The Big Picture
Acts 18 gives an account of Paul’s eighteen months in the city of Corinth during which time he grew a deep relationship with the members of the young church planted there. Through correspondence and emissaries, he had maintained a close, if somewhat rocky, relationship with them ever since his departure. Though this letter is named “First” Corinthians, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:9–13 confirm at least one earlier letter he had sent. References to a letter from them are sprinkled throughout this epistle as well. Learning that they had departed from the solid doctrinal foundation he had laid, Paul urgently composed his answer to deal with the many divisions, errors, and outright sins that permeated the church. Paul begins his letter with great irony, therefore, by calling the Corinthians “saints.” Sainthood is not bestowed upon super-Christians with holy behavior, but upon all who have trusted in Christ and are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). Paul is making the point that those who are in Christ should also act like saints—even in a wicked world and a sensual society. Many historians describe Corinth as a city of unbridled passion and sexual orgies, basing their view on certain remarks of ancient writers. Though Paul’s letter specifically addresses the many problems in the Corinthian church, this book is really about holiness, about living the Christian life. In fact, if we wanted to distill all of Paul’s church epistles into a single grand truth, it would be this: act like what you are. The Corinthians, like their twenty-first-century counterparts, did not need to learn how to be righteous, but rather how to live out the righteousness that Christ has provided, even when immersed in a culture that is decidedly unholy.
Apart from his salvation, the key to Paul’s self-understanding is his apostleship (1:1). Perhaps the most astounding truth that Paul delivers is this precious reminder of what the Corinthian believers are and what God expects of them. The phrase is literally expressed, “called holy” or “called saints.” One might wonder if the apostle has suffered from either amnesia or dementia. Divisions, fornication, doctrinal aberration, theological misunderstandings, and irregular practice pervaded the congregation. All these things together added up to a church with sin, schisms, and sorrows. Yet Paul called them “sanctified” and “saints.”
Sanctification is not some magical infused holiness that makes temptation evaporate. Sanctification means to be set apart, designated for God’s purpose through the person and work of Christ. Though they are in Corinth, they can be holy because they are also “in Christ Jesus.”
Paul ends the verse by giving his readers a second truth that can help them as they seek to lead holy lives. They are not in this struggle alone! The apostle reminds them that the truth in his letter applies also to “those in every place who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:2). Christians all over the world are united by faith in Christ, regardless of race, class, economic status, or anything else that might divide. He is “their Lord and ours.”
Paul’s prayer for the Corinthians (1:3) is very similar to his invocation in several of his other epistles (Rom. 1:7; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2). This grace for which he prays is not merely a meaningless formulaic expression. He is grateful for the grace of God that has already been given to them—a grace that has enriched them and brought them many wonderful benefits in Christ.
In light of his later words of rebuke and correction, Paul’s pastoral wisdom here is stunning. He expresses delight that they don’t lack any gifts (1 Cor. 1:7). Tucked in Paul’s encouragement is the assurance that Jesus will enable the Corinthians to persevere. They demonstrated their giftedness as the testimony of Christ was “confirmed” among them (1:6), a word that means “to guarantee or verify.” The result is that just as the gospel was “confirmed” in them by their giftedness, so Jesus will “confirm” (translated “strengthen” in 1:8) them to the end. God’s purpose in doing this is to make them “blameless” on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:8). Elsewhere Paul wrote that God “chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him” (Eph. 1:4, italics added). Significantly, Paul did not say that we will ever be faultless, but that we will be blameless. We will always have a sinful past, but the scars of Jesus will bear witness that God does not hold our sin against us.
Despite all the sin in the church and its members, Paul reminds them of the faithfulness of God (1 Cor. 1:9). He is always faithful. The same God by whom “you were called . . . into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” is the faithful God who “will strengthen you to the end.” Three times in these introductory verses Paul uses the word called. He is called to be an apostle (1:1); the Corinthians are called saints (1:2); and they have been called into fellowship with Jesus Christ (1:9). Interestingly, after assuring his readers of their security in Christ who will keep them blameless, Paul immediately reminds them that there is more to the Christian life than basking in their security. God called them into fellowship, not complacency.
Living It Out
This passage has wide-reaching implications for life. Paul teaches that believers can and must be holy, even when immersed in a culture that is not. Paul’s choice of the word saint to identify believers is both a reminder and a subtle rebuke. “Act like what you are” is his challenge. Believers should remember Paul’s declaration that, during this period in which we wait for the Lord’s return, the church does not lack any spiritual gift (1:7). No matter how inadequate we may feel, no matter how much we have struggled, our failures are not because we are not equipped. In Jesus we obtained everything needed for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). When you feel weak, you can be strong, for we know he keeps us—we don’t keep ourselves. Our security is rooted, not in our service, but in our Savior. We can be strong, we can endure, we can persevere! If Paul could make this promise to first-century Christians in Corinth with all of their problems and sins, twenty-first-century Christians can believe it too.
The overwhelming encouragement of the entire passage is that salvation is of the Lord! God is faithful, even when we are not. God graciously calls us into fellowship with his Son. God enriches us and gifts us by the grace given us in his Son, which motivates and enables us to be saints—to be holy—even in a sinful world.