I hope those who know me best would say I am all about grace. I love to talk about it, teach it, and read about it. I am painfully aware of my need for grace. Any chance I get to speak publicly I am increasingly inclined to bring the message of grace. More and more in my life, by the help of the Spirit, I am learning to practice it in my relationships, and of course that is most important.
The challenge comes when grace meets sin, in particular sin in the life of people who are representing Christ in this world. Grace must cover over sin, or it is not grace. Grace teaches us that we are all in a place of need because we all fall short. Grace knows that our brothers and sisters will fail.
But is there a limit to grace? When is the right response discipline and judgment, not mercy and unconditional acceptance?
It seems from this chapter that the Corinthians were a deeply graceful people. In fact they were so gracious they took pride in what they had forgiven and accepted, even in their midst. This is likely what they were “boasting” about in verses 2 and 6. Apparently, a man’s father died and some time after (maybe soon after?) this man took his father’s second wife (surely not his own mother or the text would have said as much) as his own wife. More to the point, this was deemed scandalous, immoral, and undignified even in their permissive Corinthian society (5:1). The Corinthian Christians surely saw this as wrong as well, but they had chosen to respond with acceptance instead of judgment and exclusion. How noble and mature, right? In a world of judgmental Christians better known for picketing funerals and petitioning politicians and excluding “dirty” people from their social circles, it is very easy still today to want to be the ultra-accepting ones.
Except Paul didn’t feel this way. In fact, he was beside himself with the Corinthians (“Well I never!,” 5:1b). This is grace run amok. Grace is supposed to attract people to God, and this “grace” was a turn off even for the pagans. And that right there is the key point for Paul:
Everybody’s talking about the sex scandal that’s going on in your community, not least because it’s a kind of immorality that even pagans don’t practice! (5:1)
Grace is not intended to enable sin, rather to move us past our sin in gratitude for such a gift. We are a re-created people; “depravity and wickedness” have been taken from us (5:6-7). Why would we allow our sin to remain and fester within us? Dealing with sin with kid gloves thinking it will go away is a dangerous naiveté.
Paul proposes a different tack. There is a place for judgment within the church.
Let me tell you what I’ve already done. I may be away from you physically, but I’m present in the spirit; and I’ve already passed judgment, as though I was there with you, on the person who has behaved this way. . . . You must hand over such a person to the satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus. (5:3, 5)
Note, Paul is talking about how Christians deal with other Christians, not non-Christians (5:9-13). It is fine to show one’s support for a restaurant because of their stance on gay marriage amongst predominantly non-Christian people, but do we deal with the greed and gluttony and bigotry in our own midst as vigilantly?
Judgment, exclusion, discipline, handing over to Satan, not associating with — well, that doesn’t sound very gracious now, does it? Certainly all of those response can be done with entirely wrong, depraved motives. But that is not what Paul is intending here. Notice what the purpose of this sort of discipline is: “the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved” (5:5). Put distance between you and the offender so as to get him back again but as a spiritually-stronger, morally-cleansed brother. Produce a situation where the immoral one feels a loss of love that causes repentance. The goal is salvation. The desire is to draw that person closer to God again. That is an act of grace, albeit a different sort. That grace says you deserve for us to write you off and have nothing to do with you ever again, but instead we will pray for you, keep you on our radar, and welcome you back with open arms when you decide to turn around. This is the grace of the father of the prodigal son who never went looking for the son, yet welcomed him home as a dearly loved son not just the slave he was willing to be.
Yes, even discipline can be an act of grace. Grace motivates change, so the approach Paul was taking fits. Ironically, what doesn’t fit is the “grace” of the Corinthians. Nothing would change in unqualified, principle-less acceptance of a perversion even non-Christians find offensive. In fact, the only thing that changes is the reputation of the Church and the Christ who we serve. And for the worse.