Is Your Belief in Vain?

There are many people who claim to believe in God. There are many religions in the world by which many different people make many different truth claims. Even within “Christianity,” there are many different systems of belief, different opinions about who Christ is and what He is doing, and different ways people say church should be done or not. There are even “Christians” who claim to be in Christ but have nothing to do with the body of Christ. There are secularized “Christians” who believe that there is no resurrection from the dead or that Christ is not divine.

As we near the conclusion of Paul’s letter and as Paul continues to admonish the local church toward unity through maturity, Paul reminds the local church about the gospel he preached, and defends it against dissenting doctrines present in the congregation at Corinth.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

15.1 Γνωρίζω δὲ ὑμῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον ὃ εὐηγγελισάμην ὑμῖν, ὃ καὶ παρελάβετε, ἐν ᾧ καὶ ἑστήκατε,  2 διʼ οὗ καὶ σῴζεσθε, τίνι λόγῳ εὐηγγελισάμην ὑμῖν, εἰ κατέχετε, ἐκτὸς εἰ μὴ εἰκῇ ἐπιστεύσατε.

3 Παρέδωκα γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν πρώτοις, ὃ καὶ παρέλαβον, ὅτι Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν κατὰ τὰς γραφάς,  4 καὶ ὅτι ἐτάφη, καὶ ὅτι ἐγήγερται τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ κατὰ τὰς γραφάς,  5 καὶ ὅτι ὤφθη Κηφᾷ, εἶτα τοῖς δώδεκα·  6 ἔπειτα ὤφθη ἐπάνω πεντακοσίοις ἀδελφοῖς ἐφάπαξ, ἐξ ὧν οἱ πλείονες μένουσιν ἕως ἄρτι, τινὲς δὲ ἐκοιμήθησαν·  7 ἔπειτα ὤφθη Ἰακώβῳ, εἶτα τοῖς ἀποστόλοις πᾶσιν·  8 ἔσχατον δὲ πάντων ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι ὤφθη κἀμοί.  9 ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι ὁ ἐλάχιστος τῶν ἀποστόλων, ὃς οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς καλεῖσθαι ἀπόστολος, διότι ἐδίωξα τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τοῦ θεοῦ·  10 χάριτι δὲ θεοῦ εἰμι ὅ εἰμι, καὶ ἡ χάρις αὐτοῦ ἡ εἰς ἐμὲ οὐ κενὴ ἐγενήθη, ἀλλὰ περισσότερον αὐτῶν πάντων ἐκοπίασα, οὐκ ἐγὼ δὲ ἀλλὰ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ σὺν ἐμοί.  11 εἴτε οὖν ἐγὼ εἴτε ἐκεῖνοι, οὕτως κηρύσσομεν καὶ οὕτως ἐπιστεύσατε. 

Paul’s preaching (v. 1-2)

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.

Paul reminds the congregation about the gospel he preached to them. In fact, he makes it known as if the people have forgotten. He reminds them that they received the gospel, stand in the gospel alone, and are saved by the message of the gospel alone if they hold fast the word which Paul preached to them, unless they believed in vain.

When Paul preached, he preached the gospel. His preaching did not exceed what was written in Scripture (cf. 4:6), and it was not embellished or puffed up or meant for entertaining (cf. 2:1-2). I think there are a great many things we should learn from Paul’s manner of preaching. We should speak plainly, not worry about embellishment or entertaining others with stories or jokes, but resolve to know nothing but what is written and preach only that—a very difficult discipline for anyone who stands before others, but the most beneficial discipline for anyone who preaches. Why? The gospel is what people receive when they believe. The gospel is what the people of God stand in. The gospel is the message by which people are saved, not our stories, jokes, philosophies, or anything else. People are saved if they hold fast to the word preached (i.e. the exposition of Scripture) unless they believed in vain. Do you see those words in the text? People are not saved if they hold fast to a baptism experience or even to their own confession or some other spiritual experience they have had—as if all of life and reality is centered on them. They are saved if the hold fast to the words of Scripture, particularly Paul’s exposition of the Scriptures. When preachers preach, and when congregations listen, anything other than expository preaching is dangerous for the whole body. Exposition is the thing those who are truly saved hold fast to—the preaching of the word that does not exceed what is written and resolves not to know more than what is written.

…unless you believed in vain. It seems, then, that it is entirely possible for people to believe Christ, and to be a “Christian,” yet have believed in vain. Hold on. Are we not promised that if we simply believe, we will be saved. Do the Scriptures actually teach such a thing anywhere? Not without qualification. Believe in Christ, yes, but also confess Him as Lord (Romans 10:9-10), take hold of and believe the gospel message according to the Scriptures (Acts 16:31, Mark 16:16), and obey Christ’s commands in Scripture (John 3:36). If someone has believed something about Christ but is not submitted to the words of Christ, that person has believed in vain—his faith is insincere and illegitimate, and he does not have eternal life. There are many today who have made professions of faith, been baptized, experienced a miracle, are spiritual or believe in God, and their belief is in vain because they hold fast to something other than the Scriptures. Many do not even know what the Scriptures teach because they care not to read or sit under expository preaching and teaching. This revelation does not indicate that anyone can lose his or her salvation. It does indicate that there are false converts who rely on their own belief rather than simply submit themselves to the explicit teaching of Christ throughout Scripture.

Paul’s apologetic (v. 3-8)

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

Paul explains why his preaching is the standard for sincere belief. He delivered as of first importance what he received. Paul’s preaching is not original. He received it from someone else. Christ died for our sins—that is, in order to atone for our sins—according to the Scriptures. So, Paul not only received the content of his preaching from someone else. It was written in the Scriptures. He would not have been able to preach that Christ atoned for our sins if it was not already written in the Old Testament. Christ was buried and raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, according to what was written in the Old Testament. When he was raised, his resurrection was witnessed by Cephas (Peter), the twelve, and more than five hundred brethren (fellow believers in Christ) at one time—most of whom are still alive as Paul writes this letter to Corinth. There are living witnesses who can testify about what they saw as Paul writes. Jesus appeared to James, then to all the apostles, here to mean missionaries other than the twelve who are listed previously; it is unlikely that Christ would appear to the twelve for the first time and then again appear to the twelve for the first time. Finally, He appeared to Paul as one untimely born—like an infant carried past term. So, what was written about the Christ in the Old Testament was proven by eye-witness testimony, testimony we now have written in the New Testament.

Paul’s preaching is the standard of belief and the thing sincere Christians hold fast to because his preaching is an exposition of the Old Testament concerning the Christ. There are eye-witness accounts from those who saw the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Look at the Old Testament prophet, Hosea, who prophesied about the restoration of Israel even though Israel was a harlot and chased after other gods and ways:

For I will be like a lion to Ephraim And like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear to pieces and go away, I will carry away, and there will be none to deliver. I will go away and return to My place Until they acknowledge their guilt and seek My face; In their affliction they will earnestly seek Me. “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, That we may live before Him. So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; And He will come to us like the rain, Like the spring rain watering the earth.” What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? For your loyalty is like a morning cloud And like the dew which goes away early. Therefore I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of My mouth; And the judgments on you are like the light that goes forth. For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me. Gilead is a city of wrongdoers, Tracked with bloody footprints. And as raiders wait for a man, So a band of priests murder on the way to Shechem; Surely they have committed crime. In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing; Ephraim’s harlotry is there, Israel has defiled itself. Also, O Judah, there is a harvest appointed for you, When I restore the fortunes of My people (Hosea 5:14-6:11).

The prophet spoke of Israel’s harlotry. God Himself would dash them to pieces. The people would cry out to be revived, trusting that God would resurrect them after two days—on the third day. God would be the only one who could accomplish this—through the tribe of Judah. Indeed, through the tribe of Judah, one was born who restored the fortunes of His people, died, was buried, and raised on the third day—Jesus, the Christ, the Lion of Judah. All the imagery is there in Hosea. God, like a lion would treat Israel severely. God would be the only one to redeem the nation. He would do so by raising a man, who must be God for the work to be wholly God’s, from the tribe of Judah on the third day.

The truth about effectual work (v. 9-11)

For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Paul claims to be the least of the apostles, in this text simply meaning a missionary, and not fit to be called a missionary because he persecuted the church of God before he met Christ and was called to be an apostle. Only by God’s grace is Paul what he is. This is true for all of us. We are not fit to be called Christians, the Church, elders, deacons, teachers, fathers, mothers, saints, and so forth. We are what we are only by God’s grace. His grace does not prove vain even if human belief does. See, it is God’s grace that matters in all of this. We are saved and given labor to do in the kingdom not because of our belief but by God’s grace. In fact, it is by God’s grace alone that anyone sincerely believes. Even though Paul’s labors in the kingdom seem great according to worldly standards, he admits that it is only the grace of God with him. No matter who preached the gospel, it was preached and Corinthians believed. 

So, we resolve to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ—to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything that Christ commanded (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). It matters not how great of a following we have. By the grace of God, the gospel is preached and people believe. It is the grace of God by which our work is effectual, nothing else—certainly nothing of us as if anything, especially salvation, is based on our works instead of Christ’s.

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