Does Illicit Sex (or Greed, or Slander or...) Exclude One From Heaven?
Jan 31, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 3 Comments
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, updated NIV)
In our last blog, we argued that the updated NIV, printed above, treated the last two Greek nouns of 1 Corinthians 6:9 as well as any English translation and better than most, inasmuch as the words referred to the more passive and more active partners in male homosexual intercourse (thus “men who have sex with men”). But what does the entire two-verse sentence in which these problematic nouns are embedded mean?
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6, has been arguing against believers suing other believers. In verse 9 he generalizes to speak of all wrongdoing. The word translated “wrongdoers” is adikos—the “unjust, unrighteous, dishonest, untrustworthy” (from the lexicon of Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker). Then he offers not just one example, those who sue one another, but quite a few more, several of which have to do with sexual sin. But Paul also mentions those who worship idols, who steal in various ways, or are covetous and would like to, drunkards, and those who tell lies about others. The list could go on much longer as other New Testament vice lists make clear. Verse 11, however, introduces a contrast by continuing, “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.”
What exactly is Paul’s point? It would be easy to imagine that he is doing something similar to what he does in Romans 1:18-3:20—hammering home the point that everyone is a sinner of some kind, that no one therefore can save themselves by good works, even works of the divinely given Law, and therefore all of us need a Savior, who is Jesus. But here Paul is not setting out the logic of the gospel in systematic fashion as in Romans. He is going through a checklist of problems in the church at Corinth among those who are already believers, trying to get them to stop behaving so badly. While every person does wrong at various times, it doesn’t seem that Paul is thinking of all people here, including all Christians, but of those who habitually are involved in serious offenses against God and others. Those who keep on suing one another over and over again show by their actions that they have not really embraced the forgiveness that characterizes God’s love poured out in believers’ hearts. Something similar must be true of the other categories of sinners Paul lists.
It is probably significant that Paul uses a series of nouns throughout 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. He is not talking about those who occasionally act in a certain way—whether by committing heterosexual or homosexual sin or stealing or slandering, etc. He is talking about those whose lives are so characterized by certain sins that they demonstrate no difference from those around them who do not claim Christ. That’s why he uses the past tense in verse 10 to explain that some of the Corinthians used to be among such people, but they were cleansed, they were sanctified, they were justified. By putting the verbs in that order, he also suggests that he is not thinking merely of God’s treating someone as if they’d never sinned (justification). He is thinking of actual moral change for the better (washing and sanctification).
In other words, while genuine Christians do, sadly, commit sexual sin, steal, covet, swindle, slander, and so on, and may even struggle over a lifetime with one or more of these sins, somewhere there is a threshold, known only to God, where someone’s life is so characterized by a particular sin or sins, where there is no perceivable behavioral difference from an unbeliever, that one has to ask if the Spirit has ever truly come to indwell them and begun, as he always will do, a process of transformation in their life, however erratic that process may be. At that point they can be characterized not just as someone who has often swindled another person, but someone who is a “swindler,” not just someone who struggles with premarital heterosexual sex, or adultery, or same-gender sex, but who is a fornicator, an adulterer, or a homosexual practitioner. Just like the couple on a date who ask the wrong question when they inquire “how far” they can go without sinning, we ask the wrong question when we wonder how close to such a threshold we can be without crossing it. The right question for the dating couple is how much they can do to build each other up in Christian love, and the right question for the reader of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is how far away from being characterized by one of these nouns he or she can get.