SUNDAY MORNING WORSHIP SERVICE, 27 December 2020
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 15:10
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I. Grace in the past
II. Grace in the present
III. Grace at work
I find myself interesting at certain moments in every year. I mean, as a new year begins, I say something like, ‘Wow, it’s already 2020!’ Then, at the end of each year I repeat exactly what I said a year ago, ‘Wow, I can’t believe a year has already gone!’ Today is another moment I’d repeat myself as today is the last Lord’s Day of 2020. Well, I can’t believe that 2020 is closing up already! Especially this year has gone so quickly for me, and I believe most of you feel the same. It has been a year of so many new things and surprises alongside challenges.
In a moment like this, our human mind becomes retrospective, looking back and contemplating the time that has passed. We look back this year and give thanks to God more than we did in the past for He has kept us safe from the threat of the present virus pandemic. We’ve been relatively peaceful while the rest of the world is in a great turmoil. Over this period, I believe many people in the world have realised man’s weakness and powerlessness, and most importantly, our need of God and His protection.
In times like this, our human mind seeks more than a simple recollection of the past; rather, we’d like to know what we really are as human beings. To this mindset, the Apostle Paul speaks a weighty message through a simple phrase in 1 Cor. 15:10. It’s quite timely as well for us to contemplate his message in this phrase, that is, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.”
Simply put, this is Paul’s confession of faith and praise to the God of grace. I recommend that you know what the apostle means with this phrase, and make it as your confession of faith also, and say it as your praise to the Lord. I say this because, in this phrase, Paul shares with us his understanding of his life in relation to God’s grace. He has examined his life since the moment Jesus visited him, and realised the essence of his life. Having recognised the purpose of his being, he confidently sums up and says, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.” This is his summary of his past, present and future in relation to God’s grace.
So, my prayer is that, as we focus on this confession and praise of the apostle, you might also see the meaning and purpose of your life in Jesus the Lord and be able to say the same with the apostle, especially at the close of an year, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.”
I. GRACE IN THE PAST
We begin with the apostle’s understanding of God’s grace that was poured upon him in the past. In a word, God’s grace saturated his entire past.
We find this in a couple of verses prior to v. 10 of 1 Cor. 15. In v. 8, he shares with us that he was like ‘one untimely born,’ and the ‘least’ or ‘unworthy to be called an apostle’ in v. 9. Why does he see himself as such? Because he persecuted the church of God; he was the legally responsible one for the death of Stephen, one of the seven Deacons of the early church, and he was a ‘special prosecutor,’ so-to-speak, appointed by the Sanhedrin – Jewish high-court – and captured many Christians. When Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Paul was on his way to find and capture Christians of that city and to bring them to a Jewish court in Jerusalem. So, when Paul says that he was like ‘one untimely born’ and the ‘least’ or ‘unworthy to be called an apostle,’ he means what he used to be in the past and referring his readers to the event of Jesus’ appearance to him as recorded in Acts 9. To Saul, Jesus asked this question: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Because of his great sin against the Lord in the past, Paul sees himself even as one ‘untimely born.’
Although Paul regrets his wrongdoings, mourns over his sins of the past, he rejoices in God’s grace. That’s what he means with this saying, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.” He means that even that terrible sin of his was a part of God’s grace toward him. This might sound strange to you, but it’s true. In Gal. 1, Paul explains why he rejoices even with his past sins in this way. From v. 11 and following of Gal. 1, he says that he had been a devote Jew who followed Jewish traditions. He persecuted Christ’s church and tried to destroy it. Then, he says this in vs. 15-16 of Gal. 1: “But when [God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles.” Even though he persecuted Jesus (Jesus said this to him, asking ‘why are you persecuting Me?’), God carefully led him and guided him to the way of His divine grace. So, even in his sin, God’s grace was there with him! This is why he rejoices in God’s grace, though he mourns over his sins of the past. God’s grace has never left him alone in his past.
A surprisingly large number of people in the world decline invitation to come to Christ, claiming that they’re unworthy to come to Jesus and be pardoned of their sins. They say that because of – as they claim – their many and weighty sins of the past. If their reason for declining invitation to Jesus was right, then, Paul could’ve never been able to become an apostle of Jesus. Moreover, so would’ve been the case for all Jesus’ disciples. In fact, none of us, none of Christians in the world would’ve become Christians.
By the grace of God, Paul and Peter and all other disciples were saved, and so are we. Jesus came to this world to save sinners, not to collect spotless perfectionists or purists. He is the Physician who heals the sick, the wounded, the lame, the blind, and even the murderers!
What Paul the Apostle testifies is that God always embraces and leads His elect to the way of His grace. He never leaves them alone in the darkness of sin. Even in moments of sinning, the Lord’s gracious hand is always there with His elect, graciously guiding them to Jesus, graciously embracing each one in His patience.
Once an elect of God enters the way of grace and starts walking that path, he realises how deep God’s grace has been with him in the past. Even in all sins he committed in the past, he finds the Lord’s grace. In Paul’s case, for example, he found God’s grace even in his awful sin against the Lord and His church. In what way? In seeing that all Christians in his time glorifying God as they heard that Saul the persecutor of Christ’s church had become one of them and, even more, a bold preacher of the gospel of Jesus! We read this in Gal. 1:24. Another well-known and often quoted example is the case of John Newton of the 18th C, the author of a great, if not the greatest, hymn, ‘Amazing grace.’ He had been a slave trader, but later, in God’s grace, became a follower of Christ and preacher of the saving grace of Jesus who speaks of God’s grace to us even now through his hymn.
You and I had God’s full grace in the past, my brothers and sisters. Not only in this year that has almost gone, but also and more importantly so in the past when our eyes were blind and our souls were dead in sin! So precise is Paul’s confession, therefore, when he says, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.” God’s grace was abundant in the past.
II. GRACE IN THE PRESENT
The same grace of God is now overflowing in us in the present, as is the case of Paul of 1 Cor. 15. This is the next point Paul the Apostle testifies. He sees that what he is now is purely because of God’s grace. Saying ‘grace,’ he means that he has not contributed to what he is now and what he is capable of. Rather, all is by God’s grace. He is an apostle of Christ Jesus; he proclaims the gospel of Jesus to the peoples of various cultural and religious and social backgrounds. This, Paul says, is purely by God’s grace. In other words, God enables him to do so; God gives him both desire and wisdom, and He leads Paul to do his assigned works.
While he gives God the full credit for what he is now, he also recognises both what he can and what he cannot as God’s grace overflowing in him. I mean, he acknowledges all he has at the present – such as his disposition, capability, ministry and so on – are the fruit of God’s grace. Not only this, but also what he is not, he reckons that as God’s grace.
For example, Paul didn’t seem to be a person of eloquence in speech or of charisma in public appearance, despite his weighty and strong letters. In fact, it seems that if he stood before a congregation, his speech was rather of ‘no account’ as 2 Cor. 10:10 tells us.
But as he says in 2 Cor. 10:13, he regards what others might see as a weakness or defect of his as God’s grace. Listen to him yourselves and see how he considers all things as God’s grace as I’ll read you 2 Cor. 10:10 and following verses: one thing I’ll change in this reading of those verses is that I’ll change plural pronouns, like ‘we’ or ‘our,’ to singulars like ‘I’ or ‘me’: “For [people] say, ‘[Paul’s] letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.’ … [I do not] dare to classify or compare [myself] with some of those who are commending themselves. … But [I] will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to [me], to reach even to you.”
What he says here is that he sees what he is and what he has are through and by the grace of God. Nothing is exceptional; nothing is by accident, but all are given by God and reflect His divine and amazing grace. He doesn’t complain about his weak speech; there’s no sign of his pride of his weighty letters either. He boasts of all gifts and talents as well as limitations. He rejoices in all things – his disposition, ability, ministry, etc, etc – which God’s grace has brought to him and fructified in his life.
Translating it to a language familiar to us might be like this – I’m a person like Paul; I can hardly bear standing before people, let alone explaining the gospel of Jesus to an unbeliever. But I find helping and caring others easy and I delight in serving others. I do not envy anyone’s eloquence; I’m not jealous of others who get people’s attention by their personality. I know that what I have is by the grace of God and I’m content with His grace for me.
Or another Christian might say – I’m under a constant stress and in spiritual agony because of a member of my family who is indifferent to Jesus and even rejects Him. I’m surrounded by unbelieving friends and neighbours, and everyday I’m persecuted by them in words and deeds. I wish I could live among believing family members and friends and neighbours who might share Christ’s fellowship with me! My cross seems to be heavier than others. Yet, I don’t complain; rather, I thank God for giving me a life of witnessing Christ to them every moment of my life with every word I say. What I am is by God’s grace and His grace is sufficient for me! I even boast of this limit I have!
In a word, what each of us are is the sheer grace of God, His sheer gift for each of us. His grace has moulded us, and His grace is sufficient for us at the present in Jesus Christ.
III. GRACE AT WORK
As God’s grace overflew from Paul and all God’s elect in the past, as His grace is sufficient for each one in Jesus Christ at the present, God’s grace is at work in the lives of every Christian, God’s grace is working actively and vigorously and powerfully. So, it’s not ‘Christians at work,’ but ‘grace at work in Christians.’
Going back to the case of Paul in 1 Cor. 15:10, he tells us that ‘he worked harder than any apostle, but’ – please listen carefully what he continues and says – “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” He means, ‘the grace of God’ is at work in and through him. So, he preaches the word of God and people believe. Grace is at work, and Paul joyfully witnesses what God in His grace does through him. In a word, Paul is an agent of God’s grace.
He speaks about this again in 1 Tim. 1:15-16. There, he explains that Jesus displays Himself through Paul and that is the purpose of the mercy, the grace he has received from God. In other words, ‘grace has shaped Paul’s entire life and character as an agent through whom God reaches and transforms others.’ So, Paul simply says in 1 Cor. 15:3 that he delivers to the saints at Corinth and to us as well ‘what he received,’ that is, the gospel of Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection for us! It’s God in His grace, not Paul, who delivers the good news of Jesus to others. He means, ‘Grace at work in me!’, and so in you and me.
So, Paul’s joy comes from his witnessing God’s grace at work through him. God’s grace leads him to preach the gospel, and seeing it happen, he rejoices. God’s grace guides him to serve Christ’s churches and strengthen them with Christ’s love, and seeing it all happen, Paul rejoices. ‘Grace at work!’
The same should be the reason for our joy. I preach and, in my act of preaching, I see the grace of God at work – and this is my great joy. You serve and strengthen and pray for others, and that becomes your joy as all you do in the name of Jesus are, in fact, what God’s grace does through you. In this sense, carrying each one’s ‘cross’ is our pure joy because we see God’s grace is at work in us!
Paul explains this so clearly in 2 Cor. 9:8, saying these words: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” Let me read this verse again, and please note the cause-and-effect relationship between God’s grace and our good works: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
At the close of a year, I pray that seeing God’s grace at work in you may be your joy! And your recollection of the same grace of God abundant in the past and at the present may add deeper joy in your soul.
This is a time we give our heartfelt thanks to our Father for His grace. This is a time we seek more of His grace in order to witness Jesus displaying Himself through us to our own family members and friends and neighbours. In this sense, I’m excited to know that God’s grace has been sufficient in the time passed and at the present, and more will be poured upon me, upon all of us, in the coming days and years! ***