Q&A: Paul and Boasting - 1 Corinthians 15:10

Paul and Boasting - 1 Corinthians 15:10

Question

Christians are not suppose to be boastful (1 Cor. 13:4; Prov. 27:2), but wasn't Paul? (1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 11:16-17)

Answer

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

2 Corinthians 11:16-17 I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool.

The Bible does not hide the fact that saints sin. All of have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Noah drank too much, Jacob was a deceiver, David committed adultery and murder, and Peter denied Christ. Saints are sinners too. However, in these texts is Paul really sinning? Or is he making a unique point?

Look how the words of Paul are qualified. He says, "In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool" (2 Cor. 11:17). He calls himself the least of the Apostles (1 Cor. 15:9) and states that though in his opinion he worked harder than they all (1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 11:23), it was God's grace working in him (1 Cor. 15:10). In 2 Corinthians 12:11, though Paul says he is not less than one of the super-apostles, he calls himself a "fool" and "nothing". So, his boasts need to be understood within the context of his words, "by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect" (1 Cor. 15:10). Paul's words are actually clothed with humility.

Paul's motive in these texts is not self-applause. He was not glorying in his flesh in a sinful way. Rather, he was praising God for taking such a sinner as he - one that had even persecuted the church (1 Cor. 15:9) - and using "such" to further the Kingdom of God. In other words, God reached into the bottom of the barrel and took out the worst mess he could find, cleaned it up, and still used it. To put this in more theological terms, the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible states concerning 1 Corinthians 15:10 that Paul's point was, "where sin abounds, God's effectual grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20); where we are weak, God's grace is strong (2 Cor. 12:9, 10)." Divine grace did not make Paul lazy; it caused him to labor "more abundantly" than anyone else.

In 2 Corinthians 11:22-12:10 (known as the "Fool's Speech"), Paul describes his ministry in terms that could not possibly be equaled by the false apostles. Yet, he does not boast about his own knowledge, speaking skills, or other abilities, rather about how much he has suffered for the sake of Christ. Here Paul's boasting is ironic; he boasts of things normally considered shameful, signs of weakness, or defeat. Thus, his boasts are an imitation or parody of the boasting of his opponents, who praised themselves to the Corinthians in extravagant speeches.

If he used such a sinner as Paul - the chief of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) - can't he use us as well? While our sins are nothing to brag about, God's abounding grace is! When I read of Paul's life and how it was transformed, I realize he does this with all his children. Where we may not have a reputation like Paul, or we will not write Scripture, or we may not have revelation upon revelation as Paul did, we will by God's grace and in our own weak and yet unique way be used for God's glory as he sees fit. His grace is amazing:

Amazing Grace
by John Newton

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.

And Grace, my fears relieved.

How precious did that Grace appear

The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.

His word my hope secures.

He will my shield and portion be,

As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,

And mortal life shall cease,

I shall possess within the veil,

A life of joy and peace.

When we've been here ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun.

We've no less days to sing God's praise

Than when we've first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).