Christians today are constantly bombarded with the latest ministry strategies, cultural and generational studies, and theological controversies. It is important to pay attention to these proposals, but without a strong theological compass these varying voices can easily lead to uncertainty, frustration, and exhaustion.
With the approach of Good Friday and Easter it is helpful to consider how Paul summarized his ministry. In 1 Corinthians Paul emphasized “we preach Christ crucified” (1:23, NIV). Later, when giving instructions for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Paul states “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26). Yes, Jesus is risen from the dead, he reigns, and he is coming back. But it is also important to pause and reflect on the cross. Why exactly was it so important to Paul to proclaim Jesus’s death? And why should Christians ritually recount Jesus’s death week after week in our worship?
The answer is simple. God decided to reconcile us to himself through the cross. God decided to change us through the cross. God could have chosen any number of ways to redeem us. In his infinite wisdom, God chose the cross.
Paul told the Corinthian church: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 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 of human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:2-5).
Paul was highly educated, and he often indulged in rhetorical flourishes in his epistles. The foundation of his ministry, however, was Christ crucified. Paul’s desire was for the faith of the Corinthian Christians to rest on the Spirit’s power, not Paul’s abilities.
One popular interpretation of “the Spirit’s power” here is to suggest that Paul’s message was empowered by miracles, but surely this is not Paul’s point. It makes no sense for Paul to say, “I did not convince you with wise and persuasive words, but with miraculous fireworks!” Furthermore, the biblical accounts suggest miracles have limited value when it comes to lasting spiritual change. Rather, Paul simply notes that when we preach Christ crucified, God’s Spirit empowers the gospel message and uses it to transform lives.
Paul’s words are a great comfort. When we preach a sermon, teach a Bible class, or have a spiritual conversation with a friend or loved one, we can trust that the Spirit empowers the simple gospel message to change lives. We do not have to know all the answers. It is not up to us to persuade others of the truth of the gospel. God often works in spite of us and through our mistakes. We are simply called to proclaim Christ crucified.
Paul’s words are also a great challenge. Too often Christians think Paul’s strategy is inadequate and outdated. We think we know better than God; we think the gospel needs our help. So we supplement the gospel and exchange our birthright—the message of Christ crucified—for the latest best-seller. Just as we are tempted to save ourselves by works rather than grace, so we are tempted to minster by works rather than grace. To a world that is estranged from God and dying in sin, we offer self-help rather than God-help.
In the 1976 Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, Gardner Taylor warned, “The preacher can set out to prove that God is great or that the preacher is clever. However, you cannot do both in the same sermon.” What is true for the preacher is true for all Christians. Our words and our lives can show that either God is great or we are clever, but not both at the same time. We have to choose.
Human ability can have impressive results. Cleverness can fill a building, wisdom can increase a budget, and eloquence can incite powerful emotional experiences. But God wants far more that what human ability can achieve. God wants to demonstrate his love for a lost and dying world. God wants to reconcile all people to himself. And God wants to nurture deep and lasting spiritual change in our lives. God has decided to do all this and more through the preaching of the cross.
Mark Powell is professor of theology at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. His latest book is Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality.