No matter how many times I have written or spoken about the grace of God, I still find myself wondering how well I understand it personally.
Over and over, we’ve seen how much trouble the Corinthians have given Paul. They’re a confused and contentious bunch. Yet Paul dares to suggest that they are like a letter of reference to a watching world, by which others will judge both Paul’s ministry and the God proclaimed therein.
Knowing the importance of good letters of reference in my professional life, my first reaction to Paul’s metaphor is to think that the Corinthians are a poor choice to represent the success of the ministry! But Paul has a deeper and surer knowledge of grace, because he is thinking about the new covenant established by God through Jesus (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6).
The passage that seems to be in the back of Paul’s mind, Ezekiel 36, is worthy of deep reflection. God speaks in graphic terms of Israel’s failure. Though he had brought the people into their own fertile land, they polluted it, defiling it with their violence and idolatry. So God scattered them; but God’s name was still profaned among the nations because of them (vss. 16-20). Thus God declares that he will act to salvage the holiness of his own name: “I will make my great name holy, which was degraded among the nations when you dishonored it among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord” (vs 23, CEB).
Hearing those words, we might think, Look out, here it comes. But instead, we get this:
When I make myself holy among you in their sight, I will take you from the nations, I will gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you to your own fertile land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws. Then you will live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek 36:23b-28, CEB)
Surprise. God even goes further, promising an abundant harvest. All of this is meant to bring them to humble repentance: with the new heart that God has given them, the people will see the incomprehensible grace and mercy of God, remember their sinful ways, and feel ashamed (vss. 31-32).
That is how God plans to rescue the holiness of his name. The law of Moses revealed both human sin and divine holiness, yet it could not in itself empower the people’s obedience. By God’s holy mercy, however, it’s a new day: his people have his Spirit.
It’s not that the Corinthians’ behavior doesn’t matter; far from it. But their behavior is not in itself the measure of Paul’s ministry. Ironically, that way of thinking is not much different from that of his opponents, who would demand that Paul have more impressive credentials. Rather, what matters to Paul is seeing the Holy Spirit at work in the congregation — for that is his assurance that it is indeed a new day, and that he is a minister of it.
God has given them — and us — new and softer hearts to acknowledge our dependence on his mercy. Let’s use them, for the sake of God’s holy name among the nations.