1 Cor 1:26-31
God Chose the Foolish

Sermon Discussion Questions:

1. "How can I be saved and from hell too?" (Mrs. Turpin, from Flannery O'Connor's Revelation). What stood out to you most from that story?

2. Why does Paul want to emphasize the lowly, weak, and foolish status of the Corinthians here? Does this description apply to us? If so, how?

3. How does the grace displayed in the gospel help us when we become too full of ourselves?

4. "Grace seems dangerous to those who feel like they've earned their spot." Why?


Mrs. Turpin, the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s 1964 short story Revelation, may be the most well-written, modern-day Pharisee in all of literature. Mrs. Turpin is a rural, Southern, church-going, landowner who owns a large farm, and believes that God has given her a little bit of everything and the good sense to know just what to do with it.
Mrs. Turpin is in a doctor’s waiting room with her husband, Claude, carrying on a conversation with another, pleasant, respectable woman. Also in the waiting room there is a white-trash family who Mrs. Turpin finds repulsive. But there is also a young woman named Mary Grace who is reading a large textbook, “Human Development” who cannot stop scowling at Mrs. Turpin. The longer that Mrs. Turpin and this other woman speak, the angrier Mary Grace becomes. Throughout the conversation, Mrs. Turpin’s overt racism and self-righteousness is mingled with a sickly sweet, self-serving charm. She talks about how she is so grateful to God for giving her everything in life and how she works so hard to help whoever she comes across, even if they are black or white trash folks. She sings parts of gospel songs and telegraphs to everyone that she is from the “right” slice of society.
At one point, after hearing that Mrs. Turpin keeps hogs, the white-trash woman lets out a bark of contempt, saying that hogs are filthy and something she would never have. Mrs. Turpin responds defensively that her hogs aren’t dirty, in fact her pigs are cleaner than some children she knows (looking at the child of the white-trash woman). At this, Mary Grace isn’t even looking at her book anymore and her eyes are fixed like drills on Mrs. Turpin. “Girl, Mrs. Turpin said silently to herself, I haven’t done a thing to you!” After this, Mrs. Turpin imagines what would have happened had God made her someone else than the wonderful person she was, and is in the middle of crying out “Thank you, Jesus!” right when Mary Grace hurls her “Human Development” book at her head and begins choking her. After the doctor and nurses pull Mary Grace off her, she locks eyes with Mrs. Turpin and says: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
The story is so fantastic, you should just go home and read it. What is O’Connor getting at? Sometimes, when we are self-righteous Pharisees who go to the temple and pray: God, I thank you that I am not like other men…then we need a violent shock to our systems. The book thrown at Mrs. Turpin is called “Human Development,” and the girl’s name is “Grace.” How will grow in grace? Sometimes we need a violent shock to our system to upend our self-righteousness. This is what our text provides for us today:
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. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
-       1 Cor 1:26-31
The Corinthian church is a church that is eager to appear to polished, sophisticated, and impressive to the secular, Greco-Roman world around them. In chapter four, Paul is going to point out (with a touch of sarcasm) that the Corinthians want to be like wealthy, wise kings (1 Cor 4:8) while Paul and the other apostles are fools for Christ and spectacles of shame and weakness to the world (1 Cor 4:9-10). There is a slice of the Corinthian church that has become sick on worldliness, especially on the species of worldliness that thrives on status and superiority. And Paul is wanting to give them the strong medicine of grace to shock their system, wanting to throw a book of God’s surprising choice at them to wound them with the mercy of God.
Who We Are
“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,” (1 Cor 1:26).
The “For” at the beginning of the sentence shows us that what Paul is about to say is connected with what he just said previously. In verses 18-25 Paul told us that when the world sees God’s wisdom in the work of Jesus Christ, it is foolishness to them. They are like people who show up at an art museum thinking it is a movie theatre and complain, “This is the most boring movie I have ever seen.” They are blind to the beauty and power and wisdom of Christ. So this is the principle that Paul is establishing: what the world counts as “wisdom” is really foolishness and is going to cause the world to miss out on receiving Christ. Now, in light of that, Paul wants to move from thinking about the world at large, to the church.
Paul is wanting to peel the Corinthians down a bit. So he tells them to think over the circumstances of their “calling.” What was life like for you when God called you to Himself? He points out that not many of the Corinthians were wise, powerful, or of good birth “according to worldly standards,” which literally just means, “according to the flesh.” What is the “flesh” in the Bible? You may be familiar with the unholy triumvirate: the world, the flesh, and the devil. And that may lead you to assume that the “flesh” is something particularly gross or sinister. And it certainly can be, but it can also be much more mundane than that. A good way to think of “the flesh” in the Bible is just to picture what is natural and normal for a person, apart from God working in their life. Consider what Paul will say of the Corinthians later: “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” (1 Cor 3:3-4). Jealousy is typical, strife is human—these are just the normal byproduct of regular sinners being around each other.
So, when Paul says that not many of you were wise “according to the flesh” it means that according to the standard that is normal to the flesh, the way the world works, the rubric that is generally used to measure someone’s wisdom or power. I can’t help but think of our time in 1 Samuel where we saw Israel’s fascination with the worldly standard of power. Even the prophet Samuel, when encountering the seven sons of Jesse, judges according to worldly standards and assumes the biggest, oldest, and most formidable son will be the next king: “man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (see 1 Samuel 16:7). If you were not filled with the Holy Spirit, if you didn’t have the eyes to see what the Lord values, if you didn’t have the Bible to guide your sense of priorities…what would matter to you? What would make someone seem important, influential, powerful, considerable, and significant in your eyes? Whatever it is that comes to mind, Paul makes a point: that’s not most of you. 
And that isn’t most of us. Likely, no one in this room is going to be a “mover and shaker” of society. Likely, no one in this room has the money or influence or power to shape elections, or media, or Hollywood. We can’t change wars, or budgets, or policies. We are going to go to work, raise families, come to church, pray, love our neighbor, repent of sin, read our Bibles, live quiet lives, get old, help raise grandchildren, die, and be forgotten. We are just tiny, unimportant blips on the radar. We aren’t going to have our faces carved into mountain sides or names written in history books.
But, oh, we would like that. Don’t you feel that pull towards being famous? Being influential? And we all know that you can be famous and influential and use that for good things, of course. But I think Jesus’ words about wealth apply here as well: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person (or famous, or powerful, or wise, according to worldly standards) to enter the kingdom of God,” (Mark 10:25). What do you aspire to? Here is what the Bible exhorts us to aspire to:
“…aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one,” (1 Thess 4:11-12).
“…that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way,” (1 Tim 2:2)
A quiet life. Not flashy, not wealthy, not famous. Just a godly, ordinary life.
An early critic of Christianity was named Celsus who wrote a diatribe against Christianity in the 2nd century, trying to demonstrate why it was false. One of the problems he saw with it was how it appealed to the ordinary person, women, children, and slaves. And, most ridiculous of all, was how the founder of Christianity was born to an ordinary, poor peasant girl. What kind of king is that?
If Jesus had come today instead of two-thousand years ago, He would have been born in the bathtub of a trailer park. Jesus was born in the midst of squalor and poverty. He grew up in a small, nothing town with a blue-collar job and no university education. Most of His life was lived in total obscurity. He ministered publicly for only two-three years. And, true, in that time He became sensationally popular through His miracles and teaching. But, He seemed to always shoot Himself in the foot: speaking in obtuse ways that confused the crowds (John 6), insulting the religious leaders, and continuing to hang out with the most shameful nobodies of society that made everyone start to whisper behind His back. Before long He was accused of blasphemy and sedition, betrayed by one of his own followers, humiliated through the death of crucifixion. Jesus seemed like another flash in the pan leader who had amassed thousands at one point, but who had a mere handful of followers left at His death.
But, of course, He changed the world. And in less than three centuries, Christianity had spread so seriously that a Roman emperor converted to it. Ordinary faithfulness that ignores the world’s playbook of influence is God’s secret weapon.
Jesus dignifies ordinary life.
He ennobles the common, the average, the individual who is looked down upon by the high brow of society.
Jesus identifies with the stay-at-home mom and farmer and middle-school English teacher more than he does with the senators and music producers and movie directors and thought-leaders of our day. And praise God for godly senators and music producers and movie directors—we need those! But it is just an inevitable fact that only a few people are able to get positions like that. Most of us aren’t that. Most of us are just people living quiet lives. And that’s okay!
Jesus identifies with the invisible, ordinary, unspectacular individual.
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? (James 2:5-7).
What God Does
“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; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,” (1 Cor 1:27-28).
I wonder if you find it odd that we are told that God intends to “shame the wise” and “shame the strong” and “bring to nothing the things that are.” What does that mean? The shame that Paul refers to here is that shame that comes at the last day. Paul often teaches that if we trust in the Lord we will not be put to shame (Rom 9:33). But, of course, to follow Jesus in Paul’s day meant to suffer all kinds of shame. He means the only kind of shame that really matters, the eternal shame that comes from the judgment day. Consider one scene from the book of Revelation depicting the final judgment:
The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand? (Rev 6:14-17)
Who will stand? The weak, the foolish, the low, the despised, even the things that are not, who have were despised by the kings of the earth and great ones, but were chosen by God.
Notice the emphasis on God’s choice. God chose…God chose…God chose. This ties back into the “calling” that Paul has been stressing in his letter thus far. He told the Corinthians to “consider their calling” in verse 26. It is to the Jews and Greeks who are “called” in verse 24 who can receive Christ as the power and wisdom of God. And the Corinthians are identified as those who are “called” back in verse 2 and 9. We delineated between two kinds of calling in the Bible. There is an indiscriminate call that goes out to all people that can be rejected, like the call in Jesus’ parable of the wedding supper where the invitation goes out, but is rejected, and Jesus says, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” (Matt 22:14). The calling Paul is stressing here is what is known as an effectual call, meaning the call is effective in producing a response—it cannot be rejected. Those whom are called are those who are chosen.
What does it mean to be “chosen”?
“…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” (Eph 1:4-5).
To be chosen by God means that before anything in this universe was created, before Genesis 1, God chose us to become holy and blameless and adopted as sons and daughters in Jesus Christ. Why did He choose us? What was it according to? It was according to the purpose of His will. His choice. I think something that may have been in the back of Paul’s mind as he wrote this section to the Corinthians was Moses’ teaching from Deuteronomy 7,
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt,” (Deut 7:6-9).
Notice how being loved and chosen by God go together (vs. 7). Why did He choose Israel out of all the peoples of the earth? It wasn’t because they were vast and numerous—that would make sense. If God’s aim is to be glorified by the peoples of earth, wouldn’t it make sense for Him to choose the largest nation? Wouldn’t it make sense for God to choose the wise, the powerful, those of noble birth so that Christianity would be heralded by the cultural movers and shakers? But He didn’t do that. He chose the smallest nation on the earth. He chose the foolish, the weak, the low, the despised, and the nobodies. Why?
Why does God love you? Why did He choose you? The Lord has chosen to set His love on you because…He loves you. In other words, His love for you is unconditional. There is no condition, no requirement you have met to earn His love…you just have it.
Do you see why Paul is bringing this up to the Corinthians? They are fascinated with being seen as important, but Paul is showing them: God didn’t choose you because you were anything special. You didn’t fulfill any requirements to be chosen by Him, to be called by Him. In fact, He is going to emphasize this once more down in verse 30, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1 Cor 1:30).
It is “because of Him” the Father that “you are in Christ Jesus” and it is Christ Jesus who became the wisdom of God for us in the form of “righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.”
Righteousness is a term pulled from the court room. If you are righteous then you are not only innocent, as in “not guilty of doing wrong, not in debt,” but also you are positively in the right, not just neutral, but rich in good standing.
Sanctification is a term pulled from the temple. If you are sanctified that means that you pure and clean, not tainted with anything from the realm of death and sin that may defile you and leave you dirty before the holy God.
Redemption is a term pulled from the realm of slavery. If you are redeemed that means that you were enslaved and someone paid a price to set you free from your bondage.
Let’s put all of this together now, so we can get the full force of Paul’s argument. You, Christian, have been chosen from before the foundation of the world…not because God knew ahead of time how good you were going to be or how helpful you were going to be. It wasn’t because you were going to be wise, or faithful, or from the right class, or influential. He unconditionally chose you because He unconditionally loves you.
In fact, even though the rest of the world considered you to be weak and low, He called you to Himself. And you received Him and are in Jesus only because of Him! And if you are in Jesus you are righteous, sanctified, and redeemed—not because you made yourself righteous, not because you made yourself pure, and not because you freed yourself from your bondage to sin—but because Jesus is your righteousness, Jesus is your sanctification, Jesus is your redemption.
Paul’s double-pronged assault on the Corinthians divisiveness and pride is to show that (1) the big-wigs of the world are headed for everlasting shame and contempt, and (2) those who are headed for eternal honor and life did nothing to deserve it, but are here only by the sheer mercy of God.
Why is Mrs. Turpin the way that she is? She operates on the world’s hierarchy of importance. She knows that there are the “important” people in the world and the “despised.” And she takes extreme pleasure in knowing that she is one of the “important” people and looks down on everyone else. Ironically, she uses her supposed Christian faith throughout the story as one of the means to bolster her certainty that she is superior. She goes to church, sings hymns, volunteers, is a hard worker, but she is arrogant, racist, self-righteous, and filled with false-modesty. And this is why her encounter with grace is so violent: grace seems dangerous to people who are used to thinking they can earn their place. Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.
At the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin is standing outside, staring up at the sky and arguing with God: “What did you send me a message like that for?” She said she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. "How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” And she proceeds to lay out her credentials: she isn’t white trash, she isn’t one of the low people; she is a hard worker, a good person, a church member! She ends her argument by looking up at God and shouting: “Who do you think you are!”
What does Mrs. Turpin misunderstand? Grace.
What This Does to Us
If you were to die and be brought to the gates of heaven, and an angel were to ask you: Why are you here? What would you say? You might, like Mrs. Turpin, point to the fact that you are decent person, maybe that you have been a hard worker, been responsible, took care of others. Or maybe, if you were a little more theologically astute, you would say: I am here because of my faith in Jesus who died for me. And that would be the right answer. But if the angel then asked, “Yes, but why did you believe in Jesus, and not your neighbor?” What would you say? I have asked dozens upon dozens of Christians that question from across all sorts of theological traditions and every single person I have ever asked, regardless of what they think about Reformed theology, everyone says: “I don’t know…grace?”
You know what I have never heard anyone ever say? “Because I was smarter…I was more spiritual…I was more disciplined…I was more open-minded and humble.” Everyone who has experienced the grace of God knows immediately that they cannot think of any condition, any qualification that they possess that gave them an ability to exercise faith. Because if we did then we would have something to boast about, we would be able to say, “Yes, God did much for me, but I had the good sense to receive it, unlike those people over there…” No, the grace of God goes down so deep, that it pulls up any human boasting or pride or anything at the roots.
Two purpose statements are given by Paul for why God calls, chooses, and brings us into Jesus—even when we are weak and foolish, and not impressive or wise:
“…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God,” (1 Cor 1:29)
“…so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” (1 Cor 1:31)
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me.” (Jer 9:23-24)
Let not the PhD boast in his knowledge, let not the attractive person boast in their looks, let not the athlete boast in his physical prowess, let not the billionaires and politicians boast in their wealth and power. If there is anything worth boasting in, anything worth drawing attention to, anything that we want to praise…let it be that we know God. The man who has God and nothing else, has infinitely more than the smartest, strongest, and wealthiest individual on the earth.
Mrs. Turpin is left standing at the field, every muscled tensed, waiting for God’s reply when her eyes drift down to the pigs in her field and she is drawn in, can’t stop looking at them. And she slowly realizes…she is like a wart hog. She is a sinner who deserves hell, she hasn’t earned heaven, she isn’t any better than anyone else. She looks up and the sky is now a field of fire and there is a great bridge stretching from earth to the sky, full of souls rumbling towards heaven. She notices, to her great surprise, that at the front of procession are all of the low-class people that she has spent her life looking down upon and despising, and at the very end are a group of people just like her.
“She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”