Will God’s Wrath Come upon the Sexually Immoral? (Ephesians 5)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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3But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.4Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.5For 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.6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7Therefore do not become partners with them; 8for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light9(for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.12For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.13But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible,14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Paul’s Exhortation

This section begins with “But” (Eph.5:3), which contrasts with the positive command to imitate God and walk in love (Eph. 5:1–2). The first triad of sins to avoid begins with “sexual immorality” (porneia), which includes sexual activity of any kind outside a committed marriage relationship. “Impurity” can refer generally to uncleanness but is often coupled with “sexual immorality” in Paul’s writings (2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3, 7). Consequently, it can carry the idea of sexual impurity. “Covetousness” refers to greed (and perhaps sexual greed).

Paul’s exhortation is that these sins “must not even be named among you.” Paul is not violating his own advice by mentioning (i.e., “naming”) such vices. Instead, he is declaring that such sins ought to be absent from the body of Christ. The motivation for avoidance of these sins is that such behavior is not “proper among saints.” Believers are called to be holy and blameless before God (Eph. 1:4). Their behavior must be consistent with their new identity as God’s chosen people who have been given a holy calling (Eph. 4:1; 1 Thess. 4:3–7).

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

Paul continues (Eph. 5:4) to urge his readers to avoid certain vices, with this triad emphasizing sins of speech that carry sexual connotations. “Filthiness” refers to that which is “in defiance of social and moral standards, with resulting disgrace, embarrassment, and shame.”1 “Foolish talk” may “carry connotations of the kind of nonsensical talk that emerges from people in attendance at banquets where drunkenness and sexual immorality were common.”2“Crude joking” probably refers to a “quick-witted, clever humor employed in malicious or sexually vulgar ways.”3 Such behavior is “out of place” (v. 4) among believers. In contrast, Christians should be characterized as those who offer “thanksgiving,” since God is the source of “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17).

Warnings to Motivate toward Holiness

Paul next issues two severe warnings intended to motivate his readers. The first is based on something they already knew, probably from Paul’s teaching: anyone who fails to avoid the aforementioned sins “has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” The three groups mentioned (the “sexually immoral,” the “impure,” and the “covetous”) correspond to the three categories of sins mentioned in verse 3 (“sexual immorality,” “impurity,” and “covetousness”). Paul is not declaring that anyone who commits these sins is excluded from God’s heavenly kingdom. Nevertheless, those who persistently give themselves over to such sins, even if they call themselves Christians, demonstrate that they are indeed excluded from eternal life. Paul parenthetically adds that a person who is greedy or covetous is also “an idolater” (cf. Col. 3:5). Brian Rosner defines the greedy as “those with a strong desire to acquire for themselves more and more money and possessions, because they love, trust, and obey wealth rather than God.”4

Although Paul mentions only three types of people here as being excluded from eternal life, in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 he mentions “the unrighteous” (a general category), “adulterers,” “men who practice homosexuality,” “thieves,” “drunkards,” “revilers,” and “swindlers” (cf. Gal. 5:19–21) as also being excluded. The reference to Christ’s kingdom is not common in the New Testament (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1, 18; 2 Pet. 1:11), and the unique expression (“kingdom of Christ and God”) emphasizes the reign of Christ, who is even now ruling with his Father over his creation (cf. Eph. 1:20–23).

Paul offers a second warning as to why his readers should avoid sexual immorality and greed: God’s wrath is coming. He begins by urging his readers to “let no one deceive you with empty words.” The identity of those who were attempting to deceive is not mentioned; they could be either unbelieving Gentiles or, more likely, members of the Christian community who refused to take sin seriously. By propagating harmful beliefs, these false teachers were attempting to turn some from the truth to follow ungodly passions. But Paul solemnly warns that those whose lives are characterized by such sinful practices will experience God’s stern judgment (“the wrath of God”). Believers will not face God’s wrath, because they have been sealed with the Spirit and have a sure inheritance (Eph. 1:13–14). Rather, God’s wrath is reserved for the “the sons of disobedience,” which refers to those who are unredeemed though perhaps a part of the covenant community (cf. Eph. 2:2).

Paul’s focus now shifts from urging his readers to avoid certain sins to the positive reason why believers must not associate with the ungodly lifestyle of non-Christians. Because the wrath of God is coming to those who are disobedient, believers should not participate in their behavior. When Paul says that believers must not be “partners” with the ungodly, he is not speaking of radical separation, with no contact (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9–10). The idea is that believers must not embrace any false teaching or immoral lifestyle associated with such teaching. In Ephesians 3:6 Paul used this term (there translated “partakers”) positively to remind his readers that they are co-participants with Jewish believers as part of a new community in Christ. Ephesians 5:7 (“Therefore do not become partners with them”) provides a stark contrast with verse 1 (“Therefore be[come] imitators of God”).

Verse 8 offers the rationale for why believers should not be fellow participants with false teachers and their lifestyle: such participation would be inconsistent with the believers’ new identity in Christ. The “at one time . . . but now” schema contrasts a former time with the present. “Darkness” is used metaphorically to communicate a state of moral or spiritual darkness (cf. Eph. 4:18), whereas “light” communicates the illumination one receives to live a godly life as a consequence of a relationship with God. The imagery of darkness and light is used by Paul elsewhere (Rom. 13:12–13; 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; 6:14; Col. 1:12–13; 1 Thess. 5:5; 1 Tim. 6:16). Interestingly, Paul does not say that they were once in darkness and are now in light but rather that they were darkness and now are light. They were not merely in a dark environment but were themselves by nature dark (cf. Eph. 2:1, 12). “In the Lord” indicates that the believer’s union with Christ makes the decisive difference in the new state.

The final phrase in verse 8 (“walk as children of light”) again highlights a main theme in Ephesians (Eph. 4:1, 17; Eph. 5:2, 15). Paul shifts from stating a fact (“you are light”) to giving a command (“walk as children of light”). That is, believers are exhorted to become what they already are. Although this might seem contradictory, it corresponds to the Bible’s “inaugurated eschatology” (in Christ, believers already possess every benefit from his work, though they have not yet fully received all of those benefits). Their lifestyle must conform to the reality of being a new person in Christ. This sequence must be maintained, as the power needed for a transformed life can come only through a relationship with the God who can raise sinners from the dead.

As is rightly indicated by the ESV, verse 9 is parenthetical. The conjunction “for” is explanatory, connecting this clause to the previous verse by elaborating on what it means to walk in the light. “Fruit of light” is unique here in the New Testament but conveys the idea that fruit is produced by the light. That is, once a person receives new life in Christ, God’s power works in that person to produce characteristics found in God himself. As “fruit,” these virtues are by-products of faith in Christ and are not prerequisites for being accepted by God. “Good” or “goodness” is also listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) and is a quality found in God himself (Ps. 73:1). Here, “righteousness” refers to moral uprightness or living rightly before God and men (cf. Eph. 4:24; Phil. 1:11). “Truth,” like the other two virtues, is also an attribute of God (cf. Eph. 4:24) and should characterize both the speech and lifestyle of believers.

Walk in the Light

In verse 8 Paul instructed his readers to “walk as children of light,” and now he offers a concrete example of how that is done. Believers must “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” The verb translated “discern” (dokimazō) means “put to the test,” “examine,” or “approve” (cf. Rom. 12:2). The word translated “pleasing” in Ephesians 5:10 is translated “acceptable” in Romans 12:2 (cf. Rom. 12:1; 14:18; 2 Cor. 5:9; Phil. 4:18; Col. 3:20). As those united to Christ by faith, it is the goal of believers to please their Lord and Master in all circumstances. To live according to that which is good, right, and true (Eph. 5:9) requires the practical wisdom of applying these ethical standards to particular circumstances.

Walking as children of light also requires believers to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (cf. Eph. 5:7). In contrast to “the fruit of light” (Eph. 5:9) or “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), which pleases the Lord and builds up his church, the works of those seeking to lead believers astray are labeled “unfruitful” because they come from “darkness” (cf. Rom. 13:12). Such deeds of darkness certainly include anything that displeases the Lord but here would specifically include sexual immorality, greed, and filthy or vulgar speech (Eph. 5:3–5).

Believers have died to sin and therefore must not let sin enslave them

In contrast to this negative admonition, Paul offers a positive counterpart: “but instead expose them.” That which believers are to expose most likely relates to the deeds of darkness rather than the persons themselves (cf. Eph. 5:13). Believers have the duty to expose the deeds of darkness by their conduct and words so that those who have gone astray will be convicted and will return to their senses.

Paul now offers the reason (“For”) why fruitless deeds of darkness are to be avoided and certain sins exposed: “It is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.” It is likely that the sins done secretly are the sexual vices mentioned in verse 3 (cf. Rom. 13:13). In view of the darkness/light metaphor, Paul introduces the related contrast of secret/visible (cf. Mark 4:22; Luke 12:2; John 18:20; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 4:5; 14:25). Those who participate in such deeds of darkness are members of the Christian community who are engaging in immoral behavior. If speaking of certain sins is bad enough, how much more offensive to God is actually engaging in them? Since Paul twice encourages exposing or rebuking such sin (Eph. 5:11, 13), he obviously does not mean that such sin cannot be verbally addressed. Rather, Paul is emphasizing the utterly shameful or especially evil nature of some sins.

Christ’s Light Shining

In contrast (“But”) to the secret deeds done in darkness (Eph 5:12), “when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible” (Eph. 5:13). Although the term “anything” is used, in the context Paul is referring to those deeds done in secret. In verse 11 Paul instructed the mature believers to “expose” the “unfruitful works of darkness.” Verse 13 explains the positive effects when such sins are exposed to the light (cf. John 3:20–21). The light not only exposes such sin but can also transform the sinner (2 Cor. 4:6). Some inevitably come out of the darkness and respond favorably to the light, and they themselves become light: “for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5:14). Those who accept the process of reproof and exposure become light in the Lord.

Using the same introductory formula (“Therefore it says”) as in Ephesians 4:8, where he quoted Psalm 68:18, Paul now seems to quote an early Christian hymn (perhaps written by Paul himself) deeply influenced by several Old Testament passages. The closest parallels to this citation include Isaiah 26:19 (“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise”) and Isaiah 60:1–2 (which contains the darkness/light metaphor). The hymn consists of three lines: the first two lines are parallel, each containing an imperative, while the third line contains a promise.

The first line (“Awake, O sleeper”) is used figuratively of those who are slumbering in moral and spiritual indolence (Rom. 13:11–14; 1 Thess. 5:5–8). Although some view this line (as well as the next) as a reference to conversion, it is better to see it as an exhortation to disobedient or wayward believers. The second line (“and arise from the dead”) is parallel to the first and thus has a similar meaning. That is, “the dead” is used metaphorically for those who sleep. Believers have died to sin and therefore must not let sin enslave them (Rom. 6:11–13). Throughout the entire context of Ephesians 5:3–14, Paul has been encouraging and warning believers to walk not in darkness but in light. The third line (“and Christ will shine on you”) is a promise given to those who obey by putting away sin and following the example of Christ. The result is that the risen and ascended Lord will shine on them, which signifies “the empowering presence of the Lord that directs, encourages, sustains, and helps them in their journey of discipleship.”5


  1. J. P. Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, §88.149.
  2. Frank Thielman, Ephesians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 30.
  3. Ibid., 331
  4. Brian S. Rosner, Greed as Idolatry: The Origin and Meaning of a Pauline Metaphor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 129
  5. Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 336.

This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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