All Things to All People? Really, Paul?

If you’ve heard more than 1 or 2 sermons on evangelism or outreach you’ve probably heard Paul’s declaration: “I became all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul here makes the point that he has used his freedom in Christ, not for selfish gain, but in order to identify as far as possible with people in all cultural, racial, and socio-economic categories in order to present the Gospel to them. We would expect no less from the Paul who says that, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Paul preachingPaul was about reaching everybody and so should we be. Right. I think a lot of us might pay lip-service to this but we don’t understand the real scope of who Paul interacted with–the fact that for Paul this wasn’t just a preacher’s hyperbole, but a straight-forward description of his practice. Historian Robin Lane Fox gives us an eye-opening summary of Paul’s ministry in his magisterial account of the Christianization of the Roman Empire:

Paul admitted to being “all things to all men,” and our best account of a Christian mission, the Acts of the Apostles, bears him out. Paul’s churches included slaves and people who needed to be told “not to steal”: Paul himself referred to the “deep, abysmal poverty” of his Christians in Macedonia. Yet his converts also included people “in Caesar’s household,” slaves, presumably, in the service of the Emperor. At Corinth, he converted Erastus, the “steward of the city,” another eminent post which was often help by a public slave: it is quite uncertain whether this man could be the Erastus whom a recent inscription in Corinth’s theatre revealed as a freeborn magistrate, the aedile of the colony. He attracted women of independent status and a certain property, people like Phoebe, the “patroness” of many of the Christians at Corinth, and Lydia, the “trader in purple,” a luxury commodity. These women ranked far below the civic, let alone the Imperial aristocracies. But Acts adds a higher dimension which we might not otherwise have guessed: Paul was heard with respect by one member of Athen’s exclusive Areopagus and by the “first man of Malta.” He received friendly advice from “Asiarchs” in Ephesus, men at the summit of provincial society, where they served at vast expense as priests in the Imperial cult. On Cyprus, he impressed the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, by a miracle which he worked in his presence.  —Pagans and Christians, pg. 293

Paul’s boast was not empty; his contacts range from prisons to palaces. Now, aside from having Jesus come to personally knock him off his horse and commission him to preach the Gospel, Paul was a uniquely gifted man. Orthodox, brilliant, and cosmopolitan he was able to relate to the upper echelons of intellectual culture and society with ease. No doubt this is what impresses many of us–it should. Not all Christians can interact at the high levels at which Paul did. God calls and equips some of us for these extraordinary levels of witness and that deserves a special appreciation for the gifting and sacrifice that requires.

What ought to be even more fascinating in the example of Paul though, is that a man of such native talent and ability did not count it beneath him to pastor people who “needed to be told ‘not to steal’.” Part of what captivates us about Paul’s high-level contacts is that we would love to rub shoulders with the elite, the rich, the social movers and shakers. It’s a glamorous ministry to most of us. (Of course, Paul got a lot of these opportunities after getting arrested or having the tar beat out of him, so it wasn’t that glamorous.) Still, much, if not most, of his ministry was not to the social elite but to the outcast–both racially (Gentiles), and socially (slaves, barbarians, etc.) He humbled himself, made himself as nothing, going to dregs of society in order to share the Gospel. Of course, in this he was only following his master. (Phil 2:6-9)

That’s something for us to consider in this new year: am I striving to become the kind of person of whom it could be said “she became all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel? Even of the poor? Even of the dregs? Even of the outcast? Are our churches the kinds of places where pastors need to be continually reminding people “not to steal”? Who is welcome among us? Who catches our attention as an object of God’s grace in the Gospel? Have I been humbled by the Gospel enough to follow Paul, who followed Christ?

For those of us struggling with this, it might be helpful to recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians when they were getting too big for their britches:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Soli Deo Gloria

You’re a Holy Mess (Or, Surprised by Sanctification)

I was teaching through 1 Corinthians last year around this time when I was first struck by something very odd in that letter. It’s something that can sneak past you unless you go through the thing a few times. Right at the outset of Paul’s letters he usually broadcasts what he’s going to be writing about in a kind of intro-prayer or in the greeting.

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor 1:1-3)

Did you catch those words in verse 2 that I helpfully bolded for you to notice? Good. In the space of a few words, Paul calls the believers at Corinth “sanctified” and “saints”; he calls them holy.

Surprised by Sanctification

For those of us who have read the letter through, this is surprising to say the least.  This is easily the most jacked-up church we know of in the New Testament. Scholars think that Paul probably wrote more letters to the church than 1 and 2 Corinthians because of the issues with it. To give you a picture, the problems include: factions being formed dividing the church due to people buying into cultural notions of wisdom and power (chapters 1-4), Christians suing each other (5), one dude sleeping with his step-mom and everybody just acting like nothing was going on as well as people visiting prostitutes (5-6), screwy views about sex and marriage (7),  people eating food offered up to idols and demons at pagan temples (8-10), groups treating the poor like crud at church (11), getting drunk at communion (11), freaky pride connected to spiritual gifts (12-14), and, to top it off, false teaching about the resurrection (15).

Now, how in the world is Paul go and call this church “holy”? If you look up the word “saints” in a thesaurus, the antonym would probably be “Corinthians”. There is nothing that you could term righteous, moral, or upright about their character. In fact, in some ways Paul says they’re worse than the surrounding pagan culture. And yet, time and again Paul does call them just that. What’s more, in chapter six after listing off a number of practices they were supposed to avoid, he says “And such were some of you. 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.” (1 Cor 6:11 )

Did you see that? “You were sanctified” is talking about a past tense action that makes the believer holy starting at a particular point resulting in a continuous state of holiness in much the same way that in the text he speaks of justification as occurring at a specific point in time resulting in you now being “justified.”

For those of us raised in general evangelicalism this is not typically the way we think or speak. Generally we think of justification as the once and for all legal declaration by God that we are vindicated, pardoned, no longer held as guilty against the covenant because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and now part of the people of the Messiah. It’s what happens at the beginning of our experience that we look back at. Sanctification is then the process that begins afterwards and is the increasing growth in holiness that makes us look more and more like Jesus. It’s the life-long process of becoming righteous in our character.

This is not a bad way of looking at things. Still, it’s also not the most accurate way of thinking about sanctification biblically. Historically Reformed theologians have talked about the difference between “progressive sanctification” and “definitive sanctification.” The first process is the one we’ve been describing that a lot of us understand. Definitive sanctification is that “once and for all act of claiming us as saints.” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, pg. 650)

Rethinking Holiness

See, the original idea of holiness or sanctification in the Old Testament was to “separate” something away from their ordinary or common use to a special use for God. The Temple, the sabbath, the tithe, the utensils and furniture for the temple were all normal things, taken and set aside, consecrated for use by God. God even does this with a people, Israel, (Exod. 19) He takes one people and sets them apart to be a light to the nations and show the world what life with God is like. They were to be “holy, for I the LORD am holy.” (Lev. 20:26) Paul and the rest of the New Testament picks up on this by seeing God’s act of saving us in Christ as a setting apart, a making holy totally independent of our own righteous acts. Jesus tells us that we are clean because of the word that he has spoken to us. (John 15:3) Indeed, Jesus says that he will be the one who sanctifies us by sanctifying himself, setting us apart through setting himself apart in his death. (John 17:19) The author of Hebrews follows Jesus by telling us that “by God’s will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (10:29)

In Christ, by the Spirit, God definitively sanctifies us, sets us apart to be his own in a once and for all way. When we place our faith in Christ, we’re united with him so that what is true of him, becomes true of us. We are holy because Christ is holy. “All that is found in Christ is holy, because it is in Christ.” (Horton, pg. 651) This is why before we’ve done anything good, righteous, holy, cleaned up our act, made good on our promises or done anything but trust Jesus’ work for us, we are declared saints. Before we clean up, God declares us clean in Christ. This is the holiness, the saintliness that Paul is often speaking of in his letters.

Motivating his instructions to the Corinthian congregation is the reality that, in Christ, they are clean. In essence, “You’re holy! Now act like it. Become what you already are in Christ.” Over and over again in the New Testament we are told that we have been made righteous in Christ or holy in Christ and so now we should live like that’s true.

But I’m Still A Mess

“So, I’m already holy, so now I should live like it? Is that what you’re saying? Okay, here’s my problem: I don’t feel holy. In fact, most of the time I feel angry, lustful, annoyed, proud, downcast and anything but holy. Where does that leave me? It’s fine that God legally sets me apart as holy, declares me righteous, etc., but I still feel like me. What does God saying something out there have anything to do with me in here?” Everything, for at least two reasons.

First, as Michael Horton points out, for an orphan to enjoy the love and care of a new family, they must first by legally adopted. Or, for two nations who have been at war with each other to begin peaceful relations, they must first declare a legal peace. (Pg. 652-653) The definitive declaration of God “out there” is the legal basis of that secures our relationship to the sanctifier. God’s declaration is your hope of sanctification.

Second, God’s declaration isn’t really something that happens “out there.” When God sets us apart, he sets us apart in Christ, in the power of the Spirit. This act actually connects us to Christ like branches being inserted into a vine from which it then begins to draw strength. (John 15) We are connected to Christ like members of a body to the head. (1 Cor 6; 12; Eph. 4) We are given the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who is a new power at work in us to progressively conform us to reflect the image of Christ. We receive strength and righteousness from the source of all goodness, Christ. God’s definitive sanctification of us is the source of God’s progressive sanctification in us.

You don’t feel holy, but honestly, your feelings are not the ultimate reality you need to be focusing on. Instead, you should be focusing on who you are in Christ. You’re a mess, but in Christ you’re a holy mess who’s getting cleaned up because you’re in the one who is clean. In fact, forget even focusing on who you are at all. Focus on Christ. “Abide in my and I will abide in you.” (John 15:4) When you do that, that’s when things start coming together.

Maybe this is why what Paul writes to his wayward saints the way he does. In the first 9 verses of 1 Corinthians he mentions “Jesus”, or “Jesus Christ”, or “our Lord Jesus Christ” 9 times. Apparently he believes that if his people are going to become holy, start living into the holiness that they’ve been brought into, they need to focus their eyes on Christ, the Holy One.

May we do the same.

Soli Deo Gloria