pride rules, Christians become more concerned with jockying for position than with serving God and one another. We begin feathering our nest rather than welcoming the lost. We look down on sinners and feel superior while they go to hell. A proud church will at best stagnate; at worst, it will slide into hell alongside the lost.

What can we do about it? Pride, after all, is one of the hardest sins to lose. Many people try to fake humility, perhaps by putting themselves down in conversation. Of course, those folks may secretly be the proudest of all. If we really do begin to overcome our pride, then we run the risk of becoming proud of our humility! And of course, selfish pride in any form is 180 degrees opposed to real godliness.

The first-century Corinthians were a proud church, but the apostle Paul had a word for them that twenty-first century Christians would do well to hear. And I’ll tell you right up front what it is: the word of the cross.

This word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (v. 18) and to the world (vv. 20-24). Compared to the cross, the best wisdom the world has to offer is foolishness. If that’s really true, have you stopped to think how much of life that reality impacts? Everything; not just what we commonly call worldly—drinkers, gamblers, sexual sinners. The world isn’t just the rich, the sophisticated, the highly educated. The word Paul uses here is kosmos, a Greek word meaning adornment, order, everything. Everything!

“The world” is most of our own lives, even for Christians: twelfth grade economics, eight grade physical science, sixth grade social studies, long division and multiplication and subtraction, cooking tips grandma gave you and dad’s instructions on how to change the oil in the car, how to drive a bargain when buying a car, tying your shoelaces, how to hold your knife and fork. Everything.

And the best we’ve learned from all that kind of instruction is foolishness. Oh sure, it’s all good as far as it goes. There’s no “biblical” way to do long division, to tune up a car. But the ways of the world (in other words, most of what the world thinks and does) has no place for the cross. The cross simply doesn’t fit into the picture of the great, wide, world as we go about our daily lives. And that makes the world foolish for what really matters: eternity, life, the King’s business.

The greatest dangers to the church are not so much blatant sins (which the Bible clearly describes) but worldly thinking, which creeps into the church in ways we least expect. And how does the world creep in? It comes into the church when we come to believe that the rules of the world apply to the Kingdom of God. The rules we learn in our everyday lives work OK for worldly things, but when it comes to the Kingdom, we have a whole new way of doing things. Worldy thinking is creeping into the church when we try to run it like a business. Worldy thinking is heaping doctrine on top of doctrine until we lose sight of the Word of God. In Churches of Christ, for example, we say we have no creed but the Bible. That’s a good approach, because when the church stands on the doctrines of men, we get in trouble. Of course, “no creed but the Bible” is easier said than done, especially when we approach the Word of God with worldly thinking.

Let me give you one, hypothetical example. In Mt. 19:9, Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. But remember that in Mt. 5:28 Jesus has said that if a man lusts in his heart for a woman, he’s already committed adultery. Therefore, following strict logic, if a wife finds a Playboy in her husband’s golf bag she has grounds for divorce because he’s committed adultery through his lust. Mature Christians, of course, understand that this scenario is bogus. However, by the strictest wisdom of the world, it makes logical sense. And unfortunately Christians sometimes use that same kind of worldly logic on other matters of doctrine.

Wisdom that works for the world, you see, doesn’t always work in the Kingdom. It’s simply using the wrong tool. It’s like trying to cut a 2 x 4 with a see-saw. It’s like trying to seal a box with recording tape. It’s like trying to cut your steak with a putty knife. The tools just don’t work. Kingdom rules are different at a most basic level. The first are last and the last first (Mt. 19:30). He who would lead must be a servant (Mk. 9:35). The humblest are the greatest (Mt. 18:4). Shame is honor (Heb. 12:2). Wealth and power are dangerous and deadly not so much to the weak as to the powerful. The Gospel is foolishness to all we've been taught! Our logic itself doesn't hold up.

Wait a minute. If our logic itself doesn't hold up, what leg do we have to stand on? If not logic, then what? Didn't God creat us in his image, and give us minds? Yes, he did. Well then if everything we've learned is foolishness, how can we believe? Belief, after all, is the first and most important step to salvation. Again, our minds are good as far as they go, but our wits can't save us. So what hope do we have?

The answer is here in 1 Corinthians 1, and it gives us no room to be proud of ourselves. Read verses 27-31. Did you notice these words: "but by his doing you are in Christ Jesus"? We're in Christ Jesus because we're called (v. 24), because we're chosen (v. 27). That's the biblical picture: what God has done for us.

Wait a minute. You say we shouldn't depend on the doctrines of men, but that's Calvinism! No, that's the Word of God. You find it here and elsewhere in the New Testament. When it comes to who does the choosing, Christians divide into two main groups. Calvinists say God does the choosing. Arminians say that man does the choosing. Which one is right? Neither. And both. How's that?

First, both approaches lead to pride. Whether we believe God rejected others and chose me, or simply believe we were smart enough to make the right choice, either doctrine can serve to puff us up. Of course, that pride is our own faults. But the doctrines themselves are flawed. Both doctrines, you see, are trying to explain God's purposes in worldy terms. And both ignore the big picture: the cross is foolishness to the world. Of course, the world is foolishness to the cross, too. So choose your foolishness. Do you want the foolishness of the world, so that you can have a logical answer to every question? Or do you want the foolishness of the cross, which is the power of God?

The fact is that worldly, ordinary thinking can't comprehend the cross. The New Testament clearly says: God alone chooses those who are saved. Yet the thrust of the whole Bible is that we must choose our own course. How can it be both? I have no idea.

And maybe that's the idea. When God's ways confound our minds, so that we can't answer the big questions logically, then we learn to depend not on our own wisdom, but on the power of the cross.

Look at what Paul tells the Corinthians: to us who are being saved, the word of the cross is the power of God. I spend a lot of times on sermons, but sometimes when I'm standing here telling the story of the cross, the story of the gospel, it hits me: This makes no sense. I haven't explained this idea of the cross well enough. The lost aren't going to understand any of this. Yet sometimes they do. Sinners repent, come forward in faith for baptism. You know what I've found in preaching? People like to hear well-crafted, well-delivered sermons. But there seems to be no correlation between good rhetoric and transformation of the heart. That's because real heart change doesn't depend on the preacher's words. It depends on the word of the cross, because the word of the cross has power.

OK, so what does it look like, this power of God in the cross? I'd like to offer three ideas: the cross behind us, the cross upon us, and the cross before us.

The cross behind us is the work God has already done for Christians. Christ was crucified to pay the debt of our sins and bring us into new life (Rom. 4:25). Romans 6:6 tells us: "We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin." So the cross set us free from sin. And how do we benefit from that freedom? Romans 6:4 tells us: "Therefore, through baptism we were buried with him into his death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glory, we too may live an entirely new life." An entirely new life. The old one is gone, behind us, left behind at the cross, and now we live a new life in Christ. Isn't that encouraging? We don't have to keep reliving our past mistakes. Now we can live a new life with Christ. Of course that new life isn't all sweetness and light. It's hard work because of the next image of the cross: the cross upon us.

Christians are called to share in Christ's sufferings. As Jesus himself told us: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk. 9:23). Christians haven't been saved simply to kick back and celebrate (at least not yet). We certainly shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back for being wise enough to accept the gospel. We're saved to join the battle for souls, for the Kingdom! That means we have do deny ourselves, not insist on our own way. It means not having our own way at all, because we have something much better. And that much better is the cross before us.

The author of the book of Hebrews put it beautifully: Christians are to keep the cross in sight "fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2). When we focus on Christ and his cross, everything else begins to look different. Things that are big to the world---money, comfort, prestige---begin to look small. We ourselves begin to look very small, and Christ and his Kingdom grow in our mind to become all in all.

Wait a minute. There's only one cross. How can it be behind us, on us and in front of us at the same time? Now that's worldly thinking, isn't it? Jesus didn't come to make us better thinkers. He came to give us new minds. That's what repentance is, new minds, new ways of thinking. That's what we're learning here. The power of the cross is going back to square one in our "cosmos." It's learning a new way to think, a new way to count (our blessings) a new way to spell (hope), a new language of faith. A new way to walk, to talk, to love, to rejoice.

And the only way we can learn and live that new way is to keep our eyes on the cross of Jesus Christ.

Do we dare? Do we dare give up everything but Jesus Christ and him crucified? Living a cross-centered life is dangerous to our worldly way of thinking. But it opens our lives to the Kingdom, and the King.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


Post a Comment

<< Home