We’ve talked about how God’s grace changes His church, from people who are naturally divided and selfish to people who are united by His grace for His glory.
Now, as Paul continues in his letter to the church at Ephesus, we see how God’s grace teaches individual believers to live holy lives.
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that 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.”–Eph. 4:17-19
Paul begins this next section by commanding the church to not live “like the Gentiles do.” Now, Paul isn’t talking about non-Jewish believers, but rather, those who are outside of God’s law and who live like they are outside God’s law. He’s talking about the unbelieving world, with its sin and ungodly lifestyle and culture.
We can relate to this. We live in a country that sponsors the murder of children on a daily basis via abortion. We live in a country that opposes God’s standard for sexuality, and celebrates infidelity. We live in a world that is obsessed with power, and which country has the strongest military and the strongest nuclear weapons. We live in a world that openly denies not just the goodness of God, but the very existence of God.
Paul reminds the church that this is not how they are to live. They are not to live “alienated from the life of God,” or to be “callous” and give themselves over to sexual immorality.
Why does he have to remind them of these things? Shouldn’t these truths just come naturally for the believer? In a way, yes. Those who have the Spirit of God should know and understand how they are to live, which Paul discusses a few verses from now. However, the unfortunate reality is that we all have a sinful flesh that sometimes looks at the sinful world around us and says, “That doesn’t look so bad. That actually looks good, and fun, and profitable.” We have a sinful flesh that would turn us away from the goodness and glory of God to the “broken cisterns” God has called us out of (Jer. 2:13).
Therefore, we must be continually reminded of what Christ has done for us.
“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, 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.”–4:20-24
Christians are prone to legalism and licentiousness. We are prone to both try to save ourselves by good behavior, and, at the same time, cheapen God’s grace and twist into a license for sinful living. Both of these are unbiblical and ungodly positions.
Paul tells the church to be holy, not because they need to save themselves, but because they have been saved. Ungodly living is not the “way you learned Christ!” When you became a Christian, if you truly “heard about him and were taught in him,” you were not taught to live a life of sin in response to God’s grace. While Jesus never calls us to save ourselves, He does call us to live like saved people. People that are on their way to heaven should, by God’s grace, over the course of their lives, look more and more like people who belong there.
Our “old self,” our “former manner of life,” is to live like the world. It is in our nature to be deceived by sin. Those deceitful desires include the lies of sexual immorality, the lies of idolatry, which turns good gifts into false gods, and the lies of pride and unrighteous anger, which takes God off His throne and seeks to sit in His place. Sin is deceitful, Paul reminds us.
But we do not belong to sin! We have been freed from our sin; we have been forgiven and redeemed by God’s grace! We have learned Christ, and because of that, we seek to have our minds renewed, and put on the new self, which is made, not in the image of the world, but in the image of God, in “true righteousness and holiness.”
So what does that new life look like?
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”–4:25-32
I like lists. I’ve always liked lists. I have more than one app on my phone that allows me to write down lists. I make lists of books I want to read, things I want to research, and when I get really bored, I rank my favorite sports teams in a list.
This even crosses over into my relationship with God. I like lists of what I’m supposed to do, who I’m supposed to be, because it allows me a way to gauge my progress, and supplies tiny “check-boxes” of Christian behavior.
And while there’s nothing wrong with lists of Christian behavior, we ought not simply read Paul’s instructions here as another list for us to accomplish. The goal of the Christian life is not to simply “check off” the next box in our spiritual progress, as if it’s another school assignment we’re trying to make an “A” on. These “lists” of Christian behaviors and practices are intended to give us a small, not exhaustive, snapshot of Jesus Himself. Jesus speaks truth (He is truth!); Jesus has righteous anger and does not sin; Jesus labors and works hard, and Jesus gives grace in His speech. Rather than presenting a list of actions to master, these actions should point us to the heart of our Savior, and call us to imitate Him in faith.
We don’t wake up and say, “I’m going to work on telling the truth and not letting the sun go down on my anger today.” That ultimately leads to morality apart from Christ. We end up getting so focused on the behaviors that we lose sight of the cross and we lose sight of Jesus. Instead of walking in fellowship with Jesus as Lord, and believing Him, and acting like the men and women we are in Christ, which all leads to these godly behaviors, we just try really hard to check off a list of behaviors and pronounce ourselves godly. Godliness apart from God isn’t godliness, though. God’s intent is for us to grow IN CHRIST. Go back to verse 15 of chapter 4: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” We are to grow in Christ, not apart from Him. We don’t grow in Christ when we focus on behaviors. We grow in Christ when we reflect on who Christ is, what Christ has done, and in faith, who He now calls us to be–men and women who reflect His glory and His holiness.
So when we look at these actions, we look at them and say, “This is what Jesus is like. This is who Jesus is, and I am in Jesus. Therefore, this is who I am, and who I’m called to be.” And in faith in Christ, we live out our godly calling.
God changes us, not when we focus on our behaviors, but when we focus on our Redeemer. He changes us when we remember that we are not who we used to be, and we are now following Christ. He changes us when we remember that we’ve been forgiven, and made new. He changes us as we examine the character and person of Jesus, and see who He is, and as we, by faith, by His grace, seek to imitate Him in love to a world that desperately needs to see Him.
Lord, may we remember to focus, not on ourselves or our behaviors, but on you and your grace. May we remember your holiness and your example, not as things to imitate to earn salvation, but as a way of life to imitate in gratitude for salvation by grace. May we as your church reflect your glory.