“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.” (Eph 5:5)
In our church, we are just drawing to a close in Daniel and I have been preparing our next series in Ephesians which is due to start a week on Sunday. I was recently putting together a sermon on Eph 5:3-14, due to be delivered midway through October (yes, I really do prepare sermons that far in advance!). As I was doing so, I was particularly struck by Eph 5:5. You can see the verse above.
By way of orientation, Paul’s general thrust in the preceding verses is to explain how Christians ought to live in the nitty-gritty of everyday Christian life. His main concern in 5:3-14 is to encourage believers to live as people of light. He then goes on to explain precisely how we are to do that.
In 5:3-5, Paul is trying to explain what sort of behaviour is inappropriate for Christian people. He is not trying to lay down the law and have a go at the reader. Rather, he is trying to say that you were once totally unconcerned about these sorts of things but now, as Christian people, you want to avoid these behaviours. It is meant to be an encouragement to Christian people he knows are keen to avoid the things he lists.
When we get to 5:5, Paul is implying that these believers will inherit “the kingdom of Christ and God” because they no longer engage in these practices. Of course, the reverse of this remains true not least because, rather than being implied, it is specifically what Paul says. Those people who are given over to these sorts of behaviour show that they never really belonged to Christ and thus will not inherit the kingdom.
Most Christian people affirm that those who are given over to sexual immorality or continually doing whatever makes for impurity (1) show that they are not true believers. Rightly, we should put all the appropriate caveats on that and distinguish between those given over/continually practicing/walking in sin and those who have fallen into sin but are repentant. Nonetheless, most are prepared to say those who continually practice these two things are not walking in Christ and will not inherit the kingdom. In fact, as most Christian people manage to avoid such major sin throughout their Christian life, it is readily apparent that those walking in them must be disregarding Jesus’ commands and place themselves outside of his people (2). So far, so in line with Paul’s thinking.
However, Paul doesn’t only talk about sexual immorality and impurity. He actually talks about three areas of sin: sexual immorality, impurity and covetousness. Though the tendency of most Christians is to agree with Paul on the first two, I suspect many of us have little or no concern regarding covetousness in reality.
What is particularly concerning is that Paul doesn’t even put covetousness in the same bracket as sexual immorality and impurity. Now, most of us don’t put them under the same banner either but, unlike us, Paul puts covetousness in a worse category of sin than the first two. It is covetousness alone which Paul links to idolatry which, throughout the Old Testament, was the sin that most consistently and inevitably drew the righteous anger of God.
It is worth mentioning that at the heart of sexual immorality and impurity is covetousness. In each case, we want what is not ours and/or we want more of what we may currently have in part. These first two are, to some degree, an overflow of a covetous heart. And covetousness is idolatry because it is seeking satisfaction and joy in something other than Christ. We want what does not belong to us because we believe whatever it is will make us complete. We are saying such things will satisfy us in a way that Christ does not/cannot. That is idolatry.
Most of us can conceive of reasons to take action, or begin the steps of church discipline, against someone who has been found doing what is sexually immoral. Likewise, it is easy to think of times we do the same against public impurity of one sort or another. But I suspect most of us could not conceive m/any circumstances under which we would take action against covetousness. And that is perverse given that Paul sees it as worse than these other two. He at least sees it as at the root of these other two.
The reason for our quandary is obvious enough. Most of us are prone to some form of covetousness. It has become one of those “respectable sins”. In fact, we can even “christianise” covetousness and make what is fundamentally sinful into a virtue. We covet particular gifts, we covet recognition or we covet the size and work of other churches. We even tell ourselves that such covetousness is for God’s glory. And yet, Paul says this is all idolatry.
I have no great answer to our condition except for repentance and faith in Christ. Rather than pointing fingers at “those big sins”, perhaps we are harbouring significant sins of our own that we have made respectable. It is a reminder to all of us, if we are continually walking in and characterised by these sins, then perhaps we are standing outside of God’s kingdom. Again, we must make appropriate caveats. There is a difference between falling into and walking in covetousness. One speaks of a constant state of mind, a regular discontent and continual longing for what does not belong to you. The other speaks of an irregular discontent and longing which, though still sinful, shows some desire not to be characterised by a covetous heart. It is the former which signifies our lack of standing in Christ.
Nonetheless, it is a stark reminder that we are sinful people. We are only in a right relationship with God based on our standing in Christ. God does not love us more or less depending on our performance each day. Yet, if we are truly in Christ, our lives will reflect our new identity in him. The question is not whether we have done these sins. It is whether we are characterised and continually walking in these sins. This applies as much to covetousness, if not more so, than to these other things.
- Impurity is often linked to sexual immorality by Paul but it is not exclusively tied to it. Though impurity encompasses sexual immorality, it is a much wider term that covers anything that might defile us before God
- John Newton used to make a similar case that most Christians avoid the most major and obvious sins but fail to grow because they fail to deal with (seemingly) smaller sins. You can read more on that here and here