What Paul did or didn’t do
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 human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2.4-5)
Over the years, people have applied the Apostle’s self-reflections on his Corinthian preaching ministry in radically different ways. As Gordon Fee observes, some have put such emphasis on what Paul apparently didn’t do, steering well-clear of any polish or eloquence, as if to make dullness and shallowness into virtues that allow God to get on with the real spiritual work. Others have honed in on what Paul apparently did do, adding ‘signs and wonders’—dazzling demonstrations of the Spirit—to the mundane routine of vocal monologues. But neither of these extremes really capture what he meant.
In context, surely Paul’s point is simply that the spiritual truth and divine power of his message—‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’—always surpasses the frail form of its human delivery. Paul knew this better than most—‘afflicted in every way’, ‘perplexed’, ‘persecuted’, ‘struck down’, ‘always carrying in the body the death of Jesus’, and yet never losing heart. Why? Because all this proves that the real treasure—the Gospel, with all its extraordinary power—‘belongs to God and does not come from us’. Even on death row, in a prison cell beneath the streets of Rome, Paul almost writes as if his ministry has really just begun. Although ‘I am being chained like a criminal’, he writes, ‘God’s word is not chained’.
Paul knew full well what we preachers too often forget: Christian ministry is God’s work, not ours. After all, it is Christ whom the Father has appointed as ‘heir of all things’. And as ‘Son over God’s house’, Christ builds his kingdom through a word carrying no less cosmic signficance and authority than that which brought forth a universe out of nothing. Christ’s kingdom does not emerge from the womb of any power or potential within this creation. Neither is there anything in existence by which it can be threatened or undone. It is an entirely new, spiritual or supernatural creation. And its unique currency and commerce are directly provided and regulated by its risen and ascended king.
That’s why Paul spoke of his preaching as an entirely spiritual affair. Its aim and benefit—the edification of God’s people—depends on no less than the miraculous provision of spiritual gifts to the preacher and saving grace to the listener. In other words, without Christ’s supernatural blessing on preacher and listener alike, there can be no fruit—no matter how hard a preacher has pored over flow diagrams, lexicons, commentaries, theological textbooks (or joke books, as the case may be!). This is why any preacher’s chief labour in preparation is prayer and meditation on the wonder of the Gospel.
We need to feel the weight of this over and again, before we rush to qualify it with various caveats about the value of this creation; about the contribution our purely natural abilities and gifts can make to ministry. When God calls us his ‘fellow-workers’ it’s not because he somehow needs our help. This is a business where God and his grace are utterly sovereign. It is by grace alone that we are brought into this kingdom, and by grace alone that we are of any use in its progress.
It is true; perhaps the odd qualification needs to be made. Christ’s kingdom—however supernatural in character—is not somehow disconnected from this pre-existing natural world. And neither are the spiritual gifts he grants to his church. As one writer has put it, the Spirit grafts his supernatural gifts onto a ‘stock of natural abilities’. And it’s the great breadth of natural abilities and circumstances—of background, of race, of culture, of experience, of humour, of eloquence, of learning—that furnish such healthy variety in the preaching we hear. Indeed, what’s to say that a spiritually gifted preacher can’t also devote their natural skills and experience in service to the kingdom? After all, Paul urges us to offer our whole bodies in worship. What’s to say that study, learning, discipline might not even help concentrate a preacher more intently on the spiritual nature of the task?
All that is true. But we must not kid ourselves with the fiction that effective preaching is somehow a function of learning, of rhetorical flourish, humour, or invention. No one is truly edified by our preaching until they are led to exalt Christ, and not us. And that is a supernatural work. Indeed, this is why those who’ve reflected on Paul’s preaching ministry—like John Calvin, William Perkins, and others—have sensed that Paul actively sought to conceal his considerable natural learning and wisdom in his delivery in deference to the true spiritual greatness of his subject. That didn’t mean these things weren’t hard at work behind the scenes. That didn’t mean he aimed to be dull. But it did mean that when pushed to boast, he preferred to boast in his weakness, that Christ’s power might rest upon him. And likewise it must be for us. However hard we work on crafting our sermons, there ought to be a fitting modesty to the delivery itself that points away from ourselves to Christ. As the great Puritan, John Flavel put it, ‘a crucified style best suits the preachers of a crucified Christ.’
Feature photo: Mark Hunter