Christians must Avoid completely and entirely Evils by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Darkness and Light” published in 1982.
`But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.’ Ephesians 5:3-5
Thus far, we have considered these solemn words in a general sense. We must now look at them in more detail. As the Apostle himself follows this procedure we must also do so, however painful a process it may be. While the Christian must never be content merely with grasping principles, yet he must start with principles. Much of the trouble in the Church today is undeniably due to the fact that people do not grasp principles; they miss the wood because of the trees. On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to be concerned with principles only. We are meant first to grasp the principles, and then we are meant to apply them in detail to every action and aspect of our Christian life and living. Notice how the Apostle comes down to details and covers the whole of life.
We must never lose sight of the fact that the ultimate object of Christianity is that we should be holy, and that we should walk before God blameless, in love. That is the end and the object of the Christian faith, it is to prepare us to walk before God in this world and to spend our eternity in the presence of God. And if we lose sight of that, well then, our Christianity so-called is utterly and entirely in vain. And what the Apostle is doing in this great section is to show these people how they are to become holy and to walk before God in love, in holiness and in purity.
There are certain things which as Christians we are to avoid and to renounce completely; we are to have nothing to do with them. What are they? Read again this terrible list, and remember that the Apostle was not trying to reform the world; he was writing to Christians. These words are addressed to members of the church at Ephesus, and other churches. They are not general, moral advice to the world outside, but words addressed to Christians; and therefore we deduce that Christians need such words to be addressed to them. And God knows that this is still the case. So this is not, I say, the church’s general moral programme in which she can join with the world and the State in trying to clean up society. Not a bit of it! This is addressed to the church. And these are the things which we are told that Christians must renounce and avoid completely and entirely. Most of the Apostle’s words explain themselves, but some of them need a little comment. First and foremost, `fornication, and all uncleanness’. Every form, every type, every suggestion of it is to be avoided—`uncleanness’. We are to have nothing to do with it. Not only the specific thing itself but alluncleanness. We must work that out for ourselves. How prone we are at times to think that things done in the mind are not as bad as things done in actual practice; but all uncleanness, every form and type of it, is to be banished out of our lives.
Then we come to the next, which is covetousness. This means, of course, avarice, love of money; love of money as money; love of money partly for itself and partly because of what it can do for us, the things we can buy with money, the things we can procure with money, the things we can do if we have got money—in fact the love of all that money can do and achieve—that is what Paul is condemning under the word covetousness. We are to have nothing to do with it, we are to leave it alone; it belongs, he says, to the old life, but has nothing to do with the Christian life. Covetousness!
The next word is filthiness. This includes obscenity, anything that is obscene in speech. But it does not stop at that, it includes everything that is vile or disgusting in conduct also. And it is a good word that the Authorised translators have used here. How expressive it is!—filthiness! We are to have nothing to do with anything that is shameless and ugly and polluted—filthiness! It does not belong at all, says the Apostle, to the Christian life.
Then we come to foolish talking. This means empty, frivolous, senseless, thoughtless, foolish and sinful talk and speech. It is interesting to notice that Paul lists this with other things that are foul and revolting; he puts them into the same list. Empty, thoughtless chatter, babbling, he says, does not belong to the Christian life either. The Christian’s talk must never be empty, senseless, frivolous; a Christian man should never be a frivolous person, nor should he speak in a frivolous, light, vapid, empty manner. It is typical of the life of the world, but it has got nothing to do with the Christian life. I must emphasise here the aspect of taking thought. The life of the Christian should be characterised by this element of thoughtfulness. And this not only applies to our speaking but even to our singing. `Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty’. We do not jig, we do not rush, such words as that. The difference between Christian and non-Christian singing, in a sense, is the element of thoughtfulness. We do not sing tunes, we sing the words! Let Christian singing be bright, certainly, but never breezy, never jaunty! And then the Apostle introduces the word jesting, that is to say, clever, polished, witty talk which has a harmful and sinful tendency. The original word has got the idea of turning in it—the turning of a phrase, the clever, sophisticated, witty, polished shafts which such people throw out, or any double meaning, any suggestiveness, anything which is ribald or scurrilous, in any sense. And that again, he says, should have no place in the Christian life, but must be banished altogether—foolish talking and jesting, which are not convenient’. And again, in the fifth verse we find another terrible collection of words: whoremonger, unclean person, with a second mention of covetousness.
It is no part of the business of Christian preaching to spend too much time upon them; it surely should be enough for Christian people to mention them and to make certain that they are clear in their minds as to what they mean and represent, and what they stand for. The Apostle really is saying that these are the things that characterise non-Christian society and this is only too accurate a description of the life of pagans in the time of the Apostle. But these Ephesian Christians had been brought out of that sort of life; they had been translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, and Paul is virtually saying to them, You cannot bring these evil things into Christ’s kingdom; His kingdom is altogether different; He died to `purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.’ Have nothing to do with these evil things any longer, they belong to the kind of life that is lived where the Gospel and its teaching are not in control.
But is it necessary for me to point out that the evils listed in our Epistle are becoming increasingly evident in the life of our country today? They are becoming more and more evident and prominent in the life of non-Christian people in every class, in the professions, in all circles of society. I remember as a young man being shocked at the kind of thing that could happen among learned men even in professional circles; the type of story that was told; one did not expect it from such people, but one got it! And it is still taking place! And I am sorry to add that foolish talking and jesting seem to be coming more and more into Christian work. Why should it be regarded as an excellent bit of technique for a speaker on a Christian platform to start with a joke? But this is the sort of thing that is coming in increasingly. And very often a story is told which has not the remotest connection with the Gospel, but it is told simply (as we are told) to make contact with the congregation! I once took part in an anniversary service in a certain part of this country. There were about eighteen hundred people present, and I had to sit and listen to the first speaker who—and I do not exaggerate—for a quarter of an hour simply told the people a number of stories. I could not see the remotest Christian application in any one of them, and indeed he did not even try to apply them. And the people were roaring with laughter, greatly enjoying themselves. But entertainment has got nothing to do with the Christian life or with the activities of the Christian church. Foolish talking and jesting have no place in the Christian life, and in Christian conduct, and among Christian people. They do not belong to Christianity. Even if you left out that which was grossly offensive, you would still be using the same terminology, the same kind of technique. Christians do not tell stories to one another; they have something much better to say to one another. That is what the Apostle is saying.
How then are we to avoid these evil things? The Apostle tells us. First of all he plainly tells us that we are not to do them. But he does not stop at that; he says, `Let it not be once named among you’. You must not even mention it! You must not hint at it. You must not come anywhere near to approaching it. Not only must you not do these things, says the Apostle, do not talk about them, do not mention them, they are unmentionable, they should not come in at all in any shape or form, either in your speech or even in your thought.
Again, we have got to work this out in terms of our own modern position. The Apostle was writing in an age when they did not have daily newspapers or radio, or films, television and all the rest of it. In those days men were confined to speech in this matter of propagating unworthy ideas, and those ideas which lead to sinful action in practice. So Paul puts it in these terms, `Let it not be once named among you’, do not mention it! never introduce it in any shape or form! But now we have got to work this out in a greatly different context. And if it was difficult for Christian people in the first century of our era, what is it like now? There is a sense in which it is true to say that it was never more difficult to live the Christian life in its fulness than it is today. I do not mean that people are now more sinful, for they were committing all these sins long ago, but what I mean is, that the Christian is surrounded by incitements to engage in sin in a multiplicity of ways, whereas in days of old speech alone was chiefly involved.
The principle laid down by the Apostle is that we are to avoid in every shape and form anything that in any way is likely to draw us to do any one of these things—fornication, uncleanness, and all the rest of them. The whole art, the whole strategy, of Christian living is to keep watch against temptation at the beginning. If you allow temptation to get the slightest foothold in your mind, you will soon be overcome. It is the preliminary onslaught that must be met; that is why Paul says, `Let it not be once named among you’. If you want to stop doing these things, he says, stop talking about them. If you watch the beginning, then you will not have so much trouble. We are to keep clear of everything and anything that in any way does us harm and tends to incline us in the direction of things that do not belong to the Christian life. And in these modern times we shall be fighting all along the line, from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night; for the whole world is shouting these things at us. It does so in its newspapers. And you start with your newspaper in the morning, perhaps at the breakfast table. `Let it not be once named among you’, says Paul; yes, but it will be named, on the front page probably. It is essential to read your newspaper with discrimination, and to leave certain things unread. You wish to be abreast of the news, and to be an intelligent citizen; you also read your newspaper so that you can vote intelligently. But as you read, you must avoid, avert, keep yourself to the things that matter and avoid all others. Magazines likewise! You look at a railway bookstall, and you will see them! and you note their suggestiveness! You watch people buying them, magazines that by their very title tell you what they are. For Men Only! Why for men only? Obviously there is something wrong there. Then, the photographs and the advertisements! Avoid them, says Paul, have nothing to do with them, turn your eyes away. Plays! Films! Things that come over on the radio and television! the foolish talking, the jesting, the cleverness, the suggestion, the innuendo!
Do you want to make the fight more difficult for yourself? Do you think you really can stand up to the devil and to the lusts that are within you? Is it not better for you to do what the Apostle commands at the end of the thirteenth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans: `Make no provision for the flesh’? If you look at things and read things that you know to be evil, you are making provision for the flesh. Do not be surprised, therefore, if you fall. Have nothing to do with them. Let them not be so much as once named among you! Nip them in the bud, stop at the beginning, do not have any interest at all in them. And what of the books, the novels, and even the biographies? Biographies are being increasingly published one after another, in which revolting details are being revealed which are of no value and of no uplift to anybody at all. There is a delight at the present time in pornography, and people are attracted to the unsavoury and unseemly. What the Apostle is really urging is the turning away from evil in toto. If there is a suspicion of a lack of cleanliness in a book or article, do not read it, you can do without the knowledge and the information. Oh! you say, but I am a student of sociology, I am interested in this and that. Then give up your interest, I say. To the pure all things are pure, but if you are not pure even good things can become bad. The whole emphasis of the Apostle is that we must have nothing to do with evil things, let them not even be named once among you, as becometh saints; keep as far away as you can from them all.
The Apostle next proceeds to tell us how to do this positively; he is not content to give us the negative only. He says, `Let it not be once named among you; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient, but rather’—here is the positive, what we are to do—`giving of thanks’. This he elaborates later in the chapter (in verses 19 and 20), where he says, `Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’. We shall look at these verses later. Meanwhile I remind you again that the Apostle is here dealing with what should prevail among Christian people in Christian circles. He is not telling us here how we are to talk and conduct ourselves with non-Christians, but in the church of God. And he stresses that we are to give thanks, even as he does in his Epistle to the Thessalonians—`In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
The command has a wide application. The Christian is not to be dull! And if you draw the conclusion from what I have already been saying that I am advocating a kind of dull, mechanical life, you are very much mistaken. The Christian is not to be a dull and a morbid and an uninteresting person, not for a moment! He is never to be guilty of jesting and smartness and cleverness, but that does not mean that he has got to be dull or pompous or uninteresting. Not at all! The Christian is a person who is to be giving thanks! He is to express joy and happiness in his life, for he is one who has got a profound sense of gratitude to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ within him, and is a man who wants to be giving thanks! So we must get rid of all notions of dulness. That is where a false Puritanism has so frequently done harm. There are people who have interpreted this kind of injunction in an entirely negative manner; their lives are negative; they avoid doing wrong things, it is true, but they are useless, they are of no value to anybody; they repel people from the Christian faith. The true Christian life is never a dull life. Giving thanks! says Paul. Joy is to be evident in the life of the Christian. It should show itself in his conversation, in his speech, and in all his deportment.
But, you may say, How are we to do this? Here again I must start with a negative. There are people who immediately interpret what I have just been saying by putting on a breeziness and a brightness. God forbid that we should ever do that! It is as bad as the dulness of your false Puritan. We must never put on anything. A joyful deportment must express itself in us because we are Christians. It is not to put on an inane grin and to be a bright and breezy and cheerful, backslapping kind of person. I cannot imagine the Apostle Paul doing a thing like that. Neither, let us remember, does it mean that we use glib catch phrases and cliches. There is a type of person who, in conversation, keeps on interjecting the words, Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! thinking that by so doing, he is obeying the injunction: `But rather giving of thanks’. But that is not what is meant by giving of thanks! Not catch phrases, not cliches, not the expressions which come lightly off the lips! It is rather something profound that is in the mind of the Apostle here, something that expresses the depth of being and of personality. And a man is not conscious of it, he does not do it by rote, or mechanically! It is the result of a change of heart, it is the new nature expressing itself, it is an evidence of life `more abundant’.
The Apostle, it seems to me, interprets this statement of his own very perfectly in the last chapter of his Epistle to the Colossians, where he says: `Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man’ (4:6). A Christian’s speech is to be always with grace; and it is seasoned with salt that keeps the polluting element out of it. The speech of the non-Christian is characterised by thoughtlessness, like a bubble, but the Christian’s speech is thoughtful and profitable to others. People should always feel somewhat better from having spoken to us. They should have gathered something: not only positive instruction, but the coming into contact with us ought to do them good, and to make them feel better. There is something solid about the Christian in his conversation and in the whole of his life and activity.
I will go further. I find nothing here which excludes even an element of humour in the conversation of the Christian. But it is always, of course, a humour that is under control. It is never foolish talking, it is never jesting. The humour of the Christian is that which is natural, which is inevitable in the man. The Christian is never a man who tries to be funny; that is the thing that must go right out. He never does it simply in order to impress us, to call attention to himself, to cut a figure, or to be the centre of interest in a conversation, never! Nor does he monopolise the conversation. The better the Christian the better he is as a listener. If God has given him a gift of humour, let him use it, let it come out naturally; but it will always be controlled, it will never be ribald, never be scurrilous, it will never do harm to anybody; there will be a kind of beauty about it which will be of value and uplifting.
Thus the Christian is a man who is always to be giving thanks, in appearance, demeanour, deportment, conversation, speech; he always remembers who he is and what he is; he always realises that he is what he is by the grace of God; he is always conscious that he has been delivered from his old evil, foolish life, the life of the world with its glamour and its emptiness, and he thanks God he has been taken out of it. He does not want anything more to do with it. His new life is not the old life with a few bad things left out of it. I regret to have to say it, but whenever I hear certain Christians speak in public or in private I am still made to think that in their old lives they would have made excellent comedians. And I feel that that should never be true of a Christian. The same kind of thing, the same sort of phrase, the same sort of attitude! They have cut out certain parts of it, but the main thing is still there! It should not be so with the Christian; he is a new man, and he knows that he has been delivered from `the old man’ at the cost of the death of the Son of God; he owes all to God and to Christ, and this should dominate the whole of his life and come out in all he says and does. We are all failures, we are all miserable sinners in these matters, are we not? But realise what we should be, says the Apostle. Let the things of the Spirit of God characterise our lives, so that as people come and talk to us they find something attractive about us, something clean and pure, something uplifting, intelligent, thoughtful and profitable; let them feel that there is an element of praise in your whole life, which causes them to say, What do they find to praise God about? where do they find it in a world like this? would that I were like that!
In the next place, notice that the Apostle is very much concerned about the question of covetousness, for he mentions it twice; and the Christian is to deal with this positively also. The love of money, Paul tells Timothy later, is the root of all evil. But the term `covetousness’ includes more than money; it also includes what money can achieve and produce, and if a man loves money in that way, it is not surprising if he makes shipwreck of his life. It is the root of all evil. The way to avoid this particular snare and danger is to put your money to right use! Give thanks to God through your money; show your gratitude to Him by supporting everything that belongs to Him and His Kingdom. If you feel that this thing is worrying you, kill it by giving the money in a right cause. I am not saying that a man should give away all his money, the New Testament does not say that. But it tells us that we are stewards of our possessions. A steward is not a man who gives everything away, but a man who uses it in the right way and does not put it to a wrong use. Were he to give it all away, he would not be a steward, for there would be nothing left to look after. The way to kill covetousness is to use our possessions to the glory of God as an expression of our thanksgiving and praise to God for all that He has done to us, for His sending of His dear Son to die for us and to deliver us out of that old life that was so foul and so evil, so superficial, so useless, the life of the world.
Furthermore, notice how the Apostle introduces the word `saints‘ into his appeal. `Fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints’! Christians are saints! . . . . Every Christian is a saint. The Epistles are addressed to `the saints at Corinth’, saints in all the churches. `As becometh saints‘, says Paul to all the members of the church at Ephesus. . . . . But what is a saint? He is a holy person, one that has been set on one side by God for His own pleasure and for His own use. We find the same word in the Old Testament. In Exodus and Leviticus and elsewhere we read about the vessels that were to be placed in the tabernacle and on the altar; they were called holy vessels,that is to say, they were not to be used for ordinary cooking or ordinary eating and drinking, but were set apart for a particular purpose and for God’s own use. And the same thing is true of Christians. That is what a saint is, and you and I are saints. We have seen already that Christians are dearly beloved children of God, yes, and saints for that reason, God’s own peculiar possession, those whom He has set apart for Himself, for His own delight and pleasure. And every true Christian is a saint! Remember who you are, says the Apostle. Remind yourself of it the first thing in the morning, say it as you are travelling to your office or your work in your car, or in the `tube’, or on the bus. If you are walking or cycling, say to yourself, I am a saint, I am a separated person, I am in the world but I am not of it, and there are certain things, therefore, which I must never do or even dream of doing.
Still further stress is supplied by the two expressions—`as
becometh saints’, and `which are not convenient’. Paul is saying that certain things do not become the saint, they are not befitting, they are not seemly. And here again the figure that is in his mind is one that is perfectly familiar to us all. There are some people who do not dress in a manner that is appropriate to their age or condition. If you saw a very old lady dressed as if she were twenty, you would say, It is not becoming! Certain things go together, certain things do not—Does that match the other thing? Is there a clash in those colours? Does the attire fit the occasion? `As becometh’! Paul is using an illustration from the world of dress, and he says, We all know that some things do not become the Christian, they do not fit in with his profession, they are,‘not convenient’, they are not suitable. The man of the world watches a Christian going into a place he should not enter, and he says, Do you see what that Christian man is doing? And even the man of the world is shocked and amazed. Even the man of the world recognises the hypocrite, he knows that a certain kind of conduct does not fit with a true Christian profession. Let us all take note! As becomethsaints!
And then the Apostle proceeds to condemn covetousness because it is idolatry. And there is no more terrible sin than idolatry. It means that you make a god of something, and you worship it. But covetousness is idolatry. The New Testament tells us so time and again. It does not matter what it is, anything that you and I tend to set up as the big thing, the central thing, in our lives, the thing about which we think and dream, the thing that engages our imagination, the thing that we live for, the thing that gives us the biggest thrill; if it is anything other than GOD, it is idolatry. And it is for every one of us to examine ourselves. Some people worship money, what it can do and what it can bring and get; some people worship status and position; others, their own brains and ability; still others, their own good looks. It is idolatry. And it is the ultimate sin. We are meant to worship GOD and to worship Him alone. There is but one God and He recognises none other. God forbid that any one of us should be worshipping or giving ourselves to anybody or anything save the only true and living GOD!
Let us ever remember that we are saints, set apart for God, meant to live to Him and His glory, to worship and to praise Him alone; and remembering it, let us realise that certain things are incompatible with Christianity, that we are to renounce them for ever, avoid them and evade them in every way conceivable, and positively live a life which is a constant expression of thanksgiving unto God, who has had mercy upon us and who, while we were yet sinners and enemies, ungodly and vile, gave His only begotten Son even unto the death of the cross, that we might be rescued and redeemed and have a share in His own eternal inheritance. [320-341]