But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
Part One: Grace Forms Christian Identity
…by the grace of God I am what I am…
In the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth, Paul writes concerning the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, including its historicity (vv 1-11), theological implications (vv 12-57), and practical application (v 58). In verse 10 Paul concludes his defense of his own role as a witness to the resurrected Christ, and gives an explanation of how he, a former persecutor of the church, was granted apostleship in the administration and establishment of the very religion he’d done so to destroy younger years. It is notable that the word grace appears three times in this one verse–the most appearances of the word in one sentence in the New Testament. I believe by its very repetition and use in Paul’s argument, three powerful truths surface about the magnificent grace of God—something that all believers experience to this day.
First, I see that the grace of God shapes my identity as a Christian. Paul simply stated that by the grace of God “I am what I am.” A look at the verses preceding reveals that what Paul was—was not very pretty. He had attacked the church of God, administrating over the mob-execution of Stephen, storming into the homes of Christians to arrest and imprison them, and “breathing threats and murder,” obtained official permission to travel to foreign jurisdictions to identify, arrest, and extradite Christians to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-30). Paul clearly included the who he was in those horrible days in his past with who he was as he wrote to the Corinthians as an experienced, beloved apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the thing that Paul named as tying those two, seeming antithetical identities together was the very grace of God. The grace of God is that manner of God’s treatment of His children that somehow creates beauty by including their most horrid, monstrous failures in life, folding their sins into a new narrative in such a way that they become the material of something beautiful, lasting, and changed. The grace of God in our lives redeems our lives for something good. In Paul’s case, that grace allowed him to fully face and embrace his past—knowing that by God’s grace, he need not fear or deny the things he’d done and said.
The grace of God in our lives today invites us to fearlessly look back at our lives and own who we were. Then, we can truly understand who we are through that grace. Grace has the power to shape our self-understanding, our identity, and gives us a lens through which we can view the past without being destroyed or driven to despondency by it.