The Church’s traditional teaching of Christ’s crucifixion is “repulsive” and “insane” according to the Very Rev Jeffrey John of the Church of England. John urges a revision of the Christian doctrine of the cross known as “penal substitution” which states that because humans have sinned, God sent Christ as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. Mr. John comments,
In other words, Jesus took the rap and we got forgiven as long as we said we believed in him,” says Mr John. “This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we’d say that they were a monster.
“The old rugged cross, so despised by the world” is apparently also despised by even some within the church today. Even where there is not outright denouncement, as in the words of the Rev. John, there is often an implicit rejection of the message of the cross when it is rarely mentioned or communicated in such a way as to remove its offense.
This morning I return to the text which I preached in my very first sermon as pastor of this church seven years ago today. I don’t have the notes from that message, but I hope I got the text right then and I hope I do today. If so, there should be some similarities in the two messages.
We don’t realize just how foolish this message sounded to those who first heard it in the first century! Here Paul explains why God designed such a foolish message. He did so to confound the wisdom of the wise, and by so doing to confirm the glory of God.
This morning I would like to join my voice with that of a young Charles Haddon Spurgeon who said in the first sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London,
I WOULD PROPOSE THAT THE SUBJECT OF THE MINISTRY IN THIS HOUSE, AS LONG AS THIS PLATFORM SHALL STAND, AND AS LONG AS THIS HOUSE SHALL BE FREQUENTED BY WORSHIPPERS, SHALL BE THE PERSON OF JESUS CHRIST. I AM NEVER ASHAMED TO AVOW MYSELF A CALVINIST; I DO NOT HESITATE TO TAKE THE NAME OF BAPTIST; BUT IF I AM ASKED WHAT IS MY CREED, I REPLY — “IT IS JESUS CHRIST.”
May I also add, along with the apostle Paul, it is “Christ and Him crucified.”
For the message of the cross is foolishness 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 bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
I. This Message Confounds the Wisdom of the Wise.
There is a contrast in verses 17 and 18 between the “words of man’s wisdom” and the “message of the cross”. There is a direct contrast between these two messages. The word translated “message” or “preaching” (KJV) in verse 18 is the Greek word logos which literally means “word” or “message.” It refers to the content of the message preached, not the act of preaching itself.
This text is often used as an excuse for foolish preaching. That’s not what Paul is describing. He is describing the content of the message of the preaching which is foolishness to the world. The problem which the world has is not with the manner of preaching, but the message itself. This is not an excuse for acting foolish in the pulpit. In fact, you can distract from the foolishness of the message by being foolish yourself and the message is not heard clearly enough to be rejected. Your manner can be rejected and not the message. This is a danger we need to avoid. Preach the message so clearly that it can be rejected on its own merits, not because of our manner.
The message is described as the “message of the cross” in verse 18 and “Christ crucified” in verse 23. What a foolish message! A message which declares that a god who is creator of all things comes as a helpless babe in a stable, lives in abject poverty, and dies the death of a criminal on behalf of the rebellion of his creatures. We don’t often realize just how foolish this message sounded to those who first heard in the first century. There is a reason why the oldest surviving depiction of Jesus is a work of ancient graffiti discovered in ruins of a worshiper standing before a crucified figure with the head of a donkey. The inscription below this image reads: “Alexamenos worships his god.” This was a mockery of the early Christians’ worship of a crucified God.
According to verse 23, the message of “Christ crucified” was an equal opportunity offender. It was offensive to both Jews and Gentiles. It was offensive to Jews because they were looking for a Messiah who would perform miracles, not die as a criminal. We see the Jews thirst for signs as they continually request them of Jesus, even after already having experienced them (cf. John 6:26-31). They could not accept a crucified Christ. It was a contradiction in terms, like “hot ice.” It made absolutely no sense. This message was offensive to Gentiles because it was such utter folly to say that a god could or would die for the sins of humans. The message of the cross has always been offensive. It’s interesting that whereas many today are trying to market the gospel to a particular group, God specifically designed the gospel to be offensive to the two major competing worldviews of the first century. The reason for this will be explained in a few moments.
Despite efforts to nullify the offensiveness of the cross in our day, it is still offensive to the world when rightly preached.
The cross is offensive to sinners because it tells them that they are sinners in need of a Savior. The cross is a testimony that we are not good enough to merit God’s favor on our own. We can only be accepted by God on the basis of the brutal death of His only begotten Son. This teaching is repulsive to fallen man.
There is an offense of the cross which can be removed if the concept of God’s wrath is removed and in its place only the love of God is left. This is what Rev Jeffrey John proposes by calling on people to recognize that God is about “love and truth” and not “wrath and punishment.” This is not the gospel. The gospel is that although God’s wrath abides upon us as rebellious creatures, God in His love has taken the initiative to provide a way in which His holy wrath is satisfied. The solution to both God’s wrath and love is the cross of Jesus Christ.
There is an offense to the cross which can be removed if it is merely spoken of as a moral example. As Rev Jeffrey John explains that Christ was crucified so he could “share in the worst of grief and suffering that life can throw at us.” This is not the gospel. There is more to the cross than merely providing a model for how we can suffer. It is the atoning death of the Son of God!
There is an offense of the cross which can be removed if works are added to it. Paul in Galatians 5:11 states, “And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased.” There is a reason why the religions of the world (from Roman Catholicism to Islam) which stress human works are given a free pass in the media today. Whatever repugnant teachings they may hold to, there are none as repugnant to the world as the gospel of grace. It goes against the wisdom of men which says that everyone must earn their own way, pull their own weight, each tub must stand on its own bottom. Paul says that if he preached circumcision, the offense of the cross would be removed and he would escape persecution. This is the choice that many have made in our day. Rather than taking stand on the gospel of grace, they have pursued a moralistic campaign that can be accepted by all and is offensive to none.
The Old Rugged Cross is still despised by the world!
Not only does the message of the cross confound the wisdom of the wise, in so doing it confirms the glory of God.
II. This Message Confirms the Glory of God.
But there is a method to the apparent madness. God designed the plan of salvation, not only to confound the wisdom of the wise, but also to confirm the glory of God! This message which is so contrary to the wisdom of the wise and the expertise of the experts serves as a means of maximizing the glory of God.
It does so because there is no human reason why such a message that is considered to be so foolish by the world should be successful. The only explanation is that God Himself is at work whenever the message of the cross is faithfully proclaimed. The word “called” in verse 24 refers to the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit of God. It is linked closely with God’s sovereign choice in verses 26 and 27. It refers to God’s sovereign call of His chosen people and it always works in conjunction with the proclamation of the message of the cross!
Although this message is deemed to be foolish by man, it is the manifest wisdom of an infinitely wise God. We preach a message which is contrary to the wisdom of the world. It is a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, “but to those who are called . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul adds this summary statement in verse 25, “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Though the cross may seem to be foolishness to the world it is the manifest wisdom of an infinitely wise God.
As John Piper has so beautifully declared of the cross:
The wisdom of God devised a way for the love of God to satisfy the wrath of God without compromising the justice of God.
This wisdom was on display on the cross when God’s Son was crucified, because there:
- God’s Wrath was satisfied.
- God’s Justice was uncompromised.
- God’s Love was magnified.
- God’s Grace was glorified.
- God’s Mercy was exercised.
- God’s Wisdom was exemplified.
- And, God’s Glory was maximized!
It is no wonder then that the apostle Paul would say in Galatians 6:14, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.” I pray to that this would be our source of glorying in this house “as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshipper”.
The hymn writer George Bennard captured the idea of both the shame and glory of the cross when he wrote,
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.
In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.
To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.