5Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Throughout his letters, Paul issues instructions pertaining to the Christian life. When modern readers read these instructions, our natural tendency is to read them as corrective commands (e.g. “stop doing what you are doing and do this instead!”). It is easy for the reader to understand these instructions as commands to be fulfilled or something that must be corrected. After all, they are instructions to the Christian life. Yet, all of Paul’s instructions are based on a previously established theological truth about the person he is addressing. These instructions, therefore, are better understood as exhortations or encouragements rather than corrective commands. Paul is not scolding the reader for failing to live up to some sort of law. Rather, Paul is encouraging the believers to live a life that matches the reality of who they are in Christ.
This particular exhortation begins with the encouragement to “put to death.” The word here indicates a complete cessation of activity with regard to that which is “earthly” (v.5). Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Cost of Discipleship. London: SCM Press, 2001 p44). The Christian life is one of complete surrender to the will and work of Christ. It is an exchange of kingdoms. Believers have traded the glory of this earth for the glory of Heaven. In such an exchange, the kingdom of earth is thrown off for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. So Paul calls the believer to put to death the things that are earthly. Notice there is no softening of this exhortation. He does not say, try to put to death or strive to put to death. No, Paul says “put to death.” This imperative drives the point that Christian is to completely cut off the influence of these earthly things. These earthly things have no place in the Christian life (Ephesians 5:3). They are to be cut off and destroyed. The mind of the Christian and the life of the Christian is focused on Heavenly truths and must have no association with these lower earthly things.
It is the tragedy of modern Christian culture that there is little that differentiates the world from the church. When Christians are supposed to be pointing people toward a radical heavenly mindset, the best that many modern churches offer is simplistic moralism. There is little call to holiness in our pulpits and seldom a demand to turn away from earthly things. Yet, Paul’s call for a heavenly mindset is immediately followed by the complement of rejection of earthly things. Christian, we cannot serve in two worlds. We must recognize that we are “resident aliens” on this earth and we do not and cannot fit into this world’s passions and pleasures. Our Kingdom is far too great to be subject to such base desires.
Paul provides us a list of that which is “earthly” for the reader to identify. Interestingly, each word has some connection to sexuality. The first word is “pornea” where we get our word porn from. In our sex-saturated culture, there is little need for elaboration on this subject. Pornography is one of the greatest blights on the soul of man in modern times. It has shaped the way our culture views women, marred the nature of man and degraded the value of sexuality in the human spirit. Our modern struggles with sexual harassment, gender identity, and gender toxicity can be directly linked to the hidden obsession with this idolatrous activity. This practice of sexual immorality must NOT be present in the life of a Christian.
The second word Paul uses is “akatharsia.” This is the negation of the word catharsis, meaning clean. Adding the alpha to the front of the word negates the word in its definition. So catharsis or clean becomes akatharsia- meaning unclean. In this way, Paul calls Christians to think about the innate value of what they fill themselves with. Believers must fill themselves with that which is clean and not that which is unclean. Connected with the definition of akatharsia is a sense of worthlessness. That which is unclean is that which is worthless to the Christian. It has no weight in the Kingdom of God and serves no purpose.
The third word Paul uses to describe earthly things is pathos, meaning lusts or lustful desires. This word is closely related to the concept of misfortune or calamity. Indeed, when we surrender to our baser lusts and desires, we often find that calamity follows. So Paul exhorts the believer to change their focus from the lower earthly passions and seek to be consumed by the greater passions of God’s heavenly kingdom.
The fourth phrase Paul uses is “evil desires.” I trust that the careful reader can acknowledge that little exposition is needed to explain Paul’s meaning in these words. His straightforward tone is hard to dismiss. Christians are not to be controlled by desires and affections that are rooted in this world. Rather, our affections are to be manifestly different. We are to be so consummately holy (that is to say “set apart”) that we are identified as complete aberrations to this world.
The Final phrase used to describe that which is earthly level our sensibilities. Earthly is covetousness, which is idolatry. Indeed, Modern Americans have extreme difficulty here and Paul leaves no room for us to rationalize our attitudes. The spirit of greed and selfishness is bound up in covetousness. But at its root, coveting is the result of idolatry. It is the result of worshiping something other than the One True God. Further, all that is listed here in verse 5 is the result of idolatrous activity. It is an attempt to satisfy our own needs by insisting that we know better than God. It is seeking to satisfy our desires rather than deny them for the sake of greater joy.
Christians look different from the world and must be faithful to that end.