We’re praying for conversions. We want our neighbours, our classmates, our colleagues, the people we see on the bus to be saved. In every prayer-meeting we tell the Lord how much we long for people of all sorts to come to repentance and faith in Christ.
I wonder whether we really expect God to grant our prayers. Have you ever thought about what would happen if he did? Suppose that over the next year we saw lots of local folk saved and added to the church? Have you ever considered the sort of problems that our new brothers and sisters might bring with them?
Remember, many of these folk will have lived lives that by biblical standards were plainly wicked. Paul lists out some of the people who had come to faith in Corinth and been added to the church: ‘... Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homsexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you’ (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). If the Lord answers our prayers, we must expect him to add such people to our number.
We mustn’t misunderstand Paul’s last sentence. Was Paul saying that these converts had left behind their previous sins completely? Clearly not. If they had, he wouldn’t have needed to give them that warning. When he tells them not to be deceived, it’s because some believed that they could return to their old sins and still inherit the kingdom of God. Paul goes on to explain that consorting with prostitutes is unthinkable for those who are united with Christ (vv. 13–20). Why did he need to spell it out? Because some had never grasped that simple fact.
As you read through the two letters to the Corinthian church, you find that among the believers in that church, the majority of whom had been converted out of a pagan society, there were some who had sunk back into the old patterns of behaviour. Some got drunk repeatedly – even when they came together for the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20-21)! Paul feared that ‘when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier, and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practised’ (2 Corinthians 12:21).
Other churches were no different. Paul has to write such words as these to the church in Ephesus: ‘Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands…’ (Ephesians 4:28) and ‘...do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery...’ (5:18). And to the church in Thessalonica: ‘this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality...’ (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Drunkenness, theft, immorality: it would be lovely if all these things vanished the moment any of God’s elect come to faith. But it clearly is not so. The fact is that when people are converted out of a corrupt and decadent society, they may only recognise the evil of such sins gradually. Transformation may be a long and painful struggle. And there may be many setbacks and stumblings along the way.