What Produces Faith? (Sermon)
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
At the heart of Christianity lies the doctrine of justification by faith. Man is not saved by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ. “The just shall live by faith.” “For by grace are you saved through faith….” The Reformers called it “sola fide” or faith alone. I want us to consider this morning how someone gets faith. What is it that produces faith in someone’s heart? If faith is this important, where does it come from?
We go through a similar process all of the time. When we want a certain outcome, we figure out how it’s produced. If faith is important—and it is—we need to understand how it’s produced. I’m coaching one of my son’s basketball teams, right now. I want us to score points, so I’ve been thinking through what we can do on the offensive side of the court to produce points. My wife wanted a little garden in our backyard, so we had to figure out what we needed to do to produce vegetables (which I refuse to eat).
As Christians, we want our kids, family members, co-workers, classmates and friends to put their faith in Jesus Christ. So, it’s imperative for us to understand what must happen for faith to be produced.
In these first 5 verses of 1 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul shows us the origin of faith. He reveals what God uses to produce faith in the heart of a sinner. Faith is produced only through the combination of the right message, method and motive. Only the message of a crucified Savior presented in the power of the Spirit produces faith in God.
(1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV) 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.
In these verses, Paul’s review of his ministry with the Corinthians provides us a model for ministry as a church. If we want to see faith produced in the hearts of those we love, we must have the right message, the right method and the right motive. Let’s break this basic truth down piece by piece.
1. The Right Message
(1Cor 2:1-2 ESV) 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.
James Denney, a Scottish preacher from the late 19th century, once said, "No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save."[i] The message of Christianity is not a message that exalts man. It’s not a message that highlights the ability or intellect of man. In the previous chapter, Paul informed the Corinthians that God intentionally designed a plan that would frustrate the wisdom of man (1:18).
The single, non-negotiable message of Christianity is of a crucified Savior…of an executed deliverer. Living in the Bible belt, it’s easy for us to forget how ridiculous that message can sound. We no longer understand the stigma of crucifixion.
What would you think of a church that had a picture of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima painted on the side of its building? What about a painting of the massed graves from the Holocaust in its lobby?[ii]
What if a co-worker showed up in your office tomorrow with a little electric chair symbol hanging from her gold chain? Or if the guy neck to you in church had a bookmark shaped like the needle they use to kill inmates on death row?
The message of Christianity is that our rescuer came and died in the electric chair. Our savior arrived and received a lethal injection. Our king was on death row. Do you see how foolish that sounds? That’s not a plan any man would devise. It sounds ridiculous. That’s God’s point. God devised a plan to bring salvation to man in a way that sounds foolish to man. That way, no man could take credit for devising it. In fact, we can’t even take credit for believing it.
Now here’s where the difficulty comes. What happens when you share a message that’s regarded as foolishness? What do the opinion polls say? What will your neighbors think? How’s your job approval? Not good. Because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who don’t believe (1:18), we will never achieve human approval with the message of the Gospel. There will always be a temptation to alter the message of Christianity to make it more palatable.
In verse 1, Paul’s example reveals how important it is to resist the temptation to sanitize our message. He could have dressed the message up with lofty speech to make it more acceptable to human wisdom. There will always be a temptation to adorn the Gospel with fancy trappings, doing our best to minimize the actual message so that it will appear fashionable.
The Indianapolis Star reported on the increasing market for religious jewelry. In their story, they wrote: "Lynette Sharlo doesn't know that much about her religion. The 14-year-old goes to church once in a while. But lately, her necklace with a cross has become very important to her. 'I saw it and I thought, I've got to get this for fashion,' she said. "Fourteen-year-old Daniele Shook recently started wearing the cross she received for First Communion in second grade. But she isn't thinking of the sacrament when she wears it. 'It's just fashion, I guess,' Danielle said."[iii]
We need to guard against any attempt to make the message of the cross more fashionable. The desire to make the message more fashionable exposes an inherent contradiction. If the message is the testimony of a glorious, magnificent, righteous, holy, transcendent God, how could I (a wicked sinner) make it any better? Yet, that’s the temptation. A desire for acceptance will entice us to augment the message to make it more popular.
We can look back to the early 20th century in America and see this play out. Many professing Christians started to alter the message of the cross in order to gain acceptance and influence in academic circles. They embraced a position now called theological liberalism which denied the offensive parts of the Gospel. One man described liberalism this way: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the [ministry] of a Christ without a Cross.”[iv] They chose to replace the message of a crucified Savior with lofty speech and human wisdom.
In our own time we see this happening. Just a few weeks ago, The New Yorker Magazine profiled Rob Bell, author of the book Love Wins. In the article, the writer noted Bell’s goal of making Christianity more inviting by removing offensive parts of the message. Here’s Bell’s introduction to his book: "A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."
He has moved away from the offense of the cross in order to make Christianity more inviting.
To speak of the cross speaks of our guilt.
The cross doesn’t say we’re all okay. It says that we are all in serious trouble.
The cross says that we stand guilty before a holy God.
The cross says that this God will punish sin, and that punishment will be eternal, conscious torment.
We can’t speak of the cross without acknowledging the just wrath of God.
We can’t speak of the cross without making a demand on the listener to repent and submit.
We can’t speak of the cross without pointing a bony finger in the face of everyone listening and say to them, as the prophet Nathan said to David, “You are the man. Your sin put him there. You are guilty.”
Of course, that’s not all the cross says. The cross shouts about the love and grace of God. The cross wasn’t empty. Someone was on it, and that someone was not you. The cross explodes with the mercy of God, and His deep desire to forgive sinners.
The message of the cross will never be popular because it refuses to affirm our rebellion. The message of the cross will never be popular because it exalts God and not man.
Have you ever been annoyed listening to the news when it seems as if the reporter is presenting his opinion instead of the facts? As Christians, we are reporters of the truth. We have no right to embellish the truth to fit our ideas. We have no right to adjust the message to fit our theory or belief. As reporters, we should do the hard work of learning the facts—diligent to know and understand the truth. Then we need to share the message clearly and accurately.
I’ve noticed that a lot of church literature promises “engaging and relevant” messages. You see it on websites, brochures, postcards. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with being engaging and relevant. Nothing is more engaging and relevant than the message of the cross. But often I wonder if those are sanitized synonyms for “lofty speech and wisdom.” Brothers and sisters, do you really believe that the message you need each week is about a crucified Savior? Or would you rather have 7 steps to becoming the better ______? Will you encourage the elders of Redeemer to preach the message of the cross? Will you pray for us to resist the latest popular technique and hold firmly to our calling, to preach the message of Jesus Christ alone?
Paul’s commitment was that his message (Christ crucified) would be in line with his purpose (calling disciples to follow Christ). How could he call others to find everything they need in Christ if he was busy making much of himself? He couldn’t. Our message must never waver. We must proclaim the unadulterated, unpopular, unflattering message of a crucified Savior.
It is our commitment to the right message that has fueled our study this year. We want this body of believers to know, to understand and to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The message of Jesus Christ is the message that produces faith.
2. The Right Method
(1Cor 2:3-4 ESV) “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”
When the apostle Paul was in Corinth, something dramatic happened in the lives of many of the Corinthians. There was a profound, undeniable change. Paul alluded to it in chapter 1:
(1Cor 1:4-5 ESV) “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge”
They were immoral pagans, living happily in a city that celebrated every form of sin, but their lives had been transformed. Instead of standing before God guilty, they would stand before God guiltless (1:8). They had previously given their bodies over to every sinful practice as they worshipped idols in a temple, now their bodies were the temple of the Holy Spirit. They had been radically changed. How did this change happen? What was the cause of the transformation?
The answer is the Holy Spirit. The method that produces faith is deliberate reliance on the Holy Spirit. The radical change in their lives was brought about by the Holy Spirit’s transforming power. The power of the Holy Spirit is the only way real transformation takes place. Only the Spirit can turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. Only the spirit can replace an old nature with a new one.
The apostle Paul is clear that their lives were changed by the Holy Spirit, and in doing so debunks the belief that he was the cause. This church was plagued by division and disunity, and it centered on different preachers. Groups were forming in allegiance to different men (1:10-17).
Paul’s testimony is designed to highlight the foolishness of attributing spiritual change to the power of men. It couldn’t have been his power or strength that transformed them. “Look,” he said, “I came to you in weakness, fear and much trembling.” Why highlight his weakness? What’s his point? His point is that real, radical transformation can never be attributed to a human source. No preacher holds the power to change a person’s heart.
Paul’s testimony was that his message was not augmented with human wisdom, and it was not empowered by human strength. He was foolish, and he was weak, and yet their lives were transformed. The only explanation is the power of the Holy Spirit. “In fact,” he says, “when a weak preacher proclaims a foolish message and lives are changed, it provides irrefutable evidence of the Spirit’s power.”
The role of the preacher, and of every Christian, is to make little of himself and much of God. Paul’s weakness couldn’t limit the power of God. In fact, in His weakness, the power of God was manifest.
Look again at his depiction of himself in verse 3. He describes himself as a quivering, cowardly wimp. He applies that description to his preaching in verse 4. It wasn’t the strength of his arguments or the power of his intellect which saved the Corinthians. Their faith wasn’t produced by a cleverly-worded argument or a perfectly-reasoned oration. Paul’s intention was to get out of the way so that people could see Jesus. That’s the opposite of so many preachers today.
“Winston Churchill, considered one of the most powerful orators in history, considered rhetoric to be his most valuable weapon. But biographer Norman Rose noted that he had a tendency to brandish it recklessly, employing artificial and extravagant language which was carefully designed to impress and to persuade. During his rise to fame as a politician, the twenty-three-year-old Churchill wrote:
It is quite true. I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce & the reputation they give me. This sounds [very] terrible . . . Perhaps to put it a little strongly, I should say that I [very] often yield to the temptation of adapting my facts to my phrases.”[v]
We empty the Gospel of its power whenever the message is given a backseat to the method—when we rely upon human wisdom or human strength. Paul condemns our dangerous desire to trust human power to do what only God can. The reason we trust our own power instead of relying upon the Holy Spirit is because we want to be in control.
If we rely upon the Spirit, we can’t control people’s response
Relying on the Spirit’s power means ceding control to someone else. If we’re not in control than we can’t guarantee success. No preacher wants to be a failure. No church wants to be unsuccessful. So, instead of relying upon the Spirit’s power to apply the simple message, we proclaim the message with the most powerful and persuasive words we can find, stooping to manipulation if necessary, to achieve the illusion of success.
The manipulation can stretch from bribing kids with candy if they will pray a prayer all the way to threatening purgatory if a man doesn’t give enough money to the church.
Preachers can manipulate with heart-tugging stories designed solely to appeal to a person’s emotion, with half-truths and heavy-handed arguments to bolster their point, and with fearful screaming to silence their critics.
C. S. Lovett wrote a book in 1959 called Soul-Winning Made Easy. In this book, he has a section called, “How to Press for the Decision.” Here’s what he wrote: "Lay your hand firmly on the subject’s shoulder (or arm) and with a semi-commanding tone of voice, say to him: “Bow your head with me.” NOTE: Do not look at him when you say this, but bow your head first. Out of the corner of your eye you will see him hesitate at first. Then, as his resistance crumbles, his head will come down. Your hand on his shoulder will feel the relaxation and you will know when his heart yields. Bowing your head first, causes terrific psychological pressure."
Brothers and sisters, we don’t need techniques to apply “terrific psychological pressure.” We have something far more powerful. We have a God who transforms lives. We can trust Him with both the message and the method.
If we rely upon the Spirit, we can’t control people’s perception
Human power, plausible words and lofty speech will bring recognition and adoration. We like to be liked. There is a certain message and a certain kind of delivery which will guarantee that a person is liked. That’s tempting, isn’t it?
We want a lot of people to click the little “thumbs up” icon on Facebook. We want followers on Twitter. We want people to think good thoughts about us.
If our concern is God’s fame, we will share the message of the cross in the power of the Spirit because it reveals the wisdom and strength of God. If our concern is for our own fame, we’ll share the wisdom of man in the strength of man because it makes man—particularly the man or woman sharing—look good.
When concern for our reputation trumps concern for God’s, we’re in danger as a church of turning from worship to performance. The Sunday service becomes a stage for people to perform and earn the adoration of others. We start to desire polish over substance, enjoyment over transcendence, and applause over transformation.
The question every one who shares the Word of God must ask is this: Will the message I share affect my reputation or God’s reputation? Is this designed to garner the attention of man or to reflect the majesty of God? True, Gospel proclamation must aim to please God, not man. The apostle Paul said it this way in Galatians.
(Gal 1:10 ESV) “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
This danger isn’t merely for us when we share the Gospel; it’s also for us when we listen. Acclaim for Paul would mean a positive reflection on the church Paul started. You could desire greater acclaim for your pastors because it reflects well on you.
Members of Redeemer Community Church, here’s a question you need to consider: What do you value in your leaders? What matters? If public sentiment were to turn against them, how would you respond? Do you prize “the message of the cross preached in the power of the Spirit”? Or would you be okay with lofty speech preached in the power of man? As long as it was funny and well-received? As long as you could bring your neighbor and they’d like it? As long as it reflected well on you and your family?
3. The Right Motive
(1Cor 2:3-5 ESV) “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, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Imagine I had two identical chairs up here on stage with me—one on this side here and one on this side over here. Now imagine I had two men come up on stage—both are about the same height and the same weight. I told them that I wanted to illustrate faith, and so I asked them if they had faith that the chair would hold them. They both said, “Yes.” So, I told them to sit down. They both sit down. One chair is sturdy, and the other one crashes and breaks, and the man falls to the ground. Now suppose I turned to the man lying red-faced on the ground, and started to chew him out for a lack of faith. After publicly berating him, I turn to you and say, “The reason this man’s chair didn’t hold him was because he lacked faith. If he had only had enough faith, his chair would’ve been fine.”
What would you think? Would you buy into my line of thinking? No, (I hope not), the problem wasn’t the intensity of the man’s faith. The problem was the object of his faith. It wasn’t a lack of faith that doomed him. It was faith in the wrong thing that sent him crashing to the ground.
We often hear the same foolish statement made about religion. “It doesn’t matter what a person believes as long as they sincerely believe it.” The object of faith is less important than the intensity of faith.
I recently had a conversation with a professing Christian who told me in an email that he would give show his children all of the world’s religions and let them make their choice. He wouldn’t push them toward one in particular, instead he’d show them all of the options, and then support whatever they decided. He believed they would be fine, as long as they believed—what they believed didn’t matter, only that they believed something.
Paul contradicts that thinking in verse 5: His message and ministry mattered because having the correct object of faith matters. We can share a message in such a way that people place their faith in human wisdom instead of the cross of Jesus Christ. Those that do are perishing (1:18). Any faith that isn’t rooted in the power of God, displayed in the cross of Jesus Christ is powerless to bring salvation. There is real danger in misplaced faith. This is why Paul came in fear and trembling. He knew what was at stake. Life and death hung in the balance.
Friend, each one of us is on a path that ends with perishing. It is only faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ in our place that delivers us from death and brings us salvation. Jesus Christ fulfills the wise plan of God. Embracing God’s wisdom means embracing Jesus Christ. When you do, He becomes your righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Place your faith in Him alone.
Naturally, we all build our lives on man’s wisdom. We navigate through each day attempting to structure our lives in the way we think is best. We consider two options, weigh the decision and its ramifications, and then choose the one we think is wisest. However, that will never lead us to God. Our decisions will never cause us to stumble upon God’s saving plan and say, “Yep! That’s the one. That’s the path I should take.” We will see it and think, “How foolish! I’ve got a better way. I’ve got a better plan.”
Brothers and sisters, that’s the reality of everyone we encounter every day of our lives. They are building their lives on their own wisdom. The foundation of their existence is their own understanding. If we look at them, see their need and then attempt to tell them to stop building their lives on human wisdom, and we do this with a message of human wisdom delivered in human strength, then all we’ve done is deepen their confidence in human wisdom. We have encouraged their faith to rest in the wisdom of man.
That means you can’t reason a person to salvation. You can’t will a person to salvation. You can’t charm a person to salvation. All you can do is share the unadorned message of a crucified Savior and ask the Spirit of God to work. But the beauty is that when He does work, it’s genuine. It’s real. It wasn’t achieved by your wisdom or strength, and it won’t remain because of your wisdom or strength.
Our goal is to help men and women confess their foolishness and weakness and trust in God’s power to rescue them. That’s the same message we need each day. Each day we need to be reminded of Jesus crucified on our behalf, so that we’ll reject the daily temptation to trust in our own strength and wisdom.
Maybe there’s a past sin that torments you. You’ve confessed it and forsaken it, but the guilt of it hangs over you like a cloud. You need to stop staring at that guilt, examining it from every angle, and instead remember your crucified Savior who died to set you free, who stands before the Father as your righteousness and is the guarantee of eternal forgiveness.
Maybe there’s a fear or anxiety that overwhelms you. Stop trying to reason your way to victory. That’s faith in your own wisdom. Rejoice in a crucified Christ who broke sin’s power and holds the future in His nail-scarred hands. Remember that if God gave His only Son for you will He not freely give you all things.
Maybe there’s a coldness that engulfs you. You wish you had the willpower to love God better, but you feel barren. You need to embrace your inability to warm your heart, and remember a Crucified King who promised new hearts to His people. You need to fall at that King’s feet and ask Him to do what you are unable to do for yourself. If He died to meet your need, does He not live to meet it as well?
This week, the Powerball lottery has been in the news. As of Thursday, it was a record jackpot of $550 million dollars. The odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 176 million. That means you are 30x more likely to die from a bee sting then to win the jackpot. Your odds are better to record back-to-back holes in one on a golf course than win that money.
As bad as the odds are for winning the lottery, they’re much better than the odds of a single life being transformed with a message other the message of Jesus Christ crucified. Brothers and sisters, we want our family and friends to live, and the only way to live is through faith. And the only way to have faith is through the right message—that of a crucified Savior—presented in the right method—by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.
[i] Quoted in John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, Kindle location 447.
[ii] D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), pp. 12-13.
[iii] Fashion Trend: Kids Are Looking to Jesus for Jewelry Inspiration, Indianapolis Star (Sunday March 31, 2002)
[iv] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937), New York: Harper and Row, 1959, p. 193.
[v] Jim Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 32.