Last week we saw in Ephesians 4:11-16 that the New Testament (NT) vision of a church is not a production attended by consumers, but it is a body made up of workers.
We saw that when the equipping ministers teach the Word of God and when the parts of the body each do their work, speaking the truth in love, lives are changed.
When someone walks into a healthy NT church body, they will be changed.
There is nothing in this world that has the power to completely and totally revolutionize a life like a healthy church devoted to the Word of God.
How does that happen? What does that look like? How do I get in on that?
Let’s read the next section of Ephesians 4. We are in 4:17-24 this morning.
In this passage Paul gives us a contrast between two types of people, two ways of living.
The first is what he calls the gentile. Paul used the word for someone who was an outsider to the kingdom of God. In Paul’s use here, a Gentile is someone who is not living life trusting in God, but who is building a life on some other basis. A Gentile in Ephesians 4 is someone who is looking to themselves and the created world around them for life.
Let’s see how Paul describes this Gentile way of life.
First the problem is the futility of their minds.
The problem begins in their thoughts. This is where our way of life begins, isn’t it? Ideas have consequences. Your thoughts determine your life.
The problem with the Gentile is that their minds are futile. Ineffective, incapable of producing any good result. What does Paul mean by that?
He elaborates in verse 18 – they are darkened in their understanding. Their experience of life is like a dark room. If your understanding is darkened you are walking around a room unable to see your surroundings, you are unable to adjust to the environment around you.
That’s what life was like for us without God, wasn’t it? When you are disconnected from God, you can’t understand your life. You don’t know why you exist, you don’t know the purpose or the end of your days.
Paul elaborates some more. The Gentiles are darkened in their understanding due to the hardness of their hearts.
Emotionally, a Gentile doesn’t want light. They like the darkness. Jesus described this to the religious leader Nicodemus in John 3.
19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
John 3: 19-20
The Gentile heart clings to the world, in their hearts they don’t want to see the light of morality and truth and goodness, they don’t want their greed and lust and pride to be exposed. So they accept the darkness, they are alienated from God and their minds are incapable of anything of lasting good.
The result Paul says in verse 19 is they have been callous. You know what a callous is right? If you’ve ever worked with bars in the gym or tools in the garden, you have developed callouses on your hands. When your skin is sensitive and is irritated, it forms callouses to cover over the nerves, the callous hardens and dulls the skin.
Paul isn’t talking about skin, he’s talking about the conscience.
When I choose darkness so that I can continue to act in darkness, at first my conscience is sensitive. I feel the guilt in my conscience when I act in darkness, my conscience is irritated, but I want to keep acting in darkness. And with each act, my conscience gets a little harder, a little duller. It callouses over. Eventually I can’t feel anything.
A callous heart is completely given over to its impulses. Sensuality, greed, every act of impurity.
That’s one way of life.
In verse 20, Paul says to the church, that’s not you friends. You didn’t learn to live like that. That’s not what you learned Christ.
I’m assuming he says, that you have heard about him and were taught in him.
What is the teaching in Christ?
To put off your old self. The same words are used to describe taking off a robe in the book of Acts. For Paul, the Christian way is a simple as taking off an old robe and putting on a new one.
This is an idea, a reality in Christ, that has power to completely and totally transform your life.
The idea is the new birth, the new creation of a believer in Christ.
We first see it in John 3.
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
John 3:5-7 (NIV)
In his conversation with Nicodemus, a highly successful religious leader, Jesus in effect tells him, “nothing you have done to this point will count for anything.”
You must experience a new beginning. You must be born again.
The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Because of the fall, each of our hearts is like one of those carts at the grocery store. No matter how hard you to try to keep a straight line, it will always pull you to the side. Our hearts are made good, yet they have been broken. They are crooked and always pulling us away from the straight lines of righteous and truth and love. It’s not just our behavior, it’s our hearts.
You must be born again.
And here’s the incredible thing. In Christ, that is exactly what is promised to us.
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)
When you come to Christ He does not first hand you a self-improvement project list, wish you luck and tell you to come back when you’ve improved.
He brings you with him into death and resurrection. He gives you a new identity.
Here’s what that means about change according to the gospel: your identity changes before your behavior.
This is huge.
I first learned this as a new Christian and a young leader.
In a short time, several people came to me to tell me it didn’t seem like I cared about them. It was devastating to me, because it felt true. I didn’t care about them. After 18 years of hardship apart from God, my heart was calloused and hard. I didn’t feel much affection for anyone.
It hurt to admit it and I decided to step down from leadership. A Christian leader should love those they serve. A friend suggested to me that I hold off on that decision. “Why don’t you pray about it and ask God to talk to you about that as you read the Bible?”
I took that advice. Do you want to know what I read?
Turn to 1 Peter 1:22.
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
1 Peter 1:22
Now that you have purified yourselves (by trusting in Christ), you have a sincere love. So start acting like it.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I didn’t want to fake love when it wasn’t in my heart. But I had it all wrong.
I didn’t understand the new birth. I was born again, I was a new creation. The new me loved people sincerely. It was when I was listening to my feelings, when I was not loving others – that’s when I was the hypocrite.
God said to me, “you’re a new man. You’re my son, made in my image. Now start acting like yourself.”
Do you hear the power in this?
In Christ . . .
You are not defined by your feelings.
You are not defined by your failures.
You are not defined by your past.
You are not defined by others’ opinions of you.
You are defined by the grace of God in whose image you are made.
We are new, but our thinking sometimes needs to catch-up to that change.
When Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, he provided a new life of freedom for millions of Americans. Some of them continued to live as slaves. They had legal standing as free men and women, yet habit and history had left them with a deeply ingrained mindset of bondage.
They had to learn to experientially believe what was now legally true.
Our feelings are strong, our failures are great, our past leaves deep marks and the opinions of others are powerful.
That’s why Paul tells us to “be made new in the attitude of your minds” in verse 23. We are a new creation in Christ. We must train our minds to understand that.
We’re like a person who has driven an old beater car for years. We have learned how to get by with a car that is beat up and damaged. Bungee straps on the fender, a screwdriver in the ignition, a broken fuel gage and a trunk that must be slammed with all your might.
Then, one day we win a brand new car in a raffle. In our excitement we bring all of our old adjustments and habits to the new car. What we have to learn is that all of those things are no longer necessary. Our brand new car doesn’t need bungee cords and screwdrivers. We don’t have to track our fuel on a sticky note on the dash.
We can let go of the old, crooked ways and learn to thrive with the new.
We are new.
What’s our new nature like? Paul tells us in verse 25 – “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Our new selves are cast in the mold of God himself. Our new identity is righteous and holy.
This takes time to work its way through our lives. And it takes effort.
We have to soak in the promises of the new birth like a hot bath, immersed until the warmth works it’s way into the depths of our bones.
And this isn’t just and individual project is it?
Paul has been telling us to do our part in the body, coming together in unity, building one another up as we speak the truth in love.
The power of the new birth is not just something for me to appropriate individually. It’s something for me to give away.
It’s something for me to minister to my spouse. To my brothers and sisters at church.
We need each other’s encouragement, don’t we?
That’s the power of an authentic NT church. A family of believers, daily offering one another the grace of a new life.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown