Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).
Paul’s expression of the Christian gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 is well known as one of the chief apologetic passages in the New Testament. In one of the earliest writings in the New Testament, Paul explicitly describes the gospel in terms of the substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection, of Jesus Christ.
Yet Christians should ourselves take note of two crucial points that Paul makes in the opening verses of this chapter.
The Christian gospel is not a feeling. It is a preached message.
First, Paul says to the Corinthians believers that this is the gospel “I preached to you.” These Christians had heard the fundamental facts of the gospel from the mouth of a gospel minister, in this case Paul himself. They were not counted as Christians, or “brothers” as Paul calls them, merely because they had some religious inclinations, or had experienced some mystical “enlightenment”, or had been basically good citizens.
The Christian gospel is not a feeling. It is a preached message, which declares the exclusive claims concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Second, Paul calls the church at Corinth “brothers” because, not only had they heard this declaration concerning who Jesus is and what he has done on the cross, but they had also received it! We are not Christians merely by virtue of growing up in the Bible Belt, or attending church with our family, or living a decent, moral life. We are Christians only when we have personally appropriated the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done, trusting in him alone for our salvation.
The gospel by which you are saved, Paul says, is a received gospel.
Not just a gospel that you have grown up under, rubbed shoulders with, or memorized facts about. So when we read through the rest of this passage, and Paul’s explicit description of the Christian message, we should be asking ourselves: “Is this what I believe? Have I genuinely, deeply, personally received this wonderful, best-case-scenario Christian message as truth?”
Your faith is not vain, is not empty, is not a sham if it runs to Christ.
It is not enough to just ask, “Am I familiar with this information?”. The question is, “Is this message mine? Is it at the core of my being, at the heart of all my decisions, at the root of all my ambitions, and at the top of all my hopes?”
In verse 2, Paul goes on to say that those who are truly saved receive this gospel and “hold fast” to it. They cling to the message that Paul is preaching. They receive it, but they also stand in it, stand by it. Paul also says, “Unless you believed in vain.” Genuine faith will hold fast to the gospel, even in the most difficult times of life. Vain, empty faith makes a show of belief but does not cling to the gospel as a precious treasure.
So 1 Corinthians is not only useful for sharing the gospel with unbelievers; it is a useful description of true Christianity by which every believer should measure our own soul’s health.
Let me conclude, though, with this pastoral note. If perhaps you have fallen as a professing Christian, denied the gospel by your words or actions, made a total mess of things — recently or in the past — do not despair.
The Christian gospel is not about faithful believers; it is about a faithful Savior named Jesus.
Jesus gives faith to believers in the first place, and then he continually draws them to himself in repentance, faith, and forgiveness. Your faith is not vain, is not empty, is not a sham if it runs to Christ as your great forgiveness, your great rescue, your only hope over and over and over again.
Full disclosure? That is exactly what I have been having to do all week! And, as Paul himself will admit just a few verses later (1 Corinthians 15:9-10), God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus Christ is his only hope for salvation as well.