by Michael Osborne
One Thursday night last April, I slipped into the back pew of Temple Baptist Church in Omaha’s Benson area, having arrived as soon as I could after work, meaning late. It was the Nebraska Association of Regular Baptist Churches’ (NARBC) spring Bible conference. John Greening, national representative for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), was the speaker for the evening. Before launching into his message, he took a moment to sort of hold us all at arms’ length and exclaim over what God was doing in the NARBC. He praised God for us all, praised God for the labors going on in each congregation, praised God that we were in attendance and ready to hear the Word, praised God for our commitment. One might even say John Greening delighted in us for a moment.
There’s a cynical side of me that could criticize Greening for effusive sentimentality. C’mon, Dr. Greening! Don’t you know what we’re really like? How do you know that we’re all so godly and so motivated by love for the Lord? How do you know that we want to be here and that we’re actually paying attention?
Now, I reckon John Greening has been around the block. He knows human nature, and he knows oodles of people. He was well aware that not one of us in that audience had 100 percent pure motives for attending, that some of us had just yelled at our wives as we hurried out the door to arrive on time, that some had a “preach to me something I haven’t heard already” attitude, that some of us were dead tired and would have preferred nothing better than an easy chair and a cup of coffee at home. He knew that some of us faced nasty family situations for which we were partly to blame, that some of us were still paying consequences for past grievous sins, that some of us frequently blew our testimonies at work. I know very little about John Greening, but one needs only five minutes with him to verify that he’s no sap. And despite his knowledge of human nature, what did he pause to do at length? He recognized the grace of God in us.
Could you be the national representative of the GARBC without the ability to recognize the grace of God in people? Would you be the national representative of the GARBC without the ability to recognize the grace of God in people? What a wretched existence it would be—to lead so many people and churches without the ability to recognize the grace of God in others!
The benefits of recognizing the grace of God in others were first suggested to me by C.J. Mahaney’s Humility: True Greatness. Being inherently proud, we must cultivate humility. One godly discipline to induce humility is to recognize God’s grace in other people. God has showed undeserved favor to your fellow believers and has begun to change them to conform to the image of His Son, and you rejoice in that. John Greening knew how to do it. We need to learn to do it, too.
Perhaps the best New Testament passage exemplifying this practice at its best is Paul’s greeting in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul is always Paul. With all the first-century congregations, he loved them, did forbear with them, praised them, admonished them as one who is genuinely and deeply concerned for their wellbeing. But it is when he addressed the “problem child” church of the first century that we best see his exercising this virtue. Read his greeting:
1 Corinthians 1:1–9 (KJV)
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
This speech has the savor of grace about it. But if you taste something good, you can’t cook the same meal until you identify what produced the flavor. If we are to imitate Paul, we need to identify and articulate a few general and specific points about his speech that demonstrate that he recognized God’s grace in people.
General Observations on Paul’s Words
First, observe the preponderance of passive verbs. For those of you who left grammar back in sixth grade, verbs can be in either active voice or passive voice. With an active verb, the subject performs the action: “Don mowed the lawn.” Don is the subject; he does the mowing. With a passive verb, the subject receives the action: “The lawn was mowed by Don.” The lawn is the subject, and it gets mowed. So observe the passive voice verbs in this passage: Paul was “called” to be an apostle, the church members “are sanctified” and are “called” to be saints, grace “was given,” the Corinthians “were enriched,” the testimony of Christ “was confirmed,” we “were called” into fellowship. The upshot of this grammar lesson is that Paul was giving thanks, not for what the Corinthians did but for what had been done to and for them.
Second, observe that the word “called” frames this passage. In verses 1 and 2, Paul was “called” to be an apostle, and all believers are “called” to be saints. And in verse 9, the same God who “called” is faithful. Your situation—any Christian’s situation—is what it is by the call of God; moreover, your situation, if bettered, reflects the gracious and faithful character of God. “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10)—a saying often confessed but less often lived.
Third, observe that each verse, with the possible exception of verse 5, refers to Jesus Christ. Read it again. Who is to receive the glory and attention in this exchange? The Corinthians? This is not a Christmas toast to “twenty-five years of faithful service.” This is neither Paul telling the Corinthians all sorts of fibs about what great people they were, nor a positive spin on bad character, like the real estate agent who advertises the house with no plumbing as “quaint” and “rustic.” Paul didn’t lie or spin. Rather, Paul praised Jesus and drew attention to Jesus in and through the Corinthians. You may be thinking, With people like the Corinthians, praising God was Paul’s only option. Not so fast, though—our theology teaches us that whether the congregation be good or bad, praising God for what He has done to them is the only honest option. God’s grace works in every congregation.
The sum total of these three observations is what enabled Paul to be positive even as he prepared to take the Corinthians to the woodshed. Paul always had time to praise God. Whether addressing problems in Corinth or Galatia, persuading Philemon to receive Onesimus, or encouraging Timothy or Titus, he always had time to praise God and to call attention to what God has done. Christians need not lose hope nor grow pessimistic when they deal with a sinful world, for the optimism of the Christian springs not from the world but from God and from His promises in Christ.
Also remember that Paul was on his way to the woodshed. Kindness is not incompatible with wisdom, caution, or sanctified shrewdness. In The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit Sam Gamgee cannot understand why his master Frodo treats the treacherous, deceitful, hateful Gollum so kindly. Sam thinks Frodo has somehow overlooked Gollum’s treacherous nature until outside the gates of Mordor Gollum slips in his speech and reveals his own desire for the One Ring. When Frodo rebukes Gollum and warns him never to pursue the ring again (not just for Frodo’s sake but for Gollum’s, too), it is obvious that Frodo has been fully aware of Gollum’s treachery all along. The vehemence of the rebuke leaves Gollum trembling and groveling. And Sam is shocked. J.R.R. Tolkien describes Sam’s impressions:
Sam looked at his master with approval, but also with surprise: there was a look in [Frodo’s] face and a tone in his voice that [Sam] had not known before. It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. Of course, [Sam] also firmly held to the incompatible belief that Mr. Frodo was the wisest person in the world… . Gollum in his own way, and with much more excuse as his acquaintance [with Frodo] was much briefer, may have made a similar mistake, confusing kindness with blindness.
Can wisdom and kindness coexist? They can and must in God; they should in us. Paul showed that he “had the dirt” on the Corinthians: their factionalism, their pride, their unwillingness to look foolish in the world’s eyes, their tolerance of sexual immorality of several kinds, their willingness to take each other to law, their boasting in and abuse of spiritual gifts. Nevertheless, he praised God for what God has done.
Specific Elements in Paul’s Mind
Beyond these general features, what specific ideas did Paul include that help us to see the grace of God?
First, Paul said that God set the Corinthians apart—the basic meaning of sanctification, of being a saint or, as you might translate it, of being holy. In the context, it is fairly obvious that the setting apart under discussion was the Corinthians’ position in Christ, not their practical holiness. God sets believers apart; He regards them in a way that He does not regard unbelievers. He treats them, as Dr. Dan Olinger, one of my teachers, would say, “like His fine china”—kept away from common use, on display as something prized. If God treats believers with such gentleness and regard, do you? Understand that regardless of what separates you from other believers—even if it’s differences in doctrine or practice—in the final analysis, the fact that you have been “set apart” together is the greatest “setting apart” that you could ever have from the rest of the world: God has set you apart and distinguished you in a way that supersedes all other worldly distinctions, be they class, educational level, skin color, or nationality.
Second, Paul set the Corinthian congregation next to believers “everywhere.” Your church has sister churches, but beyond that there are other believers in other denominations who are just as heaven-bound as you. There are other centuries, too—thousands and millions of saints who have passed before you, with whom you share a special fellowship. Paul paused to add, “Both their Lord and ours.”
Most of us would readily admit that we worship a common Lord, but it’s another thing to live that truth. It’s a consciousness to cultivate with a little work. Take time to pray with other believers. Having worked in various churches, I have found that it is very hard to stay mad at someone when you start praying together. Even when you have sharp disagreements about policy or when someone has rubbed you the wrong way, when you both start praying for the same end, desiring the same thing, taking the same requests to God, all the pettiness and pique evaporate. Be there Wednesday night. Or do something to pray with your fellow believers. Take time to write to other believers and write with the same spirit and mindset as Paul: no need for elevated language, no need for spin. Just honestly praise God for His grace in your reader. Take time to visit other believers and to involve yourself in their problems and then to follow up on their prayer requests. Take time to show up on a church work day; there’s nothing like working side by side in the same dirt to remind you of your fellowship. Sunday morning fellowship alone, or fellowship at formal church services alone, is insufficient to accomplish this. We can get a shallow understanding of the folks in the pews around us, but a deeper understanding takes more involvement.
Third, Paul noted that the Corinthians had been enabled and enriched to do God’s will. Yes, the Corinthian congregation had been boasting in their gifts and abusing their gifts, yet they were gifted; they had all they needed to do God’s work between now and the Second Coming. We need to praise the Lord for what He has enabled us to accomplish with our spiritual gifts. Ideally, we must keep the body metaphor in mind as we look at what the different individuals in the congregation excel at. Paul introduced the body analogy in 1 Corinthians 12 to keep the Corinthians from boasting, but even in cases where there are no conflicts, the eyes must appreciate the feet, and vice versa. You may not be able to exercise or even understand someone else’s gift, but you should be ready to recognize and appreciate it. The ability to recognize and appreciate another’s gift is a mindset that is cultivated, a way of seeing things that is learned.
Lastly, Paul looked ahead to Judgment Day and saw what the Corinthians would be: blameless. He knew full well what they have been. He described them in 1 Corinthians 6:9:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you.
But the thought did not end there. Paul went on, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (ESV). Christ accomplished redemption at the cross, a finished work in the past. The application of redemptive grace for the believer also took place in the past at conversion. And while practical sanctification is not complete, the finished product is guaranteed. In Romans 8:29, predestination makes a beeline past all the other steps in the ordo salutis and arrives straight at the destination: conformity to Christ. God sees His end design from the beginning. We are predestined to Christlikeness. God is faithful to ensure that we are blameless on Judgment Day.
God not only liberates people from sin but also takes their quirks of temperament and personality and brings them under His will. All those traits that irk you in fellow believers are going to undergo a transformation. Is someone too perfectionistic? Too easygoing? Too outspoken? Too timid? Too analytical? Too vague? Sin in others grieves us, but these traits in others just irk us. But for the believer, every quirk is on its way to Christlikeness. If you can’t remember that, church life will be very tedious indeed. Moreover, God’s grace looks different in different people. Some people have little to overcome in life. Others live with migraine headaches, yelling toddlers, aging parents, bad digestion, unreliable cars, or whatever. Can you remember that God blesses differently, tests differently, and bears with us all? Can you remember that God knows us, yet loves us?
Can you do the same?
1. C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2005), pp. 97–110.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), p. 314.
|Mike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He co-authored the teacher’s editions of two BJU Press high school Bible comparative religions textbooks What Is Truth? and Who Is This Jesus?; and contributed essays to the appendix of The Dark Side of the Internet. He lives with his wife, Becky, and his infant daughter, Felicity, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they are active members at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue a further degree in apologetics.|