As we move into chapter 5, we find that Paul is continuing his discourse on Christian holiness as a reflection and product of God’s saving work in our lives. We must no longer live as we did before we were saved. We must live in a way that is visibly different from the world, shining the light of Christ in every place we are, with humility, gentleness, patience, and longsuffering love.
Verse 1 begins with “therefore,” so we are first encouraged to look over our shoulders at what we have already learned earlier in Ephesians. Paul wants us to keep in mind the new manner of walking that he has been describing for us: putting off our old, corrupted selves, being renewed in our minds, and putting on our new selves which are created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption and have been forgiven by God in Christ, so our character should reflect his kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.
Rick Phillips reminds us in his commentary on Ephesians that this manner of walking is not a means of meriting our salvation, but a result of our changed hearts as evidence of our salvation. As we learned in our last lesson, our behavior—or conduct—flows from our hearts. Making this very point, Rick quotes Martin Lloyd-Jones, who writes, “The Apostle is not interested in conduct as such, he is interested in conduct as an expression and a reflection of the new life which they had received as a result of their regeneration.” Rick then writes, “if we want to start honoring God and enjoying the blessings we ought to enjoy as Christians, then the place to start is inside our hearts. If we really want to be practical about our Christianity, then we will get to work on our character.” [Richard D. Phillips, Ephesians, a Mentor Expository Commentary, (Christian Focus Publications; 2016), p. 370]
Ephesians 5:1 reads, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Our next question asks why it is natural for us to imitate God, and to be honest, my first Reformed Response was to trip on the word, “natural.” As I read further in my commentaries, however, I realized that while it would have been entirely unnatural before I was regenerated, now that I have been made alive in Christ, born again into this new life by the Holy Spirit and adopted by God, it is the most natural thing in the world for me to imitate my loving Father. Because I have been fundamentally transformed and am now his beloved child, I am freed from the bondage of sin and am able to obey him in love and gratitude.
We are next asked what are two aspects of Christ’s love that we are called to imitate, looking specifically in the passage from 4:32 to 5:2:
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
As I re-read this passage, it occurs to me that I was initially off the mark. I see more clearly now that what we are looking for is the forgiving and self-sacrificing love of Christ, which is a fragrant offering to God the Father. With kindness and tenderness we are to forgive and love others sacrificially. Our Lord Jesus Christ made sacrifices before giving his life on the cross. He laid aside his glory and his heavenly throne to come live among us for his life span on earth. He subjected himself to humiliation, deprivation, and rejection during his earthly ministry. He by whom the worlds were made was ridiculed and despised, and ultimately nailed to a cross. Yet we are told that it was “for the joy that was set before him (that) he endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).
How then can we shrink from sacrificing our comfort and reputation for the sake of the gospel? Is it worth embarrassment to speak the words of life which may encourage a faltering brother? What, exactly, is too much to ask, that Christ’s love, for the sake of maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, may shine through our lives? Sisters, let us pray that we would see the joy that waits just beyond the embarrassment of witnessing to others, the vulnerability of true fellowship, and the pain of peacemaking.
Imitating God seems like a tall order, but we are not doomed to fruitless striving or certain discouragement. Yet, being free to obey does not mean that obedience will be easy. We find in Romans how Paul himself struggled with his desire to imitate God and his inability to consistently do so.
”For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 7:14-8:6)
What we learn from this is that holiness is hard! We are creatures of habit, and the habits of sin continue to call to us, even after we are freed from our bondage to them. Before we were made alive in Christ we only desired sin. Now that we have been saved, we have competing desires: holiness versus sinfulness. This is sanctification: the lifelong battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil which wage war on our souls. They will finally lose in the end, because we are secure in Christ. Nevertheless, we must fight the sin that dwells within us, this indwelling sin, every day. John Owen, in his classic in-depth treatment of this battle, states his thesis as such:
“The choicest believers, Who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, Ought yet to make it their business all their days To mortify the indwelling power of sin.”
And elsewhere in the same work:
“Do you mortify; Do you make it your daily work; Be always at it while you live; Cease not a day from this work; Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” [John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, (Wheatland, IL: Crossway, 2006), 50]
Moving forward to Ephesians 5:3-7, we see that Paul has added to his earlier list of sins which we are to avoid, or “put off.” He now tells us that, ”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” (vs. 3, 4) In this list we find some of the many of God’s good gifts which sinful mankind have managed to twist and corrupt. A sense of humor is a blessing in many ways, and sex within the context of marriage is a beautiful gift indeed. Rick Phillips quotes Mike Mason, who describes for us the innocence of sex, rightly kept where God intended:
“What can equal the surprise of finding out that the one thing above all others which mankind has been most enterprising and proficient in dragging through the dirt turns out in fact to be the most innocent thing in the world? Is there any other activity at all which an adult man and woman may engage in together (apart from worship) that is actually more childlike, more clean and pure, more natural and wholesome and unequivocally right than is the act of making love? For if worship is the deepest form of communion with God… then surely sex is the deepest communion that is possible between human beings, and as such is something absolutely essential (in more than a biological way) to our survival.” [Mike Mason, The Mystery of Marriage: As Iron Sharpens Iron (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985), 121]
Our next question highlights Paul’s antidote to this new list of sins: thanksgiving (vs. 4). How is thanksgiving the opposite of obscenity, foolish talk, and crude joking? Rick Phillips explains that, “When we are grateful to God we use his good gifts in a reverent and responsible way… When Christians are thankful for our forgiveness through the precious blood of Jesus Christ, then our hearts respond with a desire to please God and to lead a holy lifestyle that glorifies his name” (p. 378).
This harkens back to the worthiness of our calling and walking in a manner which reflects that worth (4:1). I was recently given an item of jewelry which is a family heirloom and of great worth, for which I am very humbly grateful. When I first received it, and read the accompanying description, I was floored and almost forgot to breathe. At the moment, it holds a place of great honor in my jewelry box, and I can assure you, I won’t be wearing it the next time I go on a hayride. This piece will be reserved for worthy occasions (and therefore probably won’t get out much). When we consider how precious these gifts are which the Lord has given, we will use them in a worthy manner, with respect and gratitude.
Looking at verse 5, we see that Paul makes a connection between coveting and idolatry which we may not immediately catch on our own. Keep in mind that the context in which this is mentioned suggests that the coveting is sexual in nature, so our definitions of coveting and idolatry do not change at all, but are narrowed in their focus. Coveting of any description is born out of discontent for the gifts God has given or situations he has ordained, and a belief that obtaining what we covet will bring the satisfaction we are lacking. To believe that any thing, person, relationship, or situation that we covet will satisfy us more than God himself is to put that thing, person, relationship, or situation above God in our minds and hearts. And that is idolatry.
“You shall have no other gods before me,” (Ex. 20:3) is the first commandment and deals simply and directly with idolatry. The tenth commandment concerns the complexities of coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:17). The last commandment of the ten leads right back to the first commandment. The immediate context is one’s attitude toward one’s neighbor, but ultimately all sin is directed against God, isn’t it? Let us remember the antidote, and when we find our hearts coveting, or lusting, after that which God has given to someone else, repent quickly, turn our eyes back to our gracious and loving Father, and rehearse with thanksgiving the good gifts which he has been pleased to give us. And if you find yourself at a loss for gifts to be thankful for, remember Christ, and the salvation he purchased by his blood, and you will find more than enough to fill your heart and mouth with grateful praise.
In verses 5 and 6 Paul gives his strongest argument for turning from sin. “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. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” Sin rightly earns God’s wrath and disqualification from his inheritance. What hope then is there for immoral, impure, or covetous people?!
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11, italics mine)
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
What hope is there for these sinners? Christ is the only hope of sinful mankind! We are tempted to read verses 5 and 6 and forget what is pointed out in the passage in 1 Corinthians, that such were we. Their hope is our hope. Repenting of our sin and trusting in Jesus as our only hope for salvation is the only means by which any are saved, and is therefore the means by which all who are in Christ are saved.
And yet Paul is addressing unrepentant sinners who are continuing in their sin: sons of disobedience who justly fall under the wrath of God. This language recalls our study of the book of Joshua and the many instances we saw of God’s deserved wrath against unbelieving and rebellious sinners. The same John who wrote of the faithfulness of God to forgive those who confess their sins wrote further in his letter that:
“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:8-10)
John is here making the same distinction that Paul is making in Ephesians and the passage in Romans we quoted above. Those who are regenerated in Christ—born of God—desire to obey him and fight against indwelling sin. They are not defined by their sin, but by their relationship to Christ. The very name “Christian” identifies us with our Lord. When Paul describes some as “sons of disobedience” and John calls them “children of the devil,” they are not describing believers who sin and repent, but people who “make a practice of sinning” —who are defined by their sin and their relationship to the devil. Paul alludes to this earlier in verse 3 when he says the sins he is listing, “must not even be named among you.” He doesn’t mean that we can’t call these sins by name, but that they must not be identifying marks of the children of God.
In verse 7 Paul tells us that we must therefore not “associate,” or “become partners,” with them (another clue that there is a difference). Where Scripture, and therefore, God, has made a distinction, we must not blur the lines. On the one hand, we must not soft-pedal this distinction between Christians and non-Christians, and thereby dilute our witness and weaken our walk. On the other hand, we also must not retreat into our “Christian ghettos” and refuse to socialize at all with non-believers. If we acknowledge the difference between believers and non-believers we are actually more prepared to spend time with our unbelieving friends without compromising our witness and our walk. It is when we blur the distinctions that we are liable to compromise. This may come down to an issue of maturity; those who are more mature in their faith are better prepared to be influencers rather than influenced by their unbelieving friends.
Jesus knew better than any of us the distinctions between himself and the sinners with whom he socialized, and he never compromised his witness, was never tempted to participate in their sin, but always called them to the light.
“And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:30-32)
Paul next picks up the theme of darkness versus light with this startling pronouncement: “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (vs. 8). Paul is going right to the heart of our identity with the declaration that we are no longer what we used to be. We were darkness: our inward condition was death in trespasses (2:1), separation from Christ, … having no hope and without God in the world (2:12), darkened in our understanding and alienated from the life of God (4:18). But now, we are made alive in Christ (2:5), brought near by his blood (2:13), renewed in the spirit of our minds, and created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (4:23, 24). Again, this is the context of why, therefore, we are to be imitators of God as beloved children (5:1).
And so, we “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that is visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (9-14). This is how we are to live: in marked contrast to how we lived before the light of the Lord shone into our darkened hearts and brought us to life in Christ.
The fruit of light is produced not by our efforts alone, but by the Holy Spirit of God, as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (vs. 22, 23). Where before we produced unfruitful works of darkness we are now to produce the fruit of light, discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.
How do we find what is pleasing to him? As Paul has written in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Our minds are renewed by the means of grace, by prayer, meditation on the Word, the fellowship of the saints and taking of the sacraments, and sitting under the preaching of the Word. Steeped in these graces, we are then able to test and discern the will of God, not in isolation, but together with the Church into which the Lord has placed us. This is another, vital, reason why we need one another. On our own we may easily slip into erroneous ways of thinking and sinful patterns of living. As we will soon see, we need to live in mutual submission to one another—grounded in our reverence for Christ. (stay tuned…)
And now, instead of participating in unfruitful works of darkness, we are to expose them. Our purpose isn’t to shame unbelievers but to draw them to the light. We therefore must exercise great wisdom, according to each circumstance, and present the light in a winsome way, living out our obedience with joy and thanksgiving. Those trapped in darkness will be drawn to the light not as they see our lists of “don’ts,” but as they see how the “do’s” produce fruit that is good and right and true. Our light also serves as a warning to others, to expose the death and futility of the works of darkness. Death, when shown plainly under the spotlight of life, cannot hide its ugliness and decay. Seen clearly, the rotten fruits of darkness hold no more appeal and all thoughts of compromise are shattered.
How, then, do we expose the darkness without even speaking of “the things they do in secret?” Paul isn’t saying that we don’t call sin what it is, or ignore it altogether in hopes that it will go away. He is saying that while we are to confront sin, there is a limit to getting into the details, beyond which we are treading into salacious gossip or dredging up images that may lead us to stumble. We all have experienced this in other areas which don’t involve sin, and we know the limits. When it comes to describing illnesses or medical procedures, there is a way to give the true picture without diving into the details. “I can’t make it to study this week because I have the tummy ailment that’s going around” is all that we need to hear, right? We don’t then need to go into precisely how this tummy ailment is manifesting itself in your life… am I right? We know the limits, let’s keep within them.
Clearly, living as children of light means that we will be different from the world. How do we live as children of light while avoiding the pitfalls of appearing to be “holier than thou;” avoiding sin in a reactionary, prudish, and judgmental manner; and being destructive when we confront sin? To answer this, we are brought full circle to Paul’s instruction in 4:32 to 5:2, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
As we imitate God and show genuine kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness to those who are living in darkness we are shining a beautifully winsome light indeed. A staggering example of this made the news just recently, in the wake of the terrorist bombings of two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday. As the family of one of the slain Christians was interviewed on television in Egypt, their loving example of Christlike forgiveness rendered the talk show host almost speechless:
“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you. You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”
Stunned, Adeeb (the host) stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.
“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.” (Read the entire article and watch the video here.)
Granted, this is an extreme example, and it is unlikely any of us will be called on to shine our light in such a public venue. We do, however, face situations every day which offer opportunities to shine the light of Christ. When we lived in Pennsylvania I drove several times a week to a city park to go for morning runs. Most mornings I would stop and chat a bit with a homeless woman who frequented the park with her little dog, which she adored. We would talk about the weather and how her dog was doing, exchange “good mornings,” and then go on our separate ways. I didn’t have much beyond the dignity of eye contact, a smile, and simple conversation to give her, but that seemed enough. One morning I was meeting a group for a run at the same parking lot where I usually saw this woman. As we waited for everyone to arrive I saw her come walking by with her little dog, so I stepped aside to say hello. When I turned around to rejoin the group I saw one of the men looking my way with unconcealed horror on his face.
Now, I’m not sharing this to set myself up as a super-saint and this fellow as a monster. (In fact, I hesitated to share it at all.) I share this as an example of how simple a pattern of kindness can be. This was not a complex operation. I was in my own little corner of the world, moving within the regular pattern of my life, and God gave me an opportunity which required not a lick of effort on my part. I was so used to my brief conversations with this homeless woman, who really looked the part, that it didn’t occur to me until I saw the reaction of another how unusual it was. I normally do not want to stand out from the crowd and I shrink from recognition. I found, to my surprise, that it did not feel at all like a sacrifice, but like the most natural thing in the world. But this is the power of Christ at work in me: he made me different from the inside out, which enabled me to show kindness to one whom others eagerly passed by.
These two examples show the extremes of the sacrifices to which we, as Christians, will be called. Shining our light will be different from one day to the next, more or less difficult as the circumstances demand and as God gives grace. Let us prayerfully ask the Lord to show us how to be “in” but not “of” the world, that we might shine his light into the darkness. While the world may or may not respond well, it will be a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.