Divisions plagued the first-century Corinthian church as various factions appealed to their associations with noted figures in order to advance themselves in the church. The only solution for the Corinthians, Paul explains, was the preaching of the gospel of the cross of Christ. However important baptism may be, however meaningful one’s personal associations, none of these factors is of first importance (1 Cor. 1:10–17). Moreover, the saving power of the cross does not depend on eloquent rhetoric (v. 17). Indeed, it cannot, as many commentators note. When emphasis is placed on impressing people with one’s speaking talent, the cross cannot cut across all human divisions. The Christian message will remain limited to the educated, which in first-century Corinth was the upper class. Moreover, the problem with focusing on cleverness in speech is that such speech can win the mind, will, and emotions without converting the soul, as one commentator notes. One may also focus on communication style in such a way as to attract vast audiences. But to focus on this at the expense of the gospel is to labor in one’s own power and not the power of Christ crucified.
Our only hope is the “word of the cross,” which is the proclamation of the events of the cross and their meaning. It is the doctrine of the cross, the truth of Christ’s substitutionary atonement that turns away the wrath of God and rescues us from sin, Satan, and death (Rom. 3:21–26; Col. 2:13–15). As Charles Hodge comments on today’s passage, “the doctrine of the cross alone is effectual to salvation.”
In 1 Corinthians 1:18, the Apostle Paul stresses the power of the cross by stating that the “word of the cross” is folly to those who are perishing but the “power of God” for those who are being saved. This statement shows that one’s response to the cross is determined by one’s spiritual state. Only those who are “being saved” will believe the gospel message. Here we have evidence that regeneration precedes faith, that one must be born again by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit and granted a new heart receptive to the things of God before he will trust Christ. At the same time, regeneration comes mysteriously through the preaching of the Word. We are “brought . . . forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). As the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, the Spirit works through the word of the cross to move us to believe that word. This word of the cross also sustains us in salvation, enabling our perseverance unto glory.
The word of the cross is indispensable for salvation and growth in grace. We neglect it at our peril. What this means is that we never go beyond our need for the cross. We can go deeper in our understanding of what the cross accomplished, but we never go beyond the word of the cross. Thus, the atonement must remain central in our study and in the preaching of our churches.