(Eph. 5:5-6) Is Paul teaching works here?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6). Does this passage teach that Christians will be sent to hell for living an immoral lifestyle?

RESPONSE: The key to understanding Paul’s statement is to understand our identity in Christ, which Paul has been expounding throughout this letter. As Paul has already labored to explain, believers in Jesus have been sealed with the Spirit (Eph. 1:13), possess an inheritance in the kingdom (Eph. 1:14; Col. 1:13), received forgiveness (Eph. 1:7; 4:32), and are “beloved children” (Eph. 5:1). These statements in verses 5-6 are sandwiched with statements about our new identity in Christ (vv.1-2; 7-8). We already are children of God (v.1), and we have confidence that Christ gave himself up for us (v.2).

By contrast, the people described in verse 5 have an identity as non-Christians. That is, they are an immoral person; they are a covetous man; they are an idolater. They are not “beloved children” (v.1) or “children of Light” (v.8), but rather, they are “sons of disobedience” (v.6). If this is your identity, then you have not come to faith in Christ in the first place. That is, the lives of these people are “characterized by one or more of these sins.”[1]

Paul uses the connecting word between verse 7 and 8. He writes, “For you were formerly darkness, but not you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light” (v.8). The basis for not pursuing these things is that we now have a new identity in Christ. As Hoehner writes, “The reason they should not act like unbelievers is because unbelievers are not going to inherit the kingdom of Christ and God.”[2]

Furthermore, Paul states that currently God’s wrath “comes down upon the sons of disobedience” (v.6). Since this is in the present tense, this refers to God’s current wrath (i.e. His passive wrath). God “gave them over” (Rom. 1:24-28) and they “have given themselves over” (Eph. 4:18) to an empty and damaging way of life. Paul is raising the observation that living apart from God doesn’t result in gain, but in pain. Why would we be “partakers” (v.7) with a lifestyle that only leads to misery?

For further reading, see our earlier article “Eternal Security.”

[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 660.

[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 659.