Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Examine Yourselves”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.

(2 Corinthians 7.8-11)

Paul wrote these words to a church carrying lots of baggage.  The letter to which he refers is, of course, 1 Corinthians, and a quick skim shows why it “grieved” the Christians there.  Paul tore into them for creating divisions, behaving as fleshly people, having a bad attitude toward Paul himself, tolerating a grotesque form of sexual immorality, taking each other to court over petty grievances, creating sexual confusion, offending each other’s consciences through their interactions with idol-worshippers, twisting the Lord’s Supper and their use of spiritual gifts in the assembly into opportunities for climbing up the social ladder, and even denying the resurrection of Jesus.  Paul had worried how it would go over, and wasn’t entirely sure they would respond well.

Amazingly, they accepted his rebuke and attacked the problems with zeal!  As Paul noted in the passage above, they had been  “grieved into repenting,” and worked hard to remove these many black marks on their record!  Now, it’s worth mentioning that this second letter isn’t just a long list of praises for the Corinthian church—they still needed to make improvements, particularly in their general attitude toward Paul.  But even he was quite impressed with their turnaround!

Corinth was not the only place where something like this happened in the early church.  The earliest of Paul’s letters, Galatians, addresses Christians who had, for all intents and purposes, fully abandoned Christ, in favor of a Jewish conception of justification through adherence to the Law of Moses.  We don’t have a follow-up letter in this case, but we do see Paul continuing to visit these churches on subsequent journeys (Ac 16.6, 18.23), and referring to them in passing in subsequent letters, in favorable terms (1Co 16.1, 2Ti 4.10).  This makes it clear that they, too, repented of their sin and pressed forward in fellowship with Christ.  For that matter, we could include the church at Jerusalem, where the leadership was on the wrong side of the same issue and took several flareups to learn the lesson (e.g. Ac 10-11, 15); and the church at Thessalonica, where a contingent were “walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that [they] received from” Paul and his helpers (2Th 3.6), and required two letters addressing this problem before they sorted it out.

What’s notable about these instances is not that these churches had problems.  Every church has problems, because all Christians are human beings, and we have a strong tendency to mess things up, even while we strive to follow Jesus.  No, what is notable is that, in the cases were we have a good deal of information to tell us their stories, we see these churches accepting the rebuke and, in short order, joining together in repentance.

What about today?  There are probably more churches in existence today than there were individual Christians at any point in the first century AD, and every one of them still has problems.  Some—most—of them are as bad as, or even worse than the Corinthian or Galatian churches, and it’s easy for anyone with eyes and a New Testament to diagnose areas where the whole church needs to repent.  Does it happen?  Yes, occasionally it does; but as a rule these churches get worse and worse, falling farther and farther short of the ideal Jesus established, and becoming more and more a reflection of the spirit of the age, rather than the Spirit of God.  It’s disheartening to watch.  Yet it shouldn’t be surprising.  Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus,

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

(Acts 20.29-30)

He told Timothy,

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

(1 Timothy 4.1-3)

Peter also predicted, “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2Pe 2.1), and the letters of Jude and John indicate that these predictions were already coming true.  The church enjoyed a brief period in which it was led by Apostles, and there hadn’t been much opportunity yet for heresies to breed.  Two thousand years later, the situation should not surprise us.  It’s exactly what God said was coming, and while we rarely see entire congregations changing for the better, we regularly see them letting in all kinds of sin, which “leavens the whole lump” (Ga 5.9).  This is discouraging, but there is hope.  We don’t have the authority or power of Paul or Peter; but we can have an impact, by starting at home.  “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2Co 13.5).

Jeremy Nettles