MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 23, 2003 FROM 1 CORINTHIANS 2-3
This morning, we move into a second week in a series on true and false conversion and assurance. Last week we introduced the topic by pointing to just how practical it is to us. It is crucial to our spiritual health to know the state of our souls and Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 13:5 that we are to “examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith.” We are called by Peter in 2 Peter 1:10 to “make our calling and election sure” as we live out lives marked by Christ-like character. We also said there is very little treatment on this topic today by good scholars or in church teaching ministries. This vacuum of solid teaching has been filled with superficial or just plain errant understandings of what it is to be a Christian and what is a solid ground of assurance of salvation. We said there is often little awareness among evangelicals of the strong biblical evidence that teaches our strong tendency toward self-deception about the state of our souls. Jeremiah says in 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Although that text and numerous others like it should not be the ONLY truth that influences us on this issue, it should play a significant role in how we go about discovering the truth about our soul.
We saw another important truth that is often ignored because of this vacuum relates to the nature of God and his relationship to sinners. Too often in evangelicalism God is portrayed as a Being who exists solely for the purpose of saving sinners rather than for his own glory. This gross imbalance has tragically in the mind of scores of people made the salvation of a lost sinner ultimately dependent upon the decision of the sinner, rather than through the saving power of God through a miraculous work of regeneration.
This ignorance about God and his relationship to sinners has left little if any place for us to be informed on this issue by texts like Matthew 7:13-14 where Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” For many that text and others like it play no practical role in informing us in the area of conversion and assurance. Finally, we noted there is a significant void in the area of understanding the radical nature of the Christian life. We looked at several texts which point to the fact that the bible teaches a radical, otherworldly kind of life that simply cannot find its origin simply in a human decision to pray a prayer. That’s where we have been—please feel free to get a manuscript from last week for a fuller treatment on those issues.
This week, we will be looking at another issue over which there has been much confusion in the church. We could phrase it in the form of a question this way: How are we to understand people who claim to be Christians but whom, like ourselves at times think and live more like unredeemed sinners than saints? In light of our tendency to be self-deceived and over confident as it relates to our souls—in light of our ignorance-based tendency to oversimplify what is involved in becoming a Christian and in light of the radical nature of the Christian life as it is portrayed biblically, how are we to understand those times when we or other supposedly born again Christians we witness are not thinking or living much like Christ? Are we to immediately conclude that we are not believers? How do we understand the sometimes-gross inconsistencies between what the bible says about how we are to think and live and our many failures? Those are very important questions and some important answers are found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians chapters two and three. Please turn there.
To give us a context for these verses, we must first know that this is a young church to which Paul is writing. Acts 18 tells us Paul ministered for 18 months as he planted this church at Corinth. The writing of the letter we call First Corinthians was written within three years of the time he left Corinth. As far as I can tell there was no other apostolic ministry to this church during this crucial developmental time for this church. Further, Corinth was a very easy place to get off track spiritually due to the rampant immorality of the Corinthian culture surrounding the church. You get the picture—these were very much Christians in the nursery of the faith and their nursery was surrounded by the moral filth of a debased, arrogant Roman culture, which had significantly corrupted them.
We also know from several texts that the Corinthians were, in spite of their spiritual immaturity, ironically very sure of themselves spiritually. They had a very well defined idea about what it was to be “spiritual” and in their self-deceived minds they were well advanced in this pursuit. We also see from many places in this letter that as a group they were also very skeptical about whether the apostle Paul was a very spiritual person. This kind of anti-Paul sentiment had bred divisions in the body over several issues including the apostle’s ministry. As a church they had turned on their spiritual “father” in the faith and Paul suffered from a significant credibility gap where the Corinthians were concerned. This brought significant division in the church over whether they would follow him or another teacher like Apollos. Paul confronts this church for this division in chapter three but he sets the stage for this severe rebuke in chapter two beginning in verse 14.
Paul writes, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16"For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. 3:1But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human?
I want to point to two complimentary truths in this text and one more in the climax of Paul’s argument, which we’ll read later. The first truth is found in verses 14-16 and is: There are two broad classes of people as it relates to their spiritual state. One of the widely held myths in the church today coming from several sources is Paul in this text teaches there are three spiritual classes of people—unsaved, saved, and saved but carnal. That is, there are people who can perhaps perpetually live like the world but who are still in the kingdom of God. That three fold classification of people is not found in the bible and it is not found in this text. Those who view this text this way have badly missed Paul’s point in verses 14-16 and have thoroughly misunderstood what the apostle is saying. Verses 14-16 teach that there are for Paul only two classes of people as it relates to their spiritual condition. Verse 14 discusses the “natural person” or more literally the “soulish person.” In verses 15-16 he contrasts the natural person with the “spiritual person” or the person with the Holy Spirit.
It’s clear from what Paul says the “natural person” is not saved. He says in verse 14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Paul is saying the natural or soulish man does not “get” God or “the things of the Spirit of God”—they are foolishness to him. From the larger context, which we will look at in a moment, it’s clear the reason why the soulish man doesn’t “get” the things of the Spirit is because he is lacking the necessary element to do that—the Holy Spirit. His spiritual radar is simply not equipped with the supernatural, God element necessary to discern the things of the Spirit.
In verses 15-16 Paul says by contrast, “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.” This text has been abused to say all sorts of bizarre things about the presence of some sort of spiritually elite group of people within the church who are more “tuned in” to God than the rest of us. It cannot mean that because Paul’s contrast is between the natural man and the spiritual man, not between those who are spiritually sensitive in the church and those who aren’t. We know about the spiritual man from verse 12 where Paul says of the church, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given by God.” It is the presence of the Spirit of God that enables a person to be called in Paul’s vocabulary, “the spiritual person.” This person judges or more literally “examines” all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.”
In order to understand this verse we must remember Paul is contrasting the person with the Spirit and the soulish man without the Spirit. When Paul says, “The spiritual person judges [or, more literally] examines all things, but is himself to be judged/examined by no one” he is probably saying that someone with the Spirit is able to examine or discern things whether he be inside or outside the kingdom of God but those outside the kingdom are not able to accurately discern what is going on in him. Holy Spirit-indwelt believer is not limited to discerning or examining only those things that are sacred. We are able to discern “all things” whether they are of the darkness or light because the A Holy Spirit gives us the mind of Christ to judge both. What’s more, we are able to discern the natural, unsaved person because before our conversion we were one of them and even as redeemed, regenerated people, we still have a fallen, sinful component Paul regularly calls “the flesh” as part of our spiritual makeup. The natural person, by contrast cannot discern the things of the Spirit because he doesn’t HAVE the Spirit and therefore cannot discern the things of the Spirit. In his sinful pride, the natural/unsaved person assumes that what he doesn’t understand must be foolishness.
The main point is that for Paul you are either in the kingdom or out of it—you are either natural or spiritual. The next verses must be seen against this “dual classification” backdrop of verses 14-16 if we are to rightly understand what comes next and understand Paul’s very powerful point. The next truth comes from 3:1-4 and is simply this: It is possible to be genuinely born again and live for a season more like the world in certain areas than like Christ. There are two points to prove in order to establish this as Paul’s meaning here. First, that Paul assumes he is writing to genuine believers and second, that their behavior was worldly. We know Paul assumes he is writing to believers from several lines of evidence. One is from 2:12 we already quoted where he says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given by God.” Paul assumes the Corinthians have the Holy Spirit because there is no reason from the text to think that Paul is not including the Corinthians in his use of the pronoun “we.” Second, in 3:1 he refers to them, as he does about 30 other times in this letter, as “brothers.” Obviously, within that designation he includes “sisters” too and we know from every other usage of this word in this letter that he equates “brothers” with believers.
Finally, at the end of 3:1 Paul says that he was forced, due to their spiritual immaturity to address them as “infants in Christ.” For Paul to refer to the Corinthians as being in Christ means he is assuming they are saved and he says that though he could not address them as “spiritual people” as he should have been able to, he does refer to them as being “in Christ” albeit in an infantile stage of their development. You can imagine how these proud Corinthians who considered themselves to be very spiritual felt when Paul told them he could not even address them as “spiritual people” and in fact that he was forced to address them as spiritual babes. We must not miss Paul’s biting irony here.
Second, Paul accuses these Corinthian brethren of acting more like the world than believers. He repeatedly makes this point in the first four verses of chapter three. Please notice this. “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human? Even though Paul calls these people brothers and sees them as having the Holy Spirit, here we see these are people who in at least one way act just like the world. Three times he says they are “of the flesh.” This is NOT the same Greek word he uses to describe the “natural man” earlier in 2:14-16. That word was “psuchikos” or soulish man. This term is “sarkikoi”—fleshly or carnal people. Paul makes a distinction between the unsaved and the fleshly or carnal people whom he assumes have the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s point here is very precise and some in the church have missed Paul by trying to make it broader than it is. Many see these two facts--that on the one hand, Paul assumes these Corinthians are saved and on the other that they are living like the world and infer from this that Paul is creating a third class of person—a carnal Christian class. From that unbiblical classification many have understood that it is possible to be a believer and yet for an indefinite period live like the world and then upon death to be ushered into heaven as a “carnal Christian.” Those people, it is often stated have “missed God’s best for them, but they are surely in heaven because after all, they accepted Christ.” Many wrongly believe that since Paul teaches you are either natural or spiritual and since these Corinthians are carnal and he assumes they are believers, therefore a person who has prayed to receive Christ can live in a perpetually carnal state and still go to heaven because they claim to have accepted Christ.
That view not only does horrible violence to many Scriptures outside this text, some of which we quoted last week, it also completely misses Paul’s point here. When all of this section is included, it is clear that Paul’s point in this text, which is our third point, is this. That is: living in a manner inconsistent with our new birth should be seen as a gross scandal which if perpetuated will bring eternal condemnation to those who live that way. Paul’s point here is not to create a new, “carnal class” of believers. It is to in the most stark terms point out the utter inconsistency of a church assumedly full of believers but who in many instances think and act like the world. When you trace Paul’s argument, it is clear that the reason he in verses 14-16 makes the distinction between a natural and a spiritual man is to show the gross scandal it is to have a group of people who are assumedly “spiritual people,” who presumably have the Holy Spirit in them, who assumedly have the capacity to “examine all things” and have the mind of Christ—for THOSE people to be living like those who are unsaved, “natural people” and for whom the things of the Spirit are foolishness is outrageous! He wants us to see how outrageous it is for him to be unable to address a group of presumably spiritual people as “spiritual people” and who because of their immaturity cannot even receive solid food and to whom he must speak as spiritual babies. THAT is Paul’s point. It is a scandal for people who are spiritual—who assumedly have the Holy Spirit to be living fleshly in the same manner as the (verse four,) “merely human.” Paul is mortified by this abhorrent disconnect and he wants the Corinthians to be as well.
As we look to other texts in Paul we see that this is not only a scandal, it is also spiritually very dangerous to be living like this. According to verse three, the Corinthians had been guilty of “jealousy and strife” in their divisive sin. In Galatians 5:19-21 Paul draws the ultimate spiritual bottom line as it relates to people who live in a pattern of unrepentant sin. He writes, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, [same words Paul uses to describe the Corinthian behavior in 3:3] fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If a person has as a pattern of their life, unrepentant sin like those listed, Paul says, irrespective of their testimony, we have absolutely no ground to hope that they will go to heaven, which is what is meant by, “inheriting the kingdom of God.”
But we don’t have to go to Galatians to see this truth. Later on in chapter three he makes the same point. Through their jealousy and strife, the Corinthians were bringing division into the body of Christ—they were corrupting God’s holy temple. Paul has some very choice words for them in verses 16-17. He says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” Twice Paul makes the point that the Corinthians are God’s temple but he also says that anyone who destroys God’s temple will himself will be destroyed. That word translated “destroy” I believe speaks to ETERNAL destruction because in Ephesians 4:22 Paul uses it to describe the fate of our old self that will be eternally destroyed and in 2 Peter 2:12 and Jude 1:10 the word refers to the eternal judgment of the false teachers. Paul is threatening these Corinthians who, through their jealousy and strife are destroying God’s temple with eternal destruction. Do you feel the tension here? Paul wants us to feel this tension.
One question at this point is, “If Paul on the one hand refers to the Corinthians as “God’s temple” or” brothers” and on the other, he threatens them with eternal destruction, then why should we not believe he is teaching that a true believer can lose their salvation because that would be easy to extract from these two truths?” First, let me say that that question, which speaks to the very real New Testament teaching on apostasy or falling away, is a huge one and we will spend at least one message on that single question. My answer today will be necessarily incomplete. Having qualified that, here are two reasons why I do not believe as do some that these two truths require us to conclude that a genuine, Holy Spirit indwelt believer can lose their salvation. First, Paul’s ultimate point of application to this carnal church in Corinth is not to explicitly warn them about losing their salvation. His ultimate and explicit point of application in response to their carnality is found in 2 Corinthians 13:5 which says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize [or, “know fully”—1 Cor. 13:12] this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
Paul’s bottom line question at the end of his correspondence to these carnal people is—are you in the faith—do you fully know that Jesus Christ is in you—have you failed the test? He does NOT say, “Are you STILL in the faith?” Paul’s point of application is NOT “have you lost your salvation?” but rather, “Are you saved in the first place?” A second reason why I don’t believe we should connects the dots here to a person losing their salvation is because Paul’s reference to the Corinthian church at large as a “holy temple” or “brothers” are a simple assumptions he is making but are not intended by Paul to be authoritative statements that they are genuinely saved. Think about it. Paul is writing to a church he had planted. He had led many of these people to faith himself. He knows there are genuine believers there and it would be horribly awkward for him to qualify each reference to the church at Corinth like this, “You (plural pronoun) are God’s temple”—that is, those of you who are genuinely, assuredly saved but not the ones who are, though professing Christ are in truth, eternally lost—YOU—the real ones--are God’s temple.” A letter written like that would be incredibly confusing.
We see proof that these references are assumptions and NOT Paul’s stamp of spiritual authenticity in 2 Corinthians chapter 13:11. Now remember, he has just commanded them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. Yet six verses later he says to this crowd, “Finally, brothers…” Paul is not stupid. He knows there may very well be in this church those who don’t truly know Christ—he has implied as much in 13:5, yet when he refers to the church at large just a few verses later, he refers to them as “brothers.” He is making a very self-conscious, broad assumption. That’s the text. Now, here are two quick points of application. First, it is unbiblical and spiritually dangerous to believe a person can be living like the world, yet be in Christ and destined for heaven. In Romans 1:5 Paul speaks of the “obedience of faith.” He means that true saving faith will issue in obedience to God. That means by application that if a person has little if any obedience to Christ, then we must at some point ask if that person has saving faith in Christ. If we or a person we know are living in prolonged, unrepentant sin, we have every reason to be very uncertain about the state of our soul.
Second, if we are going through a period of spiritual compromise our first response should be to find forgiveness and strength to over come our defeat through the gospel. We must not miss the fact that even to this very carnal Corinthian church; Paul does not rush to judgment about their spiritual condition. He gives them the benefit of the doubt for a long time. First Corinthians 6:9-11 is typical of his pastoral care of people in sin. He says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
Notice the balance there. First, he makes an objective statement about the inconsistency of believing that those who practice heinous sin go to heaven and he warns them against deception. That is the part that is often missing today and we must always remember that and be sobered by it. But he concludes with a reminder of their experience of the gospel and its power to help them overcome those sins. He doesn’t condemn—he states the truth about the eternal ramifications of unchecked sin and then he brings the Corinthians back to the gospel. Romans teaches us that the only sin we can have victory over is one we have received forgiveness for and we must believe the gospel and receive the forgiveness offered through Christ. Also, we must remember that Paul in Romans six teaches the cross not only gives us cleansing from sin but also victory over the power of sin.
We must go against the greasy grace and unexamined lives of the prevalent evangelical culture and at times examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith and challenge others to do the same especially in times of prolonged spiritual defeat. But our first step should be to go back to the gospel and claim the forgiving, justifying and sanctifying victory Christ has purchased for us at Calvary. May God give us the grace to live in a manner consistent with God’s work in our lives and to take biblical measures when we or others fail to do that.
Page last modified on 11/30/2003
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