We wrapped up two Sundays ago the first section of chapter 4 on the theme of church unity. We now move into the subject of what constitutes Christian moral behavior. Look with me at the text, Ephesians 4:17-19.
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. 18 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. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
The first phrase – Now this I say and testify in the Lord – indicates a new subject. Paul is now moving toward another focus, which is important to him. To “testify in the Lord” is a solemn declaration.
So what is weighing on Paul’s mind? It is that walk which he first spoke of in verse 1: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do.” In verse 1, the walk involved the manner in which Christians are to build up one another as the body of Christ. Here the walk is presented as a contrast to the believers’ former way of life. That is what is meant by “Gentiles” in this instance. Jonny McGreevy will tell us that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are Irish and those who wish they were. Scripture actually had a neat division as well up until Christ’s coming: those who were Jewish, belonging to the covenant people of God, and those who were not, i.e. Gentiles.
Look at Paul’s description of the Gentiles back to 2:11-12:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
It was Paul’s special commission by Christ to take the gospel to the Gentiles that such a distinction might no longer exist, that instead of birth heritage being the dividing point, it would be the rebirth that takes place in the follower of Christ. Nevertheless, Paul is taking that term “Gentile” and using it to depict the old life, the old self that characterized the life of the believers before they knew Christ.
The rest of the text is a description of that life. The Gentiles “walk…in the futility of their minds.” “Futility” is the same word translated “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. That vain life in which the Teacher claim all that we do is ultimately meaningless – that is the life of the Gentiles.
Why do the Gentiles walk along a path of meaningless existence? The next phrase tells us: “They are darkened in their understanding.” They cannot see their way clearly as to what life really is about. Why can’t they see their way clearly? They are “alienated from the life of God.” If the Spirit of God is not in them; if the Spirit is not working within them, they cannot understand spiritual truth. Why then don’t they turn to God for enlightenment? “Because of the ignorance that is in them.” They don’t turn to God because they are ignorant of him. “But,” we say, “they don’t have to be ignorant. Surely they have heard of God; even without Scripture, they can see the creation about them and reason that there is a Creator.” That’s a start. If they would consider how there could be a moral law, that would lead them to reason. Maybe if…but the real problem is not lack of opportunity to learn. The Gentiles’ ignorance is “due to their hardness of heart.”
Here is Paul’s fuller treatment of the subject from Romans 1:18-23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Mankind is ignorant because mankind is rebellious, which, by the way, is a simple principle that every school teacher knows. They know that test scores are only partially related to the intelligence of their students. Their best performers are measured by their desire to learn, not their innate ability. Teachers take delight in helping the students who want to learn, but they struggle to want to help the students who show no interest. Indeed, if the resistance is great enough, teachers will even give such students over to follow their obstinate ways so that their understanding grows ever darker.
What then is the effect of this ignorance and hardness of heart of the Gentiles? “They have become callous.” What they became callous to is moral sensitivity. They’ve lost it, and as a result they “have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
That is a sweeping indictment. These verses are saying that Gentiles – i.e. nonJews who have not embraced the gospel – because they have hardened themselves against God, have become ignorant of him and callous to moral decency, so much so that they have given themselves over to indulging in every kind of sexual immorality.
Does that mean that Gentiles were as bad as they could be? No. In Romans 2:14-15 Paul writes: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…” The issue is not that Gentiles are as bad as they can be, but that their way of thinking leads them along a path of immoral behavior. There are degrees, of course, for each individual and each society as to how far down the path they go, but that is the direction where their darkened walk takes them.
Now, is that an accurate assessment? Let’s consider the matter in the context of our own environment of a modern day city and urban region. Take that phrase “due to their hardness of heart.” Paul is referring to persons who have hardened their heart against following God. Walking near my home I passed a parked car with the bumper sticker, “No Gods, No Masters.” That succinct phrase captures the thinking of the secular mind: to have a god is to subject oneself to a master, to a higher authority. And that is precisely what the human spirit recoils against. “I Did It My Way,” is still the theme song of the human spirit, even if one never heard Frank Sinatra sing it.
I think this is one area that secular people will agree on. They do not want a higher authority up in the sky telling us what is right or wrong for us. Even those who describe themselves as spiritual make this a line in the sand. Whatever divine being or force they ascribe to, they ascribe to it because they feel at peace with whatever it tells them. There are no inconvenient commands to adhere to. They are free to follow their own path.
Now Paul’s point is this. If you are going to establish a ground rule that you don’t take orders from God, you are then going to be ignorant of God. That is a simple principle. If I don’t listen to you, I can’t know you. I can’t understand you. If I refuse to follow your directions, I can’t experience what it is you know.
Coaches are always harping on this, trying to get their athletes to buy into their system of training or game plan. The athlete complains, “Why am I doing this? This is dumb!” The coach replies, “Trust me. Do what I say and it will come together for you. Then you will understand.” Sometimes the athlete gives up and leaves without understanding; other times he stays with it and awakens to what his coach knows. But the difference between remaining ignorant and gaining knowledge is choosing to submit, the very thing that the secular mindset will not do.
So what does he do? He follows the course that he himself lays out. He borrows from what he sees around him that he likes. Anything about freedom is good. Anything that affirms that he is “good” is good. There needs to be some code to follow, and so he picks from a number of sources what seems workable and reasonable enough to get along. If he has a “do good” bent, then he might embrace some causes. If that is not his thing, then his life is pretty much restricted to doing whatever seems pleasurable for the moment. Maybe he is ambitious and wants to make a name for himself. Maybe he is low key and just wants to take it easy. Maybe he is religious and so likes to do religious type things. Whatever it is that he does, he does it because it suits him. And most importantly, whatever he does, he does “his way.” He determines his own course.
Now here is Paul’s point. Following your own course will lead you to a less moral life. It certainly will cause a society to head in that direction, and most individuals who think they are living an individual life will nevertheless follow the course of their society.
For the Christian, we do not kill our neighbor when we are upset because Scripture commands us not to do so. We do not commit adultery for the same reason. We might reason out why it is not good to kill or why it is good to remain faithful to our spouse. We might point to a natural code that is imbedded in us, but Scripture – because we believe it reveals God’s will – is the authority when it comes to our moral code.
But the worldly mindset has no such outside, objective code. He has his mind to reason with, but more influential is his heart, which indeed our society upholds above all other guides for what is right. “Follow your own heart.” “You alone can judge what is right for you.” “You must do what feels right for you.” And so, he puts together himself his own code, making each decision according to what feels right.
We can follow this line of thought in many aspects of the moral code, but our text takes us into the area of sexual morality. Probably there is no area in which the Christian and the “Gentile” mindsets so clearly differ as in what is sexually acceptable. Most of our neighbors agree with us that one should not be mean or cheat others. But our views on this subject are at best laughable to them. Indeed they regard our code – that sexual intimacy is reserved for a husband and wife – as immoral and psychologically harmful to anyone who possesses it.
Recently someone outside the church visited me with her mother wanting to have a wedding here. She explained she and family were lifelong Presbyterians. She was marrying someone she had dated a long time. They thought it was time for marriage and so had moved in together and were now planning the wedding. Society’s morals have so changed that those outside a church adhering to scriptural authority are unaware that there is a difference of opinion. And so the young woman, sitting beside her mother, could speak to me a minister about living together with her boyfriend, both being oblivious that I would see anything wrong with the situation.
When it comes to sexual morality, Gentiles have moved away even from appealing to the heart. It is human instinct – natural desire (no, natural need) to have physical pleasure. Indeed, human sensuality is moved out of the moral realm almost altogether. The only thing that really distinguishes individuals is their appetite and taste, much the same as differing in what foods people eat. Some want a connection with love; others do not. Some prefer heterosexual; some do not. Some want one partner; some do not. Chastity is practiced by some who struggle with inhibition, but it is not healthy for a normal, good person.
That’s the way it is. That’s the direction sexual mores must always take if there is no divine authority, no revelation as to what constitutes moral right. The boundaries of what is right and wrong in sexual matters grow wider and wider so that those who would hold to restrictions become the ones who are pushed out of being accepted.
That’s the way it is for a mindset “alienated from the life of God.” That’s the way it is for anyone, as Paul will say in verse 20, who has not “learned Christ.” I have no application for anyone here who does not follow Jesus Christ, who does not know the mercy shown in him, who does not know what it is to be redeemed from sin and given new life. Right now, I am speaking only to you, who profess to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
I say to you what Paul said to his congregations: You cannot walk in two worlds. You cannot choose what you think is best in both worlds, what “feels right” to your heart. Your heart belongs to Christ. He is your God and he is your Master. You have one path to follow as laid out by your Lord. You don’t forge your own. And it is your choice that reveals just where your heart lies. Does your heart lie in your own sinful nature, or does it lie in the hands of your Creator and your Redeemer? There is no better place to determine it than in the arena of sexual morality; for there you make a stand based not on where your “heart leads you,” nor where you have heard good enough reason to make Scripture seem the right way, but because you love your Lord, because you take joy in obeying him. That must be the reason – it is the only sustainable reason – to follow his path.
In his fiction work, Perelandra, C. S. Lewis resets the Garden of Eden story on the planet Venus. Satan, through the human Weston, is trying to lead the Lady to sin. In one instance he tries to persuade her to sleep the night on the forbidden Fixed Island. As he reasons, everyone lives on fixed islands on earth. It is a good place in which to live, and, there is no good reason not to do so. Doesn’t God (called Maleldil) really want her to take a step forward on her own initiative?
There is another human from earth named Ransom, nicknamed Piebald by the Lady. He speaks up.
"'This man has said that the law against living on the Fixed Island is different from the other Laws, because it is not the same for all worlds and because we cannot see the goodness in it. And so far he says well. But then he says that it is thus different in order that you may disobey it. But there might be another reason.
'I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason? When we spoke last you said that if you told the beasts to walk on their heads, they would delight to do so. So I know that you understand well what I am saying.'
"'Oh, brave Piebald,' said the Green Lady, 'this is the best you have said yet. This makes me older far…. Oh, how well I see it! We cannot walk out of Maleldil’s will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will. And there could be no such way except a command like this. Out of our own will. It is like passing out through the world’s roof into Deep Heaven. All beyond is Love Himself. I knew there was joy in looking upon the Fixed Island and laying down all thought of ever living there, but I did not till now understand.' Her face was radiant as she spoke…"
Her face was radiant, radiant at the thought of an opportunity to obey her Lord for no other reason than she could show how much she loved him, how much she honored him. Do you know such joy? Without it, you cannot maintain the walk. Determination is not enough. Guilt is not enough. You have got to know the blessings that were extolled in chapters 1-3. This is the time in which your heart must move you. It was for the joy set before him that our Lord laid down his life for us. It must be for the joy set before us that we then deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. If you confess Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior, and you do not know this joy of following him, then don’t follow your heart. Instead, surrender it. Surrender all of it to your blessed Savior.
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