Grace and Peace to a Dysfunctional Church
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
March 15, 2020
Prayer for Illumination:
Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Make us hunger for this heavenly food, that it may nourish us today in the ways of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, the bread of heaven. Amen.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Our culture has changed over the last few years. There is a lot more factionalism within our country. We are more divided and split over politics today than ever before; just turn on any news commentary program and you’ll see that. The left and the right are at one another’s throats and there is no middle ground. Our culture’s views on sex, sexuality, and marriage have drastically shifted in the last few years. The religious landscape has become post-Christian, with some returning to pre-Christians religions while others have forged their own faiths. Our culture, religiously speaking, is pluralistic. There are many different religions and all are considered as equally valid and true.
Things aren’t that different within the Church. Denominations have divided and split the most recent being the United Methodist Church. Recent statistics show that sexual activity inside the Church isn’t that different from sexual activity outside of the church. At times the Church seems dysfunctional. Is there any grace and peace for a church like that? Is there any word to help mature an immature church?
This morning we are beginning a series on Paul’s First Epistle to the Church in Corinth. The culture of Corinth wasn’t that different from our culture. Pagan temples dotted the cityscape; it was a religiously plural culture. Sexual promiscuity was rampant, often connected with one of the pagan temples. The city was growing rapidly. The economy of Corinth was booming. Because of the economic growth, there were factions between the haves and the have-nots. That was the culture of Corinth.
Things weren’t that different inside the church. The church in Corinth was plagued with factionalism; there were groups within the congregation that followed Paul, others followed Apollos, others followed Peter, and some of the super spiritual believers followed Jesus. They were divided over who they should let be their pastor and teach them.
There were ethical issues. Some believers were suing one another. One man was having an open affair with his stepmom. There were serious ethical issues in the congregation.
There were lifestyle issues. Should they marry or shouldn’t they? Are those who are unmarried less valuable than those who are married? Can believers eat meat or should they refrain since most butchers were associated with one of the pagan temples? There were some serious lifestyle issues.
There were issues in worship. People were speaking randomly during the service. Some were making themselves out to be more important because of the gifts God gave them, and so they looked down on others who didn’t have their gifts. They had issues in worship; worship services were chaotic, people just speaking whenever they felt like it. They had theological issues. They denied the resurrection of the body. This congregation was dysfunctional. And so Paul writes to them. He writes a letter to them calling them to maturity.
Even though this church was dysfunctional, Paul doesn’t go straight into telling them off; he speaks grace and peace to them. He speaks to them as an apostle and he calls them to be holy because God has made them holy.
The Voice of an Apostle
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes
Paul begins the letter by identifying himself as the sender. That was typically how the ancient world began letters. They would begin by saying who sent the letter and to whom the letter was sent. Paul identifies himself as an apostle. He identifies himself as an apostle because one of the issues within the church was that some didn’t think much of him. They didn’t think he was much of a preacher (2 Cor. 11:6). They didn’t like what he said.
But the one writing this letter is not Joe Schmo. He isn’t just some guy writing some letter. Paul is an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He was one that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. He was specifically commissioned by Jesus to go and proclaim the gospel. In Acts Paul recounts his calling saying, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18).
And that is what Paul has done for the past twenty years. He has been proclaiming the gospel as Christ has called him. He has been proclaiming that in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of sins and that in Christ believers are made holy. He is an Apostle of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the Corinthians ought to listen to Paul. They ought to listen to what he says. He is not “some guy” saying giving his thoughts. He is not “some” teacher giving the newest and latest philosophy. The Corinthians ought to listen to Paul because he is an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He is speaking truth. What he says in this letter is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Each and every word of the 66 books of the Bible has been inspired by the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit has inspired Paul in what he says to the church in Corinth in this letter. And as such, the Corinthians ought to listen to Paul.
This is important. We are tempted from various corners to not listen. Many outside the Church say that this is just a collection of texts not that different from the Quran, which is the book of texts for Islam, or the Bhagavad Gita, which is the book of religious texts for Hindus. They think it’s just another religious text in a set of religious texts. Some inside the Church say that the Bible contains God’s word and you need to find out where God’s word is hidden in the Bible.
That is not true. Each and every word in Scripture is God-breathed. God has inspired every word. This is not like any other book. In 2 Timothy 3 Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. This is God’s self-revelation to us. It is not like the Quran or the Bhagvad Gita in any sense. Nor is it like any other book like The Lord of the Rings or a Stephen King novel.
When you read the Bible, you don’t have to look for God’s word. Each and every word in Scripture is God’s word to us. There are not parts of the Bible that are man’s word and not God’s Word. All of Scripture is God-breathed. Each and every single word of it. Our confession puts it like this:
All of these books are inspired by God and are the rule of faith and life… The Bible speaks authoritatively and so deserves to be believed and obeyed. This authority does not depend on the testimony of any man or church but completely on God, its author, who is himself truth. The Bible therefore is to be accepted as true, because it is the word of God.
This is God’s word to us. You’re not going to find God’s word anywhere except in Scripture. This is the only place where you can find God’s word to us. You won’t find it in the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita. You won’t find it in someone’s journal. God’s word is found only in the Bible. That’s what makes this book so incredibly special.
Listen to these words. Some of the things that Paul writes seem countercultural and old-fashioned to us. Listen to them. He is not some old fogey pining for yesteryear, arguing for outdated attitudes and ideals. He is writing to correct unbiblical views that have crept into the Church. He wants us to know the gospel and to be transformed by it. Let what Paul says correct us, even if it seems old-fashioned and countercultural.
Some of the things that Paul writes will actually call our sin. He is writing to correct sinful behavior and thinking at this church in Corinth. Some of us sin in these ways. Some of us have the same sinful behavior and thinking that the Corinthians had. Our first instinct will be to argue with him. We will say, “Times have changed Paul. Our morals are different”. Let him correct your sinful behavior and thinking.
Everything that is in this letter to the Corinthians and everything that is in Scripture as a whole is authoritative. Even if we don’t like it, it is authoritative. When you come across a portion of Scripture that you don’t like and want to ignore, ask yourself why. Ask, “Do I not like this because it calls me to repent of my sin? Do I not like this because it seems counterculture and is challenging the way I think?” Ask yourself those questions and when you are able to answer them, let Scripture authoritatively speak. Let it correct you. If you don’t like it because it reveals your sin and is calling you to repent of it, let it authoritatively speak into your life and correct your sinful behavior. If you don’t like it because it seems countercultural and is challenging your way of thinking, let it correct your thinking. Let Scripture correct you because it is God’s word.
If you are not currently taking time to read Scripture every day, start today. There are reading guides in the narthex. Pick one up and begin this afternoon. It doesn’t matter that we’re into March. Start today with day one and spend time in Scripture. It is God’s word to you. It is inspired, so everything it says is true. It is inspired so that it can correct our sinful behavior and our sinful thinking. Let it. As you read Scripture, the Holy Spirit will show you your sinful behavior and thinking, he will empower you to stop sinning.
Paul as an Apostle is inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak authoritatively. And we should listen to him.
Made Holy in Christ
Paul moves on to the recipients of the letter. And he says, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours”.
He says that they are have been made holy and therefore they should be holy. If you’re reading from the NIV or the ESV it says “those sanctified”. That word is better translated as “those who have been sanctified”. The verb is passive. This is a divine passive. That means the Corinthians are passive but God is the active person. The Corinthians are holy by virtue of anything they have done. They are holy because God has made them holy. This verb is passive and perfect; that is a past tense verb with continuing action. Paul is saying that God has made the Corinthians holy and that holiness is progressing in them.
Even though the church in Corinth is plagued with various sins, God reckons the Corinthians as sanctified despite their struggles with sin and their current immaturity. They are divided over church leadership and pastoral theology. There is serious sexual immorality plaguing the church. There are believers suing one another. There are believers getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Their worship services are chaotic. And yet Paul says that they have been sanctified in Christ Jesus.
Believers in Jesus are reckoned holy. When God looks upon the church in Corinth, he doesn’t see their sinful conduct and their immaturity. When he looks upon the church, he sees his Son. The church in Corinth is reckoned sanctified. We call this definite sanctification.
Even though God reckons the church in Corinth as sanctified in Jesus, Paul reminds them that they are called to be God’s holy people. He is reminding them that they are to act in a manner consistent with God’s judgment of them. He reminds them that they are to live lives that show they have been sanctified by God. God’s reckoning of the church in Corinth as sanctified will result in the church growing in sanctification. “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness”. This is called progressive sanctification.
As one commentator writes, “God’s calling has a goal… Because the Corinthians have been called by God through the preaching of the gospel to faith in Jesus Christ, their lives should manifest this holiness which flows out of faith in Christ. The Corinthians cannot live like godless Gentiles any longer. Definitive sanctification (and justification) will manifest itself in ‘progressive sanctification’. Those set apart by God (in definitive sanctification), will demonstrate growth in holiness (progressive sanctification), and in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus.”
If you are in Christ, you have been sanctified. Maybe you’re more like the Corinthians than Paul. If you are in Christ, God reckons you as holy. When he looks on you, he looks on his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased. He doesn’t see our sinful behaviors or our sinful way of thinking. When God looks upon his Church, he sees God the Son standing in our places. You have been sanctified in Christ.
And if you have been sanctified in Christ, you will grow in holiness. Every true believer will grow in holiness. Our growth in holiness often takes time. We often want God to instantaneously grow us in holiness and mature us. We live in a culture that is used to getting what we want when we want it. Like McDonald’s. It’s fast food. You walk in, say a number, and a few minutes later you have your order. Or Amazon Prime. You shop online, order it through Amazon, and it’s in your mailbox in two days. We are used to getting what we want when we want it. And we often want God to instantaneously grow us in holiness and mature us.
But God cultivates holiness in us like a gardener cultivates his garden. He causes us to grow in holiness over time so that we resemble Jesus more and more. The way that God often cultivates holiness in us is through the ordinary means of grace. God uses weekly worship, regularly partaking in the sacraments, and daily Scripture reading to renew us into the image of God.
The more we engage in these ordinary means of grace, the more God cultivates holiness in us. When we engage in weekly worship with other believers, the more God cultivates a longing in our hearts for godly community. When we partake in the sacraments, the more we see a visual representation of the gospel and are reminded of the good news that Jesus Christ has died in the place of his Church. When we read Scripture, the more we see God’s redemptive plan and how he calls us to live.
God uses these ordinary means of grace to mature us, to cultivate holiness in us. Maybe you are more like the Corinthians than Paul; know that God has definitively sanctified you in Jesus and that he will cause you to grow in your sanctification through these ordinary means of grace.
Let me encourage you to make weekly worship a priority for you. Coming each and every week to worship is the best thing you can do for your spiritual growth. When you come to worship, we don’t just sing some songs, hear some guy give a talk, and put a few bucks in a collection plate. We gather to worship the living God with fellow brothers and sisters. We sing songs that remind us who God is, what he has done, and our redemption in Christ. We hear his word spoken to us, a word that creates a longing in us for him and his ways. When we come into worship, God cultivates a longing in our hearts for godly community. So make worship a weekly priority.
Let me encourage you to take the sacrament seriously. I know that in the last year or so I have started doing something new for us here at Murphy Presbyterian, I have started encouraging us to examine ourselves the week before we take the Lord’s Supper. I’ve been doing that because I want us to take the Lord’s Supper seriously. The Lord’s Supper is a visual representation of the gospel. When we partake in the Lord’s Supper, we are not having a little snack in worship that’ll hold us over until lunch. We are having a glimpse of the heavenly meal we’ll have when Christ returns. It’s a little appetizer of that meal. It is a wonderfully weighty moment. That often means we need to examine ourselves and repent of sins. Sometimes it might mean that we need to be reconciled to a fellow believer. So let us take time to prepare ourselves for that moment.
God uses those ordinary means of grace to cultivate holiness in us. And those whom he has made holy through the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ will grow in holiness. Yes it takes time and it rarely instantaneous. But God is a gardener and the Church is his garden. He is pruning away our sinful thoughts and behaviors as the time is right. And as he does that, he cultivates holiness in us. The tools he so often uses to prune sin out of our lives and grow us in holiness are these ordinary means of grace.
Paul concludes his introduction by saying, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
He makes clear that even though this congregation is dysfunctional and immature, they have grace and peace in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Being in Christ means that we have received grace and peace from God. He will ultimately take our dysfunction and make it function; he will take us from immature to mature.
As we spend time in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, we’ll see that the issues they faced 2,000 years ago aren’t that different from the issues we face today. Let us remember that Paul speaks as an Apostle of Jesus Christ and so we should listen to him and that in Christ we are reckoned as holy in God’s eyes.
 Westminster Confession of Faith 1.2, 4
 Westminster Shorter Catechism Answer 35
 Kim Riddlebarger, First Corinthians (Powder Springs: Tolle Lege Press, 2013), 5.