This world of ours is a mess.
This world of ours is a mess, but God has a plan.
The Christian Church is part and parcel of the grand, cosmic, eternal plan of God.
God’s plan is for the Church to be the means whereby the Spirit of Christ functions in this physical environment.
Now, implied within that statement are a number of things. I would like to highlight two of these implications.
First, if the Church is the primary means whereby the Spirit of Christ functions in this world then it follows that those who are outside the Church are not among those whom God typically designs His Spirit to work through. If that statement sounds unduly harsh, or unkind, please note that this is precisely what the apostle Paul teaches us in this letter. In verse 18, Paul says of the Gentiles that they are “excluded from the life of God”.
What does that mean? It does not mean that unbelievers are excluded from enjoying the blessings of God, for Jesus says that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike (Mt. 5:45). To better understand what Paul means we must interpret the exclusion of those outside of the covenant in light of everything that he has said before.
Paul has said that the Christian “has been blessed with every spiritual blessing” (1:3), which includes “the forgiveness of our sins” (1:7). Paul declares that the Christian has been “sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit” and is being fitted with other Christians to form a holy temple (2:21). The Christian is grounded in the love of Christ and is strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of bringing glory to God (3:16-21). Paul goes on to explain how each Christian has been given a spiritual gift for the benefit of the body of Christ (4:7, 16). It is from these things that the unbeliever is excluded.
And secondly, if the Spirit of Christ is working primarily in those who comprise the Christian Church, then it follows that Christians will be markedly different than those who are not Christians.
In one sense, the differences between the Christian and the non-Christian are to be expected—one has the Spirit of Christ, the other does not—therefore, fundamental differences will be inevitable. And yet, there is another sense in which we are responsible for ensuring that our way of thinking and our way of behaving does in fact differ from that of the non-Christian.
The apostle Paul implores us to this end insisting in verse 17 that we “no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind”.
If the Christian life could be lived on ‘auto pilot’; if the Christian could automatically live differently than the non-Christian, Paul would not need to instruct us in this way. But, since he does exhort us in this manner, because Paul tells us not to live like those outside of the covenant, we understand that living like everyone around us is a real and present danger.
The Christian Church is the God-ordained means for positively impacting this sick and sorrowing world of ours. Our difficulty in executing this mandate lies with our susceptibility to conforming to the ways of our world. “This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you no longer walk as the Gentiles walk”.
In describing the lifestyle of those who are outside of the covenant, Paul says that they walk “in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (4:17-19).
Note how Paul begins first with the corruption of the mind, moving secondly to the hardness of their heart, and thirdly to the practice of immoral behaviour. I suspect that Paul’s ordering is deliberate. Paul is reminding us that behind every human action is a manner of thinking. And what is suggested here is that the primary contributor to human beings engaging in sinful behaviour is a darkened understanding of things.
Bear in mind that the first Century Greek culture was a thinking culture. When Paul refers to “the futility of their mind”, he is not saying that the people of his day were lacking intelligence. In Paul’s day, great stress was placed on intellectual attainments—not unlike what we see in our present society.
What Paul is saying, however, is that without God our intellectual conclusions will be lacking; without God our understanding of reality is darkened. And this darkened understanding will inevitably lead to all kinds of sinful behaviour.
“But you did not learn Christ in this way”, Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus (4:20). For the most part, the Christians in Ephesus were formerly Gentiles—and, as such, many of those reading Paul’s letter would have known what it is to be given over to sinful behaviour, just as many of us recall a day when our understanding was darkened and we were given over to various sins. “But (we) did not learn Christ in this way”!
When Christ calls a person, He calls them to a new way of living. Remember Paul’s words in chapter 2, “we are (God’s) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:10).
And now, in chapter 4, Paul explains that there are two prongs to this: there is a putting off of our former manner of living, and there is a putting on of our new way of life. More precisely, Paul exhorts us to “lay aside the old self” and to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (4:22-24).
In the original Greek, this is the language of taking off and putting on clothing. And the single word we use to describe this process is the word ‘change’. Jesus Christ means for you and I to change. Jesus intends for you and I to live differently than when we did before we knew what it was to be a Christian.
Now, someone might ask, ‘Does not Christ accept us as we are?’ Yes, this is one of the great tenants of the Christian faith: to be saved by grace means that we were saved while we were in an unacceptable state (2:4-9). But now, we are reminded that God does not mean for us to remain in this dreadful state. Jesus, who accepts us as we are, does not intend to leave us as we are. We were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:10). And to that end Paul commands us to lay aside our former manner of living and to put on “the new self”, which is “in the likeness of God”.
Friends, this is the best kind of news! In the Book of Genesis we are told that man—male and female—has been made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). In the same book we read how that image in man becomes greatly marred by sin and corruption.
But here we read that within the scheme of salvation is a plan to restore the image of God within us. The new self that we put on is “in the likeness of God”. This is a radical change, but it is a delightful change! God desires that we more closely resemble Him in the way we live and speak and think.
This design God has for us, as you might expect, relates to God’s purposes for us. If the grand, cosmic, eternal plan of God is for us to positively impact this world of ours, it will be necessary for our behaviour to reflect God’s holiness and God’s mercy.
To put it another way, if the behaviour of a Christian is indistinguishable from the behaviour of non-Christians; if the behaviour of a Christian congregation is indistinguishable from the behaviour of a secular institution, how can we reasonably expect to make a difference in this world? How can we affect meaningful renewal in this world if we act like everyone else around us?
God’s design is for us to be holy as He is holy (Lev. 21:8; 1Pet. 1:15). Of course, this is a tall order—it is the tallest order—and we might quickly despair if it were not for the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us. The power to change is not our own, but it is from the Spirit of Christ within us. And one of the great purposes of the Holy Spirit is to change us. The Spirit desires to transform us more closely into the image of Christ.
We may not always see this change while it is happening, but eventually, every Christian should see the results of change in his/her character and behaviour.
I recently had the blessed experience of observing changed individuals when I attended service at Fraser Presbyterian Church in Tottenham last Sunday. Allie was not well and so I was sitting by myself in a pew near the back of the sanctuary. I was later joined by one of the teenagers—a boy who would have been 8 years old when I began ministry there. In the pew in front of me were 4 more teenagers—these kids would have also been 6-8 years old back in 1998.
I remember these children when they were in Sunday School—now, they were teaching and assisting with Sunday School. I remember these kids looking bored stiff while everyone else sang hymns; now, they were singing the hymns. It was also communion Sunday. I sat there at the back with 5 teenagers and we shared in Holy Communion. I confess that as I bowed my head in prayer, I could feel the tears streaming down my face. I was deeply moved by the fact that these boys and girls had changed—not simply physically, but spiritually. These boys and girls had grown in their likeness to Jesus Christ.
Friends, this morning, each and every one of us stands before the biblical exhortation to change. This exhortation should not breed self-loathing, but rather it should cause us to echo what Paul has said elsewhere, “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal” (Phil. 3:13, 14). The goal is Christ-likeness, and the purpose of this goal is to enable us to make a meaningful difference in this world of ours.
As you and I become more and more what Christ has designed us to be, we remember again that Church is not someplace you go; Church is some thing you are. Amen.