Sermon Discussion Questions:
1. Do you tend to divide your life into "spiritual" and "normal" areas? Why is this a bad idea?
2. If Paul sees his letter as a means of grace to the church (See 1 Cor 1:3), then what does that tell us about God's grace, since much fo the letter is corrective?
3. Why is it significant that Paul is able to thank God for the Corinthians? What does that show us about practicing encouragement to one another?
4. What are the two different kinds of "calling" in the Bible?
5. What is the connection between being "called" by God and being sustained to the end? See 1 Cor 1:7-9.
Have you ever encountered a problem that was so overwhelming, so complicated, so gross, that you felt paralyzed about how to even begin dealing with it? The first car I ever bought was a 1987 Honda Accord with 330,000 miles on it. I spent 700$ at a police auction to buy it. I raised my hand, the auctioneer yelled “Sold!”, and they went to drive the car out of the showroom. But when they started the car up, there was a loud explosion under the hood, and a stream of liquid began to pool under the car. As a team of men walked out and pushed the car off the floor, the auctioneer mumbled “All sales are final,” into the microphone.
Real life is messy. A few weeks ago, my wife texted me: “Somehow I managed to throw one of our children’s pull-ups in the wash and I have to clean everything now.” What do you do with that? Just buy a new washing machine?
You are now sitting here, looking presentable, putting your best foot forward on a Sunday morning. But real life is messy, frustrating, and rarely glamorous. One of the reasons why social media can be so dangerous for us is that it makes you think that everyone else’s life is pristine and perfect. You Instagram your vacation, not washing the dishes that have been piling up in the sink; you brag about your raise, not how long it took you to clean the clogged hair out of your bathroom drain.
In the early church there was a heresy that grew in popularity called Gnosticism. And it made a sharp divide between spiritual life and material life, and encouraged all to put more and more stock in the spiritual and care less and less about the material. Your body, your family, your appetites, this world…none of it really mattered. Just focus on God, or the gods, or the realm of ideas. Maybe even punish your body so you don’t get too wrapped up in it.
Today, we aren’t tempted to flog our bodies with whips, starve ourselves, or practice celibacy. But there is a persistent temptation to cleave spiritual life from normal life. You see this most clearly if you have ever gone on a retreat or mission trip or conference and experience a kind of “spiritual high” and feel closer to God than you ever have…and then have to return to ‘normal’ life afterwards. We see this on a smaller scale with Sunday mornings. While you are at church, singing, praying, listening, it feels like God makes sense and the Bible feels important and the gospel seems so powerful…and then you go back to normal life and it all suddenly feels less real.
Of course, there is something unique that happens when God’s people gather together for worship. And, of course, we should be so grateful for retreats and conferences. But if we think Jesus is regulated to these slices, these rare moments of life, or once every seven days, then it won’t take long before our faith shrivels like a forgotten peach at the back of the fridge. Life looks less and less like a serene monastery where holy people in white robes perform sacred rites, and more and more like doctor’s appointments, busy workweeks, and weeds in the garden. Even more than that, life also looks like us losing our temper at our children, bending the truth because are scared, feeling ashamed for using food to stuff our feelings, for clicking on that video, for missing our Bible reading again. Life isn’t just frustrating, but life is also marked by sin.
Now, what does Jesus have to say to sinners who have a messy house and bills to pay and struggle to sense Jesus outside of Sunday morning? Guys, if Jesus doesn’t apply to broken cars and diapers in washing machines and arguments with your spouse, then what is the point?
The letter of 1 Corinthians is a picture of the real God coming into contact with real sinners with real grace.
1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
- 1 Cor 1:1-9
The City of Corinth
The city of Corinth was a wealthy, bustling city ideal for merchants because of its location along a major trade route. It had an estimated population of 80,000-100,000 inhabitants, comprised of mostly Romans, but also Greeks, Jews, and immigrants from the East. The city was diverse both ethnically and religiously. There were temples to Apollo, Aphrodite, Poseidon, Asclepius, Demeter and Kore; mystery cults popular in the East, worship of Isis and Sarapis, and we know from Acts 18 that there was at least one synagogue there. But as religious as the city was, it was also well known for its rampant sexual immorality, the Las Vegas of the ancient world. The city had gained such a reputation for vice that Aristophanes coined the term korinthiazō, which literally meant “to act like a Corinthian,” or “to fornicate.” Ancient historians describe the city being rampant with prostitutes and venereal diseases. So it was ethnically diverse, religiously pluralistic, and their posture towards sex was very libertine.
The Church in Corinth
As you can imagine, this left Christians as outsiders, not just because of their strange sexual ethic of chastity till monogamous marriage (which Jews also shared), but also because had no temple, no priests, no images of their god, and none of the Jewish hallmarks of Sabbath, circumcision, or dietary law—so they didn’t fit in anywhere. Or, at least, they shouldn’t have fit in anywhere. Unfortunately, as we study the book, we will find that the Corinthian church fits all too well in the Corinthian culture.
Paul first visited Corinth in 51-52 AD, which we can read about in Acts 18:1-18. If you are curious, this is a date that we can be extremely precise with because of the mention of the name of the proconsul over the region Corinth was in (Gallio) in Acts 18:12. His time was very fruitful there, so he remains for a year and a half establishing the church, until the Jews run Paul out of town. A couple years have now passed (the letter is dated 54-55 AD), and we see that there are serious problems in the church. The Corinthians are divided against each other; are practicing gross sexual immorality; suing one another in court; are confused about marriage and singleness; are arrogant over how wise they are when really they are acting foolish; are blurring gender lines in how they dress during worship; the rich are getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper feast, leaving nothing for the poorer brothers; are using their spiritual gifts as a means of promoting themselves; are filling their worship services with a cacophony of people trying to all speak at once to show off their spirituality; and, on top of all of that, the church has now begun to grow suspicious of the apostle Paul and his authority. A vocal minority in the church has begun to openly question whether Paul has a legitimate right to tell them what to do.
Guys, the Corinthians were real sinners in need of real grace from the real God.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Cor 1:3)
Most of Paul’s letters begin this way, and most end this way:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you,” (1 Cor 16:23)
Paul understands his letter to be a means of grace for the church at Corinth. God’s word is a means of grace for the Christian. “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified,” (Acts 20:32). In fact, Paul knows what he is writing isn’t just helpful advice, but God’s very words. “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord,” (1 Cor 14:37).
But the surprising thing when you read 1 Corinthians is that it is filled with many gracious words, but also some fairly sharp words. Consider:
‘I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Cor 1:4-7).
This grace was given to the Corinthians because of their relationship of being in Christ, but this grace was a grace that produced fruit in them. They are enriched by this grace so that they now speak in such a way and have a depth of knowledge that shows the work of God among them. And this is something that happened right as they first received the testimony of Christ. Paul understands that this grace was so abundantly given, that they are not lacking in any gift—they have it all.
Ironically, spiritual gifts, knowledge, and eloquent speech are all things that the Corinthians have abundantly, but also have a skewed perspective on, perspectives that Paul is going to later correct. Which is just a simple reminder: you may have real, God-given gifts that we can thank God for…and you can still need to be corrected. You’re greatest strengths are generally often your weaknesses as well. Intelligent people can become arrogant, eloquent people can become manipulative, and gifted people can become vain. We are all works in progress who need constant grace.
Also, what a great model for us all in giving encouragement!
But Paul’s emphasis on grace that was given actually begins back in his initial greeting and address:
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” (1 Cor 1:2).
Consider how Paul addresses this church: “To the church of God.” The Corinthian church is fundamentally a church of God that is in Corinth, they are not a church of Corinth, who happen to have an association with God. They are also those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” It may be tempting to read into that phrase the idea of sanctification from a systematic theology perspective, as in, the progressive, day-by-day growing every Christian undertakes. That is what theologians sometimes refer to as progressive sanctification. Paul, however, is referring to positional sanctification. The verb is actually a perfect-tense verb, so it could be translated as “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus.” It is similar to how Paul uses the word later in 1 Cor 6:11, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The word “sanctified” just means “make holy.” And here he speaks about something that is decisively accomplished, not something in process.
What makes you “holy” as a Christian? Paul tells you plainly: you are in Christ Jesus. In the same way a letter is placed inside an envelope, Christians are placed in Jesus. And just like Jesus isn’t made unclean when He touches a leper, but His cleanness and purity actually make the leper clean, so too when you are placed in Jesus, your sin doesn’t make Jesus sinful, but His sinlessness makes you holy. The Bible teaches that Jesus’ life was perfectly holy, His death was absolutely sufficient to pay for your sins, and His resurrection was the vindication of His work, so that now anyone who comes to Jesus Christ and admits that they are sinners who are not righteous, are not holy—Jesus’ holy, righteous life is credited to them. If they admit that they deserve punishment for their sins—Jesus’ death actually takes their punishment for them. If they admit that they should go to the grave, to Hell itself—Jesus’ resurrection becomes the guarantee that they will not remain in the grave, but will resurrect to life everlasting themselves. They are in Jesus, so where Jesus goes, they go—his life, his death, his resurrection are now theirs. And all of these blessings simply come as a gift, as grace, that you receive by faith. That’s it. Theologically, this is what is referred to as justification by faith.
One of the essential differences between Roman Catholic theology and Paul’s teaching is this very thing. Roman Catholic theology teaches that you cooperate with Jesus to make yourself holy and so fit for heaven. Purgatory—a doctrine found nowhere in the Bible whatsoever—is novelty created by the Catholic church as a way of purging individuals of their sins so that they can be made righteous. It is a confusion of progressive sanctification with positional sanctification. Paul, on the other hand, can speak of the carnal Corinthians as already now having been sanctified—why? It certainly isn’t because the Corinthians have made themselves holy. It is because they are in Christ Jesus.
But Paul also describes the Corinthians with another description that points us to the grace they have received from Christ in the past: they are those who are “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” (1 Cor 1:2).
Here, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are united with everyone else who is united to Christ—an important lesson for a church currently experiencing divisions and schisms. And he explains that those who call on the name of the Lord are those who have been called. The word for “saints” is just the noun version of the verb used for “sanctified.” Saints—hagios; Sanctified—hagioazō. Saints are just those who have been sanctified.
But what does it mean that they are called to be saints? There are two ways the Bible speaks of calling. One is the call of an invitation, like the invitation to the wedding feast in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 22, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come,” (Matt 22:2-3). The guests invited to the feast can refuse the invitation. The parable is a dramatic depiction of unbelieving Israel rejecting her Messiah. Israel represents the guests are called to come, but they reject the offer, so Jesus ends the story with this succinct summary, “For many are called, but few are chosen,” (Matt 22:14). So, when I or any other preacher stands up and extends an offer for you to believe the gospel, this is the calling of invitation.
But there is another kind of calling in the Bible, sometimes referred to as effectual calling. This is the kind of calling that Paul himself received. Paul opens the letter: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus,” (1 Cor 1:1). What was Paul’s calling like? “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do,” (Acts 9:3-6).
He is given more than just an invitation. He is knocked off his horse, blinded, and commanded what to do—and despite being a persecutor of the church, he is transformed. Or, consider what Paul is going to say at the end of chapter 1 about the Corinthians, “…but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,” (1 Cor 1:23-24). When Paul preaches Christ crucified to the Jews and Gentiles, it is a stumbling block, it is foolishness—but among the Jews and Greeks—the same group of people who rejected it—there are those who are called, and to them the gospel is power and wisdom. What is the difference between those who reject it and those who accept it? Both are invited, but one receives and the other doesn’t. Well, those who receive are those who are called by God.
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified,” (Rom 8:30).
What is Paul doing with the Corinthians? He is pointing them back to the grace that was shown to them not only when they first received Christ and were sanctified into them, but he is going back even further. He is going back to explain why they received Christ in the first place. God’s grace to them is so invincibly certain that it did not merely switch on when the Corinthians put their faith in Christ, but the reason they received Christ is because His grace had been flowing towards them from eternity past.
“…so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (1 Cor 1:7-9).
Paul has focused on the grace God has shown the Corinthians in the past, the grace He is showing them today, and now he points them towards the grace that God will show them forever.
What is going to keep the church going as they wait for the “revealing” of Jesus, as we wait for the second coming of Christ when God will set everything right? God will “sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day [the day of revealing] of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then he grounds that in verse 9: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son.” Do you see the connection he is making between being called and being kept? This is similar to what Paul tells us in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Or think of the precious promise Jesus gives us, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out,” (John 6:37).
What is going to keep you tomorrow continuing to believe the gospel? How do you know that you are not going to abandon the faith and go the way of the world? Life is hard, and sin is ever-present, and there are many disappointments, and you know what it is like to feel like you are hanging onto the ledge of your faith just by the fingertips. How are you going to keep holding on? Here is what the puritan John Flavel tells us: “As God did not at first choose you because you were high, he will not now forsake you because you are low.” Since it was God who called you, who began the work in you, since it was the Father who gave you to Jesus…Jesus will sustain you to the end, He will complete the good work He began, He will never cast you out. For Jesus to abandon you, He would compromise His faithfulness, and prove that His work was insufficient. He would have to leave heaven, and go back into the grave. That’s how secure you are in Christ.
And that can be hard to remember sometimes in life. We are perpetually tempted that we are going to find the end of God’s rope, that we are going to exhaust His patience, and eventually one day He is going to grow weary of us.
John Bunyan, reflecting on John 6:37 in the KJV, “him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out,” writes: “They that are coming to Jesus Christ, are often times heartily afraid that Jesus Christ will not receive them…[But] this word “in no wise,” cuts the throat of all objections; and it was dropped by the Lord Jesus for that very end; and to help the faith that is mixed with unbelief. And it is, as it were, the sum of all promises; neither can any objection be made upon the unworthiness that you find in yourself, that this promise will [clear].
But I am a great sinner, say you.
“I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ.
But I am an old sinner, say you.
“I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ.
But I am a hard-hearted sinner…a backsliding sinner…I have served Satan all my days, say you.
“I will in no wise cast you,” says Christ.
But I have sinned against light…I have sinned against mercy…I have no good thing to bring with me, says you.
“I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ.
This promise was provided to answer all objections, and does answer them.”