“Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel … by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.” I Corinthians 15:1a, 2
I was reading in I Corinthians 15 today and was drawn to verses 1 and 2 which say, “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel … by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.” A cursory reading of that verse can lead one to conclude that being saved from hell is conditioned upon holding fast to the gospel message. But that understanding would be contrary to the many verses that say only believing in Jesus for eternal life or salvation is all that is necessary to be saved from hell (cf. John 3:15-16, 36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26; 20:31; Acts 16:31; Romans 4:5; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; I Timothy 1:16; I John 5:13; et al.).
To resolve this apparent contradiction, it is important to understand the argument of the entire book of I Corinthians. This will help us to properly understand I Corinthians 15:2. All of the failings of the Corinthians – their divisiveness, pride, insensitivity to immorality, idolatry, taking each other to court (1:11; 3:1-3; 5:9-6:20; 11:21-32) – each expressed a tendency to pollute God’s truth with human wisdom. This tendency is again evidenced in I Corinthians 15 by some in the Corinthian fellowship who were doubting the future resurrection of believers from the dead (15:12).
It is no mistake that Paul both begins and ends this epistle with arguments concerning the content of the gospel. In 1:18-25, he showed that their divisions were caused by a misunderstanding of the gospel. Human wisdom said that the message of Christ crucified was foolishness; Paul countered that while the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, it was God’s power for those being saved (1:18). At that point in his letter, he only focused on Christ’s crucifixion (1:17, 18, 23; 2:2).
Now, he addresses the questions of some concerning the bodily resurrection of believers, again pointing to the gospel message, focusing here on the resurrection of Christ – to show the error of their thinking (15:1-19). Again, Paul points out that mixing human wisdom with the gospel message, does not result in clarity, but in confusion. In this case, it is the blessed future hope of resurrection that is sacrificed on the altar of human wisdom. The historical bodily resurrection of Christ was central to the gospel message the Corinthians believed. The Corinthians knew the gospel; in fact, they received it, and were standing firm in it (15:1). What Paul really wants to make known to them is that by denying the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of all believers, they are actually denying the resurrection of Christ, and thus the gospel! This had escaped their notice.
To do this Paul must first remind them of “the gospel which I preached to you…by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (15:1b-2). When Paul says “by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you” he was not doubting the salvation of his readers because they “received” the gospel message he preached as truth to them (15:1b). Several times he affirms his readers had faith in Christ ( 2:5; 3:5; 15:11, 14, 17; 16:13). Nor does he doubt that they “hold fast” to that gospel because they are “standing” in it (15:1c).
Neither is Paul seeking to raise doubts concerning the future assurance of his readers’ salvation because eternal life, once gained, can never be lost, or it is not “eternal” life (cf. John 3:16; 5:24; 6:35, 39-40, 47; 10:28-29). Even though they were plagued with divisions, envy, drunkenness, and immorality (1:11; 3:1-3; 5:9-6:20; 11:21, 30), Paul did not question their salvation from Hell. He refers to them as “the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). They “were washed…sanctified…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11). He called them “babes in Christ” (3:1) whose “body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you” (6:19). In 15:2, Paul wants these born-again believers to “hold fast” to and not be moved away from the gospel which he preached to them.
The good news (euangellion) of Jesus’ death and resurrection (15:3-4) is foundational to healthy Christian living. Christians cannot live a victorious life for Christ if they stop believing in any aspect of the good news, especially Jesus’ substitutionary death, His bodily resurrection, His soon return, and their own bodily resurrection and acquisition of glorified bodies. In 15:2, Paul says that the present salvation of the believers in Corinth was conditioned on their “holding fast” to his gospel. Note in 15:2 that Paul said they already “believed.” The reason he says “unless you believed in vain” is because their faith in Christ would be “empty” or worthless if there is no resurrection from the dead (15:14, 19). Unlike Ephesians 2:8-9 where Paul uses the perfect tense, “you have been saved,” in I Corinthians 15:2 he uses the present tense, “you are [being] saved.”
The salvation in I Corinthians 15:2 is not new birth because new birth is not conditioned upon holding fast to the gospel. It is conditioned upon believing in Jesus Christ for eternal life (I Corinthians 1:21; 3:5; cf. John 3:15-16, 36; 5:24; 6:40; Acts 16:31; Ephesians 2:8-9; I Timothy 1:16). In light of Paul’s use of the word “save” in I Corinthians 5:5, this salvation is being saved from further judgment by the Lord Jesus Christ at the Judgment Seat of Christ (I Corinthians 3:15; 4:5; 9:24-27). It has to do with being spiritually healthy at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Believers can only be spiritually healthy now if they hold fast to Paul’s gospel. They will only be spiritually healthy at the Judgment Seat of Christ if they were holding fast to the gospel when they died or were raptured by the Lord Jesus.
The Lord Jesus never said that once a person comes to Him in faith that he is forever “approved” by Christ. Jesus said we are only His friends if we do what He commands us (John 15:14). In the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-27), Jesus revealed that at the Judgment Seat, He will tell the believer who served Him wholeheartedly to the end of his life, “Well done, good servant,” and will give him authority over ten cities (Luke 19:16-17). But to the believer who was half-hearted in his service, yet persevered to the end, He will only say, “You also be over five cities” (Luke 19:19). To such a believer He doesn’t say, “Well done,” and He doesn’t call him “good servant.” However, to the believer (this is a Christian because he is a “servant” with the same “master” as the other two servants) who does not persevere in his service for Christ to the end, to the one who buries what He gave him, He will say, “Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant” (Luke 19:22). This type of believer receives no cities to rule over and no commendation. He is rebuked by the Lord and called a wicked servant. But he is still a servant of his master.
So Paul’s words in I Corinthians 15:2 should not surprise us. They are consistent with Jesus’ teachings. Only if a believer holds fast to the good news message can he be spiritually healthy at the Judgment Seat. Only a persevering believer will be found “holy… blameless, and above reproach” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (cf. Colossians 1:22-23, 28-29). No wonder Paul concludes I Corinthians 15 by saying, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (15:58). Jesus will reward the faithful believer who holds fast to the gospel.