This article is part three of a three-part series answering frequently asked questions about the sermon “Leaving the Darkness Behind” from Ephesians 4:17-19. The first two articles can be found here and here.
Question 3: Since we are all sinners, is it loving to call out certain groups of sinners or speak in a way that presents believers and unbelievers as “us vs. them?”
I understand the heart behind this question that is concerned not to look condescendingly on others or to have a self-righteous spirit. I completely agree that Christians should never think of ourselves as better than anyone else. We of all people should most recognize our sinfulness and our need of God’s grace. Apart from the grace of God, we all would be hopelessly condemned because of our rebellion against God.
With that foundation, we also see that God has made a distinction between His people and the world. This distinction is clearly delineated in Ephesians 4:17, where we are told not to walk like the Gentiles. From this statement, we see two things clearly.
First, we see that as believers we are not to be like the world. Although we are still sinners, our sin does not define us. We are called to a life of obedience to Christ. That means that we should look at the world and determine not to imitate the way they live or think, as Ephesians 4:17 commands. The reason for not imitating the world is not because we look down on the world or see them as the enemy, but because God has called us to holiness. To be holy demands that we are unlike the world. It demands there be a distinction between us and them. This distinction between the church and the world is not artificial or manmade; it is a distinction God Himself has made.
Second, Ephesians 4:17 reminds us that we used to be unbelievers. Paul says that we are to walk no longer as the Gentiles walk. We too formerly lived meaningless, lifeless, and godless lives before God intervened and saved us by His grace. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:1-3, we were dead in our trespasses and sins and formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh. The only reason that is no longer the case is because of the grace, mercy, and love of God toward us. We have nothing to boast about above the world because our only boast is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14).
When Paul tells us not to live like the world, he reminds us to be humble as we think about our relationship to the world. We must not become puffed up or proud of any supposed spiritual accomplishments. God’s grace has saved us, and we no longer walk like the world because of what God has done for us in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-10).
But what about calling out certain groups of sinners, like homosexuals? Aren’t we all sinners in the same situation?
Apart from Christ we are all sinners in need of redemption. There is also the ever-present danger of harping on the sins of others while overlooking our own (see Matthew 7:3-5). We always want to be sure that we are confessing and forsaking the sin in our own lives and not using the sins of others to justify ourselves.
In addition to that, we also need to recognize that the Bible does identify certain sins as indicators of God’s judgment on people, especially the sin of homosexual practices and other sexual sins that degrade the body. In Ephesians 4:17-19 Paul specifically identifies sexual sins as characteristic of God’s judgment on hard-hearted sinners by using words like sensuality and impurity. He could have mentioned things like stealing, gossiping, lying, or any number of other sins that are common in our fallen world, but he didn’t.
The reason Paul focuses on sexual sin as a sign of divine judgment is because there is something uniquely evil about sexual perversion. In 1 Corinthians 6:18 Paul says that sexual immorality is unique because through sexual sin we sin against our own bodies, which are designed to be the temple of God.
Furthermore, in Romans 1:18-27 Paul specifically identifies God’s judgment as God giving people over to defiling their bodies, which speaks of sexual sin. The “degrading passions” of which Paul speaks are specifically identified as homosexual behaviors (Romans 1:26-27). He says that women and men have abandoned the natural function for what is unnatural, which is a clear reference to women having sexual relations with women and men with men. Romans 1:28-32 identifies all kinds of iniquities that flow out of a depraved mind, but the clearest example of God’s judgment on people is homosexuality. This is because homosexuality exchanges the natural function for what is unnatural (Romans 1:26), just as idolatry exchanges the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25). Only after Paul has specifically identified this degrading passion as a sign of divine wrath does he then go on to list all the other sins that flow out of a depraved mind. Scripture makes a clear connection between God’s wrath and the practice of sexually perverse acts, especially homosexuality.
Once again, we must assert that we are not the ones identifying homosexuality this way; God has identified it as such in His Word. It’s not that we have animosity toward homosexuals or that we are saying they are without hope of forgiveness and salvation; it’s that we are seeking to be faithful to what Scripture says about sin, idolatry, sexual immorality, and judgment. Our hope, prayer, and desire is that all sinners, regardless of their particular vices, would repent and find forgiveness through faith in Christ.
Because we have this desire to see sinners find forgiveness in Christ, we must especially bring God’s Word to bear on areas of life that God identifies as sin but the world deems acceptable or even praiseworthy. We live in a time when our society is seeking to justify, even glorify, homosexuality and other sexual perversions.
However, not only is society at large approving of what God condemns, but we see the visible church often compromising on this significant doctrine. Because the visible church is in a state of confusion over these truths out of a desire to appear loving to a godless culture, those who sincerely love Christ and His Word must proclaim clearly what God says about these issues in particular. These are the significant issues of our moment, and if we want to be faithful in this moment, we must have a humble boldness that does not yield an inch to the devil, especially on the ground he is fighting hardest to take. Faithful soldiers fight the fiercest where the battle rages the hottest and, whether we like it or not, issues of sexuality are where the battle is raging right now.
The message of forgiveness in Christ brought the sermon to its climax and conclusion. The way of life for the unbeliever is a meaningless, lifeless, godless existence, but there is hope in Christ. For people to understand this hope they must understand the problem, and the problem is their sin has cut them off from God so that they are under His divine and holy wrath. The gospel offers forgiveness and eternal life. The gospel gives meaning to everything done under the sun. The gospel transforms the godless into the godly by the grace of God. Jesus came to be the Savior of the world, and the world must hear the truth: it needs to be saved from sin, and salvation from sin is found in Christ alone.