The Lord's Day Morning

June 4, 2006

Ephesians 5:3-4

“Sexual Immorality, Coarse Talk, Thanksgiving, and the Glory of God”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter five. We’ll be looking at verses 3 and 4 today.

Before we read this passage together — a passage that deals with the issue of sexual immorality, and contains Paul's exhortation to the Ephesians and to us as believers to be different from the world, to be distinct from the world in this whole arena of sexual immorality, both in terms of what we do, what we think about, what we view, and how we speak — I want to remind you of a couple of things.

First of all, I want to remind you again that the Apostle Paul in this passage is not saying ‘Do these six things, and you, too, can become a Christian. Do these six things and you can be justified.’ Nor is he saying, ‘Trust in Jesus Christ and do these six things and you’ll be counted righteous before God.’ If he's saying that, friends, you understand that we're all going to hell, because these things that he's talking about are standing problems in the Christian church; and real Christians, true Christians, Christians that love the Lord Jesus Christ struggle in these areas.

Remember the practical areas he's dealt with. If you allow your eyes to scan back to chapter 4, verse 25, first he starts talking about the area of truth-telling. In contrast to a culture characterized by denial, by euphemism, by evading problems and failing to address truthfully reality, we're going to be truth-tellers, he says.

And then he begins to talk to us in the next verses about anger and the way we're going to handle anger in a righteous way, as opposed to being characterized as people who express anger sinfully, or who are sinfully angry.

He also deals in this passage with honesty, with wholesome talk, with talk that edifies, and he deals with the standing problem of bitterness.

Now, those issues, all five of them, and the one we're going to look at today are issues that real Christians, good Christians, true Christians, have in different measures and different proportions struggled with for 2,000 years. And so the Apostle Paul, if he is saying to us ‘Trust in Jesus Christ and do these six things and you can be justified before God,’ then we're all in trouble. That's not what Paul is saying. Paul is not speaking here about how one is made right with God. He is speaking about how those who have been made right with God by grace are to live out that grace, and he is especially speaking about how those who have been made new creations by the sovereign grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit are to live out consistently the reality of who they are.

Friends, that is so important for you to get — that the Apostle Paul is not giving this list of behaviors and saying, ‘Now, look, Buck-o, you better pretend like you live this way, or else you’ll get kicked out of the club.’ If you think that's what the Apostle Paul is saying, you will resent him and you’ll become a hypocrite.

The Apostle Paul is saying, no, look…the true believer longs to live this way because God is like this. God is a truth-teller, Christ is a truth-teller, the Holy Spirit is a truth-teller. We want to be like our loving God who has saved us. And so the Apostle Paul in this passage is talking about conforming our desires to the reality of who we are in Jesus Christ, and that is a life-long fight and battle. It's so important for us to understand that, so that's the first thing that I want to emphasize.

The second thing is this: The very fact that the Apostle Paul is addressing these things is evidence that they are standing problems. You don't call your son or daughter in for a ‘little talk’ about a subject that isn't an issue with them. You call them in to have a ‘little talk’ about things that are standing issues in their lives. That's the same way the Bible is. The writers of the New Testament don't write to you about virtue or vice, about righteousness or sin, just because they decided to talk about some sort of airy-fairy abstraction that doesn't have anything to do with daily life. They are writing to us because these are standing issues in the Christian life, so be encouraged if you’re struggling in any of these areas, because that's why Paul's writing about them. He's not expecting Christians to be justified and entirely sanctified instantaneously and simultaneously. He knows that growth in the Christian life, growth in grace, growth in holiness, growth in sanctification, is a fight. And it's a process. And it's not easy.

And so, yes, he wants us to be different from the world, and he’ll use the strongest language in this passage to emphasize the difference between us and the world, but he is also dead realistic about the Christian life. So hear me loud and clear: Paul is not saying do these six things and you can be made right with God. The only way you can be made right with God is by righteousness inside of you…because, you know, the godliest Christian who ever lived didn't do these six things perfectly. That's why I love what Augustus Toplady titled his hymn that we sing all the time, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me. You know what his title for that hymn was? The Prayer of the Holiest Christian That Ever Lived. Now think about the words to Rock of Ages:

“Rock of ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee.”

You see, it's a confession that when we stand before God, if we're not hidden in the righteousness of Christ we don't stand a chance. Now, that's the prayer of the most sanctified Christian, the holiest Christian that ever lived. So the Apostle Paul knows that. He's not saying do these six things perfectly, or else; do these six things perfectly, and you can be justified. He's saying ‘Look, you've been made a new creation in Christ. You will increasingly desire to live out this reality, to live out this way of life. And it's vitally important that you do, and so I want to stress these areas.’

And, secondly, if you’re struggling in these areas, be encouraged. Two thousand years ago, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul knew that you would be struggling with these areas, and that's why he wrote about them.

Now — let's pray.

Lord, thank You for Your word. Help us to understand it and bring it home to us, we pray. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

”But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Parents, let me apologize at the outset. This is a PG-13 sermon! I'm going to try and do it in G, but it is a PG-13 sermon. But let me not apologize, because this is the word of God, and this is the Apostle Paul speaking to us about a subject of great importance.

Let me outline the passage for you and then make one more set of introductory remarks.

1. The Apostle Paul is here in the very first part of verse 3 going to explicitly address the issue of sexual immorality;

2. In the first part of verse 4, he's going to address the issue of coarse talk, or filthy and vulgar language regarding sexuality;

3. In the last part of verse 3 and in the middle part of verse 4, he is going to introduce the category of what is fitting for a Christian and what is not fitting for a Christian, and he is going to ask us always to have in mind that question when we're making decisions: “Is this fitting for a Christian to do or say, or is this not fitting for a Christian to do or say?” And very interestingly, he does not pause and give us a chapter on all that that entails. He assumes that we are going to have an inherent sense of what is fitting and not fitting for a Christian to do or say;

4. At the end of verse 4, he is going to contrast vulgar language and sexual immorality with a gospel thankfulness for the sacred gift of sexual relations within the context of a committed, permanent, monogamous, heterosexual relationship: marriage.

But before we look at those four things, let me just…Fair warning: I got through with “Point 1” with three minutes to go in the first service! Fair advertisement….

Before we do that, let me just give you one more bit of background about the passage. Have you noticed throughout these six life applications that Paul gives that over and over again he draws us back from self-centeredness, self-focus, self-preoccupation, concern for self-gratification, concern for ‘What's in it for me? What am I going to gain out of this?’ to be instead God-centered, church-centered, and other-focused. Let me explain that.

First of all, over against asking ‘What am I going to get out of this?’ or not even asking that, just doing things that instinctively gratify us or enhance us or give us pleasure, or simply serve our own interests, the Apostle Paul says no, we want to be God-centered in the way we live.

And notice how he does that: He points to each person in the Trinity, and in verse 1 of chapter 5, he says–what are you supposed to do? Copy God. Be like God the Father, he says.

In verse 2, and also in verses 25 down to verse 32 in chapter 4, he says learn Christ; in verse 30 of chapter 4, he says don't grieve the Holy Spirit. So that in our living he wants us to be God-centered in our agenda, that it is a conscious agenda on our part, and it becomes so much a part of our focus and purpose in life that it becomes an unconscious agenda that we are always seeking to glorify God in everything that we do; that we're God-centered, that our behavior and our talk has been so reoriented that the first question is not ‘What's in it for me?’ or ‘How am I going to be gratified by this?’ or ‘How am I going to be bettered by this?’ but ‘How is God going to be glorified?’

Secondly, notice he says that we're not to be self-centered, self-preoccupied, self-gratifying, but we are to be church-centered; that is, that we are to recognize that in all of our behavior, it has consequences and ramifications for the church. In this passage Paul has been concerned that we would be different from the world in these specific areas so that–what?–the church would be enhanced in its experience of the unity of the body of Christ.

The Apostle Paul says one of the marvelous things about God's grace is that it has brought together people who are really, really, different into one body, one fellowship, one family–the church–and they love one another and they express unity, even though they’re really different, because they are united to Jesus Christ, because they’re seeking the same kingdom, because they are saved by the same gospel, because the same Spirit, the same God, the same grace, is at work in them.

And the Apostle Paul says not doing the things which he calls us not to do in this passage is important for us to experience the unity that God wants us to experience; and doing the things he calls us to do in this passage are important for experiencing the unity we're supposed to experience in the family of God. And so in our ethics, in our behavior, in our speech, in our thoughts, we are to recognize that there is always a consequence, always a ramification for the whole body. What I do as an individual has a consequence for the church, and therefore my individual behavior must have at least as a component of it a question in my mind, a motivation in my purposes: Is this serving the best interest of the body of Christ? Is this edifying to the body of Christ?

And then finally, Paul says we're not only to be God-centered, we're not only to be church-centered, but we're to be other-focused in this sense: not that we get our approbation from others; not that we are ultimately judged by others (we're ultimately judged by God); but that in our motivation we have a desire to be a blessing to others, so that when I speak and when I act, one of the motivations that's always at hand, always in mind, is ‘Is what I am about to do going to serve well this other person? Is it going to contribute to his or her well-being? Is it going to contribute to their wholeness? Or, is what I'm about to do or say going to detract from them, rob them of their dignity as a man or a woman created in the image of God? Or is it going to cultivate their wellness, their wholeness?’

And this particular subject of sexual immorality is just one of six expressions of that same principle that is to be working out. Isn't it interesting? He goes right from living a life of sacrifice in imitation of Jesus Christ to the issue of self-indulgence in the area of sexual immorality. What a bold contrast of a life that is lived for God, for the church, and for others, and a self-indulgent, self-focused, self-gratifying, self-preoccupied life…a perfect example of what Paul is talking about in the whole section.

Well, let's look at the passage together in the time that we have today.

The first thing that Paul wants to say to us is simply this: Christian behavior is not to be characterized by sexual immorality, impurity, and coveting. Listen to what he says: “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you.”

The Ephesians lived in a very immorally sexualized society. I say “immorally sexualized society” because the two alternatives before us are not immoral sexuality or no sexuality. The two alternatives held out before us in the Scripture are a godly view and practice of sex and an ungodly immoral view and practice of sex.

And the Apostle Paul in this passage is not going to say ‘Sex is bad. We shouldn't think about it or talk about it. And, when we do it in the context of marriage, we ought to feel guilty about it.’ That's not what the Apostle Paul says. But he is very concerned about immoral sexuality, and the Ephesians lived in a culture that was exceedingly immoral. The goddess who was the favorite of the Ephesians was Diana. Ephesus was the center of Diana (or Artemis) worship, and it very often involved ritual sexual activity…just like when Moses and the prophets spoke to the children of Israel about the Baal worshipers around them, that their very worship involved sexual immorality with temple prostitutes. And the Apostle Paul knows that the Ephesian Christians, having grown up in this environment of sexual immorality, may be tempted to it.

Well, let me tell you something, friends: If the Ephesian Christians could be here today in Jackson, Mississippi…if the Ephesian pagans could be here today in Jackson, Mississippi…they would blush. Because society is immorally sexualized in a way and with a pervasiveness that outstrips anything in human history.

I was telling some friends this morning that when I was 15, you had to go looking for trouble in this area; now trouble comes looking for you, and it comes looking for you before you turn 15.

Now let me zero in on just a few things. I need a month to do this adequately, but let me just zero in on a few things.

Obviously, the first thing that Paul is saying is that there should not be infidelity, adultery, and fornication in the Christian church. That's not what we're called to live like. And that's a standing problem for us. The very first couple of months that I was here as your pastor at First Presbyterian Church, almost ten years now…it doesn't seem like that long to me, maybe it seems longer to you! But just ten years ago I had a wonderful (and I really mean that)…a wonderful couple, two true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, come to my office because a husband had had an affair: some business travel, and he had been unfaithful. In God's mercy that couple is together today. They’re not in this congregation, they've moved away. They love one another, they love the Lord, but I cannot tell you the pain that that infidelity cost the both of them.

That is not just a problem that men face. Increasingly that is a problem for women in our culture: infidelity. And the Apostle Paul is saying our behavior is not to be characterized like that in the Christian church, and our behavior as individuals in that area has ramifications for the whole church. You can't do that — not only without harming your marriage or your future marriage, but without harming the whole congregation. So it's our business when any part of the body is unfaithful in that area. So I want to urge you, my friends: husband and wives, become allies in that area. If there has been infidelity in that area, you must become allies in the fight for holiness and joy in that area, and you need to seek out whatever help you need. If you need to come to the pastors, we are ready, willing, and able to help, and to point you in other directions where you can get help. But this is a fight that must be fought.

The second area that I want to address is the area of other sexual immoralities. It's interesting that Paul uses the term sexual immorality here, which especially addresses adultery and fornication and other physical acts of sin; but he also uses the terminology impurity. That is the Old Testament word uncleanness. Moses used it all the time, and it is a general category term that covers all manner of sexual impurity, and in that context we have to address the issue of internet pornography, because it is a huge battle in our culture today.

I'm about to quote from an article by our friend Al Mohler, and he says:

“The statistics are truly frightening. According to industry studies, 70% percent of 18-24 year old men visit pornographic sites in a typical month. These young men represent something like one-fourth of all visitors to pornographic sites on the internet. The next largest group of users are young men in their 20's and 30's, 66% of whom report being regular users of pornography. The appeal of pornography to teenage boys and young men is clear: highly interested in sex, young males find their way into patterns of sexual excitement and arousal by being introduced to what, for most boys, are soft-core pornographic images — at least at first. Before long, pornography becomes a sexual whirlpool, pulling users deeper and deeper into habits and more and more extreme versions of pornography. The pornography industry understands that pornographic images desensitize viewers over time, and therefore regular users of pornography, especially on the internet, fuel their patterns of arousal and sexual excitement by expanding their menu of pornographic subjects and images.

“Today the average teenage boy is likely to have seen thousands of explicit sexual images, ranging across the spectrum of sexualities and perversions. Many of these boys and young men are driven by sexual fantasies that previous generations of young men would not have even known existed. In the language of contemporary academic jargon, the transgressive has become the normative. [You know, you look for a boundary and you try and transgress it, to shock, to titillate. Well, that's become normal now.] Every bizarre, perverted behavior known to man is now depicted in these forms. The economic incentives are a big part of the pornography industry. Today Americans rent more than 800 million pornographic videos and DVD's every year. About 20% of all video rentals are pornographic. At least 11,000 pornographic videos are produced annually, amounting to revenue for the adult film industry estimated at between 5 and 10 billion dollars a year [and that estimate is three years old].”

Seventy percent…all you have to do is look around the room. All you have to do is look around the room…and let's assume that we're far more holy than the culture around us (a dangerous assumption in this area) and you see men and women that are struggling in this area. And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Christians, immorality and impurity [and in this context, greed, I think probably refers to sexual covetousness or the sort that's spoken about in the Tenth Commandment: “Don't covet your neighbor's wife”] should not even be named among you.’

Now, the answer to this, my friends, is not to say ‘Oh, no! I'm not supposed to be doing this, so I'd better pretend like I don't have a problem in this area.’ That is not what Paul is after. What Paul is after is allies in the fight for joy, the fight for godliness, the fight for holiness, who will help one another. And that means, women, you need to help us men first in the area of modesty.

Secondly, it means, wives, you need to help your husbands in this area. You do not need to be the judge, jury and executioner. You don't need to be the prosecuting attorney. You need to be an ally with your husband in this area.

Husbands, it means there have got to be internet filters. That's a non-negotiable. Secondly, it means that there's no computer that your wife doesn't have access to and all the passwords to; three, that the histories are never erased, and that you teach your wife how she can go back and look at the history of where you've been; four, that you confess to her your struggles, and you seek for her to be your ally; and it also means, dear Christian wives, that the area of sexual relations and the area of your husband's temptations in sexual relations has got to be an issue of your emphasis. You can't ask your husband to climb Mt. Everest to get any kind of reaction from you in the area of either his dealing with challenges and temptations or of the appropriate expression of sexual life within the context of a Christian marriage. You have got to become an ally.

And, young people, sexual activity is younger than ever before. We know that. The statistics tell it to us. You know, we see it in the way you dress and in the way you talk. You may think we don't see it, but we see it in the way you dress and in the way you talk. All you have to do is look on Facebook or MySpace and find what maybe our young people don't even realize is sexualized language and attitudes and pictures and conduct. And it's happening younger and younger — sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade. We know about this, young people! This is not something that we're blind to. And we're on your side, but you've got to get in the fight with us.

And this means that husbands need to talk with wives, and wives need to talk to husbands, and beg one another to be allies in this. And parents need to talk to children, and children to parents, and beg one another to be allies in this, because Paul is deadly serious about this. He knows that sexual immorality always does three things:

One, it destroys the joy that God intends for the fullness of enjoyment in the context of marital sexual relations.

Look, every type of sexual expression outside the context of a committed, monogamous, heterosexual, marriage detracts from the joy and the intimacy that can be enjoyed, and only enjoyed, there. Every kind! So what you’re doing before you’re married or outside the bonds of marriage will rob you of joy and bring you much pain.

You see, it's one of the glorious things, isn't it, that God's glory is intimately and inseparably connected to our well-being, and so when the Apostle Paul says to you “I don't want this to even be named among you” he's not being a prude: he's in a fight for joy with you. He does not want God's glory to be robbed; he doesn't want your joy to be robbed. And he knows that this is one of the areas where it can happen.

So that's the first thing: that Paul is in a fight for joy. He's not got some sort of prudish, Victorian view of sexual relations. (He proves that, by the way, at the end of verse 4. We’ll come back to that in the last thirty seconds of the message.)

Secondly, it means that we have got to commit ourselves, young people, to purity in this area.

This is serious business. I did not see a piece of pornography until I was 15. I can still tell you where I was when I saw it. I was sitting in a chair in May Pickett's Boarding House, six blocks from the Capitol of the United States of America in Washington, D.C. And a friend had gone to Mr. T's (which was a combination quick-stop and greasy spoon) and picked up copies of Playboy magazine. It was two years later before I saw pornography again, this time at the place where I worked, because my bosses were womanizers and perverts, and they had it everywhere.

But the point is I was 15 years old before I had seen it, and it was two years later before I saw it again. And in neither case had I gone looking for it. Today it comes to you. You can see it on your Blackberry, or your TriO, you can see it on your laptop, you can listen to it on the phone, you can store it on your computer. You don't have to go anywhere; it comes to you. We've got to deal with that particular reality, and recognize that one thing that pornography does is it makes us to view women (men, I'm speaking to you especially) as objects for our gratification rather than sisters in Christ, human beings created in the image of God.

A dear and godly pastor in this town said to me 14 years ago when he first came to town that he had covenanted in his heart that he would love his sisters in Christ, but he would take no pleasure in them. Now, by that he didn't mean he didn't enjoy fellowship with them, that he didn't enjoy godly conversation with them, that he didn't have great esteem and affection and love for his sisters in Christ. He loved to talk to them and edify them in the faith. He meant this: that he was not going to use women as objects to gratify himself with regard to pleasure. But pornography encourages men to think about women that way.

If you’re locked in that habit, just ask yourself ‘What if that were my daughter…would I want my daughter to be treated that way?’

Pornography also robs us of moral fiber, because we carry around guilt, and therefore we are not ready to stand up strong when God's standards are being challenged in our homes, our churches, and in the world. It robs us of moral fiber and backbone, because we're carrying around in ourselves this word from Satan: ‘You hypocrite! You are consumed with immorality! How dare you call anything else immorality out there?’

I wish I could go on, my friends. The Apostle Paul knows what he's talking about. (This time I didn't even get to three minutes before the end of the sermon with Point 1.)

But now this, secondly: He goes on to say that this applies to our area of conversation. Christian conversation is not to be vulgar. “There must be no filthiness or silly talk or coarse jesting.” The Apostle Paul says even in the way we talk, we're not to make light of sex or make it something dirty and vulgar. No, we're to have a view that sex is a glorious, sacred gift of God! It's to be celebrated! God's to be thanked for it! It's not something that's tawdry and petty and filthy. And so our language is not to be vulgar.

Indeed, he says in verses 3 and 4 that in our conversation and in our behavior we're always to be asking the question ‘Is this fitting for a Christian? What I'm about to do, is it fitting for a Christian?’

When you’re in a car with a young woman, or you’re at a party with a young woman or a young man, are you asking yourself ‘Is this fitting for a Christian, or is this not fitting for a Christian?’

Ann's pastor in Columbia, South Carolina, Glen Kencht, used to send all of his daughters on dates with these final words to the young man: “Now, just remember that wherever you go, Jesus will be right there between the two of you!” Whoo! Is it fitting or not fitting, what you’re about to do, or what you’re about to say?

And then finally, notice what Paul wants to cultivate in us in this area of sexuality: Christians, instead of being sexually immoral and vulgar, and to instead —to not think about sex? To think that sex is bad, a necessary evil? — no, that's not what he says. What does Paul say? End of verse 4: “But rather giving of thanks.”

The Apostle Paul says this gift of God is too good to be sullied by immorality and vulgarity. No, you ought to be down on your knees giving thanks to God for this gift! It ought to be something that's celebrated — by the way, Christian women, that's so important for you to ingrain. You know, if you've been fighting against the culture and you've been saying all along ‘No, I'm not going to do that, I'm not going to do that, I'm not going to do that…” it can sometimes become hard to embrace the beauty and the glory of the fullness of uninhibited pure sexual expression in marriage that ought to be there. That's why the Apostle Paul is saying we ought to give thanks for this. This is a gift of God. When sexual relationship is expressed within context of a committed, monogamous, heterosexual marriage, it glorifies God! God is glorified!

And so the Apostle Paul says we are to be different.

I don't know of any sin today in which there is a greater challenge to be different than in the whole arena of sexual immorality, because of the kind of culture that we live in. But the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says ‘Christians, we are to be different in this area. Radically different!” And that means, young men and young women, husbands and wives, grandparents…all of us need to band together and be allies for the glory of God in this area.

If you’re struggling with this, you need to confess your sins, and you need to come to someone who is ready to help: the pastors — we're here. When you come to us wrestling with this, we're not going to look at you like you have three heads and a tail. We’re men, too. Your elders aren't going to look at you like you’re crazy. They’re men, too. We’re here to encourage you in this fight for joy with the Apostle Paul.

Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. We ask that You would help us. We ask that You would help us to glorify You even in the way we talk about and express this sacred gift of sex, and we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Let's sing the first stanza of May the Mind of Christ, My Savior and listen closely to the words as you sing them.