Friday, 1 June 2018

Unconditional love and uncompromising holiness

For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5

The famous Victorian preacher C H Spurgeon once told his students, “Preach much upon the love of God; more flies are caught by honey than by vinegar.”

What Christian could possibly disagree with that? God is love! – and people need to have this great truth repeatedly rammed home.

Christians often add another word and speak about “God’s unconditional love”, highlighting the fact that nothing we have done and nothing we have been, however wicked, need shut us out of God’s love.

This is why the word “gospel” means “good news”. (Good news indeed! – I do hope you have grasped it and found in it peace and joy.) God loves sinners, even the very worst of us.

But why then is it that certain passages in the Bible seem, on the surface at least, to be very lacking in God’s love? Where is the love, especially the unconditional love, in Paul’s shocked, angry, indignant words to the church in Corinth?

Paul has heard that there is a sex scandal in the church. He therefore tells the church in strong terms to get rid of the guilty person: his behaviour is a disgrace, and is bringing the church into disrepute.

Unconditional love? Everyone welcome?

The passage bristles with difficulties. Let’s quickly try and unravel one or two…

First, what does Paul mean when he says “… when I am with you in spirit”? Usually when he talks about the spirit he means the Holy Spirit. But here he seems simply to mean his influence, even his authority, as if to say, “You know perfectly well what I think about this unsavoury business, so just keep it in mind, will you, when you come together to decide what to do!”

Second, how can he say “I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this”? Didn’t that very same Lord Jesus say “Don’t judge” (Matthew 7:1)?

The best explanation is that Jesus meant  that we shouldn’t slip into the habit of condemning and criticising other people – looking down on them, despising them – for that is God’s business alone.

But there are extreme circumstances where, in order to safeguard its purity and integrity, the church has to act in effect as a court of law, and, like it or not, a verdict needs to be passed. And Paul leaves them in no doubt that this is just such a situation – nor what, as far as he is concerned, that verdict should be. (When you stop and think about it, what would the alternative be?)

Third, what does he mean when he tells them to act “when the power of our Lord Jesus is present”? How do Christians know when Jesus’ power is present? Something obviously supernatural happening? A display of the more spectacular spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues?

I doubt it. The simplest explanation is that he means an occasion when the church has gathered in a very solemn and serious frame of mind, and taken great care to commit their meeting to God. Jesus promised to be with his people “whenever two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20), and Paul is saying that this is to be a meeting where his presence is taken with deep seriousness.

Fourth, what can Paul possibly mean by “handing this man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh”? (If ever something sounded drastic, that surely is it!)

In essence, Paul is simply repeating his command from a little earlier, to “put this man out of your fellowship”, but he is phrasing it now in such a way as to bring home the spiritual significance of this.

The church is the realm that is in the process of being delivered from the power of the evil one, while the unbelieving world remains in the grip of Satan. So Paul is telling the church to expel this man – send him back into the darkness where he belongs.

It’s not entirely clear what he means by “the destruction of the flesh” – perhaps quite simply his death, or possibly some sickness or other physical affliction. But he clearly regards this treatment as, so to speak, intensive spiritual surgery.

But now we must come back to where we started. For yes, the man’s flesh may be destroyed, but then, says Paul… only “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord”.

Ah! Paul’s draconian verdict is intended to bring the man to his senses, to bring him to humble repentance, and so back into his relationship with God. It isn’t only to safeguard the purity of the church, but also to ensure the man’s ultimate salvation.

In a word, it is an act of love – all right, “tough love”, no doubt about that; but love all the same.

So… Is God’s love “unconditional”? Yes, it is. But let’s get it into our heads that he also calls for unconditional holiness among his precious people.

No messing; no compromise…

Lord God, give me a fresh vision of your perfect holiness, so that I will not tolerate sin and wickedness, whether it be in me personally or in the church of which I am a part. Amen.

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