What Do You Think?
July 28, 1996
Scripture: Eph. 4:17-24
The passage in 4:1-16 has appealed for unity in the body of Christ and explained the work process in the body necessary to achieve it. Unity is shown to be the same as maturity which is the same as becoming like Christ. It is in Christ that we reach both unity and maturity. Therefore today’s passage expands on this theme to urge us to live worthy of this calling to Christlikeness which will maintain that unity. We see that theme stated in 4:1; “to live a life worthy of the calling you received.”
The letter to the Ephesians hinges at the point beginning today’s passage. Primary attention is given to the role of the mind in Christianity, to truth, and to sins involving sexuality, anger, the tongue, and covetousness. Paul’s concern in this second half of the letter is to paint a clear contrast between the former life and the Christian life and in so doing to keep Christians from sin and from association with sin. This reminds us of last week’s message in 2Cor. 6:14-7:2 about not being unequally yoked with unbelievers, to come out from them and be separate, and to perfect holiness out of reverence for God since we are His temple in which He dwells.
But here it is not so much a primary concern with specific sins but with the distortion and disorientation of the mind which keeps us in sin. Again, it is a matter of identity in Christ. This is the fourth of five explicit “formerly - now” contrasts found in Ephesians. This is one of the most descriptive about sinful humanity versus conversion. Here are the oppositions in this passage:
- former “Gentile” life versus present life
- futility versus truth
- darkened and ignorance versus taught
- putting off the old being versus putting on the new
- deceit versus truth
- corrupted versus new creation
- impurity and lust versus righteousness and holiness
- separated from the life of God versus created to be like God
The structure of this passage is in two long sentences. The first, vv. 17-19 appeal for a life different from the former sinful way of life. The second, vv. 20-24 describe the transformation that has taken place in Christ. Paul expresses his appeal to his readers with increasing strength as the letter progresses.
I. The Old Life of Futility
A. Futile Thinking
17 ¶ So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.
His statement, “in the Lord” adds authority to his appeal for his Gentile readers not to live like Gentiles. The letter reaches a climax here. Paul’s readers cannot go further without making an ethical decision to agree that sin is a futility of the mind. Several expressions in the passage convey this thought:
“futility of their thinking,” v.17
“darkened in their understanding,” v.18
“ignorance that is in them,” v.18
“due to the hardening of their hearts,” v.18
“continual lust,” v.19
“deceitful desires,” v.22
There is a parallel with Romans 1:21-32 which also views sin as a malfunction of the mind. In Romans, a split in the knowing process causes alienation. The Gentiles knew but did not acknowledge God. Their refusal to “know what they know” is here in Ephesians expressed as hardness of heart. In contrast, Paul prays in 3:19 that we will know even what we cannot know which is the love of Christ. Both these passages in Rom. and Eph. focus on willful futility, darkness, and distorted reasoning leading to alienation from God which results in passions and desires that lead to uncleanness and sins. However, sins are not the cause of the problem, but the result. The problem lies in the mind and in choices made against God.
B. Its Source
18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.
With a single word, “futility,” Paul described the majority of the inhabitants of the Greco-Roman empire as aiming with silly methods at a meaningless goal. Verse 18 traces the problem back to its source:
1. The Gentiles were darkened in their understanding (having a meaningless way of life) because they had no light to give them life and guidance. They were intellectually blacked out.
2. They had no light to give them life and guidance because they were separated from the life God gives who is the source of the light.
3. They were separated from the life God gives because of deliberate ignorance which took up residence in their souls.
4. They were deliberately ignorant because of the hardness of their hearts. The heart is the source of all loyalties. In this case, hardness of heart has prevented all loyalty to God.
5. In summary, hearts made insensitive to God have set off a chain reaction that turned out the light and led to meaninglessness.
C. Its Outcome
19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
1. “Insensitivity” in one direction leads to “sensuality” in another.
2. Sensuality is the idol to which the Gentiles have given themselves. As in Romans, the loss of relation to God leads to uncontrolled, outrageous, sinful behavior, especially with regard to sexuality.
3. “Every kind of impurity” covers a lot of ground, but the primary reference is to sexual sin.
4. Continual lust is the desire to have more. Eph. 5:5 equates greed, lust, and idolatry. Idolatry is the root of all sin. If we believe it is selfishness as the root, then it is self that is the idol. Greed is the sin that encompasses all sins. Impure activity is rooted in greedy desire. It is here that hearts grow cold and hard in the self-centered character off sin.
II. Learning the Messiah
These verses provide as strong a contrast as possible between the Ephesians’ previous mental distortion and the truth, learning, and renewal of mind that occur in Christ. If the Gentiles’ core problem is a distorted mind, the solution can only be a renewing of the mind, which is exactly Paul’s understanding of salvation (Rom. 12:2). He uses 3 images to achieve the contrast: instruction of the mind, changing clothes and new creation. Paul seeks the same thing here as in 2:11-13 - that believers will remember the contrast between what was formerly true and what is now true.
A. Knowing the Christ and Jesus
20 You, however, did not come to know Christ that way.
21 Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.
1. No parallel exists for learning a person. More is intended that just the learning of facts about Christ. They have been schooled in the Messiah. They know how radically different his life is from that of the Gentiles. The implication is as in 1Cor. 2:16, that we should have the mind of Christ.
2. They know better than to live the life he described in vv. 17-19, because they know the truth that is in Jesus. This truth refers to his life, death, and resurrection. In this verse, Christ is viewed as the teacher, subject, and sphere of learning. Their learning was their union with Christ.
3. This learning is that Jesus embodies and encompasses the truth. Find Jesus and you find truth - find truth and you find Jesus. Truth does not exist apart from Him. As in 1:10, all things will be brought together in Christ.
4. In summary, we see here an encounter with Jesus and the resulting instruction from union with Him so that truth is found in Him. The rest of today’s passage shows that truth is revealed primarily in dying and rising with Christ.
B. Old Being - New Being
22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;
23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds;
24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
1. The words in these verses are a theological reminder to motivate the ethical instructions in the verses that follow. Paul’s intent is to strengthen his plea in 4:17 for a different lifestyle.
2. Paul’s main issue here is transformation - a change of identities. To “put off” and “put on” is another way of expressing the idea of dying and rising with Christ. The present tense of the verbs is important to show ongoing action. It describes the continual corruption of the old being and the continual renewing of the mind. The old being is in a state of ever-deepening corruption, and the Christian life is an ever-increasing renewal of the mind.
3. The old being fit the former way of living, and its ongoing corruption was fueled by “deceitful desires.” The old being is the human self without God, deluded and deceived into a downward spiral by fleshly desires. The solution requires ongoing renewal and a new creation.
4. “To be made new in the attitude of your minds,” refers to the human spirit which is the controlling center of our being and the means of our relation to God. This is the object of continual renewal.
5. Whereas the old being fit the former life of living in lust (v. 19), the new being fits with God as being recreated in “righteousness and holiness of truth.” Righteousness and holiness have their source in truth, the truth found in Jesus. This focus on truth here and on Christ who gave himself for this purpose indicate that the key characteristics of the new being are truth and love as Christ is.
Human Depravity (4:17-19, 22): We do not admit that life is futile, that we are in the dark and cut off from God, ignorant and hard-hearted, and that we are given over to uncontrolled sensuality and passions. At the same time, neither do we think we can put off the old being and put on a new one. The mediocrity of our thought neither requires action nor enables success. Paul’s statements here are both a rejection of the dominant lifestyle of the society in which the readers lived and a call for them to reject it. Christianity is a religion that emphasizes on the one hand the futility and distortion of humanity without God, and on the other hand the value of humanity in God’s eyes and with God. Christianity invites us to recognize we are vile, but it also invites us to desire to be like God. It knows that human beings need a redemption they do not deserve, but also that God thinks they are worth redeeming. Only in facing the painful truth about ourselves is there hope for healing.
The theology in vv. 17-19 reflects on two major areas:
(1) Life without God is meaningless, for life is from God.
(2) The human mind is twisted by an idolatrous self-interest.
Our society usually ignores the age-old question of the meaning of life. We busy ourselves and entertain ourselves so we do not have to think. Without God in the picture, nothing on this earth can comfort us if we analyze it seriously. Separated from God, human beings curl around themselves like shavings planed from a board. Pride and self-centeredness cause hardness of heart, which in turn leads to choosing self instead of God. The result is an inversion that distorts. The lights go out and life is lived in futility.
Pascal described a human as a reed, but a thinking reed, all of whose dignity is in thought. The mind is the important element, but all dignity is lost when thought omits God and centers on self. Without God the mind is crosswired and without aim. Its energies go in the wrong direction. Pascal saw further that this inversion set up an internal war between the reason and the passions, so that we are always opposed to ourselves. Lust is an insubordination of the flesh. Our passions are never satisfied, we always want more. Even when we know actions are harmful to our bodies and relations, we still choose them. As ancient philosophers recognized, humans love their vices and hate them at the same time. They hate their sins and cannot leave them.
By implication, this text is about idolatry. We turn from God to the idol of self, but idols demand sacrifices. The cost is high to wholeness and to relations with people. The judgment of sin - at least in part - is that people are given over to their sins, becoming its own punishment. Human beings need a higher calling than following passions. In the ancient world, living free of desire was considered the mark of wisdom and maturity. But no one can live free of desire, and the solution is not the rejection of desires, but their subjection to God. Our self-centered desires alienate us from God. Having lost sensitivity to God and fellowship with Him, we give ourselves to sensuality, trying through pleasure and especially through sexual avenues to recover that intimacy for which we were created.
The text implies that we need life from God. We were created for relation with God. We are diminished when separated from what is greater than us - God. Without Him, we lose our dignity. We are restless until we rest in God. This passage is about a pervasive depravity that affects all our being and results from a skewered thinking that ignores God. We have traded life with God for a corrupting, meaningless life with self.
The School of Christ (4:20-24): Paul’s words assume life is different for Christians; they state that an encounter with Jesus has changed things. Unfortunately, too many people claiming the title Christian serve self as fully as non-Christians. Their conversion is a stillbirth. They allow the non-Christian world to define life rather than the God who created them. All of us too often seek conformity to this world’s scheme, or at least recognition from it. The text applies to both Christians and non-Christians, but it is addressed to Christians to make sure they don’t live such a life. The truth that is learned is the truth of the death and resurrection of Christ, from which all other truth is understood. We identify with his death and resurrection by dying to self and rising to new life, which here are expressed as “putting off the old being” and “putting on the new.”
This text is about conversion from old to new. If we can’t put on the new, then our Christian faith is meaningless. No matter how nice its teaching, it has not dealt with the core of our problem which is our own sin. Conversion is a renunciation of a self-centered identity in favor of a Christ-defined identity. It is a restructuring of a person’s thinking by the Holy Spirit as the result of a direct encounter with the love of God in the person of Christ. Robinson commented, “He has displaced me in myself.” But it is an emphasis on both the renewing agency of God’s Spirit and the yieldedness of my own spirit to embrace it. We cannot separate how much of this process is God’s and how much ours. Salvation is totally the work of God in which we are totally involved.
To “put off and put on” is not just a one-time event as symbolized in baptism. We continue to be the same person with many of our same weaknesses, desires, and characteristics. The old being is drowned in baptism but the rascal can still swim! The “now but not yet” character of Christian faith is hereby obvious. A change has occurred, is occurring, and will be completed at the end of time. Conversion is a process in that it is a pattern by which Christians live. (We should be cautious here not to embrace any idea of perfectionism or dualism.)
In order to make application to our own case, we should substitute the word “Americans” for Gentiles in v. 17. We must not live like the Americans do with their futile thinking. The more we conform to our society, the less we understand conversion. Distorted thinking requires a wholesale restructuring of the mind. The depraved mind cannot repair itself. It is the Holy Spirit that engages our spirit in reordering life. The heart, the control panel from which life is ordered, must continually be made conscious of God and not merely of self. We must take time to think in communion with God, to reflect and meditate.
Too often we assume the agenda that society sets is reality and, therefore, is the agenda for Christians as well. But we live in a society that is out of control. Its agenda places the self-interests of pleasure, recognition, and possessions as the goals of life. Christians do not fit the system because life for them is not about self-satisfaction; it is about relations both with God and with other people. With this, we should beware of the media as the most obvious evidence of futility and sensuality. The sobering fact is that the media offers us a mirror of ourselves that also seeks to shape us, just like the “continual lust for more” in v. 19. Modernity is merely rationalized sexual misbehavior. And humor is no longer healthy and cleansing but merely structured as a defense against depth. Our society is ignorant. It braces itself, occupies itself, and procrastinates to avoid dealing with the “God” question. How else can we explain the overwhelming preoccupation with our various addictions? Pascal said that when our desires become masters, they are vices (like a vice grip).
But assessing society is not enough. Every person, beginning with the Christian, must be ruthlessly honest about his or her own depravity. Pride and pleasure seem to dominate everything we do, including our most religious acts. Pride and self-interest are marvelous instruments for putting out our eyes so that we never see the truth. We need to endure the pain of close self-analysis and tell the truth both to God and to ourselves. This is called confession. (In our Protestant reaction to the Catholic tradition, we sometimes throw the baby out with the bath water.)
Our desires are not bad in themselves. They are God-given assistants for living, but they need a Lord. Give them one! Be especially aware of the enormously seductive power of sexual desire. It is so because that is the one place where pleasure, pride, and power concentrate so heavily. The sacrifices this idol demands are destructive of self, of others, and of relationships, to say nothing of the church’s witness.
The focus on thinking is so central that application of this text requires investment in learning. This is the nature of a disciple. A Christian must learn what his new name means. We must not just reach a respectable plateau and go no further. We must have a continuing hunger for the knowledge of Christ. The church must provide the framework for this continuing renewal of the mind through worship and instruction in the school of Christ. We must reveal evident incentive for people to give up what they are in order to become what Christ intends. Education is a major, if not the major, mission of the church. Education toward sensitivity and truth combat our root problems of hard-heartedness and self-deceit.
The theology of baptizing the whole individual is important to portray that there is nothing in our lives that may be held back from the change toward God. Baptism becomes a life-long experience to be lived rather than a one-time rite of entrance into the Christian faith. We cannot, like soldiers of a previous era, keep our sword hand out of the water when we are being baptized. To live our baptism, we need to learn how to die. Even more than looking for evidence of rebirth, we should ask how many times a person has died (to sin). Rebirth without dying is Christian nonsense. So is a new creation without crucifixion. What do you think?
(1) Don’t live like the Americans with their futile thinking.
(2) Get your mind in order and make honest assessments.
(3) Be a Christ-learner ever renewing your mind.
(4) Die continually to self and its desires.
(5) Put on Christ along with his truth and love.