Like Jesus, the Apostle Paul sets high standards for entering the kingdom of God. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites…will inherit the kingdom of God” (1Cor 6:9-10).
But that’s not all Paul says about the high standards of God. In the 5th chapter of his letter to the Galatians he adds, “When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21 New Living Translation).
I don’t know how anyone could read such a list and think it only refers to someone else. If we read it too quickly to see ourselves in the mirror, all we need to do is read again Paul’s catch-all phrase, “and other kinds of sin.”
But, anyone who has read Paul knows that it’s not his intent to show that no one has a hope of heaven. So, I think we need to answer the question:
What is “the kingdom of God”?
In one sense, the Bible shows that “the kingdom of God” is future. It represents the predicted day, at the end of this age, when Christ will rule the world. At that time, according to the New Testament, the Savior of the world will becomes its judge and king. He alone will determine who comes into his kingdom and who doesn’t (John 5:20-27; Matt 25:31-46).
The Scriptures, however, also speak of a present kingdom. In this sense, all who– in their own hearts– have bowed the knee to Christ, have already been welcomed into His kingdom (Col 1:13). Such people, according to Paul, have been accepted not on their own merits. They’ve been accepted by the grace of Christ who, on the basis of his own saving work, has washed, set apart, and declared right with God all who have trusted him (1Cor 6:11).
But how does this fit with what Paul is saying?
Is he saying those who have been forgiven by Christ will not commit the sins of their past? Is that how they show they’ve been forgiven? If that’s the case then why in this letter does Paul have to repeatedly urge the family of God not to fall back into sexual sin, conflict, and all kinds of other behavior that does not reflect the goodness of God in our lives?
To dig a little deeper let’s ask the question,
What does it mean to “inherit the kingdom?”
The word inherit can mean to receive, at some time in the future, a promised inheritance. Or it can also mean to partake and participate now in the “rule and influence of God.” Both are possible, and both are probably in view as Paul writes.
In a future sense, only those who have been forgiven of their sins will be allowed into the kingdom of heaven.
In the present, none of us can, point to any sin, and say that by such behavior, we are reflecting the rule and influence of God in our life.
Paul makes two things very clear in his letters:
No one qualifies for heaven on their own merits (1Cor 6:11),
And no can show the presence of God in their life by their own efforts (Gal 5:22-25).
Seems to me that such an understanding of “the kingdom of God” allows us to have an important conversation, not only about the high standards of God, but about the wisdom and grace by which God lets people like us come into his presence.