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What do you want to become? When you close your eyes and picture yourself in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, what will you have become? What do you hope for, pray for, and plan for?
I once wanted to become a famous architect. I designed a three-storey dream house. I built a superb 3D model of it. It had an inbuilt swimming pool. You could jump into the pool from the top-level bedrooms. The pool had windows in the side so you could look into the water from the middle-level dining room and watch people swimming while you ate. It was magnificent. It was so magnificent that one of my school teachers must have taken it home after they marked it, because I couldn’t find it anywhere in the classroom at the end of term. Either that, or they threw it out because they didn’t think it was as magnificent as I did. If I’m honest, the second option is more likely. In any case, my dreams were dashed. The cardboard model never became a reality, and neither did my plan to be a famous architect. But that’s OK; I was still a kid then, so I had plenty of other dreams to work towards.
What do you want to become? Our dreams drive our daily actions, don’t they? If you know what you want to become and have some idea about how you might get there, you’re motivated to work towards it, day by day. It’s also highly motivating when you know what you don’t want to become. You might know people who have made bad choices in life, or who have attitudes or habits or lifestyles that turn you off completely. If you look at their lives and have some idea how and why they ended up where they ended up, it can motivate you to avoid their mistakes and to live differently, day by day.
In this part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he’s talking about what believers should and shouldn’t “become”. In the earlier parts of his letter, Paul has tended to focus more on what God has already made us. God has adopted us as his children, forgiven us, made us holy, and lifted us from sin and death and judgment to life and salvation. We are secure in Christ, and have a wonderful, glorious hope to look forward to. That’s what God has done for us. That’s who we are. But as Ephesians goes on, Paul concentrates more and more on what we should become. He’s talking about future growth, and change, and action on our part. We will see that as he talks about what we should become, there’s a positive aspect and a negative aspect. At the start of chapter 5, Paul says we should “become imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). That’s the positive aspect—and it is incredibly positive! Now, in verses 5–7, Paul is focusing on the negative aspect:
You must understand this: everyone who is sexually immoral, or impure, or greedy—which is idolatry—has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Don’t let anyone deceive you with empty words. It’s because of these things that the wrath of God is coming on the children of disobedience. So don’t become partners with them.Ephesians 5:5–7
Here Paul tells us what not to become: “don’t become partners with them.” Don’t become partners with whom? With the “children of disobedience”. With the world under God’s “wrath”. These are hard words, and a serious warning. But we need to hear it.
Paul is saying here that starting down the track of sexual immorality is entering into partnership with the world. The original word for “sexually immoral” (pornos), especially in a Jewish setting, means a person whose sexual activity goes beyond the good boundaries that God has put around it, i.e. marriage as understood in the Bible. Christopher Ash summarises the biblical view of marriage this way:
Marriage isChristopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Inter-Varsity, 2003), p. 211.
the voluntary sexual and public social union
of one man and one woman
from different families.
This union is patterned upon the union of God with his people his bride,
the Christ with his church.
Intrinsic to this union is God’s calling to lifelong exclusive sexual faithfulness.
Sexual immorality, on the other hand, is about activity that goes beyond these good boundaries of marriage. But Paul isn’t just talking here about our activity. He’s also talking about our desires. He talks about “everyone who is sexually immoral, or impure, or greedy—which is idolatry”. In one sense, what Paul says here is applicable to any kind of greedy lust—for example, the lust for money—which draws us away from God. But his primary focus here is on sins of sexual activity and desire. He’s speaking about people who are consistently and unrepentantly sexually immoral, and who consistently and unrepentantly give way and hold on to desires against God’s will.
This, says Paul, is a salvation issue! Why? Because such a person “has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God”. For Paul, this is not a secondary issue that can be separated from salvation. These are very strong words, aren’t they? Yet they are words that we all need to hear in our sex-and-greed-saturated world, just as Christians in the sex-and-greed-saturated Roman Empire needed to hear them. And we all need to hear these words. It’s not just an issue for one group of people “out there”. It’s an issue for all of us. This is because all of us, in this sinful and broken world, have sinful and broken desires in this area. Each of us will struggle in different ways, but we will all struggle. So we need to come to terms with our broken desires, and work out how to grapple with them. We need to make sure we’re not people who consistently and unrepentantly give in to these desires.
Paul goes on to say:
Don’t let anyone deceive you with empty words.Ephesians 5:6a
Deception is so insidious on these issues, isn’t it? We can be deceived by others, and we can be deceived even by ourselves. There are so many empty words that can deceive us. “It’s not a gospel issue.” “If you feel the desire, it must be good”. “Don’t be judgmental”. “The gospel is about love, which means unconditional acceptance of every desire everyone might have”. “If we want to reach people in this highly sexualised world, we need to experience it ourselves, otherwise we won’t be relevant.” “As long as your ministry is successful, and you’re achieving your goals and reaching people with the love of Jesus, that’s all that matters. And God has given you a lot of people to reach. It’s a lot to do, and it’s hard, and you’re tired. Work hard, play hard. Work. Lead. Care. Then you need some down time—let yourself go. Give in, it’s OK.”
But we mustn’t be deceived, because:
It’s because of these things that the wrath of God is coming on the children of disobedience.Ephesians 5:6b
If you start down this track, you’re not just changing your actions. You’re changing sides. You’re changing your very self. You’re becoming someone else. You’re becoming partners with the children of disobedience.
Don’t become partners
So don’t become partners with them.Ephesians 5:7
Do you see the danger? Starting down the track of sexual immorality is like Gandalf in the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, standing on the bridge, at the edge of the dark chasm on the bridge, as the fiery whip curls up from the abyss and drags him into it. So get away from the edge. Don’t start down that road. That means, for example, not giving porn any place at all: in images, in speech, in relationships, in our desires. If you’re involved in it now, or even anywhere close, you need to deal with it. Don’t treat it as a minor thing. It really matters.
The website resistporn.org provides excellent resources for individuals, parents, schools, church leaders, and others, with both faith-based and secular materials. It also has a list of recommended counsellors to contact. Yes, there is forgiveness, there is grace, there can be restoration, thank God! But that forgiveness and grace can’t be treated as a hedge fund—something for you to tap into occasionally when you fall over. Forgiveness and grace means there is something for you to become. Grace gives us a life to live, not just a free ticket out of trouble. Grace and forgiveness makes us children of God. And as children of God, we need to become imitators of God. Remember Paul’s words from the start of the chapter:
So then, become imitators of God, as dearly loved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God, a fragrant aroma.Ephesians 5:1–2
What do you want to become?
So what do you want to become: in 5 years, 10, 20, 50 years, forever? Who do you see yourself becoming? Will you become an imitator of God, more and more? Will you become a giver, a sacrificer, a forgiver? Will you become someone who is secure in God’s love, spending yourself for others, because you know you have been given so much to spend? This is the vision of Paul in Ephesians. Is that your vision?
Or will you become a partner with the children of disobedience? Will you become a follower of the world’s stupid yet enticing desires? Will you become someone who spends yourself on the desires of this world, on which the wrath of God is coming?
How can you become an imitator of God rather than a partner with the world? The website I referred to earlier provides some excellent resources to help resist porn. But there’s also something more fundamental, isn’t there? It’s about setting our hearts on that grace that God has given us: now, daily, and for the rest of our lives, until we receive our inheritance: desiring God’s grace, clinging to that grace, becoming an imitator of that grace, and speaking words of grace. We need to set our hearts to become who we have been made to be.
What particular struggles do you have in the area of sexual purity?
What steps do you need to take to ensure that you don’t become a partner with the world in this area?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.