In Christ Alone

1 Corinthians 1:4-17


Christians have a long history of using the church in first-century Corinth as an example of how not to behave as believers. This is not an inaccurate way to read 1 Corinthians, but it does not tell the whole story. As we saw in our introduction to this letter last month, though Paul will have plenty to say about their sins, struggles, excesses, and misunderstandings, he starts out by reminding them of their identity: "saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:2).

The same idea is in view in the benediction Paul writes to them after his greeting. "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, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:4-7).

Before his exhortation and correction, Paul expresses his thanks to God for the Corinthians' salvation. Even more than that great gift, he says that the Lord has blessed them with spiritual gifts and a growing knowledge of truth. These blessings, of course, owe nothing to the Corinthians themselves-it is the grace of God, given in Christ Jesus, so that His Gospel could be confirmed in them. Their testimony through all these gifts was to be for the glory of God, but, as the bulk of the letter will show, they needed to return again to the foundation of Christ-like character (most particularly, love) in how they exercised their faith. Because they did not love one another as Christ had loved them, their greatest strengths had become their greatest weaknesses.

Even at that, Paul starts out with the end in mind, knowing that just as Christ has called them and blessed them, it is He "who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1:8-9). God's faithfulness to the Corinthians through His Son will preserve them, and it is through this framework that Paul speaks to them. Throughout the letter, he treats them as his brothers and sisters, steadfastly addressing his teaching to them as though they will respond to his reproof and grow in maturity through the work of the Spirit. Though they fall short, they are not forsaken; though they sin, they are forgiven; though they have mistreated him, they are not his enemies.

With that in mind, we see his first word of correction: "Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you" (1:10-11). He rebukes them for the divisions among them, of which he has received a report, commanding them instead to be of one mind together in Christ.

This lack of unity is the first of many failures of love Paul calls out within this fledgling church. It seems, from what he says next, that the disputes were not matters of doctrine, but rather a posturing for social position-creating artificial distinctions for the express purpose of puffing oneself up and tearing others down. Paul spells it out: "Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, I am of Paul,' and I of Apollos,' and I of Cephas,' and I of Christ.' Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1:12-13). His retort puts the focus immediately back on Christ, and he spends much of the rest of the chapter elucidating the Gospel message again for them.

In an aside, Paul recalls his time ministering among them. His tone conveys worry that, even in carrying out the command of Christ to baptize those who follow Him as disciples, he may have somehow misled them: "I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other" (1:14-16). Their baptism was in the name of Christ, an outward symbol of the effectual baptism of the Holy Spirit, but Paul feared that they had invested it with a temporal status to lord over others.

He answers this offense with a strong and certain word: "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void" (1:17). "Paul is nothing," he says, "but the Gospel is everything." Without the truth of the Gospel, everything the Corinthians thought they possessed would amount to filthy rags. Paul, Peter, Apollos, or every other teacher that came along had no power to save; they could only point to Christ.

As we look into the rest of chapter 1 next month, we will see the glory of the Gospel on full display. It is altogether fitting that this is where Paul begins his word to this church. The worldly power and position the Corinthians craved would not help them in the present or for eternity-they needed to see the sacrifice of Christ as their only hope, so Paul works hard to demolish their pretensions. May we be given the grace to see this truth and thank the Lord again for His grace to us.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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