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The Most Important Decision
In case you haven’t heard, there is an election coming up in November. People will tell you that how you vote is the most critical decision you’ll make this fall. It certainly isn’t unimportant. But it is not close to the most crucial decision. Neither is your decision concerning marriage, or moving, or taking a new job. Buying those new shoes, getting a new phone, and planning your next vacation is not even on the radar.
Furthermore, the most important decision you will make isn’t just for this fall. It is for every day of every year.
Are you curious? I am, too. So, let’s find out the answer, which we will discover in 1 Corinthians 15:1-9.
15:1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
It may not initially stand out as a decision to make, but when Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to “hold firmly to the word I preached to you,” he is reminding them of the necessity of consciously believing that which is of “first importance.” This tells us that the decision of “first importance”—the most important decision—is whether we will hold on firmly, with confidence and conviction, to the truth of the gospel.
The Greek word for “hold firmly” (katechō) is a present, active, indicative verb, which assumes that we are doing something in the present, not just in the past. We find this term used many times in the New Testament.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, “19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.”
- Hebrews 3:6, “But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.”
- Hebrews 3:14, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.”
- Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”
That is the question.I am willing to “hold unswervingly” to the hope I profess?
In the ancient world, when a King would return from battle in victory, a herald would go before him and his army declaring to the citizens, “Evangelion,” which is the Greek word translated into English as good news or gospel, which is the term we read in verse 1 when Paul writes, “I want to remind you of the gospel”—of the evangelion.
In the gospel of Jesus, we celebrate the King’s victory for us. We are not participants in the victory. We are recipients of the victory. This is what we are to hold firmly—that through the cross, Jesus conquered our greatest enemies of sin and death.
Now, those who were condemned are justified. Those who were spiritual orphans are adopted in love by God the Father. We who were spiritually powerless are given the Holy Spirit to empower us to live supernatural lives that produce good fruit.
Forgetting the Gospel
But why do I forget the gospel so easily and fail to “hold unswervingly” to our hope? One reason is distractions. There is just so much information to consume and process. With the intensity of hyper-partisan politics and the ever-changing headlines on the latest 24-hour news cycle, our lives can feel as if they are swirling in a cultural tornado. A pandemic. Economic turbulence. Social unrest. Murder hornets. 2020 has been a year of unrelenting chaos. Again, these potential distractions are not unimportant things. They are just not of “first importance.”
Another reason why I neglect to hold firmly to my hope could be spiritual laziness. It takes a degree of effort to grasp something tightly.
When teaching a new driver to operate a motor vehicle, one of the first lessons is how to hold the steering wheel at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. But how many long-time drivers hold the wheel correctly? Why is that?
Over time we no longer think steering posture is important, and we get lazy about holding the wheel. We may even use our knees instead of our hands so that we can put on makeup or make a phone call.
But what happens when an emergency arises, where do we put our hands on the wheel? Yep, back at 10 and 2. The lesson is that a world of distractions on the road and in life, it is imperative that we not be lazy but hold firmly, not only to the steering wheel but to what is of “first importance.”
Worry is another factor in forgetting the gospel. Worry is like kudzu to spiritual health, ensnaring and tangling the heart with concerns over which only a sovereign God has control. I know the kudzu of worry has me in its grip when I notice a discernible lack of dependent prayer in my life, which prevents me from holding firmly to the gospel, turning me into a functional agnostic.
However, the most debilitating reason why the gospel slips through my fingers like a wet bar of soap is when I become overwhelmed with a sense of personal shame as I fix my eyes on my sin. There were times when Paul himself had to fight for faith. We get a hint of that in verses 8-9 when he acknowledges that there is no reason he should be an apostle because he wasn’t only an unbeliever. The apostle Paul had been the most severe persecutor of the church and had hated Jesus. I wonder if his past ever haunted him?
What haunts you?Can you relate to feeling the weight of shame? Everyone has something that haunts us—like a stain that we desperately seek to cover and hide lest it be exposed. How can we hold unswervingly to the gospel in that condition, when fear and shame are so strong?
The Ground of Faith
What empowers us to hold on is what enabled Paul, who tenaciously fought to believe the message he preached to others. What was that message? He reminds us in verse 3, saying, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
In Galatians 1, sharing his personal testimony, Paul claims that he was set apart from birth and called by God’s grace when Jesus was revealed to him. He had been lost but now was found; he was blind but in God’s timing, he was able to see. It was a miracle of rebirth—a new life with a new purpose. No longer did Paul persecute Jesus. He preached Jesus as the crucified and risen Christ.
Earlier in 1st Corinthians, Paul identifies clearly the focus of his preaching, saying, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” At the end of Galatians, where he had shared his testimony of grace, he would exclaim, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!” That cross was the epicenter of the gospel then and it still is today.
This is what enables us to face our sin and shame with faith and hope. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” As Paul would write in Romans 5:6, “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Let that sink in. Are you ungodly? If you are, you are the perfect candidate to become a disciple of Jesus!
Paul reiterates this in 1 Timothy 1:15-17, saying,
“15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
Do you see how this last text unfolded? Jesus came for sinners. Paul claimed to be the worst of sinners. If he can be forgiven, anyone can be forgiven.
This is what can bring us back when we have become distracted, lazy, or consumed with worry, shame, and fear. Knowing that Jesus gave himself to cover the guilt and shame of sinners like you and me. Now, the decision we have to make is whether to “hold unswervingly” to that objective reality as my defining truth.
This may be one reason why Paul includes extended, historical evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:4-8. Christ didn’t only live and die. He rose and reigns. Now. All the promises of the cross are confirmed with the resurrection!
Five Affirmations of Grace
Now, I want to make this personal for each of us. In order for you to possess this gospel reality, let me give you five short affirmations of grace—one for each finger and thumb which will give you something concrete to believe and hold with confidence. These five affirmations can be used to prime the pump of morning fellowship with the Father or at family meals or as a pocket printout that you read when you need some help holding on.
- I am fully and unreservedly forgiven. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. No stain remains.
- I am perfectly righteous in my Father’s eyes. Jesus has borne the rags of my sin upon a cross so that I can be clothed in and credited with his moral record.
- I am a dearly loved adopted son or daughter. I’m not merely tolerated. I’m treasured. This is who I am in my Father’s eyes.
- I am indwelt by the Spirit of God and empowered to love well and face every challenge in his strength rather than my own.
- I do not have to play God because my Abba, Father, is in total control of every event in my life, my children’s lives, our nation, etc. Even when things look bad, I can trust him because he is working all things ultimately for good—just like he did with the cross.
Even as we resolve to hold firmly to the hope of the gospel, reciting the five affirmations of grace over and over, there will be times when faith falters and we lose our grip. Like the man in Mark 9 who cried out to Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief,” we will struggle. The great news is that our salvation is not dependent on how firm our grip is on Jesus but on how strong his grip is on the one who believes, even when faith is faint. When I realize that Jesus has suffered justice in my place and will not let me go, I will have the confidence to hold on to the one who holds me.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give you the opportunity to take hold of Jesus right now. Maybe this will be for the first time. For some, it may be that the present value of Jesus’ blood has faded in its significance and you want to reaffirm your confidence “that Christ died for our sins.” Whichever case is true for you, if you’re ready to hold fast to and take hold of that defining truth, let me invite you to join me in embracing the five affirmations of grace.
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