In our summer series on Holiness we began looking at Our Holy Godin Isaiah 6, then moved on to His Holy Peoplein 1 Peter 1, we saw David’s Longings for Holinessin Psalm 101, and we heard the Lord roar from Zion Rebuking Unholiness in Amos 5. Today we continue to look at holiness from the viewpoint of the congregation at Corinth. And in a sense, last week’s message in Amos and this week’s message in 1 Cor. go hand in hand. Amos showed us what happened when Old Testament Israel grew spiritually lazy and allowed unholiness among them. They were thoroughly rebuked by God and sent into exile. Today as we venture into the sins of the Corinthian congregation Paul will show us much of the same. What happens when a New Testament Church grows spiritually lazy and allows unholiness among them? They also are thoroughly rebuked, but there’s more. Paul does rebuke them, he does give them certain instructions to follow in such an instance, but he doesn’t only do these things. He gives them gospel comfort. To see these things play out I’d like to invite you to turn with me to 1 Corinthians 5-6 where we see the instructions given on how to handle sin (or unholiness) in the life of the Church.
After addressing the Corinthians tendencies to form cliques, after addressing their tendencies to latch onto celebrity pastors, and after addressing their tendencies to be divided in all kinds of ways, you’d think he’d be done exposing their sin but there’s more sin present in them that needs to be dealt with. Specifically in chapter 5 Paul speaks to a situation of unholiness and calls for discipline that works towards the good of the wayward individual as well as the purity of the Church. Then in chapter 6 Paul gives question after question speaking more broadly about even more kinds of unholiness they were involved in. To sum it up we could just say this: the Church in Corinth was a mess. That is clear. Did you catch 5:9? It mentions that Paul wrote a previous letter to them. This means 1 Corinthians is most likely 2 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians is most likely 3 Corinthians. Albert Mohler once laughed at this commenting that these letters were so full of sin that the Holy Spirit only allowed us to see two of them!
Well from diving into this mess, we’ll see their many sins, we’ll see how to deal with our own sins, and as I just said, we’ll see much about how gospel comfort brings us and moves us toward holy living within the Church.
Sin, Discipline, and Holiness (5:1-6:8)
Listen to Paul describe the specifics in 5:1, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.”
Widely known for it’s licentiousness and loose living Corinth was one of the chief cities especially suited for sowing wild oats. So many oats were sown that Corinth reaped a widespread reputation for being the epicenter of vice in the 1stcentury. But sadly, within Corinth itself the Church had a worse reputation and to this very day whenever one speaks of the Corinthians the sin of chapter 5 quickly rises to the surface.Why? Not solely because of sexual immorality. No, something worse was allowed to exist among them, something so atrocious that the pagans even blushed at it. “…for a man has his father’s wife.” This man’s mother had most likely died and he was now living with his stepmother who may or may not have already divorced his father because of this sinful relationship.Whatever the details were there is no doubt about what’s happening here. 5:1 implies that this had been going on for sometime and was still going on at the time Paul wrote this letter to them. In such cases Paul is clear. The Church in Corinth must discipline the wayward man. Listen to 5:2-5, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
Yes this man’s sin needs rebuking, but see how Paul calls out the Church in Corinth for how they’ve tolerated this man’s sin and allowed it to exist? This sin should’ve humbled them, shamed them, and brought the Church to repentance but v2 says they were arrogant. Perhaps they justified this man’s sin away saying it was a unique circumstance that required some more thought before any action is taken. Perhaps they saw it as a matter of this man’s Christian liberty to do as he pleased. Perhaps because such stout early Church theologians had taught them they thought God would overlook such things. Notice what Paul’s instruction is. Does he say this man’s membership is to be suspended? Or that this man should be enter into a lengthy counseling program? Or even that this man should be sent off to a rehab center where he can heal and grow. No, none of that is in play here. Paul’s instruction is simple and straightforward. “Let him who has done this be removed from among you…you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…” On this man Paul has already pronounced the judgment the Church wouldn’t. So, he says, the very next time they assemble together in the name of the Lord Jesus, to worship the Lord Jesus, they are to remove the man who refuses to obey the Lord Jesus. Why? For His own good. To destroy the unruly lusts of his sinful flesh for sure, but more “…so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” If he refuses to obey Christ, the Church can no longer affirm his profession of faith in Christ, which means he must be removed from the Church of Christ for the very purpose of rebuking him, humbling him, bringing him to repentance so that he’ll be saved, in the end, on the day of Christ.
Many think this kind of excommunication is arrogant judgment within the Church that’s inconsistent with love, but it’s in fact the opposite. Love cannot be true where there is no discipline. Hebrews 12:6 tells us “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines…” Remember, as the Father let his prodigal son wander off with his inheritance to allow the bitter consequences of what he’d chosen be experienced, so too this man in Corinth was to be removed so he’d experience the consequences of his sin.To not obey the Lord in removing this man who’s not obeying the Lord is also sin against the Lord. The Corinthians apparently weren’t willing to do it, so Paul commanded them to do it, for this man’s own good, in effect saying, ‘Love him in this way.’
Paul goes further. He says the wayward man in view shouldn’t only be removed for his own good, but should be removed for the good of the Church as well. We see this in 5:6-13 where Paul warns them of the effects sin can have when left undealt with. It’s like pickles…follow me here. Pickles are to some people what make the sandwich or burger complete, providing that last little garnish that elevates the flavors to their highest potential. These people are wrong. Why take a perfectly good cucumber (or anything for that matter) and drop it into vinegar to make it better? I hate pickles. Not only do they taste awful, they leave a residue that is impossible to remove. For example…once at Chick-Fil-A I ordered a spicy chicken sandwich without pickles. Accidently someone put pickles on it, it was brought to the table, I picked it up and opened it to see if pickles were left off or not (as has become my custom)…and to my dismay they were still there! I knew what was going to happen. As quick as I could I reached down and took them off, cleaned my hands off, and looked back at the bun and saw those two little green circles where the pickle juice had soaked into the bun. It was all over. I ate the sandwich, don’t hear me wrong, but the instant I bit near those circles you could taste and smell the green ooze of pickle juice…it had invaded this perfectly good sandwich.
Lesson? Sin left undealt with is like pickles, it invades everything in a church. Paul uses another image, one from the Passover. Like leaven that easily and quickly goes through the whole dough, sin left alone in the congregation eventually effects and impacts the whole congregation. Or to say it another way, sin no one deals with eventually becomes sin that everyone deals with.What can they do to become pure once again? They must remove the old leaven so they would become a new lump. This is, after all, why Christ the true Passover Lamb was sacrificed – to make His people pure and holy. As Israel was set free from Egypt as a result of the Passover and made a clean break from them, so too the Christian from the work of Christ the Passover Lamb has been set free from the world, the flesh, and devil and because of Christ’s work we are now to make a clean break from the sin that entangles us.If the Corinthians continue in their sinful arrogance they show themselves to be soaked through with the leaven of malice and evil, when they were bought and redeemed and filled with the Spirit of God in order to soak them through with the gospel leaven of sincerity and truth.
‘I told you this already!’ Paul says next in 5:9. ‘Do not associate with sexually immoral people’ is his instruction. Helpfully he clarifies that he is referring to those inside the Church not those outside the Church. For if we were to not associate with anyone who is sexually immoral we could not be in society and would be forced to set up monasteries shut off from the world as a whole. Rather, those who are sexually immoral and profess to be brothers and sisters in Christ, those people are the ones we’re not to associate with, and more so, not even eat with. Don’t worry about those outside, he says, God will judge them. You worry about those inside. Here Paul quotes a whole host of passages from Deuteronomy saying the Church is to purge, remove, excommunicate, the evil among it to remain holy. Apparently Paul believed, and spoke as if the Corinthians should’ve believed, that the Old Testament calls for community holiness apply to New Testament churches as well.
The Church, therefore, isn’t called to reform society but to always and ever be reforming itself ensuring we remain distinct from the world in order to be a distinct witness for the world. Because whether we like it or not, it is the Church that displays the character of God to the watching world. Which means we should ask, is the world learning truths about God by looking at us? Or are they learning errors about God by looking at us? All of this is why Church discipline matters in regards to holiness. When a member of our congregation attends regularly without hiding any sin or secret rebellion, even if they struggle with sin deeply and know the Church is a hospital for sinners we consider them to be members in good standing. But when a member of our congregation, someone inside the Church who professes to know Christ, begins keeping their distance from the body of Christ and acting in ways that are against Christ, we approach them about it and challenge them to repent and return. If they repent, we all rejoice! If they do not, we warn them of the end of this road…if they do not repent and continue in their sin after all the warnings we will give we will excommunicate them to keep the congregation holy.
If we see this and do nothing about it, or if you see this and do nothing about it, we become partners with them in their sin and the leaven of evil will saturate us. This man was openly committing wicked acts in Corinth and they did nothing, so Paul instructed them to remove him, for his good yes, but also for the good of the Church.
After dealing with this specific issue going on among them, Paul turns to even more sins present in the Corinthian congregation. We see this as chapter 6 begins and the questions begin flowing out Paul’s pen. 6:1-8. “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!”
If Christians are to sit in judgment over the world and sit in judgment over angels, can we not handle the smaller matters and disagreements between ourselves? Paul thinks they should be able to do this, and that there are wise enough people among them to handle these things. Yet it seems the Corinthians, not unlike ourselves, were more concerned about how they were mistreated then how they ought to be showing the unbelieving world a Christ-like gospel love. This, Paul says, is already a defeat for them and their witness in Corinth. They ought to be content when treated wrongly by another believer and seek, insofar as we can, to resolve the matter among other believers. We too must learn the same in an effort to maintain our witness to the world. Of course they are times when we are legally obligated to go before a civil court where unbelievers will oversee, but even there the Christian is to glorify God in all things and not seek the advantage of self to the harm of another brother or sister in Christ.Mark Dever rightly calls to us here saying, “My brothers and sisters, we claim to follow Christ, but which way did He go? He went the way of self-giving. Think again, do you really want to follow Him?…Do you find yourself feeling sharply the wrongs others have done to you? Do you remember the Lord’s Prayer where we ask God to forgive us as we have forgiven others? What would need to change in your own heart for you to be more content at being wrongly treated?”
Charles Spurgeon one time said “I believe one reason why the Church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has much influence over the Church.” May we ever seek, not to master, but to be mastered and influenced by God not the world, that we would live holy lives and be a witness of gospel light in this dark and sinful world.
Sin, Gospel, and Holiness (6:9-11)
After all of this, our passage ends today with Paul giving a gospel reminder in 6:9-11, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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.”
Here, as Paul winds down his rebuke and instructions concerning their many sins, we get why he would say v9-10 before moving onto another theme, but why does he say v11? After this passage so full of sin to speak such a gospel reminder seems like a deviation from Paul’s purpose. But is it? Of course not. In fact, v11 is meant to reinforce everything he’s just said. They were acting like their former selves before they were converted. The list in v9-10 described who they used to be, but having turned from sin and turned to Christ in faith v11 reminds them that they have become something new. Their problem was that they had returned to previous sins. But they were washed, sanctified, made holy, and justified fully and forever in Christ…by Christ…and now they must live for Christ. In other words, this is what you used to be, but God has made you holy, live holy in the Church.
v11 is evidence of the remarkable fact that although this congregation (and ours as well) is full of sin we are still the Church of Christ.In 1:2 Paul introduced this letter calling them saints! Would you believe it if he hadn’t written it? No way! But they are. And so the call to holy living in our holiness series this week is a call to holiness within the Church…which is really the same as the call to holiness outside the Church…be who you now are.
May God continually make us like pickles, growing more and more holy by being irreversibly saturated by gospel grace.