In 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, we see the wonderful news regarding the greatness and the power of Christ. Because of the finished work of Jesus, Christians are no longer defined by their sin, but rather by who they are in Him. The specific moral failures in verses 9–11 continue a theme that began in verses 1–8 about not suing a brother or sister. There were those in the church of Corinth that were sacrificing the credibility of their Christian identity for the sake of personal retribution. That is, rather than being more concerned about Christ’s reputation in their local community, they were greedy for financial gain. According to this passage, then, there are three dangers of finding an identity outside of Christ: (1) it is characterized by wickedness, (2) it is a matter of self-delusion, and (3) it allows behavior to determine identity.
It is Characterized by Wickedness
Paul writes, “Do you not know the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9)? The reason he ties these two subjects together is because he wants the church to see that is how the unrighteous live: they live for personal gratification. The unrighteous take each other to court so that they can get all that their heart desires. Paul then gives a list in verses 9-10 of personal desires, gratified by the flesh, that characterize those who will not inherit the kingdom. In other words, verses 9–10 speak of an identity outside of Christ. Paul’s emphasis here is on the habits or dispositions of people who practice evil. When he calls them “unrighteous” (v. 9), he is describing those characterized by wickedness. Because their identity is outside of Christ, God sees them as unrighteous and wicked, which is proven by their behavior. As a result, they will be judged and will not inherit the kingdom of God.
One of my best friends had to wait a long time before God brought him a wife, and I remember his temptation, while he waited to find his identity in marriage. He was tempted to believe the lie that if he could just get married, then he could really live and serve the Lord. However, he learned that a wife was not his answer to being alone. God was his answer to being alone. Now that he is married he has learned that God is also his answer to being married. Similarly, the driving concern of Paul in this passage when he begins to list sexual sins in verses 9-10 is not abstinence or singleness; it is identity. Our identity is far more than our sexuality or our abstinence. Paul’s goal is that Christians would live out their identity in Christ and therefore become Christlike.
Later in the chapter, Paul writes, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18). Growing up in the church, I cannot count the number of times I was told the underlying threat of this passage is that if you have sex outside of marriage, you will get a sexually transmitted disease, so you better flee sexual temptation just like Joseph.
But the motive for purity is not found in verse 18; it is found in verses 19–20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” The motivation for holiness and purity, whether in singleness or marriage, is the gospel. We were bought with a price. The Lord Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. We are not our own; rather, we belong to Him. Therefore, we ought to glorify God in our body. In marriage, purity is seen in fidelity to our mate. In singleness, purity is seen in celibacy. But our desire in each case should be to glorify Christ as our response to the good news. Thus, one danger with seeking an identity outside of Christ is that such a pursuit is characterized by wickedness rather than righteousness and motivated by self-gratification rather than the gospel.
It is a Matter of Self-Delusion
In verse 9, Paul tells the Corinthians, “Do not be deceived.” What is the deception? The deception is to think that God will not judge people for their sin. In other words, the reality is that those who find their identity outside of Christ and pursue unrighteous activities will be condemned at the final judgment and will not inherit the kingdom of God, regardless of what they presently profess about their relationship with God. Similarly, in Ephesians 5:5, Paul tells the Ephesian church, “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
So how are we deceived in this matter? I think it comes when folks use sophisticated arguments to argue that homosexual behavior is approved by God. For example, some argue that the prohibitions against homosexuality are temporary and that they were only in the Old Testament (e.g., Lev 18:22) so they’re not for us today. Others argue that the prohibitions against homosexuality are misunderstood; they are only for acts that are sexually violent, like the attempted rape by those in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:5-11). Still others argue that prohibitions against homosexuality are simply due to ignorance, because they were enforced before scientists discovered the category of sexual orientation. Perhaps as Christians living in our current generation, the greatest deception is to think that since God is loving and forgiving, it must also mean He not only tolerates but approves the homosexual behavior. Therefore, if we disapprove of homosexual behavior, we are unloving and bigoted.
One final deception argues, “God wants me to be happy. I have same-sex attraction, and living and fulfilling my sexuality is the only way I can be happy! God surely doesn’t want me to suffer my whole life with this same-sex attraction, say ‘no’ to it and battle it my whole life.”
To be deceived in this manner is to assume that no judgment is coming. Those who live in an identity outside of Christ are self-deluded, but in Christ, holiness and happiness go hand in hand. To the Galatians, Paul writes, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:7–8). For the Christian, the experience of same-sex attraction is a form of suffering, but as Paul told the Romans, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:3–5). True happiness and joy is a Spirit-empowered gift from the Father that enables us to endure the sufferings inherent in sinful sexual desires, because of the hope of eternal life found in Christ.
It is Allowing Behavior to Determine Identity
After Paul tells the Corinthians not to be deceived, he gives a list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God: “the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers” (1 Cor 6:9–10). Essentially, he is teaching that those who live in an identity outside of Christ are allowing their behavior to determine their identity.
The phrase “nor men who practice homosexuality” actually translates two words in the Greek, malakoi (literally, “soft”) and arsenokoites (literally, “someone who sleeps with other males”). From the historical evidence, Paul apparently coined the latter term in reference to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, where the Old Testament prohibits homosexual behavior. Kevin DeYoung writes about the importance of this phrase for our contemporary discussion:
If Paul wanted his readers to know he was referring only to exploitative forms of homosexuality, he wouldn’t have coined a term from a portion of the Mosaic law where all sex involving a man with a man is forbidden. Was Paul opposed only to exploitative forms of incest in 1 Corinthians 5? Was he telling those Christians entangled in sexual immorality to flee only from exploitative forms of adultery, fornication, and prostitution in the second half of 1 Corinthians 6? Are we really to suppose that Paul— just after urging excommunication for sexual sin (5:4–5, 13), and just as he references the Mosaic law (6:9), and just before he anchors his sexual ethic in the Genesis creation story (6:16) — meant to say, “Obviously, I’m not talking about two adult men in a long-term relationship”? And if he had meant to communicate such a message to the Corinthians or to Timothy [arsenokoites use in 1 Tim. 1:10], how would that have been obvious to any of them?1
It is important to remember that in this context, homosexual sin is not unique. Paul’s list includes other forms of sexual sin (sexual immorality and adultery), and his list includes non-sexual forms of sin (theft, greed, drunkenness, abusive people, swindlers). Paul teaches that God will judge it all, so to speak up about the dangers of finding one’s identity outside of Christ is actually a loving act. If we were to speak the truth to someone and say, “Hey, listen, if you’re a thief, you’re not going to inherit the kingdom of God. If you engage in a lifestyle of stealing from people, you’re not going to inherit the kingdom of God and you need to stop stealing and turn to Christ,” we would conclude it is a loving thing to do. So it is with homosexual sin. Sam Allberry comments,
Homosexual sin is serious. Paul says that the active and unrepentant homosexual (as with all the unrighteous) will not enter God’s kingdom. This is a very stark truth. Paul also reminds his readers not to be deceived on this point. He assumes there will be those who deny this teaching, and argue that some forms of homosexual conduct are acceptable to God. But Paul is clear: homosexual conduct leads people to destruction. To teach otherwise (as a number of purportedly Christian leaders sadly do) is tantamount to sending people to hell. This is a gospel issue.2
On June 13, 2016, I woke up to the news that the night before (June 12), a shooting occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were killed and 53 wounded. The first thing I did at our church service was to pray corporately for the victims and their families and friends. As I prayed, I did not explain that the shooting was at a gay bar, nor did I speak ill of their behavior. I simply prayed that God would use this evil act to bring the gospel into their community. Of course, I knew that my church would read the news and understand the background. My greatest concern was to model to my flock that all sinful behavior, whether heterosexual or homosexual, finds its remedy in the gospel. Since Christ is sufficient for all, I was determined to model prayer that would be the same for anyone who was lost apart from Christ.
Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but it wasn’t their behavior that He affirmed. Rather, it was their humanity he affirmed and the fact that they are made in the image of God. We need to learn from Jesus at this point. We need to learn how to love our neighbor and, without affirming their behavior, speak the truth in love to those who not only experience same-sex attraction, but who are presently engaging in homosexual activity. In fact, we need to warn them of the danger of allowing their behavior to determine their identity: they will not inherit the kingdom of God.
The Joy of Finding Our Identity in Christ
Paul comes to the wonderful news of the gospel in verse 11. For those who have found their identity in Christ, he says, “Such were some of you.” Paul is not saying that we are no longer tempted by the sins he listed in the previous verses. Those of us who have been saved for any amount of time know that we can still be tempted by what we did in our pre-Christian lifestyle. What Paul is saying is that we are no longer defined by these things. If you were a thief before coming to Christ, you are no longer known as a thief. If you were an adulterer before believing the gospel, you no long bear that scarlet letter. Rather, you are known as a child of God, a Christian, a follower of Jesus. “Such were some of you.” Instead of our activity determining our identity, now our identity determines our activity. Paul then unpacks three realities inherent to this new identity: (1) being “washed” clean; (2) being “sanctified; and (3) being “justified.”
Paul first speaks of Christians as those who were “washed clean.” This washing is a picture of Spirit baptism, of which physical baptism is a sign (1 Cor 12:13). It is a picture of the spiritual washing and regeneration by the Holy Spirit that produced a great spiritual transformation at our conversion. For example, Paul writes to Titus, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4–6).
Therefore, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they have a new identity in Christ and part of it means they were washed clean. They have forgiveness. Their slate was wiped clean, once and for all. As he wrote to the Colossians, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13–14).
Scripture speaks to the reality of forgiveness with a number of metaphors. In the Psalms, God removes our sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12). In Isaiah, God completely cleanses us from the stain of sin, so that they are as “white as snow” (Isa 1:18), and He throws our sins behind his back (Isa 38:17), quite literally between His shoulder blades. In Jeremiah, God promises to remember our sin no more (Jer 31:34). The one who knows all things promises that in the New Covenant; that is, in Christ, He will treat us as if we had never sinned! In Micah 7:19, God promises to “tread our iniquities underfoot” and to cast them “into the depths of the sea.” What a glorious picture of what’s happened to us in Christ. Our sins are not just covered for a day, or a season, or a year. They are removed far from us and we are forgiven and washed clean. It is why Sam Allberry writes,
However ingrained it may be in someone’s behavior, homosexual conduct is not inescapable. It is possible for someone living a practicing gay lifestyle to be made new by God. Temptations and feelings may well linger. That Paul is warning his readers not to revert to their former way of life suggests there is still some desire to. But in Christ we are no longer who we were.3
The second reality of being in Christ is that we were sanctified when we placed our faith in the gospel. Paul is not primarily speaking of the doctrine of progressive sanctification, where we are made more and more holy. Here he is mainly talking about new identity in Christ. At conversion, we were set apart to God. We have a new identity and we are now called a “saint,” or “holy one.” Because of union with Christ, we are now considered a child of God and have access to God as our Father. We can approach the throne of grace with confidence and boldness (Heb 4:16). To paint a picture, we have refrigerator rights in the house of God.
This is why at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul greets the church as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus,” and “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2). The inescapable conclusion is that if you are a Christian, you are a saint; that is, you have been given a new identity as holy before God the Father through union with Christ. To be sure, your new identity is the foundation and basis for your “progressive sanctification.” Because of this, Scripture repeatedly teaches us that in order to be spiritual, we must live out who we already are (Rom 6:11–12; Gal 5:16; Eph 2:10; Phil 1:27; Col 3:1–2; Heb 12:1–2; 2 Pet 1:3–4).
This means that we are no longer ruled by or enslaved to sin (Rom 6:2, 7, 11), and therefore we have great hope when facing temptation and the enemies of sanctification. Satan is a master fisherman who baits the hook of the flesh with the lures of the world in order to ensnare and trap us, but as Christians who are loved by the Father, united to Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have great hope that we can mortify sin and progress in holiness (Rom 6:12–13; 2 Tim 2:21). Though sanctification will never be complete in this life (Phil 3:12–15), the Father will complete what he started in every single one of us (Phil 1:6). After all, we are His workmanship (Eph 2:10).
According to Paul, the third reality of this new identity in Christ is that we are justified; that is, we are declared righteous. Justification is a glorious truth. It is as if God is in a courtroom as judge and declares us “not guilty!” In Romans 5, Paul writes that justification occurs at conversion (v. 1), by faith alone (v. 1) and through grace alone (v. 2). Earlier in Romans 3, Paul asserts that justification is apart from any works (Rom 3:21-31). Jesus Christ paid the debt and removed our guilt, and He provided the righteousness as a gift. Our faith is not the cause of our justification; rather, the cause of our justification is the redemptive work of Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24), and our faith is simply the means by which we are united to the righteousness of Christ, which is external to us. Like the hymn of old, we ought to sing, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”
What Paul is emphasizing is that at the point of conversion, we were declared righteous and therefore presently have peace with the judge. Because we have been justified in Christ, we will be saved from the wrath of God (Rom 5:9), we have passed out of death into life (John 5:24), and there is no longer anyone who can bring a charge against us (Rom. 8:33). This understanding of free justification based on blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone holds the only real hope that anyone has of finding acceptance with God. Praise the Lord that Paul told the Corinthians, “such were some of you, but you were. . . justified.” In Christ, we are given an incredible inheritance, including adoption as God’s sons and heirs (Rom 5:5; 8:15; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5), sealing as God’s possession by the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim 1:14), and the experience of eternal life, even in the present (Rom 5:1; 14:17; John 10:10).
1. DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 65.
2. Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay?: And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2013), 35-36.
3. Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay, 37.