A Mind for Change (Ephesians 4:21–24)

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Doug Van Meter - 9 October 2016

A Mind for Change (Ephesians 4:21–24)

Ephesians Exposition

Far too often, Christians are thirsty for change, and yet we do not experience what we desire. The source that satisfies our thirst is actually right in front of us, and is able to meet our need, and yet we don’t know how to experience it. We expect the change to come automatically. And nothing happens—all because we are not following the instructions; because we are not paying attention to how God enacts and affects change. But if we will pay close attention to the Bible, and to what God has revealed about how to change, then we can overcome sin and sinful habits. We can change. Our thirst for change can be satisfied. We can be refreshed to continue to run the race set before us.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

This series comprises the sermons preached at BBC during an exposition of the book of Ephesians.

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A few months ago, I spent a week in Washington D.C. I found it to be one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the world. Consequently, it is one of the best places to run. I took advantage of this opportunity and enjoyed the privilege to run by many historic places, including the US Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, many war memorials, and Arlington National Cemetery. I even ran up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And though those steps are different than the ones conquered by theItalian Stallion, I felt like Rocky Balboa!

Unfortunately, that week was extremely hot. The daily temperatures soared to 40+ (Celsius), and even in the early morning it was nearly 30 degrees. I often found myself very thirsty.

What was amazing was the number of drinking fountains along some of the routes that I ran. On a couple of occasions I stopped to get a drink. I noticed what looked like an automatic eye (like you find in many public bathrooms) but to my great disappointment, even though I ran my hand in front of the eye, no water came out. Sometimes other runners would stop by and I would pass on the bad news only to hear the response of thirsty sighs.

On what was my last run in D.C., I stopped again to get a drink near the Capitol Building. Someone had told me that this fountain always worked. As I ran my hand across the eye, there was nothing. But I noticed something on the side of the fountain. It like looked like a large button. I pressed it, and out came water. As I looked more closely, I realised that what I had thought was an electronic eye was actually a counter sunken bolt. I had spent the past week trying to get a screw hole to act like a computer! In fact, the water fountains did work. What was not working was my brain. Because I had not figured out how these very simple fountains worked, I suffered discomfort unnecessarily. How much more I would have enjoyed my runs if I had only known! I also felt bad for all the other thirsty runners that I had inadvertently misled who ended up remaining unnecessarily thirsty. All because I did not know. Ignorance made a challenging activity more difficult than it needed to be.

This serves as an example of how, far too often, we as Christians live our lives. We are thirsty for change. In fact, we hunger and thirst for righteousness, and yet, like me at the water fountain, we leave unsatisfied. The source that satisfies our thirst is actually right in front of us, it is very present and very able to meet our need, and yet we don’t know how to experience it. We wave our hand of desire in frantic effort, expecting the change to come automatically. But nothing happens—all because we are not following the instructions; because we are not paying attention to how God enacts and affects change. But if we will pay close attention to the Bible, and to what God has revealed about how to change, then we can overcome sin and sinful habits. We can change. Our thirst for change can be satisfied. We can be refreshed to continue to run the race set before us.

The Christian life is not easy. It is described as warfare (Ephesians 6). It involves us in a conflict for change. We have been fundamentally changed (vv. 17–19, 24—“former manner of life”), and so we are continually in the process of change. We want to change! But, oh, how difficult it is. Yet, thankfully, it is not impossible. Be encouraged, Christian, that you can change. Paul tells us how, in several epistles, including here.

The Way We Were

Paul tells us, first, in vv. 17–19, that we must keep in mind the way we were:

This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.

(Ephesians 4:17–19)

Our Grotesque Condition

We previously took a sobering look at what we were before we were converted. It was ugly. But something happened to change us. We no longer live like “other Gentiles.” We have experienced a supernatural change. We have undergone a conversion.

The conversion, the change we have undergone, is one that occurred in time past, and yet it is one that continues to take place. “Conversion” is the technical term describing our turning back to the life that God intends for His creation, and particularly for His new creation. So what is the process of this gracious conversion? What is involved? Many things, but fundamentally we need to have a mind for change. And this is precisely what God has given to us!

This change of mind, and this mind for change, is the result of the Word of God.

What We Heard

Next, in vv. 20–21, we need to keep in mind what we heard: “But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus.”

In this passage, Paul describes the historical conversion of their minds. He is referring to the events recorded in Acts 19 (see vv. 2, 5, 10, 20). The way they had been is no longer the way that they were because of what, and from whom, they heard it. They were transformed, literally, by the renewing of their minds, of their heart and soul. We call this “regeneration.”

A Glorious Interruption

By God’s grace, He made us thirsty for change. And then He enacted this change. He literally gave us a mind for change. He did so by the new birth; by regeneration.

“But” is a wonderful word of contrast in Scripture. We have encountered such a contrast already in Ephesians 2:4 and 13. What we were, thank God, is no longer what we are! We were mindless, materialistic and miserable. “But” we “learned Christ,” and were changed. We were changed by the power of God through the Word of God. We “heard” the Word of God—literally. We were “taught by Him”; and as we obeyed His voice, He led us out of the muck and mire of the world to paths of righteousness. He changed us. He put us in our right minds and made us spiritual by the new birth (1 Corinthians 2:9–16). He took our misery and gave us mercy. He did so by enabling to hear the Word, to hear “the truth as it is in Jesus,” the gospel. Paul is saying that what made the difference—and what continues to make the difference—is the Word of God in the gospel, which we heard and which the Holy Spirit enabled us to truly hear and to believe (1:13–14).

This gospel message—the Word of God that changed their lives (and changes ours), is at the heart of regeneration. Let me explain.

As we contemplate our grotesque condition (vv. 17–19), it becomes very apparent that we need a complete renewal—from the inside out. Not merely reformation or rehabilitation, but rather a renewed mind, heart and will. As Paul described the change, the conversion that many of these Ephesian Gentiles had undergone, they needed (and experienced) to pass from darkness to light, from a wasteful mind to a worshipful mind, from ignorance of God to the knowledge of God, from alienation from God to reconciliation with God, from a hardened to a softened heart, from a calloused and sensual approach to life to a sensitive and spiritual (of the Spirit) life, from an uninhibited and immoral approach to life to a God-honouring life. This happened by the power of God. We also refer to this change as the “new birth.” Jesus referred to this as being “born again” (John 3:1–8).

We need to beware of allowing the familiarity of the phrase “born again” to lose its profound and affectionate lustre. It is a remarkable thing to be made new. It is the remarkable experience of “genesis again”—of regeneration.

Have you experienced the new birth? How can you tell? Ask: How is your mind? How is your spiritual aptitude? How is your spiritual ambition? How is your spiritual appetite?

Gospel Instruction/Information

I think that it was Pink Floyd who boasted, “We don’t need no education.” But if we will be right with God we actually do need education. We need to have our minds instructed with truth—with the truth that is in Jesus.

The operative words here are “learned” and “taught.” They imply instruction and therefore the use of the mind. Again, we see that doctrine matters. It’s been said by romantics that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I don’t know much about that (though I doubt it!), but I do know that the biblical way to a sinner’s heart is through the mind.

It was ultimately in the area of the mind where the trouble of sin began (see Genesis 3), and it is in the area of the mind where the cure comes. To approach the will and/or the emotions directly is not an appropriate or productive way to effect change. It is like standing at a manual drinking fountain and waving your hand over a countersunk screw: Nothing will happen! Sure, there may be some sense of change, but only on a superficial level. Once the thrill is gone, and the tribulations begin to queue up and assault your faith, then the so-called convert reverts back to the way things were (Matthew 13:18–23). For true and lasting change to take place, the mind must be engaged. The understanding must be alerted and informed. Regeneration always involves the mind, the understanding. I will not pretend to know how this all works together, but I do know that the Scripture teaches that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and that this “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (or through the message of Christ) (see Romans 10:13–17). Quite obviously, such hearing involves the mind, the understanding. There must be cognisance of the facts if there will be the conversion of the fallen.

I am sure that many would argue with this assertion, but personally speaking I am not sure that there is anything that can be more discouraging than the teaching and preaching of God’s Word. A Sunday school teacher recently lamented to me that the children in class just don’t seem to be getting it. I can fully relate!

Watching people doze as you try to the best of your ability to expound Scripture is pretty discouraging. Attempting to keep people’s attention as you try to explain the text in a relevant way to those you care about, so that they will experience godly change, can be trying. The results are often slow in coming. It is for this reason that the church is always facing the temptation to liven things up, to be more entertaining, and to avoid difficult passages in order to stir the emotions in order to keep interest. Consequently, expositional, doctrinal preaching is replaced with “preaching lite.” And, yes, at least superficially, the results can be encouraging: bigger numbers in attendance, more exciting services, even bigger offerings and apparent “church growth.” And yet one wonders whether true regeneration is taking place.

My point is that we need to be faithful to engage the mind, the understanding. Yes, I am aware that the “understanding is darkened,” but God uses means towards His end of enlightening the understanding. This means is the teaching and preaching of God’s Word. And what a wonderfully encouraging experience when the penny does drop and God opens the mind and the understanding—and then the heart. It makes all of the discouragement pass away. So keep on teaching, keep on preaching. Keep aiming for the mind! This is, after all, precisely what Paul did (cf. Acts 19).

A Glorious Illumination

This instruction, of course, is rooted and grounded in the Word of God. It is rooted and grounded in the ultimate revelation: the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1–3). The change that we so badly desire is a change that requires God revealing truth to our minds. This is what Paul means when he says that they had “learned Christ,” that they had “heard Him and … been taught by Him.”

This is actually an amazing statement, because actually they had never audibly heard Him. They had, however, heard Paul.

When Paul preached the Word of God they actually heard Jesus. Though it was Paul’s voice, they heard Jesus. It was a real encounter with the real Lord. As Salmond puts it, “It was in fellowship with Christ that they received these instructions.”1 Stott is spot on when he writes, “When sound biblical moral instruction is being given, it may be said that Christ is teaching about Christ.”2

What happened in Ephesus was a relational encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is this relational aspect—rooted and grounded in God’s revelation to otherwise darkened hearts—that is at the heart of change. The reality of knowing Christ in a personal way is what produces a mind for change. When we are relationally driven rather than merely “rule” driven, then change is much easier.

The Ephesians had heard not only physically, but spiritually as well. The Sanhedrin “heard” from Jesus own mouth that He was the Son of God (Luke 22:66–71), and yet this hearing did nothing to benefit them spiritually.

Who We Are

Third, in vv. 22–24, we need to keep in mind who we are:

that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.

(Ephesians 4:22–24)

This is such an important point: We must understand what we heard from Him when we heard the gospel—if we truly heard. Fundamentally, we heard, “Leave the old and put on the new. Come to a radically different way to live.”

The Gospel Implications

The Word that they heard from Jesus, the good news that Paul preached, included an explanation of the expectation of regeneration. That is a mouthful, but a very important one.

Quite simply, when Paul preached the gospel, he proclaimed three implications of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for them. He explains just what it was that they had heard from Jesus through him. He expresses this by the use of three infinitives, each in the aorist tense. In doing so, he is saying that Jesus changes your life. The gospel is about a complete transformation.

They heard Jesus telling them that, to follow Him, to be saved, is (1) to lay aside the old life, (2) to have a renewed attitude towards God, and therefore all of life resulting in (3) putting on once for all a whole new self, namely Christ.

This is the call and the command of the gospel. But it is more. It is the consequence of the gospel. When a person is saved (regenerated), this actually happens. Paul is reminding these believers that they have undergone a powerful transformation and so they can continue to be transformed. They can—they must—continue with such a mind for change. They must be persuaded in their minds. They must engage their minds. They need a mind for change.

Paul is not giving imperatives. He is not giving commands. He is saying that this is the message that they heard back then, when they heard the gospel. This is a reminder of what they heard when the gospel was faithfully preached. They heard that the gospel brings change. They heard that it gives what it commands. They heard that repentance always accompanies the gospel. And so if they heard correctly, they would, of course, live correctly.

Here is the point: Perhaps the reason that so many in the church do not live for the Lord is because they actually never heard from the Lord. And this may be because those claiming to represent the Lord have failed to really preach the Word of the Lord. They have not preached the need for repentance and faith.

Clearly what Jesus taught, and still teaches, is that those whom He saves are called to a radical change in lifestyle. We need to be faithful to declare the demands of the gospel or otherwise there really is no good news. The good news is not only justification before God but also sanctification by God. The good news of the gospel is, in another word, change!

This is what Jesus is still teaching us through His gospel: that, by His grace, we are no longer enslaved to grotesque living. Because Jesus became grotesque for us when He hung on the cross, we are no longer condemned. And that justifying power of the gospel is also the sanctifying power of the gospel to convert us. It is for this reason that we must learn the gospel, and must continue to listen to the gospel, and must assume our gospel-given responsibility to leave for the gospel. That is, we must leave our sinful past. As Martin Lloyd-Jones so ably put it,

Our conduct should always be to us something which is inevitable in view of what we believe…. If my Christian living is not quite inevitable to me, if I am always fighting against it and struggling and trying to get out of it, and wondering why it is so hard and narrow, if I find myself rather envying the people who are still back in the world, there is something radically wrong with my Christian life.

Three Implicated Imperatives

As we saw, Paul uses the infinitive, not an imperative. Yet what is also interesting is that this infinitive is in the aorist tense. This means that what happened at conversion is our continued experience. It was a once-for-all experience, with continued results. It is still true of us. And to the degree that we grasp this, to such a degree we will live like it.

A Mind for Renouncing

Paul speaks of the call to “put off”—to put away from oneself. The word was used of clothing being cast off.

This might be viewed as a “nay-saying,” statement but in point of fact it is a doctrinal explanation of what has happened to us when we were saved. Again, Paul is reminding them of what Jesus told them to do when they were saved. It is the Lord Jesus who commands us to repent and to be done with the rags of the old life.

Who is this “old man”? The “old man” is the old way of life, the life that was lived in answer to the old sinful nature, the kind of life described in vv. 17–19 (cf. Romans 6:1–8; Colossians 3:1–10; see 1 Corinthians 5:7–8).

Practically, those attitudes, ambitions, aspirations and actions which were fuelled by a futile mind, a darkened understanding a hardened heart, and agnostic worldview, and/or a sensual approach to life, are to be discarded like a worthless and useless garment. It is time for a new wardrobe. Being clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, we are to now dress for success.

Later (vv. 25ff), Paul will give some specific examples of what they should “put off,” but here he is establishing the principle that we are to “put off the old man.” Once we grasp and embrace this principle, we can practically apply it.

The principle, of course, is that we have undergone a profound change and therefore we want to be done with the irreverent and destructive lifestyle of our former life. And, as noted previously, Paul was especially concerned with the sexual immorality that plagued them. They are to “cast off” such deeds of darkness (Romans 13:12–13; cf. see Hebrews 12:1; James 1:21; 1 Peter 2:1; Colossian 3:8).

Christian, you are no longer bound to pornography. You are no longer bound to fornication and adultery. You are no longer bound to a darkened outlook. You are no longer bound to ignorance of God. So, put it off!

Does this all sound a little simplistic? Is it a heartless and simplistic Bob Newhartian “stop it” implication? No. It is an encouraging word to those who have learned and heard Christ that that they indeed can stop it!

We need to see ourselves as God sees us. This is why we must preach the gospel to ourselves on a daily basis.

Keep in mind that Paul is saying that Jesus taught them this. Considering the content of His teaching, and considering the apostolic emphasis on the cross, we can conclude that Paul is expecting them to keep the cross work of Jesus before them and to keep His command of cross-bearing.

He wants them to remember that they had already cast off this old man—so why carry him around? Paul describes this “old man” in corpse-like language: “which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lists.” The word translated “grows corrupt” means, at root, “to waste away.” The old man was not only decaying, it was destructively deceitful. It boasted health but carried death. The old man was deceitful; it was a liar. It promised life but delivered death. It promised fulfilment but delivered only futility. It promised happiness but brought only sorry.

So, again, why would we want to live such a deadly, stinking existence?

A Mind for Renewing

The next thing that Paul reminds them of is that, when they heard and believed the gospel—the truth as it is in Jesus—they were “renewed in the spirit of [their] mind.” “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds” sounds like an imperative, but it is actually an infinitive. Paul is not exhorting them to do anything (at least, not directly). Rather, he is reminding them of what they heard and experienced when they were regenerated. Their minds were renewed. Of course, the implication is that they now live like it.

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste” was a slogan many years ago for the African-American College Fund in the USA. A mind is a terrible thing for anyone to waste. And it is particularly wasteful in the life of one for whom Christ has died and made new. If we live like the old man then we are putting our mind in the gutter. We are wasting our minds. More to the point, we are denying the gospel.

As a man thinks, so he is. How is the stewardship of your mind?

If change will be produced in our lives, we need to realise just how effective change has already taken place in our lives. We need to reflect on what Jesus has already done and then live in the power of that once for all change. This is why Paul emphasises doctrine in his epistles. This is why he emphasises the importance of knowing and reckoning and then doing in passages such as Romans 6. This is why Paul here in Ephesians 4 reminds them of the profound change they have undergone before exhorting them to experience ongoing change.

The other day I overheard one of my daughters saying to someone, “It’s never too late to become whom you might have been.” That is a wonderful truth. Though we cannot change our past, and though we Christians lament our sinful failures experienced after we were saved, nevertheless it is never too late to experience what we are in Christ. But this depends upon your mind. With what are you filling your new mind? To whom or what are you yielding your mind? Are you being loyal to the Lord to whom you first submitted your mind?

A Mind for Re-creating

The final infinitive is “put on.” When Paul preached the gospel, and the Spirit of God opened their minds and hearts, they heard and they “put on the new man which was created according to God.” That is, when they were converted, they “put on” a lifestyle of which “God is both the author and pattern.”3

This new lifestyle is one of integrity towards man (“true righteousness”) and of piety towards God (“true … holiness”). In other words, it is a lifestyle that honours God both vertically and horizontally.

Again, this is an infinitive with an aorist tense, which means that it is something that actually, “factually” happened to us in the past and its results continue. This is good news. This is gospel!

Christian, we really are different. The problem is that we forget this. We forget the original call to come after Jesus and to learn of Him. We forget those early lessons that we are to deny self and follow Him, thereby leaving the old way behind. We forget those early sensations of glorious forgiveness and of change. And so we slip back into the former patterns of life. This is why we need to rehearse these gospel truths on a daily basis. Remember what God did when He saved you. Remember what God did. He brought you from death to life and you left those corrupt grave clothes behind. Why go back to them?

Such a life is remarkable. We are responsible to live such a life (vv. 25ff) and such a life is possible, it is doable precisely because it was in Him, it was in Jesus that we were created in the likeness of God. As Peter explains it,

Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you.

(1 Peter 4:1–4)

As we close, it must be emphasised again that the ongoing change in the believer’s life is not automatic. Merely waving your hand around will not quench your thirst for righteous and holy living. Rather, you and I, as Christian people are required to do something. We are first required to think. And this means that we are required to hear so as to learn so as to be taught to think, and then to do. That is, we must be taught the gospel and we must rehearse this every single day.

When you are tempted to lie, to steal, to commit sexual sin, to slander, to gossip, to hate, to be bitter, to be unforgiving, stop and think. Think about the fact that you have left such grotesque living behind. Think about the fact that, because you have been born again, you have laid aside those filthy garments as you have been clothed in Christ (Romans 13:13–14). And you are still clothed in Him!

Know the gospel, and grow in the gospel, and then show the power of the gospel as you properly effect the change that is already yours.

So, have you listened closely to the gospel? Have you heard clearly and correctly? Have you been changed? Then be encouraged to continue to change. Develop and then guard your mind for change. Fill your mind, daily, with the gospel. And utilise the local church to help you with this. Spiritual mental health is our concern, it should be our communal commitment.

Are you thirsty for change? Then learn from others who are also thirsty, to quench it. Do you know others who should be thirsty? Or do you know of someone who seems to be thirsty but is struggling to figure out how the fountain works? Then help them. Let us help one another to develop a mind for change.

Christian, do not lose heart. Have you lost your mind? Did you forget the way you were and what you heard and who you therefore now are? And did this forgetfulness result in sin? Do you feel ashamed? The believe the gospel—again! Listen to the voice of Jesus as He calls you back; as He tells you are His. Listen to His voice in these words:

The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The LORD redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.

(Psalm 34:17–22)

Among other truths, this passage encourages the Christian that we have God’s promise of supply for what we need to change, to grow in Christlikeness. May God take these words and help you in your Christ-centred commitment to live with a mind for change.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:341.
  2. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 179.
  3. A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:63.