Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Paul longs for the Corinthians’ faith not to be meaningless: “We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (6:1b).
For the believers to pose any challenge to the apostle’s teaching, though, is enough to make Paul wonder whether their faith is indeed empty.
Accepting God’s Grace in Vain
The phrase “in vain” is a phrase that Paul has employed elsewhere, particularly in connection with his own ministry (e.g., eis kenon Galatians 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:1; 3:5). The term kenos means “empty.” In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes that his own ministry has not been “in vain.” What are the markers to determine whether his ministry is fruitful? A brief case study of two churches illuminates Paul’s concerns in 2 Corinthians 6.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul correlates the potential success of his ministry — a ministry that has faced persecution and hardship — to signs of the church’s faithfulness. In 1 Thessalonians 3:5, the apostle writes that he sent Timothy “that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain.” Timothy’s good news of the Thessalonians’ faithfulness affirms for Paul that his work had not been “in vain.”
Based on 1 Thessalonians, the faithfulness of the church to live out the gospel is a sign of the fruitfulness of Paul’s ministry. Paul claims that his ministry — with all its hardships — is not empty or pointless because the Thessalonians have accepted the gospel as the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13) and have imitated Paul even by their willingness to suffer on account of their faith (1 Thessalonians 2:14; 3:1-8).
The Thessalonian church serves as an interesting contrast to the church at Corinth. In contrast to the good news of the Thessalonians’ loyalty, Paul begs the Corinthians “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Paul is certain that his ministry at Corinth has illustrated the gospel that he has preached. He confidently says in 1 Corinthians 15:10 that God’s grace toward him has not been in vain because Paul has allowed God’s grace to work through him to fuel his ministry. The Corinthians, however, have not provided the same signs of faithfulness as Paul or as the believers at Thessalonica. Instead, there is evidence of tension in Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians.
Until this point in 2 Corinthians 6, there is plenty of evidence that the relationship between Paul and this beloved community has been strained. The opening of this letter (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) indicates a change in travel plans from what was expressed in 1 Corinthians 16:5-9. Furthermore, the apostle has made a painful visit (2:1-4) and written a tearful letter (2 Corinthians 7:8).
It is also evident that Paul does not separate his own apostolic role from the message that he preaches. In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul commends himself and his co-workers as servants of God. The tone here is not as sharp as the tone of 2 Corinthians 10:1-13:14, where Paul is defending his apostleship against the so-called “super-apostles” (11:5). Indeed, the change of tone suggests that something happened between the writing of 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 and chapters 10-13 to cause the tension to escalate. In 2 Corinthians 6, though, Paul urges the believers to open their hearts to one another and to Paul as a sign of their faith.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Paul has expressed concern about the potential emptiness of the Corinthians’ faith. In his previous correspondence, Paul says that his preaching and their faith are “empty” if Christ has not been raised (1 Corinthians 15:14). If there is no resurrection, as Paul accuses some in the church of proclaiming (1 Corinthians 15:12), then their faith is meaningless.
What would it mean for the Corinthians to accept God’s grace in vain? Should they carry on without loving one another and without trusting Paul and his gospel, then in Paul’s reasoning they are not demonstrating the power of God’s transforming grace. Should they continue to live in tension with one another and with their beloved leader, then they are not bearing witness to new creation wrought by God’s Spirit. Should they continue on their current path, they will have shown by their lack of love that they have accepted God’s grace in vain.
Now is the Day of Salvation
Now is the time for the Corinthians to show by their actions that they have not accepted the grace of God in vain. Paul emphasizes that the day of salvation is now. To enforce this urgency, Paul employs a quote from Isaiah 49 that he interprets as finding fulfillment in the present time. Today is the day for the Corinthians to demonstrate their faithfulness by opening their hearts to Paul and to one another (6:13; 7:2). The Corinthians, after all, are God’s new creation (5:17). Their actions should reflect God’s gracious acts in their lives.
Open Wide Your Hearts
In 2 Corinthians 6:11-13, Paul urges the church to open their hearts. Based on evidence in Paul’s correspondence, the whole Corinthian church has not always been supportive of Paul nor has this church been able to get along well with one another. According to 1 Corinthians, these believers have been divided over a number of issues — beliefs in the resurrection, lawsuits, arguments over the supremacy of spiritual gifts, divisions over leadership, disagreements over worship, etc…. Paul reminds the church of the gospel in which they believed and urges the Corinthians to use that gospel to set the pattern for their behavior.
Hardships, Heartbreak, and Ministry
Paul’s catalog of hardships demonstrates the trustworthiness of his character, the zeal of his apostolic mission, and the sincerity of his love for the Corinthian church. He has taken great risks to tell the Corinthians of God’s grace and love. Yet, Paul never doubts that the gospel is worth it. Even while he accuses the Corinthians of being restricted in their affections toward him (6:12), he still loves them.
Like the Corinthians, churches today struggle to know how to live faithfully. Sometimes that struggle produces strain in the very relationships that are meant to help church members live faithfully. In 2 Corinthians 6, though, Paul puts those relationships in the proper perspective. For Paul, failing to love one another is a sign of accepting the grace of God “in vain.” Now is the day of salvation. Now is the time to exhibit faithfulness, not simply through words, but through action. Now is the time to live as witnesses of God’s new creation.