ISSUE: 2020, Volume 17, Issue 3
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'But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain', 1 Cor. 15. 10.
Saul of Tarsus was vehemently opposed to all who owned Christ Jesus as Lord and ‘he made havock of the church’, Acts 8. 3. It was this violent persecutor of Christians who had a most dramatic conversion experience as a result of an encounter with the risen Christ. Looking back on his past, his conversion, and subsequent service for the Lord, Paul states ‘I am what I am’, 1 Cor. 15. 10. He was settled in what God, through grace, had made him.
We shall look first at the wider context of the chapter in which this statement occurs and at what leads up to Paul exclaiming, ‘I am what I am’. Then we will look at what this statement meant for Paul before applying some lessons to ourselves.
Chapter 15 deals with the resurrection. In the verses leading up to the statement we are looking at, the proof of the Lord’s resurrection is outlined. Many people had testified to the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The risen Christ was seen by His friends, v. 5, the faithful, v. 6, His family, as in ‘James’, v. 7, His followers, v. 7b, and finally, by His foe, Paul himself v. 8. Or, as he put it, ‘And last of all he was seen of me also’, v. 8.
Paul’s testimony is unique. Most, if not all, of the others who saw the resurrected Lord were already disciples, believers in the Lord Jesus. Paul, who was called Saul at the time, was still actively opposed to the Lord and to all who followed Him. When the Lord spoke to him, he was on his way to Damascus to bring disciples of the Lord ‘bound unto Jerusalem’, Acts 9. 2. Also, he was the only apostle who was not part of the group of disciples that followed the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry. Paul describes himself as ‘one born out of due time’, v. 8, which may suggest that he considered his second birth, his salvation, to have been ‘out of due time’ – too late to have been one of the twelve.
In verse 9, Paul concludes that he is ‘the least of the apostles’, and ‘not meet to be called an apostle’. Although this is a statement of humility, Paul was also thinking about the fact that he ‘persecuted the church of God’ before he was saved and saw his apostleship as a wonder of God’s grace. John Heading wrote, ‘The church was precious to Paul’s heart during his years of service. He also realised it had been precious to Christ during the time when he had been persecuting it’. 1
‘But by the grace of God I am what I am’, v. 10. Paul could not change his past. He remembered what he had been but was happy that, although undeserving of it, God had bestowed His grace on him. All that Paul was, he owed to God’s grace.
Paul accepted the fact of his past and the time of his conversion as being ‘out of due time’, v. 8. He did not express a desire to change anything; he simply was what he was, by God’s grace.
He goes on to say that the grace of God ‘which was bestowed upon me was not in vain’, v. 9. It was not a waste, but rather resulted in service. Paul's service took him through many experiences, including beating and imprisonment, Acts 16. 23, shipwreck, 27. 41 and even disagreements with other believers, 15. 39.
Yet, this is all part of who Paul was and he could say, ‘the grace of God . . . was with me’, v. 10, in all his labours. The fruitful outcome of this service was that the Corinthians 'believed', v. 11.
The past: Like Paul, we were opposed to the Lord Jesus before our conversion. We should not remain feeling guilty. The Hebrew writer applies words written by Jeremiah to the believer, ‘their sins and iniquities will I remember no more’, Heb. 10. 17. God, in His grace has dealt with our sin. We should, therefore, live in a spirit of continual thankfulness for the grace that we have received.
Conversion: We cannot change the timing or circumstances of our conversion. But neither should we want to! We may listen to dramatic stories of conversion or think of friends who were saved when they were young. The time and circumstances differ for each believer. The lesson we can take from Paul is to be absolutely settled that the will of God has unfolded in our own conversion experience and to appreciate the grace of God in it.
The present: Just as Paul experienced the grace of God with him in his service, so we can too. In fact, we can see the grace of God with us in every experience. Let us not fall into desiring gifts that others have, or somehow want circumstances to be different; how often do we say, ‘if only’? Rather, we should be like Paul and be able to say that in our own circumstances of life and service ‘the grace of God . . . was with me’, v. 10.
1. John Heading, First and Second Corinthians, published by Ritchie.