Severed from Christ: Falling Away in 1 Corinthians 6
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
Can Christians lose their salvation? The question is a matter of debate when it comes to the theology of the apostle Paul. I, for one, think it's quite clear that Paul thinks justified believers can fall away. One text that bears on the question but is not often cited in the debates is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, and I argue in my recent book Paul and the Resurrected Body that this text reflects Paul's view that believers can indeed fall from grace. The key thing to see is that Paul assumes he is addressing people who have union with Christ, and he warns them, not merely about the danger of falling away, but about being severed from Christ. Here's a brief excerpt from pages 103-104.
The significance of the sexual act with a πόρνη (temple prostitute) is illumined with the second question in 6:15: “Shall I, therefore, remove [ἄρας] the limbs of Christ and make [ποιήσω] them members of a prostitute?”...Paul depicts a powerful taking away or wrenching off of a piece of Christ’s body. ποιήσω could be a subjunctive, but the future indicative is more likely. Paul is not so much inviting deliberation, which might be communicated by the subjunctive, as he is offering a rebuke. Bruce N. Fisk sees it as unclear whether “Paul believed that using a prostitute immediately severed all ties to Christ.” But Paul’s rhetorical question brings the mutual exclusivity between union with Christ and sexual union with a πόρνη into focus. The bodies of believers are limbs on Christ’s body, and Christ has authority over them. Sex with a prostitute amounts to dismembering Christ’s body. It is tantamount to severing a limb from the body of Christ in order to graft it to the body of a sexual partner. For Paul, then, sex with a prostitute is detrimental to Christian identity. This may shed light on Paul’s earlier mention of the believer’s resurrection. I argued in the exegesis of 1 Cor 15 that future bodily resurrection functions as a possible social identity for Paul. Paul’s ethical expectations in 1 Cor 15:29–34 and 58 reflected a desire for consistency between present behavior and the future identity marked by bodily resurrection. one of Paul’s concerns was the recipients’ bad eschatology; another concern was their resulting bad behavior. We might say that Paul assumes in 6:12–20 the future identity for which he will argue in chapter 15, and his focus in chapter 6 is on temporal somatic continuity as an aspect of that future possible identity. The present self as body will be the future self as resurrected body. Paul’s problem with πόρνη-union is not simply the fact that it reflects an attitude that devalues the body and is thus discontinuous with the future identity. his problem with πόρνη-union is that it destroys that identity. One’s body cannot be raised with Christ if one’s body is not in union with Christ. A body cannot both belong to Christ and be severed from him at the same time. πόρνη-union separates a body from Christ and jeopardizes participation in the resurrection.
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Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.