The Bible says both that we should not associate with sinners and that Jesus went after the lost. Which of these should we emulate?

hi Jacob
I have a question, 1 Corinthians 5:9 says do not associate with sinners but Luke 15:4-6 says doth not though leave the 99 sheep and go after the lost. what is the difference between these two?

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Hi Stan,
Before I answer your question, I would like to give you a framework for Biblical interpretation that can be helpful. The first passage you gave was from 1 Corinthians and the second passage you mentioned is a parable of Jesus in Luke. One is a letter written by Paul to the corinthian church and the other is a story by Jesus with earthly examples but revealing a deeper spiritual truth. So both these verses cannot be compared on a flat plane, rather we understand the meaning of the verses within the context and the genre of the literature and then from the extrapolated meaning, we then compare and see if it’s a contradiction or not. A helpful resource for biblical interpretation is Gordon fee’s book, how to read the Bible for all its worth.

Now in the first passage you mentioned (1 Corinthians 5:9- I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people) Paul is writing to the church in Corinth especially in regards to sexual immorality that is creeping into the church. It is a relatively new church and Corinth which is a rich city is known for this type of immorality and Paul is emphasising that if Christians are a counter cultural community to the world around then they need to abstain from their practices. It is not to say that as Christians you should never have any relations with non Christians but rather in this context, not to indulge in the type of activities the those outside the church are indulging in.
An important aspect of this is also to understand that we are weak human beings who are heavily influenced by those around us. We should never overestimate our capabilities and inherent sin nature. Especially since these are new Christians, Paul understands that there is a good chance that they will be swayed by the ways of the sexual immoral people if they associate too closely with them. Hence he is giving them a cautionary note to stay away from them.
The verse you pointed out in Luke 15:4-6 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.
In this passage Jesus is emphasising that even one individual person is precious in God’s eyes. Unlike nations, companies and organisations where the value and contributions of the group heavily superceed that of the individual, for God the individual matters as much as the group. Jesus is telling us that each one of us matter in His kingdom. That is indeed a beautiful thought. God cares for each one of us personally.
So you see the two verses that at first seems contradictory are actually saying two very different things. The verse in Corinth is a warning against sexual immorality and the verse in Luke is about how God cares for each one of us as individuals. I hope you found this helpful. Tools for Biblical interpretation are very helpful and vital for understanding the deeper meanings of the Bible and growing in our faith.