Is it possible to “receive the grace of God in vain“?
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you. Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (6:1,2).
Paul sees himself as “working together” with God who “For our sake made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (6:21). Therefore, he appeals to the Corinthians “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” The Greek word is kenos—used of things which lack effectiveness, “empty, futile, without result”.
The Corinthians had received God’s grace: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:4). Now, Paul appeals to them not to receive it without result.
How might they do that? If they were “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” from “someone who comes and proclaims another Jesus” (11:3,4).
Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:8—“Thus says the LORD: ‘In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you’”. Here Isaiah prophesies about the Lord eschatological (last days, messianic age) salvation. The quote injects urgency to his appeal. This is it—the consummation of God’s saving work in the world through Messiah. The Corinthians must not turn from the grace they’ve received!
Now is the time! Now is the day!
Why might the Corinthians turn from the gospel of grace Paul preached? Because the “super apostles” have discredited Paul. And by discrediting him, they discredit his gospel.
The message and the messenger are inextricably bound. This is why the preacher must live what he preaches. And it’s why Paul commends himself in the following verses . . .
We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything (6:3-10).
In 5:12 Paul wrote, “We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart.” Here, however, he admits, “ . . . as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way . . . ” He commends himself as a servant! And his self-commendation is an unusual mixture of sufferings which show his weakness and virtues which show his strength. And, through it all, it shows God’s power and Paul’s Christ-likeness.
“ . . .by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” describe external circumstances of the apostle’s life.
“ . . . by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left, through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise” describe the moral marks of the apostle’s conduct and the mixed response his ministry meets. His mention of “the Holy Spirit” and “the power of God” (curiously injected in the list of moral marks) implies the moral power arises, not from himself, but from the Lord.
“ . . .through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” describe the paradoxes of the apostle’s experience.
These “bounce-back” experiences (“dying and we live, punished and yet not killed, sorrowful yet always rejoicing, poor yet making many rich, having nothing yet possessing everything”) remind me of our children’s childhood with their plastic clown punching bag. Weighted in the bottom, no matter how hard they knocked it down, it popped back up.
That’s Paul empowered by the Spirit of God. That’s the apostle’s path. And by these—Paul’s external sufferings (like Christ), Paul’s moral marks and ability to “bounce back” (in “the Holy Spirit” and with “the power of God”)—Paul commends himself to the Corinthians, so they might not find fault with his ministry and message.
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also (6:11-13).
Literally, “Our mouth has been open to you . . . our heart is broadened”. In other words, “We have spoken openly from our affection-filled heart”. The New Living Translation captures Paul’s next thought: “If there is a problem between us, it is not because of a lack of love on our part, but because you have withheld your love from us.” And then Paul pleads, “I am talking now as I would to my own children. Open your hearts to us!” (NLT).
Paul’s concern runs deeper than their personal relationship. If they reject him, they reject the gospel he preaches. And, if they reject his gospel, they will have received God’s grace in vain.
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For our take-away a big question looms: What did Paul mean by “to receive God’s grace in vain”? Can he possibly have meant to turn away from Jesus and forfeit salvation? Paul himself contradicted that when he wrote of his confidence “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Yet, to these Corinthians Paul wrote . . .
“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles'” (11:2-5).
Clearly, Paul is concerned that the Corinthians might “be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” because they “put up with . . . a different gospel from the one you accepted.” That sounds a lot like forfeiting salvation in Christ to me!
Time and space won’t permit all the commentators’ competing comments (none of which I found satisfying). Nor do I think it helps to just pick Philippians 1:6 over 2 Corinthians 6:1 and 11:2-5. Frankly, I think we have a conundrum. And so we just have to say, “I don’t know how to reconcile this apparent contradiction.”
What we must not do is “water down” 2 Corinthians 6:1. We’ve should take it “straight.” Which means to alertly reject anything that sounds like “another Jesus” or “another gospel.” The consummation of grace in us depends on perseverance in the faith.
O God, I can’t reconcile these Scriptures. Help me to be less concerned with my systematic theology and more concerned with allowing your grace to have its full effect in my life. Give me ears to hear the apostle’s heart. Give me a conviction to trust him as your true servant. And move me NOW–and in every “now”–to welcome all that your saving grace wants to work in me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.