[A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (esp. v. 10); second in a series]
What kind of church is the greatest church in the world? We could give a lot of answers to that question. Some of us would say that the greatest church in the world is the church that baptizes a lot of people. Some of us would say that the greatest church in the world is the church that ministers well to the needs of its members and to the needs of its community. Some of us would say that the greatest church in the world is the church that effectively prays for and supports missions. And no doubt all of these factors could be among the marks of a great church.
But I want to propose this thought to you: the greatest church in the world is the church that adequately understands and practices grace.
“Grace” is the most powerful word in the powerful vocabulary of the Bible. In God’s grace we are saved, in God’s grace we are used, and by God’s grace we are empowered. Only as a church operates in the realm of this grace can it be truly great. For you see, a church can be great only when it moves from duty to desire—when it moves from doing what it feels obliged to do to doing what it wants to do because, out of some marvelous force welling up from the inside, it must be done.
We begin with the fact that it is in God’s grace that we are saved. Here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s purpose is to present to the Corinthians the basic elements of the gospel message. So he recounts how “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (vv. 3b-5). Paul goes on to tell that Christ also appeared to him.
What Paul has reviewed here is God’s gracious plan for the salvation of people like you and me. It was “in accordance with the scriptures,” which means that it was in accordance with God’s gracious plan. This plan was a gracious plan because our salvation was undeserved. We did not, because we cannot, earn it. God conceived of and carried out his plan of salvation out of his grace.
In other words, God did it because he wanted to, not because he had to. In still other words, he did it out of his desire and not out of duty. What I mean is that God was not obligated to send Jesus to save us because of some merit in us or because of some strictures by which he was bound. God is gracious and out of his grace he freely chose to do what he did. Now, we could say, and it would be accurate, that grace is part of God’s nature and that he was in a sense compelled to send Christ by this grace that is part of his character. But he still chose to respond to the prompting of his grace. He chose to send Jesus.
It is in God’s grace that we are saved, but it is also in God’s grace that we are used. Paul’s salvation experience was so closely connected with his call to be an apostle of Christ that they cannot be separated. That is really true of all of us. Our experience of salvation, which brings with it great benefits, also brings with it great responsibility. We are saved to serve.
Remarkable as it is, God in his grace chooses to use us to carry out his ministry. Paul said that he was “unfit to be called an apostle” (v. 8) because he had persecuted the church. But we are all unfit to be sent by God to do his work, which is the meaning of the word “apostle.” God’s purpose for his followers is that we spread the good news of the salvation that is available through his Son Jesus Christ. To do so is a great privilege and a great responsibility and God bestows the mission upon us in his grace.
So God gives us salvation in his grace. Part of that salvation is the privilege and responsibility to share the message of his salvation. What enables us to do that? It is by God’s grace that we are empowered. Verse 10 makes a marvelous statement: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Is carrying out our ministry, then, a matter of duty or desire? Paul said that he worked hard as an apostle but that it was by God’s grace that he was an apostle in the first place and it was by God’s grace that he was empowered to do the work he did. It is the same with us.
Make no mistake about it: there is a great duty involved in being a Christian and in being a church. Our duty is nothing less than carrying the good news of Jesus Christ to a world that needs it but cannot or does not believe it. We have the duty of making that good news clear to them in the ways that we think, that we talk, and that we act. But are we functioning at our best—can we be a really great church—if we must make ourselves carry out this duty? No! We can be a really great church only when we realize the truth that the grace of God is within us, empowering us to do what we must do. It is that grace that gives us not only the ability but the desire to do our duty.
You will recall what was said earlier about the impetus behind God’s plan of salvation. He sent Jesus not because he had to but because his grace compelled him to want to. So it should be with us. We share Jesus in all that we do not because we have to but because God’s grace within us compels us to want to. Only when the desire is fueled and empowered by God’s grace can we carry out our mission in proper and great ways.
We need to be reminded of at least two things. First, let us be reminded of God’s grace that gave him the desire to send his Son Jesus to die for our sins. Second, let us be reminded of God’s grace that is within us that gives us the desire to share his Son with others.