Our text for today is found in Ephesians 4:17-24, “This I say, therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, 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. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”
Notice first of all the fact that Paul explains life as two separate selves, the one being old and the other being new. The difference between these two selves is like night and day, though they stem from the same person. What a great transformation that must take place to change a man from the crude, vile, paganism described as the old self, to the renewal and purity of a believer in Christ – even in the “likeness of God” which characterizes someone like this!
Indeed, many of us can witness the alteration in our own lives. We were all slaves to sin at some point. We have all been ensnared in something disgusting and corrupt – alcoholics, drug addicts, fornicators, adulterers, liars, disobedient children, ill-equipped and neglectful parents – consider the sin that once trapped you. Think about the old self that was put away when you made the decision to become a Christian.
Perhaps you are not a Christian, and the old self describes you well. Even worse, any one of us just might be dying in his sins and be too calloused to desire a change in attitude. Paul admits this in our text, “being darkened in understanding. . . because of ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart. . .” This is the essence of the old self – darkness.
This is a lesson that I hope all of us will be able to use. Through a careful study of our text in Ephesians, we will come to a greater understanding of the difference between our life before Christ, and our life after. For those of us who are Christians, we must realize that the old self can creep back into our lives much easier than it was to send him away. Those old habits may die, but the desire to sin never does – and the opportunities for sin are abundant. If you are not a Christian, than it is my prayer that you will come to the understanding that your life is not complete. Existence apart from our Lord is futile, calloused, empty, and rotten.
The old self is what was before conversion. It is the empty shell, the shadow, the man who you know you use to be. The old self is what we are most ashamed of, what we do not like to admit to other people. We have all been there, as Paul notes in Ephesians 2:3 that “among them we too all formerly lived in the lust of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” We were all a part of that life before we chose to bury the old self. Notice from our text that even Christians are in need of reminder of the life from which they came. No person is immune to the old man, neither can the effects of that old man ever be completely withdrawn.
Paul’s first description of the old self centers around the idea of former Gentilism. That is, he clarifies the difference between the old and new by comparing it to their former manner of life as heathens, pagans, and enemies of reason. He commands us to “walk no longer as the Gentiles walk” (Ephesians 4:17). Understand that many of the Christians of the church in Ephesus were Gentiles, coming from pagan backgrounds. Such a statement as this would ring loudly in the ears of individuals who were personally and intimately acquainted with the idolatry, the animal sacrifice, the sexual immortality, and the self-mutilation that was characteristic of many ancient religions of Asia Minor. David Lipscomb writes clearly, “Though born Gentiles, Paul distinguishes his readers from the Gentiles who were their natural Kindred” (Commentary on Ephesians, David Lipscomb).
“That, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit” (Ephesians 4:22). The old life is described as being corrupted, a vivid word meaning the wasting away or the marring of something from bad to worse. Being corrupt, then, is like being rusted, moldy, spotted, or spoiled. And what can describe the sinful life any better than this? Is the dismal existence of a prison inmate anything more than this? Is the workaholic doing anything more than wasting the precious seconds of his life? After all, a piece of fruit has only a finite life before it goes bad. Is it any different for the life of man? In the lives of some people, sin is literally the cause of physical rot or corruption. Homosexuality and promiscuity lead directly to sexually transmitted diseases which kill the body. Drug abuse leads to bodily ruin, to the point of death in many cases.
Several Bible verses describe the sinful man well. Take a look at Psalm 91:3, which says, “For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper, and from the deadly pestilence.” As graphic as it is, this description of sin is nothing less than accurate. Sin is a deadly pestilence, poisoning the mind and body, leading only to death. Sin is like a plague which ravishes and consumes all that is good and clean and pure, until only death is left standing.
Also see Isaiah 5:24. “Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble, and dry grass collapses into the flame, so their root will become like rot and their blossom blow away as dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.” It seems that the only thing that could have stopped such a terrible fire would have been the Word of God, yet these people chose so strongly to reject what would have granted life!
Why would anybody reject something that is life-giving, like the pure milk of the Word? I suppose that is a question that can best be answered by the one refusing to submit to the Lord. But for our part, Paul does give some insight in our text. Look again at Ephesians 4:19, and see how the word “callous” is used to describe the heart of the old self. Indeed, how hard must a heart be to resist the will of God! One writer puts it well when he states, “[Hardening of the heart] has been defined as such a suppression of moral and religious feeling as to imply a total disregard of Divine calls and warnings, and an insensibility to their importance” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. XX, R. Finlayson).
Do we ever have calloused hearts? When another Christian approaches me, do I become resentful of the spiritual guidance being offered? Do I become jealous of the success of sinners, or even of my own wealthy brethren? Do I know that I am in sin, but choose to ignore my responsibility? We meet men who are committing adultery and have this same heart – one which does not look at the suffering being inflicted by him, nor at the consequences of his sins.
Not only are these people calloused and obstinate in nature, but they are also “being darkened in their understanding” (Ephesians 4:18). Have you ever met someone who you could describe as being darkened in understanding? Surely there are people all around who fit this characteristic. These are individuals who are so stubborn in what they believe to be the right way for themselves that they cannot even see the evidence to the contrary. “Well, I know what is best for me, and I know the right way to go in my life!” When all the while they are walking straight toward a cliff! Their thoughts are so clouded by sin, lust, fear, hatred, jealousy, or ungodliness that they do not, nor are they even able to, foresee the terrible catastrophe awaiting them. One could easily argue that the Pharisees and other religious leaders of our Lord’s day were “darkened” in their understanding. For so many of them, the power and prestige of their position was so much more valuable than understanding the coming of the Messiah. How darkened would someone’s mind have to be to completely disregard the miracles and witnesses of Jesus Christ? Notice a few things from the Gospel of John (John 7:30-32), in which it is shown that many people of Jerusalem saw the signs of Christ and could not deny them. In fact, what more evidence could one need – after all, it did not take the wisest in the land to come to the conclusion that the Messiah “will not perform more signs than those which this man has.”
Also turn with me to Acts 4:16. After the miraculous healing of a man in the previous chapter, Peter and John are apprehended and brought before the Council of the Jews to answer for what they had done. But when presented with the proof of the miracle, and some of them, to be sure, having witnessed the miracle itself, the men of the Council have no response for the Apostles. They even admit that the miracle is undeniable. Is this not a darkened understanding? How much more dark can a man’s mind get? What more facts and proofs are left for the Pharisees to deny?
The same is true today with a number of “hot topics.” We meet brethren who cannot admit what the Bible says about divorce, or fellowship – some men are so darkened in understanding that they refuse to believe that the “days” in the creation account are actually days! As Christians, we can defend the Bible for hours with a homosexual over his disgusting lifestyle, but all the Bible verses and all the facts on STDs and all the evidence from former homosexuals about the vanity and futility of the life – with all of this mountain of truths – will still not convince most homosexuals to bury the old self and live a life of renewal in the name of Christ. Indeed the scripture has come true which says, “And God gave them over to a depraved mind to do those things which are not proper” (Romans 1:28). The mind of the unbeliever is depraved, obdurate, and utterly (as our text best puts it) “darkened.”
Truly, there is nothing redeeming about the old self. What is most astounding about that life is that it is by choice. Paul writes, “For they have given themselves over to. . . the practice of every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:19). To choose evil, greed, sensuality, spiritual rot – to choose to die, to choose to be corrupt, to choose to give yourself over to those things which spoil our souls and separate us from the mercy of God – to choose the old self is to choose damnation. Can it be put any simpler than that?
At this point, it is clear to most of us what the old self is and what it entails. The difficult part, of course, is not identifying it, but doing something about it. It is not enough for us to simply acknowledge that we are sinners, or that the old self (manner of life) was a mess. It is also not enough for us to admit that the old self still creeps back every now and then. We are told quite clearly in Galatians 5:24, “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” If we think we are going to belong to our Lord, than we had better take that old man, crucify him with all of his passions and evil habits, and walk as far away from that life as we can!
The most valuable point that should first be made is that the statements of this passage of scripture are applicable to all people. In the same way that we are all in sin before baptism (as was mentioned already in Ephesians 2:3), we too are all given the same chance to die to that sin and renew our souls in Christ. It is stated in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. We also read in Acts 17:30 that “God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.” We have no excuse, friends!
Notice our text again in Ephesians 4:20-24. It is time now for all of us to reject the old self, abandoning it, and accept the new self, which is one of renewal and life, peace and everlasting glory. I would like to look at a few qualities of the new self, in order to appeal to you as to how wonderful existence is when living anew.
Our text begins in Ephesians 4:20 as saying that the Christians in Ephesus did not learn Christ in the way of unrighteousness. That is, they learned Christ as being a Lord of purity, in stark contrast to life as a Gentile. While living in their pagan existence, the recipients of this letter would have considered it so peculiar to reject their deeds of the flesh. Now, under the rule of Jesus, they are being asked to dump that old self in favor of what is so beautifully called “renewal” by the apostle.
We find other verses in the New Testament that discuss renewal. One passage which parallels our text in Ephesians is Colossians 3:9-10, “Since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the one who created him.” The most noted verse on the subject is Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Of course, whatever is good, acceptable, and already perfect is the goal for which we must strive. So many people choose to sit around and never change their lives simply because they do not believe there is anything better out there for them. A major problem in our society is prostitution, and the detrimental effects it has on the girls who get sucked into that lifestyle. Most of these people do not live as harlots because they enjoy the life – what is to enjoy? Constant fear of diseases, rapes, abuse by employers or clients, bad pay, and no self-respect – people do these deeds because they have nowhere else to go. Or so they assume.
But look again at the verse in Romans. There is so much hope in the phrase “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” To think that there is something better out there for us is an idea that can lift any sinner from the muck of his old self. The opportunity to change lives is available to all people who seek it (indeed “ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened to you” [Matthew 7:7]).
Of course, the renewal must be genuine, as simply putting off the old man for show is never enough to save us. “We are taught that renewal must be from within outwards. If there is only life lingering at the outside, it will never penetrate from thence to the center. But if there is still life at the center, though the old forms may have to be cast away, it will clothe itself in new forms” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. XX, R. Finlayson).
The second lesson that can be learned from the contrast between Gentile life and Christian life is that no upbringing is so disgusting that the person can never repent and live that renewed life in the light of Christ. It is clear from a number of other passages that these individuals were being asked to change some very dreadful and repulsive practices. From Colossians 3:5-8 we see that the Christians there were once partakers in idolatry, greed, slander, and “evil desire.” Yet, with all these sins going against them, the Gospel was still able to convert (truly “the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation” [Romans 1:16]). Also notice 1 Corinthians 6:11, in which it is described that many of the Christians were once filthy sinners, but were washed and sanctified to newness of life.
And all of these verses are tied together with the theme of living life anew. Perhaps this is simply an example of the mercy of God displayed gloriously! It took the power of the blood of Christ to save the most vile sinners from damnation – truly, Christ transformed a race of Gentiles, idolaters at heart, disgusting perverts with a taste for animal blood and immoral sexual activities, into the spiritual kingdom of His glory. It was only Christ who could do this, it was only His sacrifice that holds this much awesome power. Paul said it best in 1 Timothy 1:15-16.
Now consider that our new life is created for only one, supreme purpose; for righteousness. What could be more rewarding than saying your entire purpose in existing is to perform righteous deeds! That is exactly what the text says, “and put on the new self which. . . has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:24). What a purpose! What a goal! There is nothing else more noble than a life that is meant for righteousness. There is nothing else that feels as good as waking up each day and saying to myself, “I am a new man, transformed to the image of Christ, living my life in righteousness and holiness of truth!”
Like God – Conclusion
There is one more phrase in our text that is essential to the study. Notice in Ephesians 4:24 that the new self is in the likeness of God. Turn the page over and see that Paul continues the thought in Ephesians 5:1-2. If we want to say that we have rejected the old self and taken on a new life, then we must submit ourselves to the attitude and actions of the Lord. It is truly an honor that we have the opportunity to become like Him. It is an honor that we do not deserve.
The important question after this, therefore, is how do we achieve such a life? How do we put away the old self, the Gentile within all of us, and be renewed, putting on the new self? The answer is simple, and it is explained in such sweet words in Romans 6:3-7. With the old self crucified and ignored, we can move on to greater things. We can change our lives for the best and take up our cross. We can follow Christ through the gate onto the narrow road that leads straight and true up to salvation. We do not need the old self, with its spiritual sickness, its vanity, its futility of body and mind. We do not need the empty promises that drugs, adultery, lies, hatred, frivolity, and gluttony have to offer. All we need is Christ, and a sincere desire to obey Him.
I now present each of us with a choice. It is undeniable that there are two paths we can each choose to take. No one can choose for you, no one can stop you from walking one way or the other. You have the old life, and you have the new life. The men and women of Ephesus chose the new life, rejecting all the lies that Satan had to offer. What life will you choose?
Choose Christ today and accept the Word which you have heard. Believe it, and your belief will result in faith. By your faith, you will have the strength to confess yourself before God and man. By your confession, you will accept the responsibility of changing your life for the best, transforming and renewing yourself. And, finally, by your baptism through the water, you will wash away the sins of your old self and make ready your soul for salvation.
“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).