“Not Like the World”

Ephesians 4:17-24

December 30, 2001

Text Comment

Now, let us remind ourselves as we begin to read, where we are in the argument of the letter as a whole.  In the first three chapters of his letter Paul reminded these Christians of their great salvation:  given as a free gift by God the Father, accomplished by God the Son, and placed in their possession by God the Holy Spirit.  Near the beginning and at the end of those three chapters he prayed that these believers would come to appreciate still more the greatness of God’s love for them and to appreciate still more fully all that the triune God has done for them.  Left to themselves, they were without God and without hope in the world, and now, in Christ, they are seated in the heavenly realms where they will live forever.  And, what is more, this great gift, this eternal love has now been lavished on the Gentiles – most of these Christians were Gentiles – and not only on the Jews, God’s ancient people.

Then, with his great “therefore” Paul turned from theology to ethics at 4:1, from God’s grace and gift to us, to our response of love and obedience.  We must walk worthy of the gifts God has lavished on us and now Paul is proceeding to tell us how to do that and what that entails.  In the first 16 verses of chapter 4 he has concentrated on the unity of the people of God and their maturing together into a loving fellowship that works fruitfully in the service of the Lord.  He has reminded us that we derive the strength to live this holy life from Christ himself, to whom we are connected, as the body is connected to the head.  We have no excuse, then, if we do not live as we ought.  In vv. 1-16 he has spoken quite generally. 

Now, in the next section, the text we are about to read, he is going to speak generally again, before descending to the particulars of the Christian life.  He is going to talk about putting off the old man and putting on the new man.  That is, he is going to describe the Christian life as a new creation; Christians are new creatures, new men and women.  God has made them so by the Holy Spirit.  Now they must live according to that new nature.  That is how a mature Christian lives.  He spoke about growing up into maturity in the previous section and now defines how that is done in the verses we are about to read. 

v. 17    The NIV’s “so” is another of Paul’s “therefores.”  This is a continuation of the “therefore” at v. 1; it is, as the grammarians say, “resumptive”, and indicates that he is still building his ethics out of his theology, that the imperatives of the Christian life flow from and depend upon the indicatives.  That is indicated further by the fact that Paul once again uses the word “walk,” as in verse 1, which the NIV has again translated as “live.”  We must strive to walk in a certain way because Christ has saved us to walk that way.  If we have been saved to grow up into Christ and become mature in him; if each of us, as part of Christ’s body, must build itself up, then this is what we must do; this is what we must set out to become.  We will have another of these “therefores” at 4:25, where Paul finally descends from the general statements of the nature of Christian living that have occupied him in the first 24 verses of chapter 4 to the particulars of Christian living that will take him to the end of the letter.

            But, before you move on, make sure you appreciate Paul’s insistence on this connection between doctrine and life.  Our daily living ought always to be something that is inevitable given what we believe, who we know God is, what we know he has done for us, what we understand his purposes to be.  If your Christian life is not inevitable to you, if it is not yet obvious, clear, utterly predictable that you must live this way, if you continue to struggle against God’s requirements, or wonder why it has to be so, or are always trying to find a way round the law of God, or if you still find yourself envying those who are in the world, then there is a radical, fundamental failure to understand God and salvation.  For, as Paul teaches us everywhere, the Christian life flows out of that salvation and takes its character from it at every turn.  When we understand what God has done, we will have no difficulty understanding what we must do.  [Lloyd-Jones, Ephesians, vol. v, 20]

v.18     The problem with the life of unbelief is that it has lost touch with reality.  That is its fatal flaw.  It is a life ordered on the assumption that reality is one thing, when, in fact, reality is another thing altogether; reality is human existence as created, defined, and judged by the living God.  This irreality, Paul says, results from the fact that man is separated from God and does not know God.  Their ignorance does not excuse them, of course, for, as Paul says in Romans 1, they are ignorant on purpose; they do not have the truth because they suppress it.  That is what he means here when he speaks of them being ignorant through the hardening of their hearts.  [cf. Lincoln, WBC, 277]

v.19     You will notice that Paul paints the life of the unbelieving world of his time in very dark colors.  He says nothing at all about the positive features of that life that have long been very impressive to those who have studied the classical period.  We hear from Paul here nothing about their achievements in art or building or government or civilization.  Paul is interested in the moral dimension of life and in that dimension as viewed from God’s perspective and the perspective of the last judgment.  You can build remarkable buildings that are still the amazement of the world.  You can engineer an aqueduct that still, these thousands of years later, carries water hundreds of miles.  You can write literature that still moves men’s minds and hearts in our modern world.  You can do all of these things and still go to hell.  And Paul wants his readers to be in no doubt that in the ways that really matter, Christians must repudiate not imitate the life of the imperial world around them.

Now, Paul here summons his Christian readers to grow up into Christian maturity by putting off the old man or the old self and putting on the new self.  Christian readers of the Bible instinctively know what the great apostle is talking about, even if theologians and preachers go round and round about his words.

The theologian’s and the preacher’s problem is created by the fact that in the New Testament, even in the writings of Paul, the old man or equivalent terminology for the human being still in sin and unbelief, not yet renewed by the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit, not yet reborn, not yet the new creation is spoken of as dead and destroyed.  In Romans 6, a famous text, Paul says that because we were in Christ when he died and rose from the dead, we have been freed from sin.  “We died to sin,” Paul says. John puts it even more strongly in his first letter.  “No one who is born of God will continue to sin because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).  And Christians know what this teaching means.  If they became Christians after living as unbelievers for years, they know very well how dramatically their lives have changed, what a revolution has taken place in their morals and their desires and in their behavior itself.  They know they are new creatures and that the old things have passed away and that all things have become new.  And, even if they have been Christians for as long as they can remember, they know very well how fixed and how inescapable is their commitment to Christ.  They can compare, even within themselves, the life of sin and the life of righteousness, and they know very well that they are unalterably committed to righteousness, that they belong with the Lord, that they must live for him and cannot do otherwise.  They have died to sin just as surely as the man or woman who was dramatically converted in his 20s or her 30s and who underwent a remarkable and obvious revolution in life when he or she became a Christian.

But if the old man is dead, how is it that we are commanded to put him off?  Well, it is not an easy question to answer, either theologically or practically, but we all know that, however confusing in some ways, Paul spoke the truth both when he described the decisive, definitive breach with sin and the old way of life that takes place when a person becomes a Christian and when he described the continuing struggle to live according to the new and to forsake the old that marks the daily life of every true Christian.

For, as often as the Bible speaks of the definitive breach with the past, the new creation, our death to sin in the death of Christ, just as many times it speaks of this ongoing and constant break with the past, with our old self, that must be made every single day that we live, no matter how long we have been Christians.

Even in Romans 6, where the emphasis falls so strongly on the once for all break with sin and with our sinful past that occurs when we become Christians, even there Paul must tell us, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  …do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.”  The old man may be dead but you must still deal with him.  The fatal blow may have been struck, but he is still thrashing around.

You know how often in the Bible our Christian life is summed up as a matter of putting our sinful desires to death and bringing more and more to life those holy desires that Christ and the Spirit have now put within us.  Mortification and vivification:  putting to death and bringing to life.  That is our work every day.  And that is what Paul is saying in other words here.  Put off the old man and put on the new.

However we think of it, with whatever terms we use to describe it, there remains even in the reborn and the renewed, even in the hearts and lives of those who have been made new creatures in Christ, the remnants, the dregs of their old nature, their flesh, sufficient to create a very strong tug toward that which is sinful.  The fact that we have been made new in Christ does not mean that sin suddenly has become uninteresting to us or that righteousness has become natural and second-nature to us.  The Bible is very clear about that!

We still must be constantly warned against sinning in many different ways to keep us alert to the danger and the evil of giving in to those still very powerful desires.  And we still must be repeatedly urged and persuaded and motivated to follow after righteousness because to do so remains hard going for us.  And we must be taught how to avoid sin and how to promote righteousness in our minds, hearts, and lives, because this is difficult work that requires wisdom and skill.  Large tracts of the Bible are devoted to these matters.  There is a lot for a Christian to do in living the Christian life, a lot of hard labor, a lot of mental concentration, a lot of bending of the will, a lot of looking to God for grace to help.  Paul’s words about putting off the old self and putting on the new self have beguiled many Christians because they may seem to suggest that what he is asking of us is simple, straightforward, and not that difficult.  In time, believers learn better, but they may have shed many tears gaining that education.

Listen to this autobiographical account by J.I. Packer.  He had become a Christian while a student at Oxford in the mid-1940s.  The Christian teaching he was exposed to early on was from the Keswick Movement.  That teaching took its rise from Paul’s statement in Romans 6 to the effect that Christians were dead to sin and were no longer its slaves.  It taught what they called “a victorious Christian life” achieved not by effort, but rather simply by a conscious recognition that one is already dead to sin and alive to righteousness.  This teaching condemned exertion after holiness as simply another form of self-reliance and works-righteousness.  Rather, what was required was what they called a “total surrender to Christ.”  At the point of temptation what was required was not your effort to resist and to obey, but rather that you hand the matter over to Christ to work in you and for you, a deliberate non-exertion, or “resting,” as they called it.  You were to be passive; Christ would be active in you if you did not get in his way.  This approach would lead, these teachers promised, to a life sustained victory over sin’s dominion.  There is much more to be said about this view and it has appeared in many forms over the ages, even in new forms in the Reformed world today.  But, here is Packer’s account of his own experience under that teaching.  He had tried hard to put this teaching into effect, yet he found that his attempt to achieve this “total consecration or surrender to Christ” seemed to leave him exactly where he was before.  He is writing about himself in the third person.

“His perplexity was this:  he had heard and read his teachers describing a state of sustained victory over sin.  It was pictured as a condition of peace and power in which the Christian, filled and borne along by the Holy Spirit, was kept from falling and was moved and enabled to do things for God which were otherwise beyond him.  To yield, surrender and consecrate oneself to God was the prescribed way in…. But the student’s experience as he tried to follow instructions was like that of the poor drug addict whom he found years later trying with desperate concentration to walk through a brick wall.  His attempts at total consecration left him where he was – an immature and churned-up young man, painfully aware of himself, battling his daily way, as adolescents do, through manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration … it all seemed a long way from the victorious, power-packed life which those Christians were supposed to enjoy, who by consecration had emptied themselves of themselves.

            But what should he do?  According to the teaching, all that ever kept Christians from this happy life was unwillingness to pay the entry fee – in other words, failure to yield themselves fully to God.  So all he could do was repeatedly reconsecrate himself, scraping the inside of his psyche till it was bruised and sore in order to track down still unyielded things by which the blessing was perhaps being blocked.  His sense of continually missing the bus, plus his perplexity as to the reason why he was missing it, became painful to live with, like a…stone in your shoe that makes you wince every step you take.

            However, he happened to be something of a bookworm, and in due course he stumbled across some reading which became a lifeline, showing him how to deal with himself as he was and enabling him to see the thing he had been seeking as the will-o’-the-wisp that it is…. A burned child, however, dreads the fire, and hatred of the cruel and tormenting unrealities of overheated holiness teaching remains in his heart to this day.

            Now I was that student, and the books I read were volumes 6 and 7 of the works of the Puritan John Owen and J.C. Ryle’s Holiness….”  [Keep in Step with the Spirit, 157-158]

“The Puritans [did] me good; they went deep, and were magnificent on mortification.”  [God’s Words, 15]

The fact is, as Paul makes unmistakably clear here, there is a great deal for us to do in the matter of our walking with Christ and living a godly, righteous, and useful life.  Passivity has nothing to do with the Christian life.  And all of that doing amounts to one or the other of two things:  putting off the old man or putting on the new.  And it is hard work, this putting off and putting on.  It is so hard that the most faithful Christians, the ones who have done this work the hardest and the longest, leave this world exhausted.  Exhausted, but exhilarated too: grateful and satisfied that they have fought the good fight and run the race.  Paul himself was such a man.

Let us face facts.  There remains in us the very thinking, the very feeling, the very motivation that Paul describes so darkly in vv. 17-19.  Every serious Christian knows that it is so.  He hears, she hears Paul speak of the pagan heart and the pagan way of life in vv. 17-19 and his or her heart sinks, because every Christian knows that he or she is not past all of that.  There is inside of us the same “natural anti-God egoism of fallen human nature” [Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 35] that is found in every unbelieving heart.  There is the same foolishness and hardness of heart.  And that anti-God egoism expresses itself very powerfully in evil desires, in selfishness, in lust, in pride, in every kind of tendency to live as if God did not exist, as if he had not loved us with an everlasting love and as if he had not sent his Son to die for our sins, and as if he were not coming again to judge the living and the dead.  And eradicating that anti-God egoism is the hardest thing in all the world to do, hardest by far.  After all God has done and Christ has done; even with the Holy Spirit in us and with us, there is a lifetime of hard work for every Christian.  And we know there is in us an aversion to that hard work.  We turn away from it.

A church father warned in his day that plurimi peccata radunt non eradicant, and we know that we have been guilty of that times without number.  We have not set out with might and main to put our sins to death, to destroy them.  We have only scraped them.  We have shushed the old man, but we have not tripped him and kicked him while he was down.  And, in the same way, we have summoned the new man within us, but we have not embraced him and held fast to him and refused to let him go.  Perhaps there have been times, many times, when we have been so determined and when we have done precisely what Paul says here and elsewhere we ought to do.  Perhaps some of us who are getting older can remember times when we were much more faithfully and eagerly and expectantly doing just that.   But, perhaps more often recently, we have been like the man in that old, silent comedy short, “in which the escaped lion takes the place of the shaggy dog beside the armchair and the comic affectionately runs his fingers through his mane several times before realizing that, as we say, he has a problem.”  [Packer, God’s Words, 182]  We treat our sins as friends instead of the killers that they are.

And so we need to hear Paul remind us again and again what our sin actually is and amounts to, just as he does here in vv. 17-19.  It is what unbelievers do and it leads to a life as corrupt, as futile, as pointless, as dark, as impure as the life lived by those who do not know God and have no idea what human life is really for or where it is really going.  When we fail to put off the old man we are like them!

When we fail to put off the old man we are, at that moment and during that time, like the dead men that sinners are without Christ.  Remember, that is how, in 2:1,  Paul described these believers before they became believers:  dead in transgressions and sins.  Here in vv. 17-19 he gives “an inward, psychological analysis” of that living death:  emptiness, futility, darkness, hardness, separation, impurity, ignorance.  And that continues to be our life at every point where we are not putting off the old man and putting on the new.

As an aside, may I say to you who are not Christians, “how would you like to be singled out, and have it said of you, ‘Don’t [live] as that man [lives, or that woman]…”  [Rabbi Duncan in Brown’s, Life of Duncan, 247-8]  And yet that is what Paul says of everyone, however polite, however successful as the world measures success, everyone who is not a follower of Jesus Christ.  Yours is a life not to be lived, not to be imitated.  Does that offend you?  Does it seem proud and censorious and unfair that Paul should say such a dark thing about the lives of all non-Christians?  Well, we can well understand why you might take offense.  But, we Christians also know that Paul is right to say it, hard as it may be to hear it.  Because we have both lives inside of us and we know for a certainty that one is good and the other is bad, that one is right and the other is wrong, that one is beguiling and attractive and easy but that it leads inexorably to corruption and death and that the other is hard and trying but leads infallibly to true happiness and eternal life.  We know that Paul is not lying in vv. 17-19.  He is telling the hard truth.  We know it because that truth is a fact of our own existence.  You cannot see both these lives to compare them to one another, until you have both within you at the same time.

We know very well how dark our minds can sometimes be, how futile our thinking, how foolish, because we have forgotten God, virtually as if we did not know him, and when we are in that state, we are liable to all kinds of thoughts, words, and actions that are impure and unkind and untrue and harmful.  And, of course, the problem is, we cannot see God, we must believe in him.  We must take him at his word that he is with us, that his promises will all come true: that sin, even very pleasurable sins must pay a wage, that he will honor those who honor him, that he will give us grace to help in time of need, and so on.  And it is hard for people of sight and sense to live by faith.  It is the hardest thing in the world.

People come to the Pacific Northwest and they have heard about our famous mountain.  But if they come at the wrong time of year, which it often seems, is most of the year, they may be here for days and never see it.  The mist and the clouds obscure the beautiful peak and they come and they go never once having set eyes on Mt. Rainier.  It was there.  The entire time, it was there.  But they did not see it.  And the unbeliever is very like that visitor, except he concludes that the mountain is not there at all because he cannot see it.  We know that is wrong, that is foolish, but too often we make the same mistake. 

How wrong we are so often to act as if God were not there when we make our peace with the old man and keep the new man waiting?  There is no way to avoid the conflict, the hard work, the struggle in prayer, the falls and the new beginnings, even the tears of frustration at how hard and how long the work becomes.  Paul himself did not escape that struggle and that frustration and that sense of longing for it all to be over.  He tells us all about his struggle in Romans 7 and 8.

But, there is no other way for us who are the followers of Jesus Christ.  No other way except to quit and to find in quitting, not release, not happiness, not peace, but simply the old life of the unbeliever: living death, spiraling downwards.  That is the choice and that is the only choice.  Surely, we know that we cannot choose otherwise than to choose that new self, that part of us that is pure and admirable and true and honest and kind, that part of us that is created in Christ Jesus to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Well, then, if we cannot choose otherwise, then let us choose anew and put on the new self every day and every hour of every day.