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What Does It Mean to Lose Your Inheritance in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10?

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Lesa asks,

“A friend of mine wanted me to ask this question about your recent post on Grace Basics and about the loss of the Kingdom rewards. It was referring to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Can you explain if the loss of inheritance in the kingdom is a loss of authority/position? And how is the correct understanding of the passage, written to saved people, because we are not unrighteous?”

Answer: Thank you for the questions. I’m happy you asked them because the meaning of the unrighteous came up in a debate on The Gospel Truth show, and I stumbled over the question and made a mistake in my answer. This gives me the chance to clear up my thinking.

First, what can you lose according to 1 Cor 6:9-10? Is it specifically about the loss of authority/position? Or could it even be, as many think, about the loss of salvation?

The answer to that comes earlier in the letter. I think what Paul says in 1 Cor 6:9-10 presupposes what he explained in 1 Cor 3:11-15. There Paul made a distinction between salvation and rewards and explained that one day believers will appear before Jesus and have their work evaluated. We can either gain or lose rewards based on what we did to build up the house of God. Paul wrote about rewards in the broadest possible terms without specifying the rewards. Lucas Kitchen has summarized the New Testament data about the types of rewards as riches, rights, recognition, regalia, royalty, and relationship (see Kitchen, Eternal Rewards: It Will Pay to Obey, pp. 155-261). I recommend that free book for a deeper study. Paul imagines a scenario where someone’s work gets totally burned up, leaving nothing rewardable behind, and yet “he himself will be saved—but only as through fire.” In short, I think ruling with Christ is included in the thought of passages, but it is not directly stated in either.

Second, if Paul does not explicitly mention gaining or losing positions of authority in those passages, where does Paul address it? As you know, the Lord Jesus taught about that possibility in Luke 19:11-27. I think Paul echoes that teaching in 2 Tim 2:11-13:

This saying is trustworthy:
For if we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself (emphasis added).

All believers are united to Christ, have died with Him, and will live with Him. That refers to salvation. But reigning with Christ is another matter and depends on enduring in faith and good works. Reigning is a reward for faithfulness. However, Paul warns that if we don’t endure, He will deny us the reward of reigning. We will still live but will not reign. I think that agrees with the distinction of salvation and reward in 1 Cor 3:11-15.

Third, who are the unrighteous in 1 Cor 6:9-10? And what does that passage mean? Many people think Paul means that if you commit the sins he mentions, you will not be saved. Is that what he means? This is the question that I stumbled over in my debate.

The key word in chap. 6 is unrighteous [adikos]. Paul uses the noun and verb forms in different ways throughout the chapter.

In v 1, Paul wrote about believers taking their legal issues to the courts in front of “the unrighteous” [tōn adikōn] instead of before “the saints” [tōn agiōn]. In that usage, the unrighteous is a group distinct from the church and refers to the unsaved. In fact, in v 6, Paul calls this group unbelievers (v 6). So, Paul can refer to the unsaved as the unrighteous.

However, in v 8, Paul admits that the Corinthians, whom he has just called saints, could also “do wrong” using the verb form adikeite. In other words, someone saved in their position can still be guilty of unrighteous conduct. While Paul accuses some Corinthians of swindling their brethren in v 8, if you look at the letter as a whole, the Corinthians were steeped in all kinds of carnal behavior and immorality despite being saved.

So who is Paul referring to in v 9? Leon Morris notes that Paul does not use the definite article in v 9 as he did in v 1. In other words, Paul does not refer to “the unrighteous” (or to “the wicked,” depending on the translation). Morris thinks that is significant: “Wicked lacks the article in Greek, thus putting emphasis on the character of these people, not the unrighteous as a class” (Morris, 1 Corinthians, p. 93).

If Paul were referring to the unsaved, his statement would be redundant and unnecessary. It would mean something like, “Don’t you know that the unsaved [i.e., the unrighteous] will not receive rewards in God’s kingdom?” Of course not, seeing that they won’t even be in the kingdom. That does not make sense.

But if Morris is right and Paul emphasizes character, then Paul’s warning makes perfect sense. In that case, he would be warning the Corinthians that if they continued to act unrighteously or wickedly, they would not get any rewards (i.e., inheritance) in the kingdom. If their lives were characterized by wickedness, they would be like the hypothetical builder in 1 Cor 3:15, who finds all of his work burned up by the fire of God’s judgment, resulting in a total loss of rewards. That’s what it means to be disinherited from the kingdom. But as Paul says, even that person will be saved through fire.

What is Paul’s encouragement to them? Some, but not all, of the Corinthians were taking each other to court. And Paul says that some, but not all, of the Corinthians were guilty of vices he mentions (“some of you used to be like this”). Those kinds of wickedness had characterized their lives. But something happened to them that should change their behavior. “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” (1 Cor 6:11). This is the Pauline way of encouraging Christians to be godly. Instead of telling us what to do for God, he tells us what God has already done for us in Christ. If we allow those truths to renew our minds, it should inspire us to live out the sanctification we have already received.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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