Was there a more un-sanctified and immature congregation of which we have an apostolic record than the Corinthian congregation? From a reading of Paul’s two canonical letters to them they were beset by power struggles and schisms within, tolerant of gross immorality, besotted with flowery rhetoric, and unimpressed by the very gospel message itself among other things.
The Dismal History of A Notorious Congregation
Post-canonical church history confirms that the Corinthian church was a mess. One of the earliest post-canonical writings we have is a lengthy letter known to us as 1 Clement. We do not know who actually wrote it or exactly when it was written (probably in the late AD 90s or very early 100s) but it was written to address some of the very same issues that Paul had addressed four or five decades prior. Then, perhaps five decades after that letter, we have the oldest post-canonical Christian sermon aimed at the Corinthians (2 Clement, c. AD 150).
The Corinthian congregation was one of those congregations about which pastors say (among themselves or perhaps to themselves), “I probably would not have taken that call.” It must have required a very strong sense of an internal vocation to agree to try to shepherd them. Every classis or presbytery has one or two of such congregations where, for whatever reason, there are always problems and the people (and sometimes the leadership) just do not seem to mature.
No one who reads either of the canonical letters to the Corinthians or the post-canonical letter and sermon to them could doubt that the Corinthian Christians lacked sanctification. What should interest us more, however, is how Paul addressed it. He knew that they lacked sanctity. Did he respond by telling them to be more sanctified? Did he preach to them about the necessity of obedience? Did he leave them with the impression that they were under a covenant of works and that they had better perform or else?
Paul’s Surprising Response
The two canonical letters that we have from Paul were probably part of a stream of correspondence between the Apostle and the Corinthians. We have either 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th but we speak of First (One) and Second (Two) Corinthians.1 The first of several presenting issues appears in 1 Cor 1:11. Paul explained,
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers (ESV).
Quarreling in the church reveals a lack of maturity and sanctification, i.e., a lack of Christlikeness. Some of them (perhaps more) are not esteeming others more highly than themselves. They are not, in important ways, dying to self and being made alive in Christ.
Paul’s first reply to their lack of sanctification is not to tell them to be more sanctified. It is to point them to the cross. Why? Because the road to sanctification is not a straight line. It crosses Golgotha. Instead of yelling at them, because they were un-sanctified, Paul begins talking about the cross because they were acting like pagans. The church is the embassy of the Kingdom of God, it is a theater of grace but the Corinthians had turned it into a boxing arena or a wrestling match. Paul wrote,
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 Cor 1:18; ESV). The Corinthians, who professed faith in Christ, whom Paul addressed in light of that profession, were acting like pagans. They were confused about whose
wisdom they should be following. They thought that they were
wise but what is truly wise is the cross. They were impressed with the
debater of this age and
the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 1:20).
Do you see how Paul addresses sanctification? He goes through the cross, as it were, but he speaks to the way they think. They do not think like Christians, at least not consistently. They are not beginning with the cross, with the death of Christ for us, but with power and glory in this world. They are not theologians of the cross, as Paul was, but theologians of glory. That is why they were not impressed with Paul’s rhetoric and message.
More profoundly, their lust for power, for eloquence, for things that
this age values they were missing the most important thing of all: Christ. Paul explains,
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:21; ESV). The starting point of sanctification is not obedience. It is faith, trust, confidence in the Christ who was obedient for us sinners. Paul calls the gospel
foolishness because that is how it seems to pagans. What has the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return of a Jewish rabbi to do with power, success, and influence in this world? From the perspective of
this age, nothing at all. That is why unbelieving Jews demand signs (v.22) and pagan Gentiles seek “wisdom.” These are manifestations of power. Martin Luther warned about the
the theologian of glory in part because it is what Mike Horton called a
power religion. It is a religion that is practical for
getting things done in this world. This is one reason why it became the religion of the Modernists in the 19th and 20th centuries and part of the attraction of the social gospel.
Paul’s message is eminently practical but not in the way some in the Corinthian congregation wanted. What the Corinthians wanted was the stuff of this age but what they needed was to grasp and believe is that the path to true, Holy Spirit-ual power is through death. It is, in the first instance, through the death of Christ and faith in him. It is, in the second instance, as a consequence, through death to self and to sin. That is true power. That is the path to sanctification. It is something that, according to Paul and according to later Christian writers, the Corinthians struggled to accept for at least a century. Their long struggle with sanctification tells us something about the nature of progressive sanctification in this life. Nevertheless, the slow, gradual nature of sanctification, which Paul observed in the Corinthians in his life, did not tempt him to cut corners, to try to draw a straight line from the law to sanctification. He got to the normative use of the law but he did so through the gospel.
1. The American custom is to say “First and Second Corinthians” but the British custom is to say, “One and Two Corinthians.”
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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