1 Corinthians 1:4 I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; 5 That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; 6 Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: 7 So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: 8 Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
THANKFUL FOR THE GRACE OF GOD
Whenever we consider the meaning of this verse (4), we should recall that the Corinth church was full of problems. Their use of the Lord’s Supper needed correction. Their irrational tongue-speaking prompted 3 chapters of admonition. They had problems with the role of men and women, meat offered to idols, gross immorality, factions, and so forth. In addition, Paul made the congregation so angry that he was anxious about returning to them. This galaxy of conflicts has given us 1 and 2 Corinthians, important both for doctrinal and practical reasons.
When people try to put down the Bible as a human document, they forget that the Holy Spirit has chosen to reveal divine truth through a fallible person, Paul in this case, and because of sinful human beings, the Corinthian congregation. After dealing with many different congregational histories, I can see how 1 and 2 Corinthians differ from ordinary human documents. No one would ever record in a congregational history what we find in 1 and 2 Corinthians.
I started putting in stories about congregational history in the Ohio Synod paper, about 25 years ago. After I used some of the more interesting anecdotes, some pastors insisted on writing their own stories, which were bland.
So, in spite of all the problems in Corinth, Paul was thankful. He did not praise himself or the individuals. Instead, he wrote that he was thankful to God for the grace given to them in Christ Jesus.
What does this mean? Grace. We use the term all the time. One of the most popular hymns in America is “Amazing Grace.” But what would most people say if they had to define the word grace?
Grace is God’s favor or love, freely given to us without us being deserving.
Too often we think of love or friendship only in terms of a barter arrangement. For instance, one man will build a deck for his friend or relative. The friend or relative will respond by fixing the car.
Or we think in terms of reward. A soldier earns the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor that can be earned in America. There is always a citation, describing what heroic actions made the soldier worthy of the special medal worn around the neck.
God’s grace is appreciated best when we consider the Biblical teaching of original sin, that our nature cannot ever escape the taint of sin. The outwardly exemplary citizen is no better than the prisoner on death row in this regard. In fact, as Luther has often pointed out, the obvious transgressor is more likely to know that he is a sinner in need of a Redeemer. The works-saint is more likely to think he has saved himself through his virtue, hard work, and moral rectitude. If someone is impressed with his own holiness, he will not think he needs forgiveness.
When we worship or study the Bible, God treats our biggest sin, doubting His Word, by exposing it through the Law. Whenever Jesus says, O ye of little faith, or whenever God addresses our doubt, it is the Law making a diagnosis. We react to the Law the way we react to medical tests – with fear and avoidance. Yet we know something is wrong. The Law is the diagnosis but not the prescription.
The Law wilts the pride in our stubborn and hardened hearts. Sometimes outward events will reinforce the message. Waking up face down on concrete, for instance, will magnify the meaning of the Law. The Holy Spirit causes true sorrow for sin, contrition, by showing what God has commanded.
Worldly contrition is being sorry for being caught. Sometimes it turns into sincere sorrow for sin, but only under the influence of the Word. For instance, if a boy throws rocks and breaks windows, it is not wrong because it hurts the family name, but because of the 7th Commandment. We should help preserve our neighbor’s property.
If people are worried about the family name, they will more likely cover up a problem, to save themselves embarrassment. Many parents act as if their children can do no wrong. So it is no wonder that few want to be parochial school teachers today, dealing with an impossible task. One teacher removed two obnoxious students from band class. Soon the father showed up and shouted down the teacher in front of the class.
In contrast, when I was a pastor in Columbus, a little girl stole my teddy bear, which I was showing to her. Her sister later told me that I gave it to her. I said, “Ask her the real story.” The next day the little girl appeared at the door with her dad. She apologized and gave me my teddy bear. I didn’t care about the toy, only about the impulsive behavior. Needless to say, with such a father, those five children were wonderful to have around the neighborhood. They planted my entire garden, demanding pay and treats. The plants came up the way they were sown, randomly. The treats were kool-aid and some cookies.
Sinful behavior is thwarted—-in some cases--by saying, “It is proven that it isn’t good for you.” That seems good at first, but it sounds as if the opposite of sin is taking care of yourself.
Sin is defined through the 10 Commandments, the First Table (1-3) describing our relationship with God; the Second Table describing our relationship with our neighbor.
When an unbeliever in converted to faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit works first through the Law to soften his sinful heart and show him the utter futility of salvation through works, virtue, or turning over a new leaf. Believers also need this continued approach, because we soon lose our sense of our true sinful nature.
People experience the divine power of the Law, because they say, “It was like a knife through my heart.” Or “I felt crushed.” Or “Suddenly I saw myself as God must see me.” Or “I finally saw that all my efforts had been completely in vain. I felt powerless.”
The broken, contrite, sorrowful sinner then hears or reads the Gospel promises.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
The Holy Spirit teaches us the meaning of the crucifixion in this passage. This is a Gospel passage. Jesus was without sin and yet was treated as the totality of human sin, dying in agony, abandoned by God. Why? That we might be made the righteousness of God.
When we believe the Gospel promises, we are justified, declared righteous or innocent in the eyes of God. Christ has paid for our sins.
How do we believe? How does this happen? The divine power of the Gospel causes faith.
Ephesians 2:4 But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, 5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) 6 And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: 7 That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
This is the great irony. Man can only sin by treating sin with the Law. God demands faith, but God provides faith by the proclamation of the Gospel. That shows us the grace of God, since we are dead to Him, dead through sin. Yet God in His mercy provides a way to escape the penalty we deserve, placing His Son on the altar, out of love for each and every one of us.
Have you ever stayed at someone’s house and damaged something? And the host didn’t seem to mind at all? That would be a gracious host. Or you did something stupid, really careless, and damaged something of unique value to the host. And the host said, “It never happened. I already forgot.” That would be even more gracious.
Few people are gracious, because it takes such an effort, to stifle rage and the need for revenge and justice. But God is gracious far beyond our ability to comprehend His love and mercy. Before we knew we are sinners, God provided the remedy for our illness, forgiveness in Christ.
In raising children one of the most frustrating things is that being absolutely fierce with them and extremely strict will not bring about the desired results. Often parents will see just the opposite from the use of the Law alone. That is why parents need to understand forgiveness and to practice it daily, often in a series of lessons. Wrong must be addressed according to God’s Word. But forgiveness must also be promised and experienced. Because children are so open to teaching and sensitive, they will become overly alarmed with the Law alone, just as they will become monsters if they get away with everything.
Paul’s tenderness toward the Corinthian congregation is a good example of this approach. He certainly denounced some bad and sinful behavior, but he also thanked God for them and for the power of the Gospel in their midst. Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, forgiveness and salvation will be found.
In forgiveness, not the Law, we find the power to defeat temptation, little by little, and chase away Satan with the Word. When we see the meaning of forgiveness, justification by faith, then we can look at the 10 Commandments in terms of loving what God commands.
Third Commandment – Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. The Gospel message makes us enjoy what God commands. When people love the Word of Truth, they show the fruit of the Spirit promised in Galatians 5. That loves comes from God not from man. It is the power both to will and to do.
Christ is nothing but forgiveness. One example is often used against God. He has provided so many ways to receive forgiveness. We may say the Word and the Sacraments of baptism and communion. But we may also say through absolution and the mutual consolation of the brothers (as Luther does). Or absolution is called a sacrament, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.
God’s grace can be seen in this superabundance of methods to grant forgiveness and to strengthen faith. Sometimes a minister will speak consoling words to a member. Sometimes members to one another. Other times a member to a pastor. God’s Word is so powerful that man cannot stop what God has begun. When one man is forgiven, he will be forgiving toward others and teach forgiveness. Those who have been completely wiped out by the follies of life will be the most thankful for God’s riches. The greatest sinners will have the greatest joy in being forgiven.
The Pharisees did not run to Jerusalem with good news. They ran back to plot the death of Jesus. Ordinary men and women, great sinners and small sinners, foundation salvation in Jesus, who converted them through the preached Word.
As sinners, we value the sacrament of Holy Communion. People ask when they will receive the Lord’s Supper. Why is it so special for Lutherans? It is the visible Gospel. Not just bread and wine, but also the body and blood of Christ.
Where is the power of communion? In the Gospel word of consecration and distribution: Given and shed for the forgiveness of sin.
We are weak. We need the visible reality united with the invisible promise of the Gospel. We need to receive as individuals when the sermon gives to the whole group assembled. We need communion on a regular basis.
The Glory Has Departed
Norma Boeckler, Artist in Residence
Bethany Lutheran Church.