Ephesians 5:6, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
John Calvin, in his commentary on Ephesians 5:3–5, offers the church a helpful reminder of the difference between repentant sinners and those who obstinately continue in their transgressions. He writes: “When men have repented, and thus give evidence that they are reconciled to God, they are no longer the same persons that they formerly were. But let all fornicators, or unclean or covetous persons, so long as they continue such, be assured that they have no friendship with God, and are deprived of all hope of salvation.” There is a difference between those who profess Christ, seek to mortify the flesh, and occasionally sin, and those who profess Christ but celebrate their sin. The latter group — the impenitent — has no share in the Lord’s kingdom. On the other hand, Jesus receives with open arms those who hate their evildoing, even if they sometimes fall (1 John 1:8–9).
Let us always remember this when we consider Scripture’s teaching on the fate of the sexually immoral. Only “the sons of disobedience” receive the wrath of God (Eph. 5:6). Sons typically bear many of the physical and personality traits of their parents; thus, the sons of disobedience have their father’s nature. They reflect their lineage consistently, relishing their sin, even demanding that others approve of it. These individuals show no desire for repentance, and they have no place in Christ’s body. Converted people, however, have “become children of God” (John 1:12). They are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and are being slowly conformed to it over their lifetimes. Such individuals resist temptation, hate it when they sin, and never seek approval of their transgressions. We gladly welcome these men and women in our churches, for they are recovering sinners just like us.
In our churches today, many look the other way when unmarried couples are cohabitating in our congregations. Entire denominations consecrate homosexuals as pastors. These are but a few examples of those who attempt to deceive the church with “empty words”- words devoid of gospel truth (Ephesians 5:6). These people are engaged in a deadly business, providing false assurance to many, and rejecting Jesus’ demand for faith and repentance (Mark 1:14-16). If these leaders continue in their lies, they have a dreadful judgment awaiting them (James 3:1).
There are men and women struggling with sexual sin in all of our congregations. These brothers and sisters in Christ want to please God and are seeking to mortify the flesh. We should do all that we can to help them. This means creating an atmosphere where repentant sexual sinners feel that they can share their burdens without being seen as scum. If we are honest about our own sins without seeking to excuse them, other repentant sinners will feel welcome in our worship services.
We feel more secure when we know that we will be clearly warned of danger. Paul provides such warnings in Ephesians 5:5-6 telling us both what is denied idolaters and what is promised them.
What is denied idolaters: inheritance. Paul says that “no immoral, impure or greedy person … has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). In other words, you may think that you will gain by pursuing your lusts and your greed, but, in fact, you will lose everything. Certainly, Paul is thinking of the kingdom of God in primarily eschatological terms, but the knowledge that Christ is building his kingdom now (Eph. 1:23) makes us mindful that such pursuits will make our lives empty now also. This is made even more clear in the wording of the next verse of this passage about what is inherited as a consequence of these idolatries.
What is assured, idolaters: wrath. Paul does not only warn about the denial of an inheritance but also about what is inherited by those whose lives are idolatrous pursuits of lust and greed. “Let no one deceive you with empty [i.e., void of truth] words, for because of such things [i.e., these vices] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph. 5:6). The word “comes” is in the present tense. While Paul could have isolated the ultimate consequences of sin in the eschaton, he includes the present. Aspects of God’s wrath come against sin now. This does not mean that the sinful now will face all the consequences of their idolatry, but the emptiness of such pursuits already denies the joy and fulfillment of a life with God.
What better letter could there be for our age to heed? Consider what Paul has written about immorality and greed in the light of the sins of this age. We live in a culture immersed in immorality and greed. Spiritual warning signals blare from many directions, but, in apparent sensory overload, we grow more blind and deaf to the seriousness, pervasiveness, and destructiveness of our indulgences.
The many reports about the consequences of sexual sin and materialistic greed in our culture are shouting their warnings to us. At the same time, we continue to expose ourselves and our children to the sinful entertainments and materialistic priorities with fewer and fewer pangs of conscience.
We may tell ourselves and each other that such things do not really matter, that we are unaffected, that we have an adequate worldview to deal with such things, and that mature Christians—grace-filled and culturally engaged—will not be bothered. To such explanations, Paul responds, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes” (Eph. 5:6). Paul is not here threatening that God will abandon or destroy his children, but he is pointing to the wrath that will come upon those whose ultimate choice is idolatry and using their punishment as an object lesson to warn his children to steer clear of sin. Even if its consequences are not ultimate for the child of God, his discipline of idolatrous pursuits should be sufficient to turn us from evil and to the grace of God in Christ alone.