Direction Decides Destiny
The key verse of this passage is 1 Corinthians 1:18 in which there is a change of tense in the R.V.: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that are perishing foolishness; but unto us that are being saved, it is the power of God.”
1. The Two Conditions
Here Paul highlights for us two contrasting experiences of life: being saved and perishing. Neither of them is static, and both suggest movement, a journey, a pilgrimage. Both of them, however, are inclusive of the experiences of us all, and the category to which each one of us belongs is quite clearly decided by the attitude of each to the message of the cross: “The preaching of the cross is to them that are perishing foolishness; to us that are being saved it is the power of God.”
We have here some very important food for thought, and you will notice that Paul gives this as his answer to the condition of things in the church at Corinth. In its context we find this tremendous statement against a situation which was full of strife, contention, envy and bickering, and a vicious party spirit (v. 12), “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas.” Others were saying, “And I just don’t belong to any of them. I am not denominationalist: I am of Christ;” and they were probably the most vocal of all!
To that church, split by this party spirit and denominational strife and all the evidences of immaturity, Paul has one answer: “I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Time and again in this significant epistle you will find that Paul brings his hearers back constantly to the cross. He is convinced that the answer to every argument, every failure, and every hope for the future is “the word of the cross.”
First, we consider these two conditions which Paul describes for us here: them that are perishing; them that are being saved.
To understand the meaning of that dreadful word “perishing,” we need first to understand fully the meaning of the words “being saved.” What is this word “salvation”? These days it is rather like a well-worn coin which is being passed from hand to hand until it is almost unrecognizable. In many instances it has been reduced to a little convenient, pat formula, and so long as you can fit within the formula you are all right. What is conveyed to your minds by this word?
The New Testament sense of the word has both a negative and a positive implication. Negatively, it means secure; positively, it means being made healthy and whole. Negatively, it has to do with escape from eternal ruin; positively, it has to do with emancipation from sin.
This word “salvation” is tremendous in its implication. It has to do with deliverance from guilt and the forgiveness of all our sins by virtue of the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord shed for us on Calvary. The joy that begins to abound for a forgiven sinner is only realized by the man who has the blessedness of the experience, for he knows what it is to be forgiven.
Negatively, he is rejoicing in what he calls “being saved,” and he is very glad to be able to announce to everybody “I have been saved!” But it is not long before the man who is experiencing forgiveness of sins begins to recognize that forgiveness has not gone to the root of his need. He thought that it had, and that the simple acceptance of Jesus Christ would touch the very root problem of his own personal experience, but it hasn’t. He is going around as a forgiven sinner but he is miserable, for now it has suddenly dawned upon him that the sins from which he has been forgiven are simply the symptoms of a disease that goes far deeper, and it is not long before he begins to cry out to God, “Oh, Lord! Is there no answer to the fire in my life, the passion in my soul?” Then he begins to pray from the depths of his soul in the words of the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” (Psalm 51:10).
Is that prayer to remain unanswered? Is the man forgiven from his sins to remain unsatisfied, defeated, impure, immoral? The pardoned man does not change his circumstances, his home conditions, his family life, nor his job. He does not move from one situation to another to escape that, for if he attempts to do so, he cuts the very nerve of the thing that would make him a saint. He stays where he is, and then begins to discover that now he is facing demands upon him as a Christian that are absolutely overwhelming and impossible. There comes from his heart a deep cry, “Oh God, for power! For power over myself, for power over my sin, for power over what I am by nature! Yes, I am a forgiven sinner, but I am a defeated man!”
Salvation in the New Testament sense of the word is not merely the negative forgiveness of sins. It is the positive taking of a man, twisted and bent by the disease of which sins are the symptom, and making him to glory in deliverance.
I say it reverently because of all the recognition of the significance of the sentence, but I say it with a deep conviction of my heart—if the redemption offered to be in Jesus Christ is simply forgiveness of sins which leaves me wallowing and defeated, impure and unholy, then it is incomplete and imperfect. Praise God, salvation is more than this! For when God saves a man, He does not bar the gate through which power can come to make him holy. When God saves a soul it is not simply that He blots out the memory of his past—it is that, thank God. Nor is it simply that He sees that man with a righteousness that Christ imputes to him—it is that, thank God, but it is not only that! Perhaps even as you read these words you know that I am exposing the basic need in your life, and the fact of the matter is that you are only half converted and half delivered. There is forgiveness from sins, but there is a cry in your heart, “Is there no answer to the problem of what I am?”
Now let us look at the second word, perishing. It is entire failure to be what God wants me to be, the disease of sin running its course unchecked. It is an increasing distance from God, a gradual sinking into increased depravity, a complete withdrawal of the source of real power and happiness. It is a drift downward in spite of all the efforts made to pull oneself up.
Each one of us, therefore, is in one or other of these categories; either we are being delivered from the disease of self and sin, or we are becoming more selfish and more sinful and more depraved in spite of all our self-effort.
2. The Continuous Process
Life is pictured for us here as something that is moving and active. There is nothing stationary or static about it, and that is true of salvation.
In the New Testament we have the great idea of salvation looked at from at least three different points of view. Sometimes it is spoken of as having been accomplished in the past, “Ye have been saved.” And that describes the initial act of faith in the blood of Jesus Christ as Savior. Again it is spoken of as in the present, “Ye are saved,” as in 1 Corinthians 1:18. Sometimes it is relegated to the future, “Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Romans 13:11). But there are many passages which describe salvation as a continuous experience, running through life, “By one offering He has perfected forever them that are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
Here then is salvation, a process which is going on constantly. There is one thing that will characterize the life of every one who is a genuine believer in the Lord Jesus, truly born of the Spirit of God, and that is growth, development. He never talks about having arrived; he does not say he has had a tremendous second experience of sanctification and is now the finished product. He does not boast in his holiness, nor exalt his own experience, but there are evidences of that man’s growth in Christ-likeness. As he is more and more filled with the Spirit, so he grows more gracious, more gentle, more Christlike. He becomes less like himself, and as we stand back we see God working a miracle: as the clay is in the hand of the potter, so the life is being moulded, shaped and conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus. Alas, so many professing Christians show no evidences of the mark of reality! There is no growth at all.
Do I exaggerate if I dare to say that the majority of professing Christians today are not really growing? They have been saved, they have used the formula for twenty years, but they are still as mean, selfish, hot-tempered, jealous, impure, unkind, unchaste, and worldly as they were the day they were saved. There is no mark of growth or maturity, no evidence of becoming more like the Lord Jesus. Something is wrong somewhere.
The moment I accept forgiveness through the blood of the Lord Jesus I am called upon in His name to stand for righteousness, purity, truth, and holiness. Now my business in life is to seek to win somebody else for Jesus, and the redemptive ministry of the love of God is to be expressed through my life in service to others. This is the mark of the real thing, and how desperately we all need power to stand for the thing that is right: power to speak for Jesus, power to live for Him day by day. There is so little evidence of these things in the lives of professing Christians these days.
Just as being saved is a constant process, so is perishing. It is becoming more interested in worldly things, and accepting defeat, worldliness and compromise. How many even who profess to be believers for so long find it so much easier now to submit to things that are selfish, mean and worldly!
Paul describes salvation as a process that is going on constantly. Therefore, it is not primarily a decision for Jesus that decides your destiny, it is the direction of your character. Oh, that I could get that like a fire burning in our hearts!
You have made a decision for Christ, and perhaps that decision has brought you into training, or to teach in a Sunday school class, or some form of ministry. But if that decision for Christ is not accompanied by direction in character it is not valid, authentic, or genuine, and the Bible tells you to examine yourself, whether you be in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).
It is direction which decides destiny, not a fleshly decision. What direction are you going right now? May the Holy Spirit challenge your heart about the true New Testament test of real salvation! What has been the trend of your character in the past twelve months? Your body comes to an institute or a seminary. Your body comes to church, maybe to teach in a Sunday school; your body listens to a sermon. But deep down in your own soul what is the trend? What is the drift and the direction? Is it progress to the Lord? Is it regress into sin? Is there increased hunger for the Lord, for truth, for holiness, for righteousness, or is there a carelessness and a worldliness, a superficiality and an easy slipping into habits that you would never have dreamed you would have done a year ago?
3. The Determining Factor
What is it that guides our direction and governs our destiny? It is the preaching of the “word of the cross.” Now let us be careful that we understand what that phrase means. It does not mean the act of preaching it. We have here the word “logos,” the same that is in St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh…” (John 1:1, 14). It is “the word of the cross,” and what is that word? When God speaks it is with authority and conviction. His word is action. When we speak so often it is just a dream, a wish, a desire. But “the word of the cross” which God proclaims is power.
I read of an eminent professor of theology who said to students in his seminary class, “Gentlemen, I ask you to remember that you are called upon to know something of the foolishness of preaching, not the preaching of foolishness.” And my heart reacted and said, “He is wrong! For the word of the cross is absolute foolishness.” It says so in my text: “To those who are perishing the word of the cross is foolishness.” Why is it foolishness? It is absolutely contradictory to all the philosophy of life, education and ability, of teaching, of knowledge, of anything! For the preaching of the cross puts the sentence of death upon them all.
It is the word of absolute power, but it is the word of absolute weakness. The preaching of the cross is the preaching of power through weakness, life through death, character through crucifixion.
With the shoes off our feet, and with heads bowed reverently, let us go up a green hill outside a city wall, and hear the word of the cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Here is a cry of unutterable anguish from the heart of our Redeemer that came through pain, suffering and agony, but the prayer was heard!
“Today thou shalt be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We see a dying Man, naked, crucified, turning to a fellow-sufferer and speaking the word of victory—victory through weakness—and the word was heard!
“Woman, behold thy son. Son, behold thy mother” (see John 19:26–27). Heartbreak, bereavement, loneliness, a sword going into the soul of Mary, but the concern of her Son in the hour of death introduces her to a new and wonderful relationship.
“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). Forsaken, destitute, alone and dying, utterly cut off from God, He is introducing a countless multitude to glory. This is victory through isolation.
“I thirst!” (John 19:28). Out of the agony of lips that were parched and craving, in utter weakness, there flowed rivers of living water to men and women like you and me.
“It is finished!” (John 19:30). Obedient unto the very death of the cross, the price is paid, the last drop of the cup is drunk. Jesus Christ has been rejected by men; He has fully accepted all the will of God; He has been forsaken by friend and foe. But now it is all finished, and the outcome is resurrection—Hallelujah!
“The word of the cross” stands absolutely in flat contradiction to modern philosophy. What is that word in your life and mine? It is power through weakness. It is life through death. It is resurrection through crucifixion.
Many who come to me for counsel say something like this: I’ve been a Christian for years, but I have no power.” “I have been a Sunday school teacher in my church for years, but there is no power in my life.” “My home is so unhappy; there is no peace in it, and I have no answer to the constant friction and frustration.” What do I say to them? I have nothing to say but the word of the cross. I have no quack remedy, or psychological answer to a broken home, no clever approach along theological lines to tell a wife how to get on with her husband, but I have the word of Calvary.
What does that mean in terms of personal experience? How can you make contact with that word of the cross? It is when you get to the end of every attempt to do anything without Jesus Christ, when you lay aside your ambitions, crucify your prejudices, and die to your so-called intellectual approach. Pride must be humbled. You must sweep away your life’s goal, which after all is only a selfish one to make a name for yourself, and then you can look up into His lovely face and say, “Lord Jesus, I live, yet not I…” Galatians 2:20). The word of the cross is the word of power that cancels out the capital “I”, and is only experienced in its depth and dynamic when the believer is willing to go down to the death of Calvary.
O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
It sounds easy to say, but it is mighty hard to face! But we have to get to the place where we can look up to the Lord and say to Him, “Oh Lord, I have failed Thee, and now I yield to Thee. I am willing to be nothing, and ready to be counted just as a helpless nobody. I recognize that I have absolutely nothing at all, and this self in me with all its pride, its prejudice, its haughtiness, its self-righteousness and self-importance is only worthy of crucifixion.” At the moment we agree with His knowledge of ourselves, then we being to touch omnipotence and power and come in to contact with the throne. That is the experience the church needs, for that is the preaching of the cross, and nothing less than that is the Gospel.
Even so, some may now be thinking, “I’ve tried all that before, and I do not understand what you mean about this business of dying.”
If you want to get rid of impure thoughts, burn the books and the pictures that incite such thoughts. If you want to get rid of drink, throw it all out of your house. If you want to touch the power of the cross, break every friendship that is leading you into sin; stop every habit that is pulling you down. Look into the Lord’s face and say, “Lord, I am writing that letter and ending that friendship today, and I will never see him (or her) again.”
Some people sit smugly and self-satisfied, saying, “Praise the Lord, brother, I’m born again! I’ve been saved, and Hallelujah! It’s grand!” But their lives deny the power and love of the Saviour they claim to follow. I do not preach some deeper life truth, or some “Keswick emphasis.” It is none other than “the word of the cross.”
In conclusion I ask you, which direction are you going? Deep down in your heart is the direction downward? You may be in training for the ministry, but you do not really know why you are there. Perhaps someone suggested you go to Bible school, but you have no conviction, no authority, no sense of reality, and while your head is being filled with necessary theology, the direction of your life is downward. You may be a Sunday school teacher or a Christian worker of long standing, and you want desperately to touch the place of omnipotence and stop the drift. It is found in looking up into the face of the Lord Jesus and accepting His verdict upon self, but it is also taking action. Are you prepared to break that unworthy friendship? Are you prepared to stop that habit and finish with it, leaving no possible line of retreat? Are you prepared to go to your room and clear out those books and trashy magazines that are there, that only incite you to sin? It is not too late to start if you have been drifting away. Outwardly you are one person, but inwardly you are quite another. Outwardly you are perhaps theologically correct and sound, but inwardly far away from God, and now you want to touch the throne and look up into the face of the Lord Jesus and tell Him that you agree with the verdict of utter weakness, bankruptcy and strengthlessness, and tell Him right now that at the very first opportunity the friendship is going to stop, the habit is going to be broken, the books will be burned, and the pictures destroyed. “Every man that has this hope in Him purifies himself, even as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). “Therefore let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Clean me from my sin, Lord,
Put Thy power within, Lord,
Take me as I am, Lord, and make me all Thine own.
Keep me day by day, Lord,
Underneath Thy sway, Lord,
Make my heart Thy palace, and Thy royal throne.
—R. Hudson Pope.