How Christians Change (Ephesians 4:17–24)

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Doug Van Meter - 25 September 2016

How Christians Change (Ephesians 4:17–24)

Ephesians Exposition

Because we love the church, we desire her best. We desire that our own local church, as well as the global church, experience more and more of the best of God’s gifts, being remade into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. We desire to change from the way we are to the way we are destined to be. This matter of the church changing as it conforms to Jesus Christ is a major theme Ephesians 4. But the all-important question is, how do Christians change? We will begin to study the answer to this in Ephesians 4:17–24.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

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

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Recently, a five-year-old boy came into my office with his father. He sweetly and politely greeted me and then asked, “Is this your office?” I replied, that it was. He then said, “Do you live here?” My answer: “Almost! This is my home away from home.”

I love coming to my office. I love my books and I love to write and I love my coffee and I love my wingback chair in which I often sit and study and read. I love my air-conditioner and my under-floor heating. I love my jazz and I love the many pictures of my family. And—did I mention?—I love my coffee! But more than this, I love what I do. I love being an elder and I love serving with the gift of pastor-teacher. You see, I love the church; I love this church of which I am blessed to be a member. More fundamentally, and most importantly, I love the Head of this church, the Triune God.

In a very real sense, BBC is my home away from home. Not only has this church filled a large familial gap, but it also serves as a temporary, because imperfect, spiritual home, until Jesus returns and perfects us once for all as a church. Only then will I, along with you, truly be at home in this world; in a world that has been remade into the glorious abode where God will dwell with His glorified church forever and ever.

We saw previously that it is our responsibility to participate in the building up of the church towards maturity. We are to be unified in our doctrinal, devotional and dispositional commitment to our church (and to the church at large) becoming more and more conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. This matter of each of us both individually and corporately being remade into the image of Jesus is the best of all gifts. As we appreciate this gift and calling to Christlike conformity, we will aspire to participate in the building up of the body. But further, as Paul elaborates in vv. 17–32, we will aspire to behaving in accordance with such a glorious body.

If each church member commits to behaving in what amounts to a Christlike and therefore countercultural way, as revealed in these sixteen verses, then BBC, and the wider church will make strides towards “the stature of the measure of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13).

Fundamentally, what Paul is emphasising in these verses is that the Christian is to live a life that has undergone an inward change that is to be manifested in an outward change of lifestyle. He refers to this as our “walk” (4:17; 5:2; cf. 4:1). Our post-conversion walk will be significantly changed from our pre-conversion walk.

Because we love the church, we desire her best. We desire that our own local church, as well as the global church, will experience more and more of the best of God’s gifts, being remade into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. We desire to change from the way we are to the way we are destined to be. This matter of the church changing as it conforms to Jesus Christ is a major theme Ephesians 4. But the all-important question is, how do Christians change? We will begin to study the answer to that question in Ephesians 4:17–24.

In this study, I want to address five truths that are necessary for us to embrace if we will change. May the Lord use His Word to change us, indeed.

We Must Know that We Have Changed

Paul begins, in v. 17, by assuring his readers that they have, in fact, changed: “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.”

This is the whole tenor of this passage. In fact, the passage does not make much sense apart from this understanding: The Ephesian Christians had changed, and therefore he writes using a form of an imperative: “You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk.” In other words: “You have changed, so live like it.”

The Commanding Contrast

As Christians, things are different now. A profoundly miraculous transformation has taken place in our position and in our disposition. And so it is expected that our lives are to manifest this.

Everything up to this point in the epistle testifies to the change these believers had undergone. They are called “saints” (1:1). They had been adopted by God (1:3–4). They had been redeemed and forgiven (1:7). They had been sealed with the Holy Spirit (1:13). They had faith and love (1:15). They were once dead, disobedient, and doomed but were now alive, obedient and delivered (2:1–10). They were now one new man in Christ (2:15). They were once estranged but were now near to God (2:11–13). They were now fellow citizens with faithful Jews and therefore were the kingdom, the temple and the church of God (2:19–22). As the songwriter recorded, “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought, since Jesus came into my heart.”

It is with this backdrop that Paul can now exhort them to go on and to practically experience powerful change in their lives. When we realise the powerful change that God has enacted in our lives, we are deeply encouraged to persevere in holiness.

The cause of the initial change is the cause of ongoing change. We should be intentional about constantly ruminating on the gospel and repeating it to ourselves. When we realise what a marvellously miraculous change God has brought into our lives by the gospel of Christ, we will be encouraged that practical change is possible.

Let me put it this way: The powerful positional change that God has wrought in our lives is the down payment of all of the practical changes that can take place in our life.

Before you believed the gospel, you were estranged from God and under His wrath. You were condemned as under God’s judgement. As evidence of this, you lived for yourself. God was not in your thoughts. You were, quite literally, whether or not you contemplated this, without hope in this world. But then, by God’s grace, you came to see yourself as a sinner before holy God. You were brought to conviction. You realised that Jesus Christ lived a perfectly sinless life and that He died to experience God’s wrath on your behalf. You turned from your sins and cast yourself upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who rose from the dead. God the Father forgave you, the Holy Spirit indwelt you, and your life was irrevocably changed. You were made a child of God with a new appetite for God and for His truth. You experienced peace with as well as the peace of God. Many of your old sinful, selfish habits began to pass away; perhaps some even did so immediately. All things became new. You found yourself desiring to be with others who shared the same experiential change; therefore, you began to attend church. You began to read the Word of God. The pull of the world seemed to lose its grip as holiness and righteousness and truth became your passion. Yes, you had changed!

This change was something that you could not explain apart from the grace and love and mercy of God. But it was undeniable. Others may have tried to talk you out of it, but you knew that it was real.

I have belaboured this point for a couple of reasons.

First, have you changed? That is, is the above description your testimony? Is it possible that you are struggling with defeat after defeat when it comes to sanctification because you have not experienced the first step in salvation, that is, regeneration and justification?

But second, if this does describe you, then you need to be encouraged by this same all powerful gospel. You need to be encouraged that you can continue to experience change. Growth is not only possible, but spiritual growth is your divinely given birthright.

By way of illustration, consider Lazarus. Having been raised from the dead, do you think he doubted what could happen? Do you think that he hesitated to walk away from the grave and the grave clothes? I doubt it!

And you? Look what God has done when he saved you. And you think that you cannot grow in Christ? That you cannot overcome sinful temptations and habits? On the contrary, you can change!

We Must Know that We Must Change

Also in v. 17, we are exhorted to know that we must change: “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.”

Fundamentally, Paul exhorts these believers to live like the church, like those who have been called by God to God, to live like God in Christ. This is to be true in all areas and in all ways. This theme is made clear by the clear contrast that he draws between what they were before Christ and who and what they were now in Christ. They were different—dynamically so. And God expected them to demonstrate this difference.

Obligations of Grace

There are responsibilities that attend the experience of the grace of the gospel. Note that Paul exhorts with apostolic authority, as is clear in the opening words: “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk.” The ESV captures the sense better: “that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do.”

The exhortation to live a life, demonstrating the power of the gospel in changing us, is not a mere suggestion; it is a command. This imperative is rooted in the indicative. That is, you have changed, so now live like it.

The phrase, “This I say and testify in the Lord,” is a solemn introduction to the imperative. It is a solemn charge from the pen of an apostle. Paul is saying, “You must change.” Having undergone a profound change (by the gospel) they must now live like it. There is a divine obligation placed upon them. They must change.

Again, this is predicated upon the experience of a gospel-wrought change. So this is not some kind of pick-yourself-up-by-your-moral-bootstraps-and-do-better exhortation, but rather it is a must rooted in an assumption that we want to change.

If there is no inward motivation to change towards Christlikeness, then go back to the first point. But if you have been saved then this must will be a sweet beckoning to you rather than a harsh and legalistic expectation. True Christians want to change (see Philippians 2:11–13). We may fail at this at times but when we do we are ashamed and we arise to do better.

Later in the passage, Paul will again layout some imperatives undergirding that change is a must of the Christian life. It is not easy. As J. C. Ryle said salvation brings both peacefulness and a war within—peace with God but also a war with the world, the flesh and the devil. And this is most often played out on the battlefield of our hearts (see Galatians 5:16–17; Romans 7:18–25).

If this exhortation bothers you, then there is a problem. The Christian is one who has been changed, and who responds to the call to experience the implications of that profound change. The positional change leads to a hunger and thirst for a dispositional and developmental change. And the former Gentiles that you ran with may not like the change.

I was recently sitting in bed and I suddenly thought of a man from my past. We attended different high schools, but we competed against each other athletically, so we knew each other. I hadn’t seen him for at least thirty-five years, so I google his name and found his email address. I wasn’t entirely sure that it was the same person, but I fired off an email anyway. Just a few minutes later, I received a reply, and learned that it was indeed the person I was thinking of.

He began reminiscing about our time competing against each other, and then he mentioned a former lifestyle issue of which I am somewhat ashamed. He asked me what I am doing. I told him that I have lived in South Africa for the past 26 years where I am pastoring a church. I haven’t heard from him since! At the time of writing, this was only a few days ago, so perhaps he will still reply. It did occur to me, however, that the mention of my change may have come across as awkward to him. It was a good opportunity for me, however, to reflect on the change that God has wrought in my life. When I have memories of the events he is talking about, they are not fond memories; they are shameful ones.

It is sad when someone claims to be saved but resist the exhortation that they must demonstrate that change.

We Must Know What Must Change

In vv. 18–19, Paul shows us what must change. He speaks of the rest of the Gentiles “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.”

In a word, what must change is our mind.

“Mind” and related words are at the heart of this passage. There is a battle for the mind, for as a man thinks, so he is. In biblical anthropology, the mind is the seat of understanding. It is the faculty that embraces or rejects truth. It is not the only part about us humans but it is a vital part. It both affects and is affected by our emotions. And the mind will influence and will be influenced by the will—by our choices.

Blaming the Brain?

Clearly, Paul holds the mind and the understanding accountable for whether or not we live for God—whether or not we change in accordance with God’s musts.

But don’t confuse the brain with the “mind.” The first is a physical organ, whereas the second is that which motivates our actions. Paul is not blaming the physical bent of the brain. Rather, he is unpacking the real culprit: our choices concerning our response to God. We are not responsible for the organ of our brain; we are, however, responsible for our response to God’s revelation.

One of our doctors recently gave a talk on dementia for the benefit of church members. At one point, she gave some helpful counsel: Be careful what you load your brain with; one day it may spill out. That is, be careful of the mind that you store in your brain.

The point is simply this: If we will experience attitudinal and behavioural change then we need to focus on our thoughts.

Before the Lord changed our heart, our minds were futile, empty, and wasteful precisely because we were not thinking God’s thoughts after Him. The result was that spiritual darkness increasingly encroached on our soul with the result that we became more and more comfortable with being estranged from God. Agnosticism dominated our worldview to the point that spiritual obtuseness and blindness became a way of life. Chapell comments, “Paul does not speak of merely a ‘hard’ heart, but a ‘hardened’ heart. The word in Greek implies a certain stubbornness and reflects the consequences of opportunities being resisted. Repeatedly making wrong choices causes the heart to become callous, making it ever more insensitive to God’s will and ways.”1

The result was that we lived as we wanted with very little or no thought of God. And if we did think about God, we refashioned Him into our own image.

This lifestyle (“walk”) increasingly calloused our moral senses. As we contemplated certain actions and responses, we increasingly desensitised our conscience; so much so that, in some cases, the conscience became seared. It was as though God had given us up, given us over to a mind that could not think rightly, could no longer make right judgements. As Wood points out, those whose minds are such eventually seek “to gratify self-interests at all costs.”2 Paul summarises the resultant behaviour that arises from such a mind as surrendering to impurity and all kinds of moral uncleanness. He shows the gravity of the situation by showing that a desensitising to such sensual behaving became obsessive, addictive—without restrain.

Much of the sin of which Paul addresses in this chapter is sexual in nature, which makes sense in the light of Artemis worship in Ephesus. Temple prostitution was a routine part of Artemis worship, and so these believers would have had a background in which they were accustomed to sexual sin. But while sex was the outworking of the sin, it began in their mind.

I recently saw a billboard for a candy bar, which read, “Obey your mouth and you shall be free.” I thought to myself, that’s actually the problem! If we obey our senses, our desires, our appetites, it leads us to trouble. We need instead to have a renewed mind.

Paul highlights the mind because it is the heart of the problem, and therefore it is the mind, the understanding, that must change.

The Darkness of Judgement

This is really important: According to its repeated usage in Scripture, this “darkness” is always used in the New Testament of God’s judgement (see Romans 1:21ff).

Though we boasted in our intelligentsia, we were in fact clueless. I ask this respectfully: Are you still clueless or have you seen the light? The answer can be found in whether or not you are seeing the light.

Let me summarise. John Stott writes, “Hardness of heart leads first to darkness of mind, then to deadness of soul under the judgement of God, and finally to recklessness of life. Having lost all sensitivity, people lose all self-control.”3 And they become enslaved. Paul is saying that we were enslaved to the will and desires of the flesh, whereas now we are enslaved to our new Master, Jesus Christ.

There is an intense battle for the mind. We must fight it and we must win it.

We must guard our minds. We must be careful what we read, what we listen to. We must feed our minds truth. As Stott wisely notes, “If heathen degradation is due to the futility of their minds, then Christian righteousness depends on the constant renewing of our minds.”4

When you look at this description of the unbeliever, it is not a pretty picture. How’s your mind? Have you lost it?

One of my daughters recently asked me if I am concerned about dementia or Alzheimer’s because my father had it. I admitted that I am somewhat, because it does apparently run in the family. But it struck me then that this type of “spiritual dementia” also runs in the family—the human family. We are bon into this world with a mind that is not submissive to God. That is why it is so important for parents, at the earliest possible time, to feed their children’s minds with truth, with the gospel. We must be careful what we put into our minds—and the minds of our children.

We Must Know that We Can Change

Paul next, in vv. 20–21, encourages his readers that they can change: “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.”

This is the glorious heart of this passage. The Ephesians had changed and they could change because of the Lord Jesus Christ, because of the gospel of God. This is the point of these two important verses.

We saw at the outset that we have changed and that undergirds the truth highlighted here.

We Have Been Re-educated

Paul begins, “But you have not so learned Christ.” That is, “You are different now because the Messiah has taught you differently.”

As you heard the gospel and learned of Jesus Christ you were supernaturally made His disciple and were forever changed. Christ, not your desires, is now your master. Your will has been redirected because your mind has been changed.

But this came about because they “heard” Christ. “It was in fellowship with Christ that they received these instructions.”5

But this must be properly understood. The hearing was not merely physical but also spiritual (cf. Luke 22:66–71; 24:6–8, 25–27, 28–32, 44–45).

Paul reminds them that, at their conversion, they literally heard and learned from Christ. The word “learned” is a word that is related to the word for disciple. These people were Christians because they were disciples. With their minds, with their understanding, they “heard” the gospel and responded to it positively with the result that they were no longer estranged from God, no longer darkened in their understanding, no longer living agnostically, and no longer enslaved to sensuality. Of course, this was because God empowered them to hear and to learn what He willed for them to be taught.

But the point to be made is that they did change and so they could change. They could continue to hear and to learn as they continued to obey. Stott observes, “Scripture bears an unwavering testimony to the power of ignorance and error to corrupt, and the power of truth to liberate, ennoble and refine.”6

It is wonderful that the Lord is still teaching His disciples (see Acts 1:1)! Disciples of Jesus Christ are blessed to continually experience His teaching—specifically, the teaching of the “truth” as it is “in Jesus,” which most think is a reference to the gospel.

Are we displaying such a supernatural fellowship, supernatural change?

There is ongoing power in the gospel. Again, it is the gospel that encourages us that we can change. The gospel continues to be the power of God for salvation. The gospel justifies us, sanctifies us and glorifies us. In other words, we can change!

We need to believe this. We need to encourage one another with this. We need to confront one another with this. We must not let one another off the hook when it comes to this matter of change. There is hope—for the Christian battling with substance abuse; for the Christian battling with pornography; the Christian battling with lust: for the Christian battling with anger; for the Christian battling with lying and stealing and bitterness and unforgiveness; and for the Christian battling with unbiblical fear. The mind is the issue (Romans 12:1–2). We need gospel-informed, gospel-saturated, gospel-obsessed minds.

C J. Mahaney wrote several years ago,

The gospel isn’t one class among many that you’ll attend during your life as a Christian—the gospel is the whole building that all the classes take place in!

Rightly approached, all topics you’ll study and focus on as a believer will be offered to you “within the walls” of the glorious gospel.7

We need to attend these “classes” with a commitment to change and with an increasing assurance that we can change. The power of the gospel provides this assurance. So come to class and get educated for change!

We should glory in the power of the gospel. We should boast in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no need to be ashamed! We should be greatly encouraged by the empowering dynamic of the gospel. Christian, you can overcome sinful habits!

But just what was it that Jesus had taught them? What precisely is He teaching us concerning this matter of following Him and experiencing change? Is it merely a matter of sitting around and thinking good thoughts? Is it merely a commitment to meditation? It certainly includes this, but it requires more. And we see this in the remaining verses of this section.

We Must Know How to Affect Change

Finally, Paul tells us how to actually affect change: “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” (vv. 22–24).

Having addressed the preliminary matters regarding change, Paul now brings in the final imperative in this section and tells them (and us) to put off the ways of the old life and to put on the ways (manner of life) of the new life. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

Following closely on the heels of vv. 20–21, Paul tells the Ephesian believers that the Lord Jesus had taught them that this radical walk of the Christian life requires putting off the wrong and putting on the right. The Christian life includes not only repenting from but also turning to.

The Principle

Particularly, the Lord expected them to walk in a new set of clothes, as it were. Paul introduces us to what many have commonly referred to as the put off, put on dynamic (vv. 22–24). Christians are to put off the old man with its sinful deeds and to put on the new man with His (Christ’s) righteous and holy deeds. We are to get rid of the grave clothes of the old life and to put on the practical robes of Christ’s righteousness.

It is interesting that, in the early years of the church, baptismal candidates were given a new set of clothes (a white gown or robe) signifying that they were new creatures in Christ. Their old life, as it were, was left behind in the waters of baptism as they embarked to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

We can only touch on this now, but it is important to see that we are responsible to do something. Yes, change is dependent upon God’s sovereign grace, but this does not eliminate human responsibility. So, if we are not changing, we cannot blame God or others—we must take responsibility for ourselves.

Paul tells us to “put on the new man.” This is an imperative to be what you are. It pictures a new set of clothes in exchange for the old set (see Romans 13:12–14; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 3:10–12).

This “new man” was “created according to God,” that is, by God to be like God. In what ways? In “true righteousness and holiness”—according to God’s standard of integrity (“righteousness”) and standard of purity or piety. “God is both the author and the pattern of this changed life.”8

This is the substance of Christianity; this is the reality to which we have been reborn to, reoriented towards, re-educated in, and reclothed with.

We are to actively, deliberately, intentionally take off the rotten old clothes of our previous lifestyle—the lifestyle that was spiritually futile (vv. 17–18)—and put on the radical new clothes of a gospel-driven, Christ-centred, Christlike lifestyle. A new mind, a new walk, requires a wardrobe that matches.

After Jesus healed the demoniac in Mark 5, the people “came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind” (v. 15). Apart from Jesus, we are out of our minds, and our appearance demonstrates this: the outward manifestations of a futile mind, a darkened understanding, a hardened heart that has estranged us from God. This is practically manifested in idolatry, false worship, dishonouring God’s name, relegating God to the peripheral, self-absorbed pursuit of making a living, dishonouring our parents and other forms of rebellion against authority, hateful and contemptuous and murderous treatment of others, all kinds of sexual sins, stealing, slanderous talk and covetous attitudes and actions.

To live such a life is to indicate that you are out of your mind. As Christians, we are to live in such a way demonstrating that we are clothed in Christ and therefore we have the mind of Christ.

Let me conclude with some important observations.

The battle to overcome sin in our pursuit of conformity to Christ requires the foundation of doctrine. We need to be grounded in the gospel.

We have to understand the nature of man (anthropology), the nature of salvation (soteriology) the power of sin (hamartiology), the regenerating, renewing ministry of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology).

The gospel of Christ produces a radical change in the lives of those who answer its call. A radical change of heart cannot be concealed. Even if you try to put a bushel over it, the light of the gospel will burn through!

If you are not putting off and putting on—even though it seems so discouragingly repetitive at times—then you have not been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus. This is a very serious matter. Have you heard Him? Are you learning from Him? Not if there is no change. Perfection is not the issue, direction is.

Corporate New Man

It is vital to note that, though of course this text addresses personal responsibility, at the same time it does so corporately (cf. 2:15—“new man”—with 4:24). In other words, we as a church are required to wear our new set of clothes. Sundays, small group settings, and other gathering opportunities, should all serve as opportunities for us to dress up with a view to staying dressed up throughout the week. We need one another to tell us when our “outfit” needs some help.

Christian, you have been changed from within and God has therefore given to you a new change of clothes. Put them on, for the good of your soul, to the glory of God.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 205.
  2. A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:62.
  3. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 177.
  4. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 182.
  5. S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:341.
  6. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 176.
  7. C. J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing (New York: LifeChange Books, 2002), 150.
  8. Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 11:63.