Sustained by the Faithfulness of God
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
Part of the series 1 Corinthians: The Present Power of Christ Crucified
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The Centrality of Who We Are in Relation to God
In Paul's thirteen letters he almost always begins by telling us who he is in relation to God and who we are in relation to God. This is very different from what you see on television. Automobile commercials want you to think of your life in relation to things you have. Beer commercials want you to think of your life in relation to the brotherhood at the pub. Life insurance commercials want you to think of your life in relation to your family with touching scenes of childhood and graduation and marriage and first home and first child. And a hundred soaps and deodorants and shampoos and foods want you to think of your life in relation to your body.
The Relentless Testimony of Scripture
But the Bible is relentless in this one thing: it calls us back again and again, not to deny the existence of things like cars, or friends at the cafe, or families, or our own bodies, but to give these things their true meaning in relation to God. The Bible defines everything in relation to God. Everything has its true significance or insignificance in relation to God.
Verse 1: "Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus." Don't you love the strength and solidity and clarity of Paul's self-understanding? He knows who he is—Paul, and there was none just like him. He knows why he is here—to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, an emissary, a spokesman with inspired authority. And he knows how he got here—by the will of God.
He knows where comes from—from a God whose will governs the world and guides the affairs of men. He knows where he is going—to speak the truth for the King of kings and call men to submit to his lordship. And he knows who he is—Paul, with his thorn in the flesh, with his Romans 7 failures, with his persecutions and sleepless nights, and with his undaunted faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave himself for him.
What God Wants for All His Children
I believe God wants every one of his children to have that kind of solid, strong, clear self-understanding. Can you put your name in verse 1 with the appropriate changes? David, called by the will of God to be a financial planner for the glory of Jesus Christ! Dennis, called by the will of God to be an attorney for the glory of Jesus Christ! Judy, called by the will of God to be a teacher for the glory of Jesus Christ! Ruth, called by the will of God to be a nurse for the glory of Jesus Christ! Noël, called by the will of God to be a homemaker for the glory of Jesus Christ!
The Freedom of Being Defined in Relation to God
A tremendous stability comes into your life when you let the Bible define who you are in relation to God rather than letting the world define who you are in relation to things and groups and your body. To know where you've come from in relation to God, and where you are heading in relation to God, and where you stand now in relation to God, will make you a free agent.
You will not be the lackey of contemporary advertising. You won't be the slave of fads or fashions or trends. When the world attempts to leverage your decision by defining you in terms of a body or car or bank account that you don't have, you will not crumple with insecurity and dissatisfaction and covetousness; but you will stand like an independent free agent knowing who you really are and what your life really means in relation to God.
The Help This Text Offers to That End
Virtually every one of the nine verses in today's text is intended to help us know who we are in relation to God. He looks back to the past to define where these Christians came from. He looks at the present to see what their experience is as Christians. And he looks to the future to see what they can be sure of as Christians. This morning we only have time to look at the past and the future.
The roots of our God-centered self-understanding will go much deeper if we can answer these two questions:
- What happened in the past to make you a Christian?
- What will happen in the future to keep you a Christian?
1. What Happened in the Past
What happened in the past to make you a Christian?
Verse 2: "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours."
Three things happened in the past to make these people Christians.
- They were sanctified in Christ Jesus.
- They were called to be saints.
- They called on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let's think about these just briefly.
Sanctified in Christ Jesus
We usually think of sanctification as the life-long process of becoming more and more holy, more and more Christlike (1 Thessalonians 4:3; Romans 6:19; 1 Peter 2:15f.). But this verse speaks of it as something decisive that has already happened in the past: "To the church of God . . . to those sanctified," that is, to those who "have been," not "are being," sanctified in Christ Jesus.
What this verse teaches us, then, is that behind and beneath the life-long process of sanctification there is some decisive break with the old way of unbelief and sin, and alignment with the new way of faith and obedience. This is what happened to make us Christians.
You see this again in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?" Then he lists examples of the unrighteous: adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, robbers, etc. And says in verse 11: "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God."
Here too sanctification is past. There has been something decisive. And it has to do with experience: You were a drunkard, but then a decisive break. You were a homosexual, but then a decisive break. You were greedy for money, but then a decisive break. You were sanctified! You broke with the old lifestyle and were set apart for God.
But now that raises a problem: how does this decisive break fit with the process of becoming holy? How can sanctification be both a decisive break with the old, and yet be an ongoing clean-up process?
God's Call and Our Call
Let's let the next two descriptions of a Christian in verse 2 point to the answer. One description is something God does. And the other is something we do. God calls us to be saints, and we call on him for help and salvation. Verse 2: " . . . to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints [that's what God does] together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ [that's what we do]."
There is a decisive call to holiness that God gives and a decisive response that we give in calling on him. A Christian is a person who has been sanctified in these two senses:
- God has brought us into fellowship with Jesus (that's what it means to be called),
- and we have responded by breaking our old allegiance to other masters and begun to call on Christ for help and guidance in life (that's what it means to call on the name of the Lord).
And those two together—a call from God to us and a call from us to Christ—is what it means to become a Christian. And that's what it means to be sanctified in this initial and decisive sense.
So there is no conflict between saying that sanctification is a past and decisive thing and also saying that it is a present, ongoing process. When we say it is past and done, we mean that God decisively called me out of darkness and put me into fellowship with his Son, and in response to his call I decisively turned from what I was trusting in and from that moment on began to call on Jesus for the help and guidance I need in life. That is a decisive break with the old; it is a real experiential setting apart for God. But it also leaves lots of room for growth and progress in actual holiness (as will become plenty obvious before we get very far in this book).
Our Self-Understanding as We Look Back
So what is our self-understanding as we look back and ask what happened in the past to make us Christians? This: we are people whom God called into fellowship with his Son, and who, because of that call, began to call on Jesus for the satisfaction of our longings and deliverance from our sins. You can call this by many biblical phrases: being born again, being saved, being converted, becoming a new creature, becoming a disciple, receiving Jesus, etc. In verse 2 Paul calls it, "being sanctified," or, "being saints." (Sainthood is not a rank or echelon of Christianity. It is simply synonymous with being a Christian.)
Clarifying What God's Call Is
Before we leave this backward glance at who we are as Christians, I need to clarify just what God's call is. You can't know fully what it means to be a Christian until you know what it means to be called by God. Not only will it affect your understanding of how you became a Christian, but also your attitude as a Christian now and your hope for the future.
The Goal of Fellowship with Jesus
First, notice verse 9 where we learn the goal of the call, namely, fellowship with Jesus: "God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." So to become a Christian means to be called by God into fellowship with his Son. This is the biblical basis of all our talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
When you ask someone, "Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" what you mean is, "Has 1 Corinthians 1:9 come true in your life?" Do you enjoy fellowship with the living Christ? Are your lives so bound up together that you draw from him forgiveness and strength and hope and guidance and joy while he draws from you faith and love and prayer and obedience? If so, then you have been called.
Not Merely the Preaching of the Gospel
But what does that mean? Look at verses 23–24. "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
What do we learn about our call in these verses? First, we learn that God's call is not merely the preaching of the gospel. Paul says that there are many Jews and Gentiles who hear his preaching who are not called. He may call them. He must call them! But unless God calls them, preaching is in vain. So God's call is something more than man's call.
A Call That Effects a Change in the Heart
What is it? Well he says that when God calls, we stop being blind to the meaning of the cross. We stop regarding it as foolishness, and we embrace it as the very power and wisdom of God. So the call of God is a call that effects a change in the heart. It wakens sinners from the sleep of death. It does not merely invite like the call of man. It changes people. It converts.
Someone may say, that sounds like election. It sounds like God is the one who ultimately chooses who will respond to the gospel. Is that what God's call means? Yes. And verses 26ff. make this connection with election explicit.
"For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise." Do you see the connection: "Consider your call . . . God chose what is foolish . . . "? When he says, consider your call, he means, look around at who is in the church. It is the call that got them there. And then he says, these are the ones God chose. In other words, the call of God is the experiential outworking of the choice of God.
What Happened When God Called Us
We will have much more to say about this. For now I just want us to know what we mean when we look back on our lives and say that what happened to make me a Christian was that God called me. What we mean is not that he merely invited me into the fellowship of his Son, or that he merely offered me the fellowship of his Son, but that he came after me when I did not want the fellowship of his Son,
- and broke though all my resistance,
- and opened my eyes to see the beauty of Christ,
- and won from me a free and glad submission to his Son, so that I called on his name and was saved.
The call of God is the personal experience of being chosen by God for eternal life when I was by nature a rebel and a child of wrath.
What Difference Does This Make?
Now why is this important? What difference does it make for the living of your everyday life? Are the biblical doctrines of election and effectual calling just for theologians to argue about? Or do they make a difference in your life from day to day?
To answer that I could say, Look at verses 26–31! Paul says consider your calling . . . God chose what is foolish. In other words, think about this matter! Consider it! Ponder the ways of God in his election and effectual calling! Why? Verse 29, "So that no human being might boast in the presence of God." Or, positively in verse 31: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord!" I say I could talk about these verses with you, but that is for two weeks from now.
Instead let me close by asking the other question I posed at the beginning.
2. What Will Happen in the Future
What will happen in the future to keep you a Christian?
The Tremendously Practical Doctrine of God's Call
The answer to this question will show us just how practical the doctrine of God's call is for our daily life. For those who take the things of God seriously, one of the most practical issues we face is how we can be sure that the faith we have today we will have in ten years. You see chapter 15 of this book says (vv. 1–2), "I preached to you the gospel . . . by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain." And Colossians 1:23 says that we will be presented blameless before Christ, "if we continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel."
Without perseverance we will not be saved on the day of Christ—"those who endure to the end will be saved" (Mark 13:13). But then what becomes of assurance? And without assurance what becomes of joy, and without joy what becomes of love and zeal? This is a tremendously practical issue!
God's Commitment to Keep Us Believing
The answer is given in verse 8 of our text: "Christ will sustain you [literally "confirm you"—make you firm and stable in faith] to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." In other words, the assurance of the believer is not that God will save him even if he stops believing, but that God will keep him believing—God will sustain you in faith, he will make your hope firm and stable to the end. He will cause you to persevere.
That's the promise. Now what is the basis of the promise? Verse 9 tells us: God is faithful!
But wait a minute. Why should God's faithfulness oblige him to keep me believing? Paul gives his answer in the next phrase: "God is faithful by whom you were called." Do you see the connection between the call of God and the faithfulness of God? The point of the connection is this: if God has called you, then his faithfulness obliges him to keep you—to keep you persevering in faith. (Same in 1 Thessalonians 5:23f.) But why? Why is the faithfulness of God at stake in the perseverance of those whom he has called?
If the call of God is just an invitation to come and enjoy the fellowship of his Son, then God's faithfulness doesn't oblige him to keep us there if we try to leave. No, the reason his faithfulness is at stake in our perseverance—the reason he is committed to keeping us in the faith—is because his call is the outworking of his choice that we should be brought to glory. "Those whom he predestined he called, and those whom he called he justified, and those whom he justified he glorified" (Romans 8:29–30).
What is at stake in our perseverance is God's purpose of election (Romans 9:11). That's why his faithfulness is at stake. If God has chosen us for himself (Ephesians 1:4), if he has destined us for glory (1 Corinthians 2:7), then his faithfulness commits him to keep us in the faith. For outside the faith there is no fellowship with God and no glory.
Know Who You Are!
So I close this morning by urging you to understand yourself in relation to God. When you look back, know yourself as called by God. When you look forward, know yourself kept by God. What happened to make you a Christian is the call of God. What will happen to keep you a Christian is the faithfulness of God. Know who you are!! Called by God! Kept by God!
Don't say to yourself this morning: there is no hope for me for I'm not among that number. The freedom of God in the calling of sinners is intended to give hope, not take hope. It means that none is too bad. None is too hard. None is too far gone. God is free. God is rich unto all who call upon him. Look how expansive verse 2 is: he writes "to all those in every place who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13). If you can call, you are called.