Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:9
I want to make three points in today’s sermon: Point Number One, the Holy Spirit really changes us. Point Number Two, the change may happen slowly, and here’s why. And Point Number Three, How does the Holy Spirit change us? What is going on inside of us that makes us want to change?
But first, the Holy Spirit really does change us…
Valentine’s Day was last Tuesday… I trust you had a good one. My son Townshend is in a long-distance relationship with his high school sweetheart, Lydia, who usually lives in Washington, D.C., where her college is, but at this moment is studying abroad in Scotland—a long-distance relationship either way, of course. And on Valentine’s Day, Townshend sent Lydia a romantic poem about long-distance relationships. With his permission I share a couple of verses:
Across the miles, my heart still beats for you,
Though we’re apart our love remains true
With every message, call, and video chat,
I’m reminded that you’re my other half.
Though distance keeps us physically apart,
Our love bridges the space in our hearts,
We dream of the day we’ll finally be near
But until then, our love will persevere…
It’s not completely awful, right? But it’s not exactly Shakespeare, either! I frankly think Townshend can do better than that! If I were Lydia, I would have to tear this thing up and throw it in the trash where it belongs!
And you’re like, “Brent, why are you being so mean? You’re humiliating him. You’re crushing his self-esteem. It’s not terrible, and besides… at least he tried!”
Well… What if I told you that he didn’t try; that he didn’t write it at all. Instead, he asked the popular artificial intelligence robot known as “ChatGPT” to write it for him… literally. After wishing him a Happy Valentine’s Day last Tuesday, the “chatbot” asked him, “Is there anything I can help you with today?” And he said, “Compose a short poem about long distance love.”
And that’s what it came up with. Not bad for a robot, I guess…
Anyway, I listened to a podcast recently about this particular AI chatbot and a computer scientist explained that, as impressive as it seems, it simply doesn’t understand what it’s writing. It is truly artificial intelligence. The algorithm constantly looks at the previous word or words that it wrote and asks itself, “What word is most likely going to come next” based on probability. Something like that.
It’s not real… at all. It’s a total fake! It looks real, but there’s something missing… Or I should say, “There’s someone missing.” In this case… a real-life, living, breathing human being who wrote the poem! Even if this poem isn’t terrible, there’s someone missing.
Similarly, the first and most important question I need to answer in today’s scripture is, Are these Corinthian believers—who are filled with jealousy and strife, who are filled with sinful pride, and who are routinely committing other sins—are they missing Someone? In this case, are they missing the Third Person of the Trinity? Are they missing the Holy Spirit? Have they failed to receive the Holy Spirit, in spite of their faith in Christ, and is that why they’re so messed up?
If we’re not careful, it’s easy to interpret Paul as saying something like this in today’s scripture. Notice verses 14 to 16 of chapter 2. Paul says there are two categories of people: those who are “spiritual” and those who are “natural.”It’s like when someone says, “There are two kinds of people in the world,” and there are never really only two,except in this case there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are “spiritual” people and—see verse 14—those who are “natural.” There’s no in-between.
And what Paul means by “spiritual” is simply this: One who possesses the Holy Spirit. The “natural” person does not possess the Holy Spirit.
So here’s an important question: Is it possible, from Paul’s perspective, to be a Christian and to not possess the Holy Spirit?
It’s a question we have to get clear about because look at verse 1 of chapter 3: “But I, brothers [and sisters]”—notice he calls them “brothers and sisters,” so Paul is talking about fellow Christians—“But I, brothers [and sisters], could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh…” Then verse 3: “for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
By the way, the Greek word meaning “of the flesh” comes to us through Latin as “carnal.” So you might have heard the old-fashioned term for Christians who, like these Corinthians, are still “of the flesh”: they are “carnal Christians.”
Anyway… are the people that Paul is talking about in verse 14—the “natural” people—the same people he’s talking to in verses 1 through 4—i.e., carnal Christians. Is Paul saying that these Christians who are still “of the flesh” are also the “natural people” he mentions in verse 14? In which case, do Paul’s fellow Christians in Corinth not possess the Holy Spirit?
And the answer is, No! These Corinthians, unlike the natural people, do possess the Holy Spirit!
Let me give you evidence… In chapter 1, verse 7, Paul says that he’s thankful they’ve been given gifts of the Spirit and they’re “not lacking in any gift.” To say the least, not having the gift of the Spirit in the first place would be lacking the most important gift of all! Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says that their bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” 1—because the Spirit dwells within them, just as God’s Spirit dwelt within the Holy of Holies inside the Temple in the Old Testament. In a different letter, in Romans 8:9, for instance, Paul couldn’t be clearer: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
In other words, every authentic Christian believer has the Holy Spirit living within him or her.
I need to emphasize this, first, because it’s easy to be confused by Paul’s words, but also because of what I call “bumper sticker theology”—that is, popular theology that you can fit on a bumper sticker, which is inaccurate, which doesn’t say nearly enough, which doesn’t say it with the proper amount of nuance. That’s certainly the case with the popular bumper sticker theology that says something like this: “Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven.” Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven.
That’s simply not true! I mean, yes, by all means, we Christians are forgiven of all our sins—past, present, and future—on the condition of repentance and faith in Christ… and forgiveness of sins is unbelievably awesome and necessary—there’s no way to be saved apart from forgiveness—and it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this completely unearned, undeserved, unmerited gift of forgiveness: Christ paid for our forgiveness with his own blood on the cross.
Is that clear? I hope I’m not underestimating the importance of forgiveness!
But the bumper sticker gets is wrong because that’s not the “only” thing we are! The moment we repent and believe in Christ, God not only forgives our sins, he does something objective—inside of us, in our spirits—that changes us immediately… We call this change the “new birth”—or, as Jesus says in John 3, we are “born again.”
What that means is, God gives us power through the Holy Spirit to overcome sin in our lives and continue to change. We call this change sanctification.
But all these changes are made possible because we have the Holy Spirit residing within us. So I would suggest that the bumper sticker read something like this instead: “Christians aren’t perfect, but they are forgiven, and they are given the Holy Spirit, who is at work right now to change them from within and to make them perfect.”
Not nearly as catchy, I know!
But let’s face it: we wouldn’t want that on a bumper sticker, even if it were catchy… Why? Because a message like that holds us accountable to some extent—it makes us responsible to some extent—for our own sanctification. Not that we can sanctify ourselves—it is a work of grace. But as someone has said, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”And this sanctifying grace is something that God gives us as submit our lives to him—as we say, “Lord, I want to follow you, I want to obey you, I want to trust you.” The fact that we, like these Corinthians, are often so far from perfect, indicts us!
The prophet Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 18:14 and 15, writes:
Does the snow ever disappear from the mountaintops of Lebanon? Do the cold streams flowing from those distant mountains ever run dry? But my people are not so reliable, for they have deserted me.
His point is that natural things that God created, like snows and mountain streams, are reliable, constant, predictable. They always do precisely what God created them to do. But we human beings are not like that! Why not? Why can’t we humans—like the snows and mountain streams—follow the paths that our Creator has given us to follow?
For one thing, we, unlike the snows and the streams, we have a mind of our own! We have a will that doesn’t easily submit to the will of Someone outside of ourselves! We want to be in charge!
Here’s my question: Is it working for us? Is being in charge and sitting on the throne of our lives working? Are we as happy in our lives as we want to be?
Because inasmuch as I’m unhappy and frustrated and disappointed in life, it’s usually because I have rejected God’s plan for me and sought to live according to my own plan
Who knows better what you need to be happy? You and me… or God?
And most of us are already Christians! We know this already. “Trust in the Lord with all your and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”2 Proverbs 3:5-6. We believe that already… The Corinthians believed that… Yet I wonder how much time and effort they spent trying to follow God’s lead, to listen to his voice, to trust in him, to seek his will, to pursue his kingdom and his righteousness, and, yes, to confess and repent of their sins as they became aware of them?
No, if we change the bumper sticker to read, “Christians aren’t perfect, but the Holy Spirit is in the process of making us perfect,” we don’t want others to judge us and say, “Well, Brent, the Holy Spirit has his work cut out for him when it comes to you!” As I say, we can’t change ourselves, by all means, it’s God’s grace… But we must take responsibility for doing all we can to obey the Lord. We’re going to be judged some day for how well or how poorly we follow Jesus. And even if, in spite of this, we’re still saved—because, praise God, our salvation is based on what Christ has done for us, not on what we do—this final judgment might still be painful for us… because why would we want to have disappointed our Lord like this?
Don’t we want to hear our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 3
Because make no mistake: if we don’t want to hear our Lord say that to us… if we don’t care one way or the other… if we are indifferent to pleasing the Lord and living our life for him… our biggest problem isn’t that we don’t have the Holy Spirit; our biggest is that we’re not saved in the first place!
If we are Christians at all, we have the Holy Spirit living within us! We are missing nothing and no One. So, in that sense, we are already the “spiritual people” that Paul mentions in chapter 2, verse 15. We are not the “natural people” he mentions in verse 14.
Paul’s main point about “carnal Christians” in verses 1 through 4 is not that they aren’t people who possess the Holy Spirit… it’s that they’re not acting like people who possess the Holy Spirit!
Look at verse 1: “But I, brothers [and sisters], could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” Here, Paul is referring to the past, to that time, years earlier, that he spent in Corinth, when he first preached the gospel, and when the Corinthians heard it and got saved, and when Paul started this church. If he fed them only with “spiritual milk” at that time, it was only because they were “infants in Christ.” Back then, they wouldn’t have been able to handle deeper Christian teaching and preaching at that time.
Paul’s point in verses 1 and 2 is not that he couldn’t teach them more advanced doctrines of the faith, but because, as infants in Christ, they wouldn’t have been able to handle them back then.
But guess what? Paul says… The Corinthians are proving by their own “childish” behavior today—which includes “jealousy and strife” in verse 3… they’re proving that they still can’t handle “solid food.” They’re still acting like “infants in Christ,” Paul says, and it’s past time for them to grow up!
Okay, but why is that the case? Why are there carnal Christians in the first place? Why, in other words, does change often happen so slowly?
And this is Point Number Two…
I want to share two possible answers to the question, “Why does change happen so slowly?”: the first, I believe, is off-base, and the second gets much closer to the truth…
But here’s the explanation that I disagree with… You’ve probably heard something like this before:
The reason you’re still a “carnal Christian” is because you’ve received Jesus as “Savior” of your life, but you haven’t yet received him as “Lord”—or you haven’t yet surrendered to him as “Lord,” or you haven’t yet made him “Lord” of your life.
Once you make him “Lord of your life,” then you’ll no longer be a “carnal Christian” or an “infant in Christ.”
But I’m sorry, I don’t believe that you can have one without the other… that you can say, “I’ll have Jesus as my Savior, but I’m not ready for him to be Lord yet.” If you say that, then you can be sure he’s not your Savior yet, either! Because… consider Paul’s words in Romans 10:9: “Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The first step to being saved, Paul says, is confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord—and guess what? When Paul say we “confess with our mouths,” he doesn’t mean we tell a lie: No, you’re telling the truth: when you get saved, you really do acknowledge Jesus as Lord of your life! He really is in charge. He really is king. He really is sitting on the throne of your life right now.
But if that’s the case, then I have to ask once again, Why does change happen so slowly?
Pastor John Piper shares a helpful illustration: He reminds us of what happened after August 14, 1945. 4 That was V-J Day, the day the war between the Allies and Japan officially ended. A week or so before that, you may recall, we dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. And that was effectively the end of the war. The bomb made the end of the war inevitable. But a week later Japan surrendered. Douglas MacArthur basically wrote the Japanese Constitution, the U.S. military became responsible for protecting Japan, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Sounds great… But was V-J Day the end of the hostilities? No… at least not for a few dozen Japanese soldiers scattered across islands in the South Pacific and other remote places. They either didn’t hear about Japan’s surrender, because they lost communication with the outside world, or they refused to accept it. In fact, at least one soldier was still fighting up until December 18, 1974. That’s when Teruo Nakamura, a private in the Japanese Imperial Army, surrendered on an island in Indonesia… That was 29 years after hostilities between Japan and the Allied Nations officially ceased!
Something like that happens when Christ becomes Lord of our lives.
It’s as if the Holy Spirit comes into our lives like an atom bomb and makes the end of the war inevitable; it’s effectively over. We have a new ruler. We have peace. That old king of our lives—our old sinful self, who was sitting on the throne of our lives—gets dethroned, or surrenders… Or, as Paul says in Romans 6:6, he actually gets crucified with Christ. He’s dead. Regardless, Christ now sits on the throne. He really is Lord!
But as was the case with the Japanese army, that doesn’t mean the end of all the fighting. There are still islands of resistance who won’t accept the new king’s rule, there are still rebellious subjects who didn’t get the word, there are still enemy strongholds that have yet to surrender… even after the sin-defeating power of the Holy Spirit was unleashed on the enemy, even after the enemy officially surrendered, even years after a new king was in charge!
This process of change by the Holy Spirit, this increasing holiness in our lives, which we call “sanctification,” is little bit like that.
So I want to encourage you with this good news: Point Number One, the Holy Spirit is at work changing you. Even if—Point Number Two—change is happening very slowly. And for Point Number Three, I want to talk about how the Spirit changes us. Or what can we learn from today’s scripture about how the Spirit causes this change? Or what is the Spirit doing inside us to make us want to change?
Verses 5 through 9 help us answer this question.
Recall from previous sermons in this series that the Corinthian church is dividing into factions or cliques or parties based on which apostle or preacher a particular church member favors. See chapter 1… One faction favors Paul, one faction favors Apollos, one faction favors Peter. Now, to be sure, Paul, Apollos, and Peter are all on the same page. They’re not fighting with one another. But members of the Corinthian church are identifying with one man or another—often based on which one baptized them—and then they’re dividing into factions and fighting with one another about which one they follow… with each group looking down on the other. I preached about that a couple of weeks ago.
So this is the context for verse 5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Notice Paul doesn’t say “who”… “Who is Paul?” He’s says, “What is Paul?” It’s like, if I lose my temper with one of our many pets because they have misbehave, I won’t refer to them by their name. They’re no longer a “he” or “she”; they are an “it.”I’ll say, “Look what that thing did. Look at the mess that that one made.” For Paul to say, “What is Apollos? What is Paul?”… that’s sort of an undignified way of referring to himself and his friend Apollos. But Paul doesn’t mind suffering the indignity. It’s a way of demoting himself, diminishing his own role, decreasing his own importance: a way of saying, “I’m no one special! I just work here! I’m just doing what my boss tells me to do! I’m just saying what my boss tells me to say! I didn’t dream up any of this on my own. It’s his plan, not mine. I’m just following it.
“In fact,” it’s as if Paul were saying, “I don’t want you to notice me at all. I’m nothing in comparison to the one that I am pointing to… I want you to notice my boss. I want you to notice my Lord. I want you to notice Jesus. He’s everything to me, and I want him to be everything to you! It’s all about Jesus.”
I’ve noticed that people don’t use the word “funeral” very much anymore; they’re using the words “Celebration of Life,” and I’m okay with that. I’m attending a “celebration of life” service next Saturday for a dear friend next week—for the man who was my youth pastor growing up—Bill Bullard. And I do indeed look forward to celebrating God’s gift of his life with so many other old friends who benefited from the gift of Bill’s life, by all means.
But as a Christian minister, I just want to ask: “Who’s life are we mostly celebrating here? Because I hope we’re mostly celebrating the One who calls himself ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ The One who said, ‘I am the resurrection and I am life.’ The One who gave us life in the first place, and then the One who conquered death for us, and who gave us resurrected life for eternity.”
I mean, I hope someone will have some nice things to say about me when I die—when I make the transition from life to an even better life… But mostly save your breath about me, and use your breath instead to talk about the One for whom I gave so much of my own breath! Talk about Jesus!
Seriously. I hope you don’t think I’m being morbid here. I’m not planning on dying any time soon—but it could happen; only God knows how many days he’s given me… but when I die, and assuming you go to my funeral… If everyone is only talking about a rather boring topic like, “The life of Brent White,” I give you permission—I promise I will not come back and haunt you from the grave if you do this… I give you permission to disrupt the proceedings and say, “What is Brent? Only a servant through whom some people came to believe in Christ, only a servant through whom some grew closer to Jesus, only a servant through whom some fell more deeply in love with Jesus… That’s all Brent is! A servant of Christ.”
Or… as Paul put it later in this very letter, “By God’s grace I am what I am…” 5 Whatever good I’ve accomplished, I’ve only done it by his grace and through his grace, empowered by his Spirit. If you’ve been blessed by me, it’s not because of me! It’s a gift from above, “coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is not variation or shadow due to change.” 6
As one pastor said, “If you get a love letter in the mail, you’re not going to be tempted to fall in love with the mail carrier!” You may be tempted, however, to fall in love with the one who sent it! So if I’ve done you any good at all, I’m the equivalent of a mail carrier.
And most of my Christian life is learning to be okay with that. That’s what sanctification often looks like for me.
I notice the Ritz Theater in town is constantly having tribute bands play there. Here’s a guy who’s not Elton John, but who looks and sounds just like Elton John circa 1975… here’s a band who looks and sounds just like Fleetwood Mac circa 1978. I love it, and I’ve seen a couple of tribute bands over the years.
My point is, if you go see these guys, you don’t say, “Isn’t this a great replica of Fleetwood Mac. Don’t they sound just like Fleetwood Mac? Isn’t this tribute band amazing?” No! You say, “Isn’t Fleetwood Mac amazing?”
And if you happen to be a musician playing in the tribute band, you don’t say, “Isn’t my imitation of Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar-playing spot-on? Give me the glory! Give me the praise! Give me the credit! I am so good at this.” No, you say, “Lindsey Buckingham is so good. It is my pleasure to imitate him, however imperfectly, to play the music he created, to bask in his glory! And to invite y’all to enjoy his glory, too! Because Lindsey Buckingham is the best!”
Isn’t being a Christian a little bit like that?
If so, then sanctification means this: the Holy Spirit is teaching you—slowly but surely—to lay aside your own glory—which is hard and painful to do—and to bask in the glory of Jesus Christ… which is better than anything else!
There’s literally nothing better… nothing more pleasurable… nothing more satisfying… nothing that will make you happier… than basking in Christ’s glory.