Is being a follower of Jesus primarily about experiencing and living in God’s love, or primarily about living out the disciplines of discipleship? Is it about knowing that we are loved and accepted as we are, or about the need for change and transformation on the journey from sin to salvation? Is it about allowing God to do his sovereign work in us, or about the things we need to do in response to his love? To each of these questions, dear Reader, I am sure you are crying ‘False dichotomy!’—and yet many church contexts and cultures lean to one of these rather than the other, and it shapes the preaching, teaching and general ethos of the church community.
Does God disciplines those whom God loves? At first glance, this question is easy to answer in the light of Prov 3.12: clearly, yes. But a single text cannot settle an issue, especially a text that talks of discipline in physical ways (‘spare the rod and spoil the child…’; compare Prov 13.24) which we now find problematic for all sorts of reasons. And yet the principle is reappropriated in the new covenant in Hebrew 12.6, and in the context of the eschatological struggle between the power of sin and the work of the Spirit, as an illustration of what it means to be children of God—so it is not easily set aside.
But the question needs to be grappled with for at least two specific reasons. The first is in response to the ever-common mantra ‘Love is love’. Well, it isn’t. Love is sometimes self-seeking love, manipulative love, co-dependent love, immature love, needy love, indulgent love, self-giving love, or selfless love—and not all of these could claim to accurately picture the love that God has for us in Jesus, poured into our hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5.5). To proclaim that ‘God is love’ without explaining what this love looks like is at best meaningless, and at worst misleading.
The second reason is our ongoing struggle to actually understand the Jesus we encounter in the pages of the gospels. On the one hand, here we find the Jesus who is radically inclusive and welcoming, who preaches the coming of the kingdom of God to the unexpected and the marginal, who confronts the powerful and the religiously complacent, and who brings healing and forgiveness to those who never expected it. On the other hand, here we also find the Jesus who does not shy away from the reality of God’s judgement, who urges a response to his message without which there will be catastrophic consequences, and who is ferocious in his condemnation of those who refuse to listen. Having flung open a wide gate of invitation, Jesus directs us to a very narrow path of discipline and discipleship if we are to follow him. At one moment it is all about God’s grace; at the next it all hinges on our response. It is the same Jesus warmly inviting us to ‘Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11.28) who also warns us that ‘Unless you repent, you too will all perish!’ (Luke 13.3). Many traditions in the church focus on one of these Jesus’ and not the other—but we are not following the real Jesus unless we listen to both.
Andrew Wilson has just published a revised version of his PhD looking at just this question in Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church, London, which is part of the NewFrontiers network, and a regular contributor to the UK Think Theology blog. His thesis, The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians, is published in the unaffordable-to-mere-mortals WUNT II series by Mohr Siebeck—but I hope that it will be made available in a more accessible form in the future.
The focus of Wilson’s study is the strange tension—contradiction even—in 1 Corinthians between Paul’s statements of assurance to his readers, of God’s faithfulness and their own resultant assured persistence in faith, and his stark warnings of judgement and faith which could result in their falling away from salvation. It is striking that Paul begins his letter—which contains rebukes for some serious pastoral, ethical and theological errors—with a deep note of assurance which has often been cited by succeeding generations of believers:
He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1.8–9)
and this parallels other statements of assurance in his letters, such as Phil 1.6. Yet this contrasts sharply with serious warnings in the passages that follow, the one most often quoted in current debates coming in chapter 6:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers (adikioi) will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6.9–10).
Paul goes on to say ‘such were some of you—but you have been washed…’ but this does not negate the warning. Paul appears here to be entertaining the possibility that some of his readers might indeed behave like the adikioi and so might indeed forfeit their assured inheritance, else his warning is a rhetorical flourish only without any actual persuasive effect. The contrast between assurance and warning comes most clearly in the chapters about ‘idol meats’ in chapter 8 to 11, where Paul not only applies the lessons from the Exodus wilderness wanderings (where a generation failed to attain what God had planned for them) to the Corinthians—but even includes himself in the warnings he is giving to others:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor 9.24–27)
Paul appears here to entertain the possibility of his own disqualification as something real, not imagined—despite the repeated assurances he gives of God’s faithfulness.
Given the awkward tension here, it is not surprising to find that some commentators dismiss Paul’s warnings as mere rhetorical strategy in order to persuade the Corinthians of his concerns, whilst never really doubting the statements of assurance. Others have taken the opposite interpretive strategy, and supposed that Paul’s assurances are there merely to endear himself to the Corinthians through flattery, when the warnings are the serious content of his message. Wilson takes one of each of these (Judith Gundry and B J Oropeza) as his conversations partners through an exegesis of each of the important passages in 1 Corinthians. Following an introduction to issues in the interpretation of Paul (which is comprehensive and quite compressed, so challenging for anyone without a basic awareness of the key debates) and an overview of questions about 1 Corinthians (which he believes to be a unity), he turns to each warning or assurance passage in turn to explore their significance within the overall picture. His approach is sensible and accessible, and he is not afraid to take on the ‘big guns’ in commentary with his own view, giving good reasons where he disagrees with others. I was impressed with Wilson’s willingness to turn aside when necessary, for instance to address the question of whether Paul’s language in 1 Cor 15.22 really has universalist implications, but his ability not to be distracted by tempting complications inviting comment, such as the meaning of the terms in 1 Cor 6.9 and the myriad of interpretive issues in 1 Cor 11.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Wilson concludes that the two options noted, which downplay either the warnings or the assurances, are not persuasive—but he does so based on exegesis rather than reaching for wider theological assumptions. Instead, he argues that these two things must be held in tension and, further, that this does not arise from the incoherence of Paul’s thinking, but from a deliberate and measured understanding of the inter-relationship between grace and obligation, and a theological anthropology which sees divine and human action as an integrated partnership. Moreover, we see exactly the same tension at work in all Paul’s other letters.
Paul is confident that all of his converts will persevere in faith, yet he also insists that they must be diligent to persevere and live lives of ethical propriety. That is how Paul can assure the Romans that the eschatological verdict over their lives is already secure, and yet insist that everyone will be judged in accordance with their works (Rom 2.6–11, 3.21–26, 5.1–11). It is how he can assure all those in Christ that they are, in a real sense, already glorified and inseparable from God’s love, and yet plead with Gentiles to continue in gods kindness lest they be cut off. It is why he uses such strong language about approaching the judgement seat of Christ mindful of the risk of ‘destroying’ one’s brothers and sisters, despite his conviction that believers will be kept safe from every created thing. (p 166)
But Wilson also notes that, in this tension between assurance and warning, Paul’s own preaching and teaching (which he talks of us ‘the word of God’, 1 These 2.13) has a pivotal role as the agent of God’s action.
Paul believes that, as a result of gods faithfulness, grounded in the Corinthians’ participation in Christ, and through the agency of divine grace at work within them by the Spirit, his urgent warnings will somehow be efficacious: God will bring about a response of repentance and obedience within the church, and will ensure that they continue in faith rather than falling into destruction. (p 168)
In other words, if Paul were to fail to give warnings for the Corinthians to heed, the danger of destruction which he paradoxically warns of might actually come about. And Paul himself is not exempt from this paradox.
The grace of God, for Paul, is finally responsible for effecting his labour in the gospel, and ensuring that the original grace-gift does not prove empty, but this in no way diminishes the need for Paul’s hard work, no reduces him to a passive vehicle through God acts unilaterally. Paul strives, but with the energy which God has powerfully worked within him.
These conclusions sit comfortably alongside the observations of John Barclay about the nature of grace and its relation to human action and the need for response—though Wilson has some minor questions about Barclay’s approach whilst largely agreeing with it.
This is why I hope that some form of this thesis will be made more widely available in the future. Wilson not only enables us to read this issue in Paul better; he also alerts us to the need to read more carefully other parts of the New Testament, and indeed the whole of Scripture (including of course the dramatic language of both assurance and threat in the Book of Revelation). More than that, Wilson alerts us to something absolutely vital in our current debates about grace and ethics: that the grace of God is a free gift offered to all regardless of worth; but it is also a costly gift which demands a response and which cannot be treated lightly.
And the lessons here will also shape our preaching and our pastoral strategies, as we proclaim the abundant generosity of God and set out the costly demands of the gospel. Do travel to a library near you and dive into this important study.
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