Yesterday I was blessed by a great time of fellowship and Bible study, the topic of which was the sin of pride. This is a sin which vexes me and I was surprised by the "divine appointment" of walking unexpecting into this Bible study. I saw it as a "divine appointment" because I have felt particularly convicted of this sin this week and I had just asked a brother pray for me earlier that day that God would humble me. Asking for humbling from God is not something that I take lightly at all and it is actually a prayer that causes me to fear. A brother once prayed for me that I would be humbled a few years ago, without my asking, and the Lord did humble me, and it was painful - a necessary and painful blessing. But that is not really the topic I want to write about now.
As we were talking about pride yesterday one portion of Scripture which came up was the beginning of 1st Corinthians chapter 4. The context of this passage seems to me primarily to be Paul's concerns about the divisions in the Corinthian church and the prideful sects that had arisen, saying things like "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos (3:4)." Paul points out that he and Apollos were nothing but servants who "planted" and "watered," and that "God gave the growth (3:5, 6)." Paul then concludes that, "neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (3:7)." Paul then seems to diverge briefly in verses 11-20 but then comes back to writing about the sects that had arisen. In verses 21-23 he writes, "So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's." The thing that caught my eye in these verses was Paul's mention of boasting. I think the idea of boasting is very important for understanding the nature of God's grace and the salvation of sinners. Paul uses a word translated as "boast" or "boasting" at least 37 times in his letters in the ESV. Often he speaks of boasting as it is related to our salvation which is by grace alone in Christ alone. In communicating the kind of salvation which sinners have in Christ, Paul writes that it is a kind of salvation, "so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:9)." We can offer nothing for the procurement of salvation, it is only a free gift from a merciful and just God, therefore we have nothing in ourselves of which to boast. And the salvation which God freely makes available by His grace was purchased with an infinite price, the shed blood of the spotless Lamb of God and King of the Universe, Jesus Christ.
With all of these things in mind, last night during this Bible study I read 1st Corinthians 4:7, "For who makes you to differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" First of all I must point out that I was reading an NKJV last night as my trusty ESV is currently MIA. So perhaps the reason this verse, which I've read many times, stood out to me so profoundly was that I read it in a version I'm not used to reading. And with further research on this verse today I see that there is a lot of variation in the way it's translated in different versions. The line which stood out particularly to me was, "For who makes you to differ from another?" Had I been reading my ESV I would have read, "For who sees anything different in you?" Without my ESV I've also been using my NLT a lot lately which has, "For what gives you the right to make such a judgment?" The NIV is surprisingly close to the NKJV with "For who makes you different from anyone else."
But it was the NKJV which struck me last night so I'll focus on that translation. Once again 1 Corinthians 4:7, "For who makes you to differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" When Paul asks that question in the last part of the verse, "why do you boast as if you had not received it?" I think the same thought could be expressed positively as, "why do you boast as if you had whatever you're boasting of as an inherent quality or possession in yourself." It is clear that Paul is saying that whatever the Corinthians have, that it is a gift from God and therefore something they have no right to boast about. The second part of this verse helps to clarify the first part. Paul asks, "for who makes you to differ from another?" Paul obviously asks this question with various blessings a person might possess in mind. I think this question, "who makes you to differ from another?" is applicable to every gift we have from God whether it be some "innate" ability in areas such as academics or sports or more particular spiritual gifts like healing, prophecy or tongues (1 Cor. 12:9-10). But above our "natural" abilities and spiritual gifts is the gift of salvation in Christ itself.
It is this gift of salvation which I first thought of when I read, "who makes you to differ?" I thought of this because about five years ago when I vehemently claimed the label "Arminian" for myself, I asked a friend this very question as I wrestled with what I saw as the inconsistency of Arminianism with salvation by grace alone. I asked my friend, a man whom I respect greatly to this day and who remains an Arminian, a question very similar to the one Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 4:7. We were talking about "prevenient" grace and salvation and I asked him, if I and another man both heard the gospel preached and both received the grace to either decide to follow Christ or to deny him, what was it in me that caused me to follow Christ while the other man rejected Him? I was asking my friend, what made us to differ? To me this question, which I think is inevitable in the Arminian system, is a significant problem. It seems to me that if this question can even be asked it must imply that there was something better in those who in the end choose Christ even if they were brought to that point of decision by God's grace. They must be smarter or holier or luckier but the thought of any of these things being a cause of salvation must be rejected in light of Paul's rejection of boasting in ourselves concerning our salvation. If I chose Christ, if I "differed," because I was smarter or holier or luckier then I have something to boast of in myself and I have my own self to thank for my salvation. But boasting is excluded. And it is obvious what the answer is to Paul's question, "who makes you to differ from another?" The answer is that God by His grace makes you to differ. The answer to Paul's rhetorical question, "what do you have that you did not receive?" is "nothing."
So it was surprising to me to see Paul asking in Scripture the very question I had posed years ago and years prior to my rejection of Arminianism or a least what passes for Arminianism today. My friend didn't have any answer for my question, by the way, and if I remember right he basically said that it was a question that shouldn't be asked. Maybe he is right but at least for the present I have come to different conclusions. Whenever I think I see something in Scripture which I hadn't seen before I always like to check and see if others have seen the same thing. I think this is especially important in a verse like 1st Corinthians 4:7 where there is a lot of variation in the way it is translated. So as usual I went to my favorite Bible commentator, John Calvin, to see what he had to say. What I found did not disappoint. In regards to the words. "to differ," or in Calvin's version, "to distinguish," the reformer wrote:
To distinguish here means to render eminent. Augustine, however, does not ineptly make frequent use of this declaration for maintaining, in opposition to the Pelagians, that whatever there is of excellence in mankind, is not implanted in him by nature, so that it could be ascribed either to nature or to descent; and farther, that it is not acquired by free will, so as to bring God under obligation, but flows from his pure and undeserved mercy. For there can be no doubt that Paul here contrasts the grace of God with the merit or worthiness of men.