The passage before us this morning reminds us of how radically different our lives are to be as Christians.
To show this Paul sets up a vivid contrast between the woeful state of the unbeliever and radically spiritual state of the believer.
To strengthen his argument and emphasize how important holiness must be, he begins by pointing out what we are not. The Christian’s call to purity will be seen all that much more distinctly when it is held against the backdrop of the pitch, black corruption of the unbeliever’s life.
So, as we look at verses 17-19, I want us to take note of how woefully corrupt the unbeliever is.
I. What we are not: Gentiles who are woefully corrupted [17-19]
And I believe you will see that someone who remains in a state of unbelief is corrupt in at least three ways. In verse 17 you can see that he is horrendously debased in his mind.
A. Our minds are corrupted
He uses a few different terms and phrases to describe the debasement of his mental faculties. He describes the Gentiles as walking in “the futility of their minds.” The KJV translates this as the “vanity of their mind.”
The word for futility can mean empty. So, in a sense, the unbeliever is emptyheaded. Of course, this doesn’t mean he lacks intelligence or knows nothing. He is not empty of knowledge. Certainly, unbelievers can be some of the most intellectual people that you know. It’s just that his mind is empty of any spiritual understanding. His thinking and his ability to reason rightly is severely impaired because sin has so gripped his mind.
Then, in verse 18, he says that they are “darkened in their understanding.” Then he elaborates by saying that they are “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.”
So here you have three expressions all having to do with the unbeliever’s mind. His thinking is futile, his understanding is darkened, and in his mind there is nothing but ignorance.
Now again, this doesn’t mean that the unbeliever is going to flunk out of school. It just means he will flunk out of heaven. He is a moral and spiritual dunce because his mind is not able to process divine things and reason in a way that comports with the truth of God.
Theologian’s sometimes call this the “noetic effects of the fall.” And theologians look to verses like this to show that the mind’s ability to reason is severely damaged. And this is why we do not much confidence in human free will. If the mind is corrupted by sin and so severely impaired that it has no inclination towards God, how then can man choose what is good of his own power; let alone muster up the intellectual fortitude to decide for himself that he should embrace Christ and his saving grace.
Certainly the apostle’s heaping up of these phrases indicates that there is no confidence to be put in the powers of the man’s mental facilities. Or, we can state it like Calvin does, “human reason differs little from darkness.”
But the problem isn’t just with their brain. It is a major problem, for sure. But it is not the only part of the problem. Our passage goes on to say that it’s not just our minds that are corrupted, our souls are corrupted too.
B. Our souls are corrupted
As a matter of fact, this is the reason why our minds don’t operate as they should! Look at the last part of verse 18. Why is the unbeliever ignorant? Paul says that it is due “to their hardness of heart.”
Paul moves to the heart of the matter, you might say. The synapse in the brain are intimately linked to the soul. The soul serves as the brain’s engine. And we really can’t blame our noggin for not working right, because this goes deeper than that. It comes back to the very essence of our being. Our hearts are hardened against God.
Earlier in the book of Ephesians Paul said that apart from Christ we are “dead in our trespasses and sin.” Here it says our hearts are hard. What he is describing is spiritual rigor mortis. Our hearts are so dead that they’ve hardened and become absolutely powerless to do anything that pleases God.
And he furthers that by saying in verse 19 that they have become “callous.” This is another way of talking about the hardened heart. But its emphasis here is on the fact that the heart is so hard that it is not sensitive to anything spiritual.
If you have callouses on your hands it means you’ve build up some resistance to things you touch. A guitar player has to develop callouses on his fingertips so the strings don’t hurt when you press down on them. What happens is that you deaden the sensitivity of your skin.
That’s what he says has happened in the heart of an unbeliever. His soul is so hardened and opposed to God that not one of his faculties is receptive to divine things. That’s why it takes the miracle of regeneration to bring him into the faith. The unbeliever is not sensitive to the word of God and will not receive it by means of his own power.
But of course, if the heart is this corrupt, it is not only going to affect the mind, but it is also going to affect the rest of our actions.
C. Our actions are corrupted
And that’s what we see in the next part of verse 19. It says that unbelieving people “have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
Sensuality means excessive lust. It’s the idea that the person is driven by his passions and the desires of the flesh. And if that were not enough to describe the life of an unbeliever, Paul says that he is “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Someone who is greedy is someone who always wants more. The unbeliever has an insatiable thirst for sin. There’s a sense in which he years for that next lie. He’s a person who hordes cruelty and hatred, and longs to put others down in order put himself on top.
So the picture here is rather bleak. Spiritually, the unbeliever is corrupted in every way. His soul is not just a little sinful, but it is completely debased. And as a result his thought life is polluted with sin and his ability to reason is perverted to no end of error. And since his inner life is so radically debauched, it is no wonder that the rest of his life is continually menaced by the ruin of sin.
But keep in mind why the apostle says all this. The apostle isn’t wanting us to impugn unbelievers. He’s laid all this out in order to set up the contrast. As I said at the outset, verses 17-19 are backdrop. It is the black cloth that serves to underscore the beauty of the diamond.
He’s stated what we are not in order to showcase what we as Christians really are.
II. What we are: Spiritual People
Paul wants us to know that we are spiritual people. He is seeking to motivate us to act in a spiritual way. And in verses 20-24 he shows that we are spiritual people. We are to be pursuing obedience to God because we have been both spiritually enlightened and spiritually enlivened.
Look at verses 20-21. Look at how academic these verses are. He says, “But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.” I think you can readily see that this is talking about how we are spiritually enlightened.
A. We are spiritually enlightened
It says that we’ve “learned Christ.” We’ve “heard about him” and were “taught in him.” The truth is in Jesus. Do you see the focus here? These two verses are very cerebral. Paul’s telling us that our minds are not the same as the unbeliever’s minds. The unbelieving mind was incapacitated by sin. Our minds are not because they’ve been enlightened in the school of Christ. We’ve come to grasp truth. And not just truths, but the very substance of truth—the fullness of truth, which is Jesus Christ himself.
We have received the highest possible degree that one can receive. There are several in this congregation that have a lot of post graduate training. Some have gone on to get their Masters. We have at least two men who have earned their Ph.D in their respective areas of concentration. But there is a sense in which all of us who have trusted in Christ have gained a higher level of learning. Maybe it would be better to say we have received a deeper and fuller education. It’s because we have been granted an education in the most supreme curriculum. It is Jesus Christ himself, who is the the sum and substance of all truth.
But not only have we been spiritually enlightened, but Paul goes on to say that we have been spiritually enlivened too.
B. We are spiritually enlivened
Look at what is said in verses 22, 23, and 24. Verse 22 says we are to “put off our old self.” Verse 23 says we are to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. Verse 24 says we are “to put on the new self.”
All of these are indications that we have a new spiritual power. Paul has just described the hardness of the unbelieving heart and shown how he has no proclivity to live by the Spirit. Now he’s saying, “This is what is to characterize your life. You are to live this way.
You are to be shunning the sinful things that characterized your former life. That’s what it means to “put off the old self.” All the lusts, the evil practices, all the things that are characteristic of the unbelieving life—all these are to be repressed and forsaken.
And you are to be involved in true repentance in that you are moving now in the opposite direction. You are not only putting off these old habits, you are putting on the new man. You’re beginning to reflect the holiness and the righteousness that God himself has.
And you know how you do that? It is by doing what is commanded in verse 23. It is by being renewed in the spirit of your minds. This word “to be renewed” is so incredibly amazing to think about. I want to take a second and break it down. First of all the word means “to make young again.”
A good example of this might be what Judd is hoping for in his upcoming hip surgery. His current hip is deteriorating. He’s hoping that the surgery will make his hip young again. He’s hoping that it will be renewed and have a vigor that it does not now possess.
But this word is in the present tense and passive voice. In Greek the present tense indicates an ongoing action. So it means to keep on doing it. You are doing it now and need to presently keep on doing it into the future. So we might translate it by saying “Keep on being renewed in the spirit of your minds.”
But it is in the passive voice too. The passive voice means that you are not doing the action. It means that someone or something is acting upon you. You are passive and someone else is the active agent.
So it’s telling you to keep on being renewed. Who is doing the renewing? There’s only one answer. It is the Spirit of God. Paul is commanding you to continually allow the Spirit of God to invigorate—and enliven—your minds. The only way you can put off the old self and put on the new self is if your minds are being renewed. And the only way your mind can be renewed is if the Spirit of God is acting upon you. And that means you must daily submit yourself your mind to the Spirit. And how do you submit your mind to the Spirit? It is by submitting to His word.
Now, the application of this is not to have a morning quiet time. This verse is not commanding you to have special devotions where you read the Bible in a year or engage in any kind of particular method of Bible study. Those things are good. But when it tells you to keep on being renewed in your minds by the Spirit its not talking about acquiring more knowledge. You can study all day long and not be renewed in your mind. This is talking about the act of submitting to what the Spirit has taught or is teaching.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago there was a minister in my presbytery was defrocked from the ministry and formally excommunicated. Formal charges were brought against him and he never repented of them. So we had to excommunicate him. Now, this man still believes that he is a Christian. I don’t doubt that he is right now participating in a church somewhere. He’s probably singing songs and listening to sermons. For all I know, he may have gone off somewhere and gotten back into the pulpit. He might be a minister in a church somewhere. I don’t doubt that he’s probably reading the Bible too. Again, maybe he is even composing and presenting sermons.
But is he being renewed in the spirit of his mind? Is he allowing the spirit of his mind to be enlivened and invigorated by the word and will of the Spirit? That answer to that question is an emphatic “no.” He might be learning a lot. He might be gaining a great deal of knowledge. But knowledge is not what is in view here. This passage is talking about the spiritual life of the inner man.
So long as that man refuses to acknowledge the testimony of the Spirit all his learning and all his worship is deadness to God. The Spirit testifies in his word to what is right. The Spirit testifies to him in his public excommunication. And so long as he denies the cumulative testimony of the Spirit his mind is not being enlivened and he’s clings to the old man.
Let me give you another example. I’ve been listening to a series of sermons by Joe Morecraft lately. This week he told a story about a man who had been excommunicated in his congregation. But this man was eventually restored to the fellowship. It is funny how it all came about though. The man was excommunicated because of infidelity and his wife divorced him. In the settlement she got the house. So that left him with nowhere to stay. He knew that Morecraft had a room with a kitchenette down in his basement. So he asked Pastor Morecraft if he could stay there for a couple of days. Even though you’re not supposed to fellowship with an unbeliever, Morecraft let him stay.
But it was also Thanksgiving time. And on Thanksgiving Day the Morecraft family had a big celebration like they always do. They had the turkey and all the fixings. They had the potatoes, the stuffing, everything. They also, as is their custom, had friends over to celebrate with them. And since this fellow who had been excommunicated was a mutual friend, he came up from the basement and got to talk with everybody. And the time came for them to eat. So Pastor Morecraft said he fixed up a large plate of food and gave it to the fellow who had been excommunicated. And he said, “So&so, it is time for you to leave. The Bible says we are not to eat with you and so it is time for you to go.”
Morecraft said that the guy turned with his tail between his legs and went back down. He was hoping that he would get to stay and hang out with everyone and enjoy the festivities. But he had to go back down to his little domicile. Everyone else stayed upstairs and enjoyed a jolly good time. They ate, they sang, they joked and laughed. And during that time the man repented.
He later told Pastor Morecraft, “When you told me to leave, that about killed me. While I ate my meal I could hear everyone rejoicing and having a good time. But what you didn’t know is that the lightbulb had burnt out. I was left out in the outer darkness while God’s people enjoyed the fullness of the blessings of God.”
Not only is that a good story, but that is illustrative of a man who was renewed in the spirit of his mind. He submitted to the Spirit. He put off the old man and put on the new man.
Now I go through all that because it is important to understand that this is the foremost mark of a true believer. A true believer is going to put off the old man and all its deceitfulness. He’s going to put on the new man with all its holiness and righteousness. But it’s going to start with his submitting the spirit of his mind to the word and will of God.
And I believe this is important for our church right now.
You may remember a while back I said that the book of Ephesians is a book that deals heavily with ecclesiology. This central portion of the book is a study in the church and how it should function.
We just got done with the section that deals with the officers in the church: The apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the shepherds and the teachers. Paul said that these men were gifts. It’s not just that they had gifts, but they themselves are the gifts. These offices and the men that fill these offices are gifts of Christ for the building up of the church.
Before that we dealt with the topic of unity in the church. You know we dealt with the tensions that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles. It would seem that the Ephesian church was a tinder box ready to explode and splinter into their little factions.
Don’t you find it interesting that these are the exact same issues we at Providence Church are dealing with right now? Our church is losing its unity. And we’ve been in a tussle over the gifts Christ has given to the church—the offices of shepherds and teachers. There have been accusations of sin, there have been arguments postulated, there have been conversations had.
But do you know why the unity of the church is breaking down? Do you know why we are having all these problems with regard to the leadership of this church? It’s because we are not being renewed in the spirit of our minds. We are clinging to the ignorance and the futility of human reason rather than submitting ourselves to the Spirit of God.
Friends, it is my hope that we no longer walk as the Gentiles do. It’s our job to show that we’ve learned Christ and have been taught in him. I pray that we may renounce the old man, with all its dec eitfulness and put on the new man, which is created after the likeness of God.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.