1 Cor. 6:9‑11

1 Cor. 6:9‑11

SERIES: Christ Is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis

Your Past Doesn’t Define You

Introduction:  Have you known people who were prisoners of their past?  Either they have done something that society or family will not let them forget, or they have done something they won’t let themselves forget, or they have suffered some trauma they keep reliving.  Our mental hospitals are full of people whose inability to deal with the past has resulted in a near total loss of contact with reality.  Many suicides can be traced directly to the fact that a person allowed his past regrets to control his present destiny.  

Sadly, sometimes even those devoted to helping people escape their pasts inadvertently perpetuate the perception that the past defines a person.  If you have ever been involved in a 12-Step Program, you are aware that each person is encouraged to introduce himself this way, “Hello, I’m Sue, and I’m an alcoholic.…” or “I’m John, and I’m a sexual addict….”   I know what the program is trying to do–to help a person be honest about his problem as the first step toward healing.  But I disagree that anyone, least of all a Christian, should define himself that way.  How much better to say, “Hello, I’m Dave and I’m a child of God who is addicted to alcohol.” 

Putting it that way is so much better because no person can consistently behave in a manner inconsistent with the way he perceives himself.  If we perceive of our basic identity in terms of our past behavior, we will have a strong tendency to revert to that behavior in times of pressure.  On the other hand, if we perceive of our basic identity as a child of God, we will be much more likely to act like a child of God.  Proverbs 23:7 reads, “As a man thinks within himself, so he is.”  

My chief concern this morning is for Christians who are unable to put the past behind them, and the result is defeated lives, a lack of joy, and complete ineffectiveness in ministry.  Our passage today conveys a most amazing truth:  there is no sinner so gross or so corrupt that Jesus Christ cannot make a past tense out of his or her lifestyle.  But it also tells us that the past must remain in the past.  I encourage you to open your Bibles and keep them open, but if you don’t have one with you, our Scripture text will be on the screen.

“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders {10} nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. {11} 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)  

In the three verses that are our text today, the Apostle Paul is making three basic points: (1) The unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God, (2) The unrighteous do not have to stay that way, and (3) The righteous have no business living like the unrighteous.  

The unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  (9-10)

This truth is clearly stated twice in our text, first as a general statement, and then again following a list of specific sins that constitute an unrighteous lifestyle.  The Apostle first tells his readers that …

This is a truth we ought to know but concerning which we are easily deceived.  For the third time now in this chapter we hear the rhetorical question, “Do you not know?”  He will repeat it three more times before the chapter is finished.  Whenever Paul uses this question, it is always regarding something which his readers have an obligation to know.  They had been clearly taught on this subject, so there were no excuses for their ignorance.  Neither are there any excuses for us.  The unrighteous simply will not inherit the kingdom of God.  

But it is easy to be deceived regarding this warning.  One way is by making too little of it.  The other is by taking it too far.

1.   Some make too little of it.  They invoke the cherished doctrine of eternal security, or, as it is sometimes expressed, “once saved, always saved,” whenever they face any warning passage in Scripture.  They say that as soon as a person professes faith in Christ, he becomes a child of God, and from that point on no sin in his life can affect the security of his relationship with God.  God already knew every sin he would ever commit and forgave every sin when he accepted Christ.  After all, Rom. 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”  If you sin, it’s no big deal; just confess it and God will wipe your slate clean.  The warning in our text, according to this view, then, must be a warning to unbelievers, not to the saved, for the saved have eternal security.[i]

But I am not convinced by this argument.  What is the point of making such a trite statement as, “Do you not know that unbelievers shall not inherit the kingdom of God?”  Of course, they won’t.  Obviously, Paul means more than that.  He’s speaking to the whole church, believers and unbelievers alike (every church is a mixed multitude!), possessors and merely professors, and saying that those whose lifestyles are characterized by fornication, idolatry, adultery, etc., are fooling themselves if they think they’re going to heaven.  After all, everyone who professes faith does not possess saving faith.  So, we must not deceive ourselves by making too little of what Paul is saying.  

But there are others who deceive themselves by taking the warning too far.  

2.  Some take it too far.  They teach that if a Christian commits any of these listed sins, he loses his salvation and is no longer an heir of the kingdom.  This person, on the surface, seems to be a bit more honest with the text, but he’s not entirely out of the woods.  Suppose a committed Christian in a weaker moment slanders someone and, in accord with verse 10, loses his right to inherit the kingdom.  Does even the one who rejects the doctrine of eternal security want to say this person will go to hell for just one case of slandering?  No, so what he may do is excuse him on the basis that the sin was not premeditated.  Or he may point out that he repented immediately afterward, and thus was forgiven.  Or, if the sin was premeditated and not confessed immediately, he may allow for the person to get saved again at some point in the future.  

But that raises theological problems of its own, for if the Bible teaches that a person can lose his salvation, it also teaches that he cannot be saved again.  Heb. 6:6 says plainly, “If they fall away, it is impossible for them to be brought back to repentance.”  

Frankly, I do not believe we have to choose either of these extremes.  We do not have to reject any application of this warning to the believer’s life, nor should we exclude from the kingdom all professing Christians who have been guilty of one or more of the listed sins.  We can instead take sin seriously, very seriously, but at the same time take the grace of God seriously.  

Let’s face it, Paul wrote these verses to a believing church and they are designed as a stringent warning to all those in the church.  Christians who are tolerating a pattern of sin in their lives are being totally inconsistent with their profession, and they have no biblical grounds for claiming the security of a relationship with God so long as they continue to live in sin.  I’m not saying they aren’tsaved, for only God knows whether they are or not; I am simply saying they have no right to claimthey are saved.

Now before moving on to see what the grace of God can do for a person whose life is characterized by unrighteousness, I think it would be of some value to spend a few minutes discussing the categories of sinners that are listed.  These ten kinds of sinners are not listed just to spike up a rather boring theological treatise.  They are mentioned for a purpose.  I do not believe the list is exhaustive but rather representative of the kinds of lifestyles that will keep people out of heaven.  Sexual sins predominate in the list, as one can see, which is not surprising considering the sex‑saturated society Paul was addressing.  

1.  The sexually immoral are first on the list.  When this term is used along with the word “adultery,” as here, it generally refers to immorality among the unmarried.  Our society is fast approaching the point of virtual universal approval of premarital sex.  It is portrayed, magazines, movies and TV as the norm of human living.  And the vast majority of young people are buying into that, including, I regret to say, some Christian teenagers and young adults.  

Scripture could not be clearer on this subject.  Sex outside marriage is sin and is terribly destructive.  Let me say that again.  Sex outside marriage is sin and is terribly destructive.  Friday there was an article in USA Today about Jesse Jackson’s recently reported adulterous affair that produced a child some 20 months ago.  I have no desire to take potshots at him personally, but I will take one at Jackson’s biographer, Marshall Frady, who was asked what affect this revelation might have on Rev. Jackson’s ministry: “It’ll hurt a little, when you’re talking about his moral evangelism with black youth, but this might, as it did with Martin Luther King, lend him a complexity that enhances the moral grandeur of the man.”[ii]  

Give me a break!  An affair enhancing the moral grandeur of a person?!?  Not in God’s eyes, friends, not in God’s eyes.  Next Sunday, by the way, we will study the next paragraph in 1 Cor. 6.  The sermon will be entitled, “Six Reasons Why Sex Outside Marriage is Wrong.”

2.  Idolaters are those who worship false gods and get involved in false religious systems and cults.  In our day, as in Paul’s, no belief or practice seems too bizarre to get a following; in fact, the more absurd a cult is, the more likely it will grow.  One might think it odd that idolatry is mentioned between sexual immorality and adultery, but there’s a good reason.  The dominant building in Corinth was the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, where idolatry and promiscuity flourished side by side.  To be involved in idolatry virtually required one to be involved in immorality.  In our own day as well, there is often a connection between abandonment of the authority of God’s Word and immoral behavior, for one’s beliefs and practices cannot long remain in a state of disequilibrium.

3.  Adulterers are those married persons who indulge in sexual acts outside the marriage bond.  Because marriage is sacred, that is an especially heinous sin in God’s sight.  The OT actually required the death penalty for adultery, even when it was between consenting adults.  Adultery corrupts the participants themselves, as well as destroys the family and society.  

4 & 5.  Male prostitutes and homosexual offenders are the passive and active partners, respectively, in a homosexual relationship.  In Paul’s day homosexuality was rampant, both in Greece and Rome.  In his commentary on this passage, William Barclay reports that Socrates was definitely a homosexual and Plato probably was.  Further, historians tell us that 14 of the first 15 Roman Emperors were homosexual, and most of them practiced their perversions openly.  

In the past two decades, one of the most amazingly successful campaigns for public opinion by a small minority has unfolded before our eyes, as the gay and lesbian lobbies in our country have conducted an all-out assault on traditional biblical morality.  These groups will not be satisfied until every negative voice against their lifestyle is silenced, and most of the mainstream media, the entertainment industry and the educational system have become willing participants in furthering their cause, even promoting sexual preference as a civil rights issue.  They intimidate, manipulate, and even terrorize in support of their agenda.

It is particularly tragic to me to see churches in the vanguard of advancing homosexuality as a valid life‑style.  Recently the UCC set up a special scholarship fund, paid for by the bequests of elderly, clueless church members, to fund seminary educations specifically for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. These churches are not only perverting God’s standards; they are actually encouraging their people to sin.  

But a word of caution here.  While we condemn this trend, we must not forget that God hates the sin but loves the sinner (and that’s not just a trite saying, it’s the truth!).  Jesus loves gay people no less than straight people who commit sexual sin, and He wants all to repent and come to the knowledge of His truth.  I must also say that there are no grounds for treating sexual sinners as less than human.  They have been created in the image of God and as such we should respect them as individuals and treat them with dignity, even as we reject some of their unbiblical lifestyle choices.

6 & 7.   Thieves and the covetous are both guilty of the same basic sin–greed.  The covetous person desires that which belongs to others; the thief actually takes it.  When we think of a thief we usually think of the armed robber, but the Greek word used here is kleptai, from which we get our English word, kleptomaniac.  It refers to petty thieves, pick‑pockets and shop‑lifters as much as to bank robbers.  It includes those who cheat on their taxes, “borrow” supplies from their employers, and underpay their workers.  When we think of the covetous person we usually think of the miser, but the word actually has more to do with the spendthrift, the person who is consumed by the desire to buy the newest gadget or the latest fashions.  Greed must not characterize the heirs of God’s kingdom. 

8.  Drunkards are those guilty of uncontrolled drinking.  They are not just the bums on skid row, not just the drunks, but also the executives and matrons in high society who have to have a drink before they feel relaxed enough to socialize with other people.  Alcohol consumption is one of the principal health and economic problems in our nation.  Yet, it’s been amazing to see the shift in public attitude toward drunkenness since the therapeutic community renamed it “alcoholism” and reclassified it as a disease.  The same was done with homosexuality, of course, until the gay lobby forced them to reclassify it once again as “normal behavior.”  

I believe our society will continue to classify various sins as diseases (or even as normal) until every politically correct sin is a disease.  Smoking is out of favor, of course, so it will continue to be viewed as anti-social behavior rather than a disease (that was sarcasm, just in case someone is tempted to take the comment seriously).

Maybe alcoholism is a disease, but it’s certainly an unusual disease in that no total abstainer ever came down with it.  It’s also a self‑inflicted disease.  I’m not without compassion for the alcoholic, for several close relatives of ours have died from alcoholism.  But we cannot exonerate the alcoholic merely as a victim–at the very least we must insist that he is practicing irresponsible behavior.  God calls the behavior sin.

9.  Slanderers are those who destroy others with words, either spoken or written.  God does not consider their sin to be insignificant, for slander comes from hearts full of hate and it causes misery, pain, and despair in the lives of those who are its victims.  Maybe we can bring this sin a little closer to home by recognizing that most gossip is slander, and gossip is rampant even in our Christian culture.  

10.  Swindlers are thieves who steal indirectly.  They take unfair advantage of others to promote their own financial gain.  One can think of extortionists, con artists, embezzlers, confidence men, those who do false advertising or promote inferior merchandise, and some who declare bankruptcy as a means of avoiding the payment of their debts.  Whether one steals indirectly or directly, both are condemned in Scripture and constitute a way of life that will not be permitted in the Kingdom of God. 

Now that’s a pretty nasty catalog of sins, isn’t it?  But how aptly it describes the world of Paul’s day!  And how increasingly it describes the world in which we live!  Sometimes we despair of the sin all around us, especially when it seems to get worse and worse, yet more open all the time.  

There is the danger that we will become self-righteous and say, “I don’t practice these gross sins, so I don’t need to listen to this.”  Just remember that Jesus said the one who lusts after someone they’re not married to is considered an adulterer by God, and anyone who curses or hates another is considered a murderer.  On the other hand, there are some who are caught in a besetting sin (that’s a term used by Puritans to describe addiction), who constantly hear the voice of the Accuser saying they are going to hell.  If that’s where you are, you need to learn the difference between conviction and condemnation.  We’re focusing on the former today, not the latter.

Well, enough of the bad news.  I have some good news, too, that comes in the form of our second key lesson today:

The unrighteous do not have to stay that way.   (11)

One of the beautiful things about the Gospel is that it shows how one’s present can become one’s past.  Our fate is never sealed until we take our last breath.  Verse 11 contains one of the truly great statements in all the Bible: “And such were some of you.”  That is a statement of hope following a verse of despair.  It is a statement of triumph following a verse of defeat.  And all of its meaning is wrapped up in the tense of the verb.  “And such were some of you.”  

It’s sad, but you can never live down your past with some people.  What you were is what you will always be as far as they are concerned.  If you ever lied to them, you are a liar.  If you ever stole, you are a thief.  If you were ever divorced, you are a divorcee.  

Not so with God.  He can take the ugliest present and turn it into a past tense.  He can make a person a former idolater, a former adulterer, a former slanderer, and a former alcoholic.  In fact, there is no life too gross or too corrupt that Jesus Christ cannot make a past tense out of it.  The only person unredeemable is the one whose heart is too proud or too hard to accept God’s forgiveness.  All others can experience transformation.  In other words, a lost sinner can become a sinner saved by grace. 

When I was teaching at Miami Christian College in the early 70’s, I had a student who had been a wild man on the campus of Florida State University before he became a Christian and enrolled to study for the ministry.   He told me that he had had sexual relations with over 300 women before he was 21, and his reputation backed up his claim.  But God got hold of that young man, he was converted, and after Bible College he began to pastor a little Baptist church in the south part of Miami.  The man has scars from his past; in fact, that’s why he told me about his past–he was seeking counseling to deal with some of those scars.  But he made it clear that there was no way he would trade one day of his Christian life for all the years he lived in immorality.  When he reads that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God, he realizes that, but for the grace of God, that verse included him, for such he was.

There are, of course, many people who undergo some kind of reformation of their character.  Every religion has examples of reformation they can parade forth to show that their religion makes a difference.  But only Jesus Christ can go beyond reformation to permanent transformation

The radical change that constitutes transformation is described in verse 11 in a three‑fold manner.  “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.”  The repetition of the conjunction “but” three times may not be very good grammar; in fact, the NIV and most modern translations include it only once.  However, it is found in the Greek text three times, and it expresses the strongest possible contrast in the Greek language.  Paul is trying to set up the incredible difference between the past and the present in their lives.  “This is what you were, but this happened, but this happened, but this happened.”

All three of the verbs are in the past tense, actually a tense that in Greek generally speaks of once‑for‑all action.  Something climactic happened to them and they would never be the same!  Let’s examine each of these three actions which must take place before a lost sinner can be transformed into a sinner saved by grace.

1.  He must be washed.  There are two distinct interpretations of the phrase, “you were washed.”  One sees it as the washing of regeneration by the blood of Christ, while the other sees it as baptism.  The problem with the former is that it doesn’t fit the grammar.  The verb “washed” is not in the passive voice, as our English Bibles would make us think, but rather in the Greek middle voice, and it should probably be translated, “you washed yourselves.”  

That leads me to think that Paul is talking about the washing of baptism.  I’m certainly not a believer in salvation by baptism (and I don’t think this passage teaches that), but neither do I think we should make it say something else if Paul meant to refer to baptism.  Acts 22:16, I believe, throws some light on our passage. That verse says, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”  Here we find the same verb, also in the middle voice, and its connection with baptism is undeniable.  

It is not baptism which saves a person, but in the NT, baptism is viewed as the human side of conversion.  These Corinthians had been gross sinners, but they had turned to Christ for a spiritual washing which was symbolized by being baptized.  Their present became their past when they had themselves washed.

2.  He must be sanctified.  This second phrase turns our attention to God’s side of conversion.  The verb is again past tense, but now is in the passive voice, showing that the subject is being acted upon by God.  The term sanctification, like washing, has two possible meanings in the NT–one is objective and the other is subjective.  The root meaning of the word is “to set apart” or “to cause someone to become holy,” and normally we think of it in the subjective sense.  That is, we speak of someone becoming sanctified as he becomes more mature and holy in his living patterns.  

But sometimes the word is used objectively or positionally to describe a person’s status before God when he believes.  In other words, when a person becomes a Christian he is immediately sanctified or set apart from his old allegiances and set apart to God.  Subjective sanctification should, of course, follow objective sanctification, just as maturity should follow birth, but here, because of the past tense, I am inclined to think Paul is speaking primarily of objective sanctification, or the believer’s position in Christ.

3.  He must be justified.  This is the third great thing that must happen if a lost sinner is to become a sinner saved by grace.  This verb, too, is in the past tense and passive voice, since it is God who justifies–no man ever yet justified himself in God’s sight, though many have tried.  

The doctrine of justification is a beautiful and fundamental biblical truth.  The closest synonym for “justification” is “acquittal.”  In a criminal court the defendant may well be guilty, but if he is declared “not guilty” for lack of evidence or for any other reason, then he is set free, and because of the law of double jeopardy, he can never be tried for that crime again.  

Our case before God is similar legally.  We stand before Him guilty of many crimes.  While the evidence is perfectly clear, there is One who represents us as attorney for the defense.  He says, “My clients are guilty as charged.  But their crimes have already been paid for.  I died for them.”  And the Judge turns to this Attorney, whose name is Jesus Christ the Righteous, and says, “I am satisfied.  The defendants are acquitted of all charges.  They are free to go and can never again be charged for those sins.”[iii]  Can there be a greater truth in all of Christianity than the fact that gross sinners are justified on the basis of the shed blood of Christ?  I don’t know what it would be. 

Now I believe the Apostle Paul has one more proposition to communicate to the Corinthians in these three verses besides the fact that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God and the unrighteous do not have to stay that way.  This third proposition is not stated as such, but I think it can be read clearly between the lines.  It is this: 

The righteous have no business living like the unrighteous.

I would try to paraphrase Paul’s entire message in 1 Cor. 6:9‑11 this way:  

“We all know that sin and the kingdom are antithetical to one another. We all know that those who live in gross sin, whose lives are characterized by such things as fornication, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, and drunkenness, and slander are not going to Heaven.  Some of you used to be like that until your lives were transformed.  But seeing that you have been transformed, you who name the name of Christ have no business doing the same deeds which characterize hell‑bent sinners.  It makes no difference what you were before you were saved.  God can save a sinner from any and all sin.  But it makes a great deal of difference what you are like afterwards.”

What the Apostle is fighting here is the common tendency to divorce morality from religion.  This is constantly being done on the irreligious left and on the religious right.  On the left the argument is made that morality is personal and no organization or church has the right to absolutize moral principles for any individual.  That’s why they tolerate politicians who claim to be orthodox Jews or devout Roman Catholics, so long as they vote pro-abortion and pro-homosexuality, moral positions that are contrary to their religions.   It also explains their intense opposition to someone like John Ashcroft.  The fact that he is an evangelical Christian doesn’t particularly bother them; what bothers them is that he holds consistent evangelical Christian viewpoints on subjects like abortion.  They want him to divorce his faith from his morality, like they so readily do.  

But there are those on the religious right who also divorce morality from religion.  They teach that it’s more important how people believe than how they behave.  Doctrine is more important than duty.  Though they would never say so in so many words, their position amounts to the conclusion that you can practice fornication or adultery and still go to heaven just so long as your beliefs are OK.  Well, Paul doesn’t buy that attitude.  To him it’s a distortion of all that Christianity stands for.  A Christian must never view his standing with God as a free ticket to sin but rather as a compulsion to forsake sin.  A Christian’s beliefs cannot be divorced from his behavior.  Beliefs affect behavior and behavior affects beliefs.

Conclusion:  Friends, let me repeat again that there is no sin you have committed that can’t become a past tense condition under Christ’s shed blood.  You don’t have to be a prisoner of your past.  In Christ you can rise above your past to live a life that gives great glory to God. 

The change that is achievable in a person’s life through Christ is remarkable.  Where else can you go but to Church to find a large number of former fornicators, former adulterers, former homosexuals, former thieves, former drunkards, former slanderers.  In fact, I wonder if I asked all of you who fit into one of these categories (and some not listed but just as serious, like those formerly in bondage to drugs, pornography, eating disorders, anger, etc.) to stand, how many of us would be left sitting? Well, why not do it?  If this passage describes what you once were, will you stand?  (More than half the congregation stood)

Well, if you’re scandalized at that response, let me remind you once again, this is a hospital, not a country club.  Welcome to the Intensive Care Unit of the Church, West St. Louis County version.  We are here to help you break free once and for all from the sins that drag you down.  You know what I am talking about–that one thing in your life that you can’t seem to control or get a grip on. Every one of us has a weakness Satan exploits to try to defeat and discourage us, to condemn us, saying, “There you go again.  How can you be a Christian, how can you say you love Jesus when you commit that same, shameful sin over and over again.  Then you just go back to God and ask Him to forgive and you do it again.  You’re a phony!”  

Friends, that voice is not from God but from the devil.  Yes, this passage is a stern warning to those whose lifestyles demonstrate they are on the road to hell, but it provides great encouragement and great hope for the children of God that, by the blood and power of Jesus Christ, you can and will be set free!  But before anyone can become a former anything, he must be willing to admit his sinful and hopeless condition before God.  He must accept the fact that Jesus Christ has paid for his sins by His death on Calvary’s cross.  

Christ can make a difference.  He can set you free.  He’s the only one who can.  Will you let Him?      

DATE: January 21, 2001


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[i] Those who espouse this view will present as evidence the fact that the word “unrighteous” is frequently used in the Bible as a synonym for “unbeliever.” In fact, it is so used right here in chapter 6, verse 1: “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?”

[ii] USA Today, January 19, 2001, “Jesse Jackson reveals affair, child,” p. 3A.

[iii] Perhaps the question arises as to why these three great truths of washing, sanctification and justification are given in this order.  The chronological order is just the reverse.  Maybe it’s because the emphasis in the passage is on the need for human response to the gift of salvation.  Or perhaps he is drilling down from the most visible issue (baptism) to the most foundational (justification).  In other words, “you were baptized, you were even sanctified, most of all you were justified.”