Without a doubt, the Western world has undergone a significant moral transformation over the past sixty years, particularly with respect to sexual morality. Things once considered shameful and sinful—including cohabitation before marriage, homosexuality, and pornography—are now openly celebrated. There have been real, substantive changes in our culture’s definition of right and wrong, and we would be foolish to believe that these changes do not bring with them grave consequences.
At the same time, it is possible to believe that things are as bad as they could possibly be, that nothing holds sin in check. But we know this is not the case. Other cultures have fallen farther than the West, even if the West is on a downward trajectory ethically. Thanks be to God, some activities remain disallowed in our culture. Generally speaking, incest remains taboo, and even murder remains illegal. (Sadly, however, our culture denies that abortion on demand is a kind of murder.) In any case, the moral law of God found in Scripture and written on our consciences still holds us back from full-on moral anarchy.
Today’s passage gives empirical evidence for the restraining function of God’s law. Paul refers to a sin that not even pagans in first-century Corinth would tolerate—a sexual relationship between a man and his stepmother after his father died or divorced her (1 Cor. 5:1). The Mosaic law forbids such activity (Lev. 20:11), and even the pagan citizens of the Roman Empire knew that for a son to lie with his father’s wife was wrong. In the Corinthian context, the law of God restrained the pagans, though to the church’s shame, the Christians in the city were not rightly applying God’s command and maintained fellowship with the man who was sinning in such a heinous way.
Unbelievers are capable of civic virtues, of outwardly following at least some of God’s moral law. Many non-Christians are good citizens who look out for their neighborhoods, love their children, and do much that is commendable for their fellow human beings. Certainly this is a good thing, but we must remember that this reality does not mean they are not sinners under the wrath of God. It is possible to obey the Lord’s law outwardly but not inwardly, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:21–30. Mere outward obedience, while better than outward disobedience, is still insufficient to please the Lord. Therefore, none of us can be saved apart from faith in Christ, who kept God’s law perfectly in His heart and in His actions (1 Peter 2:21–22).