In the opening verses of chapter 4, Paul becomes more explicit in his condemnation of the false teachers who were troubling the church in Ephesus, ruining its reputation, and threatening its foundations. And it is not enough for Paul to identify the particular errors that were being taught. He thought it important and necessary to lay bare the spiritual issues that lay beneath this false teaching. We are inclined nowadays to imagine that every bad idea is at least sincerely held. A person may be mistaken, we think, but he means well. And there is something to be said to the credit of people who think that way; who seek always to put the best construction on what others think and say. But Paul was not as willing as we are to mitigate or excuse false teachers or their teaching. There is much in human thought and, alas, sometimes in Christian thought that is not merely false, but positively wicked.
In the first place, Paul says, these false teachers are doing the Devil’s work. And not unwillingly: they have “devoted themselves to deceitful spirits and the teaching of demons.” Paul would know, of course. As a prophet of God he could judge the motives of men’s hearts in ways that we cannot, but it is not clear that he means that only a prophet could know that such was the case. There are a lot of ideas popular today that were first the Devil’s and, harmful and foolish as they clearly are, no one will get a pass because he says he meant well. He should have known better, indeed, he did know better.
Paul says that “in later times some will depart from the faith,” but he quickly abandons the future tense and slips into the present tense, indicating that these later times had already begun. He does the very same thing in 2 Tim. 3:1, where he writes of what will happen in the last days and then describes what is happening at that moment as the fulfillment of that prophecy. That is typical of the New Testament’s use of this idea of later times or last days. A term that means generally the prophetic future in the prophets of the Old Testament had become the present in the days of the apostles, though a present that would continue until the Second Coming. What particular prophecy of apostasy Paul is referring to he doesn’t say. But the Lord Jesus had prophesied such “falling away” and so had Paul, even in his address to the Ephesian elders earlier, as we read in Acts 20:29-30. And, for that matter, almost the entire Old Testament, which was the Bible of the Christians in Ephesus at this time, was a record of Israel’s apostasy, her falling away, her departing the faith. If the OT prophets prophesied apostasy in the future, such apostasy was nothing more than what they had seen with their own eyes. There is little that happens today, in these later times, that had not happened in ages past.
Now before going on I want to say a word about “departing from the faith,” an important way of speaking on the part of the Apostle Paul and something, he says, some in the Ephesian church had already done. The word Paul used here is “apostatize,” a word that is used frequently in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was the OT of the Greek speaking Christians in Ephesus, to refer to Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh and her abandoning of his covenant with her.
The term implies, obviously, that these people knew the truth and had once embraced it themselves. Now they were departing from it. You can’t abandon what was never yours. To leave someplace, you must first be there. In the recent fracas in our Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church in America as a whole, the assertion of this fact became controversial. Some men pointed out that the Bible uses this language frequently and often describes people like these men who had abandoned the faith, such men as Hymenaeus and Alexander whom Paul mentioned at the end of chapter 1, as having been Christians, as having had powerful experiences of what everyone took to be Christian conversion. No one saw their apostasy coming. They themselves never saw it coming. The author of Hebrews, for example, speaks of some apostates as having “tasted the heavenly gift,” “shared in the Holy Spirit,” and “having tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” Nevertheless, they turned away from all of this — the truth and their personal experience of God and his truth — and would never come back.
But in pointing this out, and perhaps in pointing it out in the way in which they did, these brothers came to be suspected of denying the doctrine we Presbyterians refer to as the perseverance of the saints. That is the doctrine of the Word of God — and very clear teaching it is — that those who have been saved cannot lose their salvation. It is a large question and not our subject this evening, but it is worth our noting that in a passage like this Paul seems unconcerned at this point to ensure that no one get the idea that he is denying the perseverance of the saints. He teaches that doctrine in other places, but here he speaks without qualification of people departing from the faith. His form of words clearly means that they were once believers but are no longer. It seems very clear here, and earlier in 1:19-20, that we cannot avoid the problem by imagining that these people were never believers in the first place. The fact is, we cannot and do not infallibly know who the saints are, and there remarkable experiences even of God’s presence and the grace of Jesus Christ that people have who somehow are not fully and completely Christians at all — however much they were believers of a kind and to an extent — and they prove that by eventually departing or turning away. There are plenty of people we thought were Christians, who thought themselves Christians, who lived as Christians, who practiced the Christian faith, who prayed and trusted the Lord for this or that, who proved eventually not to be. No doubt those who have been chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, those who have been granted living faith in Jesus are saved, must be saved, and cannot possibly not be saved. But it is also a fact that many who seemed to be such saints and at least in some fashion really were believers in Jesus ceased to be such believers at some point. Their departure from the faith is often in the Bible described in terms of abandoning what they once believed, turning away from what was once theirs, even in Peter, denying the Lord who bought them. How to reconcile these two lines of teaching may be difficult in some ways, all the more because the Bible doesn’t tell us how to reconcile them, but that both of them are plainly found in the Bible, even in the same biblical author, is indisputable.
The point for us of all such teaching is obviously never to take our salvation for granted. We are always to be on guard against the temptation to release our grip on the truth of God and to turn away from the faith and no amount of previous experience indemnifies us against such a catastrophe. When Paul tells the Corinthians not to receive the grace of God in vain, he is warning them as he is warning the Ephesians here that it is possible to begin and not to finish. We mustn’t neglect this truth because we are also taught that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. Even Paul himself would speak from time to time of his own salvation as if it were something he was not yet entirely sure of. If he took the danger of apostasy, of falling away, of making shipwreck of the faith so seriously, surely we must as well. If he said that he beat his body and made it his slave lest after preaching to others I myself may be disqualified, who are we to take our beginnings in God’s grace as a guarantee of our reservation in heaven. All of these warnings found in the Bible are intended to keep us vigilant against the first appearance of unfaithfulness in our hearts and our lives.
But notice that here, as elsewhere in the Bible, apostasy is an intentional step. The person knows what he or she is doing and knows exactly what it means. These people were leaving the faith they had been taught and embracing another one in its place. We are not talking about backsliding here, about a period of spiritual dullness or weakness; Paul is not describing the experience of a believer being overcome by a particular sin or several sins for a period of time. The spiritual life can wax and wane, we know that. Christians can be nearer to God or further from him, making strides or standing still or even slipping backward without ever departing from the faith or making shipwreck of it. There is a difference between a Christian who for a time is not living as a Christian should and a Christian who decides no longer to be a Christian as the Word of God defines a Christian. Backsliding is not apostasy. It may look like it in some ways, but it is different, as different as sickness is from death; as different as momentary cowardice in battle is from taking money to spy for the enemy.
But however much the false teaching may have originated with the Devil, men embraced these ideas with a ready will because they had, by constant suppression of the truth and by constant refusal to heed their own conscience, they had embraced falsehood even though they knew better. This is Paul’s solemn judgment on so much of human thinking: it’s a lie and known to be a lie, at least down deep where even a battered conscience can still eke out a whisper. These men were not honestly mistaken as Paul had been before he became a believer in Jesus. [Mounts, 236] He had acted ignorantly, as he told us in 1:13; these men acted maliciously and in full knowledge of the truth. They knew what they were rejecting and they rejected it nonetheless. This, I think, is something modern Christians often fail to reckon with. God holds mankind responsible for the truth that has been revealed to the conscience and on the Great Day he will tolerate no excuses for a failure to be faithful to that truth. We live in a day when the excuse for unbelief has been raised to an art form. We may be impressed; God is not. People may think that a lie is the truth, but the fact is in many cases they know better. They must suppress the truth to maintain their lies, as Paul puts it famously in Romans 1.
And the fact is the low motives, the selfish impulses and the personal spite that generate so many of the big ideas that have shaped modern life are just grander illustrations of this universal fact of human life. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that anyone is really that sure that Neo-Darwinism can account for the perfection and splendor of nature. They want to get rid of God and this is the best way to do it anyone has ever conceived. They believe lies they know full well they are lies. It is why their discourse is so strident; why they must shout down the skeptics. They do not want the truth to be heard or seen. True enough, the addict may reach a place where he is literally unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood, but he got there by his own doing and knew what he was doing for a long time before he lost touch with reality.
But now we want to know precisely what lies the false teachers were spreading. What were they teaching?
The statement in v. 4 that everything God created by God is good is an obvious recollection of the account of creation in Genesis 1 where we learn that everything God made, creation day after creation day, was good and declared to be good by God himself. Remember Paul’s statement in Romans 14:14, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” Who are we to declare useless or harmful what God himself has declared to be good? But what does Paul mean in v. 5 that these things are made holy by the Word and prayer? I like this explanation.
“God’s word to man [warrants] him to use the creation gift, and man’s word to God [acknowledges] the gift and [asks] his blessing on it. So the sanctification is complete both ways — objectively by the Word of God, subjectively by prayer.” [Fairbairn in Stott, 114]
The error that was being propagated by the false teachers in Ephesus was one that was particularly beguiling in the Greco-Roman world of that day. The Greco-Roman world was poised to find asceticism attractive and to find ascetic practices in regard to marriage and food particularly attractive. The Greco-Roman worldview was particularly susceptible to the thought that the spiritual part of man was what counted, where his true goodness and greatness was to be found, and the physical part of man — and what is more physical than food and sex — was what was weighing him down. That was why, for example, as I mentioned on Easter Sunday, resurrection played no part in Greco-Roman thinking about the afterlife. One lived on in a kind of disembodied existence. No one wanted the body to accompany him or her to Elysium! But, interestingly, there were also Jews who thought somewhat similar thoughts. The Essenes at Qumran, for example, thought abstinence from marriage and a strict regulation of the diet was the way to greater holiness of life.
Now don’t dismiss all of this too quickly. “Marriage and food relate to the two most basic appetites of the human body, sex and hunger.” [Stott, 112] Is it not obvious that it is in respect to food and sex that man is often his most degraded, most bestial, and furthest removed from a true nobility of life. Surely that is true in our day. All kinds of people who would otherwise be thought of as high achievers, even great men, are publicly disgraced because they cannot control their sexual urges and were unfaithful to their wives or husbands. We still somehow expect that people who get married ought to be faithful to their marriage, but so many are not. So many marriages are, in fact, a travesty of noble human life, rather than an example of it. And how many likewise fall into ruin because they abuse alcohol or drugs or food. We know very well how much so many of us are slaves to food in one way or another, either as gluttons or as people desperately trying to curb our appetites. Human beings are rarely their best in respect to sex or food. We talk nowadays endlessly about obesity or dieting. We’re passing laws about how large the drink is you can buy at a fast food store, and we’re talking endlessly about sex. Food and sex are great problems in our day as they were in the first century. And today as well there are those – vegetarians or vegans – who believe strongly that it corrupts human life to eat certain kinds of food.
No wonder there were people in those days who concluded that avoiding marriage altogether was the way to a higher human life. It wasn’t only the Jews and the Greeks who thought this way. It was this widespread prejudice against the material sphere of human life that led many Christians of that time to prefer virginity to marriage. So many of our heroes of that early period of Christian history never married precisely because they thought virginity a higher and holier life. And among those who married, there were those Christians who became convinced that theirs should be a spiritual marriage, a marriage without sex. John Chrysostom, the great preacher and bishop of the later fourth century preached sermons condemning this practice. Indeed, there is some thought that these false teachers in Ephesus were recommending something like that: a return to the Garden of Eden, where there was no formal marriage yet and, so they supposed, the diet was strictly vegetables. [Towner; Mounts] This same way of thinking also led to the widespread practice among celibate monks of virtually starving themselves to death in order to gain mastery over their sinful desire. Too much food and too tasty food caused problems; we’d be better to do without it.
But all of this thinking, in whatever form or guise, Paul says, amounts to irreverence. It is a way of blaming God for our sins, because we think we would be better off without what he has given to us and made for us. He made marriage and men and women for marriage; he created marriage as the context for the sexual life, he created food and drink with all of its wonderful taste and its nutritious value. He could have fed us on grass and so regulated our diet so that we got just as much nutrition as we required. He could have made food something entirely utilitarian. No one would want to eat anything more than his body required. Taste would have nothing to do with it; we would be like the animals. We’d know nothing of Pastor Krulish’s “corned beef hash” recipe which we fellows had for breakfast a few mornings ago in the Colorado mountains. Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be all bad! But we also wouldn’t know anything of the spaghetti, the roast chicken, the hamburgers and hot dogs, the salads and the potato chips, the eggs and bacon and pancakes and all the rest that he prepared and served us. Oh, and I forgot the pizza! Have you ever seen how quickly three large pizzas can disappear when placed before eight fellows?
No cow ever ate grass that fast! We have horses in our mountain valley and each summer we buy a 50 pound bag of what is called “horse candy,” large pellets of various grains mixed with molasses and some other things. The horses love it! Once they know we have it they hang their heads over our fence waiting for us to come out and give them some. When we do they crowd in, nipping at one another, apparently never having been taught to wait their turn or to share. But it took human beings to invent a tasty treat for horses. They would never know there is such a thing otherwise. We know not only what it is to taste good food, but how to make it tasty!
In the same way, God could have provided for the reproduction of the race in some other way, with what I think it was Gregory of Nyssa described as, “some harmless mode of vegetation.” There would be nothing of the sexual fire or passion that we associate with the sexual life, nothing of the strong desires that draw a man to a woman and, alas, so often draw him away again.
But God did not create such a world. In his goodness and wisdom he made marriage for man and man for marriage, and who among us can possibly say that marriage is not obviously the manifestation of his pure goodness and pure genius. A loving marriage, faithful, happy, the complete union of two hearts and two bodies, surely this is the supreme example of how good and how beautiful and how fruitful human life can be. And would we not say the same thing about the food God has given us. Food so delicious in itself that can then be prepared and combined to make such exquisitely satisfying dining experiences. And how many different and wonderful tastes there are! Would you want a life without tasty food, nourishment that not only sustains our life but blesses it and invests it with daily pleasure? How impoverished life would be without married love and without tasty food! Now the fact is you all agree with me about this. You have no difficulty whatsoever accepting the logic of Paul’s argument.
How can someone despise marriage or forbid it when God created marriage? How can someone believe it wrong to eat certain kinds of food when God made those foods and gave them to mankind to enjoy? What God has made must be good and therefore must be received and used by us with thanksgiving.
But you see, you live in a different world than the first century. I don’t want to make the mistake that C.S. Lewis so famously described in The Screwtape Letters (xxv).
“The use of fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding.’ Cruel ages are put on their guard against sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against respectability, lecherous ones [like ours, for example], against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make liberalism the prime bogey.”
You get the point. False teachers wouldn’t get the same traction recommending asceticism to us as they did in recommending it in Ephesus long ago. It was a very different culture with very different intellectual tastes and tendencies. But, of course, that was why the teaching in Ephesus was so beguiling that it had led at least some members of the congregation there, we don’t know how many, to exchange the gospel that Paul had taught them for this new teaching. False teaching in the church always gains influence by appealing to the philosophical and cultural currents of the day. False teaching is usually the accommodation of the Christian faith to the tastes of a particular time and a particular culture. That is why you are not hearing so-called Christian teachers trumpeting the virtues of a program of serious self-denial, sexual self-denial and culinary self-denial. It wouldn’t be attractive to people in America today. We are people who live for our pleasures, sexual and culinary.
But, what we must see as 21st century Americans is that the plumb line always remains the same. Whether we are tempted to fall to the left or to the right, Christian behavior should always be one thing and the same thing: the recognition of God’s good creation, the receiving it with thanksgiving, and the sanctification of it, or the using of it properly. In the first century they were tempted to deny the goodness of what God had made and reject what he had made. Our temptation is not the same. But our calling is the same. For us it is another part of Paul’s message that must be heeded.
Did you note his important qualification: “everything created by God is good…?” Not everything in nature is good; only what God has created! There are a great many things that exist in our world that cannot be used with thanksgiving or consecrated with prayer. Here, for example, we find the fundamental principle that must lead us to reject the normalization of homosexuality or the propriety of homosexual marriage. Homosexuality is not part of God’s creation. It is not part of what God called good. It is not part of what we are to receive with thanksgiving and sanctify with prayer. God made a male human being and a female human being and told them to be fruitful and multiply. He said that what was true of them would be true of every married couple that was to follow Adam and Eve. A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh. Yesterday I filled out for the first time a wedding certificate from the Pierce County health department which no longer had “Bride” and “Groom” identifying the parties, but rather “Person A” and “Person B.” That marriageis what God made and that is what he called good and that is what we are receive with thanksgiving and consecrate with prayer. No one can thank God for homosexuality or render it holy by Word and prayer because it is condemned in the Word of God and we cannot call “good” what God calls “sinful.”
Now hear me, I’m not saying that a homosexual cannot be a Christian. A man or woman with such desires, however they came to have them, must submit those desires to the lordship of Jesus Christ and live in sexual purity. In that way they are like every other Christian. No one and certainly no Christian can receive pornography as a good creation of God and sanctify its use by prayer. Imagine someone sitting at his computer screen and thanking God for creating the images he is about to see and asking him to make this activity holy! It is impossible. It is genuinely blasphemous, for it is attributing evil to God.
What are we called to do here? What were the Ephesian Christians being called to be? Both they in the first century and we in the 21st have the same calling. We are to be worldly people in the best sense of that word. We are to be people who appreciate and enjoy the world that God has made and receive its wonders with genuine thanksgiving. We fellows saw some marvelous things this past week in Colorado. A magnificent eagle sitting on her nest, when we drew near leaving the nest to soar above, while the fellows climbed high enough on the nearby hillside to look down into the nest and see the egg. But we also descended a thousand feet into an old hard rock gold mine and saw what extraordinary things human beings will do and invent all to extract that beautiful metal that God has hidden in the rocks of the earth. Then we climbed a rock tower and surveyed the gorgeous view in every direction, mountains near and snow-capped peaks in the sunny distance. Our God made all of this wonder, this extravagance of beauty and creativity. We, of all people, should admire what our heavenly Father has made and given to us, appreciate it, be thankful for it, and make the best use of it. We who know who made it all, should be proud of the world that he made for us.
Whatever it is, marriage, the sexual life, food, human creativity as expressed in cooking, in music, in art, the appreciation of beauty in nature, whether a human being, a seaside sunset, or a mountain vista, we are to see the hand of God in it, to receive it with thanksgiving, and to sanctify it with prayer, prayer that acknowledges God’s creative goodness and our responsibility to use his wonderful gifts in ways that honor him and bless others. In that way we will get all of the good that God has prepared for us and none of the harm that is the inevitable result of the misuse of his creation or of ingratitude for it.
G.K. Chesterton put it this way in reference to the prayer of thanks that we all pray before a meal:
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
[in Stott, 115]
You and I should be happy people, with so much to be thankful for, so much to admire and enjoy in life, because we know that our heavenly Father made it all, and made it all for us.