Some see faith as a settled issue, something we no longer have to think about once we pray the sinners prayer. Others see faith as a journey with trials and troubles along the way. The goal is to grow and persevere. Which approach we take influences how we interpret the Bible. (I take the second approach.)
Approach 1: Faith is settled
The first perspective believes faith is a settled issue. Under this view, faith is solely determined by whether or when we accept Jesus as our Lord and savior and pray some version of the sinner’s prayer. Having done that, faith becomes a settled issued. We don’t need to think about it anymore. Instead, we need to concern ourselves with how we improve as disciples of Christ.
When we take this perspective to understand a letter like 1Corinthians, we can easily reinforce it. Paul wrote to believers. He calls them saints and brothers, and starts the letter with some warm greetings. He’s not trying to convert them in the letter, so the question of whether they have embraced the gospel has already been settled.
Why did he write the letter from this perspective? These believers struggled with various practical problems. Paul gave them practical advice on how to handle those problems and lead more godly lives. The problems included: divisions in the church; church discipline; the place of sexuality in marriage; eating meat sacrificed to idols; women covering their heads when they pray in public; the Lord’s supper; and spiritual gifts. Paul addresses all of those topics in this letter.
From this perspective, not everything in the letter is equally interesting to us today. Some issues resonate with us and some don’t. We’re probably all interested in the place of sexuality, but most of us have never encountered meat sacrificed to idols. This view leaves us with a letter filled with practical advice, but a large portion of it is not that practical for us, because it doesn’t address the situations we find ourselves in today.
I’d like to suggest a second perspective, which I think is better and is the way I to approach 1Corinthians.
Approach 2: Faith is a journey
From this second perspective, faith is not a one-time event that we can settle and forget. Faith is a radical change of heart that grows to maturity over the course of our lives. Faith is something that we live out in the middle of whatever practical issues and circumstance we find ourselves in.
Rather than a one-time event, think of faith as like a baby progressing to adulthood. We start with a meager, basic understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Then we grow in knowledge and maturity as we face the issues, struggles and problems of daily life. It is a struggle over a life-long journey.
Life throws me curves. I am repeatedly confronted with the choice as to whether I will believe the gospel. When life takes unexpected turns, trials and tragedies, I have to decide how I am going to respond and who or what I am counting on.
I say I believe the gospel, but will I live it out in this situation? Will I act in a way that is consistent with the faith I claim to have? Or will I be deceived by the lies of my culture or my own sinful evil heart?
I have a daily choice about how I will speak, how I will act, what will I value, how will I treat others, how will I respond to the twists and turns of life. Every day I’m faced with questions over how to live out the faith I claim to have.
From this perspective, Paul wrote to encourage his readers in the midst of the struggle. He reminded them that they must live out their faith daily. Faith is not a choice they can make and forget. It is a choice that has implications and produces radical changes. They must persevere and follow faith wherever it takes them. Will they repent? Will they continue to believe when culture tries to entice them away? What are they going to set their hope and hearts on?
Paul wrote to a church which, like every church, contains a mixture of genuine believers, seekers and hypocrites. Paul explained the implications of believing the gospel in this each issues he addressed. He claimed the Corinthians response made it look like they don’t really believe the gospel at all. Because people who believe the gospel have a different perspective.
For example, the first issue Paul tackles in 1Corinithians is divisions in the church. Paul’s point is much deeper than “play nice and get along.” He was concerned about what brought them to this place where they were dividing into groups. The real problem was what they believed to be true that caused them to take sides like that.
His primary goal was not to create a better functioning church. His primary goal was to encourage his readers to embrace the gospel and all its implications. His goal was not harmony; he wanted them to be people who care about the truth and follow it.
Knowing what Paul said is fundamentally true is immensely helpful today. We can apply that to any situation we find ourselves in even if we never face the kind of divisiveness that the Corinthian church faced. The underlying issues Paul appeals to are very relevant to us today.
Take the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. If Paul was just giving a piece of practical advice on how to be a more godly person, then why do I even need to read that section? It won’t ever apply to me.
But Paul was concerned about that attitude toward the gospel and truth that the Corinthians displayed in the way they dealt with this issue of meat. There was a fundamental principle of the gospel at stake in that issue. We can apply those fundamental principles to many different situations today.
Now just to be clear, I am not saying you have to be a perfectionist to be a believer and that the Corinthians were failing to tow the line. I do not believe the gospel advocates that we must have perfect obedience after coming to faith. I believe we will continue to sin and life will be a struggle.
But I also believe that faith matters. It fundamentally changes us so that we want different things, we value different things, we hope and strive for different things, and the tone and character of our lives changes. If we never change or never make progress toward change, then it calls into question whether we really believe.
Therefore, when we approach 1Corinithians (or any other New Testament epistle), our goals should be to understand the issue/situation in that culture and church as best we can, then figure out not only what the author said, but why he said it, and finally consider what those “whys” mean for us today. We will be more successful at some passages than others, but that’s the goal.