Andrew J. Wilson serves as teaching pastor at King’s Church, London. The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians is Wilson’s first academic monograph, representing a revised version of his PhD thesis completed at King’s College, London. Readers familiar with Wilson’s popular-level publications (e.g., If God, Then What? [Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012]; The Life We Never Expected [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016]), will find a more formal tone here, though Wilson, to his credit, remains eminently readable while tackling a highly nuanced topic.
The problem Wilson seeks to address concerns how one accounts for the numerous assurance and warnings passages in 1 Corinthians, which, at first glance, seem to contradict each other. His solution is an extended exegetical treatment of seven critical passages (1 Cor. 1:1–9; 3:5–17; 5:1–13; 6:1–20; 8:1–11:1; 11:17–34; 15:1–58), leading him to suggest that “the most likely explanation for the warning-assurance tension is that Paul believes that his apostolic warnings are themselves a means by which the Corinthians will be preserved by God for future glory” (pp. 167–68, emphasis original).
Chapters 1–2 provide an overview of the scholarly terrain surrounding Wilson’s hypothesis and selected introductory issues pertaining to 1 Corinthians. The opening gambit outlines four approaches to the warnings and assurances of 1 Corinthians. The first two approaches downplay Paul’s assurances (pp. 4–5). The traditional Wesleyan stance (that Paul’s assurances are conditional) fails on account of having to read “implicit ‘if’ clauses … into the text” (p. 4). The second approach that Wilson highlights is the argument that Paul’s assurances are “merely rhetorical … to secure the goodwill of the recipients” (p. 5). This approach is developed most fully by B. J. Oropeza, who acts as one of Wilson’s two key interlocutors throughout the monograph.
Wilson’s second primary interlocuter is Judith Gundry Volf, who entertains versions of a third and fourth approach to Paul’s warnings and assurances. The third approach, which argues that warnings do not concern true believers, is problematic for Wilson, because it fails to account for specific warning texts (e.g., 1 Cor 10, which aligns the fledgling church with wandering Israel who fell under God’s judgment despite his saving acts [p. 5]). The fourth approach suggests that Paul’s warnings do not concern eschatological salvation, but rather sees them as loss of reward or temporal judgment to be received in this life (p. 6). For Wilson, this approach struggles like others outlined above, because it too fails to account for a broad swathe of texts that indicate Paul has eschatological judgment in view (e.g., 1 Cor 9:23–27, among others; cf. Phil 3:7–14) (pp. 6–7).
Wilson’s solution is to provide “a full-length study that, while not eschewing synthetic concerns, remains focused on one letter, and yet deals with the full range of material within it” (p. 10). To that end, chs. 3–9 provide the exegetical backbone of Wilson’s work. Chapters 3–6 and 8 provide succinct exegesis of relevant passages for Wilson’s argument, while the most substantial work is found in chs. 7 and 9. Our focus will be directed to chapter 7 given Wilson’s own admission that it is especially critical to his thesis (pp. 159–60).
Wilson’s ch. 7 covers 1 Cor. 8:1–11:1 in which “idol food” is Paul’s primary focus. More specifically, Paul is both “confronting the Corinthians because of idolatry” and “settling an internal dispute based on love for one another” (p. 79). Firstly, Wilson tackles 1 Corinthians 8 and whether idol food can damage “weaker” believers such that their faith may be destroyed (pp. 83–84). Wilson agrees with most commentators that Paul sees this as a real possibility (p. 89). In taking his stance, he addresses significant objections from Gundry Volf, notably targeting her treatment of ἀπόλλυμι (to destroy, ruin, or lose). Specifically, Wilson chastises her for dismissing four specific verses (Rom 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11; 10:9, 10) that she argues do not denote believers and for her claim that “salvation is never followed by destruction” (p. 87n45). Yet, as Wilson observes, each of these verses deals with those who have experienced God’s salvific work. Disregarding such evidence, Wilson says, is “to invite the charge of solving the puzzle by sweeping pieces off the table” (p. 87).
Thus, Paul warns the “strong” Corinthian believers that consumption of idol food in a sacrificial context risks leading weaker believers into sin and the potential forfeiture of their salvation (p. 89). Consequently, Paul urges the “strong” to forgo their rights for the benefit of the “weaker” members of Christ’s body (p. 90). In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul presents himself as an example of what forgoing one’s rights for the benefit of another looks like. Here, Wilson shows that Paul’s renunciation of his rights is predicated on his desire to claim his “prize,” namely, his ultimate salvation, and he urges the Corinthians to join him in the same pursuit (pp. 93–96).
After presenting himself as a positive example, Paul presents Israel in exodus as a counter-example to be avoided (10:1–13). Wilson’s exegesis reveals Paul’s determination to show how the narratives of Israel and the Corinthian church overlap, by sharing a “common initiatory sacramental experience” (10:1–4) and that likewise, they face potential destruction on account of unrepentant sin (10:5–10). Paul follows this with a warning not to follow Israel’s pattern of rebellion (10:11–12), and an assurance that God will help them endure temptation (10:13) (pp. 96–97). Tellingly, Wilson shows how the sins of the Israelites align with those of the Corinthians regarding their indulgence in idol feasting (pp. 106–8). In closing his exegesis concerning idol food, Wilson’s summary is apt: for Paul, “Love is more important than rights, freedoms, or knowledge, whether the person in question is a Christian or not” (p. 121).
More than any other chapter, the strength of Wilson’s thesis is demonstrated here. One cannot ignore that these warnings are addressed to believers, and that they do concern a believer’s ultimate salvation. Nevertheless, Paul promises that the Lord will help them and sustain them so that they do not fall. I am reminded at this point of the all too common pastoral question about whether a person can lose their salvation: the question of “once saved, always saved” or not? To repeat Wilson’s answer: “Paul believes that his apostolic warnings are themselves a means by which the Corinthians will be preserved by God for future glory” (pp. 167–8, emphasis original). Wilson provides his readers with a persuasive interpretation of the data that Paul has made available to us, and pastors preaching 1 Corinthians and students of the letter (especially those in graduate programmes) will do well to wrestle with his work.