Ephesians 5:3-5, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

In Ephesians, Paul has been helping Christians who believe the gospel to live out their gratitude for salvation, reminding them that they cannot adopt the moral code of non-Christians (Ephesians 4:17-32). In our last article in this series, we saw how Paul summed up the sanctified life as one that imitates the character of God Himself (Ephesians 5:1-2).

The Apostle Paul continues in Ephesians 5:3-5 focusing on how sexual immorality and greed go against biblical Christianity. The Gentile audience in Ephesus needed to hear this particular message early and often in the first century. Although Jews of the same period strictly frowned on sexually immoral behavior, the ancient Greeks and Romans tolerated and even approved of sexual deviancy. These Gentile Christians needed Paul’s teaching, for they were tempted to embrace the mindset around them instead of God’s standards for human sexuality.

Like these Gentile Christians in Ephesus, Christians today need to heed what Paul teaches here in Ephesians 5:3-5. The modern West is obsessed with sex along with any idea of how the Lord might limit their sexual expression in anyway. The word Paul uses in Ephesians 5:3 is porneia and covers all sexual activity that occurs outside of the marriage bed. Porneia refers to extramarital sex, homosexuality, incest, and other biblically forbidden acts that violate the one-flesh principle of lawful sexual expression, along with those who continue in these behaviors and how they have no part in the Kingdom of God (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:5). Christians today need this reminder lest they are led astray.

Covetousness is mentioned alongside sexual immorality because it manifests love for self. The bodies of men and women belong to their lawful spouses (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). When Christian married couples engage in sexual immorality, we commit theft, when we engage in any form of sexual immorality. Such thievery is the logical end of greed, which expresses itself in an ungodly lust for material possessions or coveting the blessings of others.

You see, we can experience purity only by denying ourselves impurity. This means that we must deal radically with sins we are tempted to excuse such as immorality and greed. For such the apostle urges a starvation diet. Paul’s instruction to avoid even small compromises should teach us much about how sin progresses and how it can be overcome. When powerful, destructive lust forms in our lives, it is most often like a flame on a gas stove that grows more intense the more it is fed fuel. The way that the lust becomes manageable is not with the presumption that God will simply take lust away (though that is in his power). We should remember that God made us as sexual beings who should long for one another within the bounds of marriage (between one man and one woman)—we are made to be “lusty” creatures. What turns down the intensity of improper lust is starving it of improper fuel. Indulging sexual impurities of speech, thought, and entertainment will feed the power of sin in our lives.

The ways that impurity leads to improper lust are not new or more acceptable because they suddenly seem less avoidable. Paul writes to Ephesians whose common markets and main streets were no less full of immorality than our own. Greco-Roman gods were celebrated for sexual conquests, and there is no perversion present today that was not accepted in some form in that ancient world. We may think of ours as an oversexualized culture, but the Ephesians’ church was not less tempted.

The apostle knew how the flames of desire could burn out of control among God’s people, and so he urges them to starve the flames by denying the desires their fuel. He says that there must not even be a hint of immorality among God’s people. What is immoral is not even to be mentioned. Not only does he forbid what is filthy—we expect that—but also what is foolish or unprofitable (not serving our best interests or God’s glory). But what if it’s humorous—not harmful, just a jest? The apostle of God says that even if the coarse reference is funny, it is not to be mentioned.

Paul says all forms of impurity “are out of place” among God’s people—his temple (Eph. 5:4). Here Paul echoes the ethic of the writer of Proverbs who urges his son not to walk on the path of the wicked and not even to go near it but to turn from it and walk the other direction (Prov. 4:14–15). Prophets and apostles know that the tolerance of any sin leads to greater sin, and must be starved of all that would feed its indulgence.

Paul’s words should encourage us that we are not strange if we struggle with impurity; giving and dying of self have always been needed to overcome it. Some of that giving and dying will involve starving the flames of lust by identifying its sources in our life, sources that may be culturally accepted and even endorsed by fellow Christians.

We must confess what is not right for our heart, and give it no place in our life. We may need to seek the counsel of a confidential mentor or group of friends to develop accountability and honest assessment of habits. And if we are with Christian brothers and sisters whose movie, music, and television habits have been unexamined, we may need to stir up the love and courage to question whether the Bible or the culture is guiding their lives. We should be willing to be thought odd for the sake of Christ, for if we cannot stand for our convictions among Christians, then it is unlikely that we can be a witness in the world.

Throughout this portion of Ephesians, the apostle confronts sin with its substitute. Christians are exhorted not to lie but to tell the truth (Eph. 4:25), not to steal but to work (Eph. 4:28), not to express bitterness but instead kindness (Eph. 4:31–32). That pattern now continues as Paul exhorts believers not to speak what is filthy, foolish, or coarse, but rather to offer thanksgiving (Eph. 5:4).

Simply seeing sin’s deceptive nature will not in itself create the praise that Paul wants to substitute for idolatry. In order for Paul to elicit the thanksgiving that he believes will provide spiritual power for the Ephesians, he must also make clear the nature of God’s provision. To do so, Paul calls sin idolatry (Eph. 5:5) and calls the people saints (Eph. 5:3).

At the beginning of Paul’s discussion of why lust and greed are improper (Eph. 5:3) and out of place (Eph. 5:4), he makes sure we know for whom such things are wrong. We are to rid ourselves of all forms of impurity because “these [things] are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3). Paul uses the indicative (what Christ has done). Before discussing impure actions that make us ashamed, Paul reminds us of God’s prior actions that make us holy. Not only are we God’s children, but we are also saints, holy people (hagioi).

Paul is not talking to those who have perfect lives. If the Ephesians were perfect, there would be no reason to write to them of their idolatries of lust and greed. Paul addresses these people, among whom great sin must be present, as holy ones. They are not holy by their actions, but by God’s forgiveness in Christ—the root concept motivating all imperatives in this passage. Praise to God—not simply lip service or religious ritual but profound gratitude and love for what Christ has done—fills the heart that knows God’s love. And the heart that is filled with a responsive love for God has no place for idolatry. When we fully understand the love that makes us holy, then we live as God has already reckoned us to be.

Paul teaches us to provide power over sin by proclaiming the holy status of those who are in Christ Jesus. When I know that I am not made for sin, that I am a fundamentally different creature in Christ Jesus—still sinful but reckoned holy so that no sin will satisfy me or have ultimate power over me—then I am filled with thanksgiving. And because God inhabits the praise of his people, when we are filled with his praise, we are filled with his power.

Though we gain strength for the Christian life by savoring our purity and savoring our identity in Christ, we ultimately must face the dangers of sin. If we do not recognize the danger, then we are not prepared to live the holy lives God desires. Thus the final dimension of Paul’s exhortation against impurity is a warning! But as he warns, he further strengthens us by enabling us to savor our security in Christ.