ome of the comments responding to my recent posts about the church and politics illustrate the magnitude of the problem I a trying to point out. Some evangelicals, it seems, cannot conceive of any remedy for social ills other than legislative measures and more (or bigger) government agencies. They seem convinced that if we're not lobbying for political solutions to evils like abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and secularizationthen we're doing nothing at all. Suggest (as I have) that the church should focus more on gospel preaching and less on political lobbying, and they'll accuse you of promoting indifference.
This week and next week, I'll be making a series of four posts suggesting a more biblical way to look at how the church is supposed to make her impact on culture. I'll highlight four biblical principles contemporary evangelicalism seems to have forgotten.
The first one is found in 1 Corinthians 1:21:
1. Preaching, not lobbying, is how we make truth known.
Preaching, not politicking, is the main strategy we are called to employ in order to unleash God's truth into an ungodly society. As a matter of fact, this is the main point that dominates the first major section of 1 Corinthians. Chapter 1, verse 21 is Paul's proposition statement for that opening section of this epistle: "For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe."
That's the King James Version, and I quoted it here because it gives the most literal sense of the original. The New American Standard Version says, "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe." Notice that the King James Version seems to put the stress on the act of preaching; the New American Standard underscores the content of the message preached. Actually, the original text supports both ideas. A literal rendering of the Greek text would be something like this: "it pleased God through the foolishness of our proclamation to save the ones believing." Both the message we preach and the methodology of preaching seem like foolishness in the judgment of worldly wisdom. Both the strategy and the substance of gospel-preaching run counter to what common sense might suggest is the best way to communicate truth to a sophisticated society such as Paul found in the 1st-century Greek culture.
Likewise with ministry today. The conventional wisdomworldly wisdomtells us that if we want to get our point of view across in egalitarian America, we must do it through the democratic process. We need to campaign for candidates and lobby for legislation that reflect our point of view. We have got to harness the power of the Supreme Court and Congress and use them to halt the moral unravelling of our culture for Christ, or else we'll lose the culture war.
But preaching in the public square, not lobbying in the halls of congress, is the biblical wayand the only truly effective wayChrist's church has always made His truth known. Incidentally, when Scripture speaks of "preaching" in a context like this, the reference is not exclusively (or even primarily) to a message given from the pulpit to a church congregation. Paul is speaking of every kind of gospel proclamation; evangelistic ministry; calling people to repentance. It would include even our private proclamation of the gospel to your neighborsEverything from open-air preaching to one-on-one personal evangelism. Whatever the venue, "preaching" is simply the clear and emphatic proclamation of the gospel. That's what Paul has in mind here.
In short, Paul is contrasting the biblical strategy for evangelism with every other kind of strategyespecially those schemes that aim to win people by impressing them or entertaining them or seeking to gain their respect and admiration with by a display of scholarly erudition. The biblical strategy is simple and straightforward: we simply proclaim the truth as clearly and as authoritatively as possible and call people to repentance. Everything else, Paul says, is wasted efforteven counterproductive.
Listen to the way he carefully outlines the distinction. Notice how he starts chapter 2:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
And then he adds this in verse 8: "None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory."
Paul was proclaiming a truth that is incompatible with the political machinery of this world, and he said so as emphatically as possible. Rather than trim the message or try to shoehorn it into some existing system of earthly philosophy, some worldly political scheme, or some pleasing format that would make it seem popular and appealing, Paul was determined to preach it plainly. And he did this even though the message was so counter-cultural in sophisticated Greek society that even the great apostle Paul said he struggled to preach "in weakness and in fear and much trembling." It was no easier for him than it is for you and me to proclaim truth to a hostile culture.
Still, rather than trying to harness the political machinery, impress the philosophical academy, or get on board with the entertainment industry of his times in order to gain people's admiration, Paul says he was determined to know nothing among the Corinthians other than the simple gospel message he was called to proclaim.
First Corinthians 2 is a definitive statement of this principle. Verse 22 says: "The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom."
All right. If we follow the wisdom of modern church-growth experts, what do we do? We give the Jews a sign, and we preach wisdom to the Greeks. That is the very approach many people today try to follow. They usually don't consciously and deliberately abandon the gospel, but they try to mold it and shape it so that it sounds like wisdom to people who are seeking a message with some philosophical or political sophistication.
But notice what the apostle Paul says is the right way to respond to such "felt needs": "We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness." The Jews want a sign; we give them a stumbling-block. The Greeks want wisdom, we give them foolishness.
Why? Did Paul just want to be perverse? No. Keep reading: "We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God."
The Gospel is the greatest sign of all, and it is the greatest wisdom of all unto them who are called. The elect will see it, even if no one else does. The gospel is "the power of God"more potent than any cosmic sign. And it is "the wisdom of God"wise enough to make all the wisdom of this world seem like mere foolishness by comparison.
But only one class of people recognize the power and the wisdom of the gospel: "those who are called"the elect. They are the ones who will respond to the gospel. But they will respond. Jesus said, "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me" (John 6:37). "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). Those who are called effectually by the Holy Spirit will recognize the wisdom and power of God in the gospel. That's why we must proclaim this message, and not obscure it with our political rhetoric, philosophical arguments, and other useless forms of earthly wisdom.
What seems mere foolishness to the worldly mind is actually the only thing that can reach sinners and turn their hearts to Christ, because it is the wisdom and power of God. And (verse 25) "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men." That's why the clear preaching of the gospel is infinitely superior to any political strategy or philosophical argument when it comes to reaching people and lifting them out of the bondage of sin.
That's also why Paul's one strategy was preachingnot politics, not diplomacy, not academic-style dialogue, and certainly not compromise for the sake of winning public accolades or grass-roots approval. But by that one strategy alonepreaching the gospelhe made an indelible impact on the Corinthian culture. Furthermore, even after that church was planted, he continued to employ that same strategy as the means by which he pastored the church of God.
That's our calling, even in an election year such as this one: Stick to the message. Stay on point. Determine to know nothing but Christ crucifiedand then make that message the heart and centerpiece of everything you preach.
Look once more at that key text, 1 Corinthians 1:21: "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of [our preaching] to save those who believe."
Pay attention to the pivotal phrase in the center of that verse: "the world through wisdom did not know God." It is not possible to find God through the pursuit of worldly wisdom. That covers a lot of territory, including most of the missional strategies that are currently in vogue among evangelicals. Philosophy, politics, arts, and aestheticsand every other kind of worldly wisdomall of those are utterly devoid of any special power to transform a sinner into a saint. We could say the same thing about comedy, entertainment, yoga classes, sex-education lecturesand all the other gimmicks that are used to draw appreciative crowds without really teaching them the true gospel.
There is only one thing that can give a sinner a new heart, and that is spiritual regenerationthe new birth. And the one true instrument of the new birth is the Word of God as it is applied by the Holy Spirit. According to 1 Peter 1:23, we are "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." Jesus told His disciples in John 15:3, "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." Only the Word of God, and specifically the gospel message, has the power to transform unbelieving people's hearts and change them at the very core of who they are. The gospel "is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Romans 1:16), and that is why the apostle Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ"even though the gospel seems foolish and naive to those steeped in the wisdom of this world.
So neither society nor individuals can ever be redeemed (or even influenced for good) by worldly wisdom, and Christians are seriously deluded if they think the most important battles for righteousness are being waged in the arenas of politics, education, entertainment, or the arts. Those are the realms of worldly wisdom, and worldly wisdom will never be an instrument for the advancement of Christ's kingdom. According to Luke 10:21, God has "hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes . . . for so it seemed good in [His] sight."
So to sum up: Clever amusements, pep rallies, educational programs, legislative agendas, political strategies, philosophical arguments, and all the Supreme Court rulings in the world will never turn sinners into Christians. All those things epitomize what Paul meant by worldly wisdom. They are the baggage of a carnal and utterly ineffectual strategy that will never reform a society like ours that is in love with sin. And the fact that such things consume so much evangelical energy today is a testimony to our unfaithfulness and the utter failure of the modern and postmodern evangelical movement.
God is pleased to save sinners through the clear proclamation of gospel truth. And that is what we ought to devote our resources and energy to if we want to have an impact on our culture. We have a clear mandate to proclaim the gospel as clearly, as accurately, as powerfully, and as often as we can. We have no mandate whatsoever to use any other strategyespecially a strategy that attempts to harness aspects of worldly wisdom for influence under the misguided belief that these are more powerful than the gospel itself to transform our culture.
by Phil Johnson