The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 14, 2003
The church in Corinth had many problems. One might even say that this was a ‘problem church’. In response to the problems within the church in Corinth, Paul writes this letter. And given this context, you might expect Paul to ‘sink his teeth’ into this congregation that had gone astray. Yet, Paul does not begin his letter in this manner.
After introducing himself and “Sosthenes our brother”, Paul addresses his letter to “the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, holy ones by calling” (1:2).
The congregation in Corinth is in a state of total disorder. Unhealthy divisions exist, they are tolerating inappropriate behaviour, they are misusing their spiritual gifts, and they are abusing their freedom in Christ. And how does Paul address them? “To the church of God which is at Corinth” (1:2). This dysfunctional group is still God’s church, and as God’s church Paul intends on correcting them with great tenderness.
Yes, Paul does intend on rebuking the Corinthians on a number of fronts, but not before reminding them of the nature of their relationship with God. Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that they “have been sanctified in Christ Jesus”—they are “holy ones by calling.”
Now, the term sanctification, in the New Testament, carries more than one meaning. In its more common context (Rom. 6:19; 1Thess. 4:3), sanctification is the lifelong process that follows justification whereby the Spirit-filled Christian becomes increasingly transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Given this definition, you would expect the term sanctification to occur in the present tense, and not the past tense. Yet this verse speaks of a definitive moment in the past—“(you) have been sanctified in Christ”, Paul tells them.
Noting the tense of the verb, Bible commentator, Gordon Fee, understands sanctified in this context to mean ‘set apart’. Just as certain utensils were set apart for exclusive use in the Jewish Temple, the Christian person is set apart entirely for God’s purposes (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 32). This view is buttressed by the fact that Paul also calls the Corinthians “holy ones”, which literally translated, reads ‘set apart ones’.
The reference to being holy then, is a reference to a conferred status as opposed to an acquired behaviour. Paul also tells the Corinthians that they are holy “by calling”. And while this conferred status of being “holy” has not yet translated into behavioural adjustments, Paul intimates that this should ultimately be the case. In the coming weeks you will see this as a prominent theme in 1Corinthians—that ‘holy by calling’ should inevitably lead to holy living.
And how is this possible? What is going to enable the Corinthians to lead holy lives? Paul’s answer is grace. “I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge . . . so that you are not lacking any gift” (1:4,5,7).
As Presbyterians, we regularly talk about how grace saves—we like to quote Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” We like to sing, ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.’
Yet, I fear that sometimes we forget that grace is not simply saving, but it is also sustaining. We forget that the reason we are spiritually enriched in speech and knowledge, the reason we are spiritually gifted to serve, is also due to grace. John Newton understood this when he wrote, ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.’
The Christian life is not simply grace out of the starting blocks to get us going; the Christian life requires grace from beginning to end. And, what’s more, is that this grace is free—it is not earned; it is not acquired by human effort—“it is the gift of God”(Eph. 2:8); it is given freely to you “in Christ Jesus”(1Cor. 1:4).
There is a great story from many years ago about a British conference on comparative religions. Experts from around the world gathered to debate whether there was any belief that was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities one by one, and the debate went on for quite some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. ‘What’s the rumpus about?’ he asked, and heard in reply that they were discussing whether Christianity had a unique contribution among the world religions. Lewis responded, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.’
After some further discussion, Lewis’ colleagues were compelled to agree. The notion of God’s pardon, favour, and assistance coming to us free of charge set Christianity apart from the rest. Grace as a free, undeserved, gift sharply contrasted the Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, and the Muslim code of law.
But, what about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures? What about the commands outlined in the New Testament by Jesus and His apostles?
With regard to the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul explains in Romans 3 that these laws were not given as a means of salvation, but as a way of revealing our sin—a way of revealing our helplessness before God, and our need for a Saviour (Rom. 3:19,20).
And, with regard to the plethora of exhortations in the New Testament, these are given so that we might appropriately respond to grace already given. Obedience to the commands of Scripture then, is not the basis of our salvation, but it is the evidence that we have indeed experienced saving grace.
Thus far, we have learned again from Paul the origin of grace. Grace is “given to (us) by Christ Jesus”(1Cor. 1:4) with no respect to any good works that we have done (Eph. 2:8).
We have also learned from Paul what grace provides. In addition to saving us (Eph. 2:8), grace equips us to do good works. Paul says that it enriches our speech and knowledge; grace is what fuels our spiritual gifts (1Cor. 1:5,7).
And finally, Paul teaches us what grace requires. I do not mean to imply that grace is conditional. Grace is free and cannot be earned by meeting certain requirements. When I say that Paul outlines for us what grace requires, I mean to say that Paul teaches us that there is an appropriate way for individuals and communities to respond to God’s grace. There is a way to honour God for His grace freely given. And the response that Paul calls for from the Corinthians is unity.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the church knows that unity is sometimes difficult to preserve. Mark Twain used to say that he put a dog and cat in a cage together as an experiment, to see if they could get along. They did, so he put in a bird, a pig, and a goat. They, too, got along fine after a few adjustments. Then he put in a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic; soon there was not a living thing left.
Unity within the church is sometimes difficult to preserve, but nevertheless, we must relentlessly pursue its preservation. Paul is adamant on this issue, “I exhort you” he begins, “that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment”(1:10).
Beloved, Paul is not calling for a superficial kind of unity here. Paul is not asking the Corinthians to set aside their differences and hold hands. Paul is calling for the elimination of doctrinal differences. Paul is pleading, “speak the same thing”.
The Corinthians were not “speaking the same thing”. Superficially, they might have been united; superficially they existed as one congregation, but Paul has learned of how their “quarrels” have led to divisions.
When Paul speaks of the divisions in Corinth he uses the Greek word, schisma, which literally translated gives us the English word, schism. Schisma is sometimes used to describe a torn garment. And, for those of us who know what it is like to have a torn garment understand that a superficial remedy will not do. A safety pin is not going to be an effective long-term solution. If our torn garment to be usable again we will need it to be sewn together.
In the same way, Paul who likens the divisions in Corinth to a torn garment calls for them to be properly united by using a Greek word that means ‘to mend’ (katartizo [kat-ar-tid-zo]). In other words, a safety pin will not do. A band-aid solution will not suffice.
So often, we settle for a dumbed-down version of unity that is really no unity at all. Unity, according to the biblical standard, calls for Christians to say the same thing, and to be of the same mind and judgment.
This is the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for. In what is known as the High Priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus prayed, “Father . . . that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me” (Jn. 17:22,23).
Pursuing unity, as Paul defines it, is the Christian community’s appropriate response to God’s grace. And, describing unity in a like manner, Jesus explains how unity within the church is critical to our witness in this world.
How shall we pursue this unity? The late A.W. Tozer would often argue that, while the Church was to pursue unity, it was to do so by endeavouring to become like Christ. And, to articulate his understanding of unity, Tozer would employ the analogy of tuning pianos. If a hundred pianos were merely tuned to each other, their pitch would not be very accurate. But if they were all tuned to one tuning fork, they would automatically be tuned to each other.
Similarly, pursuing unity in the church isn't trying to be the same as everyone else. Rather, if we are all speaking as Christ would speak, then we will be speaking the same thing. And if our judgments match Christ’s judgments, then our judgments will be the same.
God’s grace is indeed amazing. God’s grace is indeed marvelous. And, if we have been transformed by this grace, a response is called for. We must pursue unity in honour of our Saviour, and for the sake of our witness. Amen.