Aberystwyth 2007  Christ’s Church at the Crossroads (3 & 4)
In this the third of three articles1 on the 2007 Annual Conference of the Evangelical Movement of Wales at Aberystwyth, Geoff Thomas summarizes the third and fourth addresses of Edward Donnelly.
The Nature of Our Calling (1 Cor. 1:26-31)
The world cultivates personality far more than character. Celebrities have replaced heroes in our culture. People are known only for being known; the celebrity is a big name, famous for being famous. The outcome is disastrous in the long term though in the short term seeming to be successful. It is a wrong path at the crossroads. Paul sees the Corinthian church standing at the crossroads and is concerned that they will take a wrong turn. The church dare not go down that worldly way of glitz and star testimonies because the true church isn’t composed of people like that. Celebrities being converted will not affect those who will be summoned to Christ by God. Who would God bring into his church?
1. OUR CALLING
‘Consider your calling brothers. Keep on looking and thinking about how you were saved and who and what you once were.’ Paul says to them that they need to think about how they were brought to Christ, and what that says about how they should work for God. Not many were wise, powerful or nobly born. Paul is not looking down on them from a great height. ‘Brothers,’ he says. ‘You are brothers but not many of you are VIPs.’ There were indeed a few like Dionysius, Lydia, Crispus and Erastus, but ‘not many.’ The Countess of Huntingdon said she was glad Paul had not written ‘not any’ – she was saved by the letter ‘M’ she said drolly. According to worldly standards not many Christians are going to win any of the glittering prizes – ‘to live in Who’s Who? and die in The Times. Being Christians doesn’t earn any brownie points in this world.
2. THE WORLD’S CRITICISM
The motivating force in the culture of Paul’s day was love of honour and status. Shame was to be dreaded and avoided above all else. ‘How could any intelligent person be so gullible?’ thinks the world. They patronize us as people needing a crutch. To write off Christianity you only need to look at those pathetic people who are Christians. We do have some eccentric and strange people in our churches. They are warm-hearted but tactless with some penetrating whispers. ‘Are we going to get them?’ said an old lady as Ted was saying goodbye to two visitors at the church door. ‘Almost certainly not,’ would have been the answer. ‘Would that God would send us some normal people,’ a lady once said to him.
3. GOD CHOOSING
Paul turns the criticism back on those who have made it. ‘You are right,’ he says, ‘the church is full of nobodies – in the eyes of the world’ He says that three times and we are to hold it forth as evidence of the power of God. These nobodies belong to the church because God has specially chosen them as members of his family. They are not personalities, but they are elect. ‘God chose … God chose … God chose …’ he says three times. He emphasizes it because, as he says in 27 and 29 ‘to shame the wise … the strong … to bring to nothing things that are … that no flesh should boast in the presence of God.’ If they had been the ones smart enough to choose the church then they would give themselves the glory, like the Pharisee who prayed to himself as a self-made man. They would say that they alone were clever enough, so that is why God takes the initiative and has chosen them. Such people never can belong to the church for the door to the church is very, very low. You can’t strut in. Saving faith demands humility – ‘Nothing in my hands I bring.’ Where do you stand today? God is one who resists the proud. God chose the foolish because the wise thought the cross folly. So God shames the self-confident; he is not impressed by their abilities, not taken in by their publicity, and all they trust in is shown to be utterly worthless in his sight. To ‘shame’ means more than social shame; there is an eschatological component of the shaming at the throne of God.
There is another reason why God chooses the weak – that the one who boasts should boast in the Lord. They have nothing to boast in; they are foolish and poor nobodies, despised people of no account. Even ‘things that are not’ (he is bleeding the humanity out of them) and those are the ones whom God chooses. So all their hope and joy is in Christ the Saviour. God shames the proud and gives grace to the humble who glory in his Son. Because of Christ Jesus we have a wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. We have a greater genius than the world has ever seen. He is our righteousness and we are clothed with it so that when God looks at a believer he looks at him or her with as much affection as he had ever looked at his beloved Son. That is our status. Look at the beauty industry, but we have the beauty of the glorious Son of God himself. These little despised nothings – but Christ is their wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. He has broken the chains and set us free. What does it matter if the world despises us? We don’t think much of ourselves. We see in one another the transforming grace of Christ. How hopeless the material with which God is working. Here is what matters. We live in Christ; we die and our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. We glory in the Lord. Can you say that?
4. PRACTICAL CONCLUSIONS
Why should the church bend over backwards to give the people of the world what they want? They need a change of mind and repentance. You are only making things worse by appealing to their pride. What transforms people is the unadorned gospel. We need to be aware of valuing people on a worldly basis. Why do we parade media personalities? Why do we think that their experience of grace is any more significant than that of any other believer? We are showing partiality when into the church walk two people, a man with trouble written all over his face and at the same time a doctor with four well-brought up children, and the deacons at the door quiver with excitement about the doctor. We are showing partiality; we are ‘targeting’ as the church growth movement does. It is the poor who are hastening into the kingdom, but not in our country. The hopeless underclass, who never will work, and they don’t have a clue as to what Christians are talking about. There is no real longing in the masses for our gospel, but the 18th century preachers went to these masses. Maybe we are not going to the right places looking for people. God delights to choose ordinary people. I am as guilty as anyone here of avoiding them.
Then for ourselves we need to stop listening to Satan and hearing the criticisms of the world and paying heed to our own discouragements. We need to rejoice in our weaknesses, that the grace and power of God has such scope to change us. Why should we try to be impressive? We all do it. I sat on a plane and the person next to me asked me what I did and I said, ‘…I am a Greek teacher’ (which I am) rather than ‘I am a pastor/preacher.’
The target I am putting before you is the Kingswood miners of Bristol living in terrible conditions, and the role model is John Wesley addressing them and writing great words for them to sing of their privileges in Christ.
The Preaching of Christ (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
In I Corinthians 2:1-5 Paul turns to the preaching of Christ. How important this is. 450 Years ago every kind of aid was used to bolster the atmosphere of worship in churches. The Reformers did away with all the medieval excrescences while elevating the Word of God, the sacraments, prayer, and praise. The Reformers stripped it down to the bare essentials. Why? Were they philistines? Not at all. Calvin was a cultured man but he had one goal in mind, reality or nothing. God’s Spirit or nothing. ‘O God, either you will be with us by your Spirit or nothing worth seeing or hearing will be present in this place.’ It was nothing but Spirit-filled worship which transformed half a continent. Before the Reformation if the Spirit did not turn up everyone could still have a good time. After the Reformation if God was not there you had nothing.
God’s people today are scurrying back to the Middle Ages. Much of the emphasis today is on the Spirit, yet fuelled by a distrust of the presence and agencies of the Spirit – the exact opposite of what it was intended to be. This is jettisoning the pattern established over hundreds of years, and it is copying the world. The emphasis is on church growth experts, felt needs, seeker sensitivity, and evangelism by entertainment. There is a crest of a wave of success hitting some churches, but at what an appalling price. This price is what the Corinthians were beginning to pay and Paul is writing to call the congregation back to the Word alone.
I am more interested at this point in our history, that we should all ask the same question rather than arrive at the same answers. We want God’s people to judge everything by the Word of God alone for order and sacrament and church life. Scripture is the sole guide. We may come to different conclusions as to what it requires, and there are genuine differences of position, but we can all stand and say that this is what Scripture requires and is to be our sole guide. Why can’t we mix the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God? Paul deals with this in these verses.
Christ sent the apostle to preach the gospel, and it was not with words of eloquent wisdom. Paul is taking up that theme again.
1. PAUL’S REMINDER
He is their spiritual father; they owe their life to him. How did he speak to them? Not with flowery oratory. Plain simple words. He did not come with a fascinating philosophy. He came with ‘the testimony of God.’ Does that mean ‘about God,’ or was it God’s own testimony as God bore witness to his salvation? It is that – God speaking through a human voice to explain what he has done for lost sinners through Christ. A lot of things that are called ‘evangelism’ are not real evangelism, because evangelism is telling the testimony of God. This helps us understand what it means to be looking to the wisdom of this age. The Corinthians are no longer looking to the divine authority of Scripture. Paul is pleading with them to wait a minute before getting carried away – cutting out the frills, no personality cult, no fancy teachings, but a straightforward preaching of the gospel. Yet were they beginning to lose confidence in it? Everyone here became a Christian through someone telling him or her about the gospel. Do we need anything more? This is the approach everyone needs. Simple direct language, clarity of sense, careful explanation of words in the biblical text. Thomas Goodwin was a preacher but unconverted, and then after his conversion he came to the principle that he would preach sound and wholesome words without wit in the language of the people.
2. PAUL’S RESOLVE
‘I decided not to know anything save Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ He made a conscious decision to focus on the person and work of Christ. His death and resurrection are always united. Jesus Christ, the one who has been crucified as bleeding and suffering for sinners – that Saviour is set before us as the theme of every sermon. Paul covered the whole realm of Christian duties but he always brought people back to Calvary. Dealing with moral issues, Paul brings in the themes of Christ’s redemption. Why has God revealed himself in the Bible? Because of the coming Redeemer. There is a temptation to give people what they want to hear. How much Cross-centred preaching is there today? All other preaching is fatally flawed
3. PAUL’S RENUNCIATION
Paul switches to what is the actual method of preaching this message. Paul could actually have used plausible words of wisdom. He was the greatest intellect the world has ever seen or ever will see. He was raised up a man of unexampled power and intelligence. He laid that aside. He also had his magnetic personality and that is seen in the smoothness and slickness that has been let into the church, but Paul says, ‘I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.’ Before entering Corinth he needed to be told not to be afraid and to go on preaching. ‘Weakness and fear and trembling’ is a classic New Testament phrase of maintaining a huge responsibility on the one hand and God’s awesome and sustaining presence on the other. ‘I am doing this great task before God.’ You work out your salvation in this way – ‘with fear and trembling.’ All that gave a graciousness to everything Paul said. The best singer, or athlete, or preacher is always the one with nerves. ‘Not in plausible words’ – not foolish or implausible words – the preacher must slave over his sermons, go to immense pains to speak to people. The preacher is to be as diligent as he can be. There can be a childish fascination for such things as Powerpoint presentations.
4. PAUL’S RELIANCE
His over-riding purpose was that his faith should not rest in the wisdom of men. If we weep at sentimental stories in sermons what would that prove of the Spirit’s presence and work? It could be telemarketing. It is totally and purely the wisdom of men. When the winds and floods come, the house not built on the rock falls. Paul’s preaching was ‘in demonstration of the Spirit and power’ – incidentally this is the first reference to the Spirit in this letter. Paul depended upon the Spirit, not on methods and techniques and tools. Without him there can be no faith; we cannot depend on anything of man because our hearers are dead and nothing and no one can bring a dead hearer to faith. The Spirit is absolutely essential; nothing will happen without the Spirit. Paul’s word demonstrates this. God has to reach down from heaven with his hand and then something supernatural happens. Like a sheepdog Ted saw in Llanymawddwy the previous week brilliantly guiding the sheep as the shepherd directed – so God sends the Spirit to guide his sheep to himself. It is thrilling and liberating to see God at work. The Spirit will not work if the focus is on the abilities of the preacher. You cannot at the same time give the impression that the preacher is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save. Paul wants to get out of the way that Christ may be revealed.
Where does this bring us? The passage is a warning to us. Are we becoming a little too clever, with our plans and strategies and boards and committees? We say that we rely on God but what we are doing is devising our plans and then asking God to bless them. The church is not a business enterprise. There is an unpredictability about the Spirit’s work. You do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes to. God does not tell us his plans for people and congregations. Many of our plans come to nothing and God is saying that he will work by his own plan. We are in danger of losing the balance. Have the courage of throwing away the safety net. Live in reliance on him. What happens is often so unpredictable that when it occurs it is plain to many that God did that. We are in a spiritual desert, but we have good seed and the promise that the Spirit will bless it. Let us work and sow in tears as we live in a world where many mock the gospel and those who work for it.
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