Text: 1 Cor. 6:9-11
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor catamites, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will 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 and by the Spirit of our God.
I want to ask you three questions this morning which should bring out the deepest struggles that all Christians have. The first is, “Does sin matter?” Does God actually care how you live your life, and will He ever actually do anything about it? I don’t want you to give a quick intellectual answer. I want you to be honest with yourself and consider what you really believe. My second question then is, “Can you accept that God forgives sinners, even the really awful ones?” This is a basic gospel question, but again, I don’t want a quick intellectual answer. I want you to really examine your heart to see if you believe this. And then, thirdly, I want to ask you, “Can you accept those forgiven sinners in your life, in your church, and in your family?”
Now these three questions will highlight the deepest tensions within our Christian faith and the most common mistakes we make in our Christian practice. The struggle between legalism, that is using the law to judge one another according to sinful pride, and antinomianism, disregarding the directions of the law entirely, is a perpetual one. Unfortunately, the majority of churches end up solving this problem by simply picking one error over the other. This section of 1 Cor. 6, however, addresses both errors as it very plainly shows that sin is offensive to God, even in the New Covenant, and that it will keep many people from inheriting the kingdom. But Paul also points out that the Christian Church is made up of sinners. Every Christian is a sinner, and every Christian has a history of sin. On top of this, however, Paul points out that some in the church were known to have committed egregious sin, actions of the most offensive and outrageous nature. But God has transformed them in Christ. He has forgiven them their sin, justified them, and turned them into new people through the sanctifying power of the Spirit. This morning we will see that sin really does matter, but that God forgives sinners and accepts them through Jesus Christ. Because of this, we must do the same, all the while continuing to preach against sin and helping one another live holy lives.
Does Sin Matter?
Does sin matter? No Christian denies that sin is bad. And almost no one denies that sin continues to be a bad thing in the life of the believer. There are some rather extreme heretics who say that the New Covenant no longer includes moral guidance. I have actually known of one minister who taught something like this. But most everyone recognized that it was crazy stuff right away. What is becoming more common, however, is this kind of argument, “Yes sin is bad, in fact it is much worse than you ever imagined. In fact, everything you do is always sinful.” This means, they say, that we are all more or less equal in our really-bad-sinning, and so we should not judge the actions of others. In fact, we shouldn’t even use human effort to overcome this sort of thing, since that would be legalism and works righteousness, but should rather seek to better understand the gospel. This sort of argument sounds nice at first. It even sounds Reformational, the triumph of Luther’s “salvation by faith alone through grace,” but it ends up being very imbalanced. It ends up being all justification and no sanctification.
Promoters of this point of view tend to never preach commands to their people. They don’t want you to imitate the good guys in the Bible. They don’t want anything like “law.” Instead, they say that understanding the gospel, and especially how justification by faith alone works, will more or less take care of the job of sanctification too. Through “not trying,” we will eventually be transformed into a properly spiritual state. The biggest priority is not judging people and not worrying too much about your lifestyle choices. I think this is a big mistake.
Perhaps you’ve never met these kinds of preachers and teachers before. They are growing in popularity, but they are still new and do sound strange to a lot of people. Their arguments are often a little too complicated. Really, the most tempting way to avoid taking sin seriously is to do just that—not take it seriously. Most people nod their head in agreement that sin is wrong, but they also more or less give up on any attempt to fight against it. They do what they know they aren’t supposed to do, and that’s really all there is to it. They might admit it. They might not. Either way, they’re just stuck.
To get our minds right on this topic, we need to see the obvious. Yes, Paul does teach justification by faith alone. Yes, Paul does teach that we are all sinners. Yes, Paul does teach that we should not judge other people. But, at the same time, he also says, “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (vs. 9). More than this, he gets specific.
Paul gives a list of certain sins: fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners. None of these, he says, will “inherit the kingdom of God (vs. 9-10). Most of these sins are things that Paul has already mentioned, back in chapter 5, but he does add three more to the list: catamites, sodomites, and thieves. Catamites and sodomites are two kinds of homosexuals, the passive/receiving variety and the active/giving variety. This would have been understood to fall under the general category of “sexual immorality” or porneia, which Paul had already condemned. Here, however, he makes it explicit. “Sexual immorality” includes fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. Theft would have been implied by the critique of extortion, but Paul adds it here as well too, so we know that all kinds of stealing are off-limits.
Now, this list doesn’t include every possible sin, but does include the majority of them. We see sins of sexuality, sins of worship, sins of property, sins of desire, sins of drink, sins of speech, and sins of violence. This means that sin most certainly does matter, and it continues to matter in the New Testament. After all, to whom is Paul speaking? He’s speaking to the church! He is warning those people who identify as Christians not to engage in this kind of behavior. So the same is true for us today. Christians should not commit these acts, and they cannot continue to commit them and expect to inherit the kingdom of God. This is why the Christian Church must still bear a moral witness and must still speak against sin, by name.
Can You Accept Forgiveness?
If we were to stop here, however, we would have answered one error but would have most-likely fallen into another. If we only bear a moral witness and preach against sin but do not continue on with Paul’s argument, we will become legalists. We will spend all of our time and energy making rules and punishments. But Paul wants to make sure that the gospel is presented any time sin is denounced. After giving that list of sins, he goes on to say, “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 and by the Spirit of our God” (vs. 11).
Paul wants to remind us that these terrible kinds of sinners are exactly the people that God saves. In fact, they are who we were when God found us. “And such were some of you.” I think we should take this literally, by the way. There were members of the church who had formerly been fornicators, homosexuals, drunkards, extortioners, and more. But they had been changed! And this is true for us today. We need to make this point to ourselves first, whenever we go on the offensive against sin. We cannot conquer sin in and of ourselves. In fact, we were conquered by it. And we always have the ability to be tempted by it and to fall back in it. The only thing that changes sinners is the only thing that changed us—Jesus Christ. And so when we call people to repentance, we are not calling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When we challenge others to a more holy lifestyle, we are not telling them to “work harder.” It really isn’t a matter of the quantity of our energy. We have to call people to Christ.
Now, does this mean that I’m falling back into the position of explaining to people their justification? When they continue to sin, do we need to just take out the Systematic Theology textbook? No. I’m not explaining. I’m illustrating. I am, as Paul puts it in Galatians 3, portraying (Gal. 3:1). Our sin was so bad that Jesus Christ had to die for it, and Jesus’ death is the only thing that can change us now. This shouldn’t only change our ideas. This should change our affections. We need to love different things. We need new desires. We need new priorities. And this is why the bible says we need new hearts.
The only way that you will ever have victory over sin is if you are changed, on your core level, by the work of Jesus Christ. When you are tempted to return to sin, you need to remind yourself “Such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” This is not who you are anymore because of Jesus. And if you do find yourself continually falling back into the same sins, then you should ask yourself, “What’s the matter?” “What’s really wrong with me?” “What’s going on with my heart?”
This is not an intellectual matter. It will require you to use your brain, don’t get me wrong. Knowing the teaching of the Bible is essential. But you have to learn it and then internalize it. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, you must “inwardly digest” God’s word so that it changes who you are on the inside.
Now, is this a Biblical way to talk? Do we find success in our lives of holiness through a changed heart? Listen to one famous passage:
Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…
Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You. (Ps. 51:6-13)
When was David first saying these words? It was after he had been convicted of sin with Bathsheba. He knew he was wrong, and he is asking God to forgive him and to change him. Notice that he doesn’t begin by promising to God that he’s going to do better. He doesn’t say that he’ll work extra-hard this time to make sure he doesn’t repeat the mistake. No, he asks God to change his inward parts, his heart and his spirit. And then he can make progress in holiness. Then he can teach others how to live righteously.
When we consider the battle with sin in our lives, we must remember the source of forgiveness—Jesus Christ. And we must prioritize that. We must rely upon it. It’s got to be what motivates us towards holiness. We acknowledge who we were, terrible sinners, and we don’t deny it. But we also acknowledge that God loved us in spite of this and did something to change that, through the work of Christ on the Cross. We are now not trying to earn our forgiveness but instead responding to it in gratitude and loyalty.
Can You Accept Forgiven Sinners?
And then the third question was, “Can you accept those forgiven sinners in your life, in your church, and in your family?” This question naturally follows the other two, and if you have properly answered them, then you have to answer it in the same way. If the old line is true, “There but for the grace of God go I,” then when those other people, who are were you used to be, come into your life, you shouldn’t be repulsed or angered but excited. You should seek to help and support them. You should welcome them into the church so that they can continue on the walk you have been on.
This is why Paul went into this section at this time, by the way. It may feel like a new argument, but this is coming right on the heels of his earlier argument about not suing other Christians. He’s saying that we shouldn’t be quick to rush to judgment, and once we do make informed judgments, we should be quick to try to punish others. We should understand where they are coming from and see that they are coming from the same places that we are coming from. We need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and we need to do this because we really did wear those same shoes before Christ washed us and sanctified us by His blood and the power of His Spirit.
Listen to Paul’s argument when we connect it in this way:
Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! Do you not know that the unrighteous will not 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 and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:7-9, 11)
What’s the implication? The implication is that we should not continue to act the way that we used to act before coming to Christ, and we also shouldn’t respond to our brothers in a vengeful way if they are still immature and behaving sinfully. If they slip up and make mistakes, we should understand that this is because they are just like us.
Welcoming sinners means welcoming sinners. How did you expect them to behave? Understanding salvation means that we can bear with a certain amount of frustration, disappointment, and even downright nonsense. We must identify with sinners in order to avoid acting like them, and this includes both the sinful actions and the sinful reactions.
Now, having said all of this, I don’t mean that we only and always “put up” with sin. Not at all. We preach and teach against it. We even use church discipline when necessary. But this is always done in a calm manner, for the sake of the gospel. We do not use the Church as a weapon. We do not try to get revenge through discipline. And we can never carry out discipline in a proud or angry way. We do expect sinners to progress in holiness, but we can only help them along the way in the same way that we make progress, by preaching the gospel and learning to love the gospel.
We’ve asked three questions today. “Does sin matter?”, “Can you accept forgiveness?”, and “Can you accept forgiven sinners?” These questions are all connected, and that means that their answers mutually support one another. If sin doesn’t matter—if it is easy to conquer on its own or if God simply doesn’t care about it, then you won’t really appreciate forgiveness. It’s not a big deal, because, after all, the thing you were being forgiven of wasn’t a big deal. But if sin does matter, then your own forgiveness is a big deal. It requires God to satisfy the demands of ultimate justice, at the cost of the death of His son. And if your own forgiveness is a big deal, then the forgiveness of others has to be a big deal. They have been bought at the same price and with the same currency, and so if you accept your own forgiveness, then you must accept the forgiveness of others.
As Jesus says, “To whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47). In order to love others with a great love, we have to have been forgiven a great debt. To see that forgiveness requires us to also see that debt, to see our debt. But when we do, then we can see what great blessing we have been giving. This is what changes us, and this is the vision we have to impart to others so that they can change as well.
Let us pray.