If you were to poll a large number of Calvinists to ask them to name the four most important passages in establishing their position, this one would certainly get left off of more lists than any of the others I selected. The other three passages would be included on the vast majority of lists, but I think 1 Corinthians 1 would only make a handful. In fact there are probably several other passages that would get mentioned more often. Some people would (with good reason) say that Romans chapter 5 should be included due to its importance in establishing original sin, others might say the extended argument from the book of Hebrews needs to be included since it is possibly the best Biblical evidence for Limited Atonement.
While it’s impossible to come up with a top four list that pleases everyone, and while I might tackle those passages in future posts, I feel it’s important to mainly stick to passages that most clearly address the core issue of whether the decisive impulse in salvation is our own self-wrought faith or God’s sovereign grace.
We Will Persevere With God’s Help
The back half of this chapter is where the argument really lands, but there is some important material to be covered in the thanksgiving in verses 4-9:
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
When we looked at John chapter 6 we mentioned that the real issue is not whether a Christian can lose their salvation but whether Jesus can lose a Christian. We see here that Paul’s teachings reinforce those of Jesus. Christians will be found guiltless in the upcoming day of the Lord, and Jesus himself will see to it by sustaining them to the end.
The doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints is ultimately a Trinitarian effort, and verse 9 provides a glimpse at the Father’s role. We see that someone gets “called” by God into the fellowship of Jesus, and God is faithful to this calling. This verse very closely echoes Paul’s words at the end of 1 Thessalonians 5 where he prays that they would be kept blameless and the concludes that “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” In both cases, God calls someone into the fellowship of his son, and they will be kept blameless by the faithfulness of God to his call. The implication seems to be (and it will be confirmed later in this chapter), that the call of God itself is what makes someone a Christian. This is why the Doctrine of Irresistible Grace is sometimes called effective calling, because the call of God is effective in accomplishing what it attempts to do.
The mention of God’s faithfulness in verse 9 is very similar to the thought expressed in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, another great verse on the Perseverance of the Saints:
23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
The Power of the Cross
Back to our passage:
10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Paul begins with an appeal for unity and calls them out for dividing the body of Christ by identifying exclusively with one teacher. He then mentions that he is glad he baptized so few of them so that they would not be able to say they were under him. Then, we get this very interesting statement in verse 17 –that God did not send him to baptize but to preach the gospel. The interesting part is that is all he needed to say, but he adds that he did not preach with eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
The Two Responses to the Gospel
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
“The word of the cross” here means the gospel message mentioned in verse 17. We are introduced to two types of people; those that regard the gospel as folly and are perishing, and those who are being saved for whom the gospel is the power of God. If Paul had stopped here, nothing would be noteworthy about this passage.
19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
This is where Paul starts to go a direction that we might not expect, the implication of using this quote right after verse 18 is that God has a particular purpose or design in there being two reactions to the gospel.
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
The themes of wisdom and folly are continuing, God is not found by earthly wisdom but by the “folly” of the Gospel message. What is usually called the “general gospel call” is present here, namely that God saves those who believe. As we have been looking at in this series, this statement is one of two foundational truths that we are attempting to see how they relate together.
Irresistible Grace/The Effective Call of God
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
In verses 22 and 23 we again have two groups, but unlike verse 18 both of these are perishing, both are reacting wrongly to the gospel. It is in verse 24 that we get the group that is being saved and we see that it is a subset of the two groups in verses 22 and 23. What is it that separates the Jews and Greeks that are perishing in verses 22-23 from those being saved in verse 24? Those being saved are called. This is different than the general gospel call of of verse 21 that can preached as an offer to unbelievers, this is a call that takes people out of the group that is perishing and puts them into the group being saved. It is an Effective Call.
So salvation is determined by belief and belief is determined by the call of God. But what is behind the call of God? If it is God’s foreknowledge of belief, that is if God is calling people based on who he knows will believe, then Arminianism is likely true. If it’s God’s own choice based on his own designs, then Calvinism is true. Fortunately the scripture, answers this for us:
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Two verses after he had just introduced the call of God as the decisive factor that distinguished believers from unbelievers, he rhetorically invites the believers that he is writing to to consider their calling. It wasn’t because they were good or faithful that they were called, it was because they were chosen. Three times Paul emphasizes God’s choice being the root cause of their calling: “God chose what is foolish…God chose what is weak…God chose what is low and despised…”
This word “chose” is obviously the same word in Greek as “elected.” In fact, when it appears in it’s noun form it is usually translated as “the elect” (e.g. Romans 11:7). This passage is explicitly teaching unconditional election, it points to God’s election as the ultimate ground of human faith. We’ve seen the progression in this passage. There are two reactions to the gospel and the difference in reaction comes down to faith, and faith comes down to calling, and calling is determined by God’s choice.
God’s choice is decisive.
Paul points to the fact that in Corinth, not only did God not choose his people based on anything good in them, he actually saw fit to choose his people from the poor, the simple, and the despised. God had a design in mind for the Church at Corinth. It wasn’t that poor people are just naturally more disposed to the gospel, it was that God wanted the poor and despised.
Calvinism Leaves No Room for Boasting
Verse 29 is critical because now at the bottom of it all, we get a reason that explains why God did things this way: “so that no human being might boast.”
This is where we need to very clearly consider the question, does Arminianism leave room for boasting?
The Arminian would say no. They would likely point to Romans 3:27-28 where Paul says that boasting is excluded since justification is received on the basis of faith and not works.
The idea would be, since they preach grace through faith, this passage basically clears them of any accusation that they leave room for boasting in their theology.
Now, I’ve covered the doctrine of justification in the book of Romans in some detail already, but for our purposes we need to point out that while justification is a critical element in the gospel, it’s not the whole picture.
When we talk about justification, we are talking about how on the basis of the substitutionary death of Jesus, an ungodly and unrighteous sinner can have a righteous standing before God. In the context of justification, receiving it by faith and not works does indeed exclude boasting because Jesus is the one who did the work, and you just received his free gift.
When you take a step back however, faith without unconditional election does leave room for boasting, and that is clearly seen in this passage in 1 Corinthians.
Think about it for a second, imagine you and your friend were hanging out together as unbelievers and someone shared the gospel with you both. You repented of your sins and put your trust in Christ to save you, but your friend didn’t.
You have room for boasting.
Not in your justification, Jesus earned that, you didn’t, but you can boast in your salvation because you made the right response to the gospel and your friend did not.
That’s exactly what is in view in this passage. Remember the structure of the passage, two groups are being examined, those who are perishing and those who are being saved. What determines their destiny is their response to the gospel, what determines their response if the call of God, and the call of God is on the basis of his sovereign choice and is grounded in his desire to leave no room for boasting.
Believers have no room to boast because even the fact that we put our trust in Christ for salvation while the unbeliever failed to do so doesn’t mean we’ve done any better than they have.
The first phrase of verse 30 is very important: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus.” When we get to Ephesians chapter 1, one of the common Arminian responses is that we are only elected if we are “in Christ.” In other words, Jesus and his bride the church are elect, and we join that church and become “in Christ” if we believe the gospel.
So in that form of the Arminian view, God predestines a nameless faceless group that gets populated by our choices as to whether we will believe the gospel.
That’s not what this verse says.
This verse says it is by the doing of God the father that a Christian comes to be in Christ. It’s not about us and our actions, it’s about God and his actions.
The Atonement and the Response to the Gospel
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1:30-31
One of the key issues in limited atonement is the question of whether the cross of Christ is sufficient to save the people it intended to save.
In other words, if Jesus dies to save you, will you be saved, or can you thwart his intentions?
The Arminian would say of course you can thwart his intentions because you can choose not to believe the gospel.
That’s a reasonable thought, but what if your belief was not self-wrought but was purchased for you on the cross?
Let’s look carefully at this passage from 1 Corinthians, because it is directly relevant to that question.
The cross itself is not actually mentioned in verses 30-31, but in the context it is the cross that has been in view whenever Christ has been mentioned. Not only that, but three of the four things that Paul is saying Christ became for us all relate directly to the cross: righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
That leaves one curious term that seems out of place: wisdom. If you were going to come up with a list of what Jesus accomplished in the atonement, you probably wouldn’t think to say that he became for us wisdom. It may not fit the context of the cross in general, but it does in this section in particular.
Remember, wisdom has been a recurring theme throughout this passage, with God’s wisdom being contrasted against the world’s wisdom and the point being made that the world’s wisdom does not lead to a right response to the gospel. So in this context the “wisdom” that Christ became for us is the right response to the gospel.
This fits perfectly with the conclusion in verse 31 where it was said that this was all done so that we might only have room to boast in the Lord. You can’t boast about achieving righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, because they were given to you as a gift, but neither can you boast about the wisdom to receive that gift since that also was provided by Jesus.
You have no room to boast.
This probably isn’t the strongest evidence for limited atonement that we will look at, but it is important to see how Paul pictures the atonement. Verse 30 gives the sense that Paul is trying to emphasize that Christ covered everything that was needed for the salvation of his people. No one needs to add a single thing.
Ultimately, 1 Corinthians 1 is one of the more underrated and overlooked of the major Calvinistic passages.
That’s a real shame because if you are willing to follow Paul carefully, he lays out a staggering exposition of reformed thought.
The fact that this passage is on the subject of the gospel message and the cross of Christ, the fact that it clearly traces the two responses to the gospel, and the fact that it strongly supports at least four of the five points of Calvinism makes it extremely relevant to any conversation about reformed theology.
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