For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light" (Ephesians 5:5-8).
In Ephesians 4:17-19 Paul described our pagan life apart from Christ. When we were Gentiles, we lived in the futility of our mind, excluded from the life of God, giving ourselves over to every kind of impurity with a continual lust for more. This degradation and corruption of our former life was summed up by Paul under the phrase "the old man" (Eph. 4:22). In Paul's vocabulary, the old man is not an individualistic concept, as if it referred to our own personal existence in sin prior to our conversion. Nor does it refer to the remaining corruption that exists in all believers this side of heaven. Rather for Paul the old man is a corporate concept that alludes to the old aeon, the life of fallen humanity under the headship of our forefather Adam. We inherited his guilt and corrupt nature, and as a result we lived out of that guilt and corruption, giving birth to more and more sin and rebellion.
Paul then went on to say in Ephesians 4:20-24 that a great redemptive historical transition has occurred in Christ. It is nothing less than a shift of two ages. The old man has been decisively put off, having been judged once for all upon the cross of Christ. In its place we have put on "the new man" (Eph. 4:24). Again, this is a corporate term, referring to the life of redeemed humanity under the headship of Jesus Christ, the second Adam. In the new man, that is, in Jesus Christ, we are a new creation. The original image of God in which man was created is being progressively restored in us by means of our union with Jesus Christ.
Beginning in Ephesians 4:25, and continuing to the end of the book, Paul applies this redemptive historical transition from the covenant headship of Adam to the covenant of headship of the second Adam. No aspect of our lives remains untouched in Christ. Everything is different now in Christ. We are the eschatological new creation! The old things have passed away, behold all things have become new! A new day has dawned. How can our lives, our attitudes, our behavior remain the same?
The first area of application is in our corporate life together as the body of Christ. We see this in verses 25 to the end of the chapter, including the first two verses of chapter 5. We are to lay aside all that would hinder or undermine the unity of the body of Christ. Such things as lying to one another, festering anger, unwholesome words that do not built one another up, words that come from a place of bitterness and anger – all of these things tear down the body.
Paul therefore calls us to imitate Christ, to live a life of love just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma (Eph. 5:1-2). We are to have the same attitude that Jesus had: who did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage, but who emptied himself, and became a bond servant. Thus we too are to love one another even when it hurts, indeed, most of all when it hurts. We are to forgive one another even though it goes against the natural desire to nurse our feelings of self-pity. We are to carefully guard our speech, so that we do not let loose a barrage of friendly fire upon our brethren. Instead we must make every effort to speak only those words which will give grace to the hearer, according to the need of the moment.
When we come to Ephesians 5:3-4, we come to a second major area of application: "But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks."
The fact that we have been transferred out of the sin, guilt and condemnation of the old Adam into the new creation headed up in the second Adam, not only has implications for how we are to treat one another in the church, but for how we ought to conduct our personal lives in the area of personal integrity and morality, especially with regard to the whole issue of sexual purity.
"Immorality" in Greek is porneia. It can basically be translated "fornication." This term is rather broad and covers any kind of sexual intercourse outside of the one-flesh union of a man and a woman united in a biblically approved marriage. It includes the following types of sexual sin: adultery, premarital sex, prostitution, incest, and various forms of unnatural sex, including homosexual activity. (We know this because that is the way the term porneia is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint – the Bible of the early church.) All of the various sexual transgressions that fall under the general term porneia or sexual immorality are not fitting for saints.
This brings us, then, to our text. Let's begin by looking at verses 5-7: "For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be partakers with them."
Here, Paul states that those who persist impenitently in these sins have no part in the eternal kingdom of Christ. In other words, they will not go to heaven. Paul gives this warning to the visible church. In doing so he is addressing the tares, those who profess Christ outwardly, but who do not truly trust in Christ alone for salvation, and who manifest their unbelief by living a life indistinguishable from the pagans.
There are many such solemn warnings in the New Testament. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, is one epistle that is full of such warnings against the possibility of apostasy. Hebrews 3:12-13: "Take care, brethren, that there not be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."
The fact that these warnings are directed to professing Christians in the church can be easily misinterpreted in one of two ways. The first common mistake is to assume that these warnings imply that a person can lose his or her salvation. This is the Arminian approach. "After all," the Arminian argues, "these threats are real. They are meant to be taken seriously. We cannot simply brush them aside as mere hypothetical warnings, by a simplistic appeal to the eternal security of the saints. The Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is ultimately a self-serving doctrine calculated to foster a carnal security that undermines any genuine striving for godliness."
But this argument does not take into account the biblical distinction between the visible and the invisible church. Not all who outwardly profess faith in Jesus Christ are truly regenerate. The NT clearly teaches that the visible church prior to the second coming of Christ contains a mixture of both wheat and tares. To the untrained observer, the tares look like real wheat. But in reality they are imposters who do not belong in the fellowship of God's people. Thus, the possibility that these warnings raise, the possibility of being a professing Christian and yet not inheriting the kingdom of God, in no way implies that the elect can lose their salvation. It merely means that those who profess Christ and persist in their immoral lifestyle without any sense of remorse or desire for change, demonstrate by their hardness of heart that they do not possess saving faith in Jesus Christ.
A second error, common among Puritan preachers, is to apply these warnings to the visible church in such a way as to undermine the assurance of genuine believers. "The difference between the wheat and the tares is so difficult to discern," the Puritan preacher solemnly warns, "that you really have no way of knowing which one you are. You may think you are a true wheat, but how do you know? You might be deceiving yourself."
Theologically, the Puritan is a Calvinist, and thus poles apart from an Arminian in his understanding of the nature of salvation. The Puritan totally rejects the Arminian notion that our salvation is something that depends upon anything we do, including perserverance in the faith. Yet, in spite of their clear theological differences, the two often end up in the same place pastorally. As they address their flock, they seek to motivate them to godly living by the fear that they may end up among the lost, in spite of their profession of faith in Christ.
Under such a ministry, what becomes of those with tender consciences? What about those who struggle with besetting sin and seem unable to get the victory? I would venture to say that this is not a small subgroup within the church. Given the reality of remaining sin in all believers this side of heaven, struggling with besetting sin is the ordinary experience of all true children of God. In fact, we should state this even more boldly: the one who does not struggle with besetting sin gives evidence, not of superior holiness, but of a tragically low awareness of the holiness of God and of our own innate sinfulness. A genuine Christian's life is characterized not by a serene and peaceful superiority to sin and temptation, but by a constant warfare in which we wrestle with our sinful patterns of thinking and behavior inherited from Adam.
But if this is the ordinary experience of all true saints, then a Puritan style of ministry will not achieve the goal of motivating the careless to greater faithfulness. It will only rob the true sheep of the assurance that is not only rightfully theirs, but which is the very thing they most desperately need if they are to grow in greater conformity to Christ in their personal sanctification.
For these reasons, I do not believe Paul is asserting that any believer who may struggle with these sins is automatically excluded from heaven. Rather, Paul's solemn warning is directed to those who call themselves Christians but who have given themselves up to such sins without shame, without any acknowledgment of the sinfulness of their actions, and without any sorrow for sin and desire to turn from it.
Several observations bear this out:
The exhortation itself indicates that these sins were a real possibility, if not an actuality, in Ephesus and in all of Paul's congregations. The very fact that Paul is exhorting his Christian audience to turn from these serious sins is an indication that he does not consider the sins themselves to disqualify a person from eternal life. It is not sin but persistence in sin with an attitude of rebellion and impenitence that disqualifies.
Furthermore, notice that Paul alters his language slightly in v. 5. In v. 3 he calls the church not to allow the sins of immorality, impurity, and greed to be named among the saints. In v. 5 he warns that no immoral person, or impure person, or covetous person has any inheritance in the kingdom to come. The grammatical shift from a list of sins to a list of sinners is significant. It is the person whose life is so given over to and wedded to such sins that is in view.
Repentance, on the other hand, is a hatred of what you have done, and thus it creates as it were a split between what you have done and what you wish to be. A repentant brother who has committed adultery is not an adulterer in God's eyes. It is only the impenitent, those who have hardened their heart against the claims of God's holiness upon their lives, who stand under the wrath of God that is coming upon the sons of disobedience.
Note the reference in verse 5 to the "inheritance in the kingdom of Christ." Paul used the term "inheritance" three times earlier in Ephesians, and defines it very clearly.
Ephesians 1:11-14: "In whom we also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, 12 to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. 13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory."
According to the context, the inheritance is something that we have already obtained a right and title to, even though we do not yet enjoy it in its fullness. All who have been predestined according to God's purpose have been destined to this inheritance. All who heard the message of truth (that is, the gospel of our salvation), and who have believed that message, have been sealed with the Spirit, which is the pledge of our inheritance. There is no distinction here between those Christians who will obtain the inheritance and those who will miss out due to their carnal living but who will nevertheless be saved. All who have believed the gospel and have received the Spirit as a pledge are going to receive the inheritance.
The inheritance, then, is nothing less than being delivered from God's wrath at the final day and being raised up to eternal life in heaven. Notice the added phrase, "the redemption of God's own possession." Those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ are God's own possession, and in that sense we are already redeemed. But we "will be redeemed" when our bodies are raised from the dead and we are ushered into the eternal joy of life with God heaven ("the redemption of our body," Rom. 8:23).
Having issued the solemn warning that those who persist impenitently in sin will not enjoy eternal life with God in the kingdom of heaven, Paul now grounds the warning in an appeal to our identity in Christ:
Verse 8: "… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light."
In view of the solemn warning that those who persist impenitently in sin will not enjoy eternal life with God in the kingdom of heaven, we must not be partakers with unbelievers in their way of life. Why? Because we were formerly darkness, but now we are children of light. The darkness is already passing away. The true light is already shining. The divine light and eternal glory of the age to come dawned on the day when Jesus rose again from the dead on the first day of the week.
I think it will be helpful to compare our text with another parallel text found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Here, Paul issues the same forceful warning that fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, those who engage in homosexual activity, thieves, drunkards and so on will not inherit the kingdom of God. And yet he does not leave the threat to stand by itself in isolation, as if to suggest that those who do the opposite – those who are chaste and sexually pure, those who do not steal and do not get drunk – will inherit the kingdom on the basis of their righteousness. No, Paul goes on to say in verse 11: "Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God."
Paul therefore makes clear that the difference between those who inherit and those who are excluded from the kingdom is not one of behavior alone. For both those who are saved and those who are lost have committed these sins. Rather, the difference is our relationship with Jesus Christ. There is a vast difference between the godless person who lives in unrestrained sexual indulgence, and the Christian who struggles with sin and temptation but who has been washed in the blood of Christ, sanctified and set apart from the world, and is pronounced righteous on the basis of Christ's merit and filled with his Spirit.
Returning to our text, Paul does something similar in Ephesians 5. After making the exclusionary warning statement, he immediately goes on to add something that points out the clear-cut difference between the godless pagans who are rushing headlong into sin and the redeemed Christian who is no longer one of them.
Paul says, "Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience." You see the argument Paul is making? Why would you want to indulge in these kinds of sins? Why would you want to participate in the sins of the pagan world, a world that is headed for destruction and the final outpouring of divine wrath on the day of Christ? You are not one of them. You are inside the ark, preserved from God's wrath. Why, then, would you want to engage in the kinds of sins and behaviors for which the world is going to be judged when Christ returns? That is not who you are. You are not one who is headed for judgment. Therefore cease acting like one who is! Live, rather, as one who has been washed, sanctified, and justified, that is, as one for whom the wrath of God has already been satisfied in the person of Jesus Christ.
The wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience. This implies that the wrath of God is not coming upon us. It has already come upon us, for we have already experienced the full extent of God's wrath when we died with Christ. The wrath of God cannot come upon us twice, first in our Surety and then again in ourselves. We are children of wrath no longer. Therefore, let us not engage in the kinds of behaviors that characterized our former existence under the headship of Adam – i.e., the old man – which old way of existence has been judged and terminated in the cross of Christ.
Remember the warning, that those who live impenitently in sin "have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ." It would be reasonable to assume that the logical converse is true: those who avoid these sins do have an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ. But that is not what Paul says. The logic of the gospel is quite different. The word "for" that begins verse 8 shows the correct logical relationship: do not partake in these sins, for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. In other words, since you have an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ (a certain reality for those who are in Christ), you are exhorted not to engage in those sins!
Notice the ground of Paul's warning and exhortation to not be partakers with unbelievers in their sinful lifestyle. He does not ground his warning and exhortation in our own subjective conversion experience, but in the objective transition that occurred in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. There is a very good reason for this: my own subjective conversion experience is too frail a basis for sanctification. My personal experience of God's grace rises and falls from day to day, and week to week. One week I may be experiencing the joy of the Holy Spirit, walking in the full assurance of my salvation in Jesus Christ, knowing that I am a child of God and an heir of heaven. The following week, the darkness falls. I no longer feel right with God. I have no desire to pray and read the Bible. I am depressed, whether because of unconfessed sin, or because things aren't going well in my life, or maybe because of a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Thanks be to God that in the midst of all this, my union with Christ does not change one iota. Nothing can snatch me out of his hand. Neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Even when I feel like all is darkness, yet even then I am light in the Lord. My life is hidden with Christ in God.
What a difference this makes! It provides an objective basis for Paul's exhortation to not be a partaker with unbelievers. The shifting sand of my experience doesn't make it clear or obvious that I must not participate in the sins of unbelievers. But the resurrection of Jesus, the decisive intrusion of the age to come, the transition from darkness of the grave to the light of resurrection life – that is a clear reason why we simply cannot continue in the sins of darkness. Since we are no longer darkness, but are now light in the Lord, let us walk as children of light.
Let the warning of this text be a means of grace to you, calling you to live in accordance with who you really are. When you indulge in those pagan sins of your former life, you are contradicting your identity in Christ. You are acting out a role that no longer fits who you are. You are behaving as if the wrath of God is coming against you, as if you are still a son of disobedience. No, you are a child of God. You have been redeemed and delivered from God's wrath in Christ, your wrath-bearer. Therefore, live as one who is a child of destiny, an heir of heaven.
Inheritance also implies sonship, for that is what a son is – an heir. Wicked and immoral persons demonstrate that they are not sons of God, that they are not heirs who will inherit the kingdom of Christ, that is, heaven. They are sons, not of God, but of disobedience, that is, sons of the disobedient one, Satan. Sons of rebellion, sons whose inheritance is not heaven but hell. Expelled, disinherited ones, bastards who have no rightful claim to the inheritance.
So the contrast is ultimately one of sonship and destiny. Your sonship and your destiny are determined by your union with Christ. You are heirs of God through Jesus Christ. You are sons of the kingdom. Therefore live as sons. Live as heirs. At one time you were part of the fallen world of humanity alienated from the life of God. At one time you were dead in trespasses and sins.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, made us alive together with Christ. He has adopted us as sons unto himself through Jesus Christ. He has rescued us from the coming wrath. He has destined us for the inheritance of the saints in the light, the eternal light of God's heaven, that we might be with Jesus Christ, that we might glorify Jesus and praise him forever, and enjoy his love and grace in the courts of heaven. That is your identity. That is your status. Therefore take up your place as God's sons, and live as sons. Live as royal sons of heaven, as those who will be honored by God forever in his eternal and glorious kingdom. Live now as you will live then forever. Since you are sons, live as sons. Since you are heirs of the mighty kingdom of Jesus Christ, live as heirs of that kingdom, expressing in your day-to-day behavior the righteousness and purity of that kingdom.
You see, the issue ultimately reduces to the matter of one's ultimate eschatological destiny and worship. Those who live only for themselves worship themselves, and so their destiny is eschatological wrath. and According to verse 5, unrestrained sexual greed is tantamount to idolatry. This is so, because the person who gives himself or herself over completely to sensual indulgence and gratification of the flesh is obsessed with self. Such a person has made himself, and the satisfaction of his own desires, the center of his existence. He is worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. He is living only for his own pleasure.
We, on the other hand, are eschatologically destined for the glory of the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ. That is our destiny. Our ultimate priority is centered not upon ourselves but upon Jesus Christ, his glory, his praise, his kingdom, his reign. The eternal reign of the Lamb upon the throne, he who shall reign forever in the courts of heaven, glorified in the midst of his redeemed people, sinners saved by grace, ransomed from every tribe and nation under heaven by his blood. Not our own pleasure, not enslavement to our own lusts, but the glory of Jesus Christ in his eternal reign in heaven enthroned upon the praises of his people for whom he laid down his life – that is our highest, our truest destiny, our eschatological endpoint. Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, let us lay aside all that is contrary to that heavenly hope, that consummation joy. The bliss of heaven far outweighs any fleeting pleasure that may entice is here on earth. The eternal joy of union and communion with our glorious King of righteousness.