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ON THE SALVATION OF MEN, BY MEANS OF THE GOSPEL MINISTRY.
1 CORINTHIANS I. 21.
It pleased God, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe.
THE apostle is here observing, how much
the despised institution of a preached gospel, for the instruction of mankind in matters of religion, had triumphed over all the boasted philosophy of the learned gentile world. He says, "Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God"-after, in the wise ordering of Providence, human reason, on a full trial, had been found unable to ascertain the first article of a saving divine faith-" it pleased God, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe."
Two questions arise respecting these words, to which particular attention will now be paid.
* Preached at the settlement of a minister; but now considerably altered, especially in the application.
What the apostle means by the foolishness of preaching and how, by means of this, God sees fit to save lost men.
Our first question is, What are we here to understand by the foolishness of preaching?
Not, certainly, any thing in this work which is truly foolish; however much it may be vulgarly admired. We read of those, even in the days of the apostles, who crept into houses, and led captive silly people; such as were ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. And undoubtedly there have been such preachers, and such hearers, in all ages. It is said, indeed, the weak things of this world, hath God chosen and called. But that the weakest things should be truly edified, or converted, or convicted, by real nonsense, can hardly be believed. The still small voice must be heard, or after all the earth-quake, the fire, and the wind, there will be no lasting good effect. Though scripture, not reason, ought to be the preacher's oracle; yet the scripture must be made to appear consistent with reason, or we shall never make men rational nor real christians.
The apostle, in this phrase, the foolishness of preaching, must be understood ironically; or as speaking after the manner of unbelievers. He says, ver. 18, "The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved, it is the power of God." Both the matter, and the manner, of the primitive preachers of christianity, were thought meanly of by those who opposed themselves; more especially by the learned Gentiles.
Their manner was simple and plain; destitute, very much, of the subtilties of metaphysics, and of the flowers of rhetoric, then held in admiration. See ver. 17, of the context: "For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of
words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect." By wisdom of words, however, is not to be understood, a skilful choice of proper expressions. Perspicuity of style ought always to be studied: nor should energy of language, on important subjects, be purposely neglected. "The preacher sought to find out acceptable words," words most pertinent and intelligible, no doubt; as well as words least liable to give unnecessary offence. And he tells us, "The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies." As far as is necessary for communicating one's ideas in the clearest and most forcible manner, a studious choice of the best words, is certainly of great importance.
But by that wisdom of words with which the apostle says he was not sent to preach we may understand, what he calls in the next chapter, "Enticing words of man's wisdom." Words of deceitful flattery, and of popular self-importance, may be very properly so called. Nothing is more enticing to many hearers, than a preacher's telling them of their goodness; or of his own eminent piety, and great benevolence. All pedantic affectation of learning-all bombastic pomposity of language-all labored prettiness of expression, and all studied ambiguity, to escape censure by concealing one's sentiments, may also come under the idea of that wisdom of words which ought to be avoided. Some of these artifices, while they engage attention to the speaker, will divert it from the things spoken. They are all of them real faults, in any orator; but most of all are they unpardonable, in a preacher of the gospel. All of them have a tendency to make the cross of Christ, or the doctrines of christianity, of none effect. They must all be renounced, among the hidden things of dishonesty, if a preacher, by manifestation of the truth, would commend himself to every man's conscience, in the sight of God.
The manner of the apostles, though one or two of them were eloquent and learned men, was so far from all affectation of learning or eloquence, that it appeared despicable, no doubt, not only to the vulgar, who are captivated with parade and show, more than with solid substance; but also to the great adepts in science, falsely so called.
And as the apostolic manner of preaching would naturally be despised for its simplicity and plainness; so the subject matter of it, was looked upon as most contemptibly stupid and absurd. Concerning its first grand article, this is observed immediately after our text, "For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness." Nothing could more stumble and offend the former, than telling them of the shameful crucifixion of their expected glorious Messiah; who was to prolong his days, and on whose shoulders, it had been foretold, the government should be laid. Nor could any thing be more the madness of folly, in the opinion of the latter, than being taught to look for eternal life, from the power and righteousness of one who had himself suffered, in weakness, the ignominious death of a most vile malefactor. This, however, was the grand hinge on which all turned that the apostles had to preach. "For I determined not to know any thing among you," Paul says to the Corinthians, "save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." Atonement for sin by the voluntary sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God, is the central point, to which all the types and prophecies of the law had an ultimate reference, on which the whole gospel rests, and from which all saving knowledge results. This is the basis of the church, and of all the eternal hopes of true believers. They are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone."
Nor was the superstructure of the christian system, as left by these master builders, less weak, in the opinion of an unbelieving world, than this its fundamental pillar and ground of truth. It then appeared, and it still appears to many, full of hard sayings, and of most palpable self-contradictions. In the doctrines of Christ and his apostles, these stumbling-blocks are not indeed now so sensibly perceived; when people have been used to the words of the New-Testament, and used to read and hear them with erroneous explanations, or with no ideas. Still, however, some rocks of great offence, will frequently be seen by wise hearers, unless they are cautiously gone round, or covered over, by the prudent preacher. To point out these particularly in this place, our time will not now permit. Several of them will occasionally come in our way under the next head. In general, to preach the essential doctrines of the gospel without subterfuge, and in so perspicuous a manner that every one must understand them, if he will only attend, is what I take the apostle to mean by the foolishness of preaching.
II. We will now inquire how God is pleased, by such preaching, to save lost men.
"To save them that believe," the text says. And elsewhere it is said of some, "The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it." But we are not to understand by either of these texts, or any others, that a preached gospel can be no way beneficial to the hearers, unless they have previously saving faith. Paul was sent to the Gentiles, "To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among all them that are sanctified." And to the Romans he says, "How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?