I was reading the Mockingbird Devotional for October 11. The devotion was written by Curt Benham, an Anglican priest in Atlanta. I got to meet him at a Mockingbird conference held in Oklahoma City. Very nice guy.
Mockingbird is a ministry that promotes grace. They are not Free Grace in a “thick” sense, but I think they qualify as Free Grace in a “thin” sense because they are clear (so far as I can tell) that salvation really is by grace, through faith, apart from works. I really enjoy reading their journal and books.
Today’s devotional reading (October 11) was about sanctification.
Benham quotes 1 Cor 3:18-23. There Paul says “the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” This is how Benham takes it:
“The ‘wisdom of this world’ tends to sound something like these maxims: ‘If you’re not going forward, you’re going backward.’ ‘You need to climb the ladder to the top.’ Staircase terminology is certainly overused in Christian lingo, and it’s almost always tied up in sanctification. Believers climb toward Jesus, who sits at the top, and we’d better not disappoint. Striving upward, onward, ever higher to maturity and glorification.”
“Paul is saying this talk is futile. From God’s perspective it’s a waste of time, and as many of us know from experience, it is destructive. There are countless crashers and burners lining the bottom of staircase-climbing and anthropology” (pp. 344-345).
I strongly agree with Benham that works salvation results in spiritual burnout. I also agree that works salvation is inbuilt in the world’s attitude and it is destructive. But is that what Paul is talking about in 1 Cor 3:18-23? Is this the right passage to prove that point?
Benham goes on:
“The ‘foolishness of this world,’ applied to Christianity, means there is no forward or backward. You are just fine, standing right where you are—Jesus made it so. The ladders and staircases have fallen because there’s nowhere to climb to—Jesus came to you and died right where you stand, rather than forcing you to climb all the way to heaven” (p. 345).
“So rest. He has given everything to you. He is yours and you are his. You can forget about yourself now because he did it all. It really is finished” (p. 345).
Is that what Paul is teaching the Corinthians?
One thing I like about the Free Grace movement, compared to other grace movements, is that we are Biblicists. Generally speaking, we don’t emphasize systematic theology (although, that’s what I love!) or tradition. We do Biblical theology. We are “Bible bigots” to use John Wesley’s phrase. All ideas—even ideas we strongly agree with—are, or should be, subjected to Scripture.
Benham’s comments on 1 Cor 3:18-23 are a case in point. Is Paul teaching there is no progress in sanctification? Is he teaching that believers are fine just as they are?
I don’t think so.
Take a look at the opening verses in 1 Corinthians 3. Paul is pointing out the Corinthians’ immaturity, even carnality:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal (vv 1-3a).
Did Paul expect the Corinthians to still be carnal? No. Did he expect them to be spiritual? Yes.
So there is progress in the Christian life, and the Corinthians were not making it. They were still babies. They were not spiritual people, but fleshly ones. Carnal. And they shouldn’t have been. They should have grown and progressed.
Paul goes on to say that one of the signs of carnality is divisions. Apparently, the Corinthians were fracturing into groups—some claimed to follow Apollos; others, Paul; others, Peter (vv 3-4). Paul counters this attitude by showing that all three teachers were building up the church of God. The Apostle then wrote this important passage about eternal rewards:
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Cor 3:11-15).
Again, I think this passage shows that the “no growth” view of sanctification is wrong. The doctrine of eternal rewards shows you can live for Christ faithfully or unfaithfully. Your eternal salvation is settled, but your eternal rewards are not. As Paul says, some people will be more rewarded than others for how they lived and built upon Christ. Some will receive a reward, while others “will suffer loss.”
We now come to the passage that Benham quotes in his devotional (1 Cor 3:18-23). What is the wisdom of the world? What is the foolishness of God? And does this passage teach there is no progress in sanctification?
For Paul, the foolishness of God is the message of the cross (see 1 Cor 1:18). This is not about God’s way of sanctification, so much as God’s plan to save people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No Greek philosopher could see that coming. The very idea that salvation depended on the death and resurrection of a Jewish carpenter would be absolute foolishness to them.
And what, then, in 1 Cor 3:19 is the wisdom of the world? Everything opposed to God’s plan of salvation. That includes attaching yourself to a particular human teacher. The world does that, but Christians should not. It wouldn’t make sense.
Because we are all part of the temple of God (vv 16-17). Teachers like Paul or Apollos or Cephas belong to the whole Church—they “all are yours” already (v 22).
Elsewhere, Paul uses the image of the body—we are all different parts of the body, and we need each other (1 Cor 12:12). Given that, there should be no divisions on the basis of teachers, anymore than a femur should divide from a lung to be part of an ear. It makes no sense because we are all one body.
More importantly, there should be no divisions because we all belong to Christ: “And you are Christ’s.” And ultimately, of course, He belongs to God: “and Christ is God’s” (v 23).
Christian growth may not fit the world’s vision of growth, but it does exist, as 1 Corinthians teaches. Understanding that is itself part of the journey to maturity.