To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, July 27, 2006

“But we have the mind of Christ”

1 Corinthians 2
Preached Sunday morning, July 23, 2006,
Lexington Church of Christ, by Milton Stanley

One of the most frustrating situations in Christian ministry is trying to help fellow Christians in whose lives the gospel has never seemed to take hold. It’s a problem in nearly every congregation: how to motivate carnal or worldly Christians. Why do some men and women proclaim their belief and repentance and are baptized into Christ but then go on living like they’re still part of the world? As we continue to make our way through 1 Corinthians, this second chapter gives us part of the answer. It also shines light on how to make discipleship more real. Here’s a clue up front to the answer: weakness.

Did you notice Paul’s description of himself when he came to the Corinthian Christians? The answer is in verses 1-5. As the apostle Peter told us, there are some parts of Paul’s letters that are hard to understand (2 Pe. 3:15-16). Christians still discuss what some of Paul’s statements really mean. But how much plainer could these verses be at the beginning of chapter 2? When Paul came to the Corinthian Christians he didn’t impress them with the quality of his speaking skills (v. 1). He brought them a simple message (v. 2). He came to them in weakness, fear, and a lot of trembling (v. 3). What kind of picture is that of a Christian leader? A fool. A weakling. And he was proud of it.

Why is it that Jesus’ apostles, the first leaders of the church after the Lord himself, were all weaklings of one sort or another—and yet we want our leaders today to be strong? Why do want our elders and especially our preachers to speak well, look good, carry themselves confidently, have a firm handshake, be well educated, be sensible, drive a nice car? That’s not the picture Paul presents. He even brags about his foolishness and weakness.

That attidude isn’t sour grapes on Paul’s part. He wasn’t one of those men who never bothered to study and then went around saying knowledge isn’t important. No, Paul had been one of the Pharisees, a group of Jews who committed their lives to knowing and doing the Law of God. Paul had studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), one of the most famous Pharisees of his day. Paul told the Galatians, “ I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). Paul could probably quote Scripture from memory better than anyone we know. And we see from his sermons in Acts that Paul could use classical rhetoric when he wanted to. Yet he wanted to be known for his weakness.

Do you have any idea why Paul would brag about his weakness? Wouldn’t it be better to brag about his accomplishments? Wouldn’t the good things on his resume make a bigger impression on the Corinthians and cause them to pay more attention to his words? You would think so. It certainly makes sense. Yet Paul knows what he’s doing. He’s putting into practice here what he wrote about in the last chapter: the foolishness and weakness of God’s Kingdom. Paul is willing to count himself as nothing, because he has something much better to tell them than about himself.

Paul has the mind of Christ. There’s a wonderful, supernatural power in sharing in Christ’s mind, Christ’s heart. There’s power in that fellowship. And the wonderful news is that it’s available to every Christian. Of course, like Paul, we don’t find that strength by puffing ourselves up. Only when we confess our own weakness and quit making ourselves the message can we proclaim Christ not only in our words but in our lives. That’s true, healthy, godly, humility. That’s the kind of discipleship God wants of his people. That’s the way we ought to live.

And we shouldn’t expect anybody to praise us for living that way. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding about Christian discipleship. A lot of folks think that if they live like Christians, it will be a feather in their cap socially. Being in church becomes part of the good life: making good money, dressing well, being polite, going to church, volunteering for the United Way. In this scenario, being a Christian is part of showing the world we have our act together. But all that’s only a half-truth that neglects a very important fact: living like a Christian will expose our weakness and make us misunderstood by the world. If we really live like disciples of Christ, those around us will think we’re weak, naive, unrealistic. Some may even think we’re crazy or dangerous. Why would they think that?

Because the wisdom of Christ is not the wisdom of the powers-that-be. See verses 7-8: “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The wisdom of God looks like foolishness to the world. The world can’t understand the wisdom of God any more than we can speak ancient Anatolian or Hittite. It’s amazing that Christians want to be seen as respectable. It was the respectable folk who crucified the Lord of Glory (v. 8).

God calls Christians to live differently from the rest of the world, to take on the discipline of a Kingdom where the rules are different from the world around us. I struggle as a preacher to know how to motivate people to want to take on that discipline: to want to draw near to God, to become better disciples of Christ. If we already want to draw near, then the Word we proclaim will help us. But if you don’t have a heart’s desire to draw near to God, you won’t hear it. You’ll only notice how bald or fat I am, how I stumble over my words. Maybe you’ll listen only to find fault with something I inevitably say poorly. You’ll notice the clothes and the perfume of those around you. Or maybe you’re thinking only about how many minutes till the closing prayer and lunch with the family. In other words, if you don’t have the Spirit of God, then the Word is only words.

Christians, don’t be complacent on this matter. Yes, we receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism. But we can grieve that Spirit if we choose to let our hearts be shaped by the Lord of this world rather than the King of kings (Eph. 4:30; 6:12). Woe be unto us if we become complacent in hearing the Word of God. The Spirit comes only by faith (Gal. 3:2), and that faith is a whole lot more than an intellectual belief. It’s more than simply saying at some point, “Well, this gospel business may be right. I don’t want to go to hell, so I think I’ll be baptized to be on the safe side.” Don’t be one of those who goes to get baptized and only gets wet.

It’s faith that opens our lives to the Spirit of God. It’s faith and the Spirit that open our minds to the Scriptures. It’s faith that makes us want to do the things of God. It’s faith that saves us. You’ve heard Christians say, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). That’s how hearts change: the Word of Christ crucified. I used to simply preach “be baptized, stop doing these things and start doing these other things.” All that has its place, of course, but we’d better take care where we place our emphasis. We don’t need the Spirit of God to manipulate people to do what we want. We can use guilt and fear just fine to persuade folks to be baptized and come to church. But you can get in the water, attend every week, give up a thousand sinful practices and still be lost. That’s because if you have no faith, you have no Holy Spirit and therefore no hunger for righteousness, no joy, no hope. The only way we’ll have any of the blessings of salvation is through faith, and faith comes from this illogical word of Jesus Christ crucified.

I want all of us here to be changed, to be transformed by the Word of God. But bear in mind that the church isn’t called to preach a tame message, a polite salvation. A news magazine this past week ran a picture of a teenage boy wounded by a train bombing in India. One side of his body had taken the force of a bomb. His shoulder was badly injured, and blood had turned one of his sleeves from white to red. While that photograph is of a young man many miles away in a situation strange to us, it is in many ways a picture of souls all around us, of people in this room right here. Our souls, in varying degrees, have been wounded by the world around us: by what we’ve done, by what others have done to us. In many cases those wounds are filled with dirt and infection, with the pus and swelling of bitterness and unforgiveness. We try to live our lives as if those wounds weren’t there. We smile and say, “I’m fine” while infection oozes from our flesh. And nothing will heal our souls but the power of the Word.

Each Lord’s day I stand here and try to bring the word of life, of healing, of salvation through Jesus Christ. Sometimes I feel like I’m holdling a fire hose just spraying out the Word of God, the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified. And as poorly as I or any preacher proclaim that message, it has the power to change things. What can wash away my sin? Jesus Christ and him crucified. What can clean the damage and infection of my soul? Jesus Christ crucified. What can help me lay aside rage and anger, bitterness and resentment, spite and revenge? Christ crucified. The word of the cross is the power of our message, and it is the power to change lives.

Let’s look at 1 Cor. 2:12: “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.” Does that prospect excite you, encourage you, comfort you? If the Spirit of God is working in you, it should. If not, then all I know to do is keep aiming the hose! If we have received the Spirit of God, we have the power to do what we never could before. We can understand the Scripture (with effort, of course). We can better understand life, the world, ourselves and others. We have the wisdom to discern right choices.

So how do we develop this mind of Christ? Is it simply a matter of being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and then, “Whoo! I got all the answers now!” No. Having the mind of Christ, although it’s for all Christians, is not automatic. Look again at verse 12. It doesn’t say we have received the Spirit and so now we understand. It says we have received the Spirit “so that we might understand.” The Corinthians were Christians, but they still needed instruction to begin thinking and acting like they were. And they needed more than just facts. Paul, after all, knew the facts when he was still a Pharisee, and it didn’t help him until God broke into his life. And even after that, Paul spent years studying and growing in faith before he began writing the letters we still read today.

So we develop the mind of Christ first of all, like Paul, by receiving the revelation of God’s Word. If we have heard the Word proclaimed, it has to break into our lives to quicken our hearts toward God. That’s a gift from God through his Word. And once our hearts have been inclined toward God, we have to know the Word so much that it becomes part of us. Most of us here don’t study as much as we’d like. I don’t say that to shame anyone, but to encourage us. If the Scriptures aren’t a joy for you to read, then please pray that they will be. And then read them! Get to know the Word. Set aside time each day to read the Scriptures. If you have trouble understanding what you read, then get copies of the Bible on tape. Set quiet aside time not only to read the Bible, but to consider in prayer and meditation what it means. Get to know the Word, not so that God will love you more, but so that you will love him more.

And take time to worship God in the communion of saints. Worship is a duty that’s good for the soul. I sometimes hear worship taught as something we’d better do but without considering the blessings to us: “Don’t miss worship or you’ll lose your salvation.” That’s a fear approach, not a faith approach. It’s forcing behavior rather than encouraging faith. Prayer, Bible study, worship, obedience are not only commands, they’re blessings to those who participate in them. And yet why do so many Christians not participate in them with joyful hearts? Why do some of you not take advantage of these blessings? Simple. You still have a worldy mind, not the mind of Christ.

One more point to consider: If we have the mind of Christ, we’ll have the life of Christ. That’s a life of obedience and of joy. It’s also a life of persecution. As Paul told his spiritual son Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). That’s another side of the cross: not only did Christ die on the cross for our sins, he calls us to take up our crosses and follow him (Luke 9:23). In other words, Christ died to save us from our sins, not to save us from the cross [1].

If you have fought a successful battle to keep the Spirit from working in your heart, the idea of carrying a cross is foolishness. But if we have the mind of Christ, it’s pure joy.

1. Piper, John. “The Present Power of Christ Crucified.” Online sermon text at www.

(c) 2006, A. Milton Stanley

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Back again

Well, postings of my Romans sermons petered out almost a year ago. They were only minor rewrites, however, of a series I already posted in 2004. But I'm about to post something new, so let's begin with a new series on 1 Corinthians, already in progress.