Sexual immorality: Some thoughts from Corinth

Pornography, sexual temptation and sexual failure are one of the great issues for God’s people as we learn to live in the always-connected age. It’s a problem that’s not about to go away any time soon. In the face of such a massive challenge to Christian living, it is important for us to learn how to talk honestly with each other about our struggle to live pure lives. Our churches need to provide places for Christians to support each other in this struggle. That’s the essence of what James Warren’s excellent article is about. But instead of running it as the first feature in this issue, we decided to start with Gordon’s piece on lessons learned from Corinth. The final and ultimate solution to dealing with our sexual sins is not community (although that is vital), but the death and resurrection of Jesus. As you spend some time thinking about these problems, don’t jump straight to the second article; we need to hear everything both articles have to say—over and over again.

How should Christians deal with sexual immorality and the temptation to live as the world does? Every day we are pressured into tolerating and even going along with the world’s bombardment of sexual imagery and pornography. Every day we feel the push to live immoral lives and to put up with those who do.

From time to time, I hear sensible advice from Christians (and others) on the subject of pornography and immorality—advice that encourages people to cut the problem off at the source and remove themselves from temptation. A single man I respect and trust told me that I would not be able to email him at home as he didn’t have the internet connected there. I asked him why not. He was blunt: it removed any possibility that he would use the internet to view pornography. Another person who struggles in this area stands up at church conferences and encourages his hearers to cut off temptation by removing the television from the house, banning certain DVDs, avoiding newsagencies and video libraries where pornography is freely available, and installing internet filters at home, on the laptop or in the workplace.

This and similar advice is wise and sensible, and many would benefit from putting it into practice. But when all has been said and done, is this the only type of advice that Christians have to offer when dealing with the difficulties and temptations of sexual immorality (and other immorality, for that matter)?

The Corinthians

This question occurred to me again as I preached my way through some key chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. If I was addressing the Corinthian Christians in the first century, I would move straight to laying down the law with straying congregation members. The reasons why this is a good move are obvious and self-evident when you twig to what is actually going on in Corinth—immorality, idolatry, debauchery and all sorts of excess—not just in the city itself, but in the church. So I could imagine myself writing to the Corinthian church and saying, “Anarthrous: stop sleeping with your father’s wife! Hapax: drop the frivolous lawsuits! Maximus: stop the chest-beating about your great gifts; you’re not in a Roman legion anymore!”, and so on. The problems Paul names explicitly are just tip-of-the-iceberg stuff.

But as I preached my way through this letter again, it struck me quickly and forcibly that Paul doesn’t do what I would do. From the very beginning, Paul’s letter is doctrinal in nature:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 1:2-3)

Notice Paul does not begin with their problems, but with a typically theological greeting about the Corinthians and their status as people who have been separated to God (“saints”). He then moves to further doctrine, thanking God for his grace, which is at work in them, and expressing confidence that they will stand before God guiltless “in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The cross

Although Paul doesn’t ignore the fact that there are real moral and relational problems at Corinth (e.g. 1:10), the very first thing he wants to establish in response is that the only content of his message to them is the message of the cross. He wants to preach that Jesus died on the cross and that Jesus’ death for sin has certain consequences—consequences that include people who know what they are talking about (Jews and Greeks) looking down on Christ’s followers. (But God, it has to be said, will look down on the Jews, with their desire for signs, and the Greeks, with their supposed wisdom: see 1:18-25.)

Nor is Paul’s doctrinal fixation on the cross limited to the early chapters of the letter. When he really starts getting into the meaty allegations of horrible misbehaviour in Corinth (chapters 5-6), once again he brings the Corinthians back to the gospel. Right in the midst of rebukes about law courts, incest and a range of other bad behaviours on display in that church, Paul says to them, “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” (6:11).

Washed! Sanctified! Justified! Paul uses the deepest theological language to remind the Corinthians that Jesus, by his blood shed on the cross, washes away all stains of sin, separates us out as God’s special possession (this is what ‘sanctified’ means) and declares us ‘not guilty’ the moment we trust in the Lord Jesus for forgiveness.

And it is right here that the deep, underlying strength of Paul’s doctrine fixation can be seen. True, he bops the Corinthians over the head with his repeated warning that the people who are doing these things will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9-10). But even that is a doctrinal statement, not empty moralism. Paul knows that even spelling out the demands of God’s Old Testament law (which clearly addressed the sort of misbehaviour the Corinthians were engaged in) and laying it down in front of the erring Corinthians is not going to solve anything. In fact, Paul is so far from wanting to impose the rule of even God’s law, he implicitly agrees with the Corinthians when he quotes their saying that “All things are lawful for me”, but then he answers them not by denying this, but by qualifying it, pointing out that “not all things are helpful” (6:12).

The resurrection

Nevertheless, if Paul had been less fixated with the message of the cross, he might well have left his doctrinal detail at that point when he moved on to tackle yet another big problem in Corinth: prostitution (which is also addressed in chapter 6). In Paul’s position, I would have written something like,

Now, about prostitutes: stop visiting them. And while you’re about it, stop downloading porn onto your hard drive. There is a clear link between the demand for prostitution and the viewing of pornography. Here’s a link to a downloadable anti-pornography programme that will help. Now get on with living the right way!

Now, Paul is no more in favour of prostitution (or pornography, for that matter) than he is of the Corinthians dabbling in greed, homosexuality, fraud and drunkenness (all of which come in for a light brush with the apostolic boot in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6). But my favoured approach is not Paul’s; he has bigger fish to fry.

The biggest fish of all (notwithstanding my earlier observations about the cross) is the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Later in the letter, in chapter 15, Paul spends a great deal of time on it. In chapter 6, he appeals to the resurrection for the first time, saying, “And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (6:14). It is because of the resurrection that Paul wants the Corinthians to stop visiting prostitutes! He wants them to stop on the grounds that they, the Corinthian believers, are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection. If we are united to the risen Lord Jesus, what business do we have also uniting our bodies to prostitutes (6:14-15)? Our bodies are going to be raised to glory because of our union with Christ; it is completely wrong, then, to unite them to prostitutes as well.

Whatever the meaning of the details of Paul’s argument, his revulsion at Corinthian misbehaviour is apparent. They had taken the body of Christ and turned it into a monstrosity—like a man with six arms or a woman with an elephant’s trunk. No wonder that, when the kingdom of God is finally revealed for the people of the world to see, such monstrosities won’t be any part of it. That’s the sort of thing from which Christians have been washed, justified and sanctified when they put their trust in Jesus.

Deep as Paul’s commitment to theology may have been, the heart of it is not complex or difficult to see. There are really only two focal points to Paul’s entire thinking about God and what he has done for us, and they are simple and easily understood: the cross of Christ and his resurrection from the dead.

The cross and the resurrection

These two events—the cross and the resurrection—are the bookends of 1 Corinthians—both in the way the letter is structured and, more importantly, in the way they form the basis of every application Paul makes as he deals with Corinthian immorality. In chapters 1 and 2, he speaks of nothing but the cross; in chapter 15, he speaks of nothing but the resurrection—without which “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17).

You could almost argue that the two things—death and resurrection—are two sides of the one event, except the first involves the death of Jesus and all who trust in him, and the second involves the defeat of death, both for Jesus and for all who put their trust in him. But be that as it may, the cross and the resurrection can never really be separated from each other in our thinking. They are the one saving act of God, and Paul is well aware of how much both matter. Without the death and the resurrection of Christ, we have nothing left to say as Christians, and certainly nothing that will help us break the power of sin in our lives or bring about true forgiveness. The best we are left with is advice that a wise pagan might also give—advice about avoiding temptation and monitoring our internet usage with the appropriate software.

With Christ’s death and resurrection, however, we have the forgiveness of sins and God’s Holy Spirit. Not only does the gospel teach us about what is right, it’s also the power of God’s gospel through Jesus’ death and resurrection and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who is now at work in our lives to bring about change.


I regret to say that one of the worst sermons I ever heard was delivered by a Bible-believing preacher in a Bible-believing church on the text of 1 Corinthians 6. Captivated, perhaps, by the enormity of the sin on display at Corinth, the preacher used the passage as the basis for a scorching attack on sinful sexual behaviour. He reminded members of his congregation about the dangers and pitfalls of homosexual behaviour, visiting prostitutes, and the like.

In doing this, he was not departing from the horror Paul himself expressed at such behaviour. But where this preacher parted company with the gospel was in his complete failure to mention the very things Paul fixated on when he wrote to the Corinthians—the saving death of Jesus Christ, who rescues the sexually immoral (and, for that matter, the thieves, the greedy, the drunkards, the revilers and the swindlers), and his resurrection, which has saved us into a new life. Yes, we were all sinners, and the preacher was right to point that out. But remember the gracious reassurance of Paul: “[S]uch 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 our God” (6:11).

Comments are closed.