How the Doctrine of the Trinity Cultivates Church Unity (1 Corinthians 1–2)


paulHere is a long-form piece that came from our recent sermon series on 1 Corinthians. While many commentaries do not recognize the trinitarian nature of 1 Corinthians 1–2, Paul highlights doctrines related to each member of the trinity in order foster unity in the church at Corinth. May the Lord grant doctrinal unity to his church, as its members tether themselves to his triune gospel of grace.


What do you do when a church begins to fight? What do you say when members of the church begin to take sides and misrepresent the other? Where do you turn? What truth(s) do you recall? How do you bring peace to a divided church?

Sadly, many faithful followers of Christ find themselves in churches divided by various doctrines and competing practices. In one church I served controversy broke out concerning the doctrines of election, regeneration and faith, and the extent of the atonement. Or at least, those “doctrines of grace” appeared to be the problem. From my vantage point, those problems were merely used to protect a deeper, darker problem—the baleful commitment for various groups in the church to maintain control over what their church.

Commitment to self-interest in the church is all too common. It appears in modern churches who fracture over various worship styles, and it appears in ancient churches who sought to identify themselves with certain charismatic leaders. It appears on the pages of church history and it is found in Scripture itself, especially in the book of 1 Corinthians.

The Corinthian’s Pride and the Apostle’s Plea

In Corinth, a blistering self-will arrogantly (if unwittingly) opposed the gospel. Divisions in the church threatened to destroy the church, and thus a small group in the church appealed to Paul for help (1:11). In response, Paul brings the full weight of the triune God to unite a divided church. In the process, especially in the first two chapters, Paul shows where a divided church may find help.

In context, the first four chapters address the divisions in the church. First, Paul identifies the source of the problem (e.g., ‘political’ factions are competing within the church; baptism is identifying men with leaders not the Lord). Next, he points to the wisdom of Christ’s cross (1:18–25), the grace of the Father’s calling (1:26–31), and the power of the Spirit’s illumination (2:6–16). In between (2:1–5) and after (3:1–4:21), Paul speaks of his own ministry as an example of humble service in the power of the Spirit. In short, to the boastful (3:21) and arrogant (4:19) whose Corinthian passions (e.g., selfish ambition, competitive attitude, thirst for position) overshadowed their Christian priorities (e.g., love, humility, peace-making), Paul brings three humbling doctrines.

In 1:18–25, he calls into question the wisdom and power of the Corinthians by means of Jesus’ cross. In 1:26–31, he challenges the status of the Corinthians by means of the Father’s election. And in 2:1–16, he overturns the wisdom and knowledge of the Corinthians by means of the Spirit’s illumination. Crucifixion, election, and illumination—in these three doctrines, God gives a triune antidote for churches divided by boastful, arrogant people. 

The Son’s Crucifixion

Instead of following the historia salutis (i.e., the Father’s election in eternity, then the Son’s atonement on Calvary, then the Spirit’s outpouring and illumination at Pentecost), Paul begins with the doctrine we most need—the doctrine of the cross. He writes in 1:18, “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.” In one verse, he splits humanity into two groups—those perishing and those being saved. The difference between them is their relationship to the cross.

He explains that those who want power (sign-seeking Jews) and those who trust in knowledge (wisdom-wanting Gentiles) are both perishing. Salvation comes through faith—faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul, who once repudiated the cross, now boasts in its power. Christ died to cleanse and justify sinners (1 Corinthians 6:11) and to give life to all who trust in his name. Because such faith requires the sinner to confess (repeatedly) the hideousness of their own righteousness (cf. Isaiah 64:6), the cross strikes at the heart of a person who thinks highly of themselves.

Proud churches carry the accomplishments of their culture into the church. And to speak from personal experience, it is may be the most successful in the community who are the most poisonous for the church. Christ doesn’t need local heroes to build his church, he needs crucified saints. Local heroes, untouched by the cross of Christ, will destroy the church. For this reason, the first doctrine to emphasize in a church divided by those who boast in themselves is the doctrine of Christ’s cross.

The Father’s Election

Next, Paul turns to the Father’s calling. He writes in 1:26, “For consider your calling, brothers . . .” Already, Paul has spoken of his apostolic calling (1:1), the Corinthians calling to be saints (1:2), and their shared calling into the fellowship of the Son (1:9). In contradistinction with the Jews and Gentiles, Paul identifies “the called” in 1:24, and here he reminds the “called” of God’s effectual calling. The “calling” in view is not merely the gospel message they heard, but the powerful, regenerative work of God whose calling brought them to life.

Paul reminds the Corinthians of their previous condition: “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (v. 26b). He qualifies their calling by saying three times “God chose” (v. 27): God chose the things that are foolish, weak, low and despised to shame the things that are wise, strong, and prestigious. In Paul’s words, the doctrine of election humbles those who have ears to hear in two ways.

First, God’s calling is not based on any condition in man.

God’s choice is wholly dependent on his wisdom and purposes. Somewhere after Paul left Corinth, the Corinthians had begun to boast in the gifts they had. Such boasting took the gift of salvation and the gifts of the Spirit and made them commodities in which the Corinthians took pride. Like a two-year old boasting in the size of his inheritance, the Corinthians mistook God’s free grace with their own achievements. Paul writes in response: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (4:7). He reminds them that before Christ, most of them were nothing in the eyes of the world. And those who were something, he instructs to become fools (3:18).

Second, God’s unconditional election is meant to increase praise to God.

Paul quotes from Jeremiah 9:23–24 in order to direct all praise to God: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:31). God alone is worthy of praise. Those who boast in men (3:21) steal God’s praise and make idols of the flesh. Paul repudiated the congratulatory spirit of the Corinthians. By contrast, he teaches us to assess any good thing in us as a gift from Him. He calls for the Corinthians to humble themselves before God and fill their mouth with praise to him. For men and women made to worship, the doctrine of election purifies and magnifies our praise.

Churches that ignore this gracious doctrine do so to their own peril, and churches that oppose unconditional election actually create an environment for pride. Few things fuel pride like a spirit that says, “I chose God.” Conversely, few doctrines produce humility and gratitude like a proper understanding of election. To a church boasting in their strength, Paul stresses God’s unconditional election: “God chose . . . God chose . . . God chose . . .” He strips them of any ability to boast in themselves. What makes them different from anyone else? Only the electing grace of God.

For church unity, election is a necessary and health-giving doctrine. Without it, churches are positioned to congratulate themselves, find fault with those who don’t measure up, and divide themselves into different camps. With the doctrine of election, the lowly are elevated as heirs of the kingdom and the esteemed of this world are brought low, for they share the same position as their weaker brothers. What other doctrine does more to eliminate the pride and pretense of this age? Election is not an elitist doctrine; it is just the opposite. It humbles the proud and gives grace to the humble.

The Spirit’s Illumination

Finally, Paul calls attention to the illuminating work of the Spirit in 2:1–16. First, Paul reminds the Corinthians of his own ministry among them, where he intentionally relied upon the work of the Spirit rather than any human eloquence or ability (2:1–5). Esteeming his weakness in a culture that prized wisdom, strength, and position, he called attention to the power of the Spirit. He reminded them that their faith did not depend on “the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (v. 5). God granted them spiritual power to believe when the gospel came to them (see Acts 18), and now he is challenging the fractured church to find unity in the Spirit that dwells in their midst (1 Corinthians 3:16–17).

In the flow of the chapter, verse 5 introduces the Holy Spirit. The rest of the chapter explains how the Spirit reveals true wisdom. Verses 6–9 Paul counters his attack against wisdom. As verse 6 reveals, the apostle is not against wisdom en toto. He is against wisdom that comes from the world, that denies Christ, that boasts in human ingenuity. By contrast, to the mature, Paul does speak of spiritual truths—namely “the secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:7). As with Paul’s mention of the Father’s election, Paul again appeals to his sovereignty to stress man’s absolute dependence on the divine.

In all our collective efforts we cannot overthrow God’s eternal plans, and thus wisdom comes when we humble ourselves to his will. Yet, spiritual wisdom does not devolve into speculations about eternal decrees either. Rather, it focuses on the cross. The cross makes visible in time the invisible, eternal plans of God (cf. Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). At the cross we find light in our times of darkness and fellowship in our times of suffering. In this way, spiritual wisdom unifies the church by binding us together in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While many churches build themselves around eschatological positions, ministerial programs, or the wide-ranging interests of their various constituents, the church of Jesus Christ wisely anchors itself to the gospel and repudiates any other message as foolishness.

In Corinth, the church had lost its focus on true wisdom through its attachment to spiritual gifts, charismatic leaders, and adopting other cultural practices. Accordingly, Paul elevates the spiritual wisdom of Christ above the worldly wisdom of the Corinthians. Wise churches will do the same, and as 1 Corinthians 2:10–16 goes on to say, they will consider their understanding of spiritual truth a miraculous gift of grace—not the result of a superior intellect.

After announcing the Holy Spirit as the true source of wisdom in 2:10, Paul goes on to explain the “teaching ministry” of the Holy Spirit. In verses 10–11 he says the Spirit as God knows the infinite mind of God, whereby qualifying him to make known to us the mind of Christ (2:16). In short order, Paul crucifies any notion of man’s natural ability to know God. Only those who are taught by the Spirit can know God (2:13). This doesn’t mean the unregenerate cannot know things about God; it does mean only those made alive by the Spirit have spiritual perception and power to understand and apply the claims of the gospel.

Very simply Paul divides all humanity into two camps in verses 14–16: the natural man does not accept the things of God’s Spirit because they are folly to him (v. 14); the spiritual man, by contrast, has the Spirit of God and is able to discern the mind of Christ revealed in his Word and in turn is able to discern the things of the world (v. 15). Verse 16 finishes with a quotation from Isaiah 40:13, “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” This final rhetorical question anticipates a negative answer; however, Paul says “But we have the mind of Christ.”

All glory be to God! The Christian knows in fact the things of God, but not because he has wisely divined the things of heaven. No, God has graciously revealed them to the man who has the Holy Spirit. Paul’s whole point is to undercut the boastful pride that comes to people when they “know something.” Paul reminds the Corinthians: If you know anything, have any insight into the things of God, it is all of grace. Therefore, stop boasting as if you are so wise.

Paul’s teaching about the Holy Spirit, when understood, engenders incredible humility before God and compassion towards others. The blind man who has received sight cannot boast in his ability to see; he boasts in the surgeon who opened his eyes. Likewise, the dead man who has no interest in the things of God, cannot boast in self-created passion for Christ. He must boast in the Lord who replaced his stony heart with a heart in love with God. This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2.

Paul reminds the Corinthians how they came to know God, so that they would look differently at one another. Instead of boasting in their knowledge, the doctrine of illumination is meant lead us to praise God. At the same time, when we encounter others who “don’t get it,” our response must be humble compassion, not impatient ridicule. Likewise, the doctrine of illumination should lead us to pray as Paul did for God to grant the power to understand and perceive with the eyes of faith the realities of Christ’s cross and God’s love (see Ephesians 1 and 3). Indeed, imagine the effect this would have on your church, if the doctrine of illumination became a prominent, life-on-life reality.

This is what Paul is hoping will happen in Corinth and thus he works hard to show the ministry of the Spirit.

Putting Theology into Practice

When we pull back from 1 Corinthians 1–2, we find an incredibly theological and practical approach to uniting a fractured church. Even more, we see how the unified work of our triune God brings into reality a church that reflects his unity in diversity. While Paul will tease this out later in chapters 12–14, it is worth noticing how the doctrines of Christ’s crucifixion, the Father’s election, and the Spirit’s illumination are used at the front of Paul’s letter. Always Trinitarian in his approach, the great church planter and apostle plumbs the depths of theology mature the infantile Corinthians.

In this way, Paul models for us how Christ builds his church. Rather than watering down doctrine, or withholding theology for a later time, he begins by pressing upon the Corinthians the powerful working of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity, for Paul, is not an esoteric doctrine to discuss among the mature; rather, it shapes the very nature of the gospel on which the church is built. Likewise, election, crucifixion, and illumination are doctrines necessary for the growth of the church. Reticence towards them or rejection of them robs the church needed nutrients for its growth.

Sadly, many churches try to grow without the macronutrients Paul gives to the Corinthians. Accordingly, too many churches unite around preferences and other procedures, instead of sound doctrine. May we learn from Paul’s approach that doctrine is not at odds with practice, but rather it is the most practical thing we can give a young church. And in time, may we see unity formed in our churches as we give ourselves to the study of doctrine, practically applied.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds