7:1 — Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
The promises of God are meant to lead us to purity of life. But they do not do so automatically; we have to appropriate them and access their power by choosing to use them as God intended.
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (7:1)
Having God’s promises provides powerful motivation for believers to separate from unbelievers. Paul’s use of the word therefore is a call for action based on what he has previously written (cf. Rom. 12:1–2; 2 Peter 1:3–8). The apostle moves beyond the commands of 2 Corinthians 6:14, 17 and appeals to God’s promises enumerated in 6:16–18. Those promises should elicit love, gratitude, and thankfulness for His overwhelming generosity. In fact, one of the things that characterizes unrepentant sinners is ingratitude (Luke 6:35; Rom. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:2)
The endearing term beloved (cf. 2 Cor. 12:19; Rom. 1:7; 12:19; 1 Cor. 10:14; Col. 3:12; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13) defines who God’s promises apply to. Only His beloved children, accepted by Him because of their union with His beloved Son (Eph. 1:6; Col. 1:13), receive God’s promises.
Paul defined the appropriate act of gratitude in both negative and positive terms. Negatively, believers must cleanse themselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit (cf. Isa. 1:16; James 1:21). The reflexive pronoun heatous (ourselves) indicates that though the cleansing work is God’s (cf. Acts 15:9; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5), it does not happen apart from believers’ effort (cf. Phil. 2:12–13). Molusmos (defilement) appears only here in the New Testament. In all three of its uses in the Septuagint, however, it refers to religious defilement. Paul calls believers not only to cleanse themselves from sin and immorality but especially, in this context, from all associations with false religion. That complete cleansing is to be both of flesh and spirit; that is, both inward and outward. False teaching defiles the whole person by pandering to sinful human appetites and corrupting the mind. Therefore, believers must avoid both the fleshly sins and the pollution of the mind that false religion brings.
Positively, cleansing oneself from false religion involves perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Perfecting is from epiteleō, which means, “to finish,” “to complete,” or “to fulfill.” Believers are to pursue the goal of holiness (Lev. 20:26; Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16) by separating from all the lies and deceptions that would defile them, encouraged by the hope that the goal will someday be achieved (Phil. 1:6; 1 Peter 5:10; 1 John 3:2). Motivating believers’ pursuit of holiness is the reverential fear of God, which is foundational to godly living (Job 28:28; Pss. 19:9; 34:11; 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 8:13; 9:10; 15:33; 16:6; 23:17; Acts 9:31).
The church must confront the world to fulfill the Great Commission given to us by our Lord (Matt. 28:19–20). Yet we must not compromise with false religion to do so. To disobey God’s explicit command to separate from unbelievers is foolish, blasphemous, ungrateful, and forfeits God’s blessing.
1. These promises, therefore. God, it is true, anticipates us in his promises by his pure favour; but when he has, of his own accord, conferred upon us his favour, he immediately afterwards requires from us gratitude in return. Thus what he said to Abraham, I am thy God, (Gen. 17:7,) was an offer of his undeserved goodness, yet he at the same time added what he required from him—Walk before me, and be thou perfect. As, however, this second clause is not always expressed, Paul instructs us that in all the promises this condition is implied, that they must be incitements to us to promote the glory of God. For from what does he deduce an argument to stimulate us? It is from this, that God confers upon us such a distinguished honour. Such, then, is the nature of the promises, that they call us to sanctification, as if God had interposed by an implied agreement. We know, too, what the Scripture teaches in various passages in reference to the design of redemption, and the same thing must be viewed as applying to every token of his favour.
From all filthiness of flesh and spirit. Having already shown, that we are called to purity, he now adds, that it ought to be seen in the body, as well as in the soul; for that the term flesh is taken here to mean the body, and the term spirit to mean the soul, is manifest from this, that if the term spirit meant the grace of regeneration, Paul’s statement in reference to the pollution of the spirit would be absurd. He would have us, therefore, pure from defilements, not merely inward, such as have God alone as their witness; but also outward, such as fall under the observation of men. “Let us not merely have chaste consciences in the sight of God. We must also consecrate to him our whole body and all its members, that no impurity may be seen in any part of us.”
Now if we consider what is the point that he handles, we shall readily perceive, that those act with excessive impudence, who excuse outward idolatry on I know not what pretexts.2 For as inward impiety, and superstition, of whatever kind, is a defilement of the spirit, what will they understand by defilement of the flesh, but an outward profession of impiety, whether it be pretended, or uttered from the heart? They boast of a pure conscience; that, indeed, is on false grounds, but granting them what they falsely boast of, they have only the half of what Paul requires from believers. Hence they have no ground to think, that they have given satisfaction to God by that half; for let a person show any appearance of idolatry at all, or any indication of it, or take part in wicked or superstitious rites, even though he were—what he cannot be—perfectly upright in his own mind, he would, nevertheless, not be exempt from the guilt of polluting his body.
Perfecting holiness. As the verb ἐπιτελεῖν in Greek sometimes means, to perfect, and sometimes to perform sacred rites, it is elegantly made use of here by Paul in the former signification, which is the more frequent one—in such a way, however, as to allude to sanctification, of which he is now treating. For while it denotes perfection, it seems to have been intentionally transferred to sacred offices, because there ought to be nothing defective in the service of God, but everything complete. Hence, in order that you may sanctify yourself to God aright, you must dedicate both body and soul entirely to him.
In the fear of God. For if the fear of God influences us, we will not be so much disposed to indulge ourselves, nor will there be a bursting forth of that audacity of wantonness, which showed itself among the Corinthians. For how does it happen, that many delight themselves so much in outward idolatry, and haughtily defend so gross a vice, unless it be, that they think that they mock God with impunity? If the fear of God had dominion over them, they would immediately, on the first moment, leave off all cavils, without requiring to be constrained to it by any disputations.
7:1 In his chain of OT quotations Paul has stressed the privilege of being a dwelling place of God (v. 16) and the benefits of compliance with the divine will (vv. 17d–18). So he continues, “Since we have these [tautas stands at the beginning of the Greek sentence for emphasis] promises …”—promises (vv. 16, 17d–18), not commands (v. 17a–c). As recipients of such promises of fellowship with God, all Christians (“let us,” as in NIV; not “you must”) are to avoid every source of possible defilement in any aspect of their lives. “Body and spirit” here denotes Christians in their total personality, outwardly and inwardly, in their relations with other people and with God (cf. 1 Co 7:34).
Paul is probably implying that the Corinthians had become defiled, perhaps by occasionally sharing meals at idol shrines or by continuing to attend festivals or ceremonies in pagan temples (cf. 1 Co 8:10; 10:14–22), or even by maintaining their membership in some local pagan cult. If they made a clean break (cf. katharisōmen [GK 2751], aorist) from “the cultic life of the city” (P. Barnett), from pagan life in any and every form, they would be bringing their holiness nearer to completion by this proof of their reverence for God. The Christian life involves separation (6:17), familial fellowship (6:18), and sanctification (7:1).
An Encouragement to Purity and Holiness (7:1)
1 Paul now concludes the exhortation begun at v. 14. He here addresses his readers by the affectionate term “beloved,” rather than by more direct words, as in vv. 14a, 17a, b. Moreover, he adopts a cohortative form of address (“let us …”), consistent perhaps with his earlier identification with them (“we are the temple of the living God”—v. 16). Though absent from them, he identifies himself as though present by his use of the reflexive “ourselves” (“let us purify ourselves …”). This exhortation should be taken with the warmly pastoral appeals made earlier (5:20; 6:1, 11–14). Indeed, the whole parenesis 6:14–7:1 is the end point and climax of the appeal he began at 5:20.
The opening connective “therefore” refers specifically to “having these promises,” that is, to the promises in this passage (vv. 16, 17, and 18). Paul’s exhortation to cultic separation is based on the gracious actions of God arising from his promises now fulfilled (“having these promises”), a principle that applies when Paul presses the demands of Christian living on his readers (see, e.g., Rom 12:1). Imperative rests on indicative, “ought” upon “is.” The doctrine of grace is not abandoned or compromised.
What follows is a single exhortation (“let us purify ourselves …”), followed by the attendant consequence (“perfecting holiness …”). Specifically, Paul exhorts “let us purify [or “cleanse”] ourselves …,” language that specifically picks up “touch no unclean thing” a few verses earlier (v. 17). This is the vocabulary of ritual and is entirely consistent with the thesis we are following, namely, that Paul is here calling on his readers to separate themselves from the temple cults of Corinth. This is confirmed by his words “from everything that contaminates …” Although the noun (“stain, defilement”69) occurs nowhere else in the NT, the verb is to be found in the passage in the First Letter where Paul speaks of the defilement of conscience through a believer’s eating in an idol temple (1 Cor 8:7; cf. v. 10). The combination of “cleanse” and “defilement” appears to clinch the case that this whole passage is directed to the Corinthians’ involvement in the various Greco-Roman and mystery cults of the region. That the totality of one’s being must be preserved undefiled is indicated by Paul’s “of body and spirit”; no part physical or emotional is exempt from Paul’s call for cleansing.
The consequence of that “cleansing” is now stated, namely, “perfecting holiness.” Although the noun “holiness” is rare (1 Thess 3:13; Rom 1:4), the members of the word family are often found within Paul’s writings, including 2 Corinthians. A church is the incorporation of Spirit-indwelt individuals and is itself “the temple of the living God,” as Paul has just observed (see on v. 16a; cf. 1 Cor 12:12–13; 3:16; 6:19). According to his definition in the First Letter, “a church of God” is a body “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” whose members are “called to be saints.” By God’s grace the church enjoys this holy status in the eyes of God who is holy, a status, however, that it is to fulfill in obedience to the will of God (see 1 Thess 4:3). This it cannot do, however, since its members are “unclean” through their participation in the wickedness of idolatry through which they are in fellowship with Belial (vv. 14–16a).
The verb “perfect,” meaning “complete” or “fulfill,” is a present participle that, however, probably does not imply a process of perfection in moral holiness. The holiness that is to be perfected is covenantal rather than developmental or processive in character.76 On the contrary, the action of separation from the idol-worshiping cults (v. 17), which is tantamount to the act of self-cleansing from defilement (v. 1a), should be seen as a prerequisite to the perfection of the church’s calling to be God’s holy temple (v. 16); without this separation the Corinthians cannot be what they are called to be. To infer a theology of moral and spiritual development at this point, although taught elsewhere (see on 3:18), would be to import a theme that is foreign to the present context.
Let the Corinthians respond to Paul’s admonition, literally, “in fear of God.” While his exhortation to them to withdraw from cultic involvement arises from the gracious “promises” of God, let them understand that not to do so would be to invoke the profound displeasure of God their Father, whose temple and people they are (vv. 16–18; cf. 1 Cor 10:22).
Paul has now reached the climax of his excursus on apostolic ministry, calling the Corinthians out of cultic uncleanness. That call is based on God’s appointment to the ministry of reconciliation (5:18–6:2), undergirded by the moral authority of a life lived out in replication of the death and resurrection of Jesus (6:3–10), and, finally, expressed as a direct appeal to the Corinthians to widen their hearts to their “father” in the gospel (6:11–13).
But is this of merely historical interest, with no application beyond those times? The view taken here is that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, continues to have authority in the consciences of Christians and churches through his letters, which are now part of the church’s canon of Scripture.
How, then, might these words apply? Insofar as Christians live in interface with modern counterparts to the cults of Corinth, which through multiculturalism are also increasing in traditionally “Christian” countries, his admonition has immediate applicability. But there are also implications for cases, for example, in which through entering a marriage or a business partnership a Christian would be brought into overly close association with those who engage in the cultic practices of other religions. Moreover, Christian involvement in non-Christian religious services would appear to be in conflict with the apostle’s teaching in this passage. However, Paul is careful not to encourage wholesale separation from human affairs (cf. 1 Cor 5:9–10), which would involve, for example, situations of employment, neighborhood location, buying, and selling. Nor does he encourage a Christian to withdraw from an existing marriage with a non-Christian (1 Cor 7:12–15).
There is no exegetical basis here for separation from fellow Christians who, in our opinion, may have deviated from biblical norms, though such a basis may be found elsewhere.79 The “unbelievers” in these verses are not Christians but outright pagans.
7:1 / Paul concludes 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 with a final exhortation to the Corinthians that reiterates the paraenesis in 6:14, 17 and thus closes the ring. In the Greek text, this verse begins with the word “therefore” (Since, oun), which underscores that Paul is drawing an inference from his preceding scriptural argument. Based on the promises quoted in the citation combination of 6:16 and 18, Paul concludes that the Corinthians should, once again, separate themselves from pernicious influences. This is what the apostle means by perfecting holiness, for holiness or “sanctification” denotes “separation.”
The Israelites were originally charged to maintain a holiness through obedience to the law. This obligation is the result of Yahweh’s separating them from other nations, redeeming them from Egypt, and entering into a covenantal relationship with them. As their God, he enjoins them to be holy as he is holy (cf. Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7–8, 24–26; 22:32–33; Num. 15:40–41; cf. Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12). Paul merely carries over this conception and applies it to the community that has experienced a second-exodus redemption through Christ.
Hence, when 2 Corinthians 7:1 exhorts the Corinthians to cleanse themselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, we must not think that this is foreign to Paul’s thinking. Although it is true that Paul does not elsewhere use the term “defilement” (molysmos), 1 Corinthians 7:34 does speak of being “holy both in body and in spirit,” and 1 Corinthians 8:7 uses the cognate verb (molynein) metaphorically of defiling the conscience. Furthermore, the purity language of our passage could have been suggested by the image of the church as the “temple of God” (2 Cor. 6:16), which is definitely a Pauline concept (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16).
1. cleanse ourselves—This is the conclusion of the exhortation (2 Co 6:1, 14; 1 Jn 3:3; Rev 22:11).
filthiness—“the unclean thing” (2 Co 6:17).
of the flesh—for instance, fornication, prevalent at Corinth (1 Co 6:15–18).
and spirit—for instance, idolatry, direct or indirect (1 Co 6:9). The spirit (Ps 32:2) receives pollution through the flesh, the instrument of uncleanness.
perfecting holiness—The cleansing away impurity is a positive step towards holiness (2 Co 6:17). It is not enough to begin; the end crowns the work (Ga 3:3; 5:7; Php 1:6).
fear of God—often conjoined with the consideration of the most glorious promises (2 Co 5:11; Heb 4:1). Privilege and promise go hand in hand.
Ver. 1.—Having then these promises. The promises of God’s indwelling and fatherly love (ch. 6:16–18). Dearly beloved. Perhaps the word is added to soften the sternness of the preceding admonition. Let us cleanse ourselves. Every Christian, even the best, has need of daily cleansing from his daily assoilment (John 13:10), and this cleansing depends on the purifying activity of moral effort maintained by the help of God’s grace. Similarly St. John (1 John 3:1–3), after speaking of God’s fatherhood and the hopes which it inspires, adds, “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself even as he is pure” (comp. Jas. 4:8). From all filthiness; rather, from all defilement. Sin leaves on the soul the moral stain of guilt, which was typified by the ceremonial defilements of the Levitical Law (comp. Ezek. 36:25, 26). The word used for “filth” in 1 Pet. 3:21 is different. Of the flesh and spirit. From everything which outwardly pollutes the body and inwardly the soul; the two being closely connected together, so that what defiles the flesh inevitably also defiles the soul, and what defiles the spirit degrades also the body. Uncleanness, for instance, a sin of the flesh, is almost invariably connected with pride and hate and cruelty, which degrade the soul. Perfecting holiness. This is the goal and aim of the Christian, though in this life it cannot be finally attained (Phil. 3:12). In the fear of God. There is, indeed, one kind of fear, a base and servile fear, which is cast out by perfect love; but the fear of reverential awe always remains in the true and wisely instructed Christian, who will never be guilty of the profane familiarity adopted by some ignorant sectarians, or speak of God “as though he were some one in the next street” (Heb. 12:28; 1 Pet. 3:15).
7:1 ταύτας οὖν ἔχοντες τὰς ἐπαγγελίας, ἀγαπητοί, “since then, beloved, we have these promises.” οὖν, “since then” (or “therefore”), provides a conclusion to Paul’s elaboration on τὰς ἐπαγγελίας, “promises” (cf. the intent of 6:16b, 17b, 18). In Rom 15:8 the promises are messianic, as elsewhere in Paul; but here they have an ecclesiological slant. The use of ταύτας, “these,” standing first as emphatic, clarifies any uncertainty regarding which promises Paul has in mind. Those assurances just mentioned are within the reach of the Corinthians. What God has done is apparent to Paul and, it is hoped, will be so to the Corinthians. The promises are the “indicative” on which the following paraenesis is built. “The thought here follows the movement of indicative [leading to] imperative.”1280 God has fulfilled his promises and will continue to do so if the “imperatives” are carried out. He will walk among his people, but if the Corinthians are to have God dwell among them, then this dwelling must be purified. Hence, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to strive for holy living by basing his call on divine promises.1282
That Paul is ultimately concerned for the Corinthians’ welfare is seen in his calling them ἀγαπητοί, “beloved.” This is not an idle usage by Paul. Although the apostle is using a familiar form of address (BAGD), he is not liberal in its use in his letter-writing habits (only once more in this letter, in 12:19; twice in 1 Cor 10:14; 15:58, twice in Phil 2:12; 4:1, and finally, once in Rom 12:19). Paul was not ashamed to be counted in association with the Corinthians, as will be seen also in our discussion of καθαρίσωμεν, “let us cleanse” (see below). Despite his ill treatment the apostle once again “opens” his heart to them by identifying with them. Whether 6:14–7:1 is from the “previous letter” or, more probably, is in its rightful place in 2 Corinthians, the use of a term of endearment is a pointer to Paul as the author (or redactor) of this piece. Would an interpolator or redactor be so careful as to include the note of “tenderest affection”? It is doubtful that someone quite removed from the original setting would have taken such care and initiative to include ἀγαπητοί, “beloved,” unless he was striving (artificially) for verisimilitude. But according to our theory of the function of 6:14–7:1, the personal appeal is exactly in order. It picks up the call to reconciliation in 5:20.
καθαρίσωμεν ἑαυτοὺς ἀπὸ παντὸς μολυσμοῦ σαρκὸς καὶ πνεύματος, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit.” Paul continues in his desire to be counted on the side of the Corinthians so that he can call them over to his side. After addressing them as “beloved,” he strengthens this bond by using the hortatory subjunctive mood, καθαρίσωμεν, “let us cleanse.” If Paul had not wanted to draw close to the Corinthians, he could have couched the following demand in terms of “you must do.” Rather, he exhorts both the church and himself. In short, “he reaffirms his loving oneness with them.”
The use of καθαρίζω, “cleanse,” reminds us of cultic language.1286 Anything that stands in the way of becoming like God the Father is to be removed. This has been the thrust of 6:14–18. The promise of God’s approval and fellowship is based on the Christian’s desire and effort to be cleansed. It is doubtful if holiness is the goal of this purification process, as Betz interprets. In one sense the Corinthians are holy, for they have received the grace of God. However, Paul desires that they revert to the standard that they were first called to follow (6:1–2). As we observed, Betz appears to overlook the tension in Paul’s joining together of the “indicative” and the “imperative.” By doing so he fails to see that Paul could hold the position he does. The goal of purification is not to strive for holiness1289 but to demonstrate that holiness is the result of salvation. The reflexive verb simply implies a personal stake in the process.
The object of cleansing is to remove every “defilement” (μολυσμός). This is the last hapax legomenon of the passage (though we find its cognate verb in 1 Cor 8:7). The idea of defilement is connected with idolatry (1 Esdr 8:80; 2 Macc 5:27; cf. Jer 23:15 lxx), a point drawn from the previous verses. Paul, in logical fashion, exhorts his readers to purify or cleanse themselves. To accomplish this, the objects or reasons for defilement must be removed.
Paul includes the whole spectrum of possibilities of defilement when he writes “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit [σαρκὸς καὶ πνεύματος].” This inclusion of “flesh and spirit” has sparked no small disagreement over the integrity of these words. Gnilka calls this reference “the absolutely untheological use of ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ ” (“2 Cor 6:14–7:1,” 58). The point of contention is that this usage does not appear to be “normal” Pauline anthropology, which employs the terms as two powers, not two parts of the human person, as here. For one, Paul usually has in mind the “intrinsically evil” side of humanity when he uses σάρξ, “flesh.” Characteristically, Paul would say that “flesh” is incapable of being cleansed of sin. Likewise, Paul would normally consider πνεῦμα, “spirit,” as “intrinsically good,” not in need of cleansing. Thus, some would maintain that Paul could not have possibly written in this way.
The purification of flesh and spirit also smacks of a Qumranic theology. We read in 1QS III, 8: “By subjecting his soul to all the commandments of God he purifies his flesh.” Gnilka (“2 Cor 6:14–7:1,” 59) interprets this purification and sanctification as a result of the effort of the individual. This dissection of man into flesh and spirit is well attested at Qumran (1QH XIII, 13–14; XV, 21–22; XVII, 25). Once again we have the evidence that the sons of light, who wish to take part in the holy war, must be “perfect in spirit and flesh” (1QM VII, 5). Thus Fitzmyer concludes that 2 Cor 7:1 strongly resembles Essene thought.
But it may be asked if this is necessarily cogent enough to eliminate the possibility that Paul could have penned these words (“defilement of flesh and spirit”). Barrett, for one, does not rule out the possibility that Paul could have used the collocation in a nontheological manner. He could have been using popular language to designate the makeup of a person, both material and immaterial. In Col 2:5 the text speaks of the writer being “absent in the flesh” (τῇ σαρκὶ ἄπειμι) but “present in the spirit” (τῷ πνεύματι … εἰμί). Also, in 2 Cor 7:5 we read that “the flesh” of Paul had no rest, as we compare that with 2:13, where his “spirit” had no peace.
Thus, it is possible that Paul could use σάρξ, “flesh,” and πνεῦμα, “spirit,” in a nontechnical sense. But Jewett has maintained that in 7:1 the text stands in the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, so that “spirit” is none other than God’s spirit given to man. This meaning would be close to Paul in 1 Cor 3:6, 6:17–19. Moreover, as we saw, “flesh” and “spirit” follow each other in 2 Cor 2:13 and 7:5 but in reverse order.
Further light is shed by 1 Cor 7:34, where Paul comments: “Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body [σῶμα] and spirit [πνεῦμα]” (cf. 1 Cor 5:3, 5). This appears to be a concern for the outward and inward man,1300 without being a reproduction of gnostic thought.
These examples are sufficient to show that the expression “defilement of flesh and spirit” does not have to be non-Pauline, however unusual it may be. Paul could have used the combination of flesh and spirit to depict the total picture of human nature of which the “intercommunion of the parts is so close, that when either is soiled the whole is soiled.” He could have taken this from other sources than Qumran. We find such a combination in T. Jud. 13.4 and Isa 31:3 (בשׂר, bāšār, “flesh,” and רוח, rŭaḥ, “spirit”). Thus, even though this was not Paul’s normal mode of expression in v 1, the evidence suggests a loose usage.
ἐπιτελοῦντες ἁγιωσύνην ἐν φόβῳ θεοῦ, “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” The result of the act of catharsis will be an ἐπιτελοῦντες ἁγιωσύνην, “perfecting in holiness.” The present participle ἐπιτελοῦντες, “perfecting” (from ἐπιτελέω, “bring about sanctification”; BAGD), suggests an advancement in holiness.1304 Paul appears to some readers to be promoting the idea that the Corinthians are to obtain holiness by way of the observance of cultic ordinances. But to take this position suggests that what is being advocated is instant holiness in this life. This is inconsistent with Paul in other places.1306 Rather, the idea of advancing in holiness depicts a repeated act of self-consecration, a constant drive to live as God’s people. There is a goal to be reached when believers are said to bring holiness to completion. To rest content and self-satisfied with an unholy life is to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1–2). Paul struggled (Phil 3:12–16) with the paradox of two kinds of perfection, and in his view, in this context, the Corinthians were set aside (considered holy) for God had called them (2 Cor 1:1); yet they needed to act out their status-in-Christ. This is precisely the paradox of reconciliation, of which we spoke earlier.
The living of the holy life is done ἐν φόβῳ θεοῦ, “in fear of God.” We saw earlier that Paul’s ministry, especially with the Corinthians in mind, was motivated by this reverence (5:11), and both there and here we trace a polemical thrust in his appeal to God to vindicate the teaching. The way a person acts, even after conversion, affects the person’s standing before God (5:10; a testing not—for Paul—in terms of salvation, but in terms of reward). The motive of “right” living remains a part of the apostle’s teaching, and not least when his credibility as an apostle is at stake.
The “fear of God” is a principle of life found in Jewish wisdom literature (Pss 2:11; 5:7; Prov 1:7, 29, 8:13; Eccl 12:13; Sir 1:11–30). It is not clear whether the ἐν, “in,” suggests the sphere in which the perfecting of holiness takes place or the means by which it is accomplished. Probably it is the former, in light of our discussion in 2 Cor 5:11. But the ethical demand is not lost. Christians must fulfill both the negative (cleanse their flesh and spirit) and the positive (complete their holiness) duty. Above all, Pauline believers are summoned to make good their profession by heeding Paul’s apostolic entreaty and “becoming what they are.”
If we lay all the critical problems aside, the meaning of this passage is reasonably clear. Those who profess to have accepted God’s grace must not deceive themselves. Rather, through living in a way that is holy (set aside for God’s service), they must seek to be separate (in the twofold sense of “holy,” both negative and positive; see Comment on 1:1). Yet to be effective witnesses, believers must be seen and accessible. That is, they discharge their calling to the world only if they are in the world.
Paul’s exhortation to be separate stops short of exhorting them to become recluses. What Paul apparently had in mind was the breaking of “spiritual ties” with the Gentile world. Until that was accomplished, God’s promises remained stifled. In that event, the Corinthians could not enjoy the full measure of the “sanctified” life, nor practice the quality of life that will receive reward (1 Cor 3:10–15; 2 Cor 5:10). The tie with the world had to be broken so that the temple of God would be pure. An important result of this failure to cleanse themselves was that the true ambassador for God was likewise shut out of the Corinthians’ lives, and they had ranged themselves on the side of the unbelieving world that needs to be “reconciled”—as they did insofar that they were opposing Paul’s gospel.
While this short section has obvious elements of Christian counsel for the believers’ attitudes to the world and society, and its direct application is to contrast Christian and pagan morality, thereby setting out “the ideal of the Christian life,” its primary point should not be lost. Coming between two impassioned appeals to the Corinthian congregation to be reconciled to Paul (6:11–13; 7:2–3), the pericope warns the readers of their danger and cautions them not to remain alienated from the Pauline gospel. Using idioms that betray a preformed piece of teaching on the sacral nature of Christian living (temple, idols, separation, cleansing, holiness) and within a quasi-dualistic frame (God vs. idols; Christ vs. Satan; unbelievers vs. God’s people), Paul enforces a single point: the call to reconciliation involves a whole-hearted commitment and pledge of loyalty to him and to his proclamation as the “divine apostle.” The tone is strident and severe, but evidently such was needed. Paul now moves deftly into a short resumption (7:2–3) to moderate what he may have regarded as too impersonal and rigorous.
At the heart of these verses, which run from 5:11 to 7:3, stands indeed one central theme with three variations. The overarching consideration is to lay a basis for reconciliation with the Corinthian church, and the three elements are (1) the suffering apostolate, (2) the partnership of apostle and people, and (3) a celebration of God’s work of grace in human lives.
7:1. Having, therefore, these promises, my dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and perfect [our] holiness in the fear of God.
- “… Therefore, … my dear friends.” The content of this verse matches that of the entire preceding passage (vv. 14–18) and is its fitting conclusion, as is evident from the term therefore. The verse relates well to verses 11 through 13, where Paul speaks of his love for the Corinthians and is asking for their love in return. For this reason he addresses his readers with the endearing term my dear children, which in older translations is given as “beloved,” meaning they are loved by him (see 12:19).
- “Having … these promises.” Paul states that he and his readers are the recipients of God’s promises (compare 2 Peter 1:4). In the Greek text, he emphasizes these promises by placing the word these first in the sentence. That is, the assurances that he has mentioned in the previous verses are from God. And God’s word is absolutely sure and true. He will perform what he has promised.
- “Let us cleanse ourselves.” If the promises are real, and they are, then it stands to reason that their recipients strive to please the Giver of these promises as much as possible. Consequently, Paul issues an exhortation in which he includes himself and his colleagues to show that they are not above the readers: “Let us cleanse ourselves.” These words are Paul’s free admission of having been contaminated by the surrounding environment of sin.
The exhortation means not that one cleansing keeps us clean forever, but that we constantly must purify ourselves. The Reformers spoke of daily repentance as a way of making progress in our sanctification. Elsewhere Paul writes that the Corinthians were washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11), but the process of sanctification is continuous because human nature is prone to sin.
Jewish people who were ceremonially unclean had to wash themselves every time they touched something that was impure, and no priest or Levite was permitted to enter the tabernacle or temple unless he washed himself (Exod. 30:20–21). The same principle is true for God’s people when they enter his sacred presence: they must purify themselves by confessing their sins. Paul admits that he is no better than the Corinthians; he also needs to cleanse himself and be pure (compare 1 Thess. 4:7; 1 John 3:3).
- “From every defilement of flesh and spirit.” Paul wishes to include the entire range of defilement and thus writes the adjective every. Although the noun defilement occurs only here in the New Testament, the verb to defile appears three times (1 Cor. 8:7; Rev. 3:4; 14:4). Paul stresses that pollution affects both flesh and spirit, that is, the entire person. If defilement refers to idol worship, then worshipers at pagan temples risked being unclean in body and spirit, for some rites involved cult prostitutes. “The one who cleaves to a prostitute is one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16).
What does this have to do with the church in Corinth? Much, because Paul wrote earlier in this segment, “What agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (6:16). The Corinthian believers are God’s temple; God dwells with them and makes his presence real by walking among them. Thus, the word choice in verse 1 (let us cleanse ourselves, defilement, holiness) “derives directly from the temple imagery.” God is a jealous God who tolerates no other gods before him (Exod. 20:3–5; Deut. 5:7–9). Paul’s reference to flesh and spirit must be interpreted to signify a complete person in God’s service (see the parallel in 1 Cor. 7:34). The words convey the meaning that a person who is cleansed outwardly with respect to flesh and inwardly in regard to spirit walks with God.
- “And perfect [our] holiness in the fear of God.” This clause echoes Paul’s exhortation, “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement.” He uses the Greek present participle epitelountes (perfecting) as an exhortation to his readers: “Let us strive for perfect holiness.” Paul described the Corinthian believers as “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2; compare 1 Thess. 3:13) and indicates that God made them holy through the work of his Son. But sanctification remains a continuous process in which believers must assiduously apply themselves to fostering complete holiness. Paul even delineates how this must be done: “in the fear of God.” Fear and reverence for God provide the motivation for perfecting one’s holiness. In the presence of God the Father, his children should live on this earth as aliens “in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:17). Our relationship to God should be one of genuine respect and profound reverence. As the Father is holy, so we as his children should reflect his holiness in our lives.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (2 Co 7:1). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 2, pp. 263–265). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Harris, M. J. (2008). 2 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 489). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 311). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 19, pp. 233–235). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.