Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 5:3a “But. . .”
It would be fun to dwell forever only on Christ’s love, but this conjunction of contrast suddenly moves us into a different atmosphere. Paul abruptly brings us back down to the stark, ugly realities of this world.
We must follow Scripture wherever it leads. One reason I ask people to join me in annually reading the Bible cover to cover is that the habit forces us to read all the counsel of God regularly. Otherwise, it is easy to read only what we want to read and thus form a skewed view of Holy Writ.
Eph. 5:3b “. . .fornication,. . .”
Why this sudden transition to the deeds of the flesh? Because lust is Satan’s counterfeit for love. In absolute contrast to the sweet-smelling savor of love stands the stench of the devil’s sewage. The fumes of lust are most odious when considered in light of the sweet-smelling love of Jesus.
Christ’s love is committed; Satan’s lust is conditional. God’s love has permanence, Satan’s lust is temporary. God’s love is self-sacrificing, Satan’s lust is self-centered. Believers must copy the former, and shun the latter.
If we are going to walk in love, some things must be avoided at all cost. In his attack on sex sins, Paul minces no words. “Fornication” translates “porneia,” root of our term “pornography.” The word refers to any sex act performed outside the sanctity of the marriage bond. God’s intent for humanity is one man with one woman in a life-long union. Outside marriage, with regard to sexual activity, only total abstinence is acceptable.
Christianity is to permeate our lives in every detail, even the most intimate. Godliness is expected of us not only in corporate worship, in the marketplace, and in our family circles, but also in the most private, intimate encounter with another, and even in the secret recesses of the mind.
Sex sins have always been a marked target of the Christian message, for good reasons. They are the most conspicuous trait of a degenerating, dying society. They provide confirming evidence an individual has sold self to the flesh. Sex sins among believers are extra heinous, for they defile the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. The sweet and pure dove of Heaven should never have to dwell in a cage with an unclean and filthy bird.
Biblical Christianity and sex sins are locked in a warfare to the death. They are incompatible. Chastity was the most conspicuous virtue which Christianity introduced to the ancient world. The greatest behavioral upheaval in history is the moral revolution which Christianity wrought. Not even Judaism had reached the level of purity Jesus demanded. When He spoke emphatically against divorce, His shocked disciples said, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry” (MT 19:10).
Jesus attacked the low sexual standards of His day. Paul followed in the Master’s steps. We must do likewise today. More than 400 years ago, Martin Luther wrote, “If I profess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.” In our culture, “the battle rages” over sexual conduct. Our country is awash in sexual squalor.
God made the sex drive within us strong in order to assure survival of the race. Being strong, the sex urge, if unleashed, can bulldoze people into all types of perversion. Sexual cravings, left unrestrained, fuel one’s imagination to the extreme, and squelch one’s sense of responsibility toward others. To satisfy lust, spouses are forsaken, children neglected and abused, homes destroyed, friends forgotten. No effort is spared to gratify lust.
Immense suffering has befallen our country due to sex sins. AIDS, abortions, 50% marital divorce rate–these and other ills can be traced in part to the sexual revolution which began in the 1960s. I am sad to say, America’s sexual demise has manifested itself within my own lifetime.
Our culture, grasping at straws to solve social ills, and floundering in a sexual maze, needs to heed Christ’s message again. Having tried Satan’s way 30 years, we have pain, despair, and death to show for it. Wake up, America! God’s way works. To have safe sex, our ancestors wore wedding rings. This method still works. “The Divine precept will always be found, sooner or later, to coincide with the highest physical law” (Moule). With all its advances, modern science has found no way to make sexual impurity safe. Sex sins still carry punishment with them. Immorality is still cursed.
Regardless what our culture says, God’s way is always the right way, the best way. People often joke about sex being dull in marriage. This is a lie. Studies continually indicate the most fulfilled people sexually are those united with one another in marriage. No one is ever cheated by doing things God’s way. His way is the best way, the most pleasurable way. Always walk in love. Bypass the path of “fornication.”
Eph. 5:3c “. . .and all. . .”
“All” covers a lot of territory, encompassing every immoral act, word, thought, and fantasy. Christianity has by far the highest sexual ethic of any world religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Our standard is exalted, advocating not only chastity outside marriage, but also a chaste mind, as Jesus commanded in His Sermon on the Mount (MT 5:28).
Eph. 5:3d “. . .uncleanness,. . .”
”Uncleanness” is a general term which refers to any form of immorality. Paul often had to use general terms when he spoke of sex sins because the moral life of the Greco-Roman world had sunk so low that it would have been impossible to list all the variations of vice current in his day.
Eph. 5:3e “. . .or covetousness,. . .”
In this context, “covetousness” refers to greed for someone else’s body, to vile lust for sensual gratification. “Covetousness” seeks not to serve and help, but to use and exploit, to indulge self, regardless of the harm done to others. Is any greed more vile than one which plots the ruin of an innocent young girl’s life? Is any plan worse than one to break up a home and a family? “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (MT 19:6). Dare we put forth our hand to rip what God has merged?
Procreation is the way God allows creatures made in His image to come as close as we ever can to sharing in His work of creation. Creation is God’s work, and when we approach His sacred domain, enter it only by performing in His prescribed way the act which makes procreation possible. May we never violate His intended order in order to fuel our fleshly greed.
In “covetousness,” self-sacrifice is swallowed up by a never-ending desire for self-indulgence. Sexual craving, left to itself, is insatiable, ever seeking more and more gratification. The libertine never finally has enough to satisfy self. Appetite increases in proportion to indulgence. Partaking of sex sins is like drinking salt water–the more one imbibes, the thirstier one becomes. Sex totally fulfills only when done God’s way. Take salt out of water and it satisfies, ends thirst. Take sin out of sex and it satisfies.
Eph. 5:3f “. . .let it not be once named among you,. . .”
In other words, let it never be said a Christian is guilty of such crimes. Paul obviously believed sex sins should be extremely rare within the fellowship of believers. There should be not even a hint of scandal among us, no suspicion whatsoever of its existence among us.
Paul was not saying that sex should never be discussed. He himself broached the subject often in his epistles. Regarding sex, we must warn, give helpful counsel, and talk about it in normal ways. It is not necessarily good to be like St. Stanislaus who, upon hearing a word which had lewd connotations, fainted. I know of cases where youths were raised in such an austere atmosphere about sex, it being mentioned only in a very negative way, that they were later unable to enjoy normal marital intimacy.
Paul would not have us never discuss sex, but on the other hand, he would at the same time not want us to go to the other extreme. Be not obsessed with sex talk. Speaking of intimate things too often, becoming too common with them, can pollute a mind, and inflame imagination. Hyper-familiarity with sex sins may make us more susceptible to doing them.
Proper discussion of sex is found somewhere between the two extremes of never or always talking about it. Four guidelines might help.
First, do not talk of committing sex sins. David’s sin with Bathsheba began with a look of lust. “From the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon” (2 SM 11:2). Had David repented immediately, and kept his thoughts to himself, the Lord would have forgiven and strengthened him. Instead, David “inquired after the woman” (2 SM 11:3). He talked of her, entered into discussion about her, the result being, “David sent messengers, and took her” (2 SM 11:4).
Second, never talk about sex sins in an approving way. Abhor evil. Do not make the ugly sound pretty and attractive. Sin should be mentioned with detestation, not toleration. In conversation, do not condone sex sins.
Third, some things do not need to be discussed. Some words or acts we do not know the meaning of, and we should not seek to know them. If you run with a crowd which talks of things and does things you are unfamiliar with, run from them. In some things, it is good to be a child always. Regarding evil, retain “the child state and the child heart and the home language and the better grammar–get away from the devil’s prose into God’s celestial poetry” (Parker). The Israelites were forbidden to mention the names of Canaanite gods (EX 23:13). These fertility gods were worshipped by means of unspeakable sexual perversion. Israel was not even to discuss their manner of worship, nor to ask, “How did these nations serve their gods?” for fear someone might say, “Even so will I do likewise” (DT 12:30).
Fourth, do not speak of intimate things in a coarse way, or use nasty language. Use technical and gentle phrases rather than coarse, harsh ones. Some terms may not technically be “curse words” or “profanity,” but are slang words, trigger-words used in a given culture to elicit a lewd reaction. Be careful not to excite sexual passion in the unwary. “Watch your lips, that evil words may not pour their poisoned liquid over your faces” (Parker).
The principle taught in our text by Paul desperately needs to be applied to the life-setting of our day. The bottom line of his intent is obvious. He wanted believers to stop sex sins before they bloom. Pre-empt temptations. Squelch them at the source. This means we must in our day apply the principle taught in our text to much more than only conversation. “The Apostle was writing in an age when they did not have daily newspapers or radio, or films, television and all the rest of it. In those days men were confined to speech in this matter of propagating unworthy ideas, and those ideas which lead to sinful action in practice” (Lloyd-Jones). Now, however, methods of announcement and advertising have much expanded. Whereas speech was in the old days the primary means of corrupt communication, one is now surrounded by incitements to indulge in sex. We are shouted at from every direction. Sex sins are glamorously “named” everywhere we look–magazines, newsstands, TV, radio, movies.
Paul would have us keep temptation from gaining a foothold in the mind. We have to be on guard from dawn to dusk, from morning to evening, every waking moment. I am a country music fan. Unfortunately, some of it is not fit to listen to. To keep myself sensitive to holiness, whenever I hear a lewd word, a curse word, or a sexual innuendo, I either turn the radio off or change stations. When relaxing late at night, and running the channels on cable TV, when a suggestive scene presents itself, I immediately change the channel. I avoid R-rated movies. I realize some PG-rated movies are as bad, but it is merely my way of reminding myself to be careful. Men, do not look at other women in a sensual kind of way. Turn your eyes away. Look another direction. “Make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (RM 13:14). If we look upon evil, or feed our passions privately, we should not be surprised if we finally fall publicly.
Eph. 5:3g “. . .as becometh saints;. . .”
“Saints” refers to “holy ones, ones set apart.” Believers are to be set apart, different from the lost. Some things are improper, out of place, unbecoming for “children of the All-Pure” (Moule), no matter how reprehensible and immoral the culture around us becomes. We are never at liberty to use ungodliness around us as an excuse for immorality among us.
Paul wrote Ephesians in a time of moral bankruptcy. Sex sins were a matter of moral indifference. Cicero was saying no Roman in his right mind would keep a young man from consorting with prostitutes. Olympus was filled with gods so vile that had they been human, they would have been sent to prison. Morality received no support from the mythology.
What was true of the Greco-Roman world in general was true of Ephesus in particular. The “saints” at Ephesus lived in a notoriously wicked city. The Ephesians worshipped the multi-breasted goddess, Diana, in a temple funded by ritual prostitution. Archaeologists have unearthed a street sign which pointed to the brothels. In Ephesus one could sin without fear of exposure, with a sense of doing one’s civic duty, with no one seeming to get hurt, and due to medical ignorance, with no fear of sexually transmitted diseases. Ephesus was made to order for sex sins, but Paul nevertheless expected his readers to stay clean. However filthy the culture becomes, the Church can and must remain clean. We do not acknowledge defeat, and give in to the current mores of our society. Our standard is fixed by Jesus, and attainable by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Some things a Christian should never do. Certain acts are inappropriate behavior for us. God implants in believers a noble sense of modesty as a check to sex sins. Ask the Spirit to stir this sense, to make our hearts red with shame just at the consideration of committing a sex sin. Certain acts are utterly and totally incompatible with our life as God’s children. Let us live, even in the most intimate details of life, “as becometh saints.”
Eph. 5:4a “Neither filthiness,. . .”
Paul here continues his list of things which should “not be once named among” believers. “Filthiness,” which refers to “oral filth, dirty language” (Hughes), is a good word for obscenity, for it connotes ugliness and pollution. Profanity spreads filth which infects and corrupts others.
A believer should never be guilty of defiling others by means of speech. We must avoid verbal sleaziness, oral smut, shameless speech, impure talk, plus startling metaphors and terms used for their “shock” value.
Obscenity indicates a vast emptiness within. Every foul-mouthed person I have known was a spiritually shallow person. We know the well is a cesspool if the bucket keeps bringing up slime. Words tell us much about the true condition of one’s heart. Obscenity proves it certainly is not God’s Word one has hid in the heart (PS 119:11). Believers must do better. “Walking in love and talking in lust are incompatible” (Strauss).
Eph. 5:4b “. . .nor foolish talking,. . .”
“Morologia” combines “moros,” Greek word for foolish and root of our term “moron,” and “logos,” which refers to speech. Thus, the compound word refers to moron-speech, fool-talk. A fool, in the Bible, is one who does not give God proper reverence. In the present context, fool-talk would refer to speech which contains no reverence for God’s moral law.
“Foolish talking” entails making light of what is important, downplaying the significance of high standards of behavior. Moron-speech speaks loosely about holy standards, makes light of sin, is insensible to its seriousness, and talks about evil as if it were of no consequence.
Plutarch described “morologia” as the kind of talk which comes from a drunken man, words without profit. Nobler things are expected from lips set apart by the Spirit of God for the purpose of edification.
Eph. 5:4c “. . .nor jesting,. . .”
Paul is not condemning humor. Laughter is a precious, God-given, gift which makes many of life’s distresses tolerable, and adds delight to conversation. Christianity is not harsh. Believers are not to be dull and morbid and uninteresting. Unfortunately, many believers “take themselves too seriously, and clothe all prospects with a somber hue” (Eerdman).
God, creator of the human mind, knew it would need rest and diversion from intense concentration. Thus, His Word states clearly, there is “a time to laugh” (EC 3:4a), and “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (PR 17:22a). God wants us to play as well as work. Clyde Oster, a dear preacher-friend of mine who has a zest for living, says anyone who doubts God has a sense of humor needs to go to the zoo and watch the baboons.
The word “jesting” here must be kept in context. It speaks of dunghill humor, joking whose spice lies in its flavor of impurity. This type of comedy is abundantly illustrated in the USA on late-night TV talk shows.
”Jesting” speaks loudly and decisively against what we call “dirty jokes.” When young, B.H. Carroll and the moderator of his association, Dr. Riddle, made a covenant to never tell a dirty joke and never to let anyone tell them one. Years later, a man started to tell Carroll a vulgar story, but the preacher honored his oath and interrupted the man, “I made a covenant with a man who is now in heaven that I would never allow any one to tell me a smutty anecdote.” As the man yielded to the preacher’s wish, Carroll said, “Now you feel better; you have a better taste in your mouth.”
Henry Ironside told of a household meeting at which he and about fifteen Christian couples had gathered. When the women left the room, one of the men said, “Since the ladies have gone out, there is a story I would like to tell.” One of the men immediately interrupted, “Just a minute, brother; there are no ladies here, but the Holy Ghost is here and is more sensitive than the most fastidious lady. Is your story fit for Him?” Fortunately, the first man accepted the reproof graciously.
Believers are certainly allowed to be jovial, but must also be chaste and wise. “Laughter at the expense of decency is sinful” (Strauss).
Eph. 5:4d “. . .which are not convenient:. . .”
“Convenient” means befitting, seemly, appropriate. “Filthiness,” “foolish talking,” and “jesting” are unsuitable to the mouth of a Christian, for they are not conducive to the main purpose of our lives. “Filthiness” is not right for a tongue meant to speak to and for a holy, clean God.
“Foolish talking” is inappropriate for a tongue which is to be profitable and helpful to others. “Jesting” may amuse our listeners, but does not improve or edify them. Ugly words are beneath our dignity as children of the Most High, and should be displaced with something better. . . .
Eph. 5:4e “. . .but rather giving of thanks.”
Paul, not satisfied to leave us with a negative, presses ahead to give the positive. Selfish attitudes and verbal expressions of sexual gratification are to be displaced by unselfish attitudes and expressions of gratitude.
Believers are not to whine and moan over the Bible’s high standard regarding sexual purity. We should rather be thankful that God took time to point us in the right way. Never reflect negatively on God’s dealings with us. He is kind and good. All His precepts are gracious. Be “thankful because the holy life is the satisfying life” (MacArthur).
Married believers need to see and acknowledge the loveliness in God’s gift of marital intimacy. Unmarried believers need to see and acknowledge the loveliness of God’s gift of abstinence outside the bonds of matrimony.
A profound sense of gratitude within the believer is an extraordinary preservative against inner corruption, but the absence of thanksgiving is dangerous. Thinking properly of God’s abundant kindness to us will refresh and delight our spirits, but being down in the mouth and feeling cheated makes sin much easier to commit. If we are discontent in our Christian life, if there is no underlying joy, beware. We are in danger. This is how Satan tripped Eve. He made her feel cheated (GN 3:5). Also, before Cain committed murder, he was angry and “his countenance fell” (GN 4:5). God tried to convince Cain to change his attitude, but the effort failed, and the result was murder. Once a heart turns sour, actions will soon follow suit.
Thanksgiving is always fit and appropriate in the life of a believer, for it combines in proper balance seriousness and joyfulness. Gratitude is beautiful in and of itself, for it exhibits a noble soberness about life’s meaning, and at the same time shows a joyous buoyancy of spirit.
A grateful person is a contented person, and a contented person is an attractive person. Some believers avoid doing wrong things, but do so in a way which repels others. Some Christians act like they were baptized in vinegar. Give thanks! We have not been cheated one iota. God loves us, is good to us, and in His Word has shown us the most satisfying life-style.
“Rejoice in the Lord always”–not often, not sometimes–“always!” (PH 4:4). Display a spirit which attracts others to Jesus. Lead a life which is clean, pure, and appealing. Live in such a way that people say, “I want to live like that.” Our Lord is lovely, and those who imitate Him will lead a lovely life, one characterized by “giving of thanks.”
Eph. 5:5a “For this ye know,. . .”
Paul knew his readers, having once lived and labored among them for three years (AC 20:31). The Apostle was not telling them anything new, but rather restating facts which probably he himself had taught them. The truth itself was not new. It merely needed to be reiterated and applied in their given situation. Paul felt it was time to stand up and speak up.
We also live in a day where some old truths need to be emphasized. In these recent messages on sexual purity, I have not been sharing new ideas, but have rather been merely repeating what we have always affirmed, “for this ye know.” We must be reminded, for believers, certain things are beyond dispute, not open to argument and amendment. Let there be no doubt, no confusion with regard to the Biblical, Christian position–it champions absolute sexual purity. On this issue we speak with confidence.
Eph. 5:5b “. . .that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor
covetous man,. . .”
Paul here refers again to the three traits he listed in verse three. “Whoremonger” is literally “fornicator,” one who commits any sex act outside the sanctity of marriage. An “unclean person” is one who indulges in any form of immorality. A “covetous man,” in this context, denotes one who is greedy for someone else’s body, and has a vile lust for sensual gratification.
All three of these life-styles have no place in the Christian economy. Within the kingdom of God, a certain life is to be lived by its citizens, one marked by holiness. The ultimate object of kingdom living is to make us holy, not happy. Earth’s highest form of contentment is certainly a by-product of godliness, but is not to be our central focus or highest ambition.
Eph. 5:5c “. . .who is an idolater,. . .”
Paul deemed a “fornicator” and an “unclean person” as out of place in the kingdom. Paul now adds a phrase to give extra emphasis to the heinous nature of a “covetous man.” Sexual greed reveals ultimate selfishness, a trait totally incompatible with the spirit of self-sacrifice which is the very essence of being a Christian. One who gives the heart to sexual greed, who lusts for another’s body, has allowed inner cravings to take the central place which God alone should have in a human heart. Anything which dethrones God is an idol. Thus, covetous ones are not only selfish or immoral, but idolaters, “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God” (2 TM 3:4).
To a Jew, there was no greater sin than idolatry. It was the ultimate evil, for it amounted to holding someone or something nearer to the heart than God. Idolatry was ultimate rebellion, for it placed substitutes on the throne of the heart in place of God Himself, who has the right to rule there.
Covetous ones worship someone other than the true God–self. This makes their sin even worse, for they know their god is no god. A sexually greedy person makes an idol of, and worships only, self. What does he care if he shatters people’s hearts? What does he care if he wrecks young lives and breaks up homes? The cravings of god-self must be satisfied at all cost.
It is absurd for anyone who worships god-self to think he is a Christian. Idolatry is one thing which is totally and irrevocably intolerable in Christianity. Idols must fall before its advance. Where Christ enters, idols exit. Our Savior climbed Mt. Olympus to prove who was truly “King of the Hill.” He then permeated the Western World, making outward idolatry there a thing of the past. We take this blessed truth for granted, yet need to celebrate it often. Scotland once had a temple to Mars. At York, St. Peter’s occupies a site once crowned by a temple to Bellona. Leicester once had a temple to Janus. In London, St. Paul’s Cathedral stands on a site once occupied by a temple to Diana; and Westminster Abbey, the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, sits on a site once occupied by a temple to Apollo.
The very essence of Christianity is the toppling of idols. Where idols stand, Christianity is not. This is true of temple-sites, and also true of human hearts. The human spirit was created to have God, not self, as the dominant object of love, but sex-sins are idols which stand strong in the hearts of many, often much stronger than the idols erected in honor of the gods who covered Olympus. Many a knee has refused to bend before Jesus for this very reason, the heart has refused to dethrone sexual greed.
According to Paul, the presence of a god-self idol in the heart cannot be, must not be, the case in a believer’s life. Taking extra time to expose the idolatrous nature of sex-sins proves this was a very sensitive issue to Paul. He was a single adult who had left this greed behind. Having forsaken all things of this flesh, he had endured poverty, destitution, exhaustion, pain, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness (2 C 6:10; 11:27). Paul said, “I buffet my body and make it my slave” (1 C 9:27, NASB). He cast out the fleshly idols, never felt cheated, and had little patience with anyone who let anything of the flesh displace or displease God. Paul stayed clean, expected Ephesian Christians to stay clean, and expected us to stay clean. Through the power of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, we can remain pure, but the greedy idol to forbidden indulgences must be torn down in our hearts.
Eph. 5:5d “. . .hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and
Upon becoming a Christian, one enters a “kingdom,” a King’s domain. This implies society based on rule and order. We enter this kingdom, agreeing from the first to obey God’s laws. God does not force Himself or His law upon unbelievers, but once we accept Him, we agree to be His subjects. By our own confession, He has authority over us, the right to command us.
As believers, we are under the authority “of Christ and of God.” This is a powerful statement on the deity of Christ. The Son, along with the Father, is ruler of the divine kingdom. One can know the Father only through knowing the Son. There is no coming into the kingdom of God but by coming into the kingdom of Christ. In this kingdom, the standard of behavior is high. This kingdom is ruled over by a Son who shed His blood to do away with sin. He cannot receive into His kingdom those who intend to cling to their sins. In addition, the Son has opened to us a kingdom which has a Heavenly Father as its highest expression, its center, its soul. Everyone in the kingdom must reflect the Father’s radiant holiness.
In the kingdom, God’s laws are to be obeyed. His kingdom laws about sex are very straightforward, simple enough for all to grasp. No sex before marriage. No sex outside marriage. Conceive children only in situations where married parents will be responsible for nurture and training.
Anyone habitually guilty of sex sins is not acting like a true subject of the King. This does not mean all who fall into sex sins are excluded from the kingdom. Abram sinned with Hagar (GN 16:4), Judah with Tamar (GN 38:18), David with Bathsheba (2 SM 11:4), Samson with a harlot (JG 16:1). Christians can and do fall into sex sins, but do not persist in them. Paul’s contention is, salvation and habitual immorality are opposites. Some things are incompatible and can never be brought together. As Aristotle said, there is no mean between two opposites. Eternal antithesis exists between citizenship in the kingdom, and ongoing sex sins as a life pattern.
Our text is a thunderbolt to arrest the attention of casual and careless listeners. We must convey the Apostle’s warning. It is wrong to try to convince someone of assurance whose life does not give evidence of it.
With regard to kingdom security, what matters is not what we claim with the lips, but what we live with the life. If we do not live above habitual sex sins while claiming to be in the kingdom of grace, do not expect to see the kingdom of glory. With regard to this aspect of behavior, one does not have to wait till death to know one’s status in the kingdom.
Let me reiterate, sex-sins are not unforgivable. God forgives. We know people often use this as a cop-out, as an excuse for immorality. They can, as Peter says, twist Scripture “unto their own destruction” (2 P 3:16). Anyone who commits a sin due to their belief that God forgives ought to be more concerned about this attitude than about the actual sin committed. Thinking in this way perverts God’s intended order, and reveals one knows essentially nothing about the inner workings of God in a believer’s life. Forgiveness should be thought of only after the sin as a comfort, never before as an excuse. Like any truth of Scripture, the doctrine of forgiveness can be abused, but this does not negate the fact that God truly does forgive.
I once was pastor of a couple whose grandson committed suicide due to guilt. His girl-friend, an unbeliever, had often tried to seduce him into sex sins. He long resisted her advances, but one night yielded. The next morning he wrote a note expressing guilt, and took his life. No! No! Do not enter the King’s presence uninvited. Seek forgiveness instead.
Ours is more than a message of prohibition. We bear news of cleansing. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (IS 1:18). If we offer no hope to sinners, we might as well be quiet. Why talk to them of their sins if we are of no help? To do so would only be taunting them, increasing their misery. We must not give sinners false security, but should preach to them forgiveness and deliverance through Jesus. Proclaim forgiveness based on repentance. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains” (Cowper). Proclaim deliverance based on God’s indwelling of us. “He breaks the power of cancelled sin” (Wesley).
Eph. 5:6a “Let no man deceive you with vain words:. . .”
There are always many among nominal Christians and the lost who seek to justify sin with “vain words.” This means their words are but a shell, hollow, “empty, not containing the kernel of truth” (Alford). These deceivers champion the cause of wrong, and defend a life of sinful pleasures, as if it were the ultimate good. Their words are false, full of error, not based on facts, but since they sound plausible, they “deceive you.”
We are susceptible to “vain words” because they say what we want to hear. People not only want to sin, but to do so without guilt, without fear, without having to hear of possible dangers and judgment. Sinners want to live securely and undisturbed in their sin.
Be ever on guard against “vain words.” We are all ever in danger of being seduced by “sorry fig-leaves by which men hope to cover their nakedness” (Manton). Here are examples of “vain words”: God made me this way, these are natural impulses, no one is perfect, God is tolerant and forgives, we will not be punished, young people need an outlet for their hormones, live and let live, if it’s fun and safe and no one get hurts, do it.
Deceit of this kind has always been an effective ingredient in successful temptations, for it is the devil’s way of joining with our self love. We already have a depraved desire to gratify our flesh. Satan uses deceit to encourage this inner lust. He deceived our first parents with the taunt, “Hath God said” (GN 3:1) and with the lie, “You shall not surely die” (3:4). All our troubles, all the sin, agony, death, war, disease, and turmoil in our world can be traced to this initial deceit, the first “vain words” ever spoken.
People continue to be fooled by “vain words.” We are cursed with a pride of learning and knowledge. We think we are extremely smart about life, and congratulate ourselves on our keen intellect and common sense. We tend to downplay old ways, and sense no need for a holy book. Thus, God often appropriately punishes us by revealing how foolish we really are. God proves that the ideas of sinful men are absurd and do not work. When social problems arise and Christians can see a plain and obvious solution, the lost seem blind and unlearned, completely spellbound by “vain words.”
America only recently began to come to grips with its alcohol problem. Baptists have lead in this struggle since Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Why did it take our culture 60 years to admit the obvious? People want to commit their sins, and seek ways to do them without consequences. This love of the evil made people susceptible to “vain words.” Our Surgeon General has called for a total ban on tobacco advertising. Many preachers have decried the wrongs of tobacco for over a generation. Why is the culture only now beginning to respond? Love of the product made people susceptible to “vain words.” Our culture is in a life and death struggle with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Everyone knows sexual abstinence outside marriage would end the crisis immediately, but few consider this option. Why? Love of sex-sins, and pride of knowledge in finding a cure or a safe way to indulge, makes them susceptible to “vain words.”
What should believers do in such a situation? Keep telling the truth. After enough people die and enough lives are ruined, someone somewhere in the right position of authority and influence will say, “Maybe we should advocate abstinence.” God’s way is the right way. It is also the best way because it works. Any other approach to solving moral problems is merely “vain words,” an empty, hollow gesture, a putting of band-aids on cancers.
Eph. 5:6b “. . .for because of these things cometh the wrath of God
upon the children of disobedience.”
“Vain words” make light of deeds which put one under God’s special displeasure. “Wrath of God” is no figure of speech nor a figment of Paul’s imagination. God’s “love cannot possibly modify His holiness” (Moule).
If you deem the Bible obsolete, or think someone has found a better solution to the world’s moral problems, we challenge you to take the acid test–open your eyes and look around. God speaks not only in His written word, but also through remarkable acts of punishment against sins. “Providence is a comment on the Word, and therefore it is stupidness not to take notice of it. They that will not observe God’s hand shall feel it” (Manton).
Whatever “vain words” the scoffers use, their premise is swept away by one awful, obvious fact–the wrath of God “cometh.” Note the present tense; His wrath “cometh” here and now in this life. Wrath will also come in the future, but here the emphasis is on the present. Sinners may not admit the wickedness inherent in their sin, but if they open their eyes and are honest, they can see the devastation caused by their sin. Punishment for immorality is seen everywhere. Nature avenges her broken laws by deadly diseases, plus disappointment, sadness, regret, and desolation of soul.
Eph. 5:7a “Be not ye therefore. . .”
God’s wrath “cometh” on sex sins, “therefore” let Christians avoid them, “lest by infection of their sin ye come under infliction of their punishment” (Trapp). Open your eyes. Do not follow sinners into their misery.
God inflicts remarkable judgments on obstinate sinners in order that His children might be taught to beware. Believer, be alert. Look around you. Consider evil people, scrutinize their lives, and see if you do not see reflected in them, as in a mirror, the dreadful judgments of God. Examine others, not to lord over them or to rejoice in their calamity, but to learn from their error. Avoid the vices to avoid the wrath.
If we share the sins of unbelievers we will share their punishment. Christians are not exempt from God’s wrath. After David sinned, the sword never–never!–departed his house. One of my saddest experiences involved a young Christian couple. The wife, not receiving the affection she desired, in a moment of weakness slept with another man. She immediately repented and cut off all contact with him, but the damage was done. She later sensed discomfort, went to a doctor, and learned she had a venereal disease. She had to tell her husband about the whole sordid affair. Both required treatment. Worst of all, she was made infertile. It happened a decade ago, but still pains me to recall. The wrath “cometh,” “therefore” be ye not. . .
Eph. 5:7b “. . .partakers with them.”
“Partaker” refers to more than the actual committing of particular deeds. The word bespeaks co-partnership, being confederate with others. We may not actually commit certain sins, but if we tolerate or encourage them, we are “partakers” with those who do commit them.
We begin not being “partakers with them” by not committing their sins. “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” (2 C 6:17), while in their midst. Jesus was “separate from sinners” (HB 7:26) yet always in society that he might win sinners to God. We are to be separate in the sense of being circumspect. Stand apart from the crowd while in the crowd.
We avoid being “partakers with them” by teaching, correcting, and punishing those under our authority. The words of Joshua (24:15) remain a good watchword, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
When we do not have the right to punish and correct, at least complain to those who do have this authority. We must seek to prevent or hinder sin as far as it is in our power to do so. Not to oppose sin emboldens transgressors. They must sense resistance. Otherwise, we become “partakers with them” by our refusal to say something pertinent in a given situation. A believer must never give silent assent to evil deeds.
To reprove another is a thankless job, and sinners often receive it as an expression of hatred. Any type of complaint, correction, or reproof is often deemed odious, and can gain one the reputation of being a rabble-rouser. This is a valid accusation if the crusader acted from spite, malice, or revenge. Our method must ever entail tender love for others.
In my opinion, this is one reason why conservative, Bible-believing, Christians are not having more of an impact on our culture. We have responded to the moral decline around us with too much anger, and not enough sadness. Anger has its proper place in battling evil, but so does brokenness. Anger helps us rise up, grief helps us do it in the right spirit.
We will not be very successful in stemming the flow of sin around us until we are brokenhearted over it. The same Jesus who in anger drove out the moneychangers also in brokenness mourned over Jerusalem. With a broken heart, He cried, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (MT 23:38). In promoting the kingdom of God and its moral standards, we do much better at penetrating our culture when we are more sad than mad. Before we speak in anger let us be sure we have mourned in prayer.
It is high time, past time, for all God’s children to join in the spiritual warfare being fought for the soul of this country. Brothers and sisters, pray, weep before God. We have much at stake. Never underestimate the penetrating and pervasive influence of sins. Evil men endanger the good as weeds do the corn. The effects of sin spill onto the innocent. We all suffer for sins current in our society. When an overflowing storm sweeps away the wicked, the tail of it often dashes the best.
Believers need to mourn in prayer. It is not right for God to have to weep alone over what is happening in this land which He has blessed. Daniel wept and prayed over his people’s sins as if he were guilty of committing them himself. Where is that level of concern among us today?
Eph. 5:8a “For ye were sometimes darkness,. . .”
“Sometimes” denotes formerly, once upon a time. “Darkness” describes what the Ephesian Christians once were, when they were unbelievers. This is one of the Bible’s most severe and ghastly descriptions of lostness.
Unbelievers are spiritually not only in transient fog, cloudiness, or dimness, nor even only in darkness; they are darkness itself. Man’s ultimate problem is not that we live in a dark, evil world, but that the darkness has invaded our essence, saturated our innermost being. In Eden we were created to enjoy inner light in God’s presence, but our decision to sin put out that light. Man’s nature has been dark ever since. As each individual yields to the forces of darkness, night penetrates the person so deeply that he or she becomes the darkness embodied, sevenfold midnight itself.
The lost are not only victims of this world’s evil environment, but also contributors to the problem. The darkness is in them. They share the nature of the surrounding society. They not only grope in darkness, but contribute to it. Each is walking darkness. Thus, people need more than merely a change in their surroundings. They need a change in themselves.
Lost sinners are utterly sunk in spiritual ignorance, totally confused, stumbling like men in the dark, going where they know not, doing what they know not, putting forth strength, but unable to direct it. They cannot see, and do not know where to look for moral and spiritual counsel.
It is sad to hear lost people refuse to accept Christ, claiming they do not want to lose their freedom. Tripping in darkness is no freedom. “Fallen man thinks he is free only because what he wants so closely agrees with what Satan wants. But the believer’s obedience is the deepest desire of his heart” (MacArthur). Believers have responded to this “deepest desire.”
Eph. 5:8b “But now. . .”
The conjunction of contrast highlights the stark divergence between our past and present conditions. Paul used “but now” in 2:13 to accent the contrast between what we were and what we are with regard to God, we who “were far off are made nigh.” Our present text emphasizes the change in us as related to human society. We were “darkness, but now. . .”
Eph. 5:8c “. . .are ye light in the Lord:. . .”
Jesus said of His followers, “Ye are the light of the world” (MT 5:14). We believers have no illusions of personal grandeur, and take no credit to ourselves. We are light “in the Lord.” Only Jesus in and of Himself can say in truth, “I am the light of the world” (JN 8:12). Believers reflect Christ’s light, He shines through us. Our text intensifies this metaphor.
Christ’s light not only shines upon us and through us. We are joined with Him in such vital union that He makes us aglow. We go from being darkness, and become light itself, light embodied, high noon incarnate.
Christ changes essence, nature. He offers a radical change, a transformation from being darkness to being light. This offer of re-birth is why only Christianity can help a society find ultimate, long-term solutions to its problems. All other forms of betterment, having to be content to deal with slight improvements on the surface, are thus insufficient. It is not enough to replace a man’s rags with a new suit, to have him wash his face and cut his hair, to take him out of poverty and give him wealth (as the increase in white-collar crime has proven). He must be born again. “The problem of immorality or vice or crime can never be tackled directly. Conduct is the result of the point of view, so you can never deal with conduct directly. To try to do so is the fatal blunder of every non-Christian system. And we are seeing the failure on all hands. Men refuse to recognize the fundamental principle that as a man thinks, so he is. Therefore, it is of no use trying to control his behavior if his thinking is wrong” (Lloyd-Jones).
Paul’s inference in our text is obvious, believers hold the answer to a lost world’s problems. Unbelievers are darkness, which can be overcome by only one thing, light, which is what believers are. We are made light not for selfish advantage, but for the sake of others. Their darkness can be overcome only by our light. The question is, how can we best be a blessing to our society, what is the best approach for salt, light, and leaven to take?
As I mentioned in my previous sermon, we begin with brokenness, by weeping and mourning over them in fervent, intercessory prayer before God. Anger has its proper place, to rouse us to action, but then wrath must yield to deep pity and love. To the overly zealous, I say, calm your spirit, take a deep breath, count to ten. Remember James and John. They wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village, but Jesus rebuked them (LK 9:55). To the under-ly zealous, I say, wake up. Remember the priest and the levite who passed by the wounded man in the ditch and went on their way as if nothing were wrong. The Good Samaritan “showed mercy,” and Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise” (LK 10:37). Believers can never opt to be idle, quiet, deaf, and blind in the midst of a hurting, crying, dying world. Remember, we once were darkness; pity those who are darkness still.
To be effective, brokenness must spawn evangelism. All our efforts at social and moral reform will ultimately fail if not in some way underpinned by evangelism. Thomas Chalmers grieved over the moral decline of his society. He longed “for an arm of strength to demolish this firm and far-spread compact of iniquity, and for the power of. . .(a) piercing and prophetic voice.” Upset, Chalmers wanted to lash out and “do something” to make a difference. He ultimately concluded, “What is the likeliest way of setting up a barrier against this desolating torrent of corruption? The mischief will never be combatted effectually by any expedient separate from the growth and the transmission of personal Christianity throughout the land.” Should Christians vote, write to public figures, seek to influence public opinion, and engage in political activities? Certainly, it is our God who ordained government. Should churches have Moral Concerns Committees? Absolutely. However, let us never forget that all these things are secondary to, not substitutes for, prayer and evangelism.
What a blessed privilege is ours as believers. We have the opportunity to make a lasting and genuine difference in our world. Because of the darkness, much sin, suffering, and sorrow exist in this world. Rather than complain about having to live in a decaying culture, thank God for placing us here as lights to do something constructive about what’s wrong.
I challenge us to rise to the occasion. Christianity is not a tropical plant which has to be pampered and kept in a greenhouse. Ours is a faith as tough as a weed, hardy and strong, able to survive anywhere, including in the midst of a moral cesspool, or atop a social dunghill. Paul challenged Christians in a culture much worse than ours to be “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (PH 2:15).
Now may be our finest hour, this may be the time when American Christians will have our greatest opportunity to shine. Today, more than ever before, let our light be conspicuous. Do not hide it. Put it “on a candlestick” (MT 5:15). As Lehman Strauss urged, never allow the bushel of cowardice or compromise or carelessness to hide the light, for “if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost” (2 C 4:3). As believers, our place in heaven is secure, our salvation is sure. If we flicker and fail, a lost and dying world is the worst loser. Brothers and sisters, America needs us.
How does one overcome darkness? Only with light. Where is darkness? In unbelievers. Where is light? In believers. We are the only hope. Do we truly believe this? A part of our problem may be we overestimate the ability of other groups, and underestimate the importance of our role.
Years ago, James Boice told of a national gathering of religious leaders. The President spoke, very much pleased the gathering, and left the building to a standing ovation and much celebration. The next speaker, Chuck Colson, who once walked the halls of political power, reminded the crowd, “The kingdom of God is not going to arrive on Air Force One.”
Governments come and go. Our country is but a speck on the ocean of history, our effort at government is still but an experiment, yet we boast the world’s oldest constitution in use. The USA is the world’s oldest continuously operating government. Every other country has undergone a more recent radical change in government structure. God instituted governments as a gift to society to maintain order, but obviously never meant for them to offer long-term, permanent solutions to problems. Governments are unable to make themselves last forever, much less their policies.
As I deliver this sermon today at East Side Baptist Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I stand on the very spot where on a previous occasion stood one who is now the most powerful political figure in the world. He and I share certain similarities; we are both baby boomers, both in our 40s, both Southern Baptists, both Arkansans, both Razorback fans. He represents political power, I represent spiritual power. Which of us represents the power which can truly change and salvage the America we have known and loved? Believe me, I have long wrestled with this question. I love politics and have often thought I would enjoy it as a career. Where can the most effective difference be made? Government certainly has a God-given role to perform in society, the Church has one, too. Which of the two can provide ultimate deliverance? Our answer to this is critical, for however important we think we are as a Body will determine the extent to which we will work as believers in seeking to influence the culture around us.
Eph. 5:8d “. . .walk as children of light:. . .”
“Walk” refers to life-style, outward, habitual actions, one’s ongoing behavior. “Walk as children of light” challenges us to live as people whose essential nature is light, as people who have been born in it, and are filled with it. Spiritual light has behavioral consequences. Heavenly light produces earthly results. Paul’s command is for us to act like what we are. Behave as believers ought to. We have been made light. Live like it.
Shine, not to be admired and treated as special, but that the lost may see in us Jesus, their true light of hope. Jesus is the One the world needs to notice. This is why godly living in and of itself is not enough of a witness. Living an upright life, coupled with silence, brings all glory to self. Living a good life, coupled with speaking for Jesus, gives glory to Him.
It can be difficult to verbally identify ourselves with the Lord. To be a genuine blessing to the lost, to point them to their only hope, believers must be willing to pay the cost of ridicule and rejection. “Shining calls for sacrifice” (Strauss). John the Baptist “was a burning and a shining light” (JN 5:35), and died for it. If we would shine, we must be willing to burn.
At all cost, talk about Jesus. Give Him exposure. At the same time, confirm our talk with our walk. Live a life “that betrays its source by its resemblance” (Maclaren). The beam which reflects from a mirror is the same as the beam which shines on it. Similarly, Jesus intends for us to reflect His very life, to behave as He did. “We have no right to call ourselves Christ’s followers unless we are, in some measure, Christ’s pictures” (Maclaren). Telephones, through a process I do not understand, receive sound waves and convert them to electrical impulses, which are then changed back into sound waves which make the voice I hear sound exactly like the voice of the person speaking. God works similarly in us. The life Jesus lived in the flesh is conveyed through the power of the Holy Spirit into my very being, where it is to be lived again through my members.
Let Jesus shine again. Radiate Him on all with whom you have contact. Make a difference in your part of the world. “Brighten the corner where you are.” God has given believers in our culture the wonderful opportunity to be a blessing to a lost, dying, dark world. We need to stop whining about our plight, and start shining in the night. The ancient words of Isaiah (60:1) are appropriate today, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come.”
Eph. 5:9a (For the fruit of the Spirit. . .”
Verse nine is a parenthesis, interjected to describe the path believers ought to walk. The best manuscripts have “light” instead of “Spirit.” “Fruit of the light” refers to visible and spontaneous traits which light produces.
Fruit is visible. True light cannot be hid. Once brought into the inner parts, light manifests itself outwardly. Where there is spiritual light, there is visible fruit. Christianity is not an invisible thing, consisting only in private beliefs and personal concerns. Certain outward, visible traits will characterize the life-styles of children of light. Spiritual light naturally tends to blossom out in many forms of beauty. Thus, boast not of enlightenment if there is no outward beauty of holiness.
Fruit is spontaneous. In nature, fruit results from “natural, silent, spontaneous, effortless growth” (Maclaren). Fruit is the obvious result of a vital power. Similarly, “Christian virtue is, in its true essence, grace having its way” (Moule). This explains why a Christian who is ungodly will be miserable. He is suppressing a power which unceasingly seeks to flow outwardly from within. As a result, a Christian in sin is always out of kilter, off key, out of sync–he or she constantly senses something is not right.
Eph. 5:9b “. . .is in all. . .”
Before we analyze each of the three features of light listed here–goodness, righteousness, and truth–we need to discuss them as a unit. “All” these graces characterize a child of light. True light produces all three. This was implied in “fruit,” which is singular. It takes all three to make one complete unit. Our light is flickering if any of the three is missing.
It is not enough to excel in one area of Christian living. A believer is meant to be well-rounded, “fruitful in every good work” (CL 1:10). We are ever in danger of cultivating only those virtues which agree with our natural disposition, or are made easy by our circumstances. We like to do what is easy, what fits our temperament and environment, but must pursue excellence in every realm of life. Make-up and surroundings help explain behavior, but do not excuse it. If you are amiable by nature, work on firmness; if stern, cultivate softness; if “straight-laced,” try to be a bit more happy-go-lucky; if happy-go-lucky, occasionally seek to straighten your lace.
Eph. 5:9c “. . .goodness. . .”
This refers to benevolence, generosity of spirit. “Goodness” desires to alleviate the sufferings of, and promote the happiness of, others. This is a chief characteristic of God Himself. We often say, “God is good.” Our English word “God” means “the good one.” In fact, in Old English, “good” was spelled “god.” To be like the good One, seek to practice “goodness.”
“Goodness,” which displays a spirit of love, is an attractive trait of our faith, for the beauty of God Himself shines upon it. God has taught us a lovely and appealing new way of looking at life. As Ironside pointed out, God’s grammar is different from man’s. In school we are taught, first person, I; second person, you; third person, he. Heavenly grammar teaches, first person, he–God; second person, you–others; third person, I–me last.
In his dying days, William Booth was unable to address a large gathering of the Salvation Army. He instead cabled his message. It consisted of only one word, “Others!” That says it all when it comes to “goodness.”
Eph. 5:9d “. . .and righteousness. . .”
“Righteousness” always carries legal connotations. It denotes conformity to the prescriptions and demands of law. For the believer, “righteousness” begins as a judicial gift given to us from God. He makes us righteous by faith before Himself, and then enables us to live righteously before men.
Regarding conduct, “righteousness” refers to doing right, performing our duty. Personal wants and desires come last, duty and right come first. Rectitude is the reigning hallmark. The righteous know what the straight and narrow path is, and seek to never deviate from it, whatever the consequence. Ambrose said, “If I were standing on a precipice between sin and Hell, I would leap into the flames of Hell before I would jump into sin.”
A righteous person is reliable. He sees every relationship of life as entailing certain obligations, each of which he is determined to fulfill.
Eph. 5:9e “. . .and truth;). . .
“Truth” refers to internal integrity. It is sincere and honest, not false or treacherous; open and above board, not underhanded or deceitful. God desires “truth in the inward parts” (PS 51:6). His light exposes everything, even down to the deepest essence. He allows no secret treaties with the forces of darkness.
“Sincerity runs through all the graces” (Manton). When a young Salvation Army officer, Ironside attended a large rally at which his Colonel spoke. Ironside said he never forgot the leader’s words, “Remember, Comrades–men will forgive you if you are not educated, they will forgive you if your culture is not up to the highest standards, if you are not eloquent, if you cannot sing charmingly, but they will never forgive you if they find out that you are not sincere, that you are pretending to be what you are not.”
Sincerity was a prominent part of the home in which I was raised. Godliness pervaded every feature of our family life. When a teenager, I late one night stepped into the hallway and looked into the kitchen. Dad was sitting alone at the table. With head bowed, he was saying grace over a bowl of All-bran cereal. He thought no one was watching. I remember how that scene pleased me. It was a very small act on the surface, but spoke volumes about inner character. What we do when we think no one is watching reveals the real us, and will eventually manifest itself openly.
Be real. Be genuine. Christianity is not content with hypocritical adornment or superficial appearance. A person yielded to God’s light is free to be transparent. When Adam and Eve sinned, their first reaction was to cover themselves and to hide, but a person living according to God’s light feels safe being open, for he has nothing to cover or hide. A believer walking in light has no need for pretence, for he cloaks no duplicity.
“Truth” in the inner man is absolutely essential, for without it “goodness and righteousness” cannot be long maintained. To do “goodness,” one’s very constitution and essence must be “goodness.” We sometimes fall into the trap of being content with doing a little from time to time for people in serious circumstances. “Truth” raises a higher standard for us. We have to become, inwardly, “goodness” embodied. It must ooze out from the pores.
The same applies to “righteousness.” It has to emanate from within. Taking God’s Word as their rule, the righteous seek to have the Bible written not only on paper, but emblazoned upon the heart.