Paul’s benediction for the Corinthian church is consistent with all his letters, and indeed with his entire ministry: he points his readers to the grace of Jesus Christ. Paul did not rely on leadership styles popular in his day, the strength of his own personality, or the quickest way to increase membership numbers. His definition of ministry was rooted in theology, and at its center was the grace of Jesus Christ. For Paul there was no other foundation. And for us it should be no different.
The order of the Trinity as Paul presents it here is striking. He begins with the Lord Jesus Christ, then references God the Father, and concludes with a reference to God the Holy Spirit. Why does he not begin with the Father, the first person of the Trinity?
This verse is not intended to describe the relationships within the Trinity, but rather appears to describe for us the chronological order of our experience of the triune God. It is on the basis of the person and work of Christ that we are reconciled to God. And this priority remains consistent throughout the Christian life. All of the mercy, all of the grace, all of the blessings a Christian receives in this life and throughout eternity derive from the saving work of Jesus Christ.
So it is no surprise that Paul begins by referencing the grace of God, which is revealed through the gospel. The grand centerpiece of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is the salvation of sinners through the death and resurrection of Christ. This is where Paul always begins. He is gospel-centered, he is cross-centered, and he consistently reminds the Corinthians of the content and the centrality of the gospel.
Paul begins 1 Corinthians with the gospel:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus. (1:4)
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. (1:17–18, 23)
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (2:2)
Near the end of the letter, Paul once again reminds the Corinthians of the gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3–4).
And in 2 Corinthians, Paul continues with the gospel: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9).
And although Paul addresses the Corinthians on diverse topics, he remains steadily cross-centered. At every turn Paul’s instruction is derived from the gospel, revealing a man who never assumed the gospel, and who refused to allow the Corinthian church to drift from Christ and him crucified. Down to the final words of the concluding benediction, Paul reinforces the primacy of the gospel.
All pastors have the privilege and joy of emulating Paul’s example in every area of pastoral responsibility. Paul’s example reminds me that:
- I must never assume the gospel.
- I must never assume the church I serve sufficiently understands the gospel.
- I must inform every aspect of pastoral ministry with the proclamation and celebration of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the gospel.
- I must never teach on any topic without explaining how it relates to the gospel.
- I must preach to reveal the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- I must counsel to impart the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- I must help those vulnerable to legalism and condemnation to experience the justifying grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- I must help those fighting a besetting sin to experience the sanctifying grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- I must help the suffering to experience the comforting grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- I must help the weary to experience the sustaining grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- I must help those who persist in disobedience to experience the convicting and cleansing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In short, I must labor so the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be with them all. This is the pastor’s privileged task. This is our joy and our call.
Yet if we understand our message and are committed to proclaiming it, why does the grace of Jesus Christ often seem to be an elusive experience for those we serve? If we’re preaching this week after week, why don’t some folks seem to grasp it? Why isn’t the message of grace taking root in every member’s life?
Let me offer one possible reason…
This post is part of an 11-part series, The Pastor and the Trinity, excerpted from the chapter “The Pastor and the Trinity” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper edited by Sam Storms and Justin Taylor, ©2010. Used by permission of Crossway.