Reflections on 1 Corinthians 2:1–5

Article
03.31.2020

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1–5

The power of Paul’s words lies in the divine logic of the gospel, not merely in the word-order of his sentences. What, then, is the logic of 1 Corinthians 2:1–5?  

It’s that the message of the gospel is God-centered (“I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” v.1) and Christ-dominated (“nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v.2). 

This gospel requires its heralds to be experientially united to Christ in the outworking of his death  (“weakness,” “fear,” “trembling” v.3). For, as Paul elsewhere explains more fully, new life works in others when “death is at work in us” (2 Cor. 4: 10–12; cf. Phil. 3:10–12; Col.1:24). 

This in turn implies that our style of preaching must also be marked by crucifixion to the ways of the world, rejecting modes of communicating the message that do not harmonise with its cruciform content (“not . . . with eloquence or human wisdom . . . not with wise and persuasive words” vv.1, 4). 

It also leads to this result: the faith of those who respond is not produced by the preacher’s natural gifts (if so, it may easily dissipate in his absence or through his failure). It clearly depends on the Spirit’s power. 

Paul’s words in part reflect his distinctive calling and circumstances. Nevertheless, their implications are profoundly challenging for preachers today. Here are four:

  1. Dying in the pulpit is a sine qua non of new life in the pew. Of course, some aspects of preaching get “easier.” But not the “dying.” That will continue until you are dead. I sometimes wish that everyone in the congregation could preach just once, in order to experience “pulpit dying.” It would surely lead to more fervent prayer for the ministry and ministers of the Word! 
  2. Paul does not eschew an eloquence created by Christ and the gospel. After all, 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 is itself a powerfully eloquent paragraph. But his Christ-eloquence arises from his monumental grasp of the gospel and its implications. It is not the eloquence of someone who communicates the impression he has mastered the text and loves the position of preacher.  No, it springs from being mastered by the text and the fire of pastoral love it ignites for those to whom he ministers.  
  3. There cannot simultaneously be a demonstration of the Spirit’s power and of my powers—whether of intellect, or of speech, or of personality. To this extent James Denney’s oft-cited words remain true: “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”
  4. Paul’s words provide three significant litmus tests for my preaching:
  1. To what extent does my congregation sense that my preaching is dominantly “about God” (v.1)?
  2. To what extent does my congregation feel “he is determined to know nothing while with us except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v.2)?
  3. To what extent does my congregation experience “the Spirit’s power” (v.4) in my preaching so that their faith rests “on God’s power” (v.5)?

Challenging indeed!

By:
Sinclair Ferguson

Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor's Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.