Text: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Imagine a church which was characterized by heresy and immorality. Imagine a church which was marked by division, with the rich and elite members segregating themselves from the poor. This church sits in a sizeable city which is itself both cosmopolitan and corrupt, and the members of the church are of two opinions of how they should relate to that city. One faction sees no problem at all with total assimilation, including religious syncretism. The other wants to see a strict separatism where Christians adopt a monastic lifestyle. And they fight about this too.
What would you say about such a church? Maybe you’d say “Thank God I don’t have to go there!” Could you imagine anyone calling them holy and saying that Jesus Christ would confirm them until the last day on which they would be found blameless? That sounds pretty crazy. Well I’ve been describing the church at Corinth, and that’s just how the Apostle Paul talks about them. Yes, the Corinthians are saints, even though they are also very much still sinners. What we will see today is that the church has always existed with a tension between its sinful human existence and its spiritual grace, and while the church should never become comfortable with its shortcomings and sins, the way that it moves away from those toward Christian maturity is by taking comfort in the promise of God. It is He who will be the one to protect, preserve, and purify them. As we will see throughout our study of 1 Corinthians, the path towards holiness and maturity is precisely this path of God’s electing grace in Jesus Christ.
The Corinthians Were Corinthian
The first thing to know about the Corinthians church is that it reflected the city. Corinth was an ancient Greek city that had been very important over the years, but it was totally destroyed by the conquering Romans. It sat uninhabited for years, until Julius Caesar rebuilt it. This rebuilt-Corinth was a very Roman city, though there was a significant Greek population as well. We also know that Jews were living in Corinth in the 1st century and that there were enough Jews to form a synagogue (Acts 18:4). One reason that Corinth was so diverse is because it was a port-city. It sat on a narrow strip of land which connected the Peloponnese to mainland Greece. This would be the route you have to take if you were traveling from Athens to Sparta, and merchants preferred to cross Greece by land rather than sail around its dangerous coasts. And so people traveled through Corinth, and they traveled to Corinth to sell things, open up inns and taverns, and mix among the people.
All of these factors meant that the Corinth of Paul’s day was a city very much like Amsterdam or New Orleans. There were many rich and important people living there, but it was also characterized by gross immorality. Due to some dramatic political and economic struggles, a general sense of despair had taken over the city, and many people turned to immoral lifestyles or idolatrous worship practices in response. A sort of feminism had even cropped up at this time, with certain women claiming to have spiritual powers that allowed them to defy the social order. Each of these influences will show up within the church at Corinth. And, just like today, there were two predominate responses to the culture. One group of Christians felt free to integrate with it and more or bring it in to the church. They embraced a Corinthian lifestyle, including its sins. The other group so strongly opposed it that it ran to rigorous extremes, calling for literal separation and even total abstinence for all Christians. These are matters that the Apostle Paul will have to sort out in his letter, and this explains why the letter covers such a wide variety of topics.
Putting the first Epistle to the Corinthians in its historical context also illustrates why the book is so appropriate for our day. While we don’t live in exactly the same kind of city, and while, thankfully, we don’t have all of the same problems at the same time, we do live in a time where our world is so connected that each of us has been exposed to these kinds of problems. We have also seen our culture become more and more like the culture of Corinth. Particularly relevant is the question of the church’s relationship to the outside world. Should we be integrated with it, separate from it, or something else entirely. It is my hope that we can learn abiding religious principles from this study which will then be applicable to our world today.
Some Corinthian Problems
What many people remember about the church at Corinth is its various moral problems. 1st Corinthians again and again has to address these, and the Apostle Paul gets a little worked up at times. For instance, just a few verses down the page in chapter one, he says this:
For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:11-13)
Later on in chapter 5, Paul even writes:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles… deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor. 5:1, 5)
Yes, the Corinthian church was full of problems. This letter will address the problem of sectarianism and divisions in the church (1:11-13), sexual immorality (5, 6:12-20), idolatry (8-10), drunkenness at church (11:17-34), and more.
In fact, you might just say that studying 1 Corinthians makes postmillennialism look fairly reasonable. The early church was not some pristine place with perfectly theology and supremely-dedicated holy people. No, it was as capable of having confused and rebellious people as any church is today, and the church at Corinth takes all the prizes for spiritual immaturity. That had heresies, moral scandals, and liturgical chaos. It was something of a train wreck, really.
And Yet Paul calls them Saints
Yet, for all of that, Paul calls them saints. The opening greeting and thanksgiving is very instructive when we think of it this way, and it teaches us some important things about how we should view the church today. Listen to what Paul says, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). It’s very easy to just read through that line quickly, to thinking that it’s a mere formality. But given all that we know about Corinth, we should stop and look a little more closely.
First, Paul is talking to “the church of God which is at Corinth.” The word for church there is “ekklesia,” a term which means a gathering of people. This was originally a civic term, something you would apply to town-hall meetings, and the Greek translation of the Old Testament used “ekklesia” for passages that referred to the people of Israel as a group, the assembly of the people. This is not the same as synagogue, a more formal word for a specific religious gather. No, ekklesia is not institutional as such. It simply means “the people of God.” 1st Corinthians does have a semi-organized religious body in mind, as we will see when we get into the passages about church discipline, but the letter itself is addressed to the whole people of God.
This people, this Church, is said to be “sanctified in Christ.” This language is being used corporately or collectively. It names the body as a body, and so we learn that we are to address our body this way. We are sanctified in Christ. This is our group identity, and we are called to bring our individual standing into conformity with this.
Being sanctified is important because it explains what comes next. The church has a calling from God. This too should remind us of the Old Testament. Israel was “called out” to be a people for God’s name, an elect people (Is. 45:4, 48:12, Hos. 11:1). Now in the New Testament, this language is being used of the Christian people. They are called out by God. And they are called to be saints, or holy people. This title, “saint,” is not restricted to the extraordinarily holy people. No, it is for all Christians. They are all called saints.
How is a group of messy sinners supposed to answer this call? They can’t do it by simply trying to be holy. No, they have to begin by seeing their sanctification in Christ and having His salvation applied to them in faith. Indeed, this is exactly what Paul goes on to say. “I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus” (vs. 4). The Corinthians have been the recipients of grace. In fact, Paul goes on to say a number of astounding things about this grace. By it, the Corinthians were:
enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (vs. 5-8)
Notice that all of this was “by Him,” that is God. God already given these messy Corinthians grace, and this grace has not left them short in any gift. In fact, this grace is so powerful that it will confirm them to the end! It will make sure that they are “blameless” on the last day.
We also see that the grace that the Corinthians “were given” is not some kind of one-time thing. No, it is a gift that continues to operate within them and will have a future effect in their life. This is why they are saints even while they are still sinners. This is how Paul can say that the Corinthians have not come up short in anything, even while they are still struggling with basic matters of the faith. The Corinthians can be named now what they will be in the future because God’s grace is a guarantee. This is true for us today as well.
What’s more, this transformation comes after the declaration that the Corinthians are holy. And while they will certainly have to use their own moral willpower and spiritual exertion to put away sin and walk according to righteousness, Paul says that it won’t actually be them who do it. No, it will be God. “You were enriched in everything by Him… who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 5,8). Indeed, “God is faithful” (vs. 9). The reason that Paul can talk about the Corinthians like they are perfect saints who have already made it to the last day is because he knows that it all relies on God’s power and His sovereign promise. God is the One Who will make it happen, and you can count on Him.
The Corinthians will not overcome their sinful nature and become the saints they are called to be through their own power. No, it will only be through God’s grace and God’s own faithfulness to make them what He has said they will be. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (vs. 9).
This piece of apostolic rhetoric is really just the gospel in action. Paul can call the Corinthians something that they are not because what he is calling them is what God has promised to make them in Christ. They will have to progress unto maturity, but the progression will be through God’s grace and by His decree. It will all depend upon God. The Corinthians’ job is to trust God, that He will indeed be faithful.
We’re at the very beginning of this book, and there will be many topics to discuss and many lessons to learn before we are through, but our lesson for this morning is only one. But it is foundational. Our identity in Christ defines us. It allows us to change and overcome sin. It allows us to move forward into godliness and sanctification. Our identity in Christ is what gives us a right standing in the eyes of God, and it is what guarantees that we will keep that standing while we wrestle with the sins which we have in this life.
In other words, our definitive sanctification is objective and complete because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our job is to believe. We are saints. And our definitive sanctification is also what supports and motivates our progressive sanctification. We will become holy in our lives because we are already holy in Christ.
So let us take comfort in this fact. God looks at us sinners, but He sees a congregation of saints.
God calls us to be holy because He has sanctified us in Christ. And if God calls us saints, even though we are sinners, then we should be able to call other people saints as well.
Our congregation is not as troubled as the one in Corinth, but it is still a congregation full of sinners. Each of us has our problems, and we probably have bigger sins than we want to admit. Yet we are saints in Christ Jesus. This is a room full of holy people, and so we ought to form that reputation about each of us. While we have much work to do and a long road ahead of us, we start out our journey in the knowledge that we have been made holy and right with God. That will allow us to continue to become holy in this life.
Let us pray.