1 Corinthians 15:1-10
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
There is some controversy in what calls itself the Christian church today about what the Gospel is and what the Gospel does and what the Gospel authorizes. Some church bodies are all about what they call “justice” because of what they call ‘the gospel’. Some denominations try to give approval to aberrant behavior, calling it sanctioned - or permissible - under what they call ‘the gospel’. Some churches proclaim whatever it is that they think that people want to hear, whether that is the gospel of health and wealth, or of self-esteem, or of simple ‘go-out-and-do-whatever-you-want-to-do’ calling their proclamations “gospel”. Some of them are quite successful at drawing a crowd and making money. Very few of them seem to understand what the Gospel actually is. Our text today tells us the Gospel. And that is our theme, the Gospel.
Our text for this day begins at the beginning of what we call chapter 15. You want to remember that this is a letter written to a church in Corinth. Paul didn’t have chapters and this is not a beginning for him. It is for us, however. As we join the Epistle, Paul is explaining what the Gospel does. He then follows that brief description of the power of the Gospel and what it accomplishes with what the Gospel is.
The Gospel is not some authority to go out and do whatever you want to do. It is, to the surprise of most people, the simple and straight-forward facts of the case. We summarize the Gospel each time we speak the words of either of the two common creeds we use most often - the Apostles’ or the Nicene. What most people get the Gospel itself confused with what they believe the Gospel means for us or authorizes us to do. Unfortunately, they usually misunderstand that as well, but what the Gospel means is not the Gospel, Jesus is.
The Gospel is very simple, and short, and easy to communicate: God became one of us in Jesus Christ, to redeem us. He died on the cross by the command of Pontius Pilate. I would say by the judgment of Pontius Pilate, but the judgment of Pilate was that Jesus was innocent. He commanded His execution anyhow, out of expediency. Then, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, and His having risen from the grave and from death was witnessed by hundreds of people over the next forty days. Then, He sent the Apostles, and those who follow after them in the office of the ministry, to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and salvation to life everlasting on account of what He has done, or, as Scripture puts it, “in His [the Christ’s] name”. And He gave His holy Spirit to the Church to guide and direct them, and cause the Church to prosper and grow. This is the Gospel.
Of course, there are more details known that could be added, and the devil, the world, and our flesh has raised a lot of questions, mostly trying to distract us or to stop the progress of the message of the Gospel. The questioners demand to know why He did what He did. The answer is the great love of God for those whom He created. The adversaries insist that we tell them how we can make this “Gospel” work for us and to our advantage. They act as though the free gift of resurrection from the dead to life everlasting isn’t “working to our advantage” enough. The simple answer to the question of how to make the Gospel work, of course, is, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” The devil has tried to confuse the issue and falsify the message with subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – twists and turns in the message. But that little paragraph of information is all you really need. That is the Gospel.
Even the great Crux Theologorum, the cross of the Theologian, the question that has haunted theologians and teachers throughout the history of the church, doesn’t change the simplicity of the Gospel. What is the Crux Theologorum? It is the question: Why some and not others? Why are some saved and others not? Why doesn’t God simply save everyone? What makes the difference between the reprobate and the elect? Why doesn’t the Gospel have the same effect on everyone? The short answer is, “The Grace of God”. That answer doesn’t satisfy everyone, naturally, but some people don’t want to be satisfied. They ask the question out of spite, and reject all true answers out of hand because the Gospel doesn’t authorize them to be and to do whatever they desire to be and to do and still claim to be in possession of the one thing needful. The question also is often asked in order to disable the preacher and stop the message, not to learn or to understand the answer.
The long answer, which you have heard before, is that the question of why some and not others cannot be answered simply, because it is not just one question, but two. The first question is, “Why is anyone saved?” The answer to that is Jesus Christ and His redeeming work in life and death and resurrection. The second question is, “Why is anyone lost?” That question is answered by the stubborn heart of the unbeliever. How can we account for anyone being in the first group and not stubbornly stuck in the second group? We account for that with the grace of God - His wonderful choice for his unexplained reasons, and for no reason, quality, or character, that God has revealed, in the ones chosen for faith and salvation.
This is the Gospel about which Paul writes: Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. He has preached to them these facts. They have received them, and believed them and He tells them about the power and effect of the Gospel: that they are saved by this Gospel. He offers a single exception, “Unless you believed in vain”. Paul is striking here at the false doctrine which was troubling the community, and in answer to which this entire chapter of the letter is written.
Our faith is always to be in the Word of God. The only guarantee we have of what we believe is that God is true. Paul is suggesting here that the only other option besides being saved by grace through faith in this Gospel is that there is nothing behind it, and there is no salvation to be had, and we have no hope at all. This is what the world believes. That is what they were proclaiming then, and what the unbelieving world is still trumpeting even today. This is, obviously, not what Paul believes, but it is what was troubling the Church in Corinth.
He is, in effect, asking them, do you really trust that the Gospel is true? He then goes on to lay out that simple Gospel we have talked about already. So, what he is saying is, this simple Gospel is what I preached. It is what you heard. It is what you have believed. It is that through which you are saved, as long as you hold fast and continue to believe - unless you have already been convinced that there is no salvation available. We know that is where he is going because later in this chapter he says that some among them are already saying that there is no resurrection of the dead to come, because resurrection of a dead body is just not possible. So the phrase, “Unless you believed in vain”, is a challenge. “Do you believe this simple Gospel”?
There is a lot more we could want to know about the details of the Gospel. There is a great deal more that we actually do know. There is also a great deal we cannot know, because God has not chosen to reveal it. We can talk about what the Gospel means and how it affects us and where do we go from here, once we know the Gospel, but this simple account, the facts of the case, is the Gospel. The Gospel is not how we respond. The Gospel is not about our fitness for it, or how it looks to our neighbors, or how we look to our neighbors, or how it impacts our pocketbooks. The Gospel is the simple, glorious truth that God became one of us to save us, and in Jesus Christ He accomplished it! He died and rose again. God left witnesses, eyewitnesses, who left us their accounts in writing. He saved us by redeeming us from sin and death and hell. We stand saved as long as we stand firm in that simple Gospel and do not surrender it to the world, or our faith in it, or our hope in God, or our trust in Him and His Word. It is all true, and it is all ours if we hold fast to the Word of this Gospel.
The Gospel is not about feeding the hungry, although that is a very good thing to do. The Gospel is not about what the “experts” say, no matter what their credentials. Experts tend to say quite a lot, and much of it is foolish. The Gospel is not about justice for the oppressed. It is not about health and wealth and enjoying this life. The Gospel is about Jesus Christ, and who He is, and that He has redeemed you from sin and hell by His life and death and resurrection. It is about the grace of God through all the details that Paul mentions here.
Paul also mentions himself and his calling by Christ and his work in the service of the Gospel, but that is just in passing, and to remind them that he serves the Gospel, and through his service, and by the grace of God, they know about it. But the facts of the case - much like we recite in the Apostles’ Creed – are, as a group, the Gospel!
This lesson is just as timely and important today, and necessary, as it was when Paul wrote it. The Atheists are growing militant again. The world around us makes fun of what we believe – while pretending to believe in things like the Zombie Apocalypse, or vampires and werewolves, and how life after death, if there is such a thing (they say) is a beautiful place filled with pleasant things for everyone, except, perhaps, Christians. They call our faith foolish and unreasonable – while they believe things that are even less believable, and which violate their precious reason and science, and call them facts. They say it again: you believe in vain, because you just can’t live again, once you have died.
They are wrong. Paul tells us the Gospel. Simple facts, supported by many witnesses, and demonstrated to be true by Jesus Christ Himself, and by those who followed Him. The world does not offer reason and science over against superstition, as they claim, they offer skepticism and unbelief, with a great dash of irrationality thrown in over against our faith, the Word of God, and the testimony of the centuries. Don’t get lost in what our society believes or values. This simple Gospel is our hope, for by it you are saved, if you cling to faith and stand firm in the Word of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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