The gospel is, at its core, a rather simple message: There is one God who created everything. God's pinnacle creation—man—was made to bring glory to his Creator, but he rebelled instead and became a sinner who stands condemned before this holy Creator God. But God in love and grace provided a way for the sinner to be reconciled to Him through the death and resurrection of His own Son, Jesus Christ. By dying on the cross, Jesus paid the full divine penalty for sin. By rising from the grave, Jesus broke the power that sin and death had over the sinner. The sinner may be forgiven of all his sins and be accepted by God if he trusts in Jesus' sacrificial death and resurrection as fully sufficient to accomplish his salvation. He can have hope of eternal life with God with no fear of eternal death or condemnation because God's wrath against all of his sins—past, present, and future—has been satisfied already in the death of Christ.
Even though it takes a few sentences to explain, you'd be hard-pressed to call that a highly complex message. There are children's books that are more complicated than that!
But don't let the pure simplicity of the gospel message fool you. It's one thing to say the gospel is simple; it's another thing to say it's easy to believe. The gospel is anything but easy to believe. It's hard to believe the gospel. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it's impossible to believe. That may strike you as a strange statement to make, considering the person who's writing this (you're truly) believes the gospel message, and I'm sure many who read this blog wholeheartedly believe it as well. Nevertheless, I'm convinced from God's Word that the gospel is an impossible message to believe and I want to give you a brief reason why from one of the most seminal passages on the subject: 1 Corinthians 1:18–25.
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 20 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? 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. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
This passage breaks down into a handful of basic categories, and the first and most obvious revolves around a single message. Throughout 1 Corinthians 1, Paul refers to this message numerous times using several different but related phrases. In verse 17, he tells them that "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel." Then, in that very same verse, he refers to that gospel using the phrase "the cross of Christ." In the next verse, he calls it "the word of the cross." In verse 21, he calls it "what we preach," and then ties to the next verse when he says, "We preach Christ crucified." Then, in chapter 2 he asserts in verse 2, "I decided to knowing nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified," which he refers to in verse 4 as "my speech and my message."
You get the point. Paul had one solitary message, and no matter what phrase he used to call it, it's clear that it's the message of the gospel that encapsulates the person of Jesus Christ and the salvation he accomplished on the cross. That's why the two most prominent elements of that message in all these various epithets revolve around Christ and the cross—the person and the means of salvation, or as one writer puts it, "God's total revelation, i.e., the gospel in all its fullness, which centers in the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Christ (2:2); the entire divine plan and provision for the redemption of sinners, which is the theme of all Scripture, is in view" (MacArthur Bible Commentary, 1566). The gospel was central to Paul's ministry focus because of his conviction that it was the exclusive message of salvation.
Now, in relation to this one message, there are two opposing groups which together encompass the entirety of fallen humanity (i.e., everybody). This is, admittedly, a strong dichotomy, and often people over-simplify an issue by presenting a false dichotomy when there are actually more than just two options available. Marxist ideology does this by dividing humanity into two classes, oppressors and victims, based upon certain identity factors and then conclude that an individual in the oppressor class (e.g., a white male, Christian, etc.) can't be a victim, and an individual from the victim class (e.g., woman, any ethnicity other than white, LGBTQ+, etc.) can't be an oppressor. There's no room for a third option because these two classes are based upon strict lines of identity and justice and accountability is meted out at a class level rather than an individual level. Allowing for a third option would, in fact, disprove the entire ideology!
But there's no false dichotomy taking place in 1 Corinthians 1. When it comes to mankind's response to the gospel, every individual falls into one of two groups. On he one hand, there are "those who are perishing," referring to those who reject the gospel message. They are unbelievers who still walk in their trespasses and sins following after the course of this world (Eph. 2:1–2) and are part of the mass of unredeemed humanity marching down the broad road which leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13).
On the other hand, there are "those who are being saved," referring to those who believe the gospel message. They are those who have repented of their sin and trust in Christ's death and resurrection as the only way to be reconciled to God and have their sins forgiven. They are "being saved" because the process of salvation which began at conversion continues on through sanctification until it's finally completed at the redemption of the body (cf. Rom. 8:23; 13:11).
What's interesting is that the one message of the gospel elicits two completely different responses from these two groups. For those in the group who are perishing, the gospel is "folly," the Greek term moros from which we derive our English word "moron." In other words, the unbeliever hears the message of the cross and comes to the conclusion that it is moronic. He sees no power in that message. He sees no wisdom. He sees nothing of profit. It is stupid and not worth wasting one's time.
The believer, on the other hand, sees in the gospel message divine power and wisdom. He sees a message of true beauty and wisdom and power to affect real spiritual change. He sees the gospel as able to do what man can't do: save the soul from hell.
What's behind this disparity in response? How can two groups of people hear the same words, the same message, the same concepts, and yet come to two completely different conclusions about it? One would get the impression these two groups are living in two different worlds, viewing the gospel message through two opposing frameworks. Well...that's exactly what's happening!
There's one reason Paul gives for how this happens, but there are several parts to it, so bear with me!
The Wisdom of the World
The first thing you need to understand as to why the gospel elicits two contradictory responses involves what Paul refers to as "the wisdom of the world" (v. 20). The world, you remember, is the Greek word cosmos, from which we get our English word "cosmetic," because it refers to that which is arranged or orderly. Now, very often in the NT, that term simply refers to "the sum total of everything here and now," meaning the universe, or more locally the earth (cf. Matt. 13:35; 24:21; Mark 14:9; Rom. 1:20; 4:13).
But it also takes on a darker, more sinister character when it refers to the world as a system where everything and everyone belonging to it is arranged against God and inherently hostile to Him. It is this world to which the Pharisees and the Romans belonged but to which Jesus and his kingdom do not (John 8:23; 18:36). It is this world in which believers live but do not belong (John 13:1; 17:16). It is the world which hates believers because it hates Christ (John 15:18–19; 17:14, 15). It is this world which is ruled and arranged by God's archenemy, Satan (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19; cf. 4:4). And, significantly, it is this world to which the unbeliever belongs and which influences the unbeliever as he walks, dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–2). In fact, the world as a system and unbelievers as those belonging to that system are so closely linked that the term "world," especially in John's writings, refers to unredeemed humanity, so that he can say "the world did not know him" (John 1:10), "the world hates you" (John 15:18), "the world would love you as its own" (John 15:19).
Now, this world has its own way of thinking—its own wisdom, which is predicated on its own set of values, its own kind of logic, and it's own kind of methods. So what values are we talking about here? Well, they're actually easy to spot if you spend a little time tracing the various ideas and arguments back to their root concepts. Because on the surface, it may look like the world is a hodgepodge of disparate ideas and philosophies all contradicting each other, but if you can move past the complicated details and boil them down to the core values upon which they're built, you'll see that they're all basically the same.
So what are these core values? Well, here's a sampling of them:
- Possessions and materialism
- Power and prestige
- Freedom and autonomy
- Pride and self-esteem
- Happiness and pleasure
From there, these values develop into various ideas aimed at solving life's various difficulties:
- Human beings are basically good
- Do what feels good and makes you happy
- You need to love yourself
- You're an innocent victim and other's are to blame for your problems
- Humans are capable of solving any problem if they try hard enough
- You decide who you are
You get the idea. These are all the logical extrapolations of those foundational values which then develop into the various philosophies and religions of the world.
Now, Paul offers a few examples of the kind of thing that was around in his day and with which the Corinthian believers would have been familiar. He mentions "the wise," referring to the wise men to whom the world looks for understanding life's mysteries. He mentions "the scribe," who we could connect with the well-educated elite of our day. He mentions "the debater of this age," meaning the great orators, who are quick on their feet and able to persuade people with their words.
He then goes on to mention two other groups of people. First, there's the Jew, who he says "demand signs" of supernatural confirmation to believe. And then he mentions "Greeks," who value wisdom and sophisticated philosophical arguments above everything else. Both of these groups, Paul says, take extreme offense from the gospel message, but for different reasons.
For Jews, the gospel is a "stumbling block" because it offended their religious sensibilities. They could not accept that God would ever become a human being, let alone that this God-Man could ever die by means of crucifixion. Such thoughts left them incredulous.
For Greeks, the gospel is "folly" because it offends their intellect. The cross is too simplistic. It lacks style, sophistication, and complexity. It was simply below their intellectual stature.
The Foolishness of God
All of this comes together is an amazing stroke of rhetoric and sarcastic irony. All the wisdom the world has to offer is incapable of bringing them to a knowledge of God. And the reason is because God designed it that way. Paul says, "In the wisdom of God, the world did not come know God through wisdom." The world hears the gospel and they evaluate it through the lens of their values and ideas ( = wisdom of the world) and they conclude that it is folly ( = moronic). Later, in 1 Corinthians 2:6–8, Paul explains further why this happens:
6 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. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
The problem with the gospel, and the reason it causes so much offense to the world, is that it directly confronts the world at every level of its values and ideas. The world says man is basically good, but the gospel says man is inherently sinful. The world says you should feel good about yourself, but the gospel says you should feel terrible about yourself. The world says you don't love yourself enough, but the gospel says you love yourself too much, and "whoever loves his life will lose it but he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal" (John 12:25). The world says do what feels good, but the gospel says, "Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Christ" (Matt. 16:24). The world says you're the author of your own identity and anyone who challenges your self-declared identity hates you and is denying your existence; but the gospel says God gives you identity and it's loving to warn people when they're on a destructive path. The world says that the problems you face—even your own misbehaviors—are caused by other people, but the gospel says God will hold each person accountable for the decisions he or she makes.
We could go on for a while about this, but the point is pretty clear. The gospel is offensive because the world's wisdom is confronted at every point by the seeming "foolishness of God." And God is absolutely fine with that because, as Paul says in verse 25, "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."
Which leads me back to my original point that the gospel is not easy to believe, but rather quite impossible. And that is by God's sovereign design.
So then, where does that leave us? If the world can't come to know God by its wisdom, then how can they ever come to know God? You should sense a little bit of desperation in that question, because we're almost left to the conclusion that no one can be saved. But as Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 18:27, "What is impossible with man is possible with God."
So how does God accomplish this monumental shift in the way people think about the cross? What's the one factor that changes that makes the foolishness of the cross become wisdom? The answer comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 2:
10 These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 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. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 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. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 "For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
This text plainly reveals that the single factor involved in this shift is God's intervention into the sinner's life through the impartation of the Spirit of God. Man's blindness toward the gospel and its wisdom comes from his fallen nature. By himself, he cannot comprehend the word of the cross because he is a "natural person" trying to understand a "spiritual" message. He is a sinner with a darkened understanding (Eph. 4:18) and a depraved mind (Rom. 1:28) who is blinded by the god of this world so that he cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4).
But the Spirit of God shines light into the darkened heart and mind (2 Cor. 4:6), renews the spirit of the mind (Eph. 4:23), and enables the sinner to recognize and discern that what God says is true and right and wise and powerful for salvation. The Spirit clears the fog of his depraved mind and illuminates his heart, tearing through the blindness and allowing him to see clearly. Suddenly what was once foolishness appears as true wisdom, and what was once weakness proves to be true power. The person who once had a darkened and depraved mind now by the Spirit's presence and enabling, can be said to have the very "mind of Christ."
And that act of divine intervening grace draws one and only one conclusion: the reason God designed it this way is to demonstrate the unilateral nature of his own wise and powerful plan of redemption. Paul says as much at the end of 1 Corinthians 1 when he writes in verse 28, "God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."
The reason the believer hears the "word of the cross" and sees in it "the power of God" (v. 18) is not because his superior intellect has enabled him to discern what others could not, or because he was strong enough to endure what others were too weak to accomplish. The sole reason is because God has opened his eyes and ears and heart through the Spirit to recognize the message as wisdom and power rather than folly and weakness. While the road based on the wisdom of the world ended in an eternal and unbridgeable chasm, the road of "Christ crucified" charts a course where human wisdom cannot travel and accomplishes what worldly wisdom is powerless to do: bridge the chasm between man and God through the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God.
And so Paul says at the close of chapter 1,
30 "Because of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
Because God intervened, he's fully responsible for a person's salvation. Because he did it all, he gets all the credit and all the glory. While the world may boast in its own wisdom, the believer's only boast is that he is in Christ because of God's intervening grace.