The passage that you have asked me to explain (1 Cor. 6:9-11) is one which I used to quote frequently and fondly as a non-Christian. In fact, it may have been the most important verse to me as a non-Christian. God mercifully brought me to the place of understanding His grace when I was 21, but before that I was zealous for God without knowledge, seeking to establish my own righteousness, and open air preaching in my hometown and across the United States a message that I thought was God’s gospel. This passage was actually the one I would preach on the most. It seemed so clear to me: the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Those who do such things will not inherit God’s kingdom. I would preach against sin (against the sins listed in this passage by name) and would tell people to turn from their sins if they wanted to be saved. That is the simple logic of this passage, isn’t it? If you do these things you won’t be saved, so you had better not do them. I would preach that Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. He was necessary: because of His atonement we can be saved if we turn from our sins. If He hadn’t died no amount of turning from our sins would help us. This is because of our stained past record. Something had to be done about the sins we had already committed. Through the blood of Christ God can forgive us of our past sins if we turn from our sins today and stop being unrighteous in the present. If we happen to sin again in the future, we just needed to repent of it and then the blood of Christ will cleanse us afresh. The trick was to die cleansed and righteous. In this way we can inherit the kingdom of God. I was convinced that this was the faithful interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, taking in all of its parts, and that I was not going to be “deceived” by those who said you could sin and still be saved. My preaching was on the authority of the New Testament, from none other than the apostle Paul himself.
I knew that Paul’s writings (particularly Romans and Galatians) were chiefly used to defend the idea of “righteousness through faith without works” by others, but I believed that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 proved that the idea of “salvation by grace without works” was a misinterpretation of Paul. Of course I had to do something with those writings of Paul that spoke about grace without works, but based on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 I took those writings with a grain of salt, believing that Paul was just speaking about the ceremonial works of the law which we didn’t need to do to be saved, since Christ fulfilled them all (the Substance fulfilled the shadows). I couldn’t accept that Paul meant even good moral works. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 sealed, for me, my interpretation. I would not be deceived.
But, God be praised, I was delivered from my deception. God allowed me to take an honest look at myself in the light of my own preaching and I saw that if what I was preaching was true, then I was an unrighteous man headed for, not the kingdom of God, but hell. If what I believed about 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 was true, that Paul is saying that we must be righteous by our own moral works in order to inherit the kingdom of God, then I had no hope. Yet even in my spiritual agony I still believed my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 was true. I felt that I was excluded from the kingdom of God, but surely there were Christians in this world who were succeeding and doing it. I was just not one of them. Notice how my eyes were on the righteousnesses of myself and others, and not on Christ. Christ was in the background. He had done His part, for which I was thankful. But He could not do anything more for me at this point (besides aiding as an incentive), because it was now I who needed to turn from my sins in order to make His atonement effective in my life. But would I do it? Would I turn from my sins and work righteousness before God? I felt myself to be helpless. I felt myself to be a slave to sin, unable to overcome sin, just like in Romans 7. I had failed. I had failed to utilize this opportunity that God through Christ had so freely and graciously given to the world of sinners. I knew I was doomed.
This was the horrendous place that my naïve interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 had landed me. It was in this dark place that God revealed the true meaning of the cross of Christ to me, shattered my phony Christianity and introduced me to the glorious truth of the gospel of His Son. Righteousness through faith apart from works! Here’s how I described my conversion elsewhere:
Then one night, as I was laying in bed, feeling the full weight of my guilt upon me, the first line of the song “In Christ Alone” passed through my mind. “In Christ alone, my hope is found.” It very gently but suddenly dawned on me that in all reality my soul’s hope had never really been in Christ, but in myself, and that I had always hoped that I was worthy enough to receive eternal life. Another revelation suddenly swept over me: Christ had died for me while I was a sinner… He loved me even though He knew exactly what kind of person I was, and how unworthy I was. I had always professed that I was a sinner, but when I finally realized how bad a sinner I was I despaired that God loved me. That night I realized that God loved me, a bad sinner, and the cross was proof of that. I had never seen this before, even though I had believed in the fact that Christ had died on the cross for my sins; but I had never truly understood the real meaning of that fact, and what it revealed about God’s attitude toward me. That night it was as if the Father gently spoke to me, saying: “Eli, you’ve been begging me to have mercy on you for weeks and weeks, and you’ve been doing this… because you don’t even know who I am. For if you really knew me, you wouldn’t need to beg.”
Suddenly I realized what Christianity is all about. Christianity is not about trying to make God merciful. It is not about convincing God that He should forgive and you and give you eternal life. It is not about trying to be worthy of the blood of Christ. Christianity is about believing that God is merciful and forgiving, made known to us through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins. This is the good news that we are called to believe, and by believing in Him we find rest.
Without any effort, this wonderful news displaced my shame and guilt, and the great burden that was putting pressure on my chest immediately lifted. As the truth of God’s grace came in, the fear of hell went out, and I knew I was forgiven. God’s forgiving heart toward me was revealed to me from the fact that Christ died for me. I trusted in it and found peace. God counted me as righteous that very night, not because I was a good person, but because Christ had died for my sins, and I trusted in His grace revealed to me through His only begotten Son. This is the good news! “Therefore being justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
My conversion radically changed the way I understand the Bible and Paul’s writings. I now understand that there is no such thing as righteousness before God that is not moral perfection, and therefore, there is no such thing as righteousness for us except through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness cannot come through our moral works. Only through trusting in the cross of Christ, where our sins were dealt with and once and for all time, can we stand righteous before God. By sending Jesus, God was not giving the world a priceless opportunity to turn from their sins so that they may inherit the kingdom. God was taking care of the world’s unrighteousness problem through the saving death of Jesus Christ completely. Whoever puts their trust in Christ is accounted righteous before God apart from any good works that they do, and despite any bad works which they commit, because of His cross. Christ and His work become the focus of Christianity, not ourselves. Righteousness through faith apart from works is the great revelation of the gospel, which in turn reveals the great saving love of God toward sinners. Diminish righteousness through faith and you diminish the glory of God. Introduce the need to do anything other than trust in Christ to be saved, and you overturn Christianity and make it all about ourselves once again.
So then, in the light of righteousness through faith, how are we to understand 1 Corinthians 6:9-11? Notice I said, “in the light of righteousness through faith.” I am no longer approaching Romans and Galatians (and the entire Bible) armed with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. I am approaching 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 armed with Romans and Galatians (and the entire Bible) in order to ascertain its true interpretation so as not to be deceived. The passage starts this way: “Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?” and ends this way: “But you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” Any interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 that interprets it in any way contrary to righteousness through faith is false, and those who believe such interpretations are deceived. The lesson we learn from the entire Bible is that there is no righteousness for us other than the perfect righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. If there were, Christ died for nothing.
What this means is that we cannot interpret 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 in an overly simplified way. To use it as a proof-text (as I did) to say that if any person (including a Christian) commits sin they are excluded from the kingdom of God is out of the question. There is another way to interpret this passage. This one is simplistic and antithetical to the gospel; and it is no use to say that Paul means that those who “make a practice of” or “live in habitual” sin will not inherit the kingdom of God. That, too, is just as contrary to the gospel, because it likewise makes entrance into the kingdom based upon your moral doing or not doing. Such an interpretation just modifies the size and scope of the moral “doing.”
What if we were to say, “This passage is all about evidences of salvation. Those who do these things show that they aren’t really righteous through faith, and therefore they won’t inherit the kingdom of God, because they aren’t believing in Christ.” There are two major problems with this view. One, how and where do we draw the line which tells us how much sinning may be permitted before a person is evidently not a believer or not? One sin? Five in a month? A certain kind of sinning (ex. without remorse)? I submit that it is impossible and unrealistic to draw any line. One sin is sufficient to trouble a man’s conscience. Also, if we go down this road (as many do), we ultimately just end up making excuses for sin. “I looked with lust, but I’m not an adulterer. Besides, I haven’t done it in a while!” If the kingdom of God is barred to adulterers and coveters, we should know right away that excuses are going to flow. Two, Paul does not say in this passage that those who don’t believe in Christ will not inherit the kingdom of God, but that “fornicators” and “drunkards” and “extortioners” will not inherit the kingdom of God. It is to these that the kingdom of God is barred. So it is in Revelation 22:15: “Outside are the dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and whoever loves and makes a lie.” John does not say “Outside are those who don’t believe in Jesus.” Even though that is certainly true, that is not the point. It is sin that keeps you out of the kingdom. These passage are not here to tell us about evidences but are here to show us plainly what keeps men out of the kingdom. Unrighteousness because of sin. Now how does this fit with Christianity? Isn’t it true that “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus pardon receives?”
I am not saying that we are not to read the passage plainly. I am saying that we are to read it plainly; and we are to put it into context. The questions we must ask about it are: “Why is the passage here?” “What goes before it and after it?” “What purpose does this passage serve in the flow of the apostle’s thought?” I believe that many take 1 Corinthians out of context, and their interpretations prove it.
The passage exists in a discussion Paul is having regarding fornication in the Corinthian church (starting in 5:1 and ending in 6:20). It has been reported to Paul that fornication is taking place among the Christians, of a kind that is unheard of among non-believers! The entire section is about what the Corinthian Christians should do about it and why, and what they should think about fornication and why. Addressing the immediate problem, Paul gives them his judgment (5:3): he tells the saints at Corinth that they should remove the person who has committed the fornication from their midst (5:5). He had already given them those instructions before in another letter: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then you must needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one, no not to eat.” (5:9-11) This list sounds just like the list in 6:9-11. The purpose of Paul’s judgment is not to get rid of wicked people out of the church, but to get rid of wicked and hurtful practices out of the church. Paul then proceeds to talk about judgment (5:12-6:8). We are not to think that he is moving on to a new subject when he speaks about judging. On the contrary, Paul is upset that the Corinthian Christians are not wise enough to have judged this problem with the fornicator in their midst. Paul gave his judgment (5:3), but he would have preferred it if they had judged the situation themselves (6:2-5). “I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? No, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?” (6:5) The Corinthians were so dull that they didn’t do anything about the fornicator, but were rather puffed up. They also would not judge each other in other matters, but would take their problems to secular judges (6:6-7). So we see that “judging” here has to do with deciding what to do (drawing verdicts) when issues arise. It is something good to do, which God wants Christians to be able to do. We should have wise men in our churches who can make decisions when issues arise. So Paul was upset with the Corinthians, not only that they didn’t have the wisdom to judge this matter of fornication in their midst, but lots of other issues as well.
This is the preceding context of 6:9-11. From 6:9 unto 6:20 Paul begins to instruct the Corinthians, not about the immediate problem of the fornicator in their midst, but about fornication in general: what they should think about it and why. Since they showed that they were unwise and unable to judge this matter of the fornicator, Paul is going to “wise-them-up”. He proceeds to explain to them why fornication is something Christians should not partake in. Here are his reasons: 1) because fornication is sin, which bars the unrighteous out of the kingdom of God, and you don’t belong to that group (6:9-11), 2) because fornication is not expedient (6:12), 3) because the body is for the Lord, not for fornication (6:13), 4) because your bodies are the members of Christ, and should not be joined with harlots (6:15-17), 5) because fornication is a sin against your own body (6:18), 6) because your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and you are not your own, but are bought by a price, therefore you should glorify God with your body (6:19-20). This, then, is the context of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
Notice the many reasons Paul gives for avoiding fornication. If, as is often said of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, fornication will keep anyone out of the kingdom of God, wouldn’t that be enough of a reason to avoid it? “Don’t fornicate, you will go to hell.” Good enough for me! However, Paul is not threatening the Christians at all in 6:9-11, and he goes on to give plenty of wise reasons why Christians should not fornicate: God didn’t make your body for that… you are hurting yourself and making life difficult for everyone… most importantly, you are bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your body. These are not threats at all. Rather, these are positive encouragements for Christians, Christians who are bought by the blood of Christ, and who have the promise of resurrection from the dead. “And God has both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by His own power.” (6:14) Paul is telling Christians who “are washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11) to not fornicate. It should be obvious that these blood-bought saints who are righteous through faith are being taught wisdom from the apostle Paul about to how to live their lives, and are not being threatened with hell if they sin.
Therefore, like in Ephesians 5:1-10 and Colossians 3:1-11, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is an exhortation for Christians not to sin (and it is only one reason, not the only reason), because it is for sin’s sake that the unbelieving, unrighteous world is going to perish. God has revealed His wrath against sin. Men will go to hell for sin. Christians who know this should therefore not partake in sin, not as a threat, not because they will lose their salvation, but because they are saved and should live as the children of light (which is what they are). We, who know God, should not live like those who don’t. We know what pleases God and what doesn’t. We know that Christ died for our sins, and that without Christ we would perish on account of our sins. Therefore we should not sin. The unrighteous will indeed not inherit the kingdom of God because of their sins, but we are not unrighteous if we have believed in Jesus Christ. We are washed, sanctified and justified. We should not therefore be a partaker in those sins which Christ died for, and which will send unbelievers to perdition. This is a fitting way to instruct the unwise Corinthians. “Don’t you guys know that unrighteous people will perish eternally because of fornication and the like? You should therefore not do these things, and be judges of such matters!”
This interpretation is perfectly in keeping with the context, is exegetically sound, and is in complete harmony with the gospel of grace as well as the rest of the Scriptural exhortations to holy living. Our Christian lives should be lived in full assurance of faith, not motivated by fear but by love and a sound mind. We should be fixing our eyes on Christ and His great salvation rather than on ourselves and our works for peace. Where we are looking is where our hope lies.
So that is how I now understand 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. My previous interpretation landed me in a world of trouble. It perverted the gospel and blinded my eyes from seeing Christ. I was a preacher of works-righteousness, guiding people down a dead-end street toward a ditch that I myself was preparing to fall into. It brought nothing but darkness, bad fruit and despair. I praise God for rescuing me from deception, and opening my eyes to see the righteousness that He has provided for vile sinners through faith in His Son. There is no other hope! There is nothing else that sets men free from condemnation, bringing life and joy and peace, except the one true gospel of grace. Since understanding grace, my life has completely changed in almost every way.
May God guide us in His truth and help us understand all things through the lens of His Son’s finished work at Calvary. “For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)
With love, your brother,