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. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (ESV)
“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.”
Bo Giertz made this his motto. If I remember rightly it is even engraved on his tombstone. So I was a bit eager to read what he had to say about it this morning. For those of you who haven’t caught on yet. This blog is often nothing more than me riffing and paraphrasing from his commentaries on the New Testament. A friend of mine was supposed to have translated these according to an agreement a few of us made over margaritas about who was going to translate what of his works. Well that was 14 years ago and it hasn’t happened. So I have actually begun translating them and have made quite a bit of progress. Mostly just translating the pertinent parts for the gospel and epistle lessons for the coming Sunday as part of my sermon prep. But then also all of Romans and 1 Peter as prep for Bible studies. I get to piece all that work together soon as I begin the translation process in earnest. It is one reason I’m looking forward to wrapping up the goal I set for myself almost 8 years ago, to blog through the New Testament. Only 3 chapters left. Should be done by the end of April. Of course I also have to clean and polish my translation of “With My Own Eyes” and the two volumes of sermons I have translated of his. But still trying to finish up the editing on a volume of Sasse and get that in print. It’s a lot of work around something the world considers to be folly.
To those of us who are being saved it is the power of God. And how powerful it is! The power of God, not the wisdom of God. To be sure, it is also the wisdom of God, but Paul holds off on that as he writes. He understands that the answer to the world’s “wisdom” which regards the word of the cross as folly is not wisdom but power. There is something greater at play here.
I suppose if he had just said the wisdom of God, people would think it would be about nothing but rational arguments for and against the word of the cross, which Paul later equates with the gospel. To be sure there is a place for rational arguments in the proclamation of the gospel. Paul would argue, and reason with people, he is even said to have “convinced” some. We do a disservice to the proclamation of the gospel when don’t take his lead there. But we also do a disservice when we don’t take his lead in focusing on the cross!
This happens all too often because the world regards the cross as folly. You can preach almost anything but the cross and get large followings. And in our culture there are still large portions that want to feel good about going to church on Sunday morning who will be drawn to “church” that doesn’t have its focus on the cross which they find offensive. If they can take in a good show and perhaps a motivational speech they will confuse feelings of euphoria with being spiritually uplifted because they were in “church.” Of course there they have heard very little about God, probably nothing about the cross, and anything Jesus might have said would be about you doing better and getting ahead. And in defense of all that the good Christians will say, well we take the cross for granted. Yes you do, the same way in my shame I often take my wife for granted. This is not how we should treat the power of God.
The word of the cross is central focus because it is there that Christ won the forgiveness of sins and atoned for the sins of the whole world. This is what makes it offensive. Sinners have a hard time seeing their sin. I know I do. I see some of them. I’m sometimes a bit shocked when others are exposed. I think one of the devil’s greatest tricks is to keep a person so occupied and concentrated on one set of sins he thinks he needs to work on that he is completely oblivious to all the others in his life. And when he has managed some minor victory, perhaps he has managed to overcome a porn addiction, put the bottle away for a couple weeks or even years, well then he thinks he is cured and sin free. Often times, just a little bit more entrenched in self-righteousness and strengthened in his conviction that Jesus need not have died for his sins. Meanwhile, he is oblivious to his lack of charity, and gossipy nature.
It’s sobering to consider that sin is sin. This is largely the problem I have with “sanctification” models sometimes called progressive or in some circles sanative. They just don’t take sin seriously enough. Chemnitz did a whole study on the different ways to classify sin. It’s a fun exercise in its own right. And he does bring out that in our relations with others some sins are going to be found more tolerable than others, some sins will even be found to be respectable. And so we have self-improvement projects in this world. They serve a good purpose in life. We try to cultivate good habits, and put away bad habits. The problem comes in that self-improvement is confused with growth in sanctification. We think we can monitor someone’s sanctification by looking at things that can be imitated by any pagan, and when we confuse these things for sanctification have no doubt that what you are yourself a pagan. To paraphrase Luther on sanctification in the Large Catechism anyone who looks or relies on their works for their sanctification rather than the means of grace is outside the church. Within a state of sanctification we may cooperate with the Holy Spirit in good works, but those good works ought not be confused with the sanctification itself. We just don’t take sin seriously enough when we engage in this sort of thing.
This is further complicated by the fact that our Old Adam is perfectly willing to imitate the fruits of repentance or the signs of a sanctified life if by doing so he can convince you that you have actually repented and earned your forgiveness. That is the folly. This is why the world sees the word of the cross as folly. This is why the answer isn’t wisdom but power. Our old Adam is willing to go along with any self-improvement project if you will pat him on the back for his accomplishments. The cross says you haven’t accomplished anything. The cross says you are still a sinner. You aren’t a better sinner. You are just a sinner like the rest of the world. You still need grace, you still need the sacraments. That is you still need the cross. Make no doubt, our faith grows, our love grows, it waxes and wanes in this life. But the growth isn’t evidenced by anything that we do, it does not grow by our own efforts. It grows by the work of the Holy Spirit, the sanctifying Spirit at work in the word of the cross, the gospel itself that is poured over your head in baptism and consumed by body and soul in the Lord’s Supper. And this word of the cross is something you need just as much today as when you first believed, were first baptized. It is through the word of the cross that the work of sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit, is first begun and it is through the word of the cross that this work is brought to completion within you. Because the work of the Spirit cannot be continued or completed by works of the flesh.