Why the Psychological Church Will Always End Up Diminishing the Cross of Christ
In 1 Corinthians 1:17, the apostle Paul establishes the preaching of Christ as his highest priority. He does this to turn the Corinthians’ attention away from humanistic philosophy to “the word of the cross.” Take a moment to read the full context in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
Here, Paul exalts the wisdom of Christ over the foolishness of men. This is seen in the repetitive use of the words “foolishness” or “fool” (five times), and “wisdom” or “wise” (nine times). This contrast between God’s wisdom in Christ and the foolishness of human philosophy highlights six elements of God’s revelation that establish its superiority.
The priority of God’s revelation. First, the revelation of God in Christ is superior to the wisdom of men because it is the only message that has the power to redeem sinners. The phrase “the word of the cross” (v. 18) refers to the whole doctrine of Christ and His all-sufficient work of salvation. The cross proclaims God’s righteousness, being the culmination of a just God breaking into time to purchase unjust sinners (Rom. 3:25–26). Christ bore in His body the penalty that we deserve (1 Peter 2:24), was victorious over sin and Satan (Heb. 2:14), propitiated the wrath of God (1 John 4:10), and opened the floodgate of God’s mercy upon sinners (Eph. 2:4–5). What is required to rescue hell-bound sinners out of a state of perpetual death is not a psychological gospel that persuades them to think more highly of themselves, but rather a supernatural work of God outside themselves—the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.
The permanency of God’s revelation. Second, the endurance of God’s revelation is set in contrast to the destruction of human wisdom. Man’s wisdom will be destroyed, but the truth of God in Christ will endure forever, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside’” (1:19). The phrase “set aside” means “to do away with.” So Paul asks, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” In other words, the worldly philosopher is nothing. Christ is everything! Thus, “God made foolish” the wisdom of the world (v. 20). Man’s wisdom cannot bring us to God because it is temporary, but the wisdom of God is eternal.
The plan of God’s revelation. Third, it is according to “the wisdom of God” that man is unable to find salvation through his own wisdom. This was God’s sovereign plan from eternity past. Our wisdom is intentionally limited, for “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (v. 21a). The limitations of earthly wisdom explain how psychologists can research the behavior of man and not arrive at the conclusion that his greatest need is the spiritual rebirth and transformation that only God can perform by means of the gospel. The wisdom of man is foolishness to God, and the wisdom of God is foolishness to unregenerate man, revealing that, the more that man tries to find God through his own wisdom, the more he worships the creature rather than the Creator. Subsequently, the more that the church seeks solutions to behavioral problems by integrating theology with psychology, the farther we drift from the God of truth.
The pleasure of God’s revelation. Fourth, the revelation of God in Christ is superior to man’s wisdom because it exalts His sovereign pleasure. Paul wrote, “God was well pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1:21b). He is not saying that preaching itself is foolish, but that the content of the message is foolish to the mind that has not been renewed by the Spirit of God through the Word of God. According to William MacDonald, “The Greeks were lovers of wisdom (the literal meaning of the word ‘philosophers’). But there was nothing in the gospel message to appeal to their pride of knowledge.” Therefore, it pleased God to save sinners in a way that man would never have dreamed of. The gospel may be foolish to man because it slaughters his pride, but it is not foolish to God.
The preaching of God’s revelation. The fifth element of God’s revelation is its preaching, which focuses on “Christ crucified” (v. 23). However, Paul identifies two obstacles to spreading the message of the cross: a search for signs and rational explanations. The Jews of Jesus’ day were always looking for a sign or a demonstration of His power because they would not take Him at His Word. Matthew 12:38–39 says, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.’” Asking for signs is not a demonstration of faith, but a lack of submissive trust in God’s revelation in Scripture. Therefore, to the Jew waiting for a miraculous sign, the message of a crucified Messiah was a “stumbling block” (skandalon); it was scandalous. Second, “Greeks search for wisdom” (v. 22). While the Jews looked for signs, the Greeks searched for rational explanations. They believed only that which could be understood and explained by human intelligence. To them, the preaching of the cross was foolish, ridiculous, insane, and sheer madness. Both of these kinds of people exist in churches today, largely because, in this therapeutic age, “preaching is psychologized.”
The power of God’s revelation. Sixth and finally, the superiority of God’s revelation is demonstrated by its inherent power. To the “called,” the message of Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 24). The “called” are God’s elect, those who have received the outer call of the gospel through the preaching of the Word because of the inner effectual call of the Holy Spirit. Paul refers to the believers at Rome as “the called of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:6). Those “whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). As a result of the call of God, believers are regenerate, “born again not of seed which is perishable [like psychology] but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
God’s revelation of Christ in the gospel is radically distinct from anything the world of psychological counseling can offer. By its very nature, worldly psychology is antagonistic to the cross. As it exalts man’s wisdom, it diminishes Jesus Christ, the very source of truth (John 14:6). David Powlison testifies, “After years in the psychotherapeutic world, I found that Christ turned my life upside down. Then I started to see that he turned the whole world upside down: everything was God-centered, not man-centered. That meant that counseling needed a fundamental realignment to inhabit the real world, not the world fabricated by unbelief.” To attempt to integrate biblical theology with psychology is, therefore, utterly foolish and will only lead to the exaltation of man, which in turn leads to his spiritual ruin.
[Excerpted from chapter seven of Counseling One Another.]