Real Hope for Lasting Change
I Corinthians 6:9-11
October 3, 2004
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:9-11).
The most important part of this text is the first phrase of verse 11: “And that is what some of you were.” In those eight words we find the entire Christian faith. The effective power of all that we believe is summed up in those few words. Christianity is supremely a religion of conversion. Everything we say and everything we believe is built upon one fundamental and revolutionary premise: You don’t have to stay the way you are. Your life can be radically changed by God. Conversion is a miracle that happens when the life of God intersects with human personality. Once God enters the picture, your life will never be the same again. Until then, you may be religious and you may be a very good person and you may obey all the rules of the church, but you have not been converted.
Religion is one thing; conversion is something else entirely. It is the conviction that long-held prejudices can be overcome, lifetime habits can be broken, and deeply ingrained patterns of sin can be erased over time. Conversion is the certainty that what you were does not determine what you are, and what you are does not determine what you will be. You can be changed, you can be different, your life can move in an entirely new direction. If you take that truth away from Christianity, it ceases to be a supernatural religion. If the possibility of real change is gone, then we have nothing to offer but a set of rules. Can the leopard change his spots? In himself and by himself, the leopard can never change his spots, but with God all things are possible. This is the practical heart of our Christian faith.
There is another way to say it. Conversion is the miracle whereby God changes the tenses of your life:
This is what you were.
This is what you are.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ can do it, and we believe that only Jesus has the life-changing power to utterly transform your life from the inside out. That’s what happened to the first-century believers in the seaport town of Corinth. It could happen to you today as you read these words.
Seven New Things
As I pondered the possibility of deep change in a person’s heart, I did a brief Bible study of the little word “new.” That’s an amazing study, by the way. Just take a concordance and see how many times in the Bible God promises to do something new or to make something new. As an example, here are seven new things God gives his children:
1) He gives us a new song (Psalm 40:3).
2) He gives us a new name (Isaiah 62:2).
3) He gives us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26).
4) He gives us a new life (Romans 6:4).
5) He gives us a new beginning (2 Corinthians 5:17).
6) He gives us a new self (Ephesians 4:24).
7) He gives us a new birth (1 Peter 1:3).
God specializes in making all things new. He loves to take old things, forgotten things, tattered things, soiled things, ruined things, despised things and make them new. He starts with the things the world casts away, and he makes them new and beautiful once again. Conversion is all about the total renovation of the human personality. Talk about an extreme makeover. Conversion is the ultimate extreme makeover.
If God is willing to change us like this, why do we stay the way we are? There are many answers to that question, but the bottom-line answer is fear. We fear change because we have become comfortable (if not entirely happy) the way we are. And we fear failure because we have tried and failed to change in the past. This week a man called the church who had read about the “God Speaks Today” series and all that happened here last Sunday. He mentioned a particular sexual sin that he struggles with, and wanted to know if we could offer any help. Then he added, “I’ve tried to change in the past, and it hasn’t worked.” He speaks for many people when he confesses failure in trying to change his life. No wonder he was doubtful and refused to leave his name. Failure makes us think that real change is impossible. Often we fear change because of what our family or friends might say. Perhaps they’ve grown used to thinking of us in a certain way, and they would be bothered and even threatened if we suddenly became someone new.
Why They Picketed Stephen Bennett
If you go deeper, we sometimes fear change because it poses an enormous threat to our entire worldview. We’ve become accustomed to thinking of ourselves in a certain way, and we’ve even convinced ourselves that this is the way things should be, and therefore they can never change. And anyone who says anything different threatens our entire self-image. That’s why the picketers showed up to protest Stephen Bennett last Sunday night. I know we had a “silent protest” by an Oak Park group last Sunday morning, but the real action happened on Sunday night when Stephen Bennett shared how Jesus Christ delivered him from a homosexual lifestyle. That’s when the pickets showed up with the bullhorns and the signs, and that’s when the TV cameras showed up also. Why did they picket Stephen Bennett and not me? The answer is simple. People on the other side can ignore my sermons, or if they care to, they can find a way around what I say. But there is no answer to a truly changed life. Stephen Bennett unquestionably lived in the homosexual lifestyle for 11 years, and now he is heterosexual, with a wife and two children, happily married, and happily heterosexual. And he even goes around the country talking about what happened to him. Last Sunday night he spoke with great grace and gentleness. He did not speak a single hateful word. Near the end of his presentation, he summed up the change in his life this way: “You’ve never seen a former black man, but I stand before you tonight, by the grace of God, as a former homosexual.” That’s the sort of statement that drives some people up the wall because it’s a direct assault on their worldview that says homosexuals can never change. And because they fear that message, they attack the messenger wherever he goes. Let me say it once again. The world has no answer for a man or woman whose life has been radically changed by Jesus Christ.
And that’s precisely Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 6:9-11. His whole point is that the Corinthians themselves had been changed by Jesus Christ. That’s the meaning of the first phrase of verse 11: “And that is what some of you were.” This is the question we must face: How can that sort of transformation take place today? Paul offers three answers.
I. We Must Accept God’s Judgment. vv. 9-10
Verse 9 begins with a blanket statement regarding who goes to heaven: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?” If we don’t know this, we should. God and sin are fundamentally incompatible. If you show up at the gates of heaven bringing your own sins with you, you won’t get in. The term “wicked” doesn’t refer to a particularly evil class of sinners. It refers to anyone whose sin has not been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. Sinners don’t belong in heaven, and if they went there, they would not be happy. Heaven is for those who have been made righteous through Jesus Christ.
Lest we misunderstand his point, Paul goes on to list ten different groups of sinners that will be excluded from heaven. This list is not illustrative, nor exhaustive.
A) The Sexually Immoral. A broad term that covers all forms of sexual sin.
B) Idolaters. Those who worship false gods and get involved in false religious systems.
C) Adulterers. Those who break the marriage vow. Unfaithfulness in marriage. The Old Testament required the death penalty for adultery.
D) & E) Male Prostitutes, Homosexual Offenders. Both terms refer to those who participate in homosexual acts. William Barclay called homosexuality a cancer that spread across the Roman Empire. History tells us that 14 out of the first 15 Roman emperors were homosexual.
F) Thieves. Taking what is not yours. Stealing from others. Cheating others. Defrauding those who trusted you.
G) The Greedy. Making money and the things money can buy the center of your life.
H) Drunkards. Being controlled by alcohol or any other artificial stimulant.
I) Slanderers. The Greek term refers to those who abuse others, especially through abusive speech. It applies to spouses who use verbal, emotional or physical abuse in their marriage. Includes gossips and rumormongers.
J) Swindlers. Those who commit extortion and blackmail. Those who use their position to take unfair advantage of others. Applies particularly to business people who use their expertise to cheat others.
Note four things about this list:
1. These sins were typical of ancient Corinth. The Corinthians believers would read this list and say, “Yes, that’s exactly what we used to be.” Corinth had a reputation for extreme immorality even among the pagans who coined the verb “to corinthianize” to describe a particularly evil situation. It could not have been easy to be a Christian in Corinth in the first century.
2. These sins are common today. I daresay you can find all of them in Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, and in Chicago and in all the suburbs. Human nature has not changed at all. Sin still reigns in the human heart, and apart from God’s grace, there is no sin we might not commit.
3. These sins are mostly social sins. These sins are not private or personal matters. All of them touch and hurt those around us, some directly and some indirectly.
4. These are sins of self-gratification and self-indulgence. We steal because we think we should have what someone else has. We swindle to get what we cannot fairly earn. We violate God’s standards for sexual behavior because we are “sexually starved” or because we think we were made a certain way or just because we want to.
God’s judgment on people who live like this is clear. They will not inherit the kingdom of God. They won’t go to heaven. Simple, clear and direct. It’s easy in our present situation to apply this only to homosexuals, but Paul’s concern is much broader.
Swindlers will not go to heaven.
Abusers will not go to heaven.
Adulterers will not go to heaven.
Thieves will not go to heaven.
Drunkards will not go to heaven.
Immoral people will not go to heaven.
And why should they? Heaven is not for people who live in their sins. Heaven is for people who have been forgiven their sins. That’s the real difference here. Paul does not mean to suggest that a Christian cannot commit one of these sins. Christians can be guilty of any of these sins, and sometimes repeatedly. But a Christian cannot and must not choose to live in these sins as a way of life. If these sins (all of them or any of them) characterize the core of who you are as a person, then you cannot go to heaven. That’s the plain meaning of the text.
The first step to being healed is accepting God’s righteous judgment on your sin. God says you are a sinner, deserving of hell, under condemnation, facing eternal death, and without hope in the world. Do you agree with God’s judgment or do you wish to argue with it? As long as you argue with God, you cannot be saved and you will not be changed.
II. We Must Believe in God’s Power. v. 11a
In some ways this is harder then the first step. As difficult as it is to accept that you are a sinner deserving of judgment, it’s much harder (for many people) to truly believe in God’s power to change them. That’s why the first phrase of verse 11 is so crucial. Paul reminds the Corinthians that God had radically changed their tenses:
Once some of them were drunkards … but not anymore.
Once some of them were adulterers … but not anymore.
Once some of them were abusers … but not anymore.
Once some of them were swindlers … but not anymore.
Once some of them were homosexuals … but not anymore.
Here is truth that is both liberating and sobering:
Not everyone will be changed,
But everyone could be changed.
Some will choose to live in their sins. Others will rebel at the thought of change. Others simply will not believe they can be changed, and so they will stay the way they are. The reasons why people don’t change are as varied as humanity itself. But it is finally true that not everyone will come to Jesus for salvation. Not everyone will be converted.
But everyone could be saved. The blood of Jesus has more than enough power to save the whole world. No one who comes to him will ever be turned away. There is no sinner beyond the reach of God’s grace, and there is no sin so heinous that God will not forgive it. This is our great hope, the reason we send missionaries to India, Japan, Nigeria, Costa Rica, France, and to every nation on earth. Everyone could be saved, and everyone needs to be saved. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, with no exceptions (Romans 1:16). God is able to saved completely and forever those who come to him through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:25).
III. We Must Claim God’s Promise. v. 11b
Paul now clearly explains how the great change takes place: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” In the Greek, the word “but” actually occurs three times:
But you were washed,
But you were sanctified,
But, you were justified.
It’s Paul’s way of emphasizing the remarkable change that happened to the Corinthians. Let’s look at each of those phrases:
A) You were washed. When your clothes are dirty, you put them in a washing machine, add some detergent, turn the machine on, and come back 40 minutes later. When you take your clothes out, the dirt is gone and the clothes are clean. Now transfer that image to the blood of Jesus. Before you came to Christ, your life was dirty and unclean. When an unclean life is washed in the blood of Jesus, it comes out clean and pure.
An old hymn by William Cowper says it this way:
There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
That’s the power of the blood of Jesus. It washes all our sins away.
B) You were sanctified. The word “sanctified” means to be made holy. It describes a person or an object that has been “set apart” for God’s use. Applied to the believer, it means that we have been called out of the world and into God’s family. We are now “set apart” for God’s use.
Once we lived for ourselves. Now we serve the Lord.
Once we followed the world’s rules. Now we follow the Lord’s leading.
Once we played on the world’s team. Now we play for the Lord’s team.
Once we wore the world’s uniform. Now we wear the Lord’s uniform.
Once we were unholy. Now we are holy.
That is the great difference that Jesus makes.
C) You were justified. The term “justified” comes from the courtroom of the first century. It describes that moment at the end of a trial when a judge, having heard all the evidence, pronounces the defendant “Not Guilty.” He is thus cleared of all charges and is free to go. That’s what happens the moment we trust Christ. God justifies us (he declares us righteous in his eyes) on the basis of the death and resurrection of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because Jesus took our sin and punishment, we are now free from guilt and condemnation in the eyes of God. Jesus paid the price so that we might be justified by God. It is a declarative judgment by the God of the universe, a free gift from God (Romans 5:17) to those who trust his Son.
Let’s put it all together:
Once we were dirty. Now we are clean.
Once we were unholy. Now we are holy.
Once we were guilty. Now we are justified.
This is what God can do for anyone who comes to him in Jesus’ name. This is the life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And how does this great miracle happen? The end of verse 11 gives us the answer: “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” It is the mighty name of Jesus that does the work, and it is the Spirit of God that applies the truth of Jesus to the human heart. Here is the promise of God for every person who feels like there is no hope: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
Three Final Statements
Let’s wrap this message up with three final statements about real change:
1. Real change is possible. Do you want it?
2. Real change is available. Will you reach out and take it?
3. Real change is radical. Are you ready for it?
As you read this message, take a moment and ponder those three statements, and the three questions. Think about how they apply to your life.
I now end where I began. Christianity is supremely a religion of conversion. Everything we say and everything we believe is built upon one fundamental and revolutionary premise: You don’t have to stay the way you are. Your life can be radically changed by God. Your past does not determine your present or your future. If the gospel is true, then your life can change. And if the gospel cannot change your life, then it is really no gospel at all.
This week I read that today’s evangelical Christians no longer believe in instantaneous conversion. We tend to talk about salvation as a process and a spiritual journey. We’re much more comfortable with salvation coming a little at a time. The author noted that our spiritual ancestors had no problem with the concept of instantaneous conversion. They believed that a life could be radically changed in a moment. Certainly the Bible presents many examples of people whose lives were changed immediately. Perhaps in our reaction against certain emotional excesses, we have gone too far. While it’s true that long-held patterns of behavior may not change overnight, and while we all need time for spiritual growth, it’s also true that your sins can be forgiven immediately. I like to tell people, “You may have come to church without Jesus, but you don’t have to leave here without him. You may have come guilty, but you can go home forgiven. You may have come dirty, but you can go home clean.” That’s the true power of the gospel to meet us at any moment in time, and create a miracle of conversion inside the human heart.
So let me ask a couple of closing questions.
What tense is your life? Are you still in the “were” or has Jesus brought you into the “are”? Are you still living in what you used to be, or have you experienced the “extreme makeover” of a truly converted life? Could Paul say about you what he said about the Corinthians?
If the answer is “No” or “I’m not certain,” do not despair. God has more grace in his heart than you have sin in your life. Jesus is a better Savior than you are a sinner. You don’t have to be a prisoner of your past. In Christ you can rise above your past to live a life that gives great glory to God. The gospel song “To God Be the Glory” contains this encouraging line:
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
All I have been trying to say is wrapped up in that sentence. If we understand our sin as an offense against Almighty God, then we are all equally qualified as “the vilest offender.” And when we believe in Jesus, that very moment (instantaneous conversion!) our sins are pardoned.
We are washed.
We are sanctified.
We are justified.
Is there real hope for lasting change? Yes, but you’ll never know until you reach out and trust Jesus. Don’t take my word for it. Go back and read the Bible for yourself.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
He will abundantly pardon.
He will not turn you away.
Your life can change right now. May God help you to believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Amen.