In 1910 Julia H. Johnston penned the words
Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see His face,
Will you this moment His grace receive?
We use the word grace a lot in evangelical circles. But what does it really mean? And how does it differ from God's mercy? Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines grace as "the enjoyment of divine favor" and mercy as "compassion extended to someone instead of severity." Protestant scholastic theology understands grace as "the undeserved generosity of God toward humankind" and mercy as "God's compassion toward his fallen creatures" (Muller 1985:130).
One thing is certain. In God, mercy and grace are one. But as they reach us, they are seen as too related, but not identical, attributes. Mercy is God's goodness confronting human misery and guilt. Grace is the good pleasure of God that inclines him to bestow benefits where they are undeserved—to "pity the wretched, spare the guilty, welcome the outcast" (Tozer 1961:100). With grace the initiative is on God's side. As C. S. Lewis describes it, "God was the hunter and I was the deer. He stalked me, . . . took unerring aim and fired" (1956:169). Yet once we receive this grace, something is expected of us. Otherwise we face the danger, as Paul says to the Corinthians, of receiv[ing] God's grace in vain (v. 1).
At 6:1 we move to the heart of chapters 1—7. All that Paul has written up to this point is to prepare the Corinthians for the appeal he now makes. He spent five chapters presenting his credentials as a minister of the gospel. They may not have been the flashy credentials that his critics flaunted, but they were the ones that really mattered in the ministry and ones that should have elicited the Corinthians' pride in their spiritual father. Now, on the basis of this ministerial résumé, Paul makes a plea for their affection and asks them to open wide their hearts to him, as he has opened wide his heart to them (vv. 11-13). The final verses of the previous chapter nicely prepare the way for this appeal. God's act of reconciling the world to himself anticipates Paul's request for the Corinthians' acceptance. The gospel minister's call, "Be reconciled to God," paves the way for Paul's plea to open their hearts to him, and "the righteousness of God" looks forward to the ethical demand to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.
Even so, the sequence of thought in 6:1—7:2 is initially somewhat confusing. Paul begins with what at first sight seems to be an evangelistic call (I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation), then defends the paradoxical character of his ministry (vv. 3-10), goes on to make an urgent appeal for their affection (vv. 11-13), follows this with a command to sever ties with unbelievers (6:14—7:1) and finally repeats once again his request for their affection (7:2). What is the logic behind the sequence of thought in these verses?
In making sense of this section it is helpful to see that Paul asks two things of the Corinthians (vv. 1-2, 11-13) and introduces too potential obstacles to carrying them out (vv. 3-4, 14-18). His first request is not to receive God's grace in vain by rejecting him as God's ambassador (vv. 1-2). There are potentially good reasons for a church to reject an itinerant evangelist like Paul. Traveling preachers were constantly faced with the temptation to adapt their life and message to what the world expected in order to gain acceptance. Paul, however, emphatically denies being seduced in this fashion (vv. 3-4), and his life of adversity bears witness to his resistance (vv. 4-5, 8-10). The Corinthians should therefore be eager to "open wide" their "hearts" to him—Paul's second request (vv. 11-12)—unless, of course, the obstacle lay with them. The danger for a Gentile congregation in a city like Corinth was in adopting the prevailing mores and attitudes of their culture. Today we call this "peer pressure." One of the main reasons for teenage pregnancies, drug addiction and alcoholism is that most young people are conformists. They, like their parents, do what everyone else does, feeling instinctively that if most people are doing it, it must be good to do. For this reason, the Corinthians are warned about yoking themselves unequally with non-Christians (6:14—7:1).
To cave in to peer pressure, Paul says, would be in effect to receive God's grace in vain (v. 1). De kai (now then), often dropped in translation, signals a major point of transition in Paul's letters. We urge (parakaloumen) is the verb Paul routinely uses to move from the "that" (or indicative) part of his letter to the "do" (or imperative) section. The Corinthians are now called to act in a way that is consonant with the facts presented up to this point. It is also the verb Paul tends to use when making a request of his readers. He does not, however, approach the Corinthians as equals. Parakalew is used by someone who has the authority to command but the tact not to.
Paul and his colleagues make their request as God's fellow workers. The Greek text does not include the word God. This is an assumption of the NIV translators. Synergountes could equally be rendered "as your coworkers." Which is correct? The point was made early on that Paul is dependent on the Corinthians' help (syneupourgounton, 1:11) and, in turn, works with them for their joy (synergoi esmen, 1:24). On the other hand, the warning not to accept God's grace in vain does not suggest a willing partnership in the gospel ministry—as much as Paul may have wished for it. On balance, "God's coworkers" seems the likelier option. Paul usually uses synergew (and cognates) of teammates in the gospel ministry, but the term may also not be wholly inappropriate for what he describes in 5:20 ("God making his appeal through us").
So Paul appeals to the Corinthians as cooperators with God not to accept his grace in vain. The phrase in vain means "without effect or result." Paul's concern is that God's grace will not have any mean-ingful impact on their lives. Use of the aorist infinitive (dexasthai) suggests a danger that the Corinthians faced at this particular time. But what exactly was the danger? The answer depends in large part on what one understands by God's grace (ten charin tou theou). The Greek root char- is used of things that produce well-being. The noun charis, found eighteen times in this letter, is employed of God's favor or goodwill (1:2, 12; 4:15; 6:1; 8:9; 13:14), a monetary gift (8:6, 19), a human privilege (8:4), a spiritual endowment (8:7), divine enablement (8:1; 9:14; 12:9), an expression of gratitude (2:14; 8:16; 9:15) and a divine blessing (1:15; 9:8; Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). Here it refers to God's undeserved favor extended to us through Jesus Christ—or, simply put, salvation.
Is Paul suggesting that the Corinthians are in danger of losing their salvation? At first glance, the quotation from Isaiah 49:8 supports this conclusion: In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you (v. 2). The time of divine favor in the context of Isaiah 49 is the point when God answers the prayers of his servant and comes to his aid. The servant had been despised and rejected by the nations. God now promises vindication, so that "kings will see you and rise up," and "princes will see and bow down" (Is 49:7). What Isaiah looked forward to, Paul says is at hand: I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation (v. 2). The adverb now is placed first for emphasis. The particle idou is intended to arouse the attention of the listener: "Look! [NIV I tell you] Now is the time." The sense of urgency is unmistakable. The time of God's favor has arrived. The term euprosdektos (and its cognates) is used in the LXX of what is pleasing to God (Grundmann 1964a:58-59). It stands in parallel with the day of salvation in the next clause. The time of God's favor is in effect the day of salvation. It pleases God to display his good pleasure through human agents ("ambassadors," 5:20; "coworkers," 6:1; "servants," 6:4), whose job it is to proclaim that the day of salvation has arrived.
Of what, then, are the Corinthians in danger? The fact that Paul can go on to say We put no stumbling block in anyone's path (v. 3) suggests that he is identifying himself with the servant of Isaiah 49:8 and equating receiving God's grace with accepting himself and his coworkers. For the Corinthians, then, to reject Paul would be in effect to reject God's grace. This is an audacious move on Paul's part. Yet for God's ambassador (5:20) and coworker (v. 1), it is not unjustifiable.
Why, though, would the Corinthians reject Paul? Did they understand the implications? It is certainly not because any fault can be found with his ministry. The language is emphatic: "We give no offense of any sort in any thing" (medemian en medeni). The Greek noun proskoph, found only here in the New Testament, refers to something that causes a misstep or provokes offense. While the gospel message itself may offend (1 Cor 1:23), the gospel preacher may not. So Paul has been careful not to do anything that someone could legitimately take offense at. This is so that his ministry will not be discredited, a term that means "to find fault with, to criticize."
The story is told of a small boy who closely watched a neighboring pastor build a wooden trellis to support a climbing vine. The youngster did not say a word the entire time that he watched. Pleased at the thought that his work was being admired, the pastor finally said to the boy, "Well, son, trying to pick up some pointers on gardening?"
"No," replied the boy, "I'm just waiting to hear what a preacher says when he hits his thumb with a hammer."