Christians should not interpret Paul’s reference to inheriting the kingdom in I Corinthians 6:9-11 passively.
In the sixth chapter of I Corinthians, Paul rebukes members of the Corinthian church for arguing over petty issues. It is an embarrassing display of thin-skinned envy and bickering. It is not the way Christians behave!
As is always the case with chastisement, what seems harsh is actually in the best interest of the recipient. I Corinthians 6:9-11 contain Paul’s defense. The rationale behind his chastisement is informed and pure. He is not being vindictive. He is helping them see there is a better way to live. He wants the Corinthians to move on to maturity and experience a higher quality of Christian life.
Before they can get there, they must understand there are consequences for their actions. The good things that are available in Christ don’t just fall from the sky. A deliberate, intentional kind of faith is necessary to secure them. This is Paul’s thinking as he penned I Corinthians 6:9-11:
9 …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 homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor those habitually drunk, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
The intent of these verses was clear and obvious to Paul. It is an acute warning for immature Christians who sorely needed correction. When Paul says, “do you not know the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?”, the “unrighteous” ones to which he is referring are not unbelievers, but the badly-behaving Christians he was reprimanding.
Sadly, the zing in Paul’s rebuke has been removed in modern Christianity. These verses, along with the powerful lessons they contain, have been summarily dismissed as not applicable to Christians. This dismissal is the unfortunate consequence of the modern, two-dimensional understanding of the gospel. This is the view that says there are Christians and non-Christians, and nothing in between. There is little discussion about what I like to call the third dimension–that is, the spiritual growth of the Christian.
To appreciate Paul’s intention, we need to consider the source of material he used to develop his theology. The Old Testament, and particularly the Psalms, are a key part of Paul’s world view. Paul’s concept of inheriting the Kingdom has its roots in Psalm 37, an informative psalm written by David.
Inheriting the Land in Psalm 37
In Psalm 37, David introduces the concept of “inheriting the land”. What land is he talking about? Was it the tract of ground nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River, the proverbial “Promised Land” flowing with milk and honey? Or was there something grander the Spirit was prompting him to write about? It is clear from the text David knew the “land” was much more than dirt, for he speaks of abundant prosperity–a supernatural fulfillment that neither the most bountiful harvest nor the most beautiful of scenery can provide. David knew the Promised Land he was standing on was just a shadow of a broader, more important spiritual reality.
Today, we can see the Promised Land is a metaphorical picture of the Kingdom of God. The battles against ungodly forces and the Spirit-inspired exploits of Joshua, Gibeon, Deborah, and Samson are perfect object lessons of the spiritual warfare facing the Christian. And so we have an interesting parallel between inheriting the Promised Land and inheriting the Kingdom of God which serves as a backdrop for Paul’s instruction.
What is really intriguing about Psalm 37 is David’s repeated mention of inheriting the land. David’s use of the word “inherit” in Psalm 37 is not like the tame word we think of. In the English language, inheritance involves the bestowing of property to an heir. The Hebrew word yaresh is much more aggressive. It means “to occupy by driving out the tenants and possessing.” It is “to rob”, “seize”, and “expel”. It is a very different idea than passively waiting. It is actively taking. It gives us the idea that the land may be ours, but we must be proactive to possess it.
The other thing to notice in Psalm 37 is how inheriting the land is always conditional. The Israelites did not automatically enjoy the blessings of the Promised Land the minute they crossed the Jordan. Nor were they guaranteed perpetual possession, as was demonstrated by the seventy years of exile in Babylon. Possession of the land is not an automatic thing. There are conditions for possessing it. It requires intentional and proactive faith in God, trusting Him, submitting to His authority, and following His instructions. This is how we see David defining the conditions for inheriting the land in Psalm 37. Only those who wait for God (37:9), know His laws (37:31) and keep them (37:34) can inherit the land. Only those who are humble (37:11), righteous (37:29) and dependent on God (37:40) can possess it and enjoy its fruit. The pleasures of the Promised Land are reserved for people who are not full of themselves, but empty, humble and eager for fellowship with God.
The blessings are well worth the effort. The Promised Land was known for its bountiful milk and honey. But the rewards for possessing the Kingdom go far beyond mere food. David says people who possess the land are prosperous, not because they are rich, but because they have a contented and delighted soul (37:11). This sense of contentment is sustained (37:9, 10), enduring through times of difficulty. Most importantly, because they are pleasing God, they experience His approval. They feel His blessing (37:22). Those who are in possession of the land are noticeably different. Their eyes sparkle. They remain calm. Nothing seems to get them down for long. They are assured and confident because their humble hearts and quiet faith have placed them in good position with God.
Application of Inheriting the Land
Applying the Psalm 37 concept of inheriting the land more accurately and effectively motivates the church. The interpretation goes like this. To appreciate the concept of inheritance, consider a homeowner. He possesses a title deed–a document which proves his ownership of the house. But if a thief breaks into the house, ties up the man, and leaves him in the yard, the homeowner no longer possesses his house. He still has his title deed stating the house is his, but he cannot enjoy the benefits of its roof, air conditioning, or running water. It is one thing to own a house. It is quite another thing to derive benefit from it.
Jesus used “inheriting the Kingdom” the same way, not referring to what is promised to believers when they “accept Jesus” but as conditional rewards believers can experience when they live out their faith (Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:17-23, Luke 10:25-37). In these passages, when speaking of the Kingdom, Jesus speaks not of “praying a prayer”, but of casting off cares of this life in gritty pursuit of God. This aggressive and conditional form of possessing the Kingdom of God is a foreign concept today, but it is worthy of our attention. It is what was in Paul’s mind as he wrote to the churches.
Paul saw the unfolding history of Israel as ready-made lessons for the church. He said the lessons of the Israelites are “for our instruction” (I Corinthians 10:9-11), and encouraged his readers to apply lessons like inheriting the land to their walk of faith. In doing so, we can understand difficult instructions of Paul in passages like I Corinthians 6:9-11.
Paul was a student of the Psalms. He understood the concept of possessing the land, and he applied it in these passages to give Christians insight to understand what is available to us in the Kingdom of God and to motivate us to not just know about it, but experience it.
Is it coincidental that the same English-translated term “inherit” is used in Psalm 37 as in Paul’s list in I Corinthians? Or was Paul’s appreciation of the Psalms so influential that his statements about inheriting the Kingdom refer to the same idea as David’s? That Paul’s epistles are heavily informed from the psalms is no secret. His discussion of spiritual gifts is taken from Psalm 68. His lessons on the universality of sin, man’s fallen nature, and need of external righteousness in Romans 2-4 are all based on lessons from the psalms.
Paul was also well-versed in the idea that the Kingdom of God has benefits. They are like those David lists in Psalm 37, but in Romans 14:17 Paul calls them by different names–peace, joy, and righteousness. He attributes these benefits to a humble believer who has submitted himself to the Holy Spirit. “Peace” and “joy” reflect the imperturbable contentment of the soul. “Righteousness” suggests that the possessor of the Kingdom feels a sense of validation, a confirmation that he is approved by God.
If we can assume Paul shared David’s idea that a believer must assert himself to obtain the blessings of the Kingdom, what is the implication for Christians today? We can begin to take seriously God’s invitation to “inherit the land”, recognizing that the benefits God offers believers are not automatic, but conditional. We can also understand that those benefits do not fall off of trees. They are not free for the lazy nor faint of heart. They must be seized.
Contemporary Interpretation of Inheriting the Kingdom
We have to start by discarding false teaching on passages talking about the Kingdom. Most Christians think inheriting the kingdom of God is synonymous with going to heaven. This well-meaning but misinformed interpretation misses Paul’s point and fosters unhealthy behavior among Christians.
The Christian who believes inheriting the kingdom is “going to heaven” dismisses I Corinthians 6:9-11 as written for someone else. He thinks to himself, “I know I’m going to heaven, so this list is not about me.” Even though the list contains sinful behavior he is familiar with, he does not bother himself with unnecessary complexities. He firmly establishes the view that Paul is talking about one of two groups of people: 1) non-believing heathen that reject God altogether, or 2) false Christians who claim to believe but don’t live like it. In his mind, both types of men will not “go to heaven”, and so it is settled: this verse does not apply to him. In so doing, he has dismissed the idea that all scripture is profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16) because for some reason he can’t explain, this scripture is not profitable. He has ruled himself above the law in this instance.
Equally unhealthy is the Christian who imagines that mature Christians would never do the things on this list. I’ve heard pastors use these verses as a bludgeoning stick, calling into question the faith of Christians who struggle with these sins. It is not necessarily a bad thing to do this…there are certainly regular church attenders who need a wakeup call. But for the true believer who struggles with habitual sin, these accusations cast unnecessary doubt and shame upon souls that are already weary and suffering. Why do we repeatedly question the faith of those who struggle with sin? This is not helpful for the one badly needing grace, incentive, and helpful instruction. The reality is that all Christians will struggle with sin. Paul himself was frustrated by the continual fight with fleshly desires (Romans 7:14-25). Rather than continuously questioning the sincerity of our brothers, we ought to affirm their struggle and give them instruction to help.
The Christian who struggles with immorality, adultery, idolatry, homosexuality, greed, and drunkenness should understand that he is not alone in his sin. He should not worry that perhaps he didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer correctly or something equally ridiculous. Instead, he should be shown that there is a better way. He should be reminded that he has not lost the Kingdom for God does not lose those He calls. But he may not be possessing it. He may not be enjoying its benefits nor experiencing its fruits. Having led him to this conclusion, he can then be motivated to pursue those blessings. He should be encouraged to fight for it. He should leave church exclaiming, “I want to possess what is rightfully mine!”
Right Effect of the Psalm 37 Interpretation
The Psalm 37 interpretation of inheriting the land makes I Corinthians 6:9-11 directly relevant to Christians. It does not allow a Christian to dismiss this passage. In fact, it can actually make it a practical lesson on Christian living.
If the Christian reads I Corinthians 6:9-11 as bad habits of non Christians, he ignores the list, never heeding its warning. He can be led to believe that even if he was guilty for a thing or two written there, this passage is not for him and he needn’t mind it. But if the Christian can be “left out” of the Kingdom’s benefits because of certain ways of living, then he shudders a bit, for he recognizes some of the items in this list as his own bad habits, and realizes there are consequences if he doesn’t stop. He begins to realize his motives and behavior are important. He sees his habitual glancing at explicit websites as “sexual immorality” and perhaps for the first time, recognizes that this bad habit could be robbing him of something better. He understands that his need for alcohol to lift his spirits could be classified as “drunkenness”, and could be the reason joy and peace seem so elusive. He contrasts his well-stocked 401K against his stingy lack of regular giving and considers that this might constitute “greed” and he understands for the first time this could be the source of his discontentment.
As bad as immorality, drunkenness, and greed are, by far the most common and dangerous sin in Paul’s list is idolatry. Paul’s inclusion of idolatry condemns every Christian, for Christians commit the sin of idolatry as casually and commonly as breathing air. We do it when we pour our lives into helping our children be successful in life–pushing them on to good grades, good college, good job, and good spouse. We do it when we eat too much, sleep too much, or watch TV too much. We give precedence to so many things above God. As Jesus pointed out in Matthew 19:29, our own family and farm can be idolized over devotion to God. This is more common than we realize. So very few can claim to be whole-heartedly sold out for Christ.
Having thus exposed the falseness of his way, the Christian wanting to “inherit the Kingdom” sees there is a better way to live. He understands that though his eternal life is certain, his contentment in this life is dependent on his behavior. This drives him to live with conviction and determination. He feels the inner longing to cry out to God for relief, and for help to combat the competing factions that wage war against his soul.
If we can accept that the Promised Land represents the Kingdom of God for Christians, and if the term “inherit” can be interpreted not as a passive waiting but a proactive and conditional possession of a soul content with God, then we can understand Paul’s perspective and interpret some difficult ideas he presents in his letters to the churches.
Let us not dismiss the list of I Corinthians 6:9-11 as not applicable to believers. All Christians struggle with the vices on this list, even hard-working, sincere Christians. Let us not pretend that “true” Christians have somehow managed to eliminate immorality, idolatry, and greed from their lives. Such teaching can disillusion the weary Christian who struggles and is badly in need of reassurance and encouragement to press on.
Let us embrace the reality that all Christians struggle with these things. It should not come as a surprise to a Christian when he struggles with immorality, idolatry, greed, or other sinful behaviors. He should be told he is not alone in his struggle. Every sincere believer strives with sin.
He should also be encouraged not to give up the fight. He ought not settle for a life void of the righteousness, peace, and joy available in the Kingdom. He should strive with sin and fight for possession of the land, relying on his strong ally, the Holy Spirit, to lead him there and fight his battles.