1 Corinthians 1:1-17
Paul called attention to the fact that he was “called by the will of God” (1:1). He was called to be an apostle, to fulfill a specific role in the Early Church. We need to take care that we don’t dismiss the nature and reality that all Christians are called into the church for particular reasons, and that every Christian has a particular role to play in the church. It is true that all Christians are not called to be apostles, all are not called to be deacons or elders, but all Christians are called to be something.
I am referring to the doctrine of vocation. Martin Luther is credited with reasserting the doctrine of vocation as a foundation stone in the Reformation of the church.
“Therefore I advise no one to enter any religious order or the priesthood, indeed, I advise everyone against it – unless he is forearmed with this knowledge and understands that the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone” (Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520).
All Christians are called by God Himself to play a particular role, fill a particular office, and/or accomplish a particular task within the Body of Christ. However, it also needs to be noted that the Body of Christ is not coterminous with any particular denomination or 501(c)(3) manifestation of a local church organization. Rather, the Body of Christ includes what has been traditionally known as the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. The church of Jesus Christ is in time and beyond time at the same time.
Just as you are members of the church Sunday when we gather for worship, we are still members of the church during the week when we are scattered for service. We gather for encouragement, instruction, fellowship and worship. Then we scatter throughout society for service in the name of Jesus Christ. The church is not a static institution, but a living being.
What is commonly understood as the “church” in contemporary society is a mere husk of the “church” in Scripture. The church of the New Testament was a vibrant fellowship of people from diverse backgrounds, traditions and ethnicities who celebrated, not their diversity, but their unity in Christ. They shared a common vision and purpose, communicated by Paul and the other apostles – not perfectly or without struggle, of course. But the power of their common vision and purpose overcame their differences.
We note several things. God calls all Christians to faithfulness where they are, in the midst of their current job, family, and neighborhood. And at the same time all Christians are called out of worldliness and into Godliness. We are called to abandon the immorality of the world and to practice the morality of the Kingdom, and to do it right where we are – in our current job, family and neighborhood. We are not called to create a Christian ghetto or to remove ourselves from our current obligations. Rather, we are called to be transformed people right where we are. We are not to run from the world, we are to be transformed in the midst of it.
Paul recognized the Christians in Corinth, those who were the immediate recipients of his letter, as people who were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2). All Christians are called by the will of God to be saints. The Greek word translated as saint is hagios. The word means sacred, physically pure, morally blameless or religious.
Hagios is used throughout the New Testament to refer to God’s holiness. Christ is the Holy One of God. Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Father, holy Scriptures, holy angels, holy brethren, and so on. The secular and pagan use of the word pictured a person separated and dedicated to the idolatrous “gods” and carried no sense of moral or spiritual purity. The pagan gods were as sinful and degraded as the men who worshiped them. There was no sense of morality or righteousness associated with pagan worship. The worshiper of the pagan god celebrated and mimicked the character of the pagan gods and the immoral religious ceremonies connected with its worship. The Greek temple at Corinth housed a large number of harlots who were connected with the worship of the Greek gods. Thus, the character of the Greek worshiper was licentious, depraved, and abandoned to the celebration of raw emotion.
Paul’s use of the word Hagios represented something filthy that had been washed and set apart for a completely different purpose. The traditional idea of a saint is a picture of salvation. Those who were filthy with sin were washed in the blood of Christ, and set apart from sin to serve God’s purposes. The common understanding is that saints practice a superior morality, that being a Christian or being called by God resulted in moral growth or refinement. That common understanding is not wrong, but it is often misunderstood.
Christians are not perfect and never will be, apart from the fullness of the Kingdom of God in glory. Yet, it is common that non-Christians accuse Christians of thinking that they are better than everyone else. And Christians are too often infected with the pride of thinking the same thing.
There is a sense in which it is true, and a sense in which it isn’t. Christians do in fact grow and mature in morality, so they do enjoy a kind of moral upgrade. Moral improvement is one of the benefits of Christianity.
At the same time it is a supreme folly and sin for any Christian to think that he or she is morally superior to anyone else. In fact, particular heathens are often morally superior to particular Christians. The point is not that Christians are morally superior to heathens, some are and some aren’t. Rather, the point is that Christians grow in moral purity. A Christian should always be more moral, more honest, more righteous that he or she used to be. We are not to compare ourselves with others – Christian or heathen, but with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone is our model.
Nor are Christians are saved by their moral growth. No one can practice moral improvement in order to become a Christian. It doesn’t work like that. No matter how hard we try, we cannot measure up to the moral requirement established by God in the Old Testament. It cannot be done, and the fact that it cannot be done is one of the central lessons of the Old Testament. Israel failed to be what God called her to be, and the faithful in Israel were very righteous, very moral by any human standard – but not by God’s standard.
While moral improvement is a fruit of salvation, it is not in any sense a cause or foundation of salvation. Rather, salvation is in Christ alone. At the same time, there is no salvation apart from moral improvement. Christians are “called to be saints” (1:2, Romans 1:7) who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). Christians grow in grace, grow in obedience, grow in faithfulness, grow in righteousness, grow in moral improvement. Christians are not necessarily better than anyone else, but they are necessarily better than they used to be.
And Christians cannot claim any personal credit (or glory) for their moral improvement. We are what we are, not because we have worked hard to become good Christians, but solely because Jesus Christ dispatched His Holy Spirit to us while we were still awash in sin and disobedience to grab us by the scruff of the neck and haul us aboard the life raft known as Jesus Christ. We had nothing to do with it until we found ourselves in Christ. Good thing, too! Because we, like Israel before us, are completely unable to be what God has called all people to be. Nor are we now what God has called us to be. But Christ has satisfied God’s demands, deflected God’s wrath, and provided a way for us to grow in Godliness.
And, Paul proclaims, it is the “Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end” (1:7-8). Here is a clear expression of the doctrine of assurance. Our salvation is assured, not because of anything that we can do, but solely because of what Christ has done. Christ’s grip on us is much stronger than our grip on Him.
Paul goes on to address divisions in the church. Why does he talk about divisions in the church? Shouldn’t he be talking about love and unity among the brethren? Paul is committed to the truth. He believed Jesus when He said that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The truth is that there are divisions in every church.
Paul went on to provide the cure for church divisions, “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). He is talking about doctrinal unity, about everyone being on the same page doctrinally. That’s a pretty tall order in today’s world. Why? Because of the contemporary emphasis on diversity.
To keep us from getting confused, we need to note that there are two kinds of diversity—ethnic diversity and doctrinal (or philosophical/theological) diversity. We know as a fact that Jesus gave the church incredible ethnic diversity. Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Jesus commanded His people to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Paul said that the gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Later he reminded the Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). When the Holy Spirit poured out upon the saints gathered in the Upper Room there were “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) dwelling in Jerusalem among the Jews. “And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). There can be no doubt that Christianity is for people of all ethnic backgrounds.
But Christianity is not doctrinally diverse. Of course people understand things differently. That’s to be expected. But those differences in understanding are a function of our sin. They are not normative. Doctrinal diversity is not the ideal or the goal. Doctrinal unity is the goal. Paul says, “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). This is no fluke.
Jesus prayed, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). And later in that same letter, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (Philippians 2:1-2).
Ethnic diversity is the goal of the church, not ethnic purity. On the other hand, doctrinal unity is the goal of the church, not doctrinal diversity. In other words, Jesus wants all kinds of different people to believe the same thing. He doesn’t want all the people who are already in the church to believe different things.
The PCA “requires believers to seek the peace and purity of the church, respecting the order and discipline Christ has appointed” (Position Papers: 1973 – 1993, 18th General Assembly, 1990,18-78, p. 170). This is no small task because sin has set peace and purity at odds with one another. Those who seek doctrinal unity or purity, those for whom truth is the primary category of faithfulness are often charged with disturbing the peace of the church because they meet with opposition when they teach or assert various unpopular doctrines. And those who seek peace, those for whom fellowship is the primary category of faithfulness are often charged with disturbing the purity of the church because they don’t want to defend the truth against corruption.
Scripture, however, insists on both peace (or fellowship among the saints) and purity (or doctrinal agreement among the saints). Paul addresses this issue in its fullness in his letters to the Corinthians.
Note Paul’s first defense of the gospel here in chapter one. His first attempt at telling the saints what they need in order to manifest both purity and peace in the church is very interesting. He spoke of baptism because that was the issue of presentation. People had been dividing themselves into groups based upon their baptism, upon who baptized them, upon who they were baptized into. It makes sense. Baptism is a mark of entry into the church. It is a common belief that how a person got into the church suggests his or her position in the church.
The Refored camp certainly understands this. We argue that people are brought into the church by the power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, and not under their own power or by their own decisions to join or to be baptized. In other words, if you haven’t been regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are not really a church member, no matter what you or anyone else may think.
Yet, as much as we hold fast to this understanding of church membership, Paul brushes the issue of baptism aside, suggesting that the act of baptism is not in and of itself a sufficient indicator of church membership. In other words, baptism is not a magic action that opens the doors of heaven. Rather, it is a symbolic ceremony. The symbolism is important, but not so important that it should disturb the peace and purity of the church.
So, Paul’s first defense of the gospel is not baptism. “For Christ did not send me,” said Paul, “to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1:17). Paul will go on to say that the gospel is sufficient to defend itself, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Paul’s first defense of the gospel is this, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17).
In other words, Paul tells us that worldly wisdom is not sufficient to make any judgments about the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is saying that those who are wise in the eyes of the world are not able to think correctly about the gospel. And who are the wise in the eyes of the world? Professors, intellectuals, scientists, think tank scholars, university scholars, news anchors. There’s nothing wrong with being a professor or an intellectual or a scientists or a scholar or a news anchor. The problem is that the tools of these professions, inasmuch as they are committed to the wisdom of the world—that is to say wisdom without God, or wisdom apart from the light of Scripture—will always fail to understand even the most basic things about God or Jesus Christ. They will always and consistently get it wrong. Oh, they may stumble over a true thing now and then, but they will themselves fail to understand the fullness of any truth they come upon.
Paul says it better, “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” (1:18). He means that Christianity will always look stupid to the world, to those who do not begin their thinking with the reality of God.