This is a response to a list of ‘problem’ verses that seem to indicate that Paul doesn’t really mean it when he talks about grace. My friend Kim Dickson (who is a wonderful Christian woman, and with a beautiful spirit of free dialog and exploration for truth) posted this verse in the midst of a lengthy dialog. It is part of a legitimate question about whether the Bible really does teach grace the way I am describing, and I am glad to explore it. Here is the verse:
“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
The question at hand is, how does the idea that a slanderer or an adulterer (and all those other obviously sinful people) should not inherit the kingdom of God fit with Paul’s message in the following verse?
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:1-4, NASB.
If there is therefore no condemnation, if we are free from the law of sin and of death, then how come greedy people and slanderers are not going to heaven? Perhaps Paul is schizophrenic, or crazy, or he just forgot about the grace message when he was writing this other thing. Let’s get one thing straight: this is not a Jim McNeely issue, it is a “we haven’t quite bothered to understand how Paul’s mind works” issue. If we are coming to this trying to prove some doctrine wrong or some other doctrine right, instead of coming in search of actual truth, we will get nowhere. We must come to a unity in interpreting Paul’s thought that does not twist scripture to our own ends. Are you willing to listen, to think, to change your mind? Are we all involved in a reckless and ruthless search for the real truth here? Are we going to go on being lazy about this?
If we go with the idea that Paul is not schizophrenic, and that there is a unity of thought to his writings, we need to look at Paul’s general message and Paul’s intent and circumstance in writing to the Corinthians. In the book of Romans, Paul had never been to Rome, the nerve center of civilization at the time, and he wanted to make sure he outlined a full explanation of the gospel from beginning to end. The Corinthian letters are different; Paul had spent a lot of time with these people, and he was writing a pastoral letter to address some specific and thorny problems. Corinth was a very carnal city and not only were there a lot of temptations there, several within the church tended to succumb to these temptations.
Now, the verse we looked at in Galatians is very useful to solve our problem:
“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13, NASB.
Like the Galatians, the Corinthian believers are also called to freedom. If someone is a Christian, born of the Spirit and standing in grace, fruit will begin to bud and form such as love and joy and patience and kindness and such.
Under the law, the freedom of grace looks like license to sin. Under grace, sin looks like a really dumb way to spend your freedom. Paul is saying, you can tell when someone is posing, when they really aren’t under grace, when they simply do not get it, because they are drawn to the forbidden! Under the law, if you say, you can’t have sex with THAT, the fleshly part of you says, wow, that sounds EXCITING! I want to break out of this prison of prim properness and really live! Grace says, go ahead, you are allowed to do anything, do as you wish, you are eternally loved. You come into your right mind and say, REALLY?! Actually, I don’t think I want any of that, gross! I’m actually really blessed right now, and sin takes me to places I don’t like. I prefer to be happy and honorable and to live with dignity – why not?
This is all too simplistic though, right? It can’t work without a threat. There has to be some kind of consequence for sin! Are we preaching some kind of universal salvation? Let’s take another look at this same verse, but this time, let’s include a tiny bit of context:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God. All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-12, NASB.
Notice that last sentence which I included this time. “ALL THINGS ARE LAWFUL FOR ME!” We don’t need to thumb over to some other book or context to see this, it is in the same direct stream of thought as our ‘problem’ verse! It is the very next verse, nestled in the whole section on how terrible sexual sins are! What are these things that are lawful? What is he saying? The simple context would indicate that he is talking about fornication, idolatry, homosexuality, coveting, drinking to excess, swindling, etc. But didn’t he just say that those who do these things should not inherit the kingdom of God? Is Paul crazy? All of the sudden he is saying you can do anything, but you might want to avoid sex with goats because it isn’t profitable!
I want to pause here and note something. If your idea of salvation, your idea of what the Christian gospel really is, leads you to chop off this last verse, then you are really really really not getting it. The mindset of grace just looks at things differently. For example, look at a verse like Romans 6:23:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23, NASB.
If you think, “SEE! Wages of sin is death! We should stop sinning! Wages of sin is death!” You are totally missing it. The law is about earning favor by your behavior, you earn WAGES. Grace says, “SEE! Free gift! Free gift! eternal life!! WOO HOO its FREEEEEEE!!”
Here’s another example:
“No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” 1 John 3:6, NASB.
Under the law, you think, “SEE! stop sinning or you don’t abide in Him!” Whereas grace says, “SEE! abide in Him, and sin falls off of you easily! Abide in Him! Know Him! It’s great!”
Look again at our problem verse. What is the difference between the swindlers and revilers and fornicators and Christians? Is it primarily that they stopped reviling? NO, we don’t have the power to just stop doing these things and the specifics are peripheral anyway. Grace is an umbrella term for a sup
ernatural work of God in a sinner’s life. Forgiveness is included in the package. So is washing. Because forgiveness is real, it allows you to see how rotten your sinfulness is, and to actually really want cleansing. This is heart-level change, born of a supernatural work. It includes justification AND sanctification, and it includes the idea that GOD DID SOMETHING in the midst of a troubled soul. There is a supernatural God-initiated change in a person. Law wants to strip the supernatural from the equation. If someone has this supernatural work of forgiveness and cleansing, there is no question it will be obvious in their life. There will be a great joy, and the interest in the things the law forbids will drop off.
So, it is not the specific behaviors themselves which prevent an individual from entering the kingdom of heaven. It is the disbelief in grace, the fascination and love for the forbidden. It is the dependence on self, the lack of the supernatural. It is the heart which seeks earnestly that which is NOT heaven. It is the heart which, led on by the exciting forbiddenness of evil, finds heaven and its freedom boring.
There is an issue of identity going on here. It is not individual behaviors which are at issue, but what you are. There is a difference between having a drink and being a drunkard. That difference has everything to do with your stance on the grace of God. He says, SUCH WERE some of you. We need this leeway because if we are going to minister among real sinners, (like, for example, ME), we are going to need some wiggle room to say they were washed but they still get their feet dirty again sometimes. We need room for people who used to BE drunkards or revilers to have some successes and occasional failures, to have an open door back to success. People whose heart is changed may have minds and life patterns which drag somewhat behind. We need room for some people to have a lot of failure. Legalists are willing to dismiss people for far less than God is. If someone fails once or fails 100 times and they come back, wanting to change, then there is a washed part of them in there that is struggling to show some fruit. Some fields that have particularly good soil may grow some great fruit, but they also grow great weeds; they need more attention, more patience, more work. If we do not have the same cloud of misfits and scoundrels and sinners delighting to hang around us like Jesus did, maybe we are not speaking forth the same message that sounds like beautiful music to their ears. If we don’t like hearing about forgiving 70 times 7 PER DAY, we are going to be very uncomfortable with the kind of people God is really interested in.
If the way we read this makes us want to chop off the “All things are lawful” clause, then we are not getting it. If we focus on certain sins in this list, like homosexuality, while ignoring others, like coveteousness or reviling, we are not getting it. It is not the specific behavior, it is the MASTERY over a person that is at issue. We are not looking for specific instances of behavior in order to boot people out, we are looking for clues to the inner master of a person that says, they really may not be one of us. There is a difference between being ‘unrighteous’ and being under grace but stumbling. Our efforts to help and forgive aren’t going to work because they need stronger medicine than a smiling welcome and general acceptance. Grace takes a different shape for them, the Father heart of God has a different plan to truly bring them into the fold in a way that they really belong.
So here is what is going on. There was someone in the Corinthian congregation was actually having sexual relations with his step-mother:
“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.” 1 Corinthians 5:1, NASB.
This whole section in 1 Corinthians is really addressing that particular problem. There is some crazy crazy stuff going on, and Paul says, don’t think that the response of grace is to smile and coddle him and pretend it isn’t happening. Probably the guy isn’t really a believer and is playing you all as shills; go ahead and have the freedom and the huevos to boot him out the door. We’re under grace – that should be scary to sinners trying to take advantage of us! He is saying, guys, do a little tiny bit of fruit checking, and take some minimal action. Grace doesn’t mean you can’t do this! This is grace in practice in the real world.
Paul writes a second letter to the same Corinthian believers, about the same guy he told them boot out, imploring them to invite him back into fellowship:
“But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? And this is the very thing I wrote you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not that you should be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you. But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree–in order not to say too much–to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. For to this end also I wrote that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. But whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes.” 2 Corinthians 2:1-11, NASB.
In the end, grace dictated tough love, and tough love worked. It wasn’t easy, it was scary, and Paul, moved by the Spirit, really cared more than anyone realized for the welfare of the one disciplined. Grace does not mean there is no discipline, no sorrow. However, grace is quick to sieze on success, on hope, it finds the lost coin and has joy in the reconciliation. In fact, we are not the arbiters of grace; we serve a great and deeply loving Father who longs to see these lost ones reconciled back to the joy and felowship of the community of those who walk in His awesome grace. I’m so grateful to be there!