If you were trying to recruit someone to work for your organization or your company, if you were attempting to convince someone to attend your school or your church, you would want to paint as positive a picture as possible, right? You’d tell them about all the good points and advantages of being a part of your group, and you’d probably downplay anything that would be considered negative. You certainly would NOT say something like this: “We’d really like you to work for us, but although we pay decently, you need to be aware that we will overwork you every day and none of your work will be appreciated. You’ll have no clue what you are doing most of the time, and the tools and resources you need to do your job will be painful and costly. But if you let us misuse you, you can be content knowing that you’ll be making our company a lot of money—not that you’ll see much of it, of course.”
If we were confronted with a sales pitch like that, most of us would struggle to offer a polite “Thanks but no thanks,” find the nearest exit, and put our application in somewhere else. And yet, that is exactly how Paul invites his readers and hearers in Corinth into the realities of ministry. Paul’s words imply that if that isn’t something we can get excited about, then maybe we have received the grace of God in vain.
After discussing in the previous chapter the ministry of reconciliation with which Paul and his fellow apostles—and, in truth, all Christians—have been entrusted, Paul turns his attention to how that affects his Corinthian readers. He makes that shift with a remarkable statement: “As we work together with God, we encourage you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” Two things about that statement ought to strike us right away. First, Paul talks as though the reception of God’s grace is an active rather than a passive reality. Second, it appears that one can receive that grace in a way that doesn’t do any good, a way that is “for nothing” or “in vain.”
By offering an encouragement to his Corinthian readers / hearers to receive God’s grace, Paul reveals his intuition that the reception of grace is not automatic. For example, consider how ridiculous it would be for someone to say, “I encourage you to make sure your heart is beating,” or “I beseech you to stay connected to the Earth by gravity.” If we have no control over the action, encouraging us to let it happen is, indeed, quite useless. Apparently, for Paul, grace does not operate in an automatic way. God offers grace. In fact, Paul’s digression into Isaiah 49:8 draws the Corinthians’ attention to the fact that God has already done God’s work. Grace and favor and help have already been offered. In light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this salvation has already come. Now, indeed, is the time. But God’s accomplishment of God’s purposes doesn’t mean that believers don’t need to do anything, as if God’s action makes our action unnecessary. Rather, Paul is saying to the Corinthians that because God has acted, it is now their turn to act. What Paul is encouraging them to do is to receive—actively, intentionally—the grace of God and to do that in a way that doesn’t look “empty-handed,” to use the literal meaning of Paul’s word here.
What, then, would it mean to receive God’s grace “empty-handedly”, “for nothing,” “in vain”? We often think of grace as the work of God that accomplishes our salvation, the remedy for sin, God’s positive disposition that restores us to God’s favor. All of that is true, of course, but if that’s all there were to grace, it would be hard to imagine how one could receive that “in vain,” in the sense of it not doing any good. As we noted above, if grace were simply about God doing God’s work automatically, then there would be no need to receive it and so no way to receive it empty-handedly. Instead, Paul invites us to imagine the dimensions of grace that are the work of God inside of us rather than those dimensions that refer only to God’s work on our behalf. If we are to receive God’s grace actively, then there is something we must do, something that grace empowers us to do. To receive that grace in vain, then, would be to not allow that grace to accomplish its work within us, to not do what we now have been empowered to do. What then is that?
With no segue, Paul turns from affirming that now is the time of salvation to talking about ministry. He tells the Corinthians that he and his fellow apostles do not put any stumbling blocks or opportunities for offense in from of people so that the ministry isn’t discredited. Rather than get upset that people get offended at things, Paul works to keep offense at the minimum. “How can he do that?” one might ask. Simple. Paul has not received the grace of God in vain. Paul has let God’s overwhelming love and favor turn him into a person who is all about sharing that overwhelming love and favor, a person who doesn’t have time to worry about himself. In every way (or on every occasion), Paul and his fellow workers display what it means to be a minister or a servant of that grace.
Paul then launches into a long narrative of what his ministry looks like. In all this, Paul offers himself and his companions as examples of how God’s grace is actively received in ways that are not empty, not in vain. It turns out that the only way to receive grace in way that isn’t emptied of its significance is to empty oneself instead. Paul has endured many different kinds of trial and difficulty, all to make sure that God’s grace is proclaimed and God’s salvation in Christ known. Sure, there are times of honor that balance the times of dishonor, times of praise that balance the times of slander, but Paul isn’t simply enduring the bad times so that he can enjoy the good ones. Paul understands that, just as it was for Jesus, his endurance of these hardships is the very way in which God’s grace is seen for what it is. Normal people, ordinary people, people who live to advance themselves in this world simply do not act like Paul and his companions have acted. Ungraced people are out for themselves, but Paul and his fellow works are out for others. They aren’t full of themselves anymore. Because of God’s salvation, they are full of grace instead. That makes such grace very conspicuous, and that makes them embrace the hardships and poverty as the very way in which God is blessing and enriching their lives.
Paul closes this section by appealing once again to the Corinthians to open up their lives to this kind of grace. Paul has put everything out there. He has vulnerably and authentically shared his heart. Now he appeals to the Corinthians to do that same, to not shut up their hearts. He wants them to act in ways that embrace the hardship rather than in ways that promote themselves. Once again, he is essentially inviting them not to receive the grace of God in vain. For the Corinthians, that meant accepting Paul’s work and joining him in it, but what might that mean for us today?