The Big “If” of 1 Corinthians 15.1-2

06 Jan

Every once in a while, I come across something shocking while reading the Bible. It forces me to take a second look, to say to myself, “Did I just read that?”

In the 15th chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle is teaching the church about the reality of the resurrection. Incredibly, there seem to have been some in the church that were teaching that there was no such thing as a resurrection from the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15.12). To correct their horribly deficient doctrine, Paul begins by retelling the gospel story: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day (see 1 Corinthians 15.1-11). If Christ was raised from the dead, then there must be a resurrection from the dead for believers, too (see 1 Corinthians 15.12-34). And when the resurrection comes, our mortal bodies will be raised immortal (see 1 Corinthians 15.35-58). Some of the clearest teachings in all of the NT about what happens after we die can be found in this chapter, but before it all gets started, Paul dropped a bomb. Read carefully what he wrote,

1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15.1-2 ESV)

Paul reminded them of the gospel he preached, the gospel they received, the gospel in which they stand, the gospel by which they are being saved if… What an amazing little word. Paul was concerned that the believers in Corinth might have “believed in vain,” a word which means “to no end, without purpose, without success.”

If you are a believer, a follower of Christ, the last few words of verse 2 ought to send a chill down your spine. The Word of God is saying to you, “You are being saved by the gospel if you hold fast, otherwise you have believed in vain.”

Growing up in the Baptist denomination, I had it drilled in my head from the very beginning that it was not possible for a Christian to lose his salvation. “Once saved, always saved” was the chant I heard over and over. And after studying the Bible and theology for over two decades, I still hold to that confession of faith. The Bible seems to be quite clear, teaching us that we are saved by grace and not by works (see Ephesians 2.8-9). None of us are made right with God by observing the laws or obeying His commandments (see Romans 3.20). We become righteous by faith because of what Christ has done on our behalf. It is hard to lose something we didn’t earn

However, “once saved always saves” does beg the question. What does it mean to be “once saved”? Instead of asking, “Can you lose your salvation,” perhaps the better question is, “What does real salvation look like?” In other words, once you are saved, what changes in a person so that their eternity is forever changed?

This is not the only verse in the Bible that forces us to wrestle with this question. In fact, there seems to be a lot of “if” verses in the Bible about salvation. The writer of Hebrews wrote,

Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (Hebrews 3.6 ESV)

The apostle repeats what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians. We are part of God’s house if… Or consider the words of Paul to the church in Colossae,

21And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1.21-23 ESV)

The once condition, alienated from God and doing evil deeds, was changed when we faithed in the gospel proclaimed by Paul. But we are reconciled with God if we continue in the faith, not shifting from the hope of the gospel.

While we are talking about this issue, we should consider the words of Jesus, Paul, and John regarding the apostasy to come. All three of them clearly state that there will be a falling away from the faith in the future.

9“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. (Matthew 24.9-10 ESV)

1Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, (1 Timothy 4.1 ESV)

18Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2.18-19 ESV)

Clearly, “once saved always saved” means something different that “once you make a public profession of faith it is impossible to never become part of the unsaved again.” Jesus said that many who claimed to be believers would fall away. The Spirit said that many will depart from the faith that they claimed to be a part of. John said that many were leaving the congregation that they had claimed to be part of but really weren’t.

Of course, it is easy to say that these people must not have been really saved to begin with, and that is clearly true. But the apostle James indicates that there will be those who think they have saving faith but who really don’t. Consider these words,

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 2.14-20 ESV)

James wrote about someone who “says they have faith,” but that faith is not saving faith (the Greek language lets us know that the rhetorical question of verse 14 is expecting a negative answer). According to James, that kind of pseudo faith is “dead” (verse 17) and “useless” (verse 20). In other words, there will be those who think they are saved but who are not. What a sobering thought.

So, when we put together the conditional “if” statements of 1 Corinthians 15 and Colossians 2 with the coming apostasy of 1 Timothy 4 and Matthew 24 along with the strong words of James 2, the question of “what does it mean to be saved” is paramount. And the biblical evidence is that we are not the first to ask that question. The apostle John wrote,

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 2.13 ESV)

John wanted those who claim to have faith to know that their faith was not “useless,” “dead,” or “vain.” He wanted them to know that they had eternal life.

The result is that genuine salvation is evidenced in the life of a believer. A person who “says they have faith” can compare their supposed faith with the genuine faith as described in the Bible.  So what does genuine faith look like?

Genuine Saving Faith is Evidenced by Fruit

When a person puts their faith in Christ, they are reborn and become a new creation. In fact, Jesus said “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3.3 ESV). The Bible says,

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5.17-18 ESV)

Believing upon the name of Jesus is more than sprinkling a little spirituality on top of your life and trying to do good. A believer is a new creation, reborn by the divine work of God, and that new birth is evidenced by the fruit of their life. Jesus said,

Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 24.20-21 ESV)

Mumbling a few religious words is not enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. Born again believers are recognized by their fruits. The fruit does not earn salvation, but it demonstrates that salvation has taken place. Consider the words of Jesus,

8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15.8 ESV)

And the Bible does not leave us to guess about what this “fruit” is. The apostle Paul described the work of the Spirit in our lives with these words,

19Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5.19-24 ESV)

In other words, the fruit of the Spirit is the change in character that happens when a person is reborn into a new creation. Believers look different because they truly are different; they are being changed, continually, by the work of the Spirit.

Another evidence of the new birth of salvation is the presence and activity of the Spirit. As Paul wrote,

15For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8.15-16 ESV)

Of course, we have already spoken about the presence and work of the Spirit regarding the fruit of the Spirit, the character change of a believer. But more is implied here. A believer is not longer just a person of the flesh, but they are now a spiritual being, filled with the very Spirit of God. As the Bible says, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Romans 8.9 ESV). And the Spirit works in the believer by producing the fruit of the Spirit, and the Spirit works through the believer in the form of spiritual gifts. Speaking about spiritual gifts, Paul wrote,

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12.4-7 ESV)

While this is not the time to go through a full discourse about the different spiritual gifts, it is important to note what Paul said: to every believer, a manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. What that means is that one of the evidences of being a believer is that the Spirit of God works through you in some manner for the common good.

Many assert that the assurance of our salvation can be found in believing what the Bible says. Our assurance is that the Bible says that if we believe upon the name of Jesus we will be saved. While that is true, to a degree, we have to ask what it means to believe upon the name of Jesus. We don’t want to believe in vain, as Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 15. The way we know that we do not believe in vain is that our lives are producing the evidence of a new birth through the fruit of character change and through the work of the Spirit in the form of spiritual gifts. The presence and work of the Spirit is the evidence of faith

Genuine Saving Faith is Evidence by Perseverance

Getting back to what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, genuine saving faith is evidence not only by the fruit of character change and spiritual gifts, but also by perseverance. Genuine faith lasts unto the end of one’s life. Read the words of Paul again,

1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15.1-2 ESV)

21And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1.21-23 ESV)

Genuine faith perseveres unto the end, unlike the current American myth. I have performed the funerals for so many people whose testimony reads like this: they made a profession of faith as a child, but as an adult, they had no use for the church, never read the Bible, and demonstrated no evidence that Christ was the first love of their life. But on their deathbed, they are trusting in “walking the aisle” over 60 years ago to get them into heaven. But if the word of God means anything, those who do not “continue in the faith, stable, and steadfast” and who “shift from the hope of the gospel” have never really been reconciled with God in the first place. Read again the words of Jesus,

10And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24.10-13 ESV)

Genuine, saving faith endures unto the end.

The apostle John received an incredible vision of what was, what is, and what was to come. He was commanded to write the vision down, and the result is the Book of Revelation. In the part of the vision that pertains to “what is,” or the present tense of John’s lifetime, John recorded seven different letters written to seven different churches. Some of the churches are commended for their faith, and others are corrected for their faults. But each letter ends with a similar thought: salvation awaits to the one who overcomes.

7He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2.7 NIV)

To the ones who overcome, the angel of the Lord promised the right to eat from the tree of life, to not be hurt by the second death (2.11), to be given some of the hidden manna (2.17), to be given authority over the nations (2.26), to never have his name blotted out from the Book of Life (3.5), to be made a pillar in the Temple of God (3.12), and to be given the right to sit with Christ on His throne (3.21).

Surely, the opposite of overcoming is “falling away” (see Matthew 24.13) or “shifting from the hope of the gospel” (see Colossians 2.23).

Make Our Calling Sure

In the end, the conditional nature of genuine salvation should call to our attention that the road is narrow (see Matthew 7.13-14) and many are called but few are chosen (see Matthew 22.14). However, it should not lead us towards a works based salvation, or a lack of confidence in our salvation. Remember the words of Peter,

3His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1.3-11 ESV)

Peter urged us to “make our calling and election sure” by “making every effort to add to our faith.” But we are saved by our calling, our election, and our faith, not by the goodness we are able to develop on our own. On the other hand, faith that is alone (faith without works), faith that does not make every effort to add increasing godliness, that kind of faith is easy to fall.

We should not miss that Paul could boldly stand upon gospel, even as he warned of believing in vain (see 1 Corinthians 15.1-2). When the Lord returns, may He find us faithful, ever increasing in holiness, and clinging to His grace.

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Posted by on January 6, 2011 in Uncategorized


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