The Gospel of Jesus Christ is truly amazing. By the Gospel Christians stand and grow in the grace of God. Paul in 1st Corinthians 15:1-11 establishes the historical reliability of Jesus’ resurrection in order to lay a firm foundation for his argument that it was only the first step in the resurrection of all deceased Christians. The Gospel is the means by which believers stand in Jesus and grow in Him. The focus of this post will be on 1st Corinthians 15:11 and what it means to exult in the Gospel.
Exalting in the Gospel
“But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1st Corinthians 15:11). When Paul reviews the course of his life, from his student days in Jerusalem to his actions as a persecutor of the church and as apostle to the Gentiles, he exclaims that by God’s grace he is what he is. The grace of God is the power that flows from God to the apostles. For instance, Paul and Barnabas experience divine grace when they travel to Cyprus and Asia Minor on their first missionary journey. They are supported in prayer by their commission church in Antioch that commends them to the grace of God (Acts 14:26). God’s grace keeps them safe during their travels so that they are able to return to Antioch and report what God has done through them.
Paul sees the grace of God operative throughout his life from birth (Gal. 1:15) to his career as an apostle of Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:7-8). Freely he acknowledges that his accomplishments are due to God’s grace. Note that he writes “I am what I am,” not “I am who I am.” Paul is interested in looking at himself not as a person but as an instrument in God’s hand to further the cause of the gospel.
“And his grace towards me has not been in vain.” Paul utters this statement of thanksgiving to God because God has extended grace to him. Three times in this verse Paul writes the term grace he lives, travels, and works by God’s grace. We are not aware of the work the other apostles performed, because the New Testament fails to reveal this information. But if we consider the distances Paul traveled to proclaim the gospel, the churches he was able to establish, and the care he expended on them, we stand amazed at the amazing amount of work he performed in the relatively short span of two decades.
The Greek expression kene, which translated “in vain” signifies “without effect,” that is, “without reaching its goal.” By relating that God’s grace to him was not in vain, Paul is stating positively that it bore extraordinary results. He is specific in this particular verse when he twice declares that God’s grace was directed to him “his grace toward me” and “the grace of God was with me.” Paul knew that God blessed his labors.
“However, I labored more than all of them.” The adversative however goes back to Paul’s remarks about being the least of the apostles. His record of suffering for the sake of Christ is impressive by anyone’s standards (2 Cor. 4:8-11; 6:4-10; 11:23-29). While in Ephesus, he toiled as a tentmaker to support himself financially (Acts 20:34). In the rented hall of Tyrannus he daily instructed his students (Acts 19:9). And the remaining time was spent in preaching and teaching publicly from house to house (Acts 20:20). Moreover, he wrote letters to the members of the church in Corinth and visited them, too (5:9; 2 Corinthians 2:1-4).
We have a collection of thirteen epistles of Paul, so that in respect to literary activities Paul excels the other letter writers of the New Testament. Paul had received the training to write letters and he fearlessly preached the gospel to Jew and Gentile. Indeed he was God’s chosen instrument to do this work. Yet the clause “I labored more than all of the apostles” should not be understand to mean the combined labors of the Twelve, but the work of any one of these apostles.
“Yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” Let no one think that Paul ever credits himself for the work he has performed. He shuns self-glorification but expresses gratitude to God; he glories in his Lord and Savior. Being far from idle in his calling, Paul presents the results of his labors to God. He humbly acknowledges that he has been able to accomplish all his achievements only by God’s grace.
Paul in 1st Corinthians 15:11 is expressing the truth that he knew his sins were forgiven, and he was not plagued by feelings of guilt over what he had done against God’s people. That he deserved God’s forgiveness so little was a constant reminder of how graciously His grace is given.
The truth and power of the resurrected Christ had brought three great changes in Paul, and these changes are instructive for us as believers. First was deep recognition of sin. For the first time he realized how far his external religious life was from being internally godly. He saw himself as he really was an enemy of God and a persecutor of His church. Second, he experienced a revolution of character. From a persecutor of the church he became her greatest defender. His life was transformed from one characterized by self-righteous hatred to one characterized by self-giving love. He changed from oppressor to servant, from imprisoned to deliverer, from judged to friend, from taker of life to giver of life. Finally, he experienced a dramatic redirection of energy. As zealously as he had once opposed God’s redeemed he now served them.
The grace of God is truly amazing. The grace of God changed Paul a persecutor of the church into a man used by God to impact the nations and church history. The grace of God continues to change the people of God in order that they may stand firm in Jesus Christ. The grace of God provides the ground by which the people of God are to work for God. The Gospel is the fuel that God uses to empower His people to glorify and lift up His Son Jesus Christ.
As His people glory only in Jesus they will say like Paul did in 1Corinthians 15:11, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” The more the people of God grow in grace, the more they will identify with Christ in His life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. As the people of God glory in the Cross they will stand in awe of what God is doing among His people. The people God has used the most throughout history are those like Paul who understand that it is only by grace they are saved and only by grace they can grow in Jesus, and work for Him. Such people will be like Paul who understand that they have been saved, and transformed by grace and only by grace can they stand and be who they are in Him. The people who understand the truth of Paul’s statement “By the grace of God I am what I am” are those who are fueled by an insatiable hunger to proclaim the acceptable time, season and excellencies of our Savior who is a precious treasure to those who exult in Him alone.