1 Corinthians 15 is the great chapter in the Bible about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the future resurrection of every believer in Jesus Christ. But in the verses we’ll look at now, the apostle Paul takes a momentary bunny trail to describe the effects of God’s grace in his life.
If you’ve ever taken out a loan, or been a student in college, you know what a “grace period” is. It’s the time after the deadline for a loan or assignment has passed where you don’t have to take a late fee or a bad grade.
I remember in college that there would always be a few procrastinators who, on the day a paper was due, would clamor and beg the professor for a “grace period.” For some reason, the two months they had just wasn’t enough.
When the professor would give in and allow the paper to be handed in after the weekend, the effects of the grace period on those procrastinators was remarkable. What they should have spend two months doing, they did in two days (with the help of a lot of Mountain Dew).
Grace has an effect in our lives. The person who claims God’s grace has forgiven them, but continues in the same old sin without remorse, has not encountered the powerful, life-changing, grace of God. Notice how Paul describes the effects of grace in his own life:
8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet 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 which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed. (1 Corinthians 15:8–11)
What do we learn about the effects of grace from these verses?
I. GRACE QUALIFIES US FOR SERVICE
1 Corinthians 15:8
And last of all he was seen of me also,
as of one born out of due time.
The Greek word behind “born out of due time” (ἐκτρώματι, ἔκτρωμα, NDSN) has do with an untimely birth, as in one that is premature. What does Paul mean by it? In the context of the passage, Paul has just listed all the appearances that Jesus made to His disciples after His resurrection. Paul was alive at that time, but he was not included in any of those resurrection appearances of Christ. He was not a follower of Christ.
This creates a problem for Paul becoming a apostle. When the original apostles choose who would replace Judas, they laid down an important qualification—
21 Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. (Acts 1:21–22)
Paul had never walked with Jesus or been a witness to the resurrection. How could he be an apostle then? What gave him to right to be an apostle? The fact that Paul was addressing the issue here means that at least some of the Corinthians were questioning his apostleship. In chapter one, we saw that some were divided over who was the best apostle, perhaps this played into it (1 Corinthians 1:12).
Paul’s defense is that he was “born out of due time.” That is, he had an unusual birth as an apostle, but nevertheless, he was an apostle. A human baby may have an unusual birth, perhaps premature by many weeks, but they are still a human.
Paul’s unusual birth as a Christian and an apostle, of course, happened on the road to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him (Acts 9:1-31; 22:3-21; 26:10-17). In grace, Jesus Himself chose Paul to be an apostle. Grace put Paul on the same footing as Peter, James, and John. So now Paul could say…
1 Corinthians 15:11
Therefore whether it were I or they,
so we preach, and so ye believed.
In my own words, this is what Paul is saying, “Therefore, it makes no difference whether I preach or another preach to you, the gospel is true no matter who is speaking to you. It’s what you believed that saved you, not who preached it.”
God seems to make a habit of using the most unlikely people to do His work. Christian history is littered with the names of nobodies who thought that they were worthless that God has used for His glory—most of those names are forgotten by the living.
Someone once pointed out:
Jacob was a cheater, Peter had a temper, David had an affair, Noah got drunk, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a murderer, Gideon was insecure…Martha was a worrier, Thomas was a doubter, Sara was impatient, Elijah was moody, Moses stuttered, Abraham was old,…and Lazarus was dead. God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the CALLED!
In part, this is because He needs us to be humble to serve Him. Folks who are proud of their abilities, their upbringing, or their spotless record make lousy servants.
But those who have nothing to bring or were “born out of due time,” are the ones who give their all for the Master. Why? Because His grace is what qualified them for service and because His…
II. GRACE CHANGES OUR SINFUL HEARTS
1 Corinthians 15:9
For I am the least of the apostles,
that am not meet [worthy] to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.
1 Corinthians 15:10a
But by the grace of God I am what I am:
Paul persecuted the church before he was saved and called to be an apostle. He once described his crimes to King Agrippa:
10 …many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. 11 And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities. (Acts 26:10–11)
It wasn’t just Christians that Paul persecuted. When Jesus confronted Paul on the road to Damascus, He said, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). Paul was persecuting Christ as he persecuted Christians.
If there had been a Heavenly committee that chose the apostles, I can tell you the committee would have voted down God’s suggestion to choose Paul. “Lord,” the other committee members would have said, “Paul’s heart is harder than granite—there’s no way he’ll be an apostle. Look at what happened with Peter, he barely made it, Paul’s just a no-go.”
God’s grace broke into Paul’s heart that day on the road to Damascus. It wasn’t a nice soothing touch either. We usually picture grace as something gentle, but, in Paul’s own words, we read:
6 And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. 7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? (Acts 22:6–7)
Did you notice that this took place at noon? The midday sun was already bright and strong in the sky, so imagine how bright and terrible the light that shone from heaven must have been! Paul, and only Paul, was blinded for three days. Sometimes grace has to be hard to break the hard heart open.
Christ forgave Paul of his crimes of persecuting Him and His church, but Paul never had it erased from his mind. He would come back to it again and again throughout his life, as we see here when he says that he was, “the least of the apostles…not meet [worthy] to be called an apostle.”
Later, Paul would write to Timothy and say…
12 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; 13 Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. 14 And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. 15 This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (1 Timothy 1:12–15)
God’s grace forgave Paul and God’s grace changed Paul. On the road to Damascus, Paul was an violent enemy of the church. On the road away from Damascus, Paul was a vibrant apostle of Christ.
There are those who claim God’s forgiveness but continue on in the same sins. Their hearts are never changed. Paul says to that kind of person—
1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? (Romans 6:1–2)
Grace does not give us permission to sin; Grace gives us the power not to sin. Grace changes us, it makes us into a new creature who is dead to sin. How did grace change you when you were saved?
Paul did not stay the same as he was—grace changed him. When he said, “by the grace of God I am what I am,” he meant that grace had changed him into the Christian servant he now was.
If you have truly been touched by God’s grace, that grace will change you! God’s grace is effective. It changes people. Anything less would not be God’s grace.
Grace qualifies us for service, changes our sinful hearts, and…
III. GRACE MOTIVATES US TO LABOR
1 Corinthians 15:10b
and his grace which was bestowed upon me
was not in vain;
Like we said a moment ago, when God’s grace begins a work in someone, it will be effective. It changes a person. Paul tells the believers in Philippi that he is…
6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: (Philippians 1:6)
When grace works in a person, it leaves behind evidence. The evidence is the changes in the person’s life and also the new motivations that the person has. Paul stopped persecuting the church, but more than that, he became the church’s greatest advocate and teacher—
1 Corinthians 15:10c
but I laboured more abundantly than they all:
In what way did Paul work harder than all the other apostles?
First, there’s the geographical scope of his work. Not that the other apostles didn’t travel, but Paul’s missionary journeys were incredibly extensive for the period of time in which he lived, far out surpassing any one of the other apostles.
Second, you can look at the church planting work that Paul did. He started somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty churches himself. But he also trained other disciples, like Timothy and Barnabas, who surely planted even more churches.
Third, Paul wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
Fourth, his labors include the suffering he went through for Jesus’ sake. In 2 Corinthians, he again defends his apostleship and writes:
23 Are they ministers of Christ? [His opponents claimed to be special servants of Christ] (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. 24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. 28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23–28)
In every way then, Paul was a hard worker for Jesus Christ. But, he says…
1 Corinthians 15:10c
yet not I,
but the grace of God which was with me.
How does the grace of God turn someone into a hard worker for Christ? Grace changes our motivations and desires. In Philippians we read:
12 …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
What does it means that God “worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure”? It means that God changes our desires to be more in accordance to His “will.” Our change in desires motivates us to live differently.
When you became a Christian, you experienced this. There were desires that you didn’t have before that suddenly became desires—like going to church, reading the Bible, and praying. Other desires faded—like swearing or drinking.
There will also come a motivation to serve God in some way. Not that every Christian becomes a pastor or a missionary or an evangelist or even a Sunday School teacher. But there will be, in a Christian, a need to serve God somehow. That need is put there by the grace.
As zealous as Paul was to persecute the church, grace changed him to be just as zealous in building the church. He seemed to have recognized the large dose of grace that God had to give him and was so grateful that he worked harder than most. Perhaps this why it seems that the most productive Christians seem to be those who are saved from the worst lives.
When the Golden Gate Bridge was built back in the 1930’s, there were little in the way of safety precautions. Work on bridges back then proceeded slowly because workers had to move so slowly. A gust of wind could easily blow a man from the bridge to his death.
Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss introduced many safety devices and techniques during the building of the Golden Gate, the hard hat, for example. He also required the men to use safety harnesses and tie themselves off (those who didn’t were fired on the spot). As a result, the cables of the Golden Gate were strung up four times faster than previously thought possible.
Strauss, at great expense, put up a safety net under the entire bridge. It saved the lives of nineteen men over the course of the building of the bridge. It was also a morale booster that enabled the men to work faster because they were more confident (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLRCZAXfEa4).
God’s grace is like that safety net for us. We know that we are saved by God’s grace, not by our own abilities or talents. So we can work harder because we know that it’s God’s grace that makes our work effective. We can work harder because of the gratitude we have for the safety net of grace!
[George] Mueller summed up the principle like this: “This is one of the great secrets in connection with successful service for the Lord; to work as if everything depended upon our diligence, and yet not to rest in the least upon our exertions, but upon the blessing of the Lord.” (Narrative, vol. 2, 290, qtd in Piper, 363).
Grace has effects—Grace Qualifies Us For Service; Grace Changes Our Sinful Hearts; Grace Motivates Us To Labor.
What effect has grace had in your life?
Have you experienced the grace of having your heart convicted by your sin? Every sinner is like Paul was in some way—we are enemies of God, in rebellion against Jesus. It’s not that we attacked Christians or anything like that, but as sinners, we lived our own way instead of God’s way. That’s why sin’s penalty is death. Has God’s grace convicted you to recognize your situation before God?
Have you seen the grace that God gives in Jesus Christ? The Father sent His Son to die for our sins—so that by believing in Him, we might have eternal life. Does Ephesians 2:8-9 ring true and clear in your heart today?
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
If you are saved, what effect has grace had in your life since the day that Christ came into your life? What changes have occurred as a result of grace? What service are you motivated to do because of grace? What effect has grace had, and what effect is grace having in your life today?
Piper, John, Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2005)