I Corinthians 1:21 is a verse that is often misunderstood. It states: “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.” (KJV)
Those who misuse this verse usually do so because of how this verse is translated in the King James Version. The way this verse is worded draws one’s attention to the act of preaching. As a result, I have heard many people say that God has chosen to save people by the act of preaching. Unfortunately, that is not accurate. There are a couple of ways we can know this is not an accurate understanding.
The Word “Preaching”
The main proof of this is found in the original language. The word that is translated as “preaching” in the King James version is actually a noun in the Greek, NOT a verb. The author is referring to the message that is preached, not to the act of preaching. God has chosen by the foolishness of the message preached to save sinners. It is the message that saves, not the act preaching.
This can also be seen in the context. There are a couple of verses that surround verse 21 the also point to the message, not the preaching. The first one is verse 18. It says,
For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
Notice that it is the preaching of the cross that saves. The cross is the message that is preached. The other verse that adds context is verse 23. It reiterates this point by saying:
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.
A Correct Understanding
Again, it is not that they are preaching, it is what they are preaching. They are preaching Christ crucified. The focus of verse 21 is not on the act of preaching, it is on the message that is preached. It is the gospel message that saves, not simply the act of preaching. The New American Standard Version, which is widely accepted as one of the most literal translation, is accurate when it says:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
When the emphasis is on the act of preaching instead of the message that is to be preached, attention is taken away from the gospel and given to the preacher. Don’t think that the mere act of preaching can save; it is only the gospel message that saves.
Certainly, it is important to communicate the gospel. Preaching is obviously necessary. In fact, preaching is at the center of Christian worship. However, it is not the act of preaching that saves. To misinterpret this verse in this way is to misuse Scripture.