History is enamoured with millions of stories of people who have been changed by Jesus. One of those lives happened in the latter part of the 20th century. The man who was changed had, by any worldly definition, become successful. He had attended a top rated college, presided over a law firm in Washington DC which did very well and eventually was named as an important council to the president of the United States. If anyone could imagine having a job where one worked in an office, could walk to a neighboring office, talk to the president of the United States and the president would actually listen to that person that is the job this individual had.
Watergate changed everything for this person, Charles Colson. He was arrested for being involved in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Known as a nasty political operative, he went to jail. While spending time in prison, something happened to Colson. He surrendered his life to Jesus and became a Christian.
Now, a guy who was known as a nasty operative and was in the eyes of the nation corrupt transformed into a person who dedicated the rest of his life to reaching out to those behind bars. He lobbied for prison reforms and created a ministry (Angel Tree) where children of those in prison would get gifts at Christmas time.
Here we see a stark example of someone who left behind an old way of life and embraced a new way of thinking and living.
Today, we will examine the old self vs the new self the Apostle Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4:17-24.
Thesis: God calls us to leave behind our old spiritual selves of this fallen world and take up our new selves as we follow Jesus.
To recap the themes from Ephesians, in chapter one, Paul rejoices that believers are chosen by God. The next chapter finds Paul reminding believers they are saved by grace through faith, not by works, so that no one can boast. In chapter three, he talks about reconciliation among believers and more specifically, a cultural and racial reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. Here, Jesus is exalted as a unifying factor as the One who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. Now, in chapter four, Paul writes further about unity and its vital importance. In the first century CE and in this church, there were many cultural, racial, even religious differences but they had a belief in one Savior. How did these people unite with few commonalities?
A major factor of unity in the Body of Christ is for believers to actively put off their old selves with old values from the world and embrace new selves as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:17-24. This is embracing a spiritual renewal of ourselves that is given to us by the Holy Spirit upon conversion.
First of all, let’s discuss what a Gentile is further. Paul says, “that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do.” This was a very early theological debate in the church. The early Christians did not have the entirety of God’s Word yet. The New Testament was not even finished being inspired by God and written by his prophets.
In the Old Testament, Israel was the chosen nation of God. This was a theocracy. If someone read the first 5 books of the Bible, they would see not only religious and ceremonial rules but sometimes political rules. If someone commits a sin, the government would bring about consequences. The Gentiles were simply non-Jewish people. This is a catch-all phrase for nations outside of Israel.
When Christ came and died for our sins and rose again from the grave, He didn’t just die for the sins of Jewish people. He died for ALL sins and sinners. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” (John 3:16) Jesus declared that His kingdom is here (a present tense) in the gospels. He also told a politician, Pontius Pilate, something interesting. He stated in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” There is debate over this passage but my take on the statement by Jesus is He is presiding over a spiritual kingdom. That this spiritual kingdom welcomes anyone who comes (or who is called by God). All races, all peoples, all cultures, and people from any religion can come to Jesus, be forgiven and be saved. It is a spiritual kingdom that exists in the hearts of man.
Back to the big theological debate in the early church which was very Jewish. Now, all of these Gentiles were wanting to follow Jesus (see Acts 2; Pentecost) and join the Christian community. This caused some tension. The early church may have asked, “what do we do with the Gentile converts? Paul says, “welcome them.” This is the mystery of the gospel that he wrote about in Ephesians 3- the Jews and Gentiles would be unified by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This was God’s divine plan from the beginning, only made known to humanity through Jesus Christ.
When Paul writes to “no longer walk as the Gentiles dd”, he is using a familiar analogy to a large part of his audience. Simply, don’t walk or behave like unbelievers anymore.
How does the process look for a believer to leave behind old (sinful) patterns of living and embrace new life in Christ?
1) Believers should not have a futility of the mind and callousness toward Jesus
“Futility” means being void of useful aim or goal and is equivalent to the same word authored in Ecclesiastes 39 times. Paul says “futility of the mind”. This is a lack of moral attitude. The mind was meant to know God, to comprehend His revelation and to see the world like He does. In a fallen world, separated from God by sin (see Genesis 3), revelation can be harder to comprehend. The main mission of humanity: to love God and love other people has been clouded by the curse.
Going along with “futility of the mind” is “callousness” which is a lack of sensitivity. A person or community of this mindset has given themselves over to greed and sensuality or practicing of every kind of impurity. The description of a life without concern for personal standards or social sanctions is an existence mired in the old life described by Paul.
In the past decade, Wall Street has given us an example of various institutions (and the individuals who run them) of being lacking in personal standards or social sanctions. The complexity of what happened in the great recession is far too vast to comment much on here. We saw banks trying to lend money to as many people as they could, sell of those securities to other businesses and essentially play a giant, twisted game of who is left holding the bag. Politicians were lobbied to look the other way. The point to be made here is the focus was on making as much of a bottom line profit as the institution could. It was not concerned with the well-being of the people who would lose their retirement savings or houses. Greed almost crashed our society and indeed, the western world.
All of that being said, it is important to remember that Paul here is not writing a letter that sets up an “us-against-them” mentality. This is not “unbelievers” vs “believers”. Paul here is challenging, asking us and prodding us to ultimately know Jesus. As a result of knowing Jesus, we hear and understand and should be sensitive to what His values are.
The uncomfortable question is: how do believers sometimes demonstrate a futility of the mind? One of my friends recently told me about this dating couple. Now, he didn’t mention names and I don’t know the names of people involved. He brought up the fact that they had mentioned to him that they completely agree with the Bible. They loved the Bible and the values it teaches and how it says they can know God. There was one thing though that they didn’t agree with. They didn’t like the parts of the Bible that state that sexuality is only for a marriage relationship. Here is this couple: professing Christians and doing a lot of things that the Bible asks them to do except one. Interestingly enough, this one thing they conveniently argued around or justified so they could do what they wanted to do.
Do we as Christians also sometimes think like this? Oftentimes, our justifications may be in relation to sexuality but they might allude to a whole host of things in our life. Do we try to argue around what the Scripture tells us?
A former church that I was at had a pastor who very simply preached a mindset from the stage all the time. Do we take the Bible and put it under us (so to speak) and then judge the text for ourselves? Or, do we approach God’s Word humbly asking, “OK, what does the Scripture say?” And, “How can I apply this to my life?”
To ignore passages of God’s Word that we don’t like or that we don’t want to agree with is futile. It is a futility of the mind that makes us no different from gentiles (unbelievers) who also ignore many parts of Scripture.
Believers should not be calloused toward Scripture. They should long to hear what the Bible says and to be changed by the inspired words of God.
2) Believers are not darkened in their understanding/alienated from the life of God/ hardened of heart.
People who have adopted this way of thinking have either not been presented with the gospel or have outright rejected God’s good news. They choose not to see God’s plan of redemption and that this plan brings life and beyond that, joy.
There are two thinkers from the 20th century who are at opposite spectrums on God. One is Christopher Hitchens and the other is CS Lewis. Here are two contrasting quotes from each one:
Christopher Hitchens, “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.” -God is not great
“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”
Hitchens is the definition of someone who was gladly alienated from God and who celebrated hardening his own heart.
In contrast, CS Lewis was an atheist who became a Christian.
“The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can but duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.” –Surprised by Joy.
Again though, given the context, how are Christians darkened in their understanding of God or even how do they act like they are alienated? A while back, I heard a very provocative term “functional atheist”. Someone who says that they believe in God and maybe are involved in a local church to one degree or another. This “functional atheist” may go on missions trips and give some money to charities or people in need every now and again. But if you looked at the rest of their lifestyle, there isn’t much evidence that they actually believe in Jesus. That’s a “functional atheist”.
Back in the mid 1990s, I was in youth group after becoming a Christian and we would listen to this album “Jesus Freak” by dc Talk. My wife reminds me that this was and is very cheesy. It probably is. There is a song called, “What if I stumble” and before this song, there is a quote, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is simply what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
Paul declares that if we have put on the new self. If we have been impacted and awakened by Christ, there will be a difference in the way we conduct our lives. A darkened understanding and alienation from God will turn into having a spotlight (and sometimes painful at that) shone on our whole life. We will be drawing closer to God and as we do there are things that are a part of our life (habits, lifestyles choices, etc) that will be brought to the forefront. God calls us through this passage to give them up and embrace the new body. We should walk as though Christ has redeemed us because He has. Walk as if we are embraced and loved by Almighty God, the God who created everything because we are indeed. The Truth about Jesus changes us. If it does not change (albeit sometimes very slowly) then we have not been impacted by His love.
To be continued…This was a sermon originally preached at King’s Cross Church on December 2, 2012. To listen to this sermon, click here: http://www.ourkingscross.org/resources/sermons/ and download “New Self vs Old Self”