Posted On May 27, 2015

Starving Impurity and Praising God

by | May 27, 2015 | Discipleship, Featured


Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Savor Your Purity (Ephesians 5:3–4)

We should savor the privilege of being children of God who are called to live as children of God. But what we savor does not always characterize our lives. Purity is a struggle, so Paul continues his instructions by telling us how to experience the purity our heart desires.

Starve Impurity (Ephesians 5:3)

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 first commands us not to indulge any immorality (Eph. 5:3–4). It would not particularly surprise us if the apostle would simply say, “Do not allow immoral activity among you.” But instead he says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity”—literally, “but fornication (porneia) and all kinds of uncleanness … let it not even be named among you” (cf. Eph. 5:12). Not only is impurity not to enter the Christian’s life and the Christian community, but it is not even to be mentioned in our speech. And lest we question what that means, the apostle continues, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking” (Eph. 5:4).

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 bonds of marriage—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 therefore it 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.

The apostle continues to describe our sin-starvation diet by commanding us not to indulge greed (Eph. 5:3, 5). This is the second category of sin that Paul forbids in this passage. They seem an unlikely duo: lust and greed. Why link them? Some explain that in New Testament usage the word for greed here may be laden with sexual connotation, as in being greedy for another person’s body or beauty. That dimension of greed is certainly included in this text. But the separate listing of the sin of greed seems to indicate that Paul’s reach may also be broader, as though he wants us to recognize the commonalities of sexual lust and material greed. In essence, both are the consequence of concluding that what God provides is not enough. When either controls us, we conclude that God’s provision for our lives is inadequate. Whether we pursue a lust for persons or things, we profess that his supply is insufficient and deny his lordship over that aspect of our lives. Thus, Paul says that all impurity and greed are idolatry (Eph. 5:5). Yet such idolatry, which we would wish to deny is true of us, is startlingly present among us.

Believers wrestle with the idolatry of greed when they envy a person who has a nicer car and apartment; a pastor may wrestle with similar idolatry when he sees the more luxurious lives of laypersons in his church, or other ministers in larger or more affluent churches. Greed of all kinds—sexual and material—is a destructive force of great power. A telltale sign of such idolatry is growing discontent with God’s provision for our lives. When we borrow, spend, or pout for more than we have, often we are bowing to the idol of greed. And by listing greed in the list of sins we must starve, Paul urges contentment with God’s provision.

Feed Praise (Ephesians 5:4)

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 rather 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).

Why is thanksgiving the proper substitute for impurity? Thanksgiving is the replacement of idol worship with worship of God. 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 he calls the people saints (Eph. 5:3). That second identifying term seems improbable, yet it is the believer’s ultimate power. 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. 5:3b). There it is: the indicative. 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, we are 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. Yet 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.

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