Rewire: The Gospel in a Litigious Society

Sermon by David Strain on June 4, 2017

1 Corinthians 6:1-8


Well do please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 6; 1 Corinthians chapter 6, on page 954 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Now, last time we were in chapter 5, and we were thinking about some of the difficult terrains that Paul is about to begin to start to cover in the remainder of the book of 1 Corinthians. Chapters 1 to 4 have been relatively calm and plain-sailing, but as we said when we were in chapter 5, from here on out it’s all whitewater rafting; pretty bumpy ride. There’s some challenging material. Last time in chapter 5, you will remember, he dealt with the problem of sexual immorality and church discipline. This time the problem that is plaguing the Corinthian churches has to do with believers suing one another, usually for petty disputes within the fellowship of the local church, in the civil courts. And Paul is writing to challenge them and to address that pernicious problem.


And as we try to think through Paul’s teaching here, there are two preliminary issues that might help us as we approach the text to understand and apply it properly. The first has to do with what Paul is not saying in 1 Corinthians 6, verses 1 to 8. He is not saying that matters of criminal law ought to be kept quiet and handled internally by the church. That is not his message. He is not suggesting that embezzlement or abuse or matters of that nature should be kept out of the courts or out of the law. In fact, when he demanded, the apostle Paul himself was ready to invoke his legal rights as a Roman citizen and appealed himself to the courts of justice for recourse and redress. The civil magistrate, he will tell us in Romans chapter 13, is God’s minister, His servant, whom God has ordained and appointed for our good. So Paul is not saying here that we ought not to appeal to the law of the land when necessary. There are some circumstances in which believers are left without any choice, acting to defend themselves or others, by using the law of the land when there is no other choice that remains.


That’s not what was happening at Corinth, however. It seems that at Corinth, church members were forgetting their obligations as Christians to forgive one another and to love each other and to practice patience with one another. And instead, were using the courts to score points, to make money, and to gain a competitive advantage in business and in society at the expense of brothers and sisters in Christ. And as you could imagine, that was wreaking havoc in the fellowships of the Corinthian church. And so that’s the first thing to keep in mind as we work through 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. Paul is not despising the proper use of civil law when necessary, but he is challenging the kind of misuse of it for selfish and malicious ends that were common at Corinth.


The second preliminary matter that is going to help us as we seek to understand Paul’s message here has to do with how odd verses 1 to 8 are when you place them in the context in this part of the letter. So chapter 5, remember, Paul, dealt with a very particular and difficult case of sexual immorality. And he talked about church discipline for the sexually immoral and unrepentant church member. Then in the second half of chapter 6, he’s going to go back to the issue of sexual sin. And then very naturally, he’s going to transition. So in chapter 5 and the second half of chapter 6, he speaks about disordered and sinful sexuality. And so then, very naturally in chapter 7, he’s going to speak about marriage and godly and rightly ordered and God-honoring sexuality. And that all makes a certain degree of sense; there’s a logic to that.


And so we find ourselves turning to chapter 6, 1 to 8, scratching our heads a little because right here plonked right in the middle of this discussion of human sexuality is this business about lawsuits. What in the world is chapter 6, 1 to 8, doing here? I think there are two things to keep in mind that may help us answer that question. First of all, remember, that in chapter 5 Paul called the Corinthians to exercise church discipline; they were refusing actually, they were reluctant to exercise church discipline in the case of gross, scandalous, public, sexual immorality on the part of one of their members. So in chapter 5, they are refusing to take necessary, ecclesiastical, spiritual action against real sin. But in chapter 6 – how’s this for a contrast – they seem all too happy to take unnecessary, malicious, legal and judicial action simply in order to make a quick buck.


Those two things don’t seem to fit together at all well. Do they? There’s a contrast, a contradiction, and we ought to feel the sting of it. They are outraged at the thought of church discipline, but they have no problem suing a fellow church member for every dime that they have, given half the chance. These things ought not to be so, Paul is saying.


And the other reason that this material is here probably has to do with the order in which matters were presented to Paul by the Corinthians in the first place. And he’s responding to them in the order in which they came. And he responds to them case by case, whether it’s divisions in the church in chapters 1 to 4 or sexual immorality or church discipline or lawsuits among believers, he takes each, almost as a case study, to show how, no matter the issue that may face us, the answer and the antidote to each is exactly the same. He applies the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified to the hearts and lives of the believers at Corinth. And he says, “If you really get this, if this really begins to penetrate and rewire and reconfigure your thinking from the ground up, then everything else will change too.” The real issue at Corinth has to do with their failure to understand and apply the Gospel.


And so chapter 6, 1 to 11, is just another case study among several in this letter showing us that the good news about Jesus really works in the gritty realities of a messed up world, very much like our own. So let’s strive together, as we read the material in just a moment, to keep those preliminary concepts and categories in our minds. They will help us, I think, understand the gist of Paul’s argument. Before we read the Scriptures together, let’s bow our heads and pray!


Our Father, Your Word is now before us. We pray for grace to hear it and to receive its message, and by it, to be drawn back, to bend our knees to the Lord Jesus who is King of kings and Lord of lords. For we ask it in His name, amen.


1 Corinthians chapter 6 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud – even your own brothers!


Or 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 the 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 our God.”


Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His Holy Word.


If we were to identify the problem at the root of the mess at Corinth, the best diagnosis that I’ve come across is what one commentator calls “Gospel amnesia.” Gospel Amnesia – that’s what they suffer from at Corinth. I read a story – actually I saw this story on a news website the other day about a man called Benjamin Kyle who was found beaten and abandoned and now suffers terrible amnesia. He spends all his time these days trawling missing person websites looking for himself; trying to fill in the missing backstory. He’s lost his identity; he doesn’t know who he is.


And the Corinthians here are acting – and time and again in the different issues that Paul addresses, we see this. They are acting as if something similar had happened to them. They have a kind of Gospel amnesia. The good news about Jesus, their new identity in Him, has been overlooked and ignored and forgotten in situation after situation. If you’ll look at our passage, you’ll see Paul making that point with his repeated question, “Do you not know?” So verse 2, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” Verse 3, “Do you not know we are to judge the angels?” Verse 9, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” There are things they ought to know. Paul had taught them; Cephas had taught some of them. Apollos had been with them and taught them; others had opened the Scriptures to them. Paul has previously written to them. They had been well-taught in the things of God and they ought to know. But they seem to have forgotten. Theirs is a case of Gospel amnesia. And tragic consequences follow.


In particular, they are beginning to sue one another with behavior more reminiscent of their old life than the new life that ought to characterize them as Christians. And so Paul asks in verse 1, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?” That’s who they are now. They are saints. That is, they are holy ones – set apart by the grace and work of God in their lives unto the Lord Jesus Christ; designated His. And they ought no longer to live as once they did according to the values of the world, but now according to the values of King Jesus to whom they belong. They were struggling with a problem so many of us still struggle with. They’re struggling, now that they’ve become Christians, to throw off the old habits and patterns and values of their previous life. Listen, just for a moment, to the way one scholar describes how law courts worked in the Corinthians’ world. He says, “In deciding to sue, one first had to calculate the cost and chances of winning, not on the basis of the merits of the case, but on the defendant’s social status and powerful connections. People in the ancient world,” he says, “contended for honor in the law courts. And one gained honor by beating down a rival. The pursuit of litigation often had little to do with the pursuit of justice.”


Now that was the problem at Corinth! They weren’t interested in justice; they were interested in personal advancement in society at the expense of others who threatened their standing in some way. And whether they were believers or not made no difference to them. Their “trivial cases,” as Paul calls them in verse 2, reek of pride and snobbery and lovelessness as they operated in the same old way as they did before they became Christians. They were suffering from Gospel amnesia. They had forgotten that now that they are “in Christ,” now that Jesus has rescued them, they are new creatures who are to live a new life in the context of the fellowship of God’s new community – the church of Jesus Christ.


And Paul treats their amnesia here in three steps, three ways that our true Gospel identity should shape who we are. First, if you’ll look at the passage, first in verses 1 to 3 he speaks about our future, where we’re going now that we are Christians; our destiny. Then secondly, in verses 4 to 8, he speaks about the present, calls us to face up to how we are living now despite the fact that we are Christians. And then finally in verses 9 through 11, he speaks about the past; who we became by the grace of God when He made us Christians. If we can grasp these, Paul is saying, we will begin to recover a true sense of who we are as men and women in Christ and that will change everything.


Our Future


So let’s look together at verses 1 to 3, please. Paul points us to the future, our future, where we’re going now that we are Christians. Now he will argue that the Christian community ought to be able to mediate in disputes internally and bring about reconciliation between believing brothers and sisters without the need to go to civil courts in many matters. The church, after all, is a society unlike any other, endowed with the Spirit of God, sinners saved by grace clinging to Christ. And so he will ask in verse 5, “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between brothers?” The church ought to be able to do that. But here in verses 1 to 3 he tells us why we ought to settle the issues internally when believers fall out and disagree.


Our Future Destiny

And he points us to our future destiny. Look at verse 2. “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more then, matters pertaining to this life?” In the background here, almost certainly are passages like Matthew 19:28, the words of Jesus, where He told His disciples they would sit with Him on thrones, judging Israel in the new creation. Or the Old Testament Scriptures, like in the book of Daniel chapter 7, where, in Daniel 7, the prophet “saw one like the Son of Man being given dominion and authority and a kingdom.” And then Daniel 7:27 we read, “The kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High.” We will reign and judge right along with Jesus Christ. That is our exalted and glorious future destiny.


But the Corinthians, Paul says, in contrast, are occupying their attention with trivial cases, even though they are to judge the angels one day. Surely even here and now, this side of eternity, he says, “in matters pertaining to this life,” the church with a destiny like this should be able to work things out amongst fellow believers. “Remember where you are going,” he’s saying to us. Remember the high dignity and exalted role you one day will fulfill in the courtroom of heaven itself. You will be a judge! How ought you to conduct yourself here in light of that future destiny? You who one day will judge the angels, are you tearing one another down here? You who one day will sit with Christ in the final tribunal, do you use the world’s tactics to advance your own status here, even at the expense and to the wounding of those who will serve with you as brothers and sisters on that final day? Remember your destiny and live in its light. Our future, where we’re going, now that we are Christians.


Our Present


Then secondly, Paul says to us we need to face up to our present – how we’re living, very often despite the fact that we are Christians. Look at verses 4 to 8 please. The key to Paul’s argument here is to notice the repetition of the word, “brother.” Look at the passage; verses 4 to 8:


“So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud – even your own brothers!”


Their Gospel amnesia means that their identity in Christ has ceased to function and operate in any meaningful way in their thinking or their living. The fact that they were brothers and sisters through faith in Jesus, that they were family, ought to have made all the difference. But instead, they were arguing their case before those who have no standing in the church, verse 4. And so Paul says, verse 5, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Surely the church has the basic competence and the gifts it needs amongst its leaders to help settle basic and petty disputes? Someone is wise enough, surely! The Corinthians, you will remember, were boasting in their superior wisdom. “Well then,” Paul says, “if you are so wise, isn’t there someone able to help mediate between aggrieved believers?”


Gospel Victory

But instead, they were going before unbelievers, the unrighteous, for a decision. And he says in verse 7 that is “already a defeat for you. Rather suffer wrong or be defrauded than do that.” Now, why is it a defeat for Christians to act like this? It’s a defeat because the Gospel says that to belong to Jesus is to become a brother or a sister to people with whom you might otherwise have absolutely nothing in common. You don’t relate to them! You don’t get them! They don’t get you! Their background, their ethnicity, their pedigree – it all may be entirely alien to you, well outside of your comfort zone. But now, all of that notwithstanding, now you have become one with them in Christ. Now you are family! They are brothers and sisters. You are bound together in sacred bonds of Gospel love. And so now you must forgive; you must turn the other cheek. You must practice patience; you must leave your gift at the altar and go and be reconciled to your brother. And when you do that, and the world watches, as relationships come under pressure and there’s every reason for them to fracture and fragment and turn sour and ugly when the church instead pursues one another in love and seeks reconciliation, Paul says that’s victory. That’s Gospel victory. The world sees that you are Christ’s disciples by your love for one another!


Gospel Defeat

But that wasn’t what was happening at Corinth, was it? Instead of Gospel victory, as the relationships came under pressure, as all our relationships must, they fell back to the default position of their old lives and instead of Gospel victory as the watching world sees what grace does – transforming an entire group of people into the likeness of Christ who will serve even to their own hurt one another – instead of that, they see people throwing lawsuits around and dragging one another into the public courts, shaming one another and bringing the Gospel into disrepute. It is defeat! When the world around us collapses into tribalism and mutual suspicion and petty grievances and those grievances harden into long-term feuds and settled grudges, when the world acts like this and the people of God pursue peace and reconciliation, seeking to live at peace with one another so far as it depends upon them, forgiving one another just as God in Christ has forgiven them, when the world sees that, that’s Gospel victory.


Now let me ask you whether the world sees that in us. Gospel victory? Or does it see again and again defeat as we fall back to the default of self-defensive, prideful suspicious grudge-holding angry and bitter contention? “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves,” Paul says, “when as brothers and sisters we are still acting like the world.” Christ has died for us. His Spirit lives inside us. His Word directs our steps and still we pursue our petty complaints and our self-centered squabbles before the eyes of the watching world. What a defeat. What a defeat. So Paul calls us to remember our future, our destiny – who we one day will be and the role we will fulfill as judges over the cosmos together with Christ the Chief Judge – and to live in the light of that coming destiny. And he calls us to face up to who we are right now, to see that these things ought not to be.


Our Past


And then finally, if you’ll look with me at verses 9 to 11, he reminds us of our past – who we became when, by God’s grace, He made us Christians. We’re going to come back to verses 9 to 11, God willing, next time for a closer look at these verses, so, for now, would you just notice how Paul reminds them of a truth, a basic truth they seem to have forgotten. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” verse 9. That was how Paul described the judges, the pagan judges before whom the Corinthians were bringing one another in their lawsuits in verse 1, the unrighteous. And here he says, “Well now let me show you the destiny of the unrighteous.” He characterizes them in verses 9 and 10 by their besetting sin. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Sinners are excluded from the kingdom of God; that’s what he says. It’s a sobering picture.


Be Who You Really Are!

Then, he drops the bombshell; “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 our God.” “Corinthians, here’s the real issue that you have lost sight of entirely, which if only you would get it straight in your thinking would begin to change you. And the way that you would live now would not be defeat, but would indeed begin to be, at last, victory. Here’s the real issue! You’ve forgotten that you are not now who you once were. Now that Jesus Christ has erupted into your life through the Gospel, everything has changed. You are no longer defined by the old life of sin.” And Paul has listed an array of sins that define people. But he says, “Now that you have come to know Jesus, they no longer define you. That is not who you are anymore, Corinthians. You’ve been washed and cleansed and sanctified and counted righteous in the sight of God in the heavenly tribunal and robed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That’s who you really are now if you’re a believer. That’s who you really are! Time to start living like it. Time to start being who you really are. No wonder you struggle in your conflict with sin in your heart when you continue to identify yourself by who you used to be and not by who you are now in Jesus. Remember your new, true identity. You have come to Christ and so the old has gone and the new has come. You are a new creation. Be who you really are!”


Your New Identity in Christ

Here’s what I really need, what you really need I suspect, in your daily conflict, in your daily struggle to live for the glory of Christ and pursue practical holiness. So many of us are tempted to think, “What I really need is some extra dose of supernatural power, some more juice to power the engine of my soul to help me be obedient. Something more! Something new!” That’s not Paul’s counsel at all. His counsel is not to look for something new, something extra. His counsel, rather, is to go back to what God has already done for you in Jesus Christ, to understand the Gospel and your new identity in Him. To get that clear. To begin to press it down into every pore and crack and crevice of your spiritual life. To let it percolate all the way through and begin to live in its light. No longer a slave to sin. No longer mastered by the old life. A child of grace. Adopted into the family. Born again by the Spirit of God. Clean and righteous, not with my own righteousness as though these things that Paul lists never again tempt me or cause me to stumble. No, I will inherit the kingdom, you, believer in Jesus, will inherit the kingdom, not because you do not fail but because you are counted righteous in Christ.


And when you grasp that, the wonder and joy of it will begin to animate and give strength to your hand to give some iron to your will, some resolve, so that you will begin to pursue obedience to King Jesus with a joyful heart. You’ll begin to press in when relationships begin to fracture. Instead of pulling back, you’ll pursue reconciliation when everything inside you says to retreat back to the world’s way, to stand behind your barricades and throw grenades at one another and wound and destroy one another. No, when you understand who you really are in Christ, you become a servant to one another instead and pursue reconciliation. That would not be defeat, would it? As the world looks on to see how these Christians behave under pressure. No, that would be victory. As they get to see in us, as we live together, they get to see in our difficult, clunky, awkward relationships people who don’t back off and withdraw, but who pursue one another in love because we are family and we are one in Christ. That would be victory indeed. What a demonstration of the power of the Gospel.


That’s what Paul is calling us to. So we are to remember our future – where we are going now that we are Christians. One day we will judge the world, judge the angels. We are to be supreme court judges one day. Here, we are in training. We ought to live knowing that will one day be our destiny. We are to face up to the present, to see those areas in which today live at such a low ebb, so far below our new identity and standing. So far below the life to which we are called. And we are to repent. And we are to remember our past – what God has done in Christ at the cross and in our hearts by Christ through the Gospel, making us new. And as we grasp it, we are to begin to live in its light, to be who we really are. May the Lord give us the grace to do precisely that? Let’s pray together!


O our Father, we acknowledge the times in which we have given place to Gospel amnesia, we’ve neglected our true identity, we’ve still lived as though we were who we once were, not who we are now in Christ. Would You please forgive us for living so far below our privileges as children of God, adopted by Your grace, cleansed and set apart for Your glory and justified in the heavenly courts. Please have mercy on us. And as we take in the wonder of who You have made us to be, would You empower us and enable us to live out who we really are? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.


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