Can Wisdom Save You?

by Spiros Zodhiates

 (Editor's note: Dr. Zodhiates continues his discussion of First Corinthians 1:19-20, begun last month.)

In quoting from the Old Testament, the Apostle Paul does not always strive either to translate exactly from the Hebrew or to quote exactly from the Septuagint Greek translation. We shall take Isaiah 29:14, then, as he wrote it in 1 Corinthians 1:19. Literally translated it reads: "I shall destroy the wisdom of the wise [plural], and the prudence of the prudent I shall reject."

In verse 18, where Paul said that to those who perish the word of the cross is foolishness, the Greek word for "perish" is apolluménois. Now, in his quotation from Isaiah 29:14, the first word is apolo, meaning "to cause to perish"—exactly the same verb in the first person singular future indicative. In the participle apolluménoi, which is in the middle voice, we see man causing his own destruction, his own perishing. He is responsible for this. As a result of man's fall he cannot see the value of Christ dying for him on the cross. Man himself destroys his ability to see God's reconciliation through the cross.

God never sends any man to hell. Those who reject His offer of salvation have chosen to go there themselves. How could God force any man to be with Him eternally in heaven if on earth he chose to call God a fool for loving him enough to die for him? We may say that we never went that far. Let us not fool ourselves. All who have not accepted Christ's invitation to come to Him by way of the cross have, in effect, called it a foolish notion, not worthy of their serious consideration.

Though apolluménoi in verse 18 speaks of man as the agent of his own perishing, in verse 19 apolo ("I shall destroy or cause to perish") makes God the active subject of that which is going to take place. In effect, God says, I am going to do this. What is He going to do? In verse 18 we read that to those who are being saved the word of the cross is the power [dnamis] of God.

In verse 19 Paul goes on to show how God is able to apply this power. His basic purpose is to save people. To save them God has to do something about what makes them take the attitude they do toward the cross of His Son. That is their wisdom—human wisdom. That is what causes them to call the cross "foolishness." When man's wisdom is proud enough to call God a fool for what He did at Calvary, then God is going to use His power to destroy what hinders man from believing and being saved. He is going to smash man's wisdom to pieces.

The ensuing verses clarify that Paul is speaking of human wisdom here: "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, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Cor. 1:20-21). This points to a definite distinction between the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God. In Isaiah's day the men of Judah thought aligning themselves with the Egyptians would bring them safety. Indeed, self-sufficient man has ever thought that by depending on his strength and the assistance of his fellowmen he, too, could be safe.

Human wisdom is the wisdom of the senses. It is the wisdom of physical strength and military might instead of dependence upon God's promise of deliverance. If that is our attitude, then the first thing the Lord must do to save us is to destroy our know-it-all confidence and our dependence on self and others to take care of our salvation.

Wisdom, or the faculty of thinking, is what distinguishes man from all other creatures. God gave man wisdom so that he might be able to communicate with his Maker and order his life in harmony with divine wisdom. Man used it, however, to seek more knowledge. Notice that he did not eat of the tree of life, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He wanted to be equal with God. Thus, his wisdom degenerated from the divine to the merely human. He chose to disobey God, and from then on he has been separated from God.

When Adam realized the consequence of his choice, he would no doubt have attempted to eat of the tree of life, but God would not permit that. "And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: Therefore, the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken" (Gen. 3:22-23).

Fallen man would have sought to save himself by belatedly eating of the tree of life, but God intervened. We cannot by our stratagems undo our sin. Our wisdom may prompt us to believe we can, but God says "No! I must deliver you from your idea of self-salvation. I must cause your wisdom to perish."

The first step in salvation, then, is the recognition that we cannot save ourselves. God had to plant another "tree of life," the cross of Christ, for fallen man's redemption. This is essential for each individual's salvation.

Moreover God says, "Iwill bring to nothing [or set aside] the understanding of the prudent." The word for "prudence" is snesis, which is a particular application of wisdom. It is the faculty of comprehension, intelligence, shrewdness, insight, understanding—the faculty of critical judgment. Before God can save a soul, He has to put aside his faculty of understanding.

"But," you say, "how can I believe without understanding?" No unbeliever can understand the logic of God's salvation. It is beyond him. There is nothing anyone can do to save himself, in spite of what mankind's fallen and corrupt intelligence says to the contrary. The only hope is to be wise enough to recognize this fact, and to accept by faith the Word of God that if we are to be saved we must come to the tree of life, the cross of Christ.

Once we are saved, our understanding will be enlightened, and we will surely know God and His plan for our lives. Likewise, before our salvation everything about God is a mystery, but afterward the God of all mysteries becomes our wisdom. Once Christ dwells in our hearts by faith, then much that was mysterious and unfathomable about God becomes clear.

To be continued
From A Richer Life in Christ (an Exegetical Commentary on
First Corinthians Chapter One)
, published by AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN

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