Does real change occur in the Christian life? Those who have been believers for any length of time will eventually find themselves asking this question. After all, the closer to Christ we become, the more we are aware of our own sin and the many ways that we continue to fall short of the glory of God. Certainly, the Apostle Paul testifies to this. Near the end of his life, Paul called himself “the foremost” of sinners (1 ;Tim. 1:15). After a lifetime of serving Jesus, Paul still understands himself to be sinful and in need of God’s grace. Moreover, texts such as 1 John 1:8–10 make it clear that believers will not be sinless before they die.
Yet, we should not despair of making real progress in holiness. The same Paul who sees himself as the foremost of sinners after years of serving Christ also proclaims that Christians undergo a holy transformation. He tells the Corinthian believers in today’s passage that some of them were once sexually immoral, thieves, drunkards, revilers, and so on, but that now in Christ they are no longer (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
Paul does not say that a true Christian will never commit sexual sin, get drunk, steal, or do any of the things characteristic of those listed in verses 9–10. Believers can and do commit grievous sins. David, for instance, was guilty of both adultery and murder (2 Sam. 11–12). Paul’s point is that true Christians cannot be defined in the manner of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 because the forbidden behaviors do not constitute believers’ lifestyles. It is one thing, for instance, to steal something, feel sorrow, and turn to Christ for forgiveness, endeavoring thereafter to walk in new obedience. It is another to steal regularly, not see a problem with thievery, and make no effort to turn away from stealing. The former person is not a Christian thief but a Christian who fell temporarily into sin and then renounced it.
Practically speaking, then, 1 Corinthians 6:11 tells us that while Christians might commit any of the other transgressions of verses 9–10, these sins are not definitional of their identity. True Christians are not impenitent sinners because we have been cleansed, declared righteous, and set apart as holy (v. 11). Therefore, we aim to put into practice what we already are in Christ. Those whom the Spirit of God has converted do not embrace homosexuality, theft, greed, or any other sin listed in verses 9–10 as positive goods but reject them, putting all sinful thoughts, desires, attractions, and actions to death more and more as they grow in the grace of the Lord.