A recurring plague amongst Christians is summed up by the confession, “I worry about how I’m doing with God.” Do you know that worry? While it doesn’t exactly kill us, I think of it as something like the contemporary Christian version of the Black Plague of the 14th Century. It threatens and cripples a lot of us a lot of the time, darkening our hopes. But it doesn’t have to.
To see if you’ve got the plague, think for a moment on this question: “Can I, a Christian, sin up a storm and lose anything with God?” If you answered, “Yes,” then you’re sick.
When the apostle Paul wrote the following to the sin-crazed Corinthians, he wasn’t making something up in order to gain a following; he knew something foundationally important. “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23). I’m concerned that the church today majors upon the “but not,” rather than upon the “All things are lawful, . . .” How about you? Which part gets your focus? Are you a “but not” person?
Oftentimes, we think of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth as a “but not” letter. In other words, “You can do all kinds of stuff, but not _______________.” Indeed, there is a lot of corrective instruction for the Corinthians, but “correction” always brings one back to the truth. Always. As you know, that’s especially important for a Christian, since he lives by and rests upon the foundational truth—the starting point—of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is that truth? Well, it certainly is not that we mustn’t have divisions in the church (1 Corinthians 1-4), nor should there be immorality (chapter 5), nor lawsuits amongst brothers (chapter 6), nor freedom that takes advantage of another person (chapter 10). That’s all ancillary truth, or truth that supplements and comes about because of the starting point. So none of those are the starting point.
However, the Corinthians were looking pretty lousy in the ugly light of those things, so Paul warns them against the lunacy of running “aimlessly” from their starting point (See 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). The Corinthian runners were not in danger of God taking anything away from them, but of not enjoying the benefits given to them at the start of the race.
In every one of Paul’s eleven letters to the church, he begins with the benefits of our foundation, the starting point truth of the New Covenant in Christ. Here it is: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, you have everything from God already and can relax in your race concerning Him, because Jesus has run it and won it for you already, setting the world record, and given you the gold medal as your own. Run as the champion you are.
This is not some obligatory salutation, a mandatory greeting to simply get out of the way so Paul can get onto the deeper doctrine. This is everything. In our correction of others (whether we’re giving a sermon to a room full of people, writing a note, making a video, or simply addressing ourselves in our own head), if we do not start at the start, as Paul always did, we will succumb to the “but not” plague. In the light of how we look in our race, we’ll believe we’ve gone off course and gotten lost, and might be in danger at the finish line.
Look at Paul’s starting point with the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 1:4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
That is the every day, every moment starting point for every runner in Christ. You have everything God could give you. You’ve lost nothing. That is the New Covenant. God took you out of having to ever earn anything of the everything He has already given you in Christ. You’re not part of the covenant equation—there’s no pressure upon you to keep it. It’s all on Him. You simply get all of the benefits. Forever. He has seen to it already.
You can run because of your beginning, which has taken care of your finish. This is how a Christian lives, by looking to his beginning point. “Ralph, you’re done. Look at Jesus—keep your eyes upon Him—because He is your reward before you run anywhere. To be sure, you will know some corrections on the course—some ‘but nots’—but you can do anything, Ralph—it’s all legal, it’s all lawful—because the race is won. Press on.”
Do you see what that does? Those who have stumbled, get up again. Those wearied are renewed in strength. Those who doubt they can make it to the end because of how they’re running, take heart because the secure and excellent end is not in doubt. “He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
After assuring the Colossian Christians of their secure, New Covenant starting point, Paul writes:
Colossians 3:1-4 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.
What a finish line! And what a glory that will be.