“But 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, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 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. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light”(Ephesians 5:3–8, ESV)
What happens when a sinner is redeemed? Do all of their sinful habits and lifestyles instantly disappear, with no trace or spot left? Yes and no. Before the holy eyes of God, our sins, every one of them, vanish beneath the blood of Christ. But for now, there remains in us an ongoing struggle that is a battle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Holy Spirit who now resides in us. At times, the battle cools and the temptation will lay dormant. At other times it will be sparked and set ablaze like a fire in a powder keg.
As Paul has laid out in Epehsians 4, we need to live or “walk” in a manner worthy of our calling, and this new lifestyle must be empowered by the Holy Spirit filled life (Eph 5:18). The new life in Christ is too often described as something it is not. The miraculous redemption we receive is described in terms that are over-realized; making young Christians think that their new life in Christ has given them complete mastery over their sin. But that sort of idea is dangerous for two reasons: It does not warn of the power of the flesh and the strength of temptation, especially in those areas of past habitual sin. The second reason this idea is dangerous is the fact that most new Christians are told very little about the need for dependence upon the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to defend against the overwhelming urges to give in to sin. The result is that they try to overcome their temptation with will power and fleshly means and end up failing.
In Ephesians 5, Paul deals with some pretty strong sins that were affecting some of the Christians at Ephesus: sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness (v. 3), filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking (v. 4). These sins, like all sin, have been conquered by the cross of Christ. Those who place their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation have been cleansed and set free from the filthiest of sins. We need to say that more. We need to let the man or woman who is mired in shame and guilt know that Christ can set them free and cleanse them from all unrighteousness. They don’t need to clean up themselves in order to come to Christ. As a matter of fact, they can’t. As the song says, “What can wash away my sin, nothing but the blood of Jesus!”
But we must also acknowledge that once a person has come to Christ and been washed clean, and they are justified with Christ, they are not incapable of the temptation to sin. If this were the case, then Paul’s words of warning would make no sense. Neither would all of the exhortations in the New Testament about fleeing from sin and temptation. And since we are to grow in holiness, and to learn to grow in dependence upon the power of the Spirit, and to wield the Sword of the Spirit, we need to also acknowledge that the young Christian is in need of discipleship, patience, and brotherly oversight. And this is especially true when the struggles run deep.
In our society today we have been hearing more and more about the “gay Christian.” In this passage, Paul is pretty clear–there is no such thing. But that doesn’t mean that we will not have new believers who will need us to walk with them as they battle sin and temptation. They will need much prayer, Bible instruction, love, friendships, and hospitality. So will the Christian struggling with other forms of sexual immorality, and adultery. So will those struggling with anger, gossip, ingratitude, coveting, bitterness, and shame. The list is never ending. We need one another. None of us has arrived, but we are all making our way.
We cannot accept that Christ saved us so we can remain in our sin, therefore we can continue to wallow in it. But neither can we say that Christ saves us and therefore, temptation is stricken from our hearts so that we no longer struggle with it anymore. If that were true, we wouldn’t need the Church, we wouldn’t need each other. And we wouldn’t need Christ or the Spirit of God. May the Lord help us to reach out to those who are struggling. And may we be prepared to go with them for the long haul, knowing that this is how Christ uses the Church, the Spirit and the Word to bring about our sanctification.