Chapter Five Maintaining Holiness

The Unrepentant Man (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)

As we have previously noted, in the church at Corinth there were some problems that needed to be handled, and Paul confronted them in his letter. Dealing in chapter 5 with a particularly difficult situation, he wrote: “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you.” This was not merely a matter of some individual’s gossip; it was widely known. Getting more specific, the apostle said in effect, “You are tolerating one of the vilest forms of immorality; even the heathen Gentiles would disapprove. One of your members has actually taken his father’s wife [not of course his mother, but his stepmother] as his own wife. This is an abomination in the sight of God, but you have not recognized the wickedness of it. Rather you have prided yourselves on the broad-mindedness that enabled you to function while a thing like that was going on. You are puffed up when you ought to be brokenhearted.”

Even if the Corinthians felt that they did not know how to handle such a situation, they could have been down on their knees, crying to God to intervene, and He would have taken the wicked man out from among them. But they had not mourned, the problem had persisted, and the evil report had reached Paul. Therefore, as the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ, he was going to tell them how to deal with the matter, and in so doing he was giving instruction concerning the handling of similar questions that would come up in the future, down through all the centuries of this dispensation.

“I verily,” wrote Paul, “as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already.” In other words he was saying, “Because we are all one in the Lord, I have looked into this matter already. I have investigated and discerned the facts concerning him who has done this deed, and I have reached a verdict.” Having made a judgment, the apostle gave the Corinthians the following instructions: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power [or authority] of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan.” What does that mean? It means that the man should be put back into the world where Satan rules.

First John 5:19 says, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness [or in the wicked one].” The guilty man in Corinth was in the circle of those who are “of God.” Someone might say, “The way to help such a person is to keep him in the circle. Let him sit down with you at the communion table; do not be hard on him; try to win him back; throw your arms of love about him and sympathize with him.” But an unrepentant man will become more hardened in his iniquity if he is kept in the circle. If he is put outside in the devil’s domain, he will know that he has forfeited all title to a place with the people of God.

Paul said, “Deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” What had caused all this trouble in Corinth? The activity of the flesh. “Very well then,” Paul said in effect, “put him out in the sphere where he will discover that it is an evil and bitter thing to forsake the Lord his God” (see Jeremiah 2:19). When such a person finds himself rejected by men and women who love Christ, when he realizes that his sin is a stench in the nostrils of Christian people, he may break before God. If, in spite of his sin, he has really been born again, he will break. If he has been a false professor, he will plunge deeper and deeper into evil things.

So Paul commanded, “Deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” We do not like to carry out extreme commands such as this, but it is the Word of God, and the greatest kindness that the people of God can do to a man who is deliberately going on in willful sin is to refuse him Christian fellowship. As long as we treat him as a brother, he will only be puffed up in his ungodly ways and it will be even harder to reach him. But if we obey the Word, God Himself will work toward his recovery and restoration. The church of God is largely afraid to exercise discipline today, but where discipline is carried out in obedience to the Word of God, the church is kept in a condition where God can work.

A Little Leaven (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

“Your glorying is not good,” Paul pointed out. “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” Housewives know that. If someone takes a large bowl of dough, inserts a little leaven, and lets it work all night, the batch will run over onto the table by morning. Likewise if a church allows one wicked man to go unrebuked and undealt with after the wickedness has been fully revealed, the evil will spread like an infection—working, working, working to the ruin of others and to the harm of the testimony of the entire church.

When the apostle urged the Corinthians to remove the leaven, he was not acting on mere hearsay; there was definite evidence of the guilt of the accused man. Likewise the church of God today is not to jump to conclusions; we are not to believe every rumor that people try to circulate. There is a specific rule for us to follow:

If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Matthew 18:15-17).

If you know of definite wickedness, you should go first to the guilty person and try to set it right. If you do not succeed, take a witness with you the next time. Then if the guilty one still will not listen, take the matter to the church of God and be prepared to verify all your statements. If the person will not listen to the church, he has to be put under discipline.

Paul continued, “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened.” Before God the whole body is looked upon as unleavened, for “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” We are men and women who began with the blood of the cross, and like the Israelites in Egypt who were sheltered by the blood of the Passover, we are to put all leaven away. In the Bible leaven symbolizes wickedness. When Paul said in Galatians 5:9, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,” he was speaking of evil and unsound teaching permeating the assembly of God.

If we have been redeemed by the precious blood of “Christ our passover,” it is incumbent on us to recognize our responsibility to keep the feast of communion and fellowship with Him, but not with old leaven—that is, not with the corruption of the old nature or with unjudged malice. Our God looks for reality, for “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” It is not enough to say, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?.. and in thy name done many wonderful works?” (Matthew 7:22) All who have been redeemed must demonstrate subjection to the Lord in their lives.

Refusing Christian Fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

In the concluding verses of this chapter the apostle stressed the punishment that should be meted out to evildoers who have gotten into the church. Recognizing that we cannot discipline the world, Paul said, “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.” If we were to attempt to deal with all the immorality in the world, we would have an impossible job on our hands. The apostle’s point was that the rules apply in cases involving a man who calls himself a brother.

Paul said, “If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous…” What was that? Was Paul coupling covetousness with fornication? Yes! “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), and covetousness—reaching out and grasping for wealth—is just as vile a thing in God’s sight as indulgence in unholy lust along other lines.

Reading on, we find other examples of evil: “If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer…” What is a railer? He is a person who has a tongue loose at both ends and on a pivot in the middle; he is a vicious talker, an evil speaker, one who can destroy the reputation of another just as surely as a murderer who drives a dagger into a heart destroys a life. “Oh,” somebody says, “I don’t mean any harm, but I am so careless with my tongue.” What would you think of a man who goes around with a machine gun and keeps firing away on this side and that, and when someone says, “What are you doing?” he replies, “Oh, I don’t mean any harm, but I am so careless with this machine gun.” A character assassin is as wicked in the sight of God as one who takes another’s life.

There is more: “If any man that is called a brother be… a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” No drunkard will inherit the kingdom of God. I would say to young readers in these permissive days that if you never want to be a drunkard, do not yield to the pressures of a society in which it is fashionable for everybody to drink a little bit. No man ever became a drunkard who was not first a moderate drinker. Someone may say, “I do not believe in total abstinence; I can take a little and it does me no harm.” But it may do your brother harm, and Paul said, “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth” (8:13).

An extortioner is one who squeezes the poor. Perhaps he tries to cover up his sin in this way: he squeezes the poor, makes an extra thousand dollars, and then on Sunday goes to church and says to the pastor, “I want to donate a hundred dollars for missions.” God would say, “Keep your dirty money; you got it the wrong way.” God wants holy money to use in holy service. An extortioner is a wicked person and God says we are not to sit down at the table with such an individual. Applying that command would cut down our dinner parties considerably!

I take it that Paul was including the Lord’s table when he said, “With such an one no not to eat.” People should be warned to stay away from the Lord’s table if they are fornicators or covetous or idolaters or railers or drunkards or extortioners.

Outside in the world God judges. He will deal with the unsaved in due time, but He calls on the church of God to maintain careful discipline over its members for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. His own good name is at stake. People on the outside say, “What! Is that one of your Christians? Does he belong to Christ and yet do thus and so?” That is one reason why the church of God is responsible to maintain holiness in this world.

“Therefore,” Paul concluded, “put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” Of course there is a great deal of instruction in other Scripture passages about discipline. For example Galatians 6:1 says, “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” So every effort should be made to restore the wanderer, but if he will not be restored, if he persists in his sin, if he goes on defying the discipline of the church of God, the time comes when the instruction in 1 Corinthians 5:13 has to be acted on.

Perhaps some of you feel like saying what one of the Hopi Indians said to me after I had tried to teach them the responsibility of a Christian. He said, “Man with the Iron Voice [that was their rather peculiar name for me], you have made the way very hard today. I thought I was saved by grace alone, but now it looks as though I have to walk to Heaven on the edge of a razor.” We are saved by grace alone, but we are called to walk in holiness, and while we have no ability to do this ourselves, the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in every believer and He is the power of the new life. “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), and we will thus be enabled to honor the Lord Jesus Christ by holy, unworldly, devoted, godly lives.