In 1 Corinthians 15:10, the apostle Paul writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” The word but signals a contrast between verse 9 and verse 10. In verse 9, Paul regards himself as “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (ESV). The reason that he saw himself in this way is that he formerly persecuted the church of God (cf. Acts 9:3–9; 22:6–11; 26:12–18).
Paul is continually aware of his inherent nothingness (Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15). Apart from Christ, he is nothing but a sinner who deserves the wrath of God. But in God’s perfect timing, Paul was transformed and made an apostle to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 15:8). The only reason that Paul went from persecutor to preacher of the message that he once tried to destroy (Galatians 1:23) is that he received God’s mercy and grace (1 Corinthians 15:10).
In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul acknowledges that his new identity, mission, and accomplishments are entirely due to the grace of God. Simply put, grace is God’s unmerited favor toward undeserving sinners. It is not deserved, nor can it be earned. If it could be earned, then it would not be grace (Romans 11:6). This is why Paul refers to grace as a gift: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9, ESV). We are saved by the grace of God to work for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17).
There is a delicate balance between God’s grace and human effort. While it is true that our identities and efforts are ultimately due to God’s grace, we are still expected to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). In other words, God’s grace does not lead to passivity; rather, we should be active participants in God’s work. Paul was aware of this, so he put God’s grace to use by working harder than the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15:10). However, he immediately qualifies this statement with the words yet not I. These three words remove any grounds for boasting about our abilities or achievements (cf. Galatians 2:20). In everything that we do, God must get the glory, not we ourselves. We would do well to follow Paul’s example of humble, grateful service (1 Corinthians 11:1).
The statement yet not I emphasizes the importance of grace, humility, and diligent effort. Grace is an active and continual work in the lives of God’s people. We cannot boast about who we are or what we have done because we owe everything to God. Indeed, we are nothing and can do nothing without God’s grace. It is God’s grace that transforms sinners into saints. It is God’s grace that gives us the strength and ability to do worthwhile things for God’s kingdom. And it is God’s grace that makes our lives and ministries fruitful. Like Paul, we should always say, “Yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”