My Sunday school class just started its way through the book of 1 Corinthians. This book is rather striking because of how messy and sinful the church in Corinth was. Paul rebukes this church for many sins: idolatry, sexual immorality, incest, prostitution, political in-fighting, abuse of spiritual gifts, false teaching, and taking the Lord’s Supper incorrectly. The church in Corinth stands as a remarkable example of how to not do church.
Despite all this mess, Paul addresses the church by saying, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” Paul calls this church wrought with sin “sanctified” (that they are holy) and calls them saints (holy ones). With everything going on in the church at Corinth how can Paul call them Holy?
The answer stems from what theologians call the “already” and the “not yet.” What does this term mean? When Christ died and rose again he made his people holy, heinaugurated his kingdom so that it is here now (at least partially), but it is not yet fully here. The “already” and the “not yet.” This is where the Christian lives today.
Moreover, Christians live between two worlds, the old world and the new world, in that we have been made new creations in the image of Christ but we are not yet fully made in his perfect image. We are simultaneously holy-ones (saints) because of Christ, but we are not fully what we are going to be once we see him face to face.
I find great comfort in this reality that Paul addresses a sinful people as holy! He can do this because we are already “in Christ” (1 Cor. 1.4). So even though Paul will spend the better part of sixteen chapters rebuking and correcting this church, their standing before God does not change. It is by the blood of the Lamb of God that we are saved and that reality is already here.
This is not all we see in 1 Corinthians! Paul does not say to this sinful church, “You are already holy because of Jesus, therefore it does not matter if you keep on sinning.” No, to say that would be to miss the point entirely. Paul calls this church, and you and me, to live according to who we already are in Christ. The fact Christ has made us holy is not an excuse to live sinfully, rather it is a call to live and strive for the “not yet.” To strive after that holiness which Christ has purchased for us. This is no call for perfection, there are no perfect Christians and there are no perfect churches; rather, this is a call for all Christians to practice continual repentance and faith. To live according to how we have been called in Christ Jesus. 1 Corinthians calls for us to live according to who we already are (holy ones in Christ) and to strive after the not yet (perfection) because of who Jesus is and what he has done.