Manmade religion says you have to clean yourself up before you approach the Lord, but grace shouts, “Come as you are!” So how do we explain this passage which seems to say something different:
Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty. (2 Cor 6:17-18)
This sounds like conditional acceptance, as though we have to purify ourselves before we can come to God. At least that’s how DIY religion interprets it. “You have to separate yourself from the pollution of the world before God will accept you. You have to watch how you live or your Father may reject you.”
What a horrible thing to say! Can you imagine saying that to your children? “Sin and you’re out of the family!” Yech!
Is Paul preaching conditional acceptance?
If Paul is preaching conditional acceptance in 2 Corinthians 6, then he is contradicting himself when he declares “accept one another as Christ accepted you” (Rom 15:7). The good news is not “work hard and you might get accepted. (That’s not news and it’s certainly not good.) The good news is that Christ has accepted you! God has made us accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6).
In the covenant of grace, God takes all the initiative:
- He loves us first (1 John 4:19)
- He forgives us first (Col 2:13)
- He accepts us first (Rom 15:7)
…and all we can do is respond to what he has done.
You need to settle this in your heart. You are not a son or daughter because you avoid unclean things. You are a child of God because you have been adopted:
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Rom 8:15-16)
So what is Paul saying when he says “touch no unclean thing and you will be my sons and daughters”? He is not saying we purify ourselves to become his children. Rather, we purify ourselves because we are his children. He is saying the same thing that John says here:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)
Do you see? Paul and John are painting pictures of the holy lifestyle that holy people live.
It’s be holy, not do holy
Some people read these scriptures on purification and conclude, “I have to separate myself and withdraw from the world and make myself holy.” Yet Jesus never told his disciples to withdraw from the world. In fact, he sent them into the world while praying that God would “sanctify them in it” (see John 17:15–18). Paul said something similar:
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. (1 Cor 5:9-10)
Jesus didn’t avoid sinners – he loved sinners. He ate with them and revealed God’s grace to them. Same with Paul. He travelled to some of the most pagan places on earth and he brought the aroma of Christ with him. Same with us. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are God’s mobile home. Everywhere we go, there Jesus is.
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. (2 Cor 7:1)
This is a favorite scripture of holiness preachers because it’s a new covenant exhortation that can be made to sound like an old covenant command. But it must not be read through a graceless lens as though you could somehow perfect yourself through dead works.
Christ is our holiness and he is already perfect. How can you improve upon perfection? By his one offering he has perfected those that are sanctified (Heb 10:14). One with the Lord, you are just as holy and perfect as he is. That’s the gospel truth.
We cannot improve upon or perfect what Christ has done. This is not about withdrawing from society or locking yourself away in the hope of perfecting yourself. That’s how cults form!
In this passage Paul is saying, “Don’t get distracted by worldly concerns. Don’t follow or join yourself to those who reject Jesus. Don’t tear yourself in half by saying yes to the Lord and yes to those who oppose him. Don’t let the world manipulate and label you and diminish you, but stand secure as a dearly-loved child of God.”
Live as a beloved and accepted child of God and you will never be seduced by the hollow promises of this world. You will be free!