Studies in Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians

12. Ephesians 5:1-7 - A Call for Purity

In Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace, not by our works (Eph. 2:8). But he makes it equally clear that God has made us and called us so that we do good works (v. 10). In the last half of his letter, he gives some specific exhortations for the kind of behavior that reflects our Christian faith.

At the end of chapter 4, Paul exhorts the Ephesian Christians to forgive one another, just as God in Christ had forgiven them (v. 32). We are to pattern our behavior after God himself. Paul states this general principle as he begins chapter 5: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (vv. 1-2, NIV 2011 edition in this chapter).

We should be like our heavenly Father, and the imitation of God is a basic principle of Christian ethics. We do not imitate him in authority, but in humility, because God is revealed to us most clearly in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is the clear example of forgiveness and love that we should follow. When we love others, we are a sacrifice that pleases God (Hebrews 13:16).

A call for purity

Love does not mean promiscuous sex, however: “But 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” (Eph. 5:3). Paul does not say what sort of “impurity” he is thinking of. Greed is wrong because, among other things, it is an opposite of love.

Not only should Christians avoid even the hint of immorality, Paul advises, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (v. 4). Obscenities are common in American culture now, but Paul exhorts us to conform to Christ rather than to culture (Romans 12:2). When sin becomes a joke, more people sin. Sex is a gift of God, and it should not be tarnished by referring to it as a joke or as an insult. Our speech should set a good example, and Paul suggests that if you have to say something, say something good. “Thanksgiving is an antidote for sin” (Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 276).

Paul then emphasizes how important this matter is: “Of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person — such a person is an idolater — has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). That behavior, and that sort of speech, is contrary to the character of Christ. How can we be scrubbed of such impurities? Through Christ — and having freed us from corruption, Christ wants us not to go back to wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22).

“Let no one deceive you with empty words,” he warns — let no one tell you that God doesn’t care about such things, “for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them” (Eph. 5:7-8). Paul is saying here that God is angry with people who give themselves over to corrupt behavior. Sin hurts people, and since God loves people, he hates sin, and he opposes those who persist in it.

Greed and immorality hurt people, and even though they are common in society today, we should not join in with people who do them. Indeed, we should avoid even the hint of impropriety, such as the dirty jokes. This requires a difference in behavior, not physical separation. “We cannot share the gospel if we separate from unbelievers. The light is to shine in the darkness” (Snodgrass, 278).

Michael Morrison