Thank God For His Grace!
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
This morning we begin a study of 1 Corinthians. Let’s dive right in (read 1:1,2a). This is a letter (actually the second letter) the apostle Paul wrote to a group of Christians who lived in the city of Corinth (MAP). Corinth, the third largest city in the Roman Empire, was the Las Vegas/New Orleans of the Roman Empire. It was infamous for its moral debauchery (to “Corinthianize” was to engage in sexual debauchery that disgusted Romans).
Paul had come to Corinth about three years earlier, and many people became Christians through his influence. Paul has recently received word that the Corinthian church has some serious moral problems. For example:
Many of them are mired in relational alienation, even to the point of factions and suing one another.
Many of them are enmeshed in social snobbery and materialism—and proud of it.
Some of them are involved in sexual immorality, including using prostitutes and even engaging in incest.
Several of them have serious marriage problems, including sexual dysfunction and separation.
Some of them have serious substance abuse issues, even to the point of getting drunk at their home Bible studies.
Many of them are using their spirituality selfishly—running over weaker brethren and using their Bible studies as a stage for drawing attention to themselves.
What’s your reaction to the Corinthian church? Do you think: “Ugh! What a terrible church!” If so, you won’t like our church, because believe me, it’s a lot like the Corinthian church! We’ve got all of these problems! Some of this describes me, some of this describes many of my friends here—and (if you’re honest) some of it also describes you. We’ve got serious moral problems, and we need help!
This is why 1 Corinthians is such a great letter. It’s not a collection of sentimental maxims for nice people; it is wise counsel for real Christians with real sins. And it begins in a truly remarkable way. How would you expect Paul to begin his letter to this church? You might expect Paul to begin with a scathing rebuke (“You’re in big trouble with God;” “You’re embarrassing me”), or at least with an immediate focus on practical moral correction. But instead, Paul begins by redundantly thanking God for the grace He has given them through Jesus (read 1:3,4). “Grace” doesn’t mean a memorized prayer before Thanksgiving dinner; it is the greatest word in the New Testament. It means a free-and-precious gift given to those who don’t deserve it. God’s grace comes to us through Jesus Christ, and it is given to every single person who believes in Jesus, no matter how many/serious moral problems they have. What has God’s grace given every believer? Paul reminds them of four ways aspects (there are more, but these are striking)...
Four aspects of God’s grace
“I have given you permanent ‘saint’ status.” Read 1:2. We think of “saints” as an elite group of spiritual heroes who attain that status because of their extreme devotion and sacrifice. But Paul says the Corinthian Christians are “saints” and “have been sanctified.” “Saint” and “sanctified” have the same root, which means to be set apart as special, to belong to God as His precious children. God permanently conferred this status on them (“saints by calling”) the moment they “called upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NIV “called to be holy” is inaccurate.)
So it is proper and significant to refer to each Corinthian Christian (and each Christian here) as “saints.” Such is God’s grace means that our standing with Him (like family membership) is not based at all on what we do for Him, but entirely on what Christ has done for us.
“I have full gifted you to represent Christ.” Read 1:5-7a. God not only made them saints; he also gave them the privilege of representing him in their world and he richly supplied them with the spiritual gifts to do this effectively. “Gift” (charisma) refers to these spiritual abilities, and it derives from the same root as “grace.” 1:6 says God gave them these gifts the moment they received Christ.
The gifting to influence others for Jesus Christ is given to every one of us from the moment we meet Him. No matter how spiritually new or ignorant or immature you may be, you have this same privilege. God has uniquely gifted you to share what you know about Jesus and influence others toward him. God has uniquely gifted you to share Jesus’ love and truth with other Christians and build them up in their faith. And he has put you with other Christians who, as a team, have everything we need to build one another up and be a light for Him in this community and beyond.
“I guarantee you eternal security.” Read 1:7b,8. When Christ returns visibly, he will judge mankind for its sins. In view of their many sins, how could the Corinthians be “awaiting eagerly” this day? Because Christ would “confirm them to the end blameless” when He returns. “Confirm” means issuing something like a LIFETIME WARRANTY or a GUARANTEED CONTRACT).
If you have put your faith in Christ, you can look forward to His return, not because you are blameless or because you hope to live a blameless life by then, but because He promises to confirm you blameless on that day. How? Because of God’s grace—Christ's payment for your sins has once and for all time assured you of your membership in his eternal kingdom. You will not even appear at this judgment to see if you are worthy of entering his kingdom; you have already passed out of that judgment into eternal life (Jn.5:24).
“I make you welcome in My Son’s presence at any time.” Read 1:9. “Fellowship” can mean partnership, but it also means personal, relational sharing (see Acts2:42; 1Jn.1:3). That’s what it means here. The door is open to come into Jesus’ personal presence, to experience His love and help and encouragement, and to make Him your closest friend. And the great news is that this opportunity is not based on our faithfulness to God (which is never perfect and varies constantly), but on God’s faithfulness to us! We don’t have to be “presentable” through super-devotion. We don’t have to shrink back when we have blown it badly. We are welcome on a completely different basis that never changes.
Think again about how serious the Corinthians’ moral problems were (LIST). Now compare those problems to what Paul insists is theirs through God’s grace (LIST). Think about what they are doing (LIST). Now think about who God says they are (LIST). The fact that Paul begins his letter this way provides us with two radically counterintuitive lessons about God’s grace, which is the heart of biblical Christianity.
Two counter-intuitive lessons of God’s grace
The first counter-intuitive implication is how to become a Christian. The key to becoming a Christian is not your commitment to do something for God, but your willingness to receive something God has done for you. This must be the case, because the Corinthians were not doing much for God—but Paul affirms in the strongest terms that they were truly Christians.
This makes Christianity fundamentally different from all other religions, including “Christian” religion. All religions teach that salvation (however it is defined) is something we earn by our performance. It’s like a ladder with rungs that we have to climb up to get to salvation. The rungs may differ slightly (e.g., BUDDHISM’S 8-FOLD PATH; ISLAM’S 5 PILLARS; CHRISTIAN RELIGION: BAPTISM, CHURCH MEMBERSHIP, 10 COMMANDMENTS), but it’s all the same approach. But biblical Christianity throws away the ladder and provides a totally different way to salvation. Jesus climbed the ladder for us. He earned salvation for us by His perfect performance. God is reaching down through Jesus to offer us a gift; we simply choose to receive it with empty hands.
Since you are here this morning, you are probably open to your need for God/salvation. But you’re probably asking yourself the wrong questions (“Am I willing to quit certain sins, get baptized, give up my Sunday mornings to come here, work at learning the Bible, try to be kind and forgiving, etc.?” These are good eventual results of becoming a Christian, but they are not the way to become a Christian! As important as these questions may be down the line, you need to drop them for now, and instead focus on just one question: “Am I willing to receive God’s grace through Jesus?” Are you willing to ask God to give you the gift of sainthood, eternal security, and relational access to Jesus? If you can answer “yes” to this question, then you qualify to become a Christian. Simply tell Jesus this. Tell Him in your own words, tell Him in the quiet of your own heart. The moment you do this, he will give you all this and much more!
The second counter-intuitive implication is how to seek deep moral change as a Christian. We intuitively think it is primarily through moral instruction plus rules plus will-power. But it is primarily by deepening your understanding of and dependence on what God’s grace has already made you (your new identity in Christ). Paul wants the Corinthians to experience real moral change, and he will give them practical moral instruction. But he doesn’t begin here—he begins by reminding them of who they already are through Christ. And when he gives them moral instruction later in the letter, he will keep connecting that instruction to their new identity. Why? Because identity influences behavior far more deeply than moral instruction. Put differently, who we perceive ourselves to be is the strongest influence on what we do.
Suppose you adopt a 12-year-old girl who has been taught from childhood that her value is based on being very skinny. She is bulimic. Will you teach her proper nutrition, warn her of the health hazards of bulimia, and urge her to eat well outside of the home? Of course. But your instruction and rules alone won’t change her eating habits. She needs a breakthrough on who she is—that she is loved and valuable because she is your child, not because she can get/stay skinny. This is where the real battle is, this where the real change needs to occur—so if you are a wise parent, you will focus primarily on explaining and modeling this and praying for her enlightenment on this.
Suppose you adopt a child who has grown up as an orphan on the street, surviving by stealing and running from the police. Will you be surprised that your child still steals even though you provide him with his needs? Will you be surprised that he lies when you confront him about his stealing? You will need to make rules against stealing and lying, and consequences concerning these wrong behaviors, but he won’t change deeply until he begins to truly believe that he is your son and that you will take care of him. This is where the real battle is, this where the real change needs to occur—so if you are a wise parent, you will focus primarily on explaining and modeling this and praying for her enlightenment on this.
Which moral problems are you mired in (LIST)? Are you trying to fix these by more moral will-power, more practical rules, etc.? There is a place for these, but they will not produce the deep change you need. This approach (moralism) is how we intuitively seek change—but it will always leave you frustrated and discouraged and/or dishonest. No, Paul says, there is some deep need that God has already met, some aspect of who He has already made you, that you don’t know or have forgotten or don’t believe—and this is the real reason for your moral defeat (EXAMPLES FROM LIST). What you need most is for God to teach you how to live more consistently out of your new identity; this is how He will bring real moral change in your life. This is what you can learn as we study 1Corinthians. And this will teach you how to help the other Christians in your life—your spouse, your children, your Christian friends. Let’s pray that God will bring this home to all of us as we study 1Corinthians in the coming weeks.
The NIV translation is misleading here. “Make you strong” is bebaioo, a technical term for confirming or guaranteeing legal contracts. “So that you will be” is not in the text. Paul is not saying that God will make them strong so that they will be blameless when Christ returns; he is saying that God will confirm them blameless (in Christ) to the end.