The path of sanctification is not a smooth line upward to Christ-likeness. Sometimes that line doesn’t even look like it’s going up. Christ has made us righteous, and we feel the exhilaration of spiritual growth in our life, then we fall into sin and struggle to overcome temptation. Now what?
Paul addresses some believers in Corinth who were swamped by sin. Have you ever read I Corinthians and wondered, How can Paul be talking to Christians?
The Corinthians’ identity
Paul boldly called out the Corinthians for multiple sins: Quarreling (1:11), being people of the flesh (3:1-3), jealousy and strife (3:3), pride (4:6-8; 8:1), arrogance (4:18-19), tolerating spiritual immorality in the church (5:1-2), boasting (5:6), taking each other to court and defrauding each other (6:1-8), spouses depriving each other of intimacy (7:5), wounding others’ consciences (8:11-12), and various other details related to these problems.
But the letter doesn’t start with these details. Paul address the letter “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. (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV).” The Corinthians were primarily believers. Their identity was in Christ even though they were in some pretty serious sin struggles, and Paul connects them with all believers, showing how the Corinthians were part of the universal church family.
All of us will find ourselves deep in sin at some point. All of us will have moments where we open our Bible and feel no motivation in our hearts to pursue our relationship with God. We struggle to see our identity in Christ through the haze of problems.
Look around and look up
Our flesh may try to convince us that we are fighting our spiritual battles alone or doing poorly in our own eyes, but the reality is that all of us are currently fighting, and none of us will lose because Jesus died for us and equips us to stand firm (Eph 6). The victory is ours even when we are in the heat of battle. On the flip side, our flesh may try to convince us that we can’t possibly be as bad as the Corinthians. But all sin is an offense before God, and sometimes we are blind to outlying sin. Like David, we need to ask God to reveal our hidden sins to us (Ps 139:23-24), and being in God’s word opens our eyes to the sins we have grown callous to (Ps 19:7-14). When we seek God or ask forgiveness, we will be able to proclaim with Paul, “…thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:57 ESV) He uses even our sinful state to bring us to our knees and lift our eyes to him, forgiving us when we repent, and giving us the grace to overcome temptation.
Remember your identity
It’s easy to look our sins and be overcome with despair. It’s easy to look at our common temptations and wonder how we can still be Christians when sin looms so near. Like Paul, we must remind ourselves of who we are. Yes, repentance must happen, and we must call upon him to help us fight the temptation. Further along in I Corinthians 10:13, Paul gives hope:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
God doesn’t just forgive; he also arms us with the ability to fight whenever the next temptation comes. The Corinthians had a large list of offenses and one characteristic that made all the difference- they were children of God. Paul shows that who we are in Christ doesn’t lessen our need for holiness but rather fuels it. When we open our Bibles, we do not see accounts of perfect heroes, we see one hero- Jesus. We do not go into our churches and sing with perfect Christians; We all join together and praise the perfect Christ. We don’t reach perfection in this life, but we strive for holiness until the day God brings us home where we will be complete. In this life you will have struggles, but repent and rejoice now because we already know the outcome. God made us his children just like he made the Corinthians his people as well, and nothing can undo the righteousness Jesus gives.