Steadfast and Abounding (Pre-Synodical Sermon)

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord. I Cor. 15:58

A mighty faith and a great love express themselves in the words of address that introduce this exhortation; a faith, not in the work of man, but in the indestructibleness of the work of the Lord; and a love far transcending all mere human bonds and relationships designated by that term. “My beloved brethren!” Was not the condition of the Church at Corinth such that the relation of love denoted by these words had been strained to the breaking point if not actually severed? For a long season the apostle Paul had labored in the idolatrous city of Corinth, for the Lord had much people there. Through his labors a church of Jesus Christ had come to manifestation there, had been called out of the world into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, out of the darkness of heathendom into the light of the gospel of Christ. And, behold, how quickly the wiles of the devil had deceived the believers in Corinth; how easily the deceitfulness of sin had wrought havoc in the youthful church! Disrupted they were by the spirit of partisanship, so that one said: “I am of Apollos”, another: “I am of Cephas;” a third: “I am of Paul;” while a fourth would acclaim Christ as the head of his party! Disfigured the church was by shameful sins and corruptions, and at their love-feasts one was hungry and another drunken! And its very foundations were shaken by false doctrine, so that they even denied the resurrection of the dead! Yet, approaching the close of his epistle to them, in which he instructed, admonished, rebuked them, the apostle in this final exhortation does not hesitate to address them as his beloved brethren! He knew that the church of Corinth was not his work, but the work of the Lord, and that the gates of hell cannot overwhelm the church of Christ in the world. He knew, too, that the believers in this world still carry about with them the “body of this death,” and so, through the darkness he could perceive the light, through the corruption of sin he saw the saints in Christ Jesus, through the dissension and disruption he saw the unity of the communion of Christ’s body, and he does not hesitate to address them even now as “my beloved brethren!”

In the narrowest sense the conjunction “therefore” connects this exhortation with the immediately preceding verse. God giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we know that our work shall not be vain in the Lord. Let us, then, be steadfast and unmovable, constantly abounding in the work of the Lord. In a broader sense, however, this exhortation constitutes the conclusion of the entire chapter on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the glorious resurrection of the saints with him. It is in this resurrection that they have the hope of victory; let them, therefore, be steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. And in the widest sense, we may, we cannot fail to see in this exhortation a reference to all the apostle had written to them in this epistle. Glancing back over the entire letter, the apostle realizes that they had need of the exhortation to be steadfast and unmovable, and to abound in Christ’s work. And always again the church of the Lord Jesus Christ has need of hearing this twofold admonition: persevere and abound; and of being reminded of her sure hope: your work will not be vain in the Lord! And the more need she has to hear this Word of God as the time of the coming of Christ approaches, apostasy from the faith increases, wickedness abounds in the world, and the position of the church in the world becomes more precarious and apparently impossible. It is with this in mind that I decided to call your and my own attention to this Scripture tonight.

We see at a glance that the words of our text contain a twofold exhortation, the two parts of which are very closely related and interdependent. The first part of the admonition urges us to persevere. For such is the meaning of the figurative expressions: steadfast and unmovable. Both these expressions are, evidently, figurative. Both make us think of an edifice that is built upon a sure foundation, or of the sturdy oak that is firmly and deeply rooted in the ground, or of the rocky cliff that proudly rises in an almost perpendicular line from the surface of the ocean, and against which the angry billows beat in vain. And both terms together refer to what we express by the phrase “perseverance of the saints.” The first term “steadfast” considers this perseverance as such, by itself, apart from its relation to the evil influences of the world and the attacks of the enemy; the second word, “unmovable,” looks at that same perseverance, but this time from the aspect of its being put to a severe test. The first expression brings to your mind the mighty oak as it stands quietly in the calm atmosphere; the second word shows you that same oak as it is swept by the tempest only to strike its roots more deeply in the ground. The first term makes you think of the rock as it rises from the plains of Wyoming, the second of the rock as it stands in the midst of the raging waves of the sea. And together the two words might be paraphrased by the exhortation: be ye, therefore, persevering, whatever forces of darkness rise against you!

To be steadfast means to stand somewhere, on a definite, clearly circumscribed place, and to stand there firmly. For the Church as a whole, as well as for the individual believer, this place on which to stand is Christ. Christ is the sole and sure foundation of the Church, and on Him the Church is founded. He is the soil in which the individual believer is rooted, from which he draws his life, his all. The power by which the Church is fastened to this sure foundation, and by which the believer is rooted in Christ, is the spiritual power of faith, that faith which is both, a certain knowledge of all that God has revealed in His Word, and a hearty confidence, whereby I rely wholly, for time and eternity, on the God of my salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord. It follows, therefore, that with respect to her conscious life and walk in the world, the Church organically and institutionally, and the believer individually must be steadfast in the truth as it is revealed in the Scriptures. “Be ye, therefore, steadfast” means: be firmly established in the truth as it is in Christ!

Now, what does this imply? First of all, it means that believers should know the truth. They should have a clear and full conception of the whole counsel of God concerning our salvation. I say, a clear, that is, well defined conception of the truth. Our knowledge of the truth must not be vague and ambiguous, for if it is, we will not be able to discern between the truth and the lie; and if we fail clearly to distinguish between truth and error, we cannot clearly discern the place on which we must stand, we will wander away from the foundation of truth, and before we even know will have landed in the sphere of the lie. For the same reason, our knowledge of the truth must be complete, full, embracing the whole counsel of God. We must not be satisfied with a little gospel one can write on his thumbnail, but appropriate all that God has revealed to us in His Word. It implies, in the second place, that this truth is spiritually appropriated by us. Mere intellectual knowledge of the truth is not sufficient. Steadfastness means that we firmly stand on the basis of that truth, and that, therefore, it has become for us a living conviction, a deeply rooted certainty, the certainty of faith. We, then, know the truth spiritually. We embrace it with all our heart. We love it and always give it the testimony that it is the truth. Thirdly, to be steadfast also implies, that we confess the truth. We do so as a church in our standards. For us this means that we stand on the basis of the Reformed Confessions, unadulterated by the alien elements of the “three points,” the heart of which is the truth, of God’s absolutely sovereign grace. But we also confess the truth as individual Christians in the midst of the world. To stand on the basis of the truth, to preach and to teach and to confess that truth in all its purity and definiteness,—that is to be steadfast. And, lastly, from this it follows, that this truth also becomes the sole controlling power in our actual life, so that we gladly and steadfastly run in the way of God’s commandments, and stand for the cause of the Son of God in the midst of the world.

Now, we must maintain this steadfastness in the midst of the world. And this implies that our perseverance in the truth will be tested. The world lies in darkness. It loves darkness rather than light. It stands in enmity against God and His Christ. It loves the lie and hates the truth. And it delights to live from the principle of the lie. It develops the lie in all kinds of false philosophy and heresies, and it creates for itself a world full of the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And this world, with its Prince, the devil, is not purely external to the church visible in the world. It is always in the church, in the carnal element of the church as well as in the old nature of believers. And this “world” cannot leave the church alone. It must needs attack her. It will try to make inroads into the Church. It will attempt to deceive her by its false philosophy, and to confuse her mind and heart by all kinds of heresies. And it will tempt her to seek the things of the world, to follow after the vanities of its idols, to seek the lust of the flesh, that she may be swallowed up by its corruption. Well, it is in the midst of that world that the church must be steadfast. Hence, the apostle adds: “unmovable.” Always the world will try to move you from your sure foundation. Winds of false doctrine will sweep against you to carry you hither and thither; tempests of persecutions will arise threatening death and destruction; sweet siren’s songs of carnal lusts will be sung on your very doorstep to lure you away from Christ as revealed in the Scriptures; but in the midst of it all stand ye unmovable on the basis of the truth, and let that truth in Christ dominate your whole life, to the praise of the glory of His grace in the beloved!

Of course, we all understand that this would be quite impossible, if it were not for the power of God’s grace. The power of our perseverance is God’s preservation of us. We are kept in the power of God. Yet, let us not forget, that this power of preservation does not remain external to us, so that we are passively kept in the world and led unto glory: it passes through us, and in us becomes the power of God, the power of faith, whereby we may fight the good fight even unto the end that no one take our crown. No, we do not persevere in our own strength: if our weak hand had to hold God’s hand, we would surely be lost. Nor do we speak the full truth when we insist that God holds our hand, so that we are passively carried along. Rather does God’s power of grace hold and preserve us from within, from our deepest heart, and in the strength which His grace supplies do we hold on to Him in Christ. And so, even though it is all of God’s sovereign grace, there is room for the constant admonition: “Be ye, therefore, steadfast, unmovable.”

But there is another element in this exhortation, intimately related to the first: “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” I like to emphasize, first of all, that the work in which we must abound is definitely the work of the Lord. Do not be too hasty in paraphrasing this expression into: “the work for the Lord,” for then we might miss the true meaning of the apostle. O, we in our modern times hear a good deal about working for the Lord. To work for the Lord, to do something for Jesus,—that is true Christianity! It matters not what we believe, if we only do something for Christ! Yes, but let us not forget that it is the work of the Lord in which we are exhorted to be abounding by the words of our text. And this means, first of all, that the work is most emphatically His, not ours. It is His, not only in the sense that He determines what must be done, that He alone has the prerogative and authority to command and to demand strict obedience; but it is His work also in the sense that it is He that does it! He did the work for us, in our stead and in our behalf when He shed His lifeblood on the accursed tree and was obedient even unto the death of the cross. It is He that also does the work within us, calling us out of darkness into marvelous light by His Spirit and Word, uniting us with Himself, clothing us with everlasting righteousness, and making us partakers of everlasting life and glory. But it is He also, that works through us, that bears fruit in us, that preaches, that teaches, that exhorts and admonishes, that confesses and fights the good fight through the believers. This applies, to be sure, to the work of officebearers, of the ministers of the Word, the elders and deacons. If He does not speak His own Word there is no preaching. If He does not instruct and admonish and handle the keys of the kingdom of heaven, there is no instruction or discipline. If He does not function as the merciful High Priest, there is no work of mercy. If He does not work His work through our synodical gathering, counsel and lead, and deliberate through us, there is no synod. But this is also true of every believer in all his life and walk and confession. In as far as he serves the Lord Christ, it is Christ that works through him. He is the vine, we are the branches: and He bears fruit through us! The work is the work of the Lord!

But in this work of the Lord we must abound! Always abound! We might say, that the work of the Lord overflows in us and through us, and because it overflows, abounds in us as rational, moral creatures, it takes into its service our hearts and minds and souls and wills and all our strength, so that we become in this true and correct sense of the word co-workers with Christ! Even though, therefore, it is the work of the Lord and not ours, though it is Christ that works and not we, yet we become conscious partakers of His work, and there is room for the admonition: always abound in the work of the Lord! And you will now also understand that in this exhortation two elements should have all the emphasis: it must be the work of the Lord in which you are engaged, and in that work you must constantly abound. It must be the work of the Lord! You must not think your own thoughts, you must not speak your own word, you must not preach your own philosophy, you must not accomplish your own will, or work your own work: you must be engaged in the work of the Lord. And in this work we must not be lax or indolent, but diligent, and that, too, constantly: always abounding! And well may all of us, but especially we as officebearers, take this admonition to heart, not in order that we should make some vain resolutions henceforth to heed this exhortation, but rather that we may confess our weakness and our unfaithfulness, and ask the Lord whose work it is for His grace and Spirit, that we may always be more and more abounding in His work!

It will be evident, too, that there is a very close relation between the two parts of this double admonition: be persevering and be abounding in the work of the Lord. And the relation is mutual. On the one hand, to be steadfast and unmovable, to persevere in the truth, is an indispensable condition for abounding in the work of the Lord. We must be steadfast in order to abound. This is denied or, at least, ignored by many in our day. What does it matter, say they, whether we know the truth, whether we are instructed in the whole counsel of God, whether we stand on the basis of a very definite and clearly circumscribed confession, or not? If only we know that we are saved and that we belong to Christ, it is quite sufficient! Let us forget rather about our differences, and be up and doing in the work of the Lord! But this is very dangerous and deceptive talk. It is quite impossible to be negligent in regard to the truth, to be indifferent in respect to the stand we take in our confession, and then to abound in the work of the Lord. The reason is that it must be the work of the Lord, and not our own work, in which we must abound. And how shall we know how to abound or whether we abound in His work, unless we know and stand on the basis of the truth? How shall our preaching and teaching and exhortation, our confession and walk in the midst of the world be an abounding in the work of the Lord, unless it is all according to His Word as contained in the Scriptures ? And how shall it be according to that Word, unless we know and are steadfast in the truth? Surely, the two cannot be separated: we must be steadfast and unmovable in order to abound in the work of the Lord!

Yet, on the other hand, it is equally true, that abounding in the work of the Lord is necessary unto true steadfastness. For, of what good would it be, if we know the will of the Lord, and know what is His work, if we do not accomplish it, if we are not abounding in it? Dead intellectualism, cold, good for nothing orthodoxy, confessionalism, then will be the result. We will then be able to expound true doctrine in every detail, and to defend Reformed truth against anyone that contradicts or corrupts it; we may even be proud of our Reformed Confessions; but it is all faith without works, which is dead. And dead intellectualism cannot endure, will surely fail in the evil day. A church, or an individual believer cannot remain steadfast merely on the basis of a dead faith, of cold intellectualism. And, therefore, even as it is necessary to be steadfast, and not to be moved to and fro, in order to abound in the work of the Lord, so, on the other hand, to abound in His work is an indispensable condition unto spiritual steadfastness! Let us, therefore, hear this Word of God, and be found faithful in the work of the Lord, laboring while it is day, ere the night cometh in which no man can work!

We may, indeed, be assured of fruit. We know that our labor shall not be vain in the Lord! “Your toil,” the apostle here says. He had written: “the work of the Lord.” Now he writes: “Your labor” or toil. And, indeed, as we abound in the work of the Lord, that work assumes the form of toil, hard labor, struggle, battle, suffering. And always the reason is: the opposition of the flesh, both from within and from without. If as believers, and more particularly as officebearers, we would please the flesh, we need not toil, and suffer, and labor, and be in fear and trouble, in anxiety and worry. But if we would abound in the work of the Lord, our own flesh opposes us, and the flesh in the church hates us, and the world fills us with reproach! The work of the Lord is not of but opposed to the flesh! Hence, we must labor in the Lord!

That toil, however, shall not be vain. Vain is all work that is in the last analysis fruitless, that bears no abiding fruit. Vain is the effort of a horse in a treadmill, that toils and labors all day long without advancing. Vain is all the toil and labor, all the science and philosophy, all the invention and production of the world. For, even though it meets with temporary success, it is encompassed on every side by death, and it will all be destroyed in that day, when the very elements of the world shall melt and be consumed. There is no abiding fruit of the work of man outside of Christ. To man it may be said: “you know that your labor shall be vain in the world!” Vanity of vanity, saith the preacher, all is vanity! But this cannot be said of “your labor in the Lord.” It may often appear vain to us. Because neither the work in the Lord nor the fruit of that work belong to this world, the latter may frequently appear very efficient and fruitful, while the work of the Lord seems vain. And this may cause us to be discouraged often. Yet, our labor in the Lord cannot be vain. It always bears fruit. And its fruit will appear in the day when the Lord Himself shall be manifested and we shall be manifested in glory with Him!

We know this, because we know that the Lord is risen! He was dead and, behold, He liveth forevermore! Death has no more dominion over Him! He is the Lord of life! His resurrection was no return to our mortality and corruptibleness, our weakness and our shame, but an advance into immortality and incorruption, into power and glory, the glory of the image of the heavenly. Our labor in the sphere of that risen Lord is not vain. It is not limited by death, it is transcendent! It can never be destroyed, it will abide forever. For, presently, that living Lord shall come again, and be manifested in all His glory. Then His work, even His work through our toil, shall be manifested with Him. This mortal shall put on immortality, and this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and the saying shall be brought to pass: death is swallowed up in victory! And in that final victory it will be revealed, that in the Lord our labor was never vain, shall bear eternal fruit in everlasting glory!

We know this. Yes, but only by faith. We know this, yes, but only as we look at our risen Lord. It is not the things that are seen that can ever assure us of the fruitfulness of our toil. Let us, therefore, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. And if the work should become burdensome and difficult, and if we should be inclined to grow weary and faint and discouraged, let us not forget to fix our eyes on Him who is the resurrection and the life, our glorious Lord! Then we shall take courage and know, that our labor shall not be vain in Him!