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If the end of life is salvation, and the means of salvation is faith in the message of the cross, then it makes no sense to search out other means (1 Cor. 1:18-21). Only the message of the cross is intellectually satisfying, because it alone matches spiritual ends and means. And yet, people continue to disregard it and search for other means.
In 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Paul outlines two common ways of doing this:
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
Let’s call these the Way of Power and the Way of Wisdom.
Paul associates the Way of Power with his fellow Jews. Throughout history, God had delivered the Children of Israel from peril with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 4:32-34). So it is not surprising that they expected God to act that way again. “Christ crucified” was a “stumbling block” to them. In Greek, “stumbling block” is skandalon, from which we get the word scandal. A crucified Messiah was a scandal to Paul’s fellow Jews because God was so supposed to deliver them from crucifixion, not through it. A dead Messiah was a “weakness.”
Paul associates the Way of Wisdom with the Greeks. The Greeks produced the world’s first systematic philosophers, men like Thales, Heraclitus, Zeno, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Luke’s description of the Athenians describes Greek culture as a whole: “[they] spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). To philosophers, literally “lovers of wisdom,” “Christ crucified” was “foolishness,” a bad idea.
According to the Way of Power, humanity’s fundamental problem is weakness. The Jews looked to God to provide strength. We Americans buy the latest gadget or read the most recent how-to book. According to the Way of Wisdom, humanity’s fundamental problem is ignorance, or perhaps false belief. The Secret was a motivational movie turned into a bestselling book. Here’s a quote from the movie: “What you think and what you feel and what actually manifests is always a match—no exception.” We Americans lap that stuff up. So do many Christians, who should know better.
Humanity’s fundamental problem is not weakness or stupidity. It is sin. We are not powerless or ignorant, we are bad. Unfortunately, there’s no how-to technique for rooting sin out of our own lives. Thinking differently won’t attract a better heart. We cannot change ourselves. Only a Power outside ourselves, a Wisdom greater than our own, can change what is fundamentally wrong with us. “Christ crucified” is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Salvation begins when we admit we can’t do and don’t know, but in Christ God does and can.