I struggle to think of a more glowing endorsement than that which Paul gave the church in Thessalonica. He applauds them for the fact that when the gospel was preached they “received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). Again, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). Needless to say, no one would ever suggest that the Thessalonians had received the grace of God “in vain”!
Sadly, the same can’t be said of everyone. Consider Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians:
“Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
What does Paul mean by “the grace of God”? And what does it mean to “receive” it “in vain”?
The first question is the easier of the two. It may be that “the grace of God” is simply Paul’s shorthand way of referring to the gospel and its benefits. In light of the immediately preceding context, he may have specifically in mind the new attitude of 5:16, the new creation of 5:17, the reconciliation of 5:18-19, the righteousness of God of 5:21, etc. All of this is wrapped up in the word “salvation” in 2 Corinthians 6:2. Murray Harris is correct in pointing out that “within the wider context of the letter, ‘the grace of God’ will also refer to the present opportunity that the Corinthians have to become fully reconciled to Paul” (458).
The second question, obviously, is more difficult to answer. Some believe he is urging them not to forfeit the grace of salvation which they had earlier received. In other words, it is an exhortation to persevere and to avoid apostasy.
Others suggest that the exhortation in vv. 1-2 is not directed to those Corinthians who are already born-again, but to those in Corinth who had repeatedly heard the gospel but had made no decision. Paul was not so naïve to think that everyone in the professing church was necessarily truly converted. Therefore, his command not to receive the grace of God in vain is equivalent to an exhortation to all men not to reject the gospel of Jesus Christ. But is “to receive in vain” really the same as to utterly “reject”? I don’t think so, as I’ll point out below.
God's grace may be received in vain when it is received superficially or externally, as in the parable of the soils (Luke 8:4-15; Matt. 13:18-23). There the seed (gospel) falls upon rocky ground or among thorns, to be snatched away or choked by the temptations of this world. This view is similar to the previous one, insofar as the people in view are unbelievers. The difference is that, according to this interpretation, people don’t explicitly reject the gospel but “receive” and “believe” it, but only in a superficial way. Their so-called “faith” is spurious and therefore temporary.
Perhaps receiving the grace of God in vain pertains not so much to salvation per se, or its forfeiture, but to the loss of potential blessings related to spiritual growth, knowledge, and joy that they would suffer by rejecting Paul as their apostle. In other words, the people are truly saved. They have genuinely received the gospel and believed it, but they have failed to progress in their Christian growth and stand in danger of losing those spiritual blessings and rewards they otherwise might have obtained. Philip Hughes embraces a similar view and suggests that
“for them to receive the grace of God in vain meant that their practice did not measure up to their profession as Christians, that their lives were so inconsistent as to constitute a denial of the logical implications of the gospel, namely, and in particular, that Christ died for them so that they might no longer live to themselves but to His glory” (218-19).
In other words, the passionate conviction which accompanied their salvation had not as yet performed its transforming work in their lives. It is to that progressive transformation of their daily experience that Paul is urging and exhorting them.
Judith Gundry-Volf suggests that to receive the grace of God in vain may be referring largely, if not exclusively, to their opposition to the apostle himself. The context surrounding this statement is Paul's description of his ministry on their behalf and his attempt to restore good relations with the Corinthians (5:13-14; 5:18-6:1; see especially his impassioned appeal in 6:11-13). In Paul's opinion, to reject him is to reject the divine grace of which he is a minister. Gundry-Volf then argues that Paul's appeal is simply "for the sake of argument only" (280). I.e., he does not believe they will reject or deny him, but if they were to do so it would be tantamount to receiving the grace of God, which was his message to them, in vain.
I think the key to this difficult text is found in the word translated “vain” (Gk., kenos; cf. its use in Gal. 2:2; Phil. 2:16; 1 Thess. 3:5). It typically means either “empty” or without content or, as here, “vain” or without purpose or result. Harris argues that “to receive God’s grace ‘in vain’ (eis kenon) is not to ‘reject’ it . . . or even to ‘neglect’ it . . . but to receive it without profit, without the intended effect being achieved. The grace is accepted, but it never attains its goal; it comes to nothing” (458-59). If so, “Paul is exhorting his Corinthian converts not to fail to profit from the proffered divine grace, or, expressed positively, to give God’s grace an effective welcome, to capitalize on opportunities for spiritual growth” (Harris, 459).
But how might they let God’s grace come to no end?
Consider Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians that they conduct themselves wisely “toward outsiders, making the best use of the time” (Col. 4:5) or “making the most of the opportunity”. Similarly, if the Corinthians “squandered God-given opportunities for bringing spiritual benefit to themselves and to unbelievers . . . , and if they failed to exercise the ministry of reconciliation (5:18) and to fulfill their role as Christ’s ambassadors (5:19); more specifically, if they accommodated the false apostles (11:13-15), or embraced a ‘different gospel’ (11:4), or failed to repudiate paganism (6:14-18) and personal sin (7:1; 12:20-21), or spurned Paul’s overtures of reconciliation (6:13; 7:2)” (Harris, 459), they would be guilty of having received the grace of God “in vain”.
If this view is correct, and I’m inclined to think it is, Paul’s appeal is to Christians that they avail themselves of God’s gracious enabling so that the purpose or aim of their salvation might be attained. The “grace of God” is designed to equip believers to proclaim Christ and not themselves (4:5) and to live for Christ and not themselves (cf. 5:15). I also agree with Harris that “if God’s grace flows continuously, a single failure to benefit from it would not stem the flow. What would be compromised, however, would be the receipt of commendatory recompense at Christ’s tribunal (5:10)” (459).
To receive the grace of God in vain, therefore, is not to reject it altogether and live as an unbeliever, nor is it to receive the grace of God and subsequently forfeit or lose its saving power. Rather, Paul is talking about the urgency and importance of the Corinthians responding to God’s grace in humble obedience and seizing every opportunity to “please” the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9) in how they live, speak, act, and perhaps especially in how they respond to his efforts to rebuild and restore a relationship that had been undermined by suspicion, false reports, and the sinister efforts of the false teachers in their city.
God’s grace comes to us not simply once in the gospel but as a constant and never-ceasing flow of merciful enablement and sanctifying power. Like the Corinthians, we must be diligent to avail ourselves of it at all times, taking advantage of every occasion to do “good” (rather than “evil”) so that it might attain to the goal for which God has bestowed it and so that we might receive “what is due” for what we, by means of that very grace, have “done in the body” (see 2 Cor. 5:10).