1 Corinthians 5:4-6
Turn Him Over to Satan . . . that He Might be Saved
Where does a boat belong? A boat belongs in the water and it is good for a boat to be in the water but when the water starts coming into the boat you have got a serious problem that needs immediate attention or you will sink. Where does the Church belong? Jesus commanded us to go into all the world and make disciples. It is good for the church to be in the world, but when the world starts coming into the church we have got a serious problem that needs immediate attention or we will sink.
In our last study we looked at the first three verses of chapter five where Paul is confronting the church at Corinth for failing to address the man in their church who is living in an immoral relationship with his step mother. I suggested that it is very likely that this individual who was involved in the immorality was either very wealthy, or very prominent and influential in society, or a very gifted and eloquent academic, because rather than dealing with the sin the church turned a blind eye to the sin and were instead boastful about the church. And very possibly the reason the church is so willing to turn a blind eye to this man’s sin is because he has something to contribute to the church that, according to natural human wisdom, is perceived to be very valuable and beneficial to enhancing their status in the eyes of the world. And they are boastful perhaps of the status such a high profile person brings to their church when instead they should have mourned the fact that there was so little of the glory of God present in their midst that such immorality could comfortably exist in their congregation.
If sin is comfortable to take up residence in a church one is forced to ask, “Where is the power of God among you?” There is an account in Acts that graphically illustrates the impact God’s manifest power in a church can have on the church and on the community around.
Acts 5:1-5, 12-15 “But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things . . . 12 And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch. Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly. And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them.”
Notice in this account in Acts 5 that the unbelievers dared not join the church. But that did not keep them from being saved because the believers were going out to them with the gospel and many were being saved. Then after they were saved they gladly joined the church.
There are two appalling sins that Paul identifies as evidence that the church in Corinth is lacking the power that characterizes God’s kingdom: The fact that there is sexual immorality among them and the fact that the church tolerates it. In fact what is remarkable about this fifth chapter is that the bulk of Paul’s criticism is aimed at the church congregation more than at the man involved in the immorality. (Fee, p. 192) It is one thing for an individual to be involved in sin but it seems to be a greater failure for the church to turn a blind eye to the sin and think that they can carry on as a spiritual body. Still to this day it seems that the majority of God’s church in North America is not very good at dealing with sin in the church. And we wonder, “Where is the power of the kingdom of God?”
Now in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, Paul is prescribing a certain disciplinary action that is to be taken, not only for the sake of the individual who is involved in the sinful behavior but for the sake of the entire congregation. To help us understand what is happening here in chapter five it is helpful to compare Paul’s instructions here with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 for dealing with a brother who sins. There are four important steps involved:
Matthew 18:15-20 “Moreover if your brother sins against you,  go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear,  take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them,  tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church,  let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
If Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5 for putting the immoral man out of the church seem to be ignoring the first three steps that Jesus gave for confronting sin we have to keep in mind that we are coming into the middle of a conversation that has been going on for some time between Paul and the believers at Corinth. We have not heard the report of the Corinthian believers from Chloe’s household who have travelled to see Paul and talk with him about the problems at Corinth (1:11) We do not know what Paul wrote in his first letter but according to 5:9 & 11 Paul has already addressed similar issues with the Corinthian church. Because Paul is so strong on being led by the Holy Spirit and not by the natural mind we must assume that the first three steps of Jesus’ prescribed procedure in Matthew 18 for dealing with sin have already been carried out with this immoral man who has his father’s wife. We can be sure that Paul is not reacting in the flesh and calling for excommunication as a first line of action against this man.
Putting together the bits and pieces of information that we have available to us we can reconstruct a little bit of what has been going on with this situation: The individuals who have reported this incident to Paul are not gossiping but are apparently godly members of the church who are grieving over the circumstances in Corinth. It is likely that they are reporting that some have tried everything to address the situation but to no avail. The man is unrepentant and some of the leaders in the church are turning a blind eye to the sin and refuse to deal with it. Because there is division among the church perhaps some have tried to confront the sin but others have blocked them and defended the man, even now boasting in their great display of imagined grace toward this immoral member. So because of divisions in the church they are unable to resolve the issue.
Therefore Paul now steps in and exercises his God-given apostolic authority. Apparently the time for talk and reasoning has been exhausted and has not been effective, so he follows our Lord’s final step in confronting sin in an unrepentant brother. “If he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Matthew 18:17
Notice the parallels between Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 and Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 5. Both are given at the inspired prompting of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 5:4 Paul says the discipline against the man with his father’s wife should be pronounced, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” In Matthew 18: 20 you have the same basic criteria listed in different order, the discipline was to carried out: “Where two or three are gathered together in My [Jesus’] name, I [Jesus] am there in the midst of them.”
In both accounts you find these same basic criteria for carrying out church discipline:
1) In Jesus’ name
2) When you are gathered together as believers
3) With the power of the Lord’s presence.
So this is the setting in which the church discipline was to be carried out, but what was the discipline that they were to carry out?
Vs. 5 “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
What does it mean to deliver such a one to Satan? If you don’t let the Bible interpret the Bible you can come up with some pretty bizarre interpretations of what Paul was calling for here. Some have understood this to be like an evil curse placed on the man or almost like a Satanic ritual where the man was being offered as some kind of human sacrifice to Satan. But we need to compare scripture with scripture and let the Bible give us the interpretation. We have already seen the parallels between Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 so let’s go back there to see if there is a parallel to delivering an unrepentant individual over to Satan.
In Matthew 18, the final step in dealing with an unrepentant individual is in verse 17, to “let him be to you [the church] like a heathen and a tax collector.” In other words, let him no longer be considered as part of the church, put him out of your fellowship, no longer to be considered or treated as a fellow believer or as a brother in Christ but as a heathen who is in need of salvation. In other words, to deliver such a one to Satan means to put the man out of the church back into the world, where Satan and his “principalities and powers” still hold power over peoples’ lives to destroy them. Jesus Christ is the head of the church but Satan is the prince of the world. (Fee, p. 209) This is a powerful statement about the seriousness of willful, unrepentant sin. 1John 1:6 says, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
But there is a positive purpose for the church in taking such an action. They aren’t just washing their hands of the problem and being done with him. They weren’t giving up on him and putting him out the door to go to hell, though they were putting him out the door. How are Christians supposed to treat the heathen unbelievers? We are to be concerned for their salvation, we are to send missionaries and evangelists to them and we are to call them to repentance and tell them of God’s love and forgiveness that is available through Christ.
According to verse 5 this is actually a prescription for the man’s salvation. “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
Think about this in light of the seeker sensitive approach of many churches to opening their doors wide to include the unsaved. 1 Corinthians 5:2, 7 and 13 make it crystal clear that this man is to be excluded from the church community. And Matthew 18:17 says he is to be treated as a heathen and a tax collector. This cuts at the core of tendency of some “seeker” churches to have unsaved musicians, unsaved Sunday school teachers, etc., involving the unsaved in every aspect of church life. According to the Bible, the heathen are not to be part of the church fellowship. The unbeliever is always welcome to attend our service but they are not considered one of us until they have put their faith in Christ and gone public with it through baptism. Then they can be publicly recognized as part of the church.
Often we are reluctant to exercise discipline with one in the church who is not walking with the Lord because we do not want to turn them away from the Lord altogether. We naively hope by putting up with their sin to eventually win them over to the Lord. But ironically by failing to deal with their sin we are keeping them from the very thing that has the best chance of turning their hearts to the Lord. This is another example of how God’s ways are radically different from man’s ways and how man’s natural wisdom and God’s true wisdom are not compatible.
To deliver one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh is not referring to destruction of the body or physical death but it is referring to the destruction of that which is opposed to the Spirit, or in other words it is the destruction of that which is carnal in the man; that which keeps him from walking in the Spirit. According to Galatians 5, the flesh is that which “lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another”. Another way of saying “for the destruction of the flesh” would be to say so that his flesh might be “crucified”. Galatians 5:24, “And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
The intent of this church discipline is the man’s salvation. He is not being turned over to Satan for total destruction to burn in hell, but is being excluded from the Christian fellowship. The inevitable consequence is that he is back out in Satan’s domain, where he might come to the end of himself in hopeless despair so that he may finally repent and turn to the Lord for salvation.
Ironically the implication of this passage is that the immoral man is more likely to go to a lost eternity if allowed to remain a hypocrite in the church fellowship while continuing in his sin than if the church confronts his sin and puts him out of the church. Parents of adult children who are not walking with the Lord struggle with this. I’ve often heard parents of ungodly adult children breathe a sigh of relief as they say, “Well at least my son or daughter is going to church so there must be some spiritual life in them.” Perhaps the best thing that could happen would be for the church to quit going along with the charade, so that the hypocritical son or daughter is confronted with the seriousness of their situation. Then they might get saved.
There is a false sense of security that can come to an individual who is welcomed into the fellowship of a church. Because he/she is accepted as part of the church fellowship they can carry on with a false sense of belonging to the family of God because of their church involvement. If an evangelist asks them about their relationship with God they are quick to respond that they belong to Parkdale Grace Fellowship, and therefore it is often assumed then that they are a born again believer and the evangelist likely will no longer proceed with the challenge to put their faith in Christ. But if the individual was excluded from the church they would be keenly aware that they are not part of the church body and may be open to receiving spiritual help.
Another principle illustrated here is the sovereignty of God to cause Satan’s efforts to destroy a man to actually work together for the salvation of the man. Look carefully at what the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul in verse five and be amazed: “Deliver such a one to Satan . . . that his spirit may be saved . . .” Obedience to the wisdom of God seems like foolishness to man but it results in man’s salvation. On the other hand the so called wisdom of man (ignore the sin and maybe we can win the man for Christ) is foolishness and results in the destruction not only of the man but in the corruption of the church as well.
This is thought to have been a Jewish proverb, similar to our proverb that says, “A bad apple spoils the whole barrel”. A church cannot turn a blind eye to sin in the body without it having a detrimental effect on the entire body. We are to open our arms wide to welcome and embrace sinners; we are to be merciful, compassionate and long suffering toward those who sin. But we are always to address and deal with the sin, never to ignore it or sweep it under the carpet, never to just leave it alone and hope it will go away. Sin in the church must be dealt with or it will spread and weaken the whole church rendering it powerless.
It is good for the boat to be in the water but when the water starts coming into the boat you have a serious problem. Likewise it is good for the church to be in the world but when the world starts coming into the church we have a serious problem that needs immediate attention. Jesus said we are to be in the world but not of the world.
I pray that the Lord will give us the faith and confidence to trust His way and to walk in it as a church in order that we might not be a church of our own making but that we might be His workmanship; that He might be glorified in us and that the power of the kingdom of God would be evident in our lives.