Human Ingenuity & Gospel Preaching, pt. 2
by Fred G. Zaspel
In our previous blog we highlighted the difference between two prominent evangelists of the early nineteenth
century, Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney. Finney carried “revival in his briefcase,” convinced that the mere application
of stated means could produce results. Nettleton, by contrast, decidedly removed himself from any “revival” that seemed to
be grounded in excitement that centered on him.
All this is precisely the issue Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. In his day the issue was not manipulative music
or sad stories that make people cry. But it was a question of carefully polished oratory designed to move the audience. It was
not the rough, coarse language of Finney, but the principle was the same - human ingenuity designed to get results. New
methods of “helping” the gospel. Fine spun rhetoric of the day which was in itself impressive and therefore persuasive. And,
judging from the results, it was very helpful!
Paul says, “No, when I came to you, I did not come as orator - I came as a preacher” (v.1).
Now we should not misunderstand. Paul is not making excuse for poor preaching. Nor is he placing premium on
ineptitude in pulpit. I have little doubt that Paul worked hard to speak well and improve his gifts. If he were to lecture us
preachers today, I am sure would exhort us, “If you’re going to say it, you may as well say it well!”
But when Paul says he “did not come with superiority of words or wisdom” he refers not just to the content of his
preaching, the message itself, but also to the form - packaging the message in a way that itself is impressive and, therefore,
more persuasive. Paul would have none of that. He was convinced that it is the “foolish” gospel itself, the message, that is
the means God uses to save, and so it must be proclaimed in a way that does not distract from it. It needs no help. This is the
means God uses. And if this is the message God uses to save, then we needn’t - we must not - seek to make it more
palatable, as though that would help. Our preaching must not be such that distracts from the message or otherwise becomes
an instrument of human manipulation.
And so laying out his own ministry as a model for Christian ministers everywhere, Paul says in verse 1, “I came to
you preaching.” That’s it. That’s all. “I came preaching a message about God.”
Next, in verse 2, Paul takes it a step further. Here he says, “I came to you preaching a message about God in the
cross of Jesus Christ.”
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
That is to say, “So far from giving you something impressive, I came preaching about a cross - a cross, which is to the world
Paul has already explained in the previous chapter (1 Cor. 1) that the preaching of the cross, though foolish to the
world, is nonetheless the wisdom and power of God. It is the message that works. It is what God uses to call his people to
himself. And so now, he says, in effect, “I came preaching only Christ crucified precisely because this message is the means
by which God works.” I will explore this more fully in my next post.
Next, in verses 3-4, Paul says takes us a step further again. “I came to you preaching a message about God in the
cross of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“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.”
To learn that Paul entered the city of Corinth with a conscious sense of weakness and fear even to the point of
“much trembling” is a surprising thing to us. This mighty apostle?
Corinth was an infamously wicked city, and as the apostle approached with its first gospel contact, he sensed his
inadequacy. He did not come as one bounding with confidence, convinced of success. No, he approached the city with a
keen recognition that he was in over his head. He was out of his league and out-matched. It was not in him to do what he
came to do, and he knew it. No man is able to loosen the bonds of sin or open the eyes of a sin-darkened heart. No amount
of human ingenuity, no matter how impressive or how clever, can raise a man or woman from spiritual death. The
opposition would be instinctive, and it would be strong, and Paul knew there was nothing he could do to overcome it. Simply
put, making his “foolish” gospel work was altogether out of his hands. So far from bounding with confidence, this great,
inspired apostle was very aware of his inadequacy. He knew there was no revival in his briefcase.
And so he says in verse 4, what happened was this: there was a great “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v.
4). Not my abilities - “not in plausible words of wisdom” - but a mighty working of the Spirit of God. As he said earlier, “We
preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:23-24).
What confidence Paul had, the confidence that took him to Corinth, was not a self-centered one at all. It had nothing
to do with anything human. It was a confidence in the power of God. The salvation of the lost is due not to the right use of
the constituted means. Preaching alone accomplishes nothing. Even this gospel, powerful as it is, accomplishes nothing by
itself. We might polish the oration, just the most moving atmosphere, and repeat the hymn a thousand times, but only God can
open the human heart to the gospel. What is needed must come from him.
Why was this a concern to the apostle? Very simply, he would not seek to “help” the gospel by human ingenuity, “so
that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (v. 5). That is to say, Paul came preaching a
testimony about God in the cross of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit to the glory of God.
Paul had just finished emphasizing that God saves in such a way that only he receives the glory for it (1:29-31). And
this consideration dictates content of the message, its form, and also his own motive and mode of preaching. If we used
ingenious methods of manipulation, we could produce decisions, but these “results” would not be decisions of a faith
anchored in saving power of God - they would be anchored in the preacher himself. And that kind of faith does no one any
good at all. It will not save. And so Paul says, “I will proclaim this message of the crucified Christ in such a way that when
men believe, their faith, necessarily, will be in the God who has saved them.
Unlike many preachers today who have taken the supernatural out of salvation, Paul was very concerned that no one
“make a decision” because of him. He would have no one “believe” simply because he had said so. If people “make a
decision” because we have talked them into it, their “faith” will be only that good. Such “converts” may look good as another
notch in the preacher’s belt, but that would steal glory that belongs only to God and leave them with a faith that does not
Here, then, is the apostolic shape of Christian ministry. We -
proclaim the message from God
in the cross of Jesus Christ
by the power of the Holy Spirit
to the glory of God.
We cannot improve on this. And we dare not try.