Rodney J. Decker, M.Div., Th.M., Th.D.
[The following is a transcript, slightly edited, from a seminary chapel address, fall 1996.]
We stand on the threshold of the 21st century. In the year 2001 the third millennia A.D. will begin. The new millennia will see incredible changes in our society. Already science and technology have made a profound mark on our lives. A buzzword in contemporary avant garde theological and philosophical circles is postmodernity. It is said that we have now left the modern world behind and stand in the foyer of a post-modern age. Although I think it is still to early to tell whether or not there has been a real paradigm shift or whether the present ethos is merely a blip on the map of modernity, there are certainly many new ideas in the air–ideas that affect the way people think and act in our world. What will that do to ministry in the next millennia? What needs to change in how we represent our Savior to the citizens of the third millennia? And particularly, what are the best priorities for ministry in the rapidly approaching 21st century?
In an attempt to answer at least some of those questions, let me direct your attention to 1 Corinthians 1.17-31.
Paul says that the biblical priority for ministry is proclaiming the good news: “Christ sent me to preach the gospel.” That should be an obvious statement and not one that will change just because we turn another page on the calendar. Our priority, as Paul’s, should not be proclaiming rites and rituals (as important as they are in the appropriate place), but in proclaiming the message of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
Nor should our priority be proclaiming a message based on human wisdom. Notice Paul’s statement at the end of verse 17: “[Christ sent me] to preach the gospel–not with words of human wisdom.” At this point we do have a issue that is being increasingly challenged in our day.
- What is the proper role of human wisdom in our ministry?
- Has that changed since the first century?
- Or will it change in the new century that is dawning?
- Why not seek to persuade people with intellectual arguments?
- With the profound intellectual sophistication of 21st century people will we not be required to develop increasingly sophisticated arguments in our presentation of the gospel?
- Can we reasonably expect people to accept a message that has not changed in 2,000 years?
The Word of God would remind us in verse 18 that the message we proclaim is foolish to unbelievers who do not share our world view.
- It seemed foolish to them in the first century.
- It seemed foolish at the beginning of the second millennia.
- And it seemed foolish to them at the beginning of the twentieth century.
That is not going to change in the next few years. Paul describes the issue by contrasting those who are perishing with those who are being saved. Those descriptions reflect two totally different world views. Those who are perishing are on their way to a Christless eternity in a real hell. To such people, it seems foolish to proclaim a message of forgiveness by grace through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
That ought not to be surprising, however, for we are told quite plainly in verses 19 and 20 that any wisdom apart from God is foolishness. I suspect that at this point the apostle had in mind Proverbs 1:7: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Such wisdom, however, flies in the face of contemporary wisdom. To those who base their conception of ultimate reality on human wisdom, the biblical message seems wrong. To use an analogy from Chesterton, such people have been born upside down. In his own words,
“The skeptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on.” 
That is pretty much the same thing that Paul is saying. The unbeliever thinks that God’s wisdom is upside down–that it is foolish –but the real problem is that non-Christians have everything upside down, not God. From that precarious pedestal–standing on their heads, trusting their own wisdom–God promises to topple them.
God, in his wisdom, has determined that those who “stand on their epistemo logical head” will never understand reality until they acknowledge the true source of wisdom. That is the point of verse 21. A “head stander” will comprehend the message of the cross only after a transformation of his or her world view–a transformation that comes only by faith. Or as Chesterton puts it, <quote> “When he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up.” 
Of course, that answer doesn’t meet the expectations of the unbeliever. Verse 22 points out what it is that they expect: miraculous signs and philosophical arguments. Paul’s response is that evidential demands are to be met at the presuppositional level and answered with the proclamation of the only message that enables the evidence to be understood coherently and consistently–a transcendental answer, not an evidential one that grants the unbeliever epistemo logical autonomy. The Jews in Jesus’ day were the ones who demanded supernatural, miraculous signs, but they have no corner on that market. It is a demand heard frequently today.
The clearest example of such that I have heard comes from a recent debate between a Christian and an atheist at the Univ. of California. Note a brief excerpt from the closing section of the debate during which the debaters were answering questions from the floor.
Moderator: “You have said that there has been no adequate evidence put forth for God’s existence. What for you personally would constitute adequate evidence for God’s existence?”
Dr. Stein: “Well it’s very simple; I can give you two examples. If that podium suddenly rose into the air five feet, stayed there for a minute, and then dropped right down again. I would say that was evidence of the super natural, because it would violate everything we know about the laws of physics and chemistry (assuming that there wasn’t an engine under there or a wire attached to it–we can make those obvious exclusions). That would be evidence for a supernatural, violation of the laws, we could call it a miracle right in front of your eyes. That would be evidence I would accept. Any kind of a supernatural being putting in an appearance and doing miracles that could not be stage magic would also be evidence I would accept. Those are the two simplest ways. I would also accept any evidence that is logically noncontradictory and I have not heard any yet tonight, that hasn’t been offered already.”
Dr. Bahnsen: “Dr. Stein, I think, is really not reflecting on the true nature of atheism and human nature when he says, “All it would take is a miracle in my very presence to believe in God.” History is replete with, first of all, things which would be, apparently, miracles to people. Now from an atheistic or naturalistic standpoint, I will grant in terms of the hypothesis, that that’s because they were ignorant of all the causal factors and so it appeared to be miraculous; but that didn’t make everybody into a theist. In fact, Scripture tells us there are instances of people who witnessed miracles who all the more hardened their heart and eventually crucified the Lord of Glory. They saw his miracles; that didn’t change their minds. People are not made theists by miracles. People must change their world view; their hearts must be changed. They need to be converted. That’s what it takes. And that’s what it would take for Dr. Stein to finally believe in it. If this podium rose up five feet off the ground and stayed there, Dr. Stein would have, eventually–in the future–some naturalistic explanation. You see they believe things on faith, by which I mean they believe things they have not proven as yet by their senses.
Miracles do not guarantee faith. Many people saw Jesus’ miracles, including his resurrection from the dead, and yet they did not believe. The demand for a miracle is only a smoke screen to conceal a mind that has already been set against the gospel.
Others, however, demand philosophical arguments. The atheist you just heard used that as his second point: “give me evidence that is logically noncontra dictory.” Now the expectation that the message of the cross must adhere to the laws of logic is a valid expectation–and one that the gospel readily satisfies. But the demand for wisdom goes beyond the laws of logic. Modern people have arrogated to themselves the position of ultimate, autonomous judges of truth. From that self-assumed position (standing on their head, you will recall), they pontificate that God must meet their demands for philosophical sophistication. The idolatry of that demand is that God must meet the standards of what the unbeliever deems to be reasonable.  “A God discovered by human wisdom will be É a source of human pride, and [that] constitutes the worship of the creature, not the Creator.” 
But remember verse 19! God has promised to destroy the wisdom of the wise and frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent. And also look forward to verse 25: “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.” By that catachresis Paul points to the absurdity of man’s seeking to be the judge of truth. The most profound wisdom that man can muster, says the apostle, doesn’t even measure up to the standards of what God would consider foolishness.
You see, fallen, finite sinners have no right to pass judgment on the truth and wisdom of God. To allow them that prerogative is to grant them the place of God–to declare that these sinful creatures who are standing on their own heads really do see things right side up. It makes a blind man the judge of the visual arts; a deaf man the conductor of the symphony; a mute the orator of the world.
No, we cannot grant the rebel that right. Instead we preach Christ crucified. That message is evaluated in vastly different ways. Some stumble at the message. Some consider it outright foolishness–epistemological nonsense and non-statement. The demand to “tell me something meaningful,” when translated, means “make a statement that I can verify or falsify on the basis of empirical data.”
What the skeptic does not acknowledge is that the issue is not an empirical issue at all, but a transcendent one. And as such, inductive data can never arrive at truth because it does not have an adequate pou sto–its empirical starting point can only generate probability regarding the material world. Just as a stream can rise no higher than its source, so the scientific method of the naturalist–who excludes supernatural, theistic explanations by definition on the basis of his presuppositions–can never serve as an adequate basis for truth about transcendent, ultimate realities.
In other words, the unregenerate man can never find spiritual truth on the basis of his own world view. As Paul points out in the next chapter, “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).
The Christian hears the same message and, instead of being offended by it and judging it foolishness, recognizes in it the power and wisdom of God. Why the difference? Are Christians smarter than other people? Certainly not. If that were the case, MENSA members would all be Christians–yet that is not exactly the case among the intellectuals of this world. Is it a matter of having more information? No, for the unbeliever has the same data available to him as does the Christian. Both can read the Word of God, yet they come to radically different conclusions.
Paul spells out the difference in the text. Christians are those whom God has called (v. 24). If God does not do a work in the heart of the unbeliever, that person will never acknowledge the truth of the message we proclaim. Apart from God’s call, all the evidences and arguments in the world will never result in one person coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
Oh yes, God may well use evidences in the process of bringing someone to himself–but he never does it by trading places with finite creatures–by letting humans sit on the epistemological throne of reason as the judge of God’s truth. He does it through the internal working of the Holy Spirit that opens the blind person’s eyes to the truth of a Christian world view. He does it by opening the ears of the deaf to the music of God’s symphony. He does it by persuading that person to bow the knee to God’s truth and God’s authority.
It is God’s grace that calls people to himself, but so that sinful humanity is not tempted to boast that God’s call was based on inherent goodness, or brilliant intellect, or great influence, or social status, God chose instead those who had nothing of which to boast in themselves (note vv. 26-29).
Notice that according to verse 27 it is God who chooses, not us. What appears to us to be a decision or choice of an individual is only that person’s response to God’s unconditional, sovereign choice. To argue that God chooses certain people based on his foreknowledge of who would believe puts the shoe on the wrong foot, for then we would have something of which to boast. “God chose me because I was smart enough to chose him.” That is to elevate ourselves to the ranks of the wise and mighty. It flies in the face of vv. 27-28.
God’s purpose is very clearly expressed in v. 29: he initiated the choice “so that no one may boast before him.” There is no glory for us in God’s decision to save us in that way. It is not because of us that we have eternal life, it is, according to v. 30, because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.
It is because of him that we enjoy our position in Christ Jesus.
It is because of him that we have come to know the wisdom of God.
It is because of him that the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us.
It is because of him that we have been set apart as holy.
It is because of him that we have been redeemed.
If it is all because of him, why should any of us boast? We ought, instead, to join Paul in echoing the doxology of Jeremiah: “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (v. 31, citing Jer. 9:24).
This truth ought to increase our appreciation for God and what he has done for us, but it ought also to impact our ministry to a lost and dying world on the verge of the 3d millennium. That brings us back to where we started in v. 17 and reminds us of our priority for ministry–proclaiming the good news.
If you were to read on into chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians you would notice that these doctrinal truths impacted Paul’s own ministry. You would discover that his confidence was not based on eloquence (though I suspect that had we heard him preach, we would have described him as eloquent). Nor was his confidence based on great wisdom (although he had received one of the best educations of his day).
Whether or not Paul swayed his listeners with his rhetorical skill, that was not the basis of his confidence in ministry. It ought not to be the basis of our confidence either. It is tempting to depend on such things. If you have the ability to move an audience as you sing or speak, that is OK, but do not trust that ability as the basis of your ministry. On the other hand, do not minimize the importance of developing such skills as performance, public speaking and homiletics. They cannot substitute for the true basis of confidence in ministry, but they can keep you from getting in the way of your message.
Likewise do not think that just because you get a seminary degree that your great learning will impress people or guarantee you success in ministry. A Master of Divinity or a Master of Theology degree from Baptist Bible Seminary can never guarantee success. Use that education as a tool. You will receive a good one here. God places no premium on ignorance in ministry. Heaven knows we have enough ignoramuses in fundamentalism these days–people that are proud of the fact that they know nothing (and who usually prove it when they speak). You who anticipate a pastoral ministry need to finish seminary, not just the M.Div., but also, I think, the Th.M., but that additional education, as valuable as it is, cannot be the basis of your confidence in ministry. Seminary will give you tools that will enable you to minister more effectively, but they are just that: tools.
On what did Paul depend? On what was his confidence in ministry based? Look again at verses 1-5. Paul depended entirely on God’s Spirit working in and through his ministry to impact people for Jesus Christ. His message did not consist of philosophical argumentation or appeals to the miraculous. His message was a simple one: Jesus Christ and him crucified. Our methodology will undoubtedly change in many ways in the coming years just as it has over the past centuries. Yet the priority of ministry may never change if we are to be true to the Word of God: we must proclaim the gospel, not depending on eloquence or wisdom, but demonstrating the Spirit’s power so that faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
1. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (n.p.: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1936; reprint, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 159-60.
2. Ibid., 160.
3. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 75.
4. Ibid., 73.