The Word of the Cross

1 Corinthians

I. Particular aspects of the Corinthians call to Christ

A. Paul identified himself and the church within the call and will of God.

  1. Paul regularly set forth his apostleship in terms of calling and the will of God. It was important for his discussion throughout this book that they recognize the peculiar graces given to an apostle in the realm of authority and revelation.
  • In Romans he wrote, “Called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”
  • He gives a particularly strong emphasis to this in his letter to the Galatians: “Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead).
  • Second Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians begin the same way as 1 Corinthians.
  • To Timothy he wrote, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope.”
  • Titus has a particularly strong context for this when Paul wrote, “Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect and the acknowledgement of the truth which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life which God who cannot lie, promised before time began, but has in due time manifested his word through preaching, which was committed to me according to the commandment of God our Savior.” The entire spectrum of doctrine was revealed to Paul for his preaching, and subsequently for his writing.
  1. He identified the Corinthian church in four spheres of relationship.
  • They constituted, in the locality of Corinth, the church, or the gathering, of God.
  • They are sanctified, or set apart “in Christ Jesus:’ This could refer to their union with him by faith or his death for them in particular constituting his ransom of them, as he reminded them in 6:20, “You have been bought with a price.”
  • They are “saints by calling;” that is, the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit has produced a principle of holiness in them which should extend throughout their whole being, giving a desire for holiness in every facet of life and thought. Thus, we have the existence of this church as an expression of the redemptive operation of the triune God.
  • Finally, he identifies them with the church universal: “With all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

B. Paul identified individual manifestations of grace in their calling.

  1. Paul thanked God for the grace given them in Christ Jesus. God’s grace came to them in Christ Jesus. Indeed, it comes in no other way. It is free to us, but costly to Christ by whose blood we were purchased: “Justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24).
  2. By special gifts of the Spirit, they were enriched in speech and knowledge. The abundance of prophetic revelation was a great blessing to this church, but they had not managed its execution well in their worship services. These gifts were necessary for their continued reception of the truth. As is often the case in our sinful misjudgment of blessings, these graces had led to pride, division, and abuse (4:7).
  3. Paul’s testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in them. He is the Savior of great sinners. Corinthians were particularly great sinners in their flamboyant display of idolatry and sexual promiscuity (6:7-11; 8:1-13). That Corinthian and Jerusalem sinners, as well as Paul himself, could be saved shows the great patience and prevailing sufficiency of the blood of Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit.
  4. They had been recipients of all the spiritual gifts and were looking forward to the return of Christ (7). The evidence of heaven’s intervention into human society was present in their worship services with such power that they held in conscious awareness the blessed hope, the promise of Christ’s return.
  5. God would confirm them to the end, so that they would be blameless when Christ returned. Present blessings of the Spirit—the abiding, sanctifying, and sealing blessings—would grant them the grace of perseverance. Those whom God has elected, for whom Christ has died, and who have embraced the saving work of Christ through the call of the Holy Spirit “can niether totally nor finally fall from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end and be eternally saved” (Second London Confession, chapter 17, paragraph 1)
  6. All this is given them by God the Father who had called them into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ. Upon his faithfulness, all these blessings depend.


II. The issue of division in the Church. (verses 10-17) Paul dealt with the issue of unity in writing to the church at Philippi. In 2:1, 2 he called on the church to be “like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” Then in 4:1 he called to women by name and said, “I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” These appeals are not mere blanks and bare imperatives but come with doctrinal support.

A. An Appeal to the principle of unity

  1. He appeals on the basis of the name of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Philippians he invoked the principle of humility as a motive for unity and pointed to Christ’s humiliation for the sake of sinners. It is possible, in light of the emphasis on the cross that he has that in mind here also. In Colossians Paul wrote of love as a perfect bonding agent (Colossians 3:14), which could refer to the nature of the triune God as an expression of perfect love. In light of verse 9, in which the operation of all three persons of the Trinity is referenced, this could be the motive to which Paul is appealing.
  2. He refers to unity in five ways, giving a profile in summary of what constitutes spiritual unity.
  • First, he says, “that all of you agree.” When issues arise concerning doctrine, worship, ethics, discipline, function—all of which were issues at Corinth-the goal is that they agree. He does call for mere capitulation or ignoring the question but full-hearted agreement, with a knowledge of the importance of the issue, its implications, and the solution that most clearly reflects revealed truth and the glory of God (10:31).
  • Then, the corollary to agreement is “that there be no divisions among you.” The body of Christ is necessarily a unity with different parts (12:12-14), and will not function in full if there are divisions.
  • The next three combine process and result in dealing with jolting issues. With unity as a goal (“that you be united”), all must have a clear mental grasp of the dynamic that is stirring up separation between brethren (“the same mind”). Then through deferential and clear-headed discussion all must be brought to discern the solution for the edification of the church, the purity of its witness to the gospel, and the glory of God (“the same judgment”). Paul is laying a ground work for several issues that he needs to address in the letter.

B. The report of disunity – Paul learned about disunity and quarrelling from friends or relatives of Chloe. Paul always yearned for news from the churches. He rejoiced at every evidence of grace (2 Thessalonians 1:3, 4; 2:13) and mourned at any evidence of friction, error, and division (Colossians 2:1, 2).

C. There were at least four different parties in the church.

  1. One party considered Paul as the most compelling figure to follow. His theological depth and his self-sacrificing spirit certainly were to be emulated (Philippians 3:17; 4:9). But he was not to be regarded in any sense as distinct from the overall purpose of achieving unity in Christ.
  2. One party followed Apollos. They would gravitate to him as a magnificent orator and “mighty” in his passionate presentation and application of the Scriptures (Acts 18:24-28).
  3. Another party followed Peter (denominated by the name Cephas), who was the chief of the apostles, the great preacher of Pentecost. He had first introduced the gospel to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10).
  4. Others looked upon themselves as having no leader by Jesus Christ himself. Though in its pure form, this is true, they probably had abused their consciousness of giftedness as a reason to recognize no specific order in the church or dependence on the gifts given to others (See chapter 12).

D. Paul ridicules any attempt to gather around him as a party leader. He implies the same for each of the parties.

  1. Their party spirit indicated a great error in their grasp of their absolute dependence on the cross of Christ. Paul essentially asked, “Is the work of Christ in his crucifixion to be made a cause of man-centered devotion or of unity on the basis of the cross?”
  • Baptism in itself is a call to see ourselves in relation to the cross. How then could baptism become a means of division? Paul indicates the absurdity of their looking to the person who baptized them rather than the person and act into which they were baptized.
  • Paul shows the sparsity of his personal baptizing activity. He certainly did not minimize baptism as a mandate of Christ and as a visible emblem of great significance, but it did not constitute the burden of his calling. Baptizing is not the same as preaching the gospel, nor is it a partner in the saving efficacy of the gospel.
  • The household of Stephanas did not contain infants but was a family, each member of which took responsibility for ministering to the saints (16:15).
  1. The chief calling he had was to preach the gospel in such a manner that the “cross of Christ would not be made void.” How was such preaching to proceed? What would be its content? Through what means would auditors be convinced to believe?


III. When evaluated in terms of the values and ideas of those to whom it is preached, the message of the cross seems either intrinsically foolish or surpassingly glorious. In relation to the preaching of the cross, only two groups emerge—those to whom it is foolishness and those to whom it is the very power and wisdom of God. (verse 18)

A. The gospel is designed to destroy all self-confidence in man (verses 19, 20). Everything of which man boasts must be laid aside in order to grasp the saving significance of the cross. The wise, the debater, the clever, the learned scholar cannot boast of any saving power or merit in any of his or her accomplishments. All of these have been used to serve self, to establish, personal credit and importance, and even to dissuade people from bowing before God.

B. God’s wisdom in the cross infinitely transcends any creaturely devised manner of gaining eternal life. This wisdom involved transactions that would be impossible in human terms.

  1. The incarnation—how God and man, the eternal and the temporal, the infinite, and the finite, the immutable and the one who must grow in righteousness—was unimaginable and impossible by human wisdom or power.
  2. Justification by a double imputation. Our sin was imputed to Christ as the last Adam, the man from heaven; his righteousness is imputed to us. This gives a salvation that is all of grace and all of justice; it is freely bestowed but perfectly earned. No matter how subtle, sophisticated, and deep human wisdom and cleverness appear, never could anything like this be attained.

C. Neither Jew nor Greek could have produced such a universally effective scheme of saving sinners (22). To the Jew a crucified Messiah constitutes an insuperable stumbling block. To the Greek, a god who saves and loves, and does it through his own personal sacrifice is utter foolishness. But this God, is not among the pantheon but is alone God, alone wise, alone powerful, alone holy.


IV. The Christ of the Cross

A. Why is Christ alone the Redeemer? The message of “Christ crucified” focuses first of all on the person.

  1. This person was the eternal Son of God who took humanity into his own personhood, lived as a man among men, was tempted at all points like as we are, yet without sin. To pay the debt, both of obedience and of punishment, the redeemer must be a man, one with us in nature.
  2. For the sacrifice to be of equal dignity with the offended justice and holiness of God, the redeemer must in his person be of equal dignity with the offended one. Jesus of Nazareth also was the eternal Son of God, of equal essence, glory, holiness, with the Father and the Spirit. “Two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, were inseparably joined together in one person: without conversion, composition, or confusion: which person is very God, and very Man; yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and Man.” (Second London Confession, Chap 8. Paragraph 2).

B. Why is the cross alone the way? Crucifixion was a punishment designed by men for the open display of disdain and full shame before it ended in an excruciating [that very word derives from the work of crucifixion itself] death. The Father added to that disregard on the part of the powers of this age his own wrath, so that Jesus paid the price in full for our redemption.

C. What does this mean about unity? None has come on the basis of personal merit. All come to forgiveness, justification, adoption, and gifts of grace in the same way. None can vaunt themselves above another, for to do so indicates an attitude held only outside the cross of Christ—it indicates the appeal to worldly wisdom and cleverness, not the humble submission to the cross.


V. The Choosing and Calling of God.

A. How do we consider our calling (verse 26)? We are asked to consider how we came to a point of believing. If it is not by our wisdom, our power, our goodness; if it overcomes our intrinsic prejudices, then it must be an operation of divine power. This is effectual calling. God calls his elect by his word and Spirit “taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ” (Second London Confession, Chap. 10, paragraph 1.)

B. On what basis does God choose to save? (Verses 26-29)

  1. They were personally disqualified in every category from receiving any benefit from God.
  • If faith came on the basis of an internal qualification or propensity from intellectual or education then many wise, and mighty and noble would come. But Paul said, “Not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.”
  • On the contrary, the foolish are chosen to believe this infinitely wise plan of redemptive truth that defies all human intelligence and expectations. God chose those who are weak, so that the strong would be brought to shame. Their mighty endeavors would do nothing for them. Even the base things, and the despised things, yea even those things that appear to be nothing, with no desirable qualities at all come to believe this most wise and holy of all messages because God chose them. Lowlifes are brought to eternal life; fools are granted the wisdom that is above all; the wretched are given eternal and inexhaustible riches because of the sovereign prerogative of election.
  • To whom then will be the glory of salvation? To God alone be the glory for he has done all. It is his doing that has placed us in Christ, not our own wisdom or power; Christ has been made, by the purpose of God, the very wisdom that grants all that is required for an unending abundance of life in the divine presence—righteousness by his life of obedience, sanctification by his granting us his Spirit, and redemption by the purchase price of his precious blood.
  1. One must make nothing of men, therefore, either of ourselves or of others. We are all beggars. To ourselves or other mortals, we attribute nothing that has been effectual for eternal life. “Not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). Paul shoves aside all reason for boasting in this, the most signal, defining, discriminating reality in all eternity. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Jeremiah had foreseen it and wrote, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23, 24).

C. What does this have to do with unity? Even as Christ by his merits alone can save, so by the divine effectuality alone of election and calling does anyone embrace the gospel. We have all come to know God only by his grace; whether wise and noble or weak and despised, none can boast before him or give laud and praise to any but him. We all join in one chorus with the saints in heaven in the words of Jude the bondservant of Jesus Christ: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, both now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24, 25).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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