The Word of God, in the passage last studied, thus lifts into relief two classes of sins, giving a signal example of each, namely, strife and fornication—the one operating mainly in the moral, and the other in the physical, realm of man's being.
These are set forth as jeopardizing our reaching the highest privileges toward which God is leading onward His sons. And it is impressive to discover that in other epistles also these same classes of offences are set in the same connection, and are reprobated as involving the same severe loss.
In the Christian assembly at Corinth grave evils had developed since Paul had left them. In writing to correct these he deals first with the evil that is first dealt with in Hebrews xii, 14, namely, strife: "Ye are yet carnal...there is among you jealousy and strife" (iii, 3).
Then he proceeds to deal next with that which is also next dealt with in the Hebrews' passage: "It is actually reported that there is fornication among you" (v, 1); and he names precisely the same heinous sort of fornication as we have seen cost Reuben his birthright. Later (xi, 21), he will solemnly condemn their sins of appetite (gluttony and drunkenness) indulged in at their love feasts, and which entirely vitiated their outward observance of the Lord's Supper. This corresponds to Esau's carnal preference for a tempting meal.
Next he enlarges upon the serious loss which the unwise and unskilled workman will incur in the day of Christ, even though himself be saved, and yet this with pain and difficulty (iii, 10-17); which answers to the essence of the warning in Hebrews xii, 15, to "look carefully lest any man fall short of the grace of God."
In chapter vi he has severely censured another evil, and one sadly common among God's people to-day—covetousness; a sin often rather admired, in its results at least, than abhorred. A covetous man (pleonektees) is simply one who is eager to have more than at present. It may be right things that he desires, and he may not intend at the outset to acquire them by other than morally right methods: but he must have more—whether a little more or much more is not the question: he is not "content with such things as he hath" (Heb. xiii, 5), and therefore he is in God's sight one of the covetous.
These Corinthian believers had turned to God from idols; they no longer bowed before blocks of precious metals or of stone. But, as God estimates, the covetous of them had reverted to idolatry, and this of a more specious and dangerous nature. For their heart had turned from Him as the only object of adoration, and they were setting their affection upon something else, it mattered not what; and thus covetousness is idolatry (Col. iii, 5), and the covetous man is an idolater (Eph. v, 5). Let the western Christian or the convert from Islam, who thinks loftily of his life as compared with that of the "poor heathen," ponder this dictum of our God, and search and try his own heart, lest haply he too in the sight of God be nothing better than an idolater.
In a powerful sermon upon 1 Tim. vi, 9, John Wesley dwells upon the definition of "being rich" which is supplied by the context. " Having food and coverings," says the apostles, "we shall be therewith content. But they that desire to be rich "— they who, in contrast to this contentment, will to have more than these necessaries, are the covetous. That God should sometimes allow more than this to some of His people, whose hearts crave not for it, and who will therefore use it well, is one thing: that any should set the mind on the acquiring of treasure makes them to be of the covetous.
Do we not well to give diligent heed to our Lord's urgent exhortation, "See to it, and be always guarding yourselves (present imperative middle verb) from every kind of covetousness" (Lk xii, 15)? And this was spoken to and concerning one who appears to have wanted only what was his by right.
The apostle has numerous and powerful weapons that he directs against these malpractices.
He warns the contentious that if, by provoking dissension in the Christian circle or assembly, they mar its peace and sanctity as God's house where He dwells, then God will similarly mar them as individuals. They destroy (mar per LXX.; Jer. xiii, 9—E.V. mar.) the house of God (the assembly of His people), and God will mar them in the midst of it or destroy them out of it (I Cor. iii. 17).
To what this points is seen when he later declares that the fornicator is liable to "the destruction of the flesh" at the hands of Satan, that is, to present bodily death, though the spirit will be ultimately saved (v, 5), and again when he explains (xi, 29-32) that the abnormal weakness and sickness which were afflicting many of them, and the premature falling asleep in death of not a few, were the judicial chastisement of their God, Who suffers not His house and its sacred ordinances to be glaringly defiled and abused, not even by His own children. The solemn cases of Ananias and Sapphira are also illustrations.
It is worthy of remark, and the more so as the point seems usually unrecognized, that God, Who is the Father of them who are born of His Spirit, is also, and perpetually, the Supreme Governor of the universe. In this office He administers its affairs under the full scrutiny of the angelic hosts, many of these being hostile to His administration.
It is not possible for God to indulge His children in sinful courses that He would severely punish in His enemies: " there is no respect of persons with Him." His own nature forbids partiality, and so does the impossibility of leaving His ways open to just criticism by His enemies.
Indeed, He the rather makes His own family the special sphere of the exhibition of the perfection of His dealings. It is at His own sanctuary that judgment begins (Ezk. ix, 6), and this as a warning to the godless that they may not expect to escape Jer. xxv, 29). And this principle holds good in the church to day, as in Israel of old (1 Pet. iv, 17, 18). Only for His children the chastisement is parental, corrective, and temporary, however severe, for Calvary has delivered them from the eternal punishment; whereas for His foes punishment is penal, and ultimately eternal.
DISINHERITANCE OF THE COMING KINGDOM
But beyond the present consequences of their evil doings, the apostle foresees another and severer penalty, one which he plainly asserts involves the loss of their possible share in the coming kingdom.
"Or know ye not," he exclaims, " that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God ? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, not idolaters, not adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. vi, 9,10).
It is certain that here again he has in view true children of God. The warning has no possible application to one who is not a child of God.
1. Wherever inheriting is in question the relationship of a child to a parent is taken implicitly for granted: " if children, then heirs " is the universal rule (Rom. viii. 17). It were wholly idle to tell an unregenerate man that he will not inherit the portion of God's children. Of course he will not; he never had any proper ground for thinking that he would; and therefore the warning is powerless. The truth needed by such is that he will be for ever the subject of the eternal wrath of God, which is already hanging over him, and is his just portion.
2. This warning is addressed to those of whom Paul could acknowledge, "Such were some of you, but ye washed your. selves, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. v, 11).
But now he has to say, "Ye yourselves (the pronoun is emphatic: I am not talking of worldlings, but of you same individuals), ye yourselves do wrong (adikeite), and defraud": "know ye not that wrong doers (the noun of the same verb, adikoi) shall not inherit the kingdom of God?" Thus he asserts (1) that those who had been justified, sanctified, and washed from their old sins, may do wrong and were doing it; and (2) that wrong-doers (there is no article) shall not inherit the kingdom.
3. The covetous who were seeking to extort money by process of law he repeatedly calls " brethren," and sets them in distinct contrast from the "unbelievers" to whom they were appealing as judges.
4. The particulars of the incestuous man show him to have been a true believer. (a). It were drastically unbiblical to suggest that the present death of an unregenerate man will operate to the saving of his spirit in the day of Jesus Christ. This would indeed be a new way of salvation for the godless. (b). The danger of such sin as his infecting the whole assembly, if they continued to condone him therein, as leaven permeates the whole lump of dough, indicates that the peril of falling into such sins is upon all the church; and hence the warning must apply to them each.
Is it to be believed that they all were but false professors? The missionary having experience of dealing with converts from heathenism or Islam will have no difficulty in allowing that sincere believers may be entrapped into these evil deeds and states. The confessions of terrible sins wrung from real Christians at times of powerful revivings in heathen lands are evidence in point. And 2 Cor. xii, 21 shows plainly that "many of them " in Corinth had actually committed "uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness," and had continued therein for some time, for when writing even this second letter Paul fears lest he might come and find some unrepentant.
(c). Upon his repentance he was immediately, and without question, restored to fellowship, as one to whom Christian affection was due and to be confirmed (2 Cor. ii. 5-11), (d). That excommunication from Christian fellowship, or the fear thereof, overwhelmed the brother with sorrow, and caused him to cease from his entangling sin, goes far to show that he had a new heart, one of flesh and not of stone, else he would not have valued so highly the privileges of the house of God, or have felt so immediately and keenly the horror of being ejected into the outer darkness of his old heathen standing.
Perchance too, he having been taught by Paul concerning the kingdom of God, knew enough of its coming glories to be unready to risk forfeiting these, as Paul's letter assured him was his peril.
5. That Paul himself intended to address his words to all these individuals as brethren in Christ, is indicated by his sending his love to all, and desiring for all the grace and love and fellowship of the triune God (1 Cor. xvi. 24, 2 Cor. xiii. 14).
But the question of the application of these warnings is surely settled, and their impressiveness greatly deepened, by their repetition in letters to other churches. Different indeed in spiritual condition and apprehension were the churches in Galatia to the church in Ephesus. Yet to them all, as to the saints in Corinth, the apostle gives in faithfulness the same warning.
WARNING TO THE GALATIANS
The Galatian Christians were shifting their standing before God from the sole ground of His grace working in Christ Jesus to the ground of ceremonial observances being meritorious for salvation. Knowing that this falling away from confidence in the grace of God would involve their forfeiting the moral energy which that grace alone supplies, and that consequently the flesh would soon assert its old supremacy, the apostle addresses them thus: " Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, heresies, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (ch. v, 19-21)."
Can anything be plainer than these repeated and emphatic words, "Of the which I forewarn you (not carnal unregenerate professors among you; but" you, "all of you who form the churches of Galatia), even as I did forewarn you"? Yet some would have it mean, "I forewarn you that if an unregenerate man does these things he shall not inherit a portion that he never has had any real right to expect." But surely this is to emasculate the warning of its whole strength and value.
The passage is noteworthy inasmuch as it shows that this line of teaching formed part of Paul's oral instruction to the churches: "of the which I did forewarn you"; presumably when with them, since we know nothing of an earlier letter to them.
And, secondly, it is to be observed that the stress is here laid upon the practice of such evils. A believer may be suddenly tempted, and may without premeditation commit one of these sins. He will be blameworthy, for by watchfulness and prayer we may ever find grace to help in such an hour of need. But in such an event immediate repentance secures, through the blood of Jesus, immediate pardon, for " if we (believers) confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness " (1 John i, 9). But such as deliberately turn to these wickednesses and persist in the indulgence, how do they stand before God?
A THEOLOGICAL PUZZLE SOLVED
One great school of theology has asserted that these passages which we are considering declare the final perdition of such; which involves the idea that really saved people, justified, possessors of eternal life, the children of God, may forfeit all this standing and relationship and be finally lost.
But this teaching seems so obviously to conflict with numerous and explicit assertions of Scripture, such as declare the everlasting security from God's wrath of those who are in Christ Jesus, that not unnaturally many others have rejected it. Yet it must be confessed that this latter school of teachers does not know how to give due weight to these many and awful warnings. At the most these can but apply them to persons (unregenerate professors) to whom by no fair exegesis can the passages be made to apply.
The radical error in the matter has been to confound terms that differ. By both schools " inheriting the kingdom " has been wrongly taken to mean simply being saved from hell; and so "not inheriting" has been wrongly deemed synonymous with everlasting perdition. But once it is seen that receiving salvation from wrath is one thing, and that rising to the glory of rule in the kingdom is another thing, and is an attainment that follows, then the Gordian knot is untied; for it at once becomes a possibility to forfeit the kingdom by personal misconduct,. whilst yet retaining eternal life by the pure grace of God, exercised on the ground of the merit of Christ alone.
EXHORTATION IN EHPESIANS
And this contrast gives much force and clearness to the exhortation found in Ephesians v. 3-6, where we read: " But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as becometh saints; nor filthiness, nor foolish talking, or jesting, which are not befitting: but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know of a surety, that no fornicator, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolator, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no man deceive you with empty words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience."
This may be paraphrased thus: Ye " once lived " as " sons of disobedience," and " were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest " still are. " But God " quickened you, and " by grace ye have been saved " (ii. 3-5). Now as touching this sensual manner of life, if ye were still the sons of disobedience (which however is not now your standing, " for ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord, [v. 8]), the wrath of God would come upon you for so living.
But think not that therefore you, the sons of light, may abuse God's grace, and indulge these evils with impunity. For though this eternal "wrath" will not be visited upon you, as if you were yet " children of wrath," yet a dire penalty shall be exacted from you; " for this ye know of a surety "—there is no vestige of uncertainty upon this point—that no one who thus lives " hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God." Therefore "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them " (v. 11); and if per chance any person has been lulled into a carnal security, and is, as it were slumbering in the charnel house of the vicious, let such hear the call "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from among the dead, and Christ shall shine upon thee" (v. 14).
This call is not addressed to the dead, that is, the unregenerate (ii. 1), but to the living but sleeping Christian, one who has shut himself off from the present enjoyment of fellowship with Christ by having gone among the godless as his sphere of interest, and who is thereby risking future fellowship with the Lord in His kingdom. To come out of the tomb is the only way for Lazarus to get into the sunshine.
In view of this mass of testimony that a Christian can sin, and can do so after the fashion contemplated, and in view of sad corroberations in practical life, what exegetical violence must be employed to make 1 John iii. 9, declare that a child of God cannot sin, and so cannot bring himself within these solemn warnings. Yet we have heard the words used for that purpose.
But thus is John thrown into conflict, not only with other apostles, but with himself; for he has but a little before pointed out what is the resource of a believer if he should sin (ch. ii. 1); while to such persons as " are forgiven," and who "know Him who is from the beginning," and "are strong," because "the word of God abideth in them," so that they "have overcome the evil one " (ii. 12-14), he gives the direct warnings that they must guard against such evils as a love of the world and compromise with idolatry (v. 21).
It is not incumbent upon us to attempt here an exposition of the verse in question; but it is a duty to protest that it must not be forced into antagonism with other inspired writings, nor be misused to break the force of sorely needed warnings. For any such wrong use as we have indicated the words must be held to teach that a Christian cannot sin at all; which would carry the consequent assertion that no person who ever commits a sin is born of God. Surely the words should be read in the light of and in harmony with Romans vii. 16-25.
THE NEED OF PROPER TEACHING
Considering how almost universally these searching appeals have been neglected or misapplied it can be perceived why once and again the Spirit exclaims "be not deceived," "let no one deceive you."
The gross liver is unfitting himself for a realm into which nothing unclean can enter (Rev. xxi. 27), and they are equally out of sympathy with the kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom. xiv, 17) who give place to the subtler moral defilement of enmities, strifes, jealousies, and the like, enumerated in Galatians v. 20. And seeing how widely these conditions obtain in the house of God, were it not well that these deep-acting and vigorous correctives were freely administered to the Lord's people? Thus might some be moved to amend their ways and their doings, to the present good of all, and to their own ultimate advantage in the kingdom.