The One Threefold Essential
1 Corinthians 7:17-24
But as God has distributed to every man, as the Lord has called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.…

As with all deeply earnest men, the teaching of St. Paul grew out of the special events of his life. The crisis called out the struggle, and the struggle called out the word of command. For some years of his life St. Paul passed through a strange experience. The man who to us is a saint, the very type of all that is most exalted, the very man who now keeps the conscience of Christendom, and of whom it is a commonplace to say, "Follow him, as he followed Christ," this man, while he lived, was for many years regarded by religious men, and doubtless by devout women also, as a dangerous man, as lacking true reverence in things pertaining to God, as what we might call in these days an innovator and latitudinarian. "Circumcision," in the eyes of St. Paul's opponents, was the symbol of what they reverenced and what they accused him, rightly or wrongly, of disparaging. He called himself the Apostle of the Gentiles. He turned his back on his own race and training. He seemed eager not to bridge over the chasm which separated the new from the old, but to glory in the conviction, which, indeed, in one of these four Epistles he expressly enunciated, that "in Christ old things had passed away; behold, all things had become new." Now, how did St. Paul bear such comments, and the consciousness that they came not only from unscrupulous partisans, but also doubtless from devout and aggrieved souls? I think we may say that among all his manifold troubles he had no heavier cross to bear than this. It led him not only to justify himself — not only in various ways and at various times to make an Apologia pro vita sua — but to dwell earnestly, solemnly, may we not also say wistfully, and with something of a holy impatience, on the real stake at issue. Why all this battling about symbols, about outward things, about the things below, instead of the things above? Circumcision and uncircumcision, symbol and no symbol, conformity with the past, or no conformity, what were they in the sight of Him who is a Spirit, and knows no difference between Gerizim and Jerusalem? The essential thing is this — the keeping of the commandments of God; faith which worketh by love; a new creature, We may regard these as three essentials, or as one essential; but here we have from a master of the spiritual life, at a time when he was attacked on every side by misrepresentation, besides that which came upon him daily, " the care of all the churches," an emphatic declaration of the essence of true Christianity; obedience to God's commands, faith working by love, a new creature.

I. Whatever else may be important or unimportant in Christian teaching or discipline, this at least is essential, THE KEEPING OF THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD. The expression may mean almost anything, or almost nothing, according to our rank in the school of Christ. To the ripe scholar it means almost everything. "The keeping of the commandments of God." "Which be they?" "The same which God spake in the 20th chapter of Exodus?" Yes, of course, and much more. The same which the life and death of Christ have written, not on tables of stone, but on tables of the heart and conscience. The commandments which every development of thought, every discovery or half-discovery as to the origin or the mysterious interdependence of mind and body, nay, every acceptance, general or partial, of some moral half-truth or even honest heresy, have concurred in stamping upon an enlightened conscience. Wherever the spirit of the age is in harmony with the Spirit of God, wherever the increase of thought and knowledge points to wider sympathies and enlarged fields of human service, there are fresh provinces marked out for the empire of "the commandments of God." To learn these commandments, to accept them with ardour and intelligence, with the mind as well as with the heart — to "do them" ourselves and to "teach men so" — this is one of the essentials of a true Christian faith.

II. "In Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but FAITH WHICH WORKETH BY LOVE." We are not content, surely, that these should remain merely technical words; we would have them living forces. To St. Paul faith is that outgoing of the whole being — mind, heart, spirit — which attaches itself to a Person; believes in Him, "clings to Him, trusts Him, worships Him; finds in His will, and even more in His assured sympathy, the plainest guarantee of duty, and cannot, even in imagination, separate itself from His presence and His indwelling. By this test may we know whether we are Christ's disciples. In Christ Jesus faith working through love is an essential. We cannot live without regard to Him, as though He were nothing mow to us beyond an illustrious Example. We cannot look at Him, speak of Him, criticise Him as from outside. We cannot think of Him as the citizens of a neutral power might think of the ruler or the general of some belligerent nation, sympathising perhaps in part with his policy, but still regarding it as outside their own. No! we are not outsiders. We are servants of One who has used the strongest language as to His claims upon His servants; One who has said, "He that is not with Me is against Me"; and again, "Abide in Me, and I in you; as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, no more can ye except ye abide in Me"; and again, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." "Faith which works by love," perfect trust in Jesus Christ showing forth its devotion by sympathy with those whom He calls His brethren — this is life eternal; this can never disappoint, never betray the soul that trusts it.

III. "Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but A NEW CREATURE." It is not easy, nay, it is morally perilous, to try to analyse, as in a laboratory, the essence of an expression wrung, one might dare to say, from the very heart, and steeped in the very life-blood of this great soldier of Christ, a "new creature," a "new creation." One thing is clear — we may interpret at least, if we hesitate to apply — that St. Paul must have meant to express by this phrase the greatest of all changes, not a mere improvement, the lopping off of a vice here, and an ambition there; not a taming down of the old wild nature under the yoke of some humanising and civilising charm: nothing so small as this, but a change comparable to a new birth, a new order of being, a new manifestation of life, with new aims, new conceptions, new ideals, new organ, new powers. To become a Christian, then, whether the change were from heathendom or Judaism, must, of course, have been something different from what it can be to the sons of Christian parents in the nineteenth century of the Christian Church, and at a place like this where the very stones are witnesses to the reforming and re-creating power of the name of Christ. But even now I venture to say that we do not know what true Christianity is unless we are able to recognise it as "a new creature." It is the "new creature" which "through peril, toil and pain," was to "overcome the world." It was the "new creature" which was to root out gradually all that was vile and refuse in humanity, and to present to Christ a changed society, worthy to be called His own bride, "a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing."

(H. M. Butler, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.

WEB: Only, as the Lord has distributed to each man, as God has called each, so let him walk. So I command in all the assemblies.

The Gospel
Top of Page
Top of Page