When we think of a New Testament church that was beset with problems, perhaps the first one that comes to our minds is the church at Corinth. Here is a list of the problems that Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians:
- They had an incorrect view of the gospel, which led to an incorrect view of gospel preachers (chs. 1-4).
- They tolerated a fornicator in their fellowship (ch 5).
- Some were suing each other in civil courts (ch. 5).
- Some were engaging in sexual immorality (ch. 6).
- There were marital divisions (ch. 7).
- Some were abusing their Christian liberty (chs. 8-10).
- There was an improper practice concerning female prophets (ch. 11).
- There was an abuse of the Lord’s Supper (ch. 11).
- There was bickering over spiritual gifts, which turned into a desire for prominence (chs. 12-14).
And there were probably more problems that just these. In 11.34 Paul said “As for the other matters, I will instruct you about them when I come.”
We tend to be shocked when we read of all the problems this church was having, but we should remember that these were newly-converted pagans. The gospel and the church were unfamiliar to them, more so than to the average American. Actually, it is not surprising that they misunderstood some things and had difficulty making the transition into their new lives in Christ. It was actually somewhat normal. This, however, did not excuse the shortcomings of the church there.
If you have read 1 Corinthians, you know that Paul has a lengthy section (chapter 15) on the gospel, with special emphasis on the resurrection. This, in fact, was the key to the whole thing. The fact that some of them did not believe in, or doubted, the resurrection, and thus had failed to grasp the gospel itself, was the root of all of their problems. This is why chapter 15 comes at the climactic position in the book – after Paul has noted and discussed the nine problems listed above. It was Paul’s way of pointing out that, in truth, all of their problems actually had a common thread, a common root, and that was the Corinthians’ lack of commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- The gospel is first about the historical death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. If the Corinthians had committed themselves to this doctrine that Paul had taught them, they would not have misunderstood the nature of the gospel (problem #1).
- The gospel is about death to sin; we join Jesus in a life of dying to the flesh and to sin (Rom 6.1ff). If the Corinthians had committed themselves to live new lives after the pattern of the resurrection of Jesus, they would not have tolerated a fornicator among them (problem #2), nor would some of them have been engaging in sexual immorality (problem #4).
- The gospel is about humility and self-sacrifice for others. Such was the life that Jesus lived and that led Him to the cross (which was followed by His resurrection). If the Corinthians had applied this truth to themselves, they would not have been suing each other in the civil courts (problem #3), they would not have been abusing their Christian liberty at the expense of others (problem #6), and there would not have been bickering over spiritual gifts (problem #9).
- The gospel is about living according to the will of God. It is about following God’s appointed order, following His way, and respecting it as such. The authoritative teaching of Jesus is presented as the answer to their questions about marriage (problem #5), and if the Corinthians had respected the divine pattern, they would not have been using female prophets inappropriately in their church (problem #7).
- The gospel is about appropriating and assimilating the life of Jesus to and within ourselves. If they had understood this, then their practice of the Lord’s Supper would not have been so perverted from its original intention (problem #8).
You see, then, that in every case, a fundamental grasp of and commitment to the gospel of Jesus would have prevented their problems, and was the solution to those problems. When we live by the pattern of Jesus, the pattern of the gospel, when we die to self and sin and live in newness for God’s will to be done, when we sacrifice ourselves for the good of others – then things in our church will be according to God’s will, the result will be peace and harmony, and we will avoid sin. But to the extent that we deviate from the gospel pattern, to that same extent we will see problems in the local church. It really is that simple.
Sermon (PowerPoint slides): The Ethics of the Gospel (by D. McClister): What is the Gospel 5