“The Gospel is Not in Vain” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2)
Listen to the Sermon:
Hear now the word of the Lord.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, ESV
This is the word of the Lord which is given to us this morning in love.
We are a forgetful people. It’s actually a little surprising if you take stock in your life of everything that you do on a normal basis just to try to avoid forgetting something that you don’t want to forget. So sometimes we take notes, maybe you’re taking notes on the sermon right now. You set calendar appointments whether it’s on paper or digitally. You set timers or alarms in your life. ou make lists again whether on paper or in some kind of to-do keeping application on your phone. I will write post-it notes, maybe you have places in your house that look like they’re wallpapered with post-it notes, to try to keep track of things. Sometimes if you can’t find a post-it note, maybe you’ve been known to write on your own hand. We try to remember things because we know that we are a forgetful people.
The problem of all of those strategies is that those strategies only work if we know that there’s something that we want not to forget, if we know we want to keep track of something. Sometimes we can forget things, and especially very important things, not because we forget to write something down or set a reminder or tell Siri to remind us when the time is right, but we forget rather something that we weren’t all that clear about what we were supposed to do or something that we were all weren’t all that clear about what we were supposed to believe in the first place.
This morning as we turn to 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is addressing the forgetfulness of the Corinthians and their forgetfulness specifically about the gospel. It’s not something that they tried hard to forget and just slipped off of their to-do list, this is something that they weren’t quite clear about. So, Paul has to show that what they believe really connects to something that has cropped up in their midst that they’re not addressing; that is false teaching that undercuts the gospel. We’ll get to what all that is in a moment.
Our big idea this morning as we deal with this text is, The gospel is not ending, the gospel is not in vain.
I read all through verse 1, but we’re looking specifically at verses 1 and 2 this week and then we’ll look next week at verses 3 through 11. In verses 1 and 2 there are kind of three points that Paul is making. First, he talks about the delivery of the gospel, how the gospel got from him to them. Second Paul is talking about the response to the gospel, what they did with the gospel when they when they received it. Then third the warnings of the gospel, Paul has a very serious warning that he has given to them about their forgetfulness. It’s a very important reminder and so he’s warning them about the gospel.
1. The Delivery of the Gospel
2. The Response to the Gospel
3. The Warnings of the Gospel
The Delivery of the Gospel
So, let’s start with the delivery of the gospel. Now when we get into chapter 15 you may notice that the transition from chapter 14 to 15 is fairly abrupt. Sometimes Paul gives some pretty clear transition phrases to bring us into new passages, but here he just doesn’t. What makes this especially abrupt is that he doesn’t even tell us right away why he is so concerned to address a question about the gospel.
Well the reason for this is that apparently that there is a group of people in Corinth who have begun teaching that there will be no resurrection from the dead. Paul says don’t you understand if there’s no resurrection from the dead and there’s no power in the gospel, the gospel would be in vain.
So, I want to show you where Paul is going with this, why he’s talking about the gospel and how the gospel addresses this false teaching. Look at verses 12-19, I want to read this just so we see where Paul is going. So, in chapter 15:12-19 Paul writes
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
1 Corinthians 15:12-19, ESV
Paul starts off chapter 15 by reminding them of the gospel. That’s how he starts he says, “I would remind you.” Rather than attacking this issue, this false teaching directly Paul starts by laying a foundation, a foundation of areas of commonality they have in the gospel. What complicates what Paul has to do here is that the Corinthians believe that they are a very spiritually advanced people. They don’t think they need this kind of a reminder, they’re fine, they’re good thank you very much.
They don’t realize in this false teaching that they’re allowing in their midst, that the dead will not be raised, they don’t realize that that’s a false teaching that hits at the heart of the gospel, that undercuts the gospel. So, Paul says, “I would remind you brothers of the gospel I preach to you.” Paul wants to remind them of the gospel and the word he uses for preach, there are a lot of words in the Greek language that can talk about the preaching of the gospel, but this is a word that’s specifically about preaching the gospel. In Greek it looks like Paul is saying, “I would remind you of the gospel, I gospeled to you.” This first sentence from verses 1 and 2 is just saturated with the word gospel again and again, as one commentator points out, just saturated with that word the gospel.
So, Paul says this is the gospel that I preached to you, or the gospel I gospel to you. Then look at what he says next, “the gospel which you received.” Now we’ll talk a little bit more about what Paul is talking about here in in the next section as we talk about the response to the gospel, but I want you to notice this word received because I want you to see that this word received appears again in verse 3.
Paul talks about delivering and receiving the gospel in verse 3. Look again at verse 3 really quickly, Paul says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” So, Paul is saying that he has received something and then what he has received he has delivered on to them and now they in turn have received this from them. This language, delivering and receiving, is the language of handing on traditions.
You may remember that Paul used the same language of delivering and receiving back in 1 Corinthians chapter 11:23 to talk about passing on the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, “for I delivered to you what I also received that on the night our Lord was betrayed,” and on and on he went. What Paul is doing as he begins to address this false teaching in their midst, as he begins to talk about the importance of the resurrection, the first thing he does is to remind them the gospel is a tradition.
Now I don’t know what exactly you might have in your mind when you think about tradition, but when Paul has a tradition in his mind with this language of receiving and handing on traditions, what Paul is talking about is not a cleverly devised story. He is talking rather about an eyewitness account that was passed from those who were there to him who was not there.
Remember as he talks about in verse 8, he is one who was untimely born, that last of all Christ appeared to him. He wasn’t there at the death and resurrection of Jesus, he received this message from those who were there, those who were there as eyewitnesses of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul is saying, I’m not inventing a religion here, I’m faithfully passing on to you eyewitness accounts of what took place as the brute facts of history. In real human history this happened, but Paul is saying this history is not just a lesson that maybe you slept through when you were in high school, this history is good news. That’s what the gospel means, the gospel means good news. What happened in history with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is good news for sinners, good news that Paul gospeled to them when he was among them.
So, what Paul reminds them next is the good news of the gospel of Jesus demanded a response. A response that they gave to him.
The Response to the Gospel
So, let’s go to the second section, the response to the gospel. Again, after Paul talks about the gospel, I preached to you, we just looked a little bit at this phrase, which you received, the gospel which you receive. The first part of the response to the gospel is that the Corinthians received this gospel, that is they heard this gospel ,but it means more than just hearing. This wasn’t just a passive, okay I got it I received the message. This is receiving in the sense of believing the gospel. That is, they received this by faith, they believed in what was proclaimed in the gospel.
We know that they believed because of the next thing Paul says, “this is the gospel which you received and this is the gospel in which you stand upon.” This gospel the church stands and without this gospel the church would fall. Christians stand in the gospel in the way that a tree stands in its roots, the roots that go down deep into the soil to give stability and strength even in the most violent winds and storms going on around it.
This is what the gospel is that we stand in. It gives us strength and stability in life, but more than that Paul also says this is also the gospel by which you are being saved. By which you are being saved, now this word expresses the ongoing work of the gospel, the ongoing work of salvation in the midst of Christians.
Now there is one part of our salvation that is perfect and complete immediately when a Christian first believes in Jesus Christ, this is called our justification. When you believe your justification is completed, it is accomplished and that means a couple of things. It means first of all your sins are totally forgiven, not because of anything you have done but because Christ died for you. God took your sins and put them on Jesus Christ so that God counts on your behalf the punishment that Jesus took for you in your place. When you believe in Jesus, God looks upon Jesus and forgives you on the basis of the punishment that Jesus Christ has already endured.
Your sins are forgiven. That’s part of your justification, but more than that God doesn’t just exchange your sins to Christ God also gives you something from Jesus. God takes the righteousness of Christ and counts it to your account credits it to you. The theological term is God imputes it to you. You are counted righteous not on the basis of anything you have done, but on the basis of Christ.
This happens not only that you are forgiven of your sins so that you’re morally neutral, but it happens so that you’re counted righteous in Christ, so that you are perfectly blameless and acceptable before God at the moment you first believe. This is as perfect now for all those who believe as it ever will be in the future.
There’s a wonderful hymn that talks about how the glorified saints in heaven are more happy. Certainly, it’s happier to be with Jesus in heaven, but it’s not more secure. The glorified saints are more happy, but they are not more secure. They could no more fall from grace than we could, we could no more fall from grace than they could who are at the right hand of Jesus in glory with him forever. Your justification is absolutely perfect right away.
Here when Paul talks about the fact that we are being saved by this gospel, he’s not talking so much about our justification. He is talking about the ongoing work of our sanctification, the ongoing work where God continues to work out all other saving graces to transform and conform us in our heart and in our souls into the likeness and image of Christ.
By our justification Christ immediately saves us from the condemnation of sin, but by our sanctification Christ progressively over time saves us from the corruption of our sin. Justification puts away our condemnation immediately, sanctification progressively, little by little, puts away the corruption that we have because of sin. Paul says all of this happens as a response, as the ongoing work of the gospel in your life.
So what’s the response? We first must receive the gospel, we must hear it, and not just hear it but believe it. Then we must stand in the gospel, it must be our hope in this life and the next. It must be where we draw our confidence and our strength. Then number three we must be ongoingly saved by the gospel, this is God’s work to continue to work out his sanctification in our lives.
The Warning of the Gospel
Now remember Paul isn’t making a theological ramble here, he’s not just saying this for its own sake. He has an incredibly important point to make about the gospel. All of this and that brings us to the third part of this passage, the warnings of the gospel, where Paul is addressing why this is so important for them to consider and to remember.
So, in verse 2 Paul expresses his warning in two ways. He says first of all, “if you hold fast to the word I preach to you”, or if you hold fast to the word I gospeled to you. It’s that same word for preaching the gospel. What Paul first is saying is that the Corinthians must cling to this gospel, they must hold on tight to this gospel to make sure they do not let go.
“If you hold fast to this”, what Paul is warning them and saying I understand you may not think that you are slipping or your grip is slipping away, but I have cause to be concerned from the teaching that I hear is taking root in you, that’s why I’m writing to you. If you hold fast to this word, this gospel that I gospeled to you.
The second warning Paul gives is, “unless you believed in vain.” Now with this word, “in vain to believe”, in vain in some places this means the idea of doing something without a cause for it. So, the idea perhaps of believing without a good reason for believing, that’s probably not what Paul means here. Instead this probably means the idea of believing without any effect, without any power behind it.
Paul’s warning them, you’ve got to stand in this gospel, unless it was in vain. He’s warning them to think if you really are tolerating this idea that there is no resurrection from the dead, you are gutting the gospel of its power. Is the gospel really powerless? Will it have no effect in your life? Will you be left in your graves and more seriously is Jesus Christ still in his grave if the dead are not raised? If so, we’re still lost in our sins. If we have believed in vain, if in Christ we have hope in this life only, then we are of all people most to be pitied. The dead must be raised otherwise Christ is not raised, otherwise the gospel has no power. That’s the warning Paul wants them to keep this very clear in mind as they consider their ongoing response to the gospel by faith.
So how do we respond to this? With three applications.
1. Receive the gospel as history. In 1 Corinthians 15 what the first thing Paul does, and this is so fascinating, is Paul talks about the gospel as a tradition. A tradition that he received, a tradition that he has delivered on, a tradition that they have now received.
What this means is that the gospel is not a legend. You know the way a legend works, there’s maybe a grain of truth, maybe about the size of the fish that you caught. Or maybe that’s something that happened when you were younger and there’s a grain of truth, something really happened there, but over time the story gets told and retold and embellished and built upon and added to until the story, the legend, that emerges from it may have some resemblance to the original seed of truth but it’s an altogether different kind of a thing. The gospel is not that. The gospel is a tradition of eyewitness accounts handed on faithfully, carefully, and accurately. The gospel is not a legend.
The gospel is also not a myth. What’s a myth? Well a myth is something we tell to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Why does the sun rise in the morning and set at night? Why do the seasons change? Well we can invent all kinds of myths to explain this and tell stories about the battles of the gods in the heavens and ones winning now and another is winning later and that’s what explains all of this. The gospel is not a myth. The gospel is nothing that we created to explain the gaps in our knowledge.
The gospel is first and foremost, of first importance, true history. History that has been handed down, passed down, from the original eyewitnesses who were there. Paul isn’t making this up, he is receiving this from the eyewitnesses whom Jesus personally called to be his disciples. The eyewitnesses who traveled with Jesus, listened to Jesus, were sometimes rebuked by Jesus, and learned from Jesus.
These are the eyewitnesses who were there when Jesus was arrested, in some cases who drew their own swords to defend their master. These are the eyewitnesses who had to watch helplessly when their master was nailed to a cross. The eyewitnesses who despaired in hopelessness when their master breathed his last and whose corpse was taken down to be placed in a tomb where he lay dead under the power of death for three days; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Not only are these the eyewitnesses, who after having done all of this during Jesus’s life, and now having endured the horror of Jesus’s death, these same eyewitnesses are the ones who saw not only the empty tomb, and went into the empty tomb to see the discarded grave clothes. These are the eyewitnesses who saw Jesus, talked with Jesus, and touched Jesus in his resurrection body.
If the gospel is not history, if these aren’t eyewitnesses accounts of something that really happened, then the gospel is nothing. It has nothing to offer us. We cannot merely settle for an encouraging fairy tale, this is not simply an inspiring ideal to work our way toward. We are dealing with nothing less than the eternal Son of God who took upon himself a human nature and stepped into human history. Who was born, who lived, who died, was buried, and rose again. If these things didn’t happen then we are of all people most to be pitied.
Sometimes people talk about Christianity as though it’s something other than history, something less than history, maybe something that’s inspiring or ennobling, something that gives us purpose and hope in our lives. I understand Christianity may do those things. Christianity certainly is more than history, but it cannot be less than history. Receive the gospel at history.
2. The second application is this; stand firm in the gospel, which is not in vain. Again, if we have believed in vain, if the gospel has no power, then we should walk away from the gospel immediately. I’m serious, we should walk out of here right now. But if the gospel is not in vain, if the gospel has power, then we must stand firm in the gospel as our only hope, our only comfort in this life and the next.
This is perhaps no more true today than it has been for at least a long time, because some of you today are seriously discouraged, even to the point of depression, by everything that’s happening in our world today to the point where you are tempted to just give up altogether. You look around you see the pandemic of coronavirus, you see social isolation that we’ve experienced these last six plus months, you may be dealing with economic uncertainties of losing jobs or seeing businesses closing because of everything happening. You look around in a year of political instability and uncertainty with a presidential election and with the replacement of a supreme court justice, not to mention the battles that are happening in local city councils. You see a year filled with racial tensions protests and riots and you see a growing social nastiness as our society becomes increasingly more radically polarized.
I mean if you just look at this on paper it all seems so hopeless, but brothers and sisters the gospel is not in vain. The gospel is not without power. The gospel is not without effect in the midst of all of this upheaval. The gospel is the only thing that can give us a firm foundation to settle our fears and our anxieties because we can stand firm and rooted and established in Christ.
I mean think about what’s happened in the last 2000 years of human history, since the resurrection of Jesus. The gospel has been big enough to handle every upheaval in history since then and it’s big enough to handle 2020 and everything that 2021, heaven forbid, may bring to us.
Even when the winds of the world are whipping around us with hurricane-like force, we can be like a tree whose roots go deep into the gospel, planted by streams of water whose leaf does not live wither. We may bend, we may get pulled, pushed, twisted, and stretched in ways that we don’t think we can endure. But the gospel that God’s only Son has been raised from the dead gives us strength to carry on, not just as an inspiring story because it gives us hope beyond the hopelessness of this life.
We have hope in this life not because of this life in itself, but we have hope because we know that God raises the dead and because he’s already done it. If he’s raised Christ then he will surely raise us up with Christ, those who have been united to him through faith. He did it once and our gospel hope is that whatever happens in this life, we will be raised up with Christ in victory to live with him in glory forever. Stand firm in the gospel, which is not in vain.
3. Hold fast to the gospel by which you were saved. Hold fast to the gospel by which you are being saved. Just as some of you are tempted perhaps to give up because of the turmoil around you, the hopelessness of looking at the turmoil around you, so others of you are tempted to give up right now because of the turmoil inside you. You feel despair from the weight of your sin, you don’t feel like you are growing in your faith, you don’t feel like you’re holding fast to the gospel, you feel like you were slipping away in your sin and your faithlessness.
One of the promises of the gospel is the gospel is powerful to change people. This really isn’t the question about how strong your grip can be, heaven help us if that’s what this depended on. The question is about how powerful the gospel in which you put your faith is. The gospel doesn’t promise to perfectly and instantaneously transform you out of your sin entirely in this life. That’s a progressive work. The gospel is still working, this is still the gospel by which we are being saved but all the time.
We can depend upon the perfect and immediate forgiveness of our sins and the righteousness by which we are counted righteous in Christ. That justification is sure, and it is complete and that’s the rock-solid foundation of the gospel in which we stand. We are also called to this ongoing work of grace as God continues to work out our sanctification in the long difficult uneven process. That it is which is why Paul exhorts us hold fast, don’t give up when you sin. Return to the grace you have in Christ in the gospel.
The gospel of Jesus is not something that Christ gave for us to work out on our own, we need a church in the middle of this. We all need to help each other in this. I would just tell you if you feel like you were struggling in your sins, please come talk to me or Andrew, the other pastor, or one of the elders. Understand our greatest joy is to help people work through the gospel. What it means in any season of life, what it first means to believe the gospel, when you have a need for a clean conscience before the Lord, or whether you’re still struggling in sin and wondering where this is going, is this all hopeless. We want to shepherd you through this, to remind you that the gospel is not in vain, it is powerful to change your life.
In the church Christ wants this gospel to be proclaimed from the pulpit and in private conversations where each of us individually, and especially as you’re meeting with pastors and elders, each of us need to be taught the gospel. That you’re reminded of the gospel. To keep the gospel in focus. To have the gospel applied to us. To understand what it is to believe this gospel of Jesus which I gospel to you, which is not in vain, which is powerful to save sinners to the uttermost.
Brothers and sisters this gospel has real power, it has a real effect to save. It is our only hope in this life to death. Because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, so we also we have hope that we too will be raised up with him in glory forever, if we are looking to him now in faith
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father we pray that you would build us up in the gospel of Jesus. We pray that you would direct our eyes to Christ and lead us to believe in him. Holy Father this is a gift that comes from you and we pray that in the midst of the uncertainties of this world, in the midst of the sin in our hearts, you would help us to stand firm in the gospel by which we are being saved. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.