Question: "What is the significance of Paul saying, "I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15:10)?"
Answer: In 1 Corinthians 15:10, 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 an emphatic 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). In a sense, he is the “least” because he was the last apostle chosen (verse 8), but this is not why he made the claim. He is the least because he fiercely persecuted the church of God (verse 9; cf. Acts 9:3–9; 22:6–11; 26:12–18). And this past record of persecution against Christ and His church made Paul, in his own eyes, unworthy to be called apostle.
Paul is continually aware of his former sinfulness and inherent nothingness (Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15). Apart from Christ, he is nothing but a sinner who deserves the wrath of God. Yet God was merciful to Paul (1 Timothy 1:13), as He is to everyone (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). Paul had been a self-righteous and proud Pharisee. Now, he is an apostle of the message that he once tried to destroy (Galatians 1:23). This is why he follows his self-condemnatory assessment with the statement “but by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). The only reason that Paul, the most unlikely of apostles, is serving as a leader of the early church is the grace of a loving and merciful God.
The phrase I am what I am is a popular expression today that often conveys a sense of self-acceptance and self-determination. In 1 Corinthians 15:10, however, Paul acknowledges that his new identity and apostolic achievements are entirely due to the grace of God working in and through him. Simply put, grace is God’s unmerited favor toward undeserving sinners. Grace is neither earned nor deserved. If grace could be earned, then it would not be grace (Romans 11:6). As Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “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.” The grace of God saves, empowers, and enables us to work for the glory of God (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Ephesians 2:10).
There is a delicate balance between grace and human effort. Although it is true that our identities and achievements are ultimately due to God’s grace, we are still expected to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). By the grace of God, Paul worked harder than the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15:10). On the surface, this sounds like self-aggrandizement, but Paul gives all the glory to God (cf. Galatians 2:20). Paul knows that faithful stewardship is the only appropriate response to the grace of God. We would do well to follow Paul’s example of humble, grateful service (1 Corinthians 11:1).
The statement I am what I am emphasizes the importance of grace, humility, and perseverance. 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 the grace of God. It is the grace of God that transforms sinners into saints. It is the grace of God that gives us the strength and ability to do things that we could not do on our own. And it is the grace of God that makes us effective witnesses for Him. Like Paul, we can now say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”