1 Corinthians 7:17-24
May 20, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 18:50 in the audio file.
Or, How Salvation Transposes Our Earthly Callings
Some motivations work on themselves, as in, certain feelings produce more of the same feeling. The more they eat, the more hungry they are.
Two such motivations are guilt and discontent. Once they start they are hard to stop. Both have in common a misapplied standard and a focus on self.
There’s a great line in Moby Dick, when a man has fallen overboard in the middle of the ocean and all the boats are getting further away, and the man is left to think about himself. “The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?” (Melville, 453). He consumes his own thinking; he’s the center of his little universe; he’s all he’s got.
Because we are sinners we can mess up even the best things. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He paid our penalty so that all who believe in Him can be free. The word of the cross is the power of God in us, it creates spiritual life in us while also uniting us with the spiritual body of fellow believers.
But, with our new spiritual life we start to think that if certain things changed, then we could be even more spiritual. Here is where the sanctification train often derails into sand. When we look around in the church we start to compare ourselves with others and suppose that they are more spiritual. They may even tell us that, yes, they are more spiritual, and then explain that we could be like them if only we were in their situation. We feel guilty for not being more spiritual, and we feel discontent at not being in another situation.
This means we are judging by the wrong standards and focused on the wrong things. It also means that we should better understand our calling.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses the guilt among some of the believers causing them to consider certain lifestyles that may be more spiritual. In particular, married people considered that celibacy might make them better Christians. Single people thought they could be better Christians than married people. Other married people thought they should divorce their spouse to be single, and those Christians married to unbelievers thought distancing themselves would be better. Paul corrects all these errors, and he follows up with more examples.
Verses 17-24 are the general principle and exhortation that verses 1-16 are built upon, and that verses 25 through the end of the chapter depend on. In the first part of the chapter Paul explained that the ideal marital state is being content in the state God gave. In the last part of the chapter Paul will explain more about how to live in light of the present distress. In this paragraph he shows how it works: the better calling is not a certain earthly station, but being called to salvation transposes every earthly station.
“Call” or “called” comes up eight times in this paragraph. Most of the time it refers to the call of salvation, God’s supernatural work to regenerate and give faith to His elect. We also know that God calls men and women to various roles, assignments, jobs. The word voco in Latin means “I call,” and in English a vocation is one’s calling.
Our earthly and our spiritual calling comes from God, and He likes where He wants us. It’s we who start ranking better callings. It’s we who start dividing based on superficial differences. But salvation is the better calling, and it puts all the other callings into perspective.
Three times Paul says to remain (verse 17, 20, and 24). We’ll see two examples (ethnic and economic) that depend on this imperative and then a summary.
Being single or married, in and of itself, doesn’t determine spiritual standing. Neither does being Jew or Gentile. What certainly makes someone less spiritual is trying to be something other than what he is. The rule of remaining is like the arrow on your life-map labeled, “You are here, and it’s good.”
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. Who do you suppose has greater difficulty receiving this teaching, the Corinthians or us? While it wasn’t impossible, the Corinthians probably had limited imagination for social mobility compared to us. We’ve been watching commercials about being all that we can be and that we can be anything that we want to be since we were young. Paul is saying, be all that you is, not what you could be.
He’s talking about what we’ve been assigned, what we’ve been called to. There are lots of applications, but the doctrine is that the Lord places His servants where He wants them. This doctrine cannot be used to justify sin, or ignorance, or immaturity. It cannot be used to institute caste systems or prohibit someone from pursuing a new job. It does mean that we cannot determine someone’s spiritual value by their life situation. Has the Lord put him there? Amen, so let it be. And this applies everywhere: this is my rule in all the churches.
As I said, this applies to many external callings, including not only your spouse (or lack thereof), but your parents and religious background. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Were your parents Jews? That’s the best. Were your parents Gentiles? That is also the best. Some Jews were tempted to get social approval by looking like not Jews, and those working out naked at the gymnasium may have needed another surgery to change their look. Gentiles were often told by other Jews that they were spiritually inferior so of course some of them would be tempted to take on the cultural symbolism of Jewishness.
Paul says to not to. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. This is an almost unbelievable statement for a couple reasons. The most obvious is that circumcision was required to keep God’s commandments for Jews! Circumcision did count as obedience. But that’s the key: obedience, not the external mark itself. One is not better because of it. And with the coming of Christ and His work on the cross, we are not better because of rituals or the lack due to our parents or our preferences. In terms of salvation and spiritual living, this ethnic checkbox is for (God’s) administrative use only.
The principle not only applies to your family, it also applies to your employment. These next few verses regard slavery, and the research is mixed about conditions of slaves in the first century. Some estimate that a third of the population in Corinth were slaves, and that meant another significant portion were masters, though masters aren’t addressed here. The slaves were in a variety of situations, probably overall less like the slavery in the 19th century, but it can’t be proven that slaves were generally treated well either.
It is certainly easy to imagine that Christian slaves would consider it better not to be a slave and that they would be able to serve Christ when and where and how they chose rather than to be bound to the will of someone else. There is another connection to the context as well, since slaves at that time were not legally permitted to marry, though a master could free a slave and then marry her (not likely to be a female master with a male slave). Slaves were seen as property, slaves were seen as lesser, and we can see how slaves would have trouble being content.
Paul begins by repeating the remain refrain. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. Your condition is not a big deal. It’s not that slavery itself is good, but that being in some other condition doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s not as if all the free people love and serve Jesus.
How much time could a slave spend on wishing he was free, hoping to be free, complaining about “the man”? How much discontent could he stir up inside himself? Or how much lower might he feel about himself when assembling with the church body for worship?
Paul is not talking about justice and injustice, or about suffering that a slave might endure. He’s talking in this context in terms of economic and social status, and how being a slave cannot ruin anyone’s calling from God.
That said, Paul is not requiring the status quo. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) Maybe the master would offer it. Maybe the slave could somehow purchase his own freedom. That was fine, just like the exceptions for a brief pause of sexual relations for spouses, and the exception for believing spouses to let the unbelieving spouse go. Paul is not propping up the institution of slavery, though he also isn’t smashing it down either. The point here is about our attitude of contentment and realizing that our earthly station is the place where we serve the Lord.
For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. This is all about status, and the better calling. Being a freedman of the Lord is not the same as being “free.” We still have obligations, but as those now obligated to the greatest Master we’ve moved up.
And the one who is free is called to slavery to Christ. He purchased our spiritual freedom and we are obligated to serve Him and not ourselves.
As he explained in chapter 6 for different reasons, we are not our own. You were bought with a price. This is the cost of our calling. Christ died on the cross to purchase us as His own. Here with the follow up: do not become bondservants of men. This has extended application.
Historically, perhaps a free man would sell himself to an important master or patron for sake of gaining a higher social status. Being part of the popular posse was better than being the leader of your own insignificant posse of one. How often this happened, though, is hard to say.
How often we end up becoming enslaved to the opinions and preferences of others is a too typical compromise. Christians sell themselves to get themselves into a better position, or so they think. This could be socially, by friends and entertainment. This could be financially, by what sorts of jobs they will stoop to do or what sorts of hours they will sacrifice to “advance.” This could also be financially, by what sorts of loans and credit we’re willing to submit to in order to have the house or car or toys that we think will increase our esteem. We do make ourselves slaves of men, actually, but the masters are in a cubicle in a credit card company in Connecticut.
The final verse of the paragraph repeats the remain refrain for the third time.
So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. Remember, this started in the context of marital status. We spend too much energy wishing that we could be someone else. Especially we imagine so many ways that we could be more spiritual, but that is not what God requires, it is not what He wants.
He wants us to serve Him where we are. He wants us to submit to Him right now. He does not want our excuses. He wants our energy spent for His sake, not for our fantasies. “The gospel is lived out through earthly institutions and constraints, not in spite of them” (Thiselton).
What makes you a better Christian? What is the better calling? What are the things we think are so important?
Don’t covet your neighbor’s call. Don’t live in a fantasy of relationships (“If I could just get away from him, then I could serve Jesus.” Or, “If I could just get married, then I could be a great Christian.”) Don’t live in a fantasy of responsibility: “If I could just have this job, then I’d make enough money to be generous.” Or, “If I could just get a ministry position, then I could give my life to Christ.”
No, the calling of salvation transposes our earthly callings. To transpose is to change the key. When God saves us, there are many parts of our life that stay the same. We are singing the same song, but we are now singing in a different, higher key. There is “joy to find in every station, something still to do or bear.”
This doesn’t mean that you can never change marital status, or employment, or move, or whatever. It does mean that you don’t have to change your external calling to better your salvation calling. Your external circumstances don’t keep you from serving God. Jesus is Lord where you are, He is Lord of where you are.
C.S. Lewis described humility not as thinking less of oneself, but of thinking of oneself less. Guilt and discontentment feed on self-focus. Those who are wise will see the connection with contentment in our calling.
Beloved, God wants you to care much less about what and more about why. Don’t worry about the status quo—“the state in which,” do make sure you know the status quod—“the state in because,” the reason. Whatever you do, whatever your calling, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. Work for Him.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23–24)