If we fail to recognize our sinful condition, we won’t acknowledge our need for a Savior or rejoice in the good news of God’s provision. Paul’s list of the sins of the Corinthian church reveals wickedness that remains prevalent today. Alistair Begg reminds us that there is no shame that is beyond the reach of God’s grace and the transforming power of Jesus, so, the Gospel must be proclaimed and salvation must be demonstrated by changed lifestyles.
I invite you once again to take your Bibles, and we’ll return to the passage in 1 Corinthians that we left this morning. For those of you who were not here, we are dealing with verses 9, 10, and 11—or, more accurately, we are being dealt with by verses 9, 10, and 11.
I want to pause again in prayer:
“Speak, Lord, in the stillness, while we wait on thee; hushed our hearts to listen, in expectancy.” Amen.
We left things this morning by noting that when Paul went into the vastly populated, commercially prosperous, and sex-crazed city of Corinth, his strategy was not to enact legislation, but it was to begin proclamation. We find that Paul was utterly convinced of what the writer to the Hebrews said in 7:25: that Jesus lives forever, and because he lives forever, he “is able to save completely those who come to God through him.”
And so it was that as Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he recognized that every single believer, rescued from the tentacles of the sinful monstrosities that were all around them, would be clearly seen to be somebody—a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, a teenager—who had not simply decided that they needed purpose in their lives; not somebody who simply determined that they would, from this day forward, become religious individuals. But every individual who had been rescued from the horrible grip of sin would know themselves to be just that—rescued—would know themselves to have been made brand new.
But we’re running a little ahead of where we need to be. The catalog of sin which we find in the second half of verse 9 and into verse 10 is not exhaustive, but it is representative of the kinds of sin that have always characterized ungodly societies, and therefore the kinds of sin that ought never to characterize the godly society of the church. The reason that this list is still relevant in Cleveland tonight, thousands of miles away from Corinth and thousands of years away from the Corinthian context, is because human nature has not changed. And indeed, for the unbeliever to expose themselves to the truth of the Bible—whether they choose to accept its implications in their lives—they’re going to be hard-pressed but not to recognize the amazing, telling relevance of what the Scriptures have to say.
I don’t want to dwell on this list; it’s too ugly. But you will notice, his principle is that “The wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God.” “What do you mean ‘wicked’?” “Well,” says Paul, “let me give some illustrations.”
Number one, “fornicators” will not inherit the kingdom of God—or those who are “sexually immoral,” as the NIV translates it. Almost kind of cleans it up a little, doesn’t it? Fornication is a word that has become virtually taboo in modern parlance. It’s a kind of ugly word; it has a definite negative connotation to it. And so it should—descriptive of those who break the bounds of God’s plan for sexual fulfillment.
Fornication is not only present in our culture; it is exalted in our culture, it is magnified, it is portrayed as desirable, and it is in the mainstream of life. Just last evening, in clicking through the television channels at one point in the evening—and I can’t even remember when it was, but it wasn’t late, because I went to bed early—I came on a scene in some situation comedy where a father drives home, flicks up the garage door, and discovers his unmarried daughter in bed with her boyfriend. Now, that’s okay, they think. And then this discussion which ensues around the kitchen table reinforces the fact that it’s okay, and underpins what we discover here—namely, that fornication and sexual immorality is a picture of wickedness.
Also, “idolaters.” Men and women who violate the first and second commandments; who provide objects so as to make the worship of God easier; who then cease to worship the God that the object represents and begin to worship the symbol, because it’s much easier to deal with a symbol that can be taken and put somewhere, locked away in a cupboard, than to recognize that we are obligated to the reality that the symbol represents.
“Adulterers.” Those who destroy the God-ordained relationship between a husband and a wife.
“Thieves,” or “swindlers”—looking on into verse 10—will not inherit the kingdom. This is one of the great curses of the time in which Paul was writing. A great curse of the ancient world was theft. The favorite haunts were two: the public baths and the public gymnasiums. There it was obvious people had to take their clothes off and leave them somewhere, and their personal possessions, and so they were the perfect place for thieves to hang out. And so they did, grabbing what they could. They were a pilfering population.
Not only will thieves and swindlers be absent, but also “the greedy” will be absent. The word which is used here for “greedy” is far more than simply a second portion of potatoes. It’s the spirit which is always reaching for more and grabbing that to which it has no right. It is aggressive getting by means of a kind of savage ferocity—again, that which is exalted in our capitalistic culture. This is made an indication of success, the ability to aggressively grab hold of these things.
“Drunkards” will not be present in the kingdom. What is a drunk? A drunk is someone who does not control his drinking. It is uncontrolled drinking. It is not uncontrollable drinking. We have invented as a disease uncontrollable drinking. The Bible says that uncontrolled drinking is sin. Indeed, it is interesting to see how many of the things on this dreadful list the latter part of the twentieth century has made “conditions.” These are conditions for which we need help; they are not sins from which we need to be redeemed.
“Slanderers.” Those who destroy with their tongues, who kill and maim with their words.
And so, he goes through the list. “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? And here is an indication of the kind of wickedness.” A wickedness, incidentally, which some of these Corinthian believers were beginning to play fast and loose with. That had been their life before, and now they were tempted to say, “We’re free. Therefore, we can dabble in all this stuff all over again.” And Paul fires this warning shot, again, across the bows of their lives. “Don’t deceive yourselves,” he says, “do not be deceived: Neither the fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor thieves nor greedy nor drunks nor swindlers nor slanderers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Now, if you’re following in your Bible, you’ll notice that I’ve missed two, referred to here in the NIV as “male prostitutes” or “homosexual offenders.” The reason I’ve missed them is because clearly that is irrelevant in the twentieth century. ’Cause now we know that this is just an alternative lifestyle. As a result of environment and as a result of chromosomes, some people are unfortunate enough to find themselves in this condition.
Now you’re confused. You don’t know if I’m being cynical or if I took leave of my senses. No, what I’m doing is, I’m just teaching you the way vast numbers of churches have now began to teach on this issue. The twentieth-century church has begun to condone and bless and marry and generate an orthodoxy around what the Bible refers to here categorically as sin. Not a sin that is any more punishable than the rest, but not a condition. Not an alternative lifestyle, not as a result of some chromosomic activity, but rather a choice—and a sinful choice, at that.
In Genesis 1:27, God makes it perfectly clear that when he created man and woman, he did exactly that: he created men, and he created women. He said that those roles were not to be blurred, nor were they to be exchanged. That’s the significance of the statement in the Old Testament which says that “a woman should not wear that which pertaineth to a man, nor a man wear that which pertaineth to a woman.” What is the purpose of that? The purpose of that in the mind of God is so that there will be no blurring of the genders—so that there will be no confusion about what a man looks like and what a lady looks like. And as quick as we are to point out the anachronistic element contained in that, we ought not just to be too quick, because we recognize that in the gender-bending nature of our culture, we face the implications of it, not only outside of the church, but also inside the church, where aggressive feminism fills in the gaps for weak-willed men.
Paul says, “Make no mistake, the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God,” and in the midst of that all there is this dreadful problem with homosexuality. The sin of homosexuality had spread like a veritable cancer throughout the whole of the Greek culture. From the Greek culture it had been imported into Rome. And in Rome, it is documented that of the first fifteen Roman emperors, fourteen out of the fifteen were practicing homosexuals. Nero, who was probably the emperor at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians—and this is almost unbelievable to have to report, but in order that you would understand the issue that Paul is addressing here and the guts that it took to say these things—Nero himself had taken a boy, Sporus, he had had surgery performed on him to turn him as much into a woman as was possible, he had married him in a public ceremony, and in a phenomenal procession of Roman grandeur, he had paraded him through the streets and taken him home to be his wife. He had then in turn become wife to another man. And in that context lived the Christian church.
And tonight, there can be little doubt that the collapse of the civilizations both in Greek and in Rome may be ultimately traced to this cause. That’s why I isolated these two, because I want to give some special attention to them—not because the sins are worse sins, but because the implications are so unbelievably relevant for our culture right now in the United States of America. Despite knowing all of this, I say to you again that in America today, churches and denominations defend homosexuality, condone homosexual ministers, and conduct homosexual marriages. And the sinister element in it all lies in this: that it destroys the family. And it is an agenda from hell to destroy the family, to break down the very roots of life and culture. Because God has ordained that the way it would be would be one dad and one mom, living together, one life, and producing offspring who would then do the same thing all over again.
The most recent reports estimate, in a blasé fashion, that within x years—I can’t remember what it said now, it was again on TV just last night—it said that by the year x, and it is not far away, it is estimated that one hundred and ten million Americans will be infected with the HIV virus. One hundred and ten million, out of a population of two hundred and fifty million! Okay? Now, get ahold of this: At the same time, it was announced this afternoon that they’re going to close the doors of Cleveland public schools to children who have not had their second measles vaccination by October 28! Why? Because they don’t want people to get measles in the school.
Am I missing something here? Is there something just a little schizophrenic about this? That the very same people can bar people from school over the triviality of measles and refuse to touch the issue when it comes to an epidemic that may destroy a culture and a nation? What’s the difference? The difference is, there is no moral overtone to measles, but there is to AIDS. And that’s the issue. And it’s in this culture that we live.
For all the talk of family values—and since I cannot vote, I guess I’m neither Republican nor Democrat; I am my own ultimate Independent—for all the talk of family values, I have yet to hear any politician with the guts to stand up and address the homosexual question face on and pronounce it an absolute violation of all that the Bible proclaims and everything that humanity holds to be real. There’s hardly an individual with the wherewithal to stand and do it.
But Paul had no problem. “Do you not know,” he says, “the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?” And then he goes through his list.
I say to you again tonight that these days in which we live demand from us as believers great prayer, great commitment. And if you think that we have reached the apex or the vortex of the demise, think again. Ten years ago, nobody would have predicted that the conditions which prevail in our culture tonight could be so accepted as they are. Loved ones, think it out. It is only a matter of time, if the Romans 1:18 process continues, before you have as president in the White House in America somebody who would himself be openly, avowedly homosexual. So before we start to say, “Dear, dear, look at that dreadful Roman culture! Look what happened to all those Greeks!” let the nation that thinks it stands beware, lest it falls. It will creep up on us unawares. And it will not be addressed nor prevented by legislation. It will not. Because there is no legislative process initiated by God to redeem culture. There is a message initiated by God to redeem men and women, and it is “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Now, you see, that is the message—and this brings us to our next point—that is the message which brings us to one of the great and fantastic and thrilling sentences in the whole of the New Testament. You ought to double underline this, and circle it, and put exclamation marks all around it. Verse 11, and the first sentence: “And that is what some of you were.” He’s just gone through this unbelievable list. And as the Living Bible paraphrases it—Kenneth Taylor says, “There was a time when some of you were just like that.”
That’s just exactly the way we were! Not all of us have come that path, but some have. Not all in Corinth were marked by this, but many were. And the amazing thing for them was this—that when Paul penned these words and they were read out in the Corinthians’ hearing for the first time, how they must have looked around, and the reaction must have been twofold: One, “Isn’t that an amazing work of grace that we would even be here to hear this letter?” and two, “Let us pay attention to what the mighty apostle is saying, lest we fall into the trap of aping our lifestyle that was preconverted all over again.”
It’s a shout of triumph. It’s associated with the transforming power of Jesus. The proof of Christianity lay in and lies in its power. The power of Christianity can take men and women tonight, lost to shame, and make them sons and daughters of God. The power of Christianity tonight can do what social activism cannot do. Social activism may put new clothes on people, may put them in new houses, may give them better education, but social activism cannot put new men and women in those houses. Jesus can put new men and women in those houses, new young people in those clothes—liberate them, transform them, set them free. There is no point of shame to which a man or woman may fall that they put themselves outwith the pale of God’s forgiving grace. No man can change himself—no girl can change herself—but Jesus can change him. That’s why we’re supposed to proclaim this message. “If any man is in Christ,” says Paul to the Corinthians in his second letter, “he’s a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new.”
Now, when he said that to the Corinthians, they looked around at one another and said, “That’s dead on! That’s absolutely right! I mean, think about it. I used to go with you, Jimmy, and we went down to those baths every Friday and every Saturday. We used to steal the place blind. I mean, there wasn’t a thing left by the time we come out of there. Do you remember that, Jimmy?”
“Yeah, I certainly do!”
“Do you remember where we used to go after that?”
“Yeah, I do!”
“How come we’re here? What happened to us?”
What happened to them? They met Christ, and they were changed. Changed!
I was brought up in Glasgow, a major industrial city, written up vitriolically in the Wall Street Journal this past Monday. (Go find it for yourselves.) And the mission hall to which I went Sunday by Sunday and Saturday night by Saturday night ministered to all the street people in Glasgow. My father used to get up at half-past-four in the morning to go and put on these gigantic kettles to boil water in them to make tea for the five hundred men—largely men—who would come off the streets. And so, they got this big thing of tea, and they got rolls and marmalade, and the whole deal. But that wasn’t all they got. They got the message about Jesus Christ and him crucified. They learned that Jesus Christ had come and was “able to save to the uttermost” all who “come unto God by him.” And I can remember the names of men and women who became the ushers in the church, who became the helpers in the ministry—not because they got religious, but because Jesus Christ invaded and transformed their lives.
Now, I want to say to you tonight… and some of you don’t even understand this, you’re too young; but one day you will. I believe it is questionable whether many areas of the church—maybe even some areas of our own church—actually believe this can happen. And I’ll tell you why I say that. I say it because I believe that the church has married the spirit of the age when it comes to self-help, self-analysis, and self-improvement. So we offer to people a cosmetic fix but tell them they must now limp through the rest of their lives as a result of what is in their background. They must always now be very careful lest it sneaks up and squeezes life out of them all over again.
Where did we get that message? Was that the message that Jesus gave to Zacchaeus—dirty little cheat? Was that the message that he gave to the woman at the well who was guilty of sexual sin? Did he tell her, “Now, I’m gonna touch your life and change you, but I want you to know that you’re only gonna be changed a wee bit, and you’re only as good as yesterday’s figures.” No, he didn’t. He said, “I’m gonna make you brand new from the inside out. I’m gonna transform you. I’m gonna liberate you. I’m gonna change you.”
Witness the fact that people don’t about being “saved” anymore—only in certain circles. I’ve said this to you before; I really believe it. The people who still talk about being saved are people who know they got saved. And they’re the only ones who talk about it! Many others have joined the church, been baptized, walked the aisle, got a purpose in their lives, determined to be different. But they don’t know themselves to be saved.
Hey, what if they’re not saved? Wouldn’t that explain why the church is so patently ineffective? Thousands of people who got inoculated enough to pass inspection by blind guides, but they’re not changed. They’re just the same people with a different external facade. They’re not 2 Corinthians 5:17 people.
Think about it in terms of the songs that we sing. When is the last time that you heard a twentieth-century hymn written about the wonder of salvation? Now, you may be able to answer, and that’s no condemnation on all songwriters, or the songs we sing, nothing. I was just asking the question. I’ve thought, and I can’t think. It’s all about how I feel. It’s all about how I’m doing. It’s all about how… and it’s just an emphasis. But there’s a missing element.
Now, the late nineteenth, early twentieth century may not have produced beautiful melodic harmonies. The words may have been largely sentimental. But the people were in no doubt about what was happening in the proclamation of the gospel, so that when the equivalent of Paul walked into town and proclaimed the good news, people understood what was happening. Take, for example, the words of this hymn:
I need thee, precious Jesus,
For I am full of sin;
My soul is dark and guilty,
My heart is dead within.
I need the cleansing fountain
Where I can always flee,
The blood of Christ most precious,
The sinner’s perfect plea.
Now, an individual cannot sing that song until they have been confronted with their need. And they cannot be confronted with their need unless there is the proclaiming of the gospel of the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not a call to find purpose! Not a call to find meaning! Not a call, ultimately, to be contented, to discover peace! People can find all of that a million places—and go to hell.
Do you see why it’s so important that the bad news of man’s condition is so brought to bear upon the lives of men and women, that they might understand the good news of God’s provision?
Out of my bondage, slavery, sorrow, and night,
Jesus, I come;
Into thy freedom, gladness, and light,
Jesus, I come to thee.
Out of my sickness, into thy health,
Out of my want and into thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into thyself,
Jesus, I come to thee.
That’s salvation! That’s transformation! That’s what we’re looking for when we ask the question “Are you saved?” Not some spurious testimony about “I had a feeling a few months ago,” or “I remember when I was brought up in the Lutheran Church,” or “My dad was a Baptist deacon.” None of that “My father was a minister, and I was always brought up in a Christian home.” Listen, we’re asking the question, “Did you know yourself to be saved?” If you never knew yourself to be sinful, how could you ever know yourself to be saved?
But we don’t want people to preach about sin; no one’ll come back, for goodness’ sake. “Don’t do that, Al! Wait till we’ve got a big church with fifteen hundred seats. Don’t do that!” I can do nothing other than that! “Woe is … me, if I preach not the gospel,” if I don’t say to you young people, “You need to face where you really are. You need to know the depth of your own human depravity. And when you understand you are so messed up, then when somebody tells you that Jesus came for someone messed up like you, you will reach out for him with both your hands. But until that day then when you make that realization, all you will have is a lifestyle devoid of life.”
The glory and the wonder of this, of course, is that in Corinth there were men and women who were living proofs of the re-creating, life-transforming power of Jesus Christ. Don’t you want to see some people radically changed? Well, why not come and pray at half-past-five that God will radically change some people? ’Cause he sure isn’t gonna do it simply as a result of a lot of talk.
The amazing change that was brought about in the life of John Newton has not fully been encapsulated in the song “Amazing Grace.” But think about this: John Newton was on the high seas as a captain of a slave-trading ship. William Wilberforce was growing up through the Houses of Parliament with a strong conviction about the atrocity of slavery. John Newton became not only William Wilberforce’s friend, but his pastor and his coworker for the abolition of slavery. How did that come about? By the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
You see, the bottom line is this: Are you prepared to have a church full of people who were sexually immoral, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexual offenders, drunks, greedy, slandering, swindlers. Are you? Are we? Or do we just want more of the same: well-heeled, properly put together, fairly acceptable bourgeoisie malcontents?
I think there’s a sense in which, loved ones, until we get serious with God about wanting him to bring about such transformation in people’s lives, we will live not seeing that transformation. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you will find; and knock, and the door will be opened unto you,” said Jesus. Every Corinthian Christian was, for Paul, living evidence of the fact that God’s answer to the wisdom of his day was not in clever arguments but was in changed lives.
And we’ve only a moment, but I want you to notice—’cause it rehashes last Sunday evening—how the transformation was brought about. He says, “That is what some of you were.” That’s the realization to which they came. But he says, “What you were and what you are is two totally different things. You were washed.” They had been dirty, and now they were made clean.
There can be little doubt that Paul has in mind the activity of baptism. Think of his own situation as he recounts it before others in Acts chapter 22. He had heard the word: “Get up, and be baptized for the washing away of your sins.” He had a good enough theology to understand that as he penned these words to the Corinthians, he didn’t get his sins washed away by baptism, but the washing away and cleansing of his sin was pictured in baptism. And he reminds them, he says, “Listen, you got washed. You went down in the river. Your friends saw you. Some of the people from those old bathhouses were out there on that day. They saw you. They saw you go down in your old togs and come up in your new clothes. You were washed. You made a decisive break with the past. And behind your washing there was a sanctifying work of God. You were set apart for the Master’s use. Your baptism publicly declared you to be under new management. And the Spirit’s work within your life enabled you to say yes to what was right and no to what was wrong. And behind the work of God making you a place for his dwelling was the work of justification, whereby he took you, who were like this, and he made you a brand-new person. He justified you. He declared you righteous in God’s sight. He declared you guiltless before him. And all of this by the will and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the Spirit of our God!”
In other words, this is what he says to them: “I want you to live a new lifestyle, because you’ve been given in Jesus a new kind of life. Don’t fall into the trap of behaving like your old friends. You weren’t saved for that; you were saved from that.”
And for those of us who tonight were brought up in a Christian home, and we’re saying to ourselves, “Goodness, gracious me, I’m not hardly in this list! I mean, I remember swindling a bit, and my sister thinks I’m greedy. But I don’t know… I’m gonna have to go out and do some stuff here to find out if I’m really changed, you know, and saved.” No, no, no, no, no, no. No! I read that list and see everything I might be—for every sin on the list finds some kind of register in my heart. The grace of God is no less wonderful when it saves us from the possibility of a life in this than when it saves us out of the actuality of a life in this. Some of us were saved out of it, and others of us were saved from it. But we were all saved by the same grace. Therefore, we don’t look down our long noses at the people who were saved from it, because if we’re honest, we know that we remain only a kick in the pants off it ourselves. True? True!
That’s why we can’t be judgmental of the non-Christian world. How do you think the non-Christian world’s supposed to be? Non-Christian! What do you think it’s like to put your head on the pillow at night without God and without hope in the world? What are you gonna do for yourself? You’re gonna shoot up. You’re gonna do something to try and give yourself meaning. That’s why those people are there. They’re waiting to hear from us a message: that Jesus Christ saves to the uttermost those who come unto God through him. And we ought to be able to take him, as it were, around our church, stop people in the corridors, and say, “Hey, I want you to meet this man. Tell him where you were four years ago. Tell him where you were four months ago. Tell him what Jesus has done for you.”
Let me summarize it: The Corinthian believers had lost sight of the centrality of Jesus, the controlling power of the Spirit, and the transforming experience of having been called and saved by God. They had spiritual gifts, they had great preachers, they had bang-up fellowship groups, but they had lost it. Let us beware.
Secondly, the Corinthian context was not what you would call exactly conducive to such a message as Paul proclaimed, and yet he proclaimed the message. Only by the power of the Spirit of God could lives be changed. As then, so now.
Finally, the kingdom of God, says Paul, has been ushered in through the arrival of the King. Citizens of the kingdom are called to live in a certain way. More than that, citizens of the kingdom are able to live in a certain way. It is therefore doubly important for the kids of the kingdom to be distinctive. You have a new life? Then let me see your new lifestyle.
“Take my life,” says the hymn writer, “take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. I want you, Lord Jesus, tonight, to take my moments and my days, and I want you to make them flow in ceaseless praise.”
 Emily Crawford, “Speak, Lord, in the Stillness” (1920). Paraphrased.
 1 Corinthians 6:9 (KJV).
 Deuteronomy 22:5 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 10:12 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 2:2 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 5:17 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 7:25 (KJV).
 Frederick Whitfield, “I Need Thee, Precious Jesus” (1855).
 William True Sleeper, “Out of My Bondage, Sorrow, and Night” (1887). Paraphrased.
 1 Corinthians 9:16 (KJV).
 Matthew 7:7 (paraphrased).
 Acts 22:16 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:12 (paraphrased).
 Frances Ridley Havergal “Take My Life, and Let It Be” (1874). Paraphrased.