The Folly of the Cross

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We’ve slowly but surely been making our way through this powerful letter of first principles. Paul has a wonderful ability to cut right through problems, right through the surface level issues, and get right to the theological heart of the conflict. And in this church in Corinth, there were many issues.

Tonight we will see Paul do that again, perhaps in the most quintessential Pauline way. Paul is writing to a church that had adopted the ideals and values of their pagan culture. They were judging the quality of the preaching and theology according to the world’s standards. And Paul wants to correct that false evaluation with a biblical view of an offensive cross.

And we’ll see too, as we examine Paul’s argument, that this temptation isn’t gone. It’s alive and well for us. We can consider the simple message of the cross as foolishness, rather than the power of God himself.

Let’s read together Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, focusing on just verse 18 tonight:

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. 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Let’s begin looking at our text, verse 18 by asking what exactly Paul is talking about when he says the “word of the Cross,” or “the message of the cross” your translation may have. What is the word of the Cross?

Paul has, in verse 17, just condemned the preaching of the gospel in “words of eloquent wisdom” that is words of human wisdom, in words of clever speech, we could translate it. Paul is condemning those who would, in the name of showy and impressive rhetoric, so proclaim the message of the cross in a way that guts it of its power. We looked at several ways that someone could do that in the previous sermon.

But for us tonight, when we read Paul say in verse 18 “the word of the cross” we just need to remember that he’s talking about the heart of the gospel, the very message of salvation.

The words of human wisdom may sound like the word of the cross, but it is actually it’s dangerous opposite. Human wisdom is of human origin, as we will see; but the word of the cross is of divine origin. Human wisdom is impressive and elevates men, and is lovely and winsome, and pleasant to the ears. But the word of the cross is offensive to the natural man, it humbles and humiliates a man, and, outside of divine intervention, it actually repels people.

In short, the word of the cross is none other than the simple proclamation of salvation by Christ’s substitutional death in the place of sinners. Paul summarizes such a message later in this book, in chapter 15 verse 3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Christ died for our sins, was buried and raised from the dead, in accordance with the scriptures.

Or we could look at the message of the cross in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Christ, the son of God, died as our substitute, he bore our sins, he bore the punishment that we deserved, and he died, and was buried, and raised again on the third day, securing our own life in him.

That’s the word of the cross. But, when that word is proclaimed faithfully, what happens? What is the effect of the word of the cross?

Paul makes clear in our verse that the word of the cross is seen as folly. It is utter foolishness to the natural man. They can’t believe it. They won’t believe it.

Think back, for example to Acts 17 where Paul is speaking before the Greek philosophers at Mars Hill. He’s before the so-called “wisest” men of the age, the intellectual elite. And when he proclaims the simple message that Christ came in the place of sinners and died and was resurrected three days later, what happens? Verse 32 says that many of his hearers mocked him. They sneered at him. It was utter foolishness to them.

The word of the cross is unbelievable to sinful men. And thus the effect of the preaching of the word of the cross is that the entire world is divided into two groups, which Paul describes here as the perishing and those being saved.


Those who think the word of the cross is foolishness, is folly, are described as perishing, they are dying. They are not merely on the path of death, but are in the process of it. It is an eschatological categorization that he’s using. They aren’t dead yet, but the end is coming, and if nothing changes, their fate is sealed.

And correspondingly, Paul speaks of believers as those being saved. Here we have, yet again, Paul using what has been called an inaugurated eschatology, that is, there is an already element of Paul’s thought, and a Not yet element. Something has begun in the work of Christ, but it is not yet finished. It is certain, but not completed.

Paul will speak in throughout his letters in all three tenses. We have been saved with Christ’s resurrection, we are being saved by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we will be finally saved on the last day. I’ve mentioned such things in previous sermons, so I won’t belabor the point here.

To answer our question, what is the effect of the cross, it is that it divides the entire world into two distinct categories: the perishing and those being saved.

But our next question is this, “Why is the word of the cross folly to the perishing?” Why does the natural man reject it as utter foolishness, as stupidity, and unbelievable, and thus sneer at it and mock it?

We’ll I’d say that there are at least three clear reasons that the natural man thinks the word of the cross is folly.

First, the word of the cross confounds flawed human logic. The word of the cross confounds the flawed human logic of the perishing, and thus they conclude that the message of the cross is utter foolishness. It doesn’t make sense.

The Corinthians were part of the Roman empire at the time, and were under the influence of Roman ideals which prioritized power, glory, honor, and success, much like American society today, which prioritizes power, glory, honor, and success. And today, just like in Roman Corinth, the message of the cross offends these culturally-prized ideals. Our culture prizes beautiful, powerful, sophisticated, successful people. People that overcome and rise to the top. People that impress. People that win friends and influence people.

But the message of the cross, the simple proclamation of the word of Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners doesn’t garner you any of that. In fact, if you faithfully preach the word of the cross, you’ll end up with the opposite of the cultural ideal. You’ll offend. You’ll divide. You’ll separate. You’ll send people away.

But not only does the message of the cross contradict human ideals of success, it also offended the Roman listeners in a powerful way. The Romans believed that their gods had varying levels of power. They had a kind of hierarchy of power; a ranking system of power with God’s at the top, like Jupiter (or Zeus, in Greek), and other lesser God’s following behind him.

But the message of the cross turned everything upside down. The cross says that true Power is not domination, but willing submission for the sake of others. True power is not having an army of servants, but instead stooping down and serving. True power is not having millions of adoring fans, but instead faithfulness to the Father, even at the great cost of being deserted and alone. True power is being willing to die, rather than clamoring for life at any cost.

But the cross doesn’t just contradict Roman views of deity and power, it also offends their sensibilities. To speak of a cross, is to speak of something vulgar, something heinous, something dark and disturbing.

In fact, Cicero even wrote concerning the crucifixion of a Roman citizen that, “The very word cross should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his [very] thoughts, [from] his eyes and his ears” (Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo 5.16, cited in Garland, 1 Corinthians, (Baker 2003), 61.). The very image or word of a cross is offensive and associated with all sorts of evil and dark themes. DA Carson goes so far as to say that the image of the cross in Roman times would carry the same imagery today as the image of a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, or the mass graves at Auschwitz (The Cross and Christian Ministry (Baker Special Edition, 2012), 12). The very symbol of the cross was repulsive.

Thus, for a natural Roman, to hear a message of a Divine son dying on a cross, is to hear a message of complete foolishness. God’s cant die, especially not the death of a gruesome traitor of the empire. That’s inconceivable. And not only is it hard to believe, it’s actually offensive for you to even suggest such a thing.

Thus, the word of the cross defies flawed human logic. That God would come as a poor man, instead of prince. That he would come as the child of a commoner, a lowly carpenter, a menial laborer, instead of coming as the son of a king? And especially laughable to the Romans, was that God would choose to come as a lowly Jew, instead of a Roman or a Greek. Utter nonsense. Furthermore, to think that God would come and ride on a donkey, rather than as a military commander leading a mighty host from the back of a white stallion. Foolishness.

And that his deliverance would bring very little change to anyone, humanly speaking, was foolishness. Deliverance should mean that an occupying nation was toppled, that a ruler was defeated and deposed, and that a nation was liberated. But, in their estimation, this Jesus didn’t do any of that.

In fact, his deliverance didn’t look like much at all. His people didn’t change political rulers, they stayed where they were. They didn’t change jobs. They didn’t change locations. They didn’t change their social status. They stayed in the same household, the same marriages, the same areas. There was, humanly speaking, no deliverance at all. The cross offends the flawed human logic of the perishing.

Second, not only does the word of the cross escape human logic, it also assaults the proud notions of the perishing. It assaults the pride of the perishing.

The message of the cross is folly and offensive because it assumes we’re all sinners, sinners at odds with a Holy God. The message of the gospel assumes that mankind is sinful and in need of saving, and people hate to hear that. They think that they make occasionally mistakes, but not that they are sinful. That’s not them. That’s foolishness. Sinful is so mean sounding. Sinful is offensive. We can’t talk about such mean things. What’s that going to do to little Billy’s self esteem? You’re going to make him feel bad. Don’t talk about sin and blood and atonement and death. That’s nonsense.

But not only does it offend the pride of the perishing, it also reminds the perishing that they are actually mortal. They will actually die one day. And people don’t like to be reminded of that, at least, not a natural man, not a man that is perishing. People live with the foolish illusion that they’re not going to die. They act and plan and live as if they will live forever, and then the whole culture seems shocked when someone actually dies. Take note of Hollywood the next time somebody dies. Nobody can believe it. It’s shocking. Biblically speaking, the shocking thing isn’t when somebody dies too young, the shocking thing is that God let a sinner live that long at all. That’s shocking.

Anyway, the message offends the perishing because it assumes they are sinful and that they are mortal. But it’s also folly to them because it says that man can’t do anything to save himself. Not only does man need saving, which is foolish, but man can’t do anything about it. He’s utterly hopeless to do anything of any spiritually redemptive value. He’s dead in his trespasses and sins. He’s got no hope of reaching up to God. He’s lame and blind in the spiritual realm. And that’s offensive.

How dare you insinuate that I can’t do something. I’ve made my way in life. I’ve worked my way from the bottom to the top. You can’t tell me what I cannot do. And so they think the message of the cross is folly because we can’t save ourselves.

But it doesn’t stop there. The word of the cross offends their pride by calling people sinners, by reminding them of their mortality, by proclaiming man’s total inability to do anything about it, and it is offensive to a proud man by proclaiming this is a message for anyone and everyone. The message of a cross is for anyone and everyone, which offends the proud in this age.

Fallen sinners like to think that they are special. That they have really done something to earn themselves special status. And we don’t like it when “those other people” are put on the same level as us. No. We like privileged status. We like special treatment. We can’t go around preaching a message that takes the weak, the poor, the uneducated, the lower classes and puts them on the same level as us. No. We like special treatment for the smart, the intellectual. We like special treatment and orderly social class structures, and we like privileges earned by those with more education and special knowledge, or those that work hard for themselves.

But the gospel doesn’t do that. It puts every man as equal at the foot of the cross. And it gives every man access to the same salvation in Christ. No special treatment. No salvation by grace for some, and salvation by works for others. No. From start to finish, the message of the cross is a message of salvation by the grace of God alone, by faith alone, to any person that would come to him and belief. That the simple, glorious message of the cross that is offensive to the proud sensibilities of the perishing.

Third, the message of the cross not only offends the perishing because it offends the logic of the perishing, it offends the pride of the perishing, and number 3, it elevates God’s glory in every way. The message of the cross elevates God’s glory in every way.

God is glorified in the message of the cross because in God’s infinite wisdom he has so crafted a method of redemption that is utterly inconceivable according to human logic. Consider some of the ways God is glorified in the substitutionary death of his son for sinners:

  • In a world that God himself created, his finite and relatively insignificant subjects rebelled and blasphemed him. And yet God chose mercy over instant judgment.
  • With a people that didn’t choose to acknowledge God as such, God instead chose to take the initiative to save them.
  • God himself, the fountain of all power and might, chose to become a weak and vulnerable human baby.
  • God, the possessor of all things, gave it up, to become a poor child laying in a feeding trough.
  • God, giver of all blessings, lived without riches and indeed had no place to lay his head.
  • And the God of all life, willingly submitted to death at the hands of the wicked in order that wicked people might taste of eternal life.
  • God is the master architect of this plan of redemption.
  • God is the effective agent from beginning to end.
  • God took the initiative.
  • God made a path of salvation even possible.
  • God chose to redeem a bride from out of her misery and bondage.
  • God chose to forgive that bride through the infinite cost of his own life in her place.
  • God in Christ lived the perfect life of all righteousness in order that his bride might be made spotless again.
  • And God will return again in judgement over the rest of mankind, judging those that are perishing, according to all righteousness and justice.

Every bit of this plan of redemption is offensive to the perishing because it reminds them that God is glorious and they are not. God is sovereign and they are not. God’s justice will be satisfied, and they will spend an eternity under God’s wrath and judgment, and they hate it, and they hate him for it.

Friends, if you are sitting here and you think what I am saying is foolishness, that it is an old myth and a wives tale, that it is superstition and mysticism, then I plead with you to consider the simple message of the cross. If you don’t turn to Christ, you will be under judgment for your sin. You have no other sacrifice. You have no other means of salvation. You have no other option, but to come to him by faith and in repentance of your sins.

Hear instead of the great love of Jesus, hear how he is different than any other man. Hear how he is different than any other god of any other religion. He gives up everything for the sake of his people. He takes on a mountain of judgment so that his people might escape the judgment that they deserve. What other god would do that? What other religion is entirely of grace? What other god requires nothing of you but your heart? No other religion does. Don’t remain in your state, as one who is perishing, and remain outside of salvation. Don’t remain in your folly.

But, for us believers, lest we think that we’re done with folly after we come to faith, there are still remaining ways that we as believers can still treat the cross as folly.

Corporately, as a church, we can be like the Corinthians. We can fall prey to changing the content or the delivery of the message of the cross, and as such rob the cross of its power. That’s the paradoxical nature of the message: if we try to make it better, we lose it. If we try to tweak it, we destroy it.

Churches do this all the time. The message of the cross is sharp and cutting, so let’s round of the edges a little bit. Pastor, do you have to talk about blood? It’s a little gruesome. Do you have to talk about sin? It’s a little offensive. People might not come back. Do you have to talk about death? It’s a little dark and macabre. So we begin to skip over the offensive and dark parts of scripture. We talk just about God’s love and mercy and grace, and not about his justice, and wrath, and holiness. And when we’ve done that, we’ve robbed the cross of its power.

That’s why you see churches have to use all sorts of other means to get people to stay. Raffles, and laser shows, and fireworks, and movie clips, and everything else it substituted in order to keep people’s attention. Rather than the simple, offensive, foolishness of preaching the word of Christ dying in the place of sinners like me and you.

Another way that we as believers can treat the cross as folly is to split up and divide, like the Corinthians were doing. They were breaking into factions who followed Paul, or Peter, or Apollos, and it was rupturing the church. But the message of the cross should be the cure to factions. That’s one of the things that Paul is addressing head on. IN Christ we are united to HIM by faith, and when we’re united to a single, unified head, then the body also should be single and unfired.

But we don’t think that’s enough. We begin to divide according to our preferences and our desires. We have our little groups of people who think and act like me, the people with the same preferences, or in the same life stage, or with the same interests, or who vote like me, or look like me, or talk like me.

In short, I want to be around the people that are easy to love. I don’t want to be around people that are hard to love. I don’t want to spend time with the sick, with the lonely, with the hurting, with the annoying, with the uneducated, with those that vote differently than me, with those that look different than me, with those that might wreck my image and my reputation.

When we split into cliques and we divide into factions, we’re actually proclaiming that the cross is folly. The cross of Christ isn’t enough to actually overcome our natural differences. Christ isn’t enough to unify his bride. Christ’s humiliation wasn’t enough for us to serve and love like he did. In our divisions, we actually act like those who are perishing, and we proclaim with our actions that the cross is folly.

Or how about another way: we can treat the cross as folly in the realm of our evangelism. We can be afraid to be seen as fools in the eyes of the world, and let our fear of man keep us from speaking the message of the cross to a dying world. Rather than remembering that in the cross God declares you to be HIS beloved, and HE gives you his divine seal of affirmation in the resurrection, we instead care more for how sinners think about us, and thus treat the message of the cross as folly.

Or consider one more, slightly different application. We can treat the cross as folly in our parenting, when we try to do with the law what only the message of the cross can do. We surround our kids with law, we demand from them righteousness and obedience, we remind them over and over of their obligations and their requirements and their consequences and their failure to measure up to the standard of God’s law, and then we wonder why they haven’t come to love God? The message of the cross should undermine any harsh legalism or crushing lack of mercy, because the message of the cross is a message of God’s grace.

God took the initiative to save you. God worked in your heart. It wasn’t the law that made you a believer; it was the holy spirit working in your heart. Don’t use the law to try and bring about what only the message of the cross can do. Don’t try to use the standard of righteousness as a means of changing a heart. Only the gospel can change a heart.

If the law were enough to make someone a believer, then the message of the cross really is folly because God didn’t have to come to save sinners, they could have done it on their own. We treat the word of the cross as folly when we seek to use the law to do what only the gospel can do.

As a final point tonight, let me end with some good news. Paul says,

The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to US who are being saved it is the power of God.

To us who are being saved it is the power of God. Paul ends this sentence with great encouragement. He says to US who are being saved. Paul includes himself, along with the Corinthians, in the batch of sinners being saved by the foolish message of the cross. The Corinthian church with all of its problems, with all of its’ factions and its pride and its sexual sin and its remaining corruption, were still with Paul on the path of salvation because of the foolish message of the cross.

We can sometimes be so introspective, so caught up in our sin, so aware of our failings, that we can begin to doubt the very massage that saved us. And the simple message of the cross is that Christ died in our place, and his death is sufficient. Your failings, your sin, your weakness, your relapses, your backsliding, aren’t more powerful than Christ’s atonement. His work is sufficient. God doesn’t look at your paltry efforts and then decide to reject you now. He’s loved you in the gospel with a sufficient and perfect love. And that’s why the cross is the power of God for all who believe.

Consider all the ways that the foolish message of the cross is God’s power for those being saved:

  • It is by simply understanding and believing the message of the cross that God converts sinners.
  • He brings them back to himself by means of his word of the cross.
  • His Holy Spirit grants them a new heart of faith and repentance when they hear his word of the cross.
  • And he uses the same word of the cross as the power to preserve us in this life.
    • When we’re depressed, he uses the word of the cross to comfort.
    • When we’re prideful, he use the word of the cross to humble us.
    • When we’re discouraged, he uses the word of the cross to encourage.
    • When we’re despairing, he uses the word of the cross to bring joy.
    • When we’re feeling weak, he uses to word of the cross to remind us of HIS power.
    • When we’re unsettled, he uses to word of the cross to bring peace.
  • And when we’re standing before him on the final day of judgment, it will be the word of the cross that finally saves us. Not our works. Not our strength. Not our cleverness. Not our wisdom. But the simple foolishness of God in Christ dying in our place for our sins, and for our eternal life.

May we be ever quick to be fools in the eyes of the world, and join Paul in believing in the simple, foolish message of the gospel.


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