Recently I ventured into the world of the Internet. I carefully dipped my big toe in the waters of a bulletin board on Lordship Salvation. It has been very interesting.
In one posting two people were discussing Paul’s anathema in 1 Cor 16:22. There Paul says, “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed [Greek: anathema]. O Lord, come!” It was clear that the one writer, a seminary professor, understood this to mean that all genuine believers love Christ and that those who don’t love Him are eternally condemned.
That is not an isolated view. Many commentators hold that opinion. For example, one commentator writes, “Paul’s personal note began with a passionate warning probably aimed at false teachers (cf. 12:3) whom he believed to be already present in the congregation (cf. 2 Cor 11:3-4)…Paul invoked God’s wrath on these false brethren (cf. Gal 1:8-9) and in the same breath appealed to Christ to return” (Lowery, “1 Corinthians,” p. 548 in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT edition).
That view of 1 Cor 16:22 is inconsistent with the passage and it inadvertently undermines an admonition about the seriousness of sin in the life of the believer.
Belief in the Lord Jesus Christ
Does Not Guarantee Loving Him
This verse is the only place in the entire NT where the idea of loving the Lord occurs using the verb phileo. However, very similar expressions do occur and they clearly show that loving the Lord Jesus is not the same as believing in Him.
In the Upper Room Discourse Jesus said to the eleven, all believers, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). See also John 21:15-17, James 4:4, and 1 John 2:15. The Lord wouldn’t have commanded them to keep His commandments and thereby love Him if all believers automatically obey and love Him. But believers don’t always keep the Lord’s commandments, so they don’t always love Him! Loving Jesus Christ is not the same as believing in Him.
Since all who have come to faith in Christ for eternal life are secure forever (John 5:24; Rom 8:38-39), and since some believers don’t love the Lord, this verse can’t be teaching that those who don’t love Him are unsaved. This leads us to consider the key word in this verse, anathema (accursed).
Anathema Can Refer to Temporal or Eternal Judgment
The word anathema literally means “under a curse.” The nature of the curse is not explicit in the word anathema. It could refer to either eternal condemnation or to temporal judgment here and now.
Anathema was routinely used in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, or LXX) to refer to temporal destruction and to cursing people and cities (e.g., Josh 6:17; 7:1-13ff.; 22:20; Judg 1:17; Zech 14:11). There are no clear examples of it being used in the LXX to refer to eternal judgment.
Anathema occurs only six times in the NT. In three of those uses, Acts 23:14 and Gal 1:8, 9, the context shows that temporal judgment is in view. (See The GES News, Mar-Apr 94, “The Anathema of Gal 1:8-9.”) First Corinthians 12:3 is unclear, but quite probably refers to current alienation from God. Only in Rom 9:3 is eternal condemnation probably in view.
Paul’s Anathema Here Refers to the
Temporal Judgment of Believers
This verse, 1 Cor 16:22, appears at the close of the epistle. As was often his practice, Paul had dictated this epistle to a scribe who put the words to paper. Paul picked up the pen himself to write the closing as is evident in v 21: “The salutation with my own hand-Paul’s.” Clearly he did this to make the closing even more personal, much like today an executive will dictate a letter but sign it and add a brief note at the bottom.
The verses which follow clearly indicate that Paul had only believers in mind here: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” (vv 23-24). As many commentators note, the warning of v 22 in this context is surely directed to members of the church at Corinth (see Lowery’s comments above). The suggestion that Paul is warning false teachers who have crept into the congregation unnoticed is untenable. For one thing, there is no convincing evidence that false teachers were a part of the church at Corinth, or even that the church was already being threatened by false teachers. For another, there is no hint that Paul is thinking exclusively or even primarily of doctrinal defection here. The epistle heavily emphasizes moral issues. Paul’s warning was probably directed against those whose behavior showed a lack of love for the Lord.
The apostle John wrote, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). Note that John was talking about the one who doesn’t love his brother. An unsaved man cannot hate his Christian brother since that relationship does not exist. He was talking about believers, not unbelievers. Compare 1 John 3:16-18. The apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthian believers for the existence of “envy, strife, and divisions among you” (1 Cor 3:3), yet he still called them “babes in Christ” in that very context (3:1). Clearly the believers to whom Paul was writing were in danger of falling under the anathema which he was invoking.
Sin in the Life of a Believer Is Serious
The view that unbelievers are being warned here undercuts the power of Paul’s warning. On that view, if I know I’m a believer, then I will simply understand Paul’s warning not to have direct application to me. I am exempt because I’m a Christian. Wrong! If I don’t love the Lord, I will experience temporal judgment from God. Surely the readers of 1 Corinthians knew this quite well. Paul had already stated that, due to their drunken and gluttonous abuses of the Lord’s Supper, “Many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (11:30).
The blessings/curses motif was a prominent aspect of the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). The idea that God blesses obedience and curses disobedience was not limited to the Law of Moses, how- ever. That is a timeless principle. God blesses us when we obey Him (cf. Matt 6:33; Gal 5:22-23) and He curses us (i.e., disciplines us) when we disobey Him (cf. 1 Cor 5:5; 11:30; Heb 6:4-8; Jas 5:19-20; 1 John 5:16).
May we take Paul’s warning seriously and use our time, energy, and our money and possessions, to express love to others and thereby to God as well.