Simple, Humble Preaching

We’re continuing through this Pauline letter to the church of God in Corinth. We’ve noticed thus far in our study that this church has some problems, just like every church does. The problem that Paul is specifically addressing in this passage is the problem of divisions and disunity. Some in the church were following after personalities, aligning themselves with different tribes, they were playing favorites. And they were specifically tempted to follow after those men, those preachers, who were the best preachers. They were aligning themselves with the men with the most eloquent preaching skills.

And they were certainly unimpressed with Paul. In terms of rhetorical flair and professional polish Paul was nothing to write home about, which will become even more clear as we make our way through this letter.

But as we will see tonight, Paul did have a humble simplicity to his ministry. He wasn’t the flashiest, the most remarkable, the most impressive, but he was a humble, faithful servant who delivered the message, a that had been given to him. And when that is done, when the gospel is simply and humbly communicated, when the message of the cross is proclaimed in unpretentious, unadorned clarity, the gospel is magnified and God himself is glorified, rather than man.

Let’s read 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, focusing on verses 14-17:

10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Let’s begin by looking at verses 14-16 and noticing Paul’s manner of ministry: humility.

Paul says in verse 14: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name.”

At first glance that seems like a strange statement. I thank God I didn’t baptize you. Isn’t baptism part of the great commission? Isn’t he supposed to be baptizing folks? Why is he thankful that he hadn’t been baptizing people?

He isn’t here saying that baptism is unimportant; we’ll cover that a little later. What he is saying is that he is glad that, in God’s providence, he hadn’t been the person who had baptized the majority of the Corinthian believers, so that that was less of a distraction in this debate. The debate was centered around various tribes in the Corinthian church, various factions, and Paul is thankful that he didn’t have a tribe, at least as far as baptisms is concerned.

Specifically, for us, we need to note the humility Paul is showing here. He didn’t want a following. He wasn’t trying to recruit a group of fans to himself and to his camp. He puts no special value on baptizing converts; he was called to preach.

Some divisive ones wanted a following in the church, wanted a tribe, wanted acolytes and followers. It is a real temptation, in every stage of life to try and have a team, a posse, a group of adoring fans. In school you see children of all ages trying to be the funny man, trying to be the class clown. Or maybe trying to be the smartest in the class. Or the most athletic, or the most beautiful, or whatever. They want attention and they want the praise of the crowd. They want the awe of the onlookers. And if we are honest, we never grow out of that temptation. We want to have a following.

We all want glory of some kind. We want to be great. We want praise and honor and importance and influence. We want people to think we’re beautiful, or smart, or clever, or funny. We want to be the best teacher, or the best dressed, or the best parent, or the best child, or the best whatever, and most of all, WE WANT PEOPLE TO NOTICE IT. We want to be seen, we want people to point it out, we want praise and we want glory.

But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the kingdom of God. God has called us to the opposite of this behavior. He’s taught us that his kingdom operates with this principle: the first will be last and the last will be first.

But we don’t like that. We want to be first and we want to be the best, and we want the people in the back of the pack to serve us. In short, we want to receive the praise. We want glory; we want to be like God.

We want what Satan promised Adam in the garden, for our eyes to be opened and for us to be like God himself. And just like Adam, we choose to take what doesn’t belong to us. But this is no mere piece of forbidden fruit. We try to take the praise and glory that belongs to God, and we try to re-direct it to ourselves.

But Paul knows what the Corinthians needed to hear, and what we need to hear again. Keep your finger here in 1 Corinthians 1 and turn with me to Philippians chapter 2. Philippians 2.

If you’ll remember from last week’s sermon, Paul tells the Corinthians in chapter 1 verse 10 that they needed to have the same mind among themselves, they needed to be thinking correctly, which is the same language he used here in Philippians 2:5, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Unity through having the same mind. Unity, rather than division, through thinking similarly. And what was it that they needed to have in their minds? What was the thing that they needed to consider and keep in the center of their thinking? The answer in Corinth and in Philippi was humility. They needed to remember humility, specifically the humility of Jesus.

The next verse in Philippians 2:

 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,”

The unity they seek is found in considering the mind of Christ. Unity, by thinking about the situation the way that God thinks about it, and in considering themselves in the same way that Christ considered himself, which Paul describes in this way:

 “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,[b] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Humility unto death. Not seeking earthly glory and fame, not seeking to have a tribe or a faction, not seeking a vain-glorious following. Humble service to the grave. That’s the calling of a Christian, and that is what Christ has done for us.

We’ve wronged God, sinned against God, proudly sought after the forbidden fruit of glory and the praise of man, we’ve ruptured unity and fractured the peace, but Christ came and emptied himself. He came to serve. He came to wash. He came to redeem. He came to comfort and he came to help. He wasn’t concerned with earthly reputations and promoting his platform. He was moved by love and compelled by compassion. He was focused on others and securing THEIR good, rather than using others for HIS OWN good.

In short, he became the last. He became the lowest, he became the servant, the slave. Remember the kingdom logic I mentioned earlier? The last will be first and the first will be last. That logic applies here in Philippians 2. Because he humbled himself to nothing, he has been elevated above everything. He became last, and God has made him first: Look at verse 9.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Christ became nothing, and God gave him everything. He acted as the lowest slave, and has been crowned the highest king. He became as one with no rights, and has been given authority over all heaven and earth.

That’s the Christ of the gospel, and the Christ offered to you tonight. The Christ that is lowly and humble, and yet ruler over all things. He is a faithful priest willing to wash you of your sins, and a faithful king ready to lead you though all of life. He’s offered you the forgiveness of your sins, and washing of the Holy Spirit, and unity with him and with his bride.

He was humble, and his humility can be counted in the place of your pride. He was lowly, and his modesty can be counted instead of your glory-seeking. Not only that, he promises his holy spirit to help guide you and make you into a genuinely humble person. By the power of His Holy Spirit alone can you make any actual and lasting growth in the area of humility.

  • In Christ, you can become a humble unifier instead of a proud divider. And why is that?
  • In Christ, you’re given the full acceptance of the father, so you no longer need to clamor for the praise of your peers.
  • In Christ, you’re given a glorious inheritance in heaven, so you no longer have to grab after the fleeting glory of men.
  • In Christ you’ve been given a new name, a heavenly, divine name, so you no longer have to promote your own name among men.
  • And in Christ you’ve been given a new status, the status of a child of the King of all creation, and so you don’t have to bite and devour each other to protect your name among men. God sees you and loves you perfectly in Christ, so you no longer have to battle to protect your reputation.

In sum, Christ was not pursuing earthly fame and fortune and prestige. Simply put, Christ was humble, rather than glory seeking. And you too can be like him, if you but come to him and believe his message of Good news.

Come tonight, don’t wait a single day, lest you be found proud and boastful on the day of his return, and therefore under the judgement of our righteous king. Be reconciled to him and to his bride this night, merely by believing in him and his humility.

Second. We’ve seen Paul’s humble manner of ministry, and now let’s look at Paul’s formula for faithful ministry. Paul’s foundation for faithful ministry. Paul speaks in verse 17 and for many more verses after that about the foundation of a faithful ministry being simple preaching. Simple preaching of the gospel. Preaching an important theme that we will spend the rest of this evening examining.

Verse 17 again says, “17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

Note with me in that verse the Primacy of Preaching. The primacy that Paul places on preaching. Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.

We see in that statement something of the relation between baptism and preaching in Paul’s mind: baptism is important, but it is inferior in importance to preaching. Making disciples is the primary objective, and baptizing them is merely marking them out as such: disciples.

This, preaching, is the frontlines of the kingdom. As one commentator put it: preaching is the Spearhead of the Christian Mission.[1] More on that in a little bit. But for now, I want you to notice some clear implications of Paul’s theology of preaching in this verse.

A first clear implication of his argument: that baptism does not effect salvation. I know this might not be the first thing that pops into your mind, nor it may not be something that you’ve struggled with, but it is a clear implication of Paul’s argumentation. It is not a matter of who baptizes you, or even that you are baptized at all that makes you a Christian. Only a Holy-Spirit-wrought, faith-filled response to the preaching of the cross can do that. The proclamation of the gospel accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man is what makes a Christian, not the act of baptism. If that were not the case, if Baptism was the thing that saved you, then Paul’s whole argument here makes no sense. He would have been sent to baptize, and not to preach. But that is not the case, as this verse and the following two chapters, indeed the rest of the letter, make clear. Baptist does not effect salvation.

A second clear implication of his argument, and an encouraging one, is that simple proclamation of the truth is enough. Simple proclamation of the gospel is enough. It is enough for parents, it is enough for Sunday school teachers, it is enough for preachers. I’ll expand more on this later, but we don’t have to embellish the gospel. The gospel in its simple presentation is sufficient to save, sufficient to preserve, sufficient to sanctify, sufficient to hold us until the final day.

A third implication of Paul’s argument here is that we need to be on guard against the temptation to focus on secondary matters while neglecting the primary.

Churches can focus on the sacraments, like baptism, while their pulpits starve the flock of the word. Preachers are feeding the congregation milk, rather than the gospel-saturated meat of the cross of Christ. Churches throughout the SBC are led this way. Just come in, get baptized, get on the roll, and we’ll figure the rest out later. But that doesn’t ever happen. The preaching isn’t sufficient to bring a disciple to maturity, so you end up with a congregation of, at best, immature disciples, or at worse, self-deceived unbelievers.

  • Or churches can be tempted to focus on other secondary ministries to the neglect of the primary. I’ve seen churches focus on their small groups so much that the corporate Lord’s Day gatherings are neglected.
  • Or focus on the music ministry and its productions so much that the preaching of the word gets left in the shadow.
  • Or focus on the women’s ministry so much that the proclamation of God’s word by ordained men is minimized, seen as optional.
  • Or focus on social improvements and justice issues so much that preaching the gospel of Christ saving sinners becomes obscured in favor of fighting poverty, or abolishing abortion, or seeking educational reform, or whatever. Those may be good and noble things, but when they come to replace preaching as the primary ministry of the church, then the cross will be emptied of its power.

Paul sees preaching as the primary, the crucial, the frontline ministry of a man called and sent by God, and by extension the primary ministry of a church set apart by God, and we must never forget the primacy of preaching. Of regular, week in and week out, simple, faithful, unadorned, preaching of the cross of Christ.

But, merely affirming the importance of preaching, the primacy of preaching is not enough. Paul also needs to address the method of preaching: it must be simple, not “with eloquent words of wisdom,” or literally, “not with the wisdom of words.” The gospel is the Crown jewel of God’s plan of salvation, it is Christ’s love gift to his bride. It needs no adornment. It needs no improvement. The proclamation of the good news that Christ died for sinners is the main event. It is the star attraction.

We can’t do anything to make it more powerful. We can’t do anything to make it more appealing, more effective, more palatable, more beautiful. In fact, when we try to do any of those things, we distort it. You can’t change the message without changing its power. You can’t adapt the mode of delivery without distorting the gospel.

That’s why Paul says that he wasn’t sent to preach the gospel with words of eloquent wisdom.

There were in Paul’s day, and there are in our day, men who would so adjust the delivery of the message that the result is they gut the message of its power. And in doing so they gut the power from their pulpit. We must be on guard against these temptations to adjust the preaching ministry in a way that undermines the power of God in the simple proclamation of the gospel. And there are several ways that this can be done, that the cross can be emptied of its power.

A first way that the pulpit ministry can be undermined in the church is through speculation, rather than proclamation. Some men are speculative preachers. They seek to wow their listeners by their lofty speech and abstract philosophizing. They can spin together a dizzying array of complex arguments and speculative spinning, such that their dazzling intellect and rhetorical flair are much more impactful than the message of the gospel itself.

A second way to undermine the power of the cross is to undermine the authority of God’s word in preaching. For example, some preachers might, intentionally or unintentionally, bring in science as the foundational authority. You may have even heard preaching like this before. They might argue that “the bible says that it is better for a marriage to have one husband and one wife, which is confirmed by this data from this study done by Pew Research. And the bible says that its better for a child to be raised by committed and involved parents, which this study confirms and this study confirms.”

Do you see the problem there? The WORD is no longer the final source of authority. The word is only as true as the science that backs it up. This subtle undermining of the power and authority of the scriptures is dangerous, and it’s not new. Martin Lloyd jones wrote about this 50 years ago:

“While men believed in the Scriptures as the authoritative word of God and spoke on the basis of that authority you had great preaching. But once that went, and men began to speculate, and to theorize, and to put up hypotheses and so on, the eloquence and the greatness of the spoken word inevitably declined and began to wane. You cannot really deal with speculations and conjectures in the same way as preaching had formerly dealt with the great themes of the Scriptures. But as belief in the great doctrines of the Bible began to go out, and sermons were replaced by ethical addresses and homilies, and moral uplift and social-political talk, it is not surprising that preaching declined.”[2]

The scriptures must be the authoritative foundation of any preacher’s message, and when that foundation is undermined or tampered with, all manner of other things will take its place, and the power of the cross is gutted.

A third way that men can undermine the power of gospel preaching is when they fail to preach to whole men. They fail to preach to whole men. By that I mean, some preachers can undermine the power of gospel-preaching by speaking merely to one aspect of a person. Men who might talk about true biblical doctrine, but do so in a way that is divorced from the heart, for example, speak in a way that doesn’t connect to the man in the pew. These men preach as if the congregation is full of merely brains that needs instructing, rather than whole persons who needs saving. Preaching must be the act of a whole man engaging the whole of God’s word and delivering it to whole persons. People that have minds yes, but also have hearts, have wills, have desires, have fears, and have anxieties. That is how Christ preached, and that is how Paul preached, and that is how a man of God is to preach today in power, by preaching as a whole man to whole men, the whole cross of Christ.

A fourth way that the pulpit can be undermined is when men give into the temptation to tickle the ears, rather than preach the word. To temptation to tickle ears is what Paul warns against in 2 Timothy 4:3, when he writes: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

It’s easy to fill a church, to raise money, to gain a following, to expand a platform by preaching sermons that scratch the itching ears of the listeners. But a man of God, a man called and sent by God like Paul was to preach the gospel, and must never go down that road. Preaching to itching ears is a perennial temptation for a preacher, and so too is a congregation perennially tempted to find a man that will preach so as to scratch their own itches.

A fifth way that the preaching of the cross can be diminished in its power is by turning preaching into a profession, a job, rather than a calling from God. Churches, seminaries, and denominations can undermine the proclamation of the gospel by raising up polished pulpiteers, rather than humble prophets.

These professional preachers ooze with self-confidence, speak with authority, and never have any doubt. They’re winsome, polished, refined, eloquent, and, from a fleshly perspective, effective. Lloyd-Jones again talks about certain great professional preachers of the 19th century. Of these men, he writes,

“were pulpiteers rather than preachers. I mean that they were men who could occupy a pulpit and dominate it, and dominate the people. They were professionals. There was a good deal of the element of showmanship in them, and they were experts at handling congregations and playing on their emotions. In the end they could do almost what they liked with them.”[3]

God’s church ought not be marked with the kind of professionalized, polished, pulpiteering that marks so many pulpits. Simple, God-exalting, man-humbling, sinner-redeeming gospel proclamation is what ought to mark the church of God.

A sixth and final way that the pulpit ministry of a church can undermine the power of the cross is when men fail to preach the whole truth. These men may preach truth, biblical truth, God’s truth, but do it in a truncated way that has the effect of conveying untruth.

Maybe they preach morality, right and wrong, but preach it without regard to faith. Maybe they always preach the second great commandment, loving your neighbor, but do so without ever even mentioning the first commandment of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Or they preach the Old testament without preaching Christ. They preach the Old Testament in a way that wouldn’t offend a soul in a Jewish synagogue, which is to say that they aren’t preaching a Christian sermon.

It’s entirely possible, and even very easy, to preach a Christian text in an unchristian way.

Or to preach mentioning Christ, or preach about Christ, without ever preaching Christ himself.

Or maybe the preacher believes all the right things, but fails to mention sin, fails to preach the law and repentance of sin, fails to preach in any way that would offend the conscience of one of his listeners.

They preach:

  • a gospel without offence,
  • to a congregation who doesn’t really need saving,
  • about by a savior who didn’t really need to die,
  • in the place of a people who don’t really sin,
  • and haven’t really offended a holy God.

These men in their words of eloquent wisdom preach partial truth, but act as if it is the whole truth, and end up deceiving. As JI Packer once wrote, “A halftruth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”

The man of God is called to deliver the message, not distort it. He is to herald of the truth, not adjust it. An ambassador has no authority to adjust the king’s message, and he does so at his own peril.

We must be on guard against such temptations to undermine the teaching of the church or else, as Paul says, the cross will be made of no value.

That’s the result of preaching with eloquent words, Paul says: “the cross of Christ is emptied of its power” or we could translate it, “the cross of Christ should be made of none effect or made void.” Cross is made inoperative, void, or powerless.

When we make the preaching of the gospel more about a man and his eloquence, then we create disciples of that man, not disciples of Christ. We make followers of Apollo, or of Peter, or of Paul, or of some other preacher, rather than followers of Christ. And that makes the cross powerless. The gospel of Christ is irrelevant at that point, because Christ isn’t the savior: the preacher is.

Or, when we make the preaching more about numbers and statistics and getting people in the door and more names on the roll, then we’ll be tempted to try and remove the offense, remove whatever is in the gospel that might turn people off. But to do that, we gut the gospel of its power. Preaching becomes a means to inflating numbers, rather than saving sinners through proclaiming the foolish message of the cross.

You see, not to pre-empt the next sermon on verse 18, but the power of the gospel lies in its offence.

The gospel is offensive because it reveals our own inadequacy to save ourselves. It reminds us that we need a savior, that we can’t do it on our own, that we really are sinners that have offended a holy God and are in need of redemption. And the foolishness of the gospel is that Christ, the God-man, has come down to do exactly that. That he was born of a woman, lived a sinless life, died a convict’s death, and was raised from the dead three days later.

That’s the offensive foolish message of the gospel. That God would become nothing so that sinners might be forgiven of everything, and be made a part of God’s own family. It doesn’t matter how evil, how wicked how sinful, how depraved we are, God became man so that we might all be forgiven.

You might be prideful and divisive, like some of the Corinthians, or you might be a thief, an adulterer, a drunk, a brawler, or a murderer, but the message of the cross is that you can be forgiven and made righteous, no matter how far gone you may feel or how much evil you’ve done. Nobody is outside of the power of the cross; nobody is beyond the scope of Christ’s power.

That’s the foolishness of the cross, and that is the power of the cross.

A message of something done outside of us, in spite of us, in order to help us, to do what we could never do, and all of it of grace, given to us as a free gift, not a result of our good deeds or acts of righteousness.

Won’t you believe in this glorious, powerful, humbling, effective and saving message of the cross? Come and believe, turn from your sins, and you can have Christ’s forgiveness, you can have the Holy Spirit’s cleansing, you can have heavenly comfort, you can have the holy anointing, you can have divine adoption, but most blessed of all, you can have God as your God and you can be part of His people.

Come to Christ, this very night, and wait no longer. This powerful message is sufficient to save any who would believe on Christ.

[1] Barrett, Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (Harper’s Row: 1968), 49.

[2] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, (Zondervan, 2011), 21.

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, (Zondervan, 2011), 21.


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