Off With the Old, On With the New

Our lesson this week begins in Ephesians 4:17-19 with Paul’s admonition to the Ephesian believers that they must no longer walk as “the Gentiles” do. I find this to be an interesting change in the way he has been addressing them, since up to this point he has been referring to them as “you Gentiles” (2:11 & 3:1), and now he is making a point to distinguish them from the Gentiles. Paul’s arguments in chapter 2 and 3 were addressing the lengths to which the grace of God will reach—even to you Gentiles—to save those who have been predestined for adoption through Jesus Christ. He was also emphasizing the unity of the body of Christ, into which Jew and Gentile alike are called to live together in the bond of peace which is made possible only through the cross, describing their former distinctions in order to underscore their present unity.

But now Paul wants to highlight the distinction between their former lives in which they were separated from Christ and their present lives in Christ. God’s grace reached far enough to draw them in, now, knowing this, how are they to live? How are we to live?

Paul begins with a comprehensive look at how the minds of the unbelievers, the Gentiles, operate: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (17-19). Note the phrases he uses: Futility of mind, darkened understanding, ignorance, callous. This does not in any way mean that unbelievers are unintelligent or stupid. Indeed, in the common grace of our God, many unbelievers are very intelligent and have used their gifts for the good of many. Paul means that they are unable to access by means of their intellect, however great or small, the knowledge of God and spiritual matters.

I once visited a church while out of town and realized not far into the service that they did not believe in the gospel from a Reformed perspective. The music was sincere and the power-point sermon presentation was tolerable. But when the pastor, reaching the climax of his sermon, attempted to illustrate his point that we who are saved ought to be earnest in witnessing to others (yes, I agree) by comparing us to survivors of a shipwreck, in lifeboats searching for other survivors in the water (still on track), by saying that, “At least you were smart enough to climb into the boat,” I must confess, he lost me. I would not have been smart enough to climb into any lifeboat. Had I the strength, I would have been swimming away from the lifeboat. But instead, I was floating, dead in the water. God himself pulled me into the boat and administered a life-saving heart transplant, else I would have remained dead in the water. My intellectual capacity (praise God!) had nothing to do with my salvation. If intelligence was the ticket into the boat, it would have already been filled with others smarter than myself and I would have been left in the water.

Fortunately, Paul has already made this point back in chapter 2. He is emphasizing here the inability of the unregenerate to comprehend the spiritual truths of salvation by means of their minds as well as showing us the darkness which results from their unbelief. Verse 18 gives us a clue as to why the minds of unbelievers are darkened to spiritual truth. It is “due to their hardness of heart,” the result of which is that they “are alienated from the life of God.” We were directed to Romans 1:21-32 for further insight into this darkness and alienation, and the depths of depravity to which a darkened heart will give itself. This is a darkness which permeates how one thinks and what one desires. This darkness leads to callousness, sensuality, and the pursuit of “every kind of impurity.”

Our next question then asks why Paul should be writing about wrong thinking before discussing wrong behavior. We are sent to Matthew 15:16-20 for help.

“And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Jesus is here explaining that sinful behaviors come from the heart, not from the environmental factors outside of a person. Our motives lead to our actions, whether they be sinful or righteous. And our motives come from our hearts. But our question was about our thinking, and doesn’t that involve the mind, not the heart? According to theologians down through the ages, and expressed so well by Sinclair Ferguson, “As Christians, we believe that there is no route to the affections (the heart) without passing through the mind.” [Sinclair Ferguson, “Losing My Religion,” Ligonier National Conference, 2012, The Christian Mind. Listen to his whole message  here]

In short, what we believe in our heart, and therefore, that which drives our behavior, passes through our minds. While it may seem at times that we don’t think deeply about what we believe—though we really ought to—our faith is more than feelings and gut-reactions. There is content to our faith, substance to what we believe. And as Christians, if we want to pursue righteousness we really must think about it! Sinclair Ferguson later in his message quoted John Stott saying, “The secret of holy living lies in the mind.”

This is precisely Paul’s point, which he develops further in verses 20-24. He first points out that they have learned Christ, having heard about him and were taught the truth that is in him, which sets them apart from the way the Gentiles think. Then he elaborates on what they are taught by getting to the heart of why and how they are different from the Gentiles, indeed, from who they themselves were before Christ. They have been taught in Jesus, “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (vs. 22-24).

Our next question first explains that Paul is describing a change not just of outward behavior, but one that covers every aspect of our being. We are then asked how this helps us to understand what it means that in Christ we have been ‘created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’? Commenting on this passage, Rick Phillips takes us back to the Garden:

“When Paul speaks here of the ‘old man,’ as the Greek text puts it, he alludes to Adam and the sinful nature we all inherit through original sin. Original sin describes not what Adam did in the Garden but the corrupt state of nature that we all, as his offspring, inherit from that first transgression. The church father Origen wrote, ‘It is this “old man,” this ancient condition of humanity, that is put off in Christ. Thus Paul says, ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come’ (2 Cor. 5:17). The old man, Adam, and the life of sin is left behind, and the new man, Jesus Christ, lives in us through faith and by the Holy Spirit.

Our transformation involves not only putting off the old, but also putting on the new, just as Christianity is more than salvation from sin but also a new and holy life… Verse 24 contains the statement that our new self is ‘created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.’ Do you realize that this is what God intends for you? God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness’ (Gen. 1:26), and this more than anything else defines the image of God: ‘true righteousness and holiness.’ … By righteousness, Paul is here talking about our conduct. By holiness, he describes our spiritual attitude, our love for the things of God and our inward purity. Christians are reborn, created in Christ for this—to be like God in ‘true righteousness and holiness.’ What could be more wonderful or glorious?” [Richard D. Phillips, Ephesians, a Mentor Expository Commentary, (Christian Focus Publications; 2016), p. 358-359]

Paul insists that our calling demands a holy life for which we have power through our union with Jesus Christ. In our re-birth we are returned to our image-bearing purpose. Paul will spend the rest of the chapter, and the letter, giving us specific examples of what this holy living is to look like, how we are to live in the likeness of God. Verses 25-32, dealing with our relationships, tell us what we are to put off, what we are to put on instead, and why:

Put Off:   Falsehood; Sinful anger & grudges; Stealing; Corrupting talk; Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, malice.

Put on: Speaking the truth to one another; Righteous anger & quick forgiveness; Honest labor w/ own hands; Suitable, building-up talk; Kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness.

Why: We are members one of another; Deprive devil of opportunity; Share with needy; Give grace to hearers; God in Christ forgave us.

(This all looks better in a table with three columns, but I just couldn’t make it work…)

In this list do you see how our inward transformation is meant to result in practical outward changes? These changes are possible only through the gift of our faith in Christ. Just as our salvation is not a means for boasting on our part, so also the transformation wrought in us by the Holy Spirit is a gift of grace and therefore not a reason for us to boast. We have received this as a gift, and yet we are to live it—to give every effort to ‘walk in a manner worthy’ of our calling! This is sanctification, and it is a process.

“While we will never be perfect in this life, our passage proves that it is both possible and expected that Christians will grow into Christ-like holiness. One of the great ills of the church is that people believe holiness is only for special, high-profile people, Christian leaders and special ‘saints.’ But Paul says that anyone who has enrolled in the school of Christ is called and empowered to put off the old self and put on the new self, that new self being a holy one in God’s own image.” [Phillips, p. 359]

Our recent conference speaker, Jen Wilkin, in a blog post written in 2014 which rapidly went viral, addressed a trend among believers to downplay our ability to grow in holiness and instead plead that we are ‘messy failures’ and therefore can only cry out for grace in our inability to live obedient lives. She clarifies her argument in her post, and Paul’s point in our passage, as follows:

“Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope… Growing in holiness means that we fail less than we used to, because at long last we are learning to obey in both motive and deed, just as Christ obeyed.” [Jen Wilkin, Failure is Not a Virtue, The Gospel Coalition, May 1, 2014, you may read the original post here]

Let us use exhortations like this in Scripture to pray for ourselves that the Lord would help us to put off our old selves and put on our new selves, so that we would learn to obey in motive and deed.

The next section in our study takes a closer look at the three prohibitions given by Paul for when we are angry.

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (vs. 26, 27)

We are then asked to think through what ‘not sinning in our anger’ means, and given a multiple-choice list to consider.

  1. Pretending you are not angry.
  2. Being angry, but not acting on it.
  3. Screaming into and/or beating a pillow.
  4. Other.

Having concluded in class that we can each check off each item on this list as ways that we have dealt with anger, even though these responses may or may not have been sinful (the jury is still out on 3.), we decided to go with 4. Taking Paul’s cue that our behavior begins with our motives, and the biblical truth that sin is a heart-issue, we decided that the definition for sinful anger must have to do with our hearts’ motives and not the outward behavior. This is not to say that sinful anger does not result in sinful behavior—it most certainly does—this is looking for the definition of the sin which can then lead to multiple behaviors in its outward manifestation. Reading through Rick’s commentary on this it seemed to boil down to one quote he included from another commentator, “He that will be angry and not sin, let him be angry at nothing but sin” [Phillips, p 361]. That’s a short quote that requires a lot of chewing.

In order to be angry at nothing but sin we must examine our hearts when anger wells up within us. Why am I angry? Have I been personally offended? Has my pride been stepped on or exposed? Have my plans been thwarted? Am I not getting my way? So many reasons for my own anger come down to my own pride, desires, and selfishness. Our study gave us several passages of Scripture to help us diagnose sinful anger:

‘But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”’ (Galatians 2: 11-14)

‘What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.’ (James 4: 1-3)

‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.’ (Luke 6: 41, 42)

(The study guide also suggested John 13-17, which may or may not have been a misprint, and reading these chapters is never a waste of time. Seeing Jesus serving his disciples—even Judas—was instructive, and learning again that the sending of the Holy Spirit would help us to live in perfect unity with one another may have been the point.)

One of our ladies helpfully offered a test which she has learned over the years to be a helpful diagnostic: have I been sinned against? The passages above also speak to that. Peter (Cephas) was sinning against his Gentile fellow-believers, so Paul ‘got in his face’ about it to correct him. James speaks to the examination of our hearts. In the Luke passage, Jesus tells us to be careful to put away our own sin before going to our sister to address her sin. These passages in no way teach that we are to stuff our anger and not deal with it. If we are sinfully angry, we must repent. If we have a righteous basis for our anger we must address it prayerfully and carefully.

We are next asked why it is important to not let the sun go down on our anger. With this we agreed that Paul is not here speaking literally of the sun setting at the end of the day, but that we must not let anger linger and develop into a festering grudge that embitters our hearts. If you need to take a night to “sleep on it,” in order to address an issue with a calmer frame of mind, then by all means do that. The point is: deal with it. Give yourself some time to think about whether there is anyone against whom you are holding a grudge, and pray for wisdom to deal with it soon. This is a prayer that the Lord will gladly answer.

Finally, we want to be clear that this is no dry list of mere do’s and don’ts. Taken in context, as we look back through the rest of Ephesians, we see that these verses flow out of Paul’s passion for the church and for God himself. Paul’s concern for the church is that we walk in a manner worthy of our calling, in unity, growing in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and being built up in love, into a dwelling place for God. This is all to the praise of God’s glory, according to his purpose. When God’s purposes in the church are fulfilled in the unity and growth of the body, we are filled with all the fullness of God and to him is accorded glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! We are empowered to live out our calling in a worthy manner by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit, by whom we are sealed for the day of redemption.

Amen, and amen!

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