Sanctified and Called to Be Holy
By George Paul Wood
Every morning as I get ready for work I look in the mirror and see a perfect image of myself — in reverse. I part my hair on the left, but in the mirror my part appears on the right. Unfortunately, the mirror does not reverse my male-pattern baldness.
The church in Corinth was a church in the mirror. Everything was in reverse. The Church is supposed to be united, but the Corinthian church was divided (1 Corinthians 1:10 through 4:21). The Church is supposed to be sexually moral, but the church in Corinth was sexually immoral (5:1–13; 6:12–20). The Church is supposed to resolve conflicts, but the Corinthian church was driven by lawsuits (6:1–11).
First Corinthians was Paul’s response to problems he had either heard about from friends (1:10 through 6:20) or read about in a no-longer-extant letter from the Corinthians (7:1 through 16:12). Morally and theologically, the church in Corinth was the mirror image of what it should have been.
And so, at the start of his letter, Paul reminded the Corinthians of who they should be: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ — their Lord and ours” (1:2).
Notice four things:
First, the church is God’s church. The Corinthian church was a partisan bunch that proudly lined up behind their favorite apostle, and then fought over which of those apostles was most important. One group upped the spiritual ante by lining up behind Jesus, but evidently even they were acting out of pride and partisanship (1:10–12). The apostles, like Paul, no doubt frowned on these antics. Why? Because the church at Corinth does not belong to Paul or Peter or Apollos (the three leaders Paul specifically named). It belongs to God. There can be no end to the divisions that still plague the church until we are clear on this basic point.
Second, the church is in but not of the world. Gordon Fee describes Corinth as “at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world.” It was a center of commerce, entertainment, and loose living. The historian Strabo coined the term corinthianize to describe the gross sexual immorality of old Corinth. (The city may have changed by Paul’s day.) But instead of resisting the city’s sins, the church perpetuated them. It was both in and of Corinth.
Third, the church both is and in process of becoming holy. In Greek, the words sanctified and holy are related: hagiázō and hágios. In Christ Jesus, God has made — past tense — the Church holy. But in Christ Jesus, He also calls — present tense — the Church to be holy. We must become what, in Christ, we already are. Holy people must become holier, without getting holier than thou.
We cannot overemphasize this third point. Our deeds do not make us holy. God makes us holy in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. Our deeds express, manifest, and embody the sanctifying work God has already performed. We do not work toward our holiness; we work from it. If we get this point wrong, we inevitably begin to pursue a works- and rules-based version of holiness that is doomed to Pharisaic self-righteousness and total spiritual failure.
And finally, the Church is universal. The church is in Corinth, but it’s also in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Our little corner of the world has not cornered the Jesus market. He does not belong to us; we belong to Him, and to everyone else who calls on His name.
God sanctifies us, and He is calling us to be holy. So, let’s be the Church God intended, not its mirror image.