1 Corinthians 15:10
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed on me was not in vain…
I. THE TEXT IS EXPRESSIVE OF THE HIGHEST TYPE OF CHARACTER.
1. The more "self" and the less "self" there is in any man the nobler he is. This sounds paradoxical, but man himself is a paradox. He "lives, moves, and has his being" in Another, and yet is distinct from that Other. This distinctive personality God seeks to fill out of His own fulness with a rich and noble life.
2. Our ordinary language bears witness to this truth. "Self-will," "self-seeking," "self-indulgence" we regard as the essence of vice, and "self-sacrifice" as the climax of virtue; yet we commend "self-reliance." We admire "self-possession," but laugh at "self-complacency"; and, whilst disgusted by "self-righteousness," we honour "self-respect." We say of a man that he "quite lost himself" — "quite forgot himself." We may be uttering either the highest praise or the severest censure. And although we commonly speak of "self-consciousness" as a fault, yet we feel that a certain consciousness of self is inseparable from all true greatness.
3. In our estimates of men we pronounce that character defective which lacks either individuality or self-negation.
(1) Here, e.g., is a man whose individuality is clearly enough marked; he thinks for himself, but he may pride himself on his position or his attainments instead of recognising his "stewardship" and using his gifts for the benefit of his brethren. He can say "I," but he has yet to learn to say "Not I." Here, again, is a man who is always deferring to the opinions of others; but then he has no decided opinions of his own. He is often giving up his own will, but he has but little will to give up. He is modest, but sometimes he is too modest even to do his duty. In such a man there may be much to love, but he would he a nobler man if, whilst still able to say "Not I," he could also say "I." Humility is most divine when it is the lowliness of a great soul. And self-sacrifice is lofty in proportion to the greatness and worth of that "self" which is sacrificed.
4. The text is well illustrated by the character of the apostle. We scarcely know which is the more striking — Paul's individuality or his self-negation. He says that he is "the least of all the apostles," and then that he is "not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles." He is conscious of his own unworthiness, and also of the high honour which God has put upon him. His letters are full of dignified self-assertion and noble independence, and yet he speaks as if he had no separate life at all. "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
5. We see the positive and negative poles of the same attractive nobleness in Christ Himself. "My doctrine is not Mine, but His that sent Me." In one view Christ's ministry was a self-proclamation. "I am the Light of the world," etc. In another view it was a self-negation. "I can of Mine own self do nothing."
II. NOTICE HOW THE DIVINE EDUCATION OF MAN IS DESIGNED AND FITTED TO PRODUCE THIS TYPE OF CHARACTER.
1. The human creature is at first thrown entirely upon the care of others, and yet from the first also he has a body distinctively his own. The processes of "isolation" and association go on together. His needs, desires, pleasures, pains, and, alas! sins, all lead him to say "I"; his dependence on his mother's love, etc., leads him to feel "Not I."
2. This education God carries on throughout our whole life.
(1) He brings us into circumstances when we must think and act for ourselves, but He likewise so binds us together that we are often impelled to yield up our own will to the will of others. Love and duty call upon us to sacrifice self for the good of our brethren, and yet they sometimes call us to stand upon our rights.
(2) God has also brought man into such relations with the material world as to give him a feeling at once of greatness and of nothingness. Look at the capacities of the body in health and its impotence in disease. You listen to the poet, philosopher, or man of science, and you see the height to which the mind may rise; you walk through the wards of the asylum, and see the depth to which it may fall! How insignificant, too — and yet how mighty — is man in presence of the powers of nature! And in front of those forces the very condition of our being able to stand up and say "I" is that we learn to say "Not I."(3) God carries on this same process of education through the medium of His providence. His "gentleness makes us great" — evoking our powers, whilst the awfulness of His mysterious visitations humbles us to the dust.
(4) The gospel of Christ is fitted to develop this same composite character. Its word is, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." And every Christian is taught by the gospel to recognise his individual responsibility and privileges, and thus he may well feel and say "I." On the other hand the gospel also cultivates the spirit which leads a man to say "Not I." Its very first call addresses him as a sinner, and summons him to repentance. The faith which "justifies" "excludes boasting." He is also perpetually reminded that he is "not his own," and that he is bound to present his whole nature as a "living sacrifice" to God. And the gospel leads him into Christian fellowship, and summons him to the help of the brethren.
3. And this same process of education God carries on even unto the end. To die — it is to feel how insignificant I am — how the great world will move on all the same without me! and yet it is to feel the preciousness of my own being as I never felt it before. Alone I must pass through this valley of the shadow, and yet this lonely road is the great highway which all the generations of men have trod before me.
4. This same feeling — "I, yet not I" — will abide with each of the redeemed in heaven. Heaven is not selfish enjoyment. The "faithful servant" enters into "the joy of his Lord." Yet heaven is not "absorption into the Divine essence." There is no destruction of personality in "the Father's house." Each child has a "place prepared" for him.
(T. C. Finlayson, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.