By Clinton D. Hamilton
The questions to be considered in this column are those often being asked concerning sins committed by one prior to conversion. Some contend that the alien sinner can only commit one sin which is said to be that of unbelief. Accordingly, the argument made in consequence of this affirmation is that one can continue after conversion with the same marital companion that one had while in unbelief. The person, it is said, was not under the law of Christ and only becomes subject to the law after conversion. There-fore, after conversion the argument is that one must abide by the teaching of the Lord on marriage and divorce in Matthew 5:28-32; 19:1-9; Mark 10:1-10, and Luke 16:18. The following questions pinpoint the issues for discussion in this column.
Questions: (1) May a person commit any sin other than unbelief prior to conversion?, and (2) May a person remain with the same marital companion one has when one obeys the gospel?
Response: As always, those who love the Lord must search the Scriptures for the answer to these questions. Paul makes clear whether men are guilty of sins other than unbelief prior to being converted. He listed some of the Corinthians as sinful persons prior to their conversion. The following descriptive terms were used to designate them before they were cleansed: fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with men, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners. He said that such persons shall not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). He then adds these words, “And such were some of you: but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6: 11). Attention will now be directed to a careful study of these passages.
Verse 11 says, “and such were some of you.” Such is the translation of tauta, which could well be translated “these things,” which means that some of Corinthians were these things (fornicators, idolaters, etc.) and accordingly would have been guilty of these sins: fornication, idolatry, adultery, effeminacy (voluptuousness), abusers of themselves with men, (sodomy or homosexual activities), thievery(stealing), covetousness, drunkenness, reviling, and extortion (rapaciousness). The verb is “were” which is from the Greek ete. The tense of this verb form is imperfect active indicative, the sense of which describes what was actually occurring in the past, that is, they were being fornicators, idolaters, etc. (see Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament 187). These Corinthians were “vividly represented as actually” engaging in these activities in past time prior to their conversion. This passage is a case of the imperfects contemplating “the process as having gone on in the past time up to the time denoted by the context, but without any necessary inference as to whether or not the process has been completed” (Idem.). No doubt, some of them continued in these sins up to the point of their being washed.
Since he had already condemned a fornicator among the Corinthians in chapter 5 and here in chapter 6 warns that those who practice such sins as he lists cannot inherit the kingdom of God, it could be the case that some would seek to do these sins again. If men cannot commit these sins prior to conversion, why did the Holy Spirit through Paul say that they did? A fornicator is one who engages in a prohibited sexual relation and is guilty of the sin of fornication. One could make a parallel statement about each of the terms used in I Corinthians 6:9-10. Each of these is a discrete sin and one cannot amalgamate them into one sin. Fornication is not reviling. Effeminacy is not thievery. Extortion is not idolatry. And one could continue with such statements, but these are enough to make clear the point of the distinctive nature of each sin. Paul by the Holy Spirit says that some of the Corinthians were guilty of these sins prior to their conversion.
There is much more yet to be deduced from these passages. After having stated that some of them were guilty of the catalog of sins listed, Paul then follows with these adversative statements: “but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, and but ye were justified.” Each of these statements is introduced by alla, an “adversative particle indicating a difference with or contrast to what precedes, in the case of individual clauses as well as whole sentences but, yet, rather, nevertheless, at least” (Arndt and Gingrich 37; see also Thayer 27). The adversatives make no sense in this context if these Corinthians were not guilty of at least some of the sins listed. Their washed, sanctified, and justified condition stands in contrast to their previous condition of being guilty of the sins listed. It is futile to deny this because one finds himself contradicting the Holy Spirit’s testimony. Prior to their conversion, he said some of them were fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with men, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners. They could not have been described with such terms if they had not committed the deeds that are so indicated by them. It is most obvious that one can, and does, commit any number of sins (plural) prior to conversion. To deny this is to deny a plain affirmation of Scripture.
Peter and the other apostles on Pentecost following the resurrection of Christ charged their hearers of having “crucified” Jesus who is both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). What was their sin? Murder! “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) The response was to repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of your sins (Acts 2:38). If they had only one sin, that of unbelief, why did the Holy Spirit mention sins (note the plural)? One of the sins that had just been delineated was that of murder in the crucifix-ion of Christ. One would not be remitted of doing something he had not committed. But, if one is forgiven of his sins, then it follows that prior to conversion one has more than one sin. The logic is overwhelmingly simple and undeniable.
What is sin? It is lawlessness, that is, acting outside of what rule says can be done ( 1John 3:4). The term for lawlessness is anomia, which is a compound term formed from the a privative, not or negative, and nomos, law. Accordingly, the idea is that the deed is not within the bounds of what is permitted by rule or law. Vine says of this passage, “This definition of sin sets forth its essential character as the rejection of the law, or will, of God and the substitution of the will of self ” (II:3 17). All unrighteousness (adikia) is sin, that is whatever is not within the plane of what God describes as right (1 John 5: 17). Adikia likewise is a compound word from a-privative, not or negative, and dike, right. Accordingly, the word refers to whatever is not right in the eyes of God. Whatever deed one does at any time that contravenes the law (will) of God or righteousness is a sin, whoever the person may be, saint or alien sinner. They missed the mark or sinned. Sin in these passages is the translation of the word hamartia, which literally means “a missing of the mark” (Vine IV:32). This is why Paul said that some of the Corinthians we; e fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with men, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners. They sinned or missed the mark or the standard that God established in his law for the behavior of his creature man. The response to the first question must be a resounding “yes.”
Attention will now be directed to the second question. If one is doing an act that is called drunkenness by the Holy Spirit prior to conversion, and does the same act after conversion, it is still drunkenness. Baptism does not change the nature of a sin. One can be forgiven of drunkenness or any other sin, if one repents with full, confident faith in Christ, and is baptized in water for the remission of sins. But, if one after baptism does the same act as one did before it, and that act was a sin prior to baptism, it will be sin after baptism. If one were committing fornication in a sexual relation prior to being baptized, that same act with the same person after baptism would still be the same sin. If one were committing adultery in a sexual relation, or in a marital relation, prior to being baptized, and continues that same relation after baptism, it is still adultery. Baptism does not change the nature of the deed or act, nor is one by virtue of being baptized permitted to do the same act after baptism but without sin. One’s conversion does not give one the license to continue in the same sinful act after it, as one was doing before conversion. This logic is irrefutable.
But one says, “The person was forgiven!” Yes, this could well be the case, but this fact is not a license by God for the person to continue in the same deed or act that was sinful as Paul clearly revealed (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Forgiveness blots out a sin so that it is not laid to one’s account, but this forgiveness does not authorize one to continue in the sin. Take a case of a Christian who commits adultery with another’s companion, and confesses the wrong, saying that he genuinely repents of the sin. If this is in fact what he did, then according to the Bible God will forgive him (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9, et. al.). But once forgiven, may the person engage in the same act with the same person and be right? Of course not! According to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the same thing in principle applies to the alien sinner who is baptized for the remission of sins. Does God’s forgiveness authorize the person to continue in the fornication or adultery with the same person after baptism? Of course not!
Repentance is a change of mind for the better (Thayer in defining metanoia, 405-406; see also Arndt and Gingrich, 513-514). The verb metanoeo means “change one’s mind” (Arndt and Gingrich 513). Thayer says of the word, “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins” (405). If it is genuine, then there must be fruit meet or suitable to it (Matt. 3:8). This is manifested in one’s turning away from, and no longer engaging in, the sinful act or acts, whatever they may be. If one is committing fornication or adultery in a sexual act with another person prior to repentance and baptism, and the repentance is genuine, then after repentance the person will turn away from, and no longer engage in, the sinful act of fornication or adultery. One may continue to do any act after baptism that is not a violation of the will of God that one may have done before baptism. But one cannot continue in an act after baptism that was a prohibited act and called a specific sin before baptism (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
If one is engaged in an act that is called fornication, the person committing it is called a fornicator before baptism; therefore, the same act with the same person under the same relation after baptism would still be fornication, and the one committing the act would be a fornicator. If one is engaged in adultery before baptism, the same act with the same person after baptism would still be adultery, and the person committing the act would be an adulterer. The nature of the act is not changed by baptism. If one has entered a prohibited marital relation prior to baptism, then the person in the same relation with the same person after baptism would be in a prohibited relation after baptism. The prohibited relation was not changed by baptism.
The response to the second question must be `no” if the marital relation is a prohibited one as set forth in Matthew 5:28-32; 19:19; Mark 10:1-10; Luke 16:18. God’s law concerning sexual behavior and marriage is coextensive with the human family. He said when he created man, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and the two shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Jesus used this passage when he stated, “So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6; see also Mark 10:7-8). Paul used the same passage to show that union with a harlot violates the purpose of one’s body (1Cor. 6:15-18). Fornication has no place in the life of man as God determined his purpose and proper conduct. Men who so argue as to permit it work against God. No one who does this can stand justified in the judgment on the last day. God forbid that any one of us seek to justify adultery or fornication under what-ever banner!
Difficulties arise when individual cases are considered because lapse of time, circumstances, and facts vary from case to case. What one must be careful to do is to state clearly the law of God in an article such as this one. With a broad stroke of the pen one cannot settle all individual cases with generalized statements independent of specific case facts. This much is very clear, however. God’s law is that one man and one woman who enter into marriage properly in God’s sight do so for life (Matt. 5:27-32; 19:1-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Gen. 2:24; Rom. 7:1-4). If the marital relation is dissolved except for the cause of fornication, then the person marrying another commits adultery and so does the other party in this second union. The one guilty of fornication in a marital relation and is put away cannot marry again. If a person is in a marital relation that violates the law of God, and one repents of the sin, then the marital relation as a consequence (the fruit of repentance) would need to be dissolved. None of us apart from a given set of circumstances that may have occurred can be fair with the case in discerning all the facts independent of some testimony of first hand observers. What we need to do is to teach what the law of God is and urge those whom we teach honestly to apply that law to their case. One does not have any difficulty in ascertaining what the law of God is. Nor is there difficulty in determining what is to be done as the consequence of repentance, if one knows what the facts in a given case are.
Sometimes, individuals express strong words of condemnation against men who teach the truth on this subject because they may believe that these men may have used bad judgment in the condemnation of the error in a given situation. However, an assessment that one has used poor judgment must not be transformed into the charge that he endorses error. One must be careful not to charge another with believing what he does not.
The issue of fellowship is often raised in connection with the discussion of this issue. One may condemn the error taught by someone and yet be in contact with that person in circumstances that cannot be interpreted as justifying, endorsing, encouraging, or participating in the error. In this connection, it should be observed that one fellowships only that which he practices, endorses, or encourages. Fellowship is a joint participation or sharing in common. There are three words that convey this in the New Testament koinonia (communion, fellowship, sharing in common), metoche (partner-ship), and koinonos (denotes a partaker or partner). The preceding definitions are from Vine II:90. Basically, the same definitions are given by Thayer (352, 407) and Arndt and Gingrich (439-440, 516). If one has become a Christian, and another has become a Christian, they are in fellowship as a result of their sharing the same relation to the Godhead. However, one who does not teach error, does not endorse it, and does not encourage it, but condemns it, is not jointly participating or having communion in the error. Fellowship exists when one commits an act that indicates a sharing in the thing said or done. Independent of this, one does not fellowship whatever is under discussion.
Each of us must be careful not slanderously to report about another by attributing to the other that which he actively opposes. Paul said, “and why not (as we are slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say), Let us do evil that good may come? whose condemnation is just” (Rom. 3 :8). Some may be zealously condemning error and at the same time may be slanderously reporting things about one who condemns the same error. The object must always be to teach truth and condemn any error. But, in the doing of this, one must also avoid the sin of slander in one’s own conduct.
Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 8 p. 5-7
April 20, 1995