How do you think or talk about the good things that you do in life? When you do that extra service at church, when you help your neighbor with that project, when you give money to that charity, when you do any number of good deeds…who gets the credit? If your answer is, “I do,” you’re correct. If your answer is, “God,” your answer is also correct.
If you think I’m contradicting myself, just hang in there a bit. For indeed, one answer is more correct. Or—to put it another way—one is more foundational. One leads to another. The foundational answer is “God.” You see, when we do something good, it is really God doing that good in us.
Where do I get this particular emphasis? From the hardest-working man in the New Testament: the apostle Paul.
You see, in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul is talking of who saw the resurrected Christ, he mentions himself. And when he does so, he quickly inserts how unworthy he was to have the privilege because, after all, he “persecuted the church of God” (v. 9).
But being unworthy didn’t leave Paul “giving up” and “doing nothing.” The opposite is the case. Here’s the next verse: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
So here’s where the idea comes that Paul was the hardest-working man in the New Testament. When comparing himself with the other apostles, he says, “I worked harder than any of them.” Of course, if you read through the book of Acts in particular, you’ll see great support for this assertion.
However, this is not the main point, is it? The main point is that his hard work was the result of God’s prior work. It was “by the grace of God” that Paul was who he was and did what he did. Paul worked harder than any, because the grace of God was not vain but active and accomplishing (see Colossians 1:28-29 for another example of this combination showing the foundational and prior work of God).
Again, this is not a contradiction. It may be hard for us to fully grasp, but the teaching here is clear. We work. Hopefully, we work hard in our Christian lives. But when we look back upon our work, we should join the apostle Paul and say, “It was not I, but the effect of God’s grace working in and through me.”
This truth should not to paralyze us with confusion, but empower us with action. As Christians, we should have a confidence about us—not due to our power, wisdom, efforts or anything else, but because of God choosing to work in and through us.
No, we don’t deserve it. We could echo back what Paul said about unworthiness, couldn’t we? But amazingly, God uses “jars of clay” (another way Paul points out his and our unworthiness). And when He does let us remember that the energies and efforts ultimately, “belong to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Let me close with the following quote, which wonderfully captures 1 Corinthians 15:10:
Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Don’t pray for tasks equal to your powers, pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle. Everyday you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life that has come to you by the grace of God.
-Phillip Brooks (a pastor from the 1800’s)
Beloved, we do have a richness of life. God’s grace toward us enables us to be an integral part in the accomplishment of His plans. But again, this privilege is not owing to us, but to God and His grace. So let us work hard. Let us give effort to evangelism, to biblical parenting, to living godly lives among co-workers and neighbors, and more. And on an ongoing, regular basis, let’s give credit to God, to whom the credit is due. For apart from Him, we could do nothing. Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God alone!)