God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 5:9-11 In the world, not of it
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, January 6, 2023
9 When I wrote my earlier letter to you telling you not to associate with those who are sexually immoral, 10 I didn’t mean all the sexually immoral people in the world. And not the greedy, or thieves, or idolaters, because to avoid them you would have to leave the world. 11 Now then, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunk, or a thief. With that kind of a person, do not even eat!
Paul makes three important points here. One is the hint to us about the sequence of his letters to the Corinthians when he says, “When I wrote my (earlier) letter.” There was a letter from Paul written before this one. This is more a matter of chronology and a detail that may not be of interest to every reader, but it’s helpful to notice its place and that this isn’t just an assumption.
More importantly, Paul expresses a Christian’s relationship with those committing open, public sins. There are two sides to this. Firstly, the Christian cannot avoid everybody in the world who is a sinner. He says, “To avoid them you would have to leave the world.” The example of Jesus was not to depart from the world or to withdraw from sinners, but to live among sinners so that they might be drawn by the gospel to faith in God and then through law and gospel to repentance and a change in their lives. Jesus prayed for his apostles: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:15-16). To this he added: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).
Secondly: The Christian is therefore meant to be in the world. Just as the apostles were sent into the world, so also the rest of the church, lay people and children and elderly all alike, live in the world. When, in ancient times, monasteries were created, the holy Fathers who made them “chose a certain kind of life for study or for other useful exercises” (Apology IV:211). But the pure ideals of such places fell into their own kind of legalism when the founders passed away, and they ceased to have their original purpose. They became refuges from the world at a time when the masses in the world needed the refuge of the gospel, and the true gospel was withheld, and the love of most grew cold (Matthew 24:12).
As Christians, we can’t avoid associations with people who are godless. But when a person is openly wicked (Paul strings together half a dozen examples in verse 11), we cannot admit such a person to the fellowship of the church and to the Lord’s Supper without the preaching of repentance. Steps need to be taken, most of the time in private, to proclaim the word of God, explain it, describe the seriousness of sin and hell, and to preach the gospel of forgiveness in order for repentance and a change in that person’s life to take place. But this is done one person at a time. The church must not pick up the sword in order to force communities, states, or whole nations to convert. This is never effective on account of the inevitable abuses that take place whenever force is employed. Any individual human being is a brilliant, loving and compassionate creature, but every single mob is stupid, selfish, and brutal.
A sainted teacher of mine wrote:
Nowhere have we said that people should be forced to believe something that they do not want to believe. Faith cannot be forced, and no one should ever attempt to force faith or pure doctrine on anyone. Only the gospel can create faith; the sword only creates hypocrites. It is a sad and tragic mark in history that others have tried to force a doctrinal position—invariably a wrong one!—by means of the sword of the state. Both Roman Catholic persecutions of those they considered heretics and equally zealous and often bloody Protestant efforts along the same lines were disgraceful, sinful, and utterly contrary to the Word of God. (Deutschlander, Grace Abounds, p. 467-468).
Rather than flee from the world, or force the world to behave more like us, God wants us to flee from the sins, vices and lusts of the world. “Escape the corruption of the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4). “Flee from sin as from a snake, for if you approach sin, it will bite you. Its teeth are lion’s teeth, and they destroy the souls of men. And all lawlessness is like a two-edged sword; there is no healing from its wound” (Sirach 21:2-3). In a more positive encouragement, Paul says: “Say No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12).
As we share the gospel with the world, we are bound to be splashed with the world’s mud. “Just as the woods get a bad name when they are filled with brigands, and just as we detest a weapon by which human blood was shed or a cup in which poison has been prepared (not because the cup or weapon was at fault but because of those who used them in an evil way) so the world is either good or evil because of those who are in it” (Jerome, Commentarius 338). But we are here to glorify God, to live a life of faith in the hope of the resurrection, and to bring others to faith through the preaching of the gospel. May God the Holy Spirit bring you his grace and power as you strive with all your might in these three tasks, the noblest of all human endeavors. For everything Christ did, he did “that I should be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he has risen from death and lives and rules eternally.”
Pastor Timothy Smith