Paul’s advice to the Corinthians just might be relevant for today’s distracted church
Michael S. Horton
1993, 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
The commercial capitol of Greece, Corinth was the quintessence of metropolitan sophistication
in the region. Athens was the center of academic life, but the practical Corinthians liked to think
that they were up on the latest ideas, too. Temple prostitution was big business at the shrine of
Aphrodite (goddess of love). Down the street was the shrine of Asclepius, the god of healing. In
fact, even decades later, after all of the twelve pagan temples were converted to churches in
Corinth, the healing shrine continued to be frequented.
The purpose of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian believers was news the apostle had received about
divisions in the church (1:11). “Super-apostles,” as Paul called them, had gained access to the
congregation, bringing confusion in their train, and the apostle’s patience was wearing thin: “For
if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive
a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you
put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles.’
I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge” (2 Cor. 11:4-6).
Indeed, Paul did have knowledge: Not only was he a well-educated Pharisee; he demonstrated a
remarkable facility with secular literature and philosophy by quoting pagan poets and writers by
memory. In fact, when in Athens, Paul addressed his audience with comparisons and contrasts
between Christianity and Greek wisdom. Against the Epicureans, he argued God’s sovereignty
(Acts 17:24-26); but against the fatalistic Stoics, he presented a personal God who took account
of people for their actions. Paul quoted from the Cretan poet Epimenides, from the Cilician poet
Aratus, and from The Hymn to Zeus, by Cleanthes. This he also does elsewhere, to the
Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:33), and to Titus (1:12). Notice that Paul took the time to become familiar
with the culture he was addressing (and quite possibly not simply for evangelistic purposes) and
yet he used that familiarity as a bridge for communication, not accommodation: “In the past God
overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has
set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given
proof of this to all by raising him from the dead” (v. 31). The result was not overwhelming, but
“a few men became followers of Paul and believed,” while others conceded, “We want to hear
you again on this subject” (vv. 32-33).
But in Corinth, the simplicity of the gospel was being undermined by those who sought to turn it
into the speculative mysticism of Greek philosophy. Combining Christianity, folk religion, and
esoteric wisdom, the “super-apostles” attracted the metropolitan upper-classes much as Eastern
philosophy has gathered a following among professionals in our time. Silver-tongued speakers
would put on seminars and promise the keys to success and happiness. Because they made at
least some appeal to Christ, the super-apostles convinced some of the Corinthian believers that
they were simply bringing together the best of secular wisdom and Christian belief. The gospel
was not enough; to make Christianity relevant in a pagan commercial center like Corinth, in
order to really market it well, the church had to promise answers to questions the Bible never
answered and solve riddles about which the Bible was not the least bit interested. Where the
Scriptures were silent, secular wisdom threw in its two cents-worth.
The sophisticated Corinthian, confident and self-assured, had little time for sin and judgment,
guilt and grace. Religion was supposed to supply social glue, give people a philosophy of life
and a way of living a happy and meaningful life. In this sort of setting, the gospel was probably
viewed as an answer to a question the people were not even asking: How can I, a condemned
prisoner of my own depravity, ever have a relationship with a holy and just God?
But Paul’s response is clear. Instead of taking a marketing survey of Corinthian attitudes and
developing a gospel that would address “felt needs,” he told them what the real needs were,
whether they felt them or not. In fact, said Paul, if they do not feel within them the need or are
not asking the right questions, it is not because the gospel is irrelevant, but because “the message
of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). “The man without the Spirit
does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and
he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). In other words, if
people are not asking the question, “How can I be right with God?”, it is not because the gospel
is dead, but because they are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Although the gospel is
“foolishness to those who are perishing, …to us who are being saved it is the power of God”
Thus, Paul launches on his classic defense of the gospel:
God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a
stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both
Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of
God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength (vv.
The super-apostles were more powerful than Paul in terms of popular appeal. They appeared to
be more relevant, offering the recently converted pagans something familiar, and they made it
sound so captivating. They could really sell the product, and Paul was being put on the back
burner a bit. In fact, their success suggests that the super-apostles spoke more directly to the felt
needs of the Corinthians. And what were those felt needs? Probably not much different from
those about whom Paul warned Timothy: “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money,
boastful, proud, abusive,…rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim.
3:2-4)–and these are professing Christians!
This is the problem, isn’t it? By preaching to “felt needs” we are often preaching to selfish and
idolatrous cravings. What will be the “felt needs” of people who love themselves, money, and
pleasure? Our job is not to preach to felt needs, but to expose such felt needs as sinful cravings
which must be supplanted by Christ. Only in this way can unbelievers see their truest, deepest
need for the One whose absence these distractions have sought to soothe.
In the meantime, Paul responds to the problem with the super-apostles by telling the Corinthians
they are simply shallow and immature, captive to “the wisdom of this age,” which did not even
have the sense to recognize the most remarkable triumph of Divine wisdom in history: the
satisfaction of God’s justice and mercy in the cross of Christ.
But Paul didn’t let the Corinthian Jews off, either. While Greek culture-Christianity turned
Christian discourse into a combination of magic, self-reflection, and speculation, Jewish
sympathies led to a different distraction: the miraculous. In both cases, power was the key.
Through understanding esoteric mysteries of life and knowing the secret “laws” which governed
the spiritual realm, Greek religion promised Christians power through magic; the Jews promised
power through miracle, and Paul says both promise what God considers weak.
The cross was a stumbling block to the Jews also in that accepting its message meant coming to
terms with the fact that they could not save themselves, not even with God’s help. They were
helpless to participate in their own redemption and this public picture of Christ hanging on a
cross, carrying the weight of our sins, meant that all of their works had been for nothing.
Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, was a scandalous notion to
a religion which had become increasingly legalistic by the time of Christ.
Part of the problem is that, as fallen men and women, we want power not only for the advance of
the church in a secular culture, but even for ourselves. There is something exalting about being a
part of something that is respected by society. If we can build larger buildings, have larger
gatherings, create larger enterprises, and compete with other mass-marketed products, we will be
a part of something powerful, something relevant and the world will have to sit up and take
notice of us for our impressive technological, and financial sophistication.
This is what was driving the Corinthian believers, too, who had forgotten their roots. This is what
he points out immediately after he had described the gospel as a stumbling block:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human
standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish
things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the
strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are
not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that
you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness,
holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’ (vv.
The Corinthians believers did not want to win their sophisticated neighbors as much as they
wanted to be like them. In a culture which idealized wealth, strength, wisdom, and nobility,
Christianity made little sense. In the face of all of this, Paul expects the Corinthians to tell the
neighbor next door that their Savior-God was sentenced to death by (a) his own people, (b) the
Roman authorities, and (c) God the Father himself. Thus, salvation in this scheme is the result of
a shameful death on a cross which, for Romans, had the equivalent criminal associations we
would make with the electric chair. No wonder many cultures have found it difficult to
understand this core message of Christianity! Nevertheless, at the point Christianity is least
saleable, it is the most powerful. The resurrection was such an overwhelming concept that those
gathered in Athens to “hear the latest ideas” told Paul, “We’ll hear more from you again on these
But today, we hardly say enough to provoke the slightest interest. In bending over backwards to
be relevant, we have actually become politely irrelevant, mumbling when we get to the bit about
judgment, hell, wrath, condemnation, human helplessness and our utter dependence on the grace
and righteousness of someone outside of us. “Give us a god who shows us an example of
greatness–power, virtue, wisdom; not a god who dies for us, but one who shows us how to live!”
That is what the modern Greeks demand, just as others demand miraculous signs. But Paul
continues his defense with the following:
When I cam to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I
proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with
you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. My message and my preaching were not with wise
and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might
not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (2:1-5).
In addition to what we have already seen about Paul’s superior education, he himself adds, “I am
not in the least inferior to the ‘super-apostles'” (2 Cor. 12:11). And yet, “I did not come with
eloquence or superior wisdom.” There was not going to be a test to see whose gospel was the
cleverest, whose gospel was the most relevant, whose gospel could attract more attention. “For I
resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
We want to stand out, to be relevant and “in touch,” but when we don’t talk about Christ, or even
sin, judgment, grace and redemption enough for even regular churchgoers to be able to articulate
their theology, we couldn’t be more irrelevant. I wonder, if we are to judge by the most common
themes in evangelical preaching and publishing, whether we are ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps
it is not as up-to-date or relevant as we need to be. It presents stumbling blocks to the
miracle-seekers and wisdom-seekers of the age. But the gospel is not about our seeking, but
God’s; not about our ascent, but his descent.
A great many Christians at the end of the twentieth century appear to be interested in everything
except Christ. You name it, we’ve got it! But the one thing we no longer believe in is the gospel.
There’s no room for irrelevant dogmas about original sin, total depravity, guilt, atonement,
propitiation, substitution, justification, the sovereignty of God, regeneration and sanctification,
judgment, heaven and hell. Nearly every one of these doctrines in our day is up for grabs; one
does not have to hold a narrow position on these issues to wear the evangelical label.
However, an evangelical must be absolutely certain about how to tackle issues like abortion,
pornography, socialism, affirmative action, homosexuality, the gifts of the Spirit, and the precise
chronology of end-times events. While the Bible does indeed have something to say about our
behavior, spiritual gifts, and eschatology, often issues rarely discussed in the Bible have become
the standard tests of orthodoxy, while the most obvious biblical motifs are largely unknown.
The evangelical church must leave all of the distractions behind; it must speak less
self-confidently and begin declaring its confidence in the person and work of Jesus Christ. There
must be a recovery of the riches of mysteries which have been finally revealed in the living and
written Word. Until the gospel is clearly known again in our ungodly culture, we must put every
other pursuit, every other distraction, every other interest or fascination in abeyance, declaring to
the sophisticated foolishness of our age, with St. Paul, “I resolved to know nothing among you
except Christ and him crucified.”
Dr. Michael Horton is the Chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals,
and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in
California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological
Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has
written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, In the Face of
God, and most recently, A Confessing Theology for Postmdern Times.