Do we need the whole counsel of God or is the knowledge that Christ was crucified for our sins enough?
This is a common debate in many Christian circles. On the one hand are those who affirm, with Paul, that Christ and him crucified alone should be our message (1 Corinthians 2:2). Therefore, any time we gather together, the cross must always be the subject of our message. Many people in this category are wary of theological sophistication that they fear can make Christianity a mere intellectual religion that obscures the cross.
On the other hand are those who affirm with Peter that we should grow in the knowledge of God (2 Peter 3:18) and that Christians should have a deeper theological understanding of the faith they profess. These people often decry the ignorance in our pulpits and pews and how believers are often ill-equipped to present and defend their faith in the marketplace of ideas.
So, which one is it? More theological sophistication or a singular focus on Christ and him crucified?
When Paul was taking steps to go to Jerusalem in Acts 20, he decided to schedule a meeting with the Ephesian elders in Miletus. In this meeting, he gave an overview of his ministry as a way of encouraging them to be faithful in the discharge of theirs.
Paul said two things that are relevant for our purpose. First, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (verse 20). Second, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (verse 27).
These two verses describe the comprehensiveness of what Paul taught the Ephesians while he was with them. We can get a feel for this by looking at the letter he sent to them. In that letter, he taught them about the eternal counsels of God, predestination, salvation by grace through faith, regeneration, the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s work, the union of Jews and Gentiles in the church as a fulfilment of OT expectations, spiritual gifts, sanctification, Christian morality and ethics, and spiritual warfare, among others.
According to John Gill, the whole counsel of God that Paul declared refers to “his revealed will in the Gospel, concerning the salvation of men by Jesus Christ, even the whole of the gospel, every truth and doctrine of it, necessary to salvation, and to the peace, joy, and comfort of the saints; together with all the ordinances of it, and everything that had any tendency to promote the glory of God, and the good of souls.”
In other words, Paul declared unto them everything that would glorify God by deepening their understanding of who he is and what he has done, and everything that tends to the good of the soul (its peace, joy, and comfort).
Yes, the secret things belong to God (Deuteronomy 29:29), but the ones that have been revealed belong to us. Consequently, Paul was ready to declare unto his audience everything that has been revealed regarding Christ and the salvation he has purchased for us. And he did this because the whole revealed counsel of God tends to both God’s glory and our good.
Conversely, we find Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:2 saying that he decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Does this then mean that Paul wanted to focus solely on the cross to the exclusion of the whole revealed counsel of God?
According to Thomas Schreiner, Paul’s point here is that he did not seek to use lofty rhetoric to hide the reality that the one whom Christians worship was a subject of crucifixion. “Paul did not want the Corinthians to be impressed by his rhetoric, and thus did not preach to please and entertain his audience. In his preaching he focused on Jesus Christ as the crucified one, He did not flinch from proclaiming that the Lord of the world was crucified, and so from the outset the Corinthians encountered the shameful message of the cross. The substance of Paul’s message, in other words, was not angled to receive human approval.”
This is easier to understand when we consider the context: 1 Corinthians 1. The word of the cross is folly to unbelievers since to them the cross can mean nothing more than weakness (verse 18). If the world needed salvation, it was a strong, powerful man that could give it, not a weak, crucified man, they thought. The gospel was, therefore, folly to unbelieving Gentiles just as it was a weakness to unbelieving Jews (vs 20-24).
Consequently, it is understandable why Paul could have been tempted to hide the cross and focus, perhaps, on the glory of Christ’s pre-incarnation and post-ascension status. He could have pandered to the zeitgeist to meet the expectations of the Corinthians. Instead, he stuck to the message of Christ and him crucified as the central truth of the gospel instead of trying to make himself and the gospel intellectually satisfying to those who see nothing in a cross but weakness and folly.
Richard Hays also notes that by seeking to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, Paul wanted to emphasise that it was “the kerygmatic content of his preaching, not the manner of presentation, that won the Corinthians to the gospel.” In other words, “the hyperbolic formulation underscores Paul’s point emphatically: the Corinthians’ own faith was elicited not by some refined discourse but by the straightforward narrative of Jesus’ death as God’s saving event.”
R.C. Sproul also adds some clarity to this text. First, he notes that Paul actually taught the Corinthians many things in addition to Christ’s crucifixion. “Clearly Paul was determined to know all kinds of things besides the person and work of Jesus. He wanted to teach the Corinthians about the deep things of the character and nature of God the Father. He planned to instruct them about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, about Christian ethics, and about many other things that go beyond the immediate scope of Christ’s work on the cross.”
Therefore, Paul’s point was that “in all of his teaching, in all of his preaching, in all of his missionary activity, the central point of importance was the cross. In effect, this teacher was saying to his students, “You might forget other things that I teach you, but don’t ever forget the cross, because it was on the cross, through the cross, and by the cross that our Savior performed His work of redemption and gathered His people for eternity.”
To summarise, Paul is making three points here. First, the cross is central to the Christian message. Whatever else we preach (the whole counsel of God), they must all revolve around the cross. Second, because the cross is offensive to the unbelieving world, it is easy to want to omit it; we must resist this temptation and put it in its place of prime importance. Third, the content of the gospel must be prioritised over the rhetorical flourish in which it is delivered.
It is worth repeating that the central place of Christ and him crucified does not negate the declaration of the whole counsel of God. We see this in the same 1 Corinthians.
When Paul was reminding the Corinthians of the gospel he preached to them in chapter 15, he did not isolate the cross. He delivered at least four truths of first importance: Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ was raised, and Christ appeared to lots of people. And then he went on to discuss the resurrection of Christ and its implication for ours.
In fact, in the same 1 Corinthians 2, we find Paul connecting wisdom/knowledge with Christian maturity.
“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away,” he said (1 Corinthians 2:6).
This wisdom refers to the mysteries of God – truths about God’s plan to redeem the world through Christ that were hidden in the OT (primarily) but have now been revealed with the coming of Christ. Or, as Albert Barnes puts it, these are “truths which until the revelation of Jesus Christ were concealed from people, which were either hidden under obscure types and shadows or prophecies, or which had been altogether unrevealed, and unknown to the world.” 
Now that Christ has come, the Spirit reveals these things (the depths of God) to us “so that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (verse 12). In essence, Christian maturity allows us to gain a deeper understanding of Christ’s person and work and Paul is all for that.
Paul makes this same point in Colossians 1:24-29. Paul’s aim was to present everyone mature in Christ and this would involve them receiving and delighting in the mystery of God, which is the glory that awaits believers because of their union with Christ.
We see something similar in the fifth and sixth chapters of Hebrews.
The author of this letter complained about his audience’s dullness of hearing.
Instead of growing up to become teachers, they still needed to be taught the “basic principles of the oracles of God” (5:12). That is, instead of solid food, they were still on a milk diet, just like children. They were not growing to maturity, where they could consume meat and be like those “who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:14).
According to N.T. Wright, these people were “being sluggish in their capacity to take things in.” They had the “lazy inclination to say, ‘How about something a bit easier?’ which is nothing more than saying ‘we’re too lazy to do that.’” The author was worried because “within quite a short time a Christian community, and the individuals within it, ought to grow up to the stage that they can themselves instruct those who are younger in the faith.”
What then is the maturity the author wanted for them? “He wants them to know their way around the whole message of scripture and of the gospel, to be able to handle this message in relation to their own lives, their communities and the wider world, and to see how all the different parts of God’s revelation fit together, apply to different situations and have the power to transform lives and situations.” Said differently, “the Christian individual, and the Christian community as a whole in any church or place, should expect to grow up to maturity in discovering the difference between what is appropriate behaviour for a Christian and what is inappropriate.”
Basically, by growing in our understanding of the whole counsel of God, we are better able to please and glorify God through an improved capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. That is, Christian discernment varies directly with Christian knowledge.
The author of Hebrews goes on in chapter 6 to encourage the believers to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1). He then highlights some of these elementary doctrines that constitute the foundation of Christian theology (verse 2).
“His main point is that when you’ve learnt the ABC of the Christian faith you must go on from there,” said Wright. “You can’t go backwards, any more than you can set off on a bicycle and then, a minute later, cycle backwards to where you began and start off again. If you try to do that, you’ll fall off, which is more or less what verse 6 says.”
After the foundational doctrinal knowledge of verse 2 and the spiritual experience of verses 4 and 5, they are to move on to maturity instead of falling away. They must embrace the “developed and wide-ranging truths” that the author wants to teach them, both intellectually and spiritually (truth must bear fruit in faith, repentance, obedience, perseverance – Hebrews 3 and 4).
“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
To grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ is to grow in the knowledge of “his person, office, and grace” and this “is the principal thing in grace, and is the beginning and pledge of eternal life, and will issue in it; for an increase of which, and a growth in it, the word and ordinances are designed; and nothing can be a greater security against error than an experimental growing knowledge of Christ.”
This knowledge of Christ is to be both intellectual and spiritual. The whole counsel of God is designed to deepen both our knowledge and experience of the gospel.
Most of the diatribes against theological knowledge result from a separation of knowledge and experience. But this is an unnecessary dichotomy.
According to Sinclair Ferguson, “the conviction that Christian doctrine matters for Christian living is one of the most important growth points of the Christian life.” “Both Scripture and the history of the church indicate to us that it is, generally speaking, ‘thinkers’ who make the best ‘doers.’ “From the greatest theologians, martyrs, and intellectually gifted preachers, to those of lowliest gifts but spiritual power, all, perhaps without exception, have been students of the doctrines of the Bible, and therein lies one of the secrets of their usefulness.” And this is not surprising since “how we think is the great determining factor in how we live!”
Christ crucified remains central to the Christian message and this can be seen in the fact that the cross remains the symbol of our faith. Without that cross, we are all doomed under God’s wrath, irrespective of what else we know about him.
“If the Cross of Christ is anything to the mind, it is surely everything – the most profound reality and the sublimest mystery. One comes to realize that literally all the wealth and glory of the gospel centres here. The Cross is the pivot as well as the centre of New Testament thought. It is the exclusive mark of the Christian faith, the symbol of Christianity and its cynosure.”
Yet, a better understanding of the whole counsel of God enriches our understanding of, delight in, and experience of that cross. The more we know the OT, the more the mysteries of the gospel appear on our horizon. The more we know about God, the better we appreciate his plan of salvation, and the more about Christ’s person we know, the more we are left in awe of his work.
Similarly, we come to value the cross more when we see its cosmic dimensions (in Ephesians 1, Colossians 1-2, and Romans 8, for example) and the glories that await us because of it.
And, as we have seen, the whole counsel of God enriches our spiritual discernment, which is crucial to our capacity to live the Christian life in this world to the honour and glory of God.
In essence, the things that are revealed belong to us and our children and they are for the good (peace, joy, and comfort) of our souls and the glory of God.
O Jesus, joy of loving hearts,
thou fount of life, thou light of men,
from fullest bliss that earth imparts
we turn unfilled to thee again,
we turn unfilled to thee again.
Thy truth unchanged has ever stood,
thou savest those that on thee call;
to them that seek thee, thou art good,
to them that find thee, all in all,
to them that find thee, all in all.
We taste thee, O thou living bread,
and long to feast upon thee still;
we drink of thee, the fountainhead,
and thirst our souls from thee to fill,
and thirst our souls from thee to fill.
Our restless spirits yearn for thee,
where’er our changeful lot is cast,
glad that thy gracious smile we see,
blest that our faith can hold thee fast,
blest that our faith can hold thee fast.
O Jesus, ever with us stay,
make all our moments calm and bright;
chase the dark night of sin away,
shed o’er the world thy holy light,
shed o’er the world thy holy light.
 John Gill, Exposition of the Bible. Available at: https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/acts-20-27.html
 Thomas Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2018), p. 144, Scribd.
 Richard Hays, First Corinthians: Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 80, Scribd.
 R.C Sproul, What Does It Mean to Know Nothing except Christ and Him Crucified? Available at: What Does It Mean to Know Nothing except Christ and Him Crucified? (ligonier.org)
 Albert Barnes, Notes on The Whole Bible. Available at: 1 Corinthians 2 – Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible – Bible Commentaries – StudyLight.org
 N.T Wright, Hebrews for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), p. 66, Scribd.
 Ibid, 67.
 John Gill, Exposition of The Whole Bible. Available at: 2 Peter 3:18 – Bible Verse Meaning and Commentary (biblestudytools.com)
 Sinclair Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), p. 1-2.
 Samuel Zwemer in John Stott, The Cross of Christ (London: InterVarsity Press, 2017), p.52.