Sermon: “The Calling in Which We Were Called” (1 Corinthians 7:17–24)
Listen to the Sermon:
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.1 Corinthians 7:17-24, ESV
All of us are prone to asking whether or not the grass may be greener somewhere than where we are living our lives right now. The greener grass syndrome, where we look for somewhere else or a different situation where my life would be easier or just flat out better.
Christians are prone to this too. We wonder if life would be greener somewhere else, but Christians have this additional element where we are thankful for the green pastures that our good shepherd has led us. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” We are thankful for this. Sometimes we start to ask, what if my good shepherd wants me to go to a greener pasture? What if it’s not just me, what if I’m disobedient not to go?
So, we bring in these ideas of following the will of the Lord. Then we ask am I obeying? Am I perhaps seeing signs, I got this parking spot here, I got a phone call there, is God speaking to me by his providence? How do I sort through my own mixed emotions when I’m trying to make decisions on how to live in the various circumstances of my life?
We talk about language where we say that God is leading me here or some people say that they have a word from the Lord. What do we mean by this? What should we be saying? What do the scriptures teach about how God leads and directs the various circumstances in our lives? Most practically, how do we evaluate opportunities that present themselves? How do we discern the Lord’s word in our lives?
Our big idea today is this, We can abide in our circumstances because God calls us to abide with him.
Now I want to start this morning by defining three terms that we will be using. I’ll show you where I’m going to be getting these terms from. They might be translated slightly differently in your Bible, but we are going to go with the words that ESV has since that’s what I’m preaching from.
- The first word is “assignments”, I see this in verse seventeen.
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 1 Corinthians 7:17, ESV
These assignments are the circumstances of our lives. Our responsibilities to our families, to our work, to our neighbors, to our churches. These are our assignments, the relationships that God has given us to live in.
- The second is “opportunity”, I see this word in verse twenty-one.
21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)1 Corinthians 7:21, ESV
An opportunity we are going to see is a lawful and properly available path where we might change our circumstances. The time may come when we may do something different, as long as it is lawful and properly available.
- The third word is “calling” or “called”, and we see this all over this passage. It’s in almost every verse. Sometimes we think of calling in the sense of vocation, but the word calling as Paul uses it has to do with God’s effectual calling. That is when he invites us to trust in the Lord Jesus through faith. The calling is the call to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Specifically, the definition that we are going to get about what this calling is toward is in verse twenty-four.
24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.1 Corinthians 7:24, ESV
We are going to see three sections in our study of this text.
- God’s Calling Transcends Horizontal Assignments
- God’s Calling Transcends Vertical Assignments
- God’s Calling Teaches Us to Abide with God
God’s Calling Transcends Horizontal Assignments
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.1 Corinthians 7:17-19, ESV
Up to this point Paul has been talking about remaining in the situations that we find ourselves in in our marriages. Are you single, married? Paul says that it’s good, if you can, to remain in the situation that you are in. Then Paul expands that principle to show us that it’s a general principle that should affect all of our lives.
Now if we read the word called as it is translated there it almost sounds like what Paul is saying is that we are called to these assignments. If we translated this really literally, it would go like this, “Only to each as God assigned, in the situation in which God has called each thus let him walk.”
In other words, whatever assignment you have been given, the calling of God comes to you at a specific time in the middle of an assignment. The calling of God hits you right there and you are no longer dead in your sins and trespasses, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit your eyes are opened to the goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What should you do? Should you leave whatever you are doing and go do whatever you think Holy Spirit should be doing?
No, Paul says this is my rule in all the churches. The universal default principle is that you should stay where you are. You don’t have to leave what you are doing; you don’t have to quit your job and enter full time vocational ministry. GOD says, I called you in the middle of an assignment that I had given you, you just weren’t aware of my presence in that. It doesn’t mean that you are fixed there forever, but the default is bloom where you are planted. In the assignment in which the call of God came to you, walk in that.
So, the first thing that Paul talks about are these honorable assignments between different people groups. Do you have to become a member of a different people group? Specifically, Paul talks about the divisions between the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were separated physically from other people by the sign of circumcision that God gave to them. Paul is saying that in the new covenant the separation of people groups by national entities is no longer important. So, he says in verse eighteen,
18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.1 Corinthians 7:18, ESV
There were people that were preaching that in order to be a Christian you had to first be circumcised. Paul says you are missing the point, you don’t have to worry about the ethnic or national boundaries that existed in the old covenant because the call of Jesus Christ comes to all kinds of people in all kinds of cultures and the call says, follow Jesus where you are.
So, in verse nineteen Paul says, just to explain this a little further,
19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 1 Corinthians 7:19, ESV
This is actually a remarkable thing, if you were a Jew, one of the primary things you were called to do was to be circumcised. So, what does Paul mean, don’t worry about circumcision, just worry about keeping the commands of God. What he is talking about here is the situation that a believer, someone who has been called to faith in Jesus Christ and has responded with saving, justifying faith to the call of God, that we believers are called to live a life where we are living in a way that is defined to us by the word of God.
We don’t follow the law in order to be saved, we aren’t saved by keeping the law, but what the scriptures tell us we are saved for keeping the law. In other words, so that we can have by the transformed lives to the gospel lives that are lived obediently to what God is calling us to. A life that is lived in faith to Jesus and the way the he appoints for believers to live in.
Paul is saying that circumcision has nothing to do with this. Circumcision was an old covenant symbol and the purpose of the picture was to point to a person, the person of Jesus Christ and out of the Jewish circumcised people came the Lord Jesus Christ. Once the person came the sign gave way to a reality. So, as a church we are not separated as this holy huddle that is kept away from all peoples everywhere. We don’t need to find an island that we can settle in and populate that is just for Christians, sealed off from the rest of the world.
Again, God’s calling intersects whatever people groups you were born into so that you don’t have to join a new one. The people group that God assigned you by your birth is in no way a hinderance to believing the gospel and following after the call of Jesus Christ to believe in him.
Our separation from the world as God’s holy church is not marked by ceremonial circumcision, but by holy obedience that God graciously enables through Christ by his spirit in our lives.
So, these are the horizontal assignments, the boundaries, the people God’s. You don’t have to join a new people group.
But the next things that Paul goes on to talk about in verse twenty through twenty-three are vertical boundaries.
God’s Calling Transcends Vertical Assignments
20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, ESV
Literally verse twenty says, “each one in the calling in which he was called, in this let him remain.” Here is the closest place that Paul uses calling in the way that we usually mean it, our responsibilities, our vocation, the assignments that we have in life. Even here that’s not quite what Paul is saying. As one commentator, Lenski, writes, “Paul is taking the minor idea of these assignments that we have, and he is including them with the major blessing to the call to faith in Jesus Christ.”
This idea of effectual calling when we are drawn out of our sin to Jesus Christ, that is included in the assignments in which the calling finds us. In light of the glorious heavenly calling that we have received, our earthly circumstances are in fact rather unimportant. Paul has already made that case in marriage and singleness, then in circumcision and uncircumcision. Now Paul talks about those who are slaves or free.
Look at that word remain in verse twenty. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. This is a word that is so often translated in the gospel of John and the letters of John as the word “abide”. It means to remain or endure in a situation, specifically with the idea of awaiting something else. For example, when Jesus when off to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, he told his disciples “abide here while I go to pray.” The idea was wait here until I come back. The idea of abiding in a situation while you are awaiting something bigger, we see most clearly in 1 John 2:28
28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears, we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.1 John 2:28, ESV
We abide in Christ now, so that when he appears with all his holy angels and all the armies of Heaven, we won’t be frightened. We will have confidence when Jesus Christ returns.
Here Paul is telling us assignments in which we are called to abide as we wait for the full fulfillment that Jesus is calling to. The hope of glory when he returns.
Paul has already used this word a few times and it’s good to look back and see them. In 1 Corinthians 7:8,
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.1 Corinthians 7:8, ESV
Again, in verse eleven
11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.1 Corinthians 7:11, ESV
In both of those cases, Paul is saying remain in your assignments, whatever they may be as you await the hope of glory when Christ returns.
Now, Paul is then drawing the application of this point to probably one of the most difficult circumstances to find yourself in, that of a bondservant, a slave. Now, notice that later on in verse twenty-one, God doesn’t prohibit slaves from leaving their circumstances. He says if you have an opportunity to gain your freedom, avail yourself of that opportunity.
Paul is saying that change, as good as it is and as much as you should pursue it if you can, that change is unnecessary in light of what we are called to in Christ. The circumstances you are in are relatively unimportant because of the glory that God is calling to you in Christ.
Still, we might ask the question why Paul doesn’t seek that the institution of slavery be abolished all together? It’s a good question. It’s not quite what Paul is dealing with, but we might as well address it since Paul comes close to the topic. Understand that ancient slavery, the kind that Paul was familiar with at this time, was very different than the kind of slavery that was practiced in the United States until the Civil War. In those days, people would often sell themselves into slavery to pay off debts. It was like picking up a part time job to pay off a credit card bill, except you did give away your freedom to do this. Other times slavery provided opportunities for upward social mobility that poor people wouldn’t normally have.
As Richard Hayes writes, “To be the slave of a powerful master could be an honorable station. Slaves were sometimes highly educated and trusted with administrative responsibility. That’s why slave of Christ, in verse twenty-two, could be an honorable designation suggested a position of some authority.”
Indeed, becoming a slave of the right person could be a career choice. Let me give you an illustration of what this might look like. Imagine you had an opportunity to work as a low-level staffer at the White House of, pick your president I don’t want to get into politics, whichever president you would most like to work for past or present, think about that person and let’s not get into politics.
Imagine you had the opportunity to work for that person as a low-level staffer at the White House. If you took that job you would functionally be a slave. You would work gruelingly long hour. You would not work whenever you please, but you would work at the pleasure of the president, every moment of your life. Not only the president but anyone at higher rank than you could dump whatever work they wanted to on you. You would be functionally a slave, yet what an honorable position working for that great politician.
This isn’t to sugar coat slavery; it could be a very bad condition and that’s why people did try to save up money to buy their own freedom. This is the second principle that Paul goes on to say is that what the gospel does is undercut the very foundation upon which chattel-based slavery, possession-based slavery rests.
He says in verse twenty-two,
22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 1 Corinthians 7:22, ESV
When you are called to Christ, even as a bondservant you don’t belong to your master but to the Lord. It’s in that context that you can serve your master, because you aren’t serving your master suddenly you are in an assignment where the calling of Jesus Christ is intersected. When you serve your master, you are not serving him, but the Lord.
Even if you are free, you are not free. You have a master, it’s the Lord Jesus Christ. All of us, in whatever assignments we find ourselves, we are the slaves of Jesus Christ and that transcends any worldly employment or assignment.
So, Paul then gives a principle.
23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.1 Corinthians 7:23, ESV
Don’t put yourself in slavery because you were brought with a price. Remain, if you are free as you are. Yet if you are in the condition of a bondservant, understand you don’t need to seek a change from that either.
Those are the vertical, the authority, differentials. Paul says you don’t have to worry about different groups of people, the horizontal assignments you have. Why is this? In verse twenty-four Paul tells us what is means to abide with God.
God’s Calling Teaches Us to Abide with God
24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.1 Corinthians 7:17-24, ESV
We can remain our situations because we abide with God. What does that mean? Charles Hodge describes it this way, “This would mean to be near God. To be perpetually mindful of his presence and favor. In other words, in communion with God this would secure their contentment and happiness. They would find his favor to be life and his loving kindness to be better than life.”
There was a monk whose name was Brother Lawrence who wrote a booked called, “Practicing the Presence of God”. A man who lived his life doing very menial tasks and he started this mental, spiritual exercise whereas he was doing menials tasks he tried to remember that he was in the presence of God and spending his life praying. Acknowledging God in every moment of every day in prayer. He found it to be exhausting and difficult and almost impossible to keep. Yet he realized that was the greatest joy that he had. No matter how difficult his circumstances was, no matter how menials the assignments he was given, what a joy to abide in the presence with God.
God’s joy gives us perseverance in the midst of sorrow. God’s peace gives us comfort in the midst of our tears. God’s life gives us courage as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. God’s presence enables us to abide in whatever assignments we have. Christianity is not a revolutionary religion of upward social mobility. Christianity is a message that the calling of God transformations whatever you are doing so that you can remain there.
The opportunities may arise and if so, you are free to take them as long as it’s to a good thing. God’s call transforms and transcends us, as one commentator writes, in all of the circumstances that we find ourselves in.
- Respond to God’s effectual call through faith in Jesus. What Paul is talking about here, he’s not laying out the gospel message about what Jesus Christ has done for us. He’s talking about this calling about what Jesus has done and a calling to believe that what Jesus has done is for me.Let me read you what the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 67 defines the effectual call as it looks at all the places this word is used in scripture.
Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein. Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 67
Understand that this is the glorious gospel of salvation in Christ. God looked upon us when we were dead in our sins and trespasses, when we were nonresponsive to God. Even in there God made a way that he powerfully calls us out of ourselves and open our eyes to see Jesus and how good and glorious and radiant he is. We can’t help but repent from our sins and turn to him in faith to accept the faith offered in Jesus Christ.
The question this morning is do you hear God’s effectual call? Are you feeling and sensing Jesus Christ drawing you to himself through his spirit? If so, the application is clear, respond. Repent from your sins and ask God to forgive you for what you have done in rebellion against him. And to give you faith to believe that Jesus became a human being for us and for our salvation, because he lived the perfect righteous life that was required of us and died the cursed death of sinners that we deserved in our place. God can save you and make you clean. Regardless of your circumstances. You don’t need to change your social status, just respond right now and repent in faith. Before we can move onto anything else, respond to the call of God in Jesus Christ.
- Don’t be anxious about your assignment in life. We are anxious about so many things, but our Heavenly Father knows that we need all of these things. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all of these things will be added to you.” He was talking about food and clothing, but we get anxious about our life situations too. We wonder if the grass is greener or if our good shepherd might be leading us to greener pasture syndrome. Am I doing the right thing? Am I in the will of God? If I’m not in full time ministry, am I really doing something worthwhile? Am I living my best life now? These questions plague us.This passage doesn’t establish our circumstances as unalterable. There are times when we should avail ourselves of opportunities. This passage teaches us that we can all calm down; we don’t have to get anxious about our calling in life. The calling of life has been provided by nothing less than the blood of Jesus Christ and the faith that he gives us by the Holy Spirit. That’s the call, our assignments are ultimately irrelevant. We do have assignments from the Lord, but the important thing is that call.
- Wherever you are now, reject a consumer’s mindset where you just want to take and instead embrace a servant mindset. This doctrine of effectual calling changes what we expect out of life. We don’t need to be so concerned with what we are getting out of life. Is this fulfilling my personal goals and aspirations? Instead, wherever we are, we can be content. We can say in this situation, how can I serve? How can I love the Lord God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and how can I love my neighbor as myself wherever I am?What this passage teaches us is that we cannot search for satisfaction in what we are doing, but in how we are doing what we are doing. Are we doing this in response of faith and the obedience to Jesus Christ in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in? The question isn’,t am I at the right job or church? Or am in I the right marriage, the answer to that is yes if you are married. With these other questions since you can take a different job or you can go to a different church, we have to ask harder questions. Those aren’t even the right questions to ask.Instead we need to ask how do I serve Christ and others here, right now in these relationships, in these circumstances that God has put me? How do I bloom where Christ has put me? If we are always trying to discern if we are getting what we need, we will never be content. If instead we are looking to serve, there’s always opportunity.
- Seek the illumination of the Holy Spirit as you evaluate assignments and opportunities. There are times where opportunities present themselves to make something different of our circumstances. How do you know if they are good or if you should pursue them? The Bible tells us that there are two elements of this. One is the work of the Holy Spirit in the objective inspiration of the Bible. If the Bible tells you something directly and you were planning on going in a different direction, you are objectively sinning.The Bible says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. If you have an opportunity to go and follow a different religion that rejects the Lord Jesus Christ, that in sin. The Bible tells us that. The Bible tells you to love your neighbor as yourself and that looks different in different relationships. If you are married and you have an opportunity to divorce your spouse and go after someone else, the Bible tells you that is sin and you may not do it. The Bible is an objective word; and it speaks objectively to some situations.
There are other situations that are subjective. They are different from circumstance to circumstance and person to person. It’s not that we have a different Bible and the infallible word of God is just open to interpretation. That’s not what I’m saying.The Bible talks about how husbands should relate to wives, but the Bible doesn’t tell Jacob how he should relate to Allison. I have a responsibility to my wife that no one in heaven or earth shares. I have to think about the specifics of that in relation to who I am and who she is.
When I read in Ephesians five that I need to lay down my life for my wife, I have to think about my conversations with her. What did I say, what didn’t I say? I have to think about my actions, what did I do, what didn’t I do? The Holy Spirit takes the objective, inspired word of God and he illuminates that to my specific details of my life. You have the same objective passages to look at, but you need to look at how that will be applied in your situation. It’s taking the objective teaching of scriptures and applying it to the specifics of our lives.
If that is true, then we need to think through our opportunities and our assignments with that lens. So often when we go to the Bible, we are trying to get answers to our questions; what school should I go to, who should I marry? We want the Bible to give us clear answers. This is why we look for a word of the Lord, you don’t need a word from the Lord, you already have it. There is no new prophecy, no new words from the Lord, they are already given to us.
Instead what we need to do is to ask for illumination. For this objective teaching of the eternal word of God recorded for us in the scriptures of the Old and new testaments, which is the only rule to direct us concerning God and what duty we owe to God.
When we read this and we have to ask, okay I have this job opportunity in front of me. I know what God has called me to be to my family and I know that this job will take time away from me which will cut into the way that I should be loving my family and the way that I should be serving in my church and my neighbors. I have to think, do those things line up? I have to ask for the illumination to understand the objective teaching of scripture, does that line up with this situation?
There is no clear objective rule on this. The Bible doesn’t say yes it will or no it won’t. It doesn’t give you a point system; it’s not one of those teen magazines where you can fill out the quiz and get a point score answer to find out who your perfect mate is. It doesn’t work that way. You have to look at what the scriptures teach, and you have to ask for God’s illumination to see how that relates to what is in front of me.
What if you are dating? You have to be asking does this person really love Jesus. Even though he or she may claim to be a Christian, but does he or she really love Jesus? Do they love Jesus in a way that through the challenges of life they will never be a hinderance to following Jesus? Even so, we know that they are a sinner and you are a sinner. Again, there is no point system. You don’t need an objective ruling, you need illumination.
So how do we get this?
- We pray. We don’t pray for an answer but for an illumination. For the scriptures to frame how we are looking at this question.
- Search the scriptures, but not for an answer. Your job is not to close your eyes, open the Bible, point to a word and then see what this has to say to me. Your job is to search the scriptures and ask how this speaks into the general principles as you are praying for illumination.
- To seek Godly counsel. Not for an answer, but for the wisdom that other believers, who are further along in the faith perhaps, have gained through the Holy Spirit’s illumination in their lives as they have been faced with similar questions. As they’ve had to search the scriptures and see the various principles and how the light of God’s word shone into their lives by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
- To make a decision in light of your effectual calling. Ultimately your circumstances are of deeply secondary importance. The most important thing is your faith and obedience and keeping the commandments of God. That’s the most important thing. Seek to follow the Lord’s leading but remember this number one priority. You are called in whatever assignment you find yourself to abide with God through faith in Christ. In the last analysis, nothing else will matter but that. It will transform and transcend everything else you do.
Pray with me. Father we ask that you will give us grace to seek you, to seek your will, to seek your favor, especially as we wrestle though a thousand difficult questions. Father make us steeped in the scriptures, not so we can just spit out the right answers without thinking to complicated questions, but so that you can frame the way that we are thinking and wrestling with you in prayer. For those principles from your word, for the clear teaching of your word to so saturate everything we think and do that your Holy Spirit can illuminate our responsibilities, our vows, our promises, the needs of others around us in a way that accords with what you have taught in your word. We pray that if there are some who do not know Jesus Christ that you would right now be working in their hearts. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.