What might an advertisement for the position of senior pastor at Corinth Evangelical Church have said? “Wanted: Pastor to lead a divided, undisciplined, worldly, weak, chaotic, ignorant, disorderly, unloving church”? Perhaps. I doubt that it would have attracted a stream of seminary graduates, although, from rock bottom, the only way is up.
After looking at the church in Corinth, with all its evident problems, one could be excused for thinking that it was not a church of Christ at all. What has Galilee to do with Corinth? Where was the evidence that this was a church of genuine disciples and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ? Maybe it is for that reason that the letters of Paul to the Corinthians speak so much to us today. First Corinthians shows us a church in need of reforming; 2 Corinthians shows us the pitfalls that can face a reformed church.
Yet the remarkable thing is how Paul opens the letter we know as 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9 makes it clear that this was not the first letter Paul had written to them). He addresses his intended recipients and readers as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2). Both the participle used to describe them as “sanctified” and the noun used to describe them as “saints” have at their root the idea of holiness. For Paul, “the church of God that is in Corinth” may be described as divided, immoral, and decaying, but she is defined in terms of holiness. The people of God in Corinth have been set apart to be holy, and they are called holy.
In other words, Paul does not look at the behavior of the wayward disciples of Corinth and conclude that there is no church there. Quite the opposite — he sees a church there, a holy people whose calling and identity are being belied and compromised by their behavior. His burden is that they will repent and live up to their name. First Corinthians is the letter that says to the church: “Be what you are!”
So what are we? What is the church? The church is people, people who “in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”
(1 Cor. 1:2). From the outset, calling on the name of the Lord identified the true worshipers of the God of the Bible (Gen. 4:26). The church is present where people call on the name of the Savior.
But those who call on God are first called by God. And involved in that calling is the call to be God’s holy ones in this world. That is the meaning of the word saint. Some churches make saints out of very good people after they die. God makes saints out of very bad people while they are still alive. His calling is nothing if it is not a call to holiness. This is the name that God places on those whom He saves; just as the priest in the Old Testament wore an identity badge on his turban that said, “Holy to the Lord” (Ex. 28:36), so every believer, every new covenant priest, wears the same designation.
But do we live up to our name? That was the problem at Corinth. One could never guess from what went on in the church that this was the assembly of God’s holy ones. Their identity badge said one thing, but their behavior said something else. There was no congruity between their character and their conduct. God had made them one thing, but they seemed to be making themselves something else.
Yet as surely as they were called to be holy, God was making them holy. In Christ they were “sanctified” — they had been consecrated and set apart for the glory of God, and they were being made like Christ. God had chosen them when they were nothing (1 Cor. 1:28) and had positioned them in Christ, who was their wisdom, their righteousness, their sanctification, and their redemption (v. 30). All that they needed God had provided, and in Christ they were complete.
Sanctification has a double edge to it. At one level, it means something that God has done, definitively and clearly — He has set us apart for his own service. That is why the divisions and the immorality and the lack of discipline and the indulgence were all so serious and required immediate attention — it was not for this that God had positioned His people in Christ. God had made them His own, notwithstanding their current folly. They had to learn that just as surely as they had been washed from their former sins and justified in the name of the Lord, they had also been sanctified (6:11).
At another level, however, sanctification is not the work of a moment but the work of a lifetime. The work of sanctification is God’s work — He makes His people holy. But He does not do it apart from a call to them to take up arms against every sin and to “cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump” (5:7). The great commands and imperatives of this letter — “Flee from sexual immorality!” (6:18), “Run that you may obtain [the prize]!” (9:24), “Do all to the glory of God!” (10:31) — belong to God’s sanctifying work in us. He calls us to be what we are — holy — and He is working in us both the desire to be holy to Him and the ability to live for Him.