“Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.” Ephesians 5:3-7 (NIV1984)
The Apostle Paul seems to be saying in theses verses that faith is not enough to be saved — that we also have to turn from sin and live righteously. Many of us have had it drilled into us that we are saved (from future punishment and condemnation by God) if we believe in Jesus and love Him. Even Paul wrote three chapters earlier that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV1984). So how do we resolve the tension in these two ideas?
I think the answer lies in what we mean by the word “faith” (or a closely related word, “believe”). James wrote on this extensively. In James 2:14, he writes, “What good is it… if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (NIV). Then he points out in verse 19 that even demons believe in God.
His point resolves the seeming paradox above: a saving faith is one in which the words are demonstrated in a changed life. If you really believe the Son of God died for you so that you could be reconciled to God, it should be seen in how you live differently for God because of that faith. God is not a cruel master — you can ask things of God, too! But sincerity is demonstrated by a sacrificial giver, not by someone who only takes.
Paul is saying in this passage that people who claim to love God, who say they are saved, who go to church — these people are just posers if as they mature in faith they do whatever they want without regard to the holy life the Lord wants them to live. Here, Paul specifically mentions immorality (particularly sexual immorality), impurity, and greed. He says such people will receive God’s wrath, and they have no place in heaven — no place in the eternal kingdom of God.
He also warns us that there will be false teachers who will try to tell us that what we do in this life doesn’t matter — that you can live anyway you want and still be saved. Run from teachers who teach that, because they are in danger of hell, and will take you along for company!
I certainly believe in an extravagant grace that allows us to come right into the presence of God even when (or especially when) we are struggling (and losing our battles) with sin. The fact that we struggle is a sign that we recognize Jesus as Lord, because we are trying to live righteously for him. It is when we embrace sin that there is a real question about our sincerity of faith. But when we recognize Jesus as Lord, he also recognizes us as his very own. The thief on the cross next to Jesus didn’t have time left one earth to prove his faith was real by living a changed life. But Jesus could see his profession of faith was sincere, and promised him that he would be with Jesus that very day in Paradise.
There are a lot of questions I still have on where to draw lines for when a person is not saved. If I have been following the Lord consistently, but then in one instance choose to disobey (though I had sufficient willpower to obey), do I lose my salvation? I personally do not believe so, because I have an ongoing relationship with Jesus. But in practice I would likely run to the Lord and ask for forgiveness, because I would not want to have any kind of hindrance in my relationship with him.
But what if I willfully disobey ten times, or a hundred times? Is there a point in which I am no longer sincere when I repent? Certainly there is a danger of one’s heart becoming hardened the more one chooses disobedience, and possibly lose salvation then. Sin is not something to be played with!
Bonus material: some unanswered questions and concerns on how this passage might be relevant to sexual immorality today
What happens if a person is following Jesus but is living a sexually immoral life and doesn’t seem to realize that what he is doing is wrong? In my understanding of the Bible, people that might fall into this category of being sexually immoral but not aware of it include a couple habitually having premarital sex, a couple living together without being married, or maybe even a couple living in a same-sex marriage.
If a person doesn’t believe what he is doing is wrong, will God’s wrath be against him, or does a person have to understand what he is doing is wrong, and then willfully disobey before they fall into a state of condemnation?
I honestly don’t know the answer. I would like to think that between the Bible speaking to him and the Holy Spirit speaking to him — and maybe even his conscience speaking to him — that such a person would not always be ignorant of his situation, and then could make the right choice.
There are some verses that suggest that Jesus has a lot of tolerance for even serious mistakes of those who are learning to walk with the Lord. I would also like to think that a person is only responsible for what he knows to do, not what God wants him to do — but I can think of too many counter-examples in the Bible to believe that this is always the case.
What if God expects a person to figure out what God considers sexually immoral based on the Bible, and therefore turn from it? It seems that if this is the case, it places an extra burden on the rest of us in being careful in declaring what is permissible for a follower of Jesus. Because if I teach a person that they can behave in a way that God says they cannot, then I may be guilty of getting them condemned to hell. In fact, I may be the kind of false teacher that Paul warns people to flee from, and be in danger myself of hell for leading people into sin.
This post was written by Timothy S. Thomas. You are free to use all or part in anything you write, but please give proper citation.