Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 3/29/98
"Among them you too formerly walked, indulging the lusts of the flesh and the mind . . . even as the rest."
For the last three weeks we have been examining the three most--indeed, almost the three only--depressing verses in all this great lyrical, uplifting, and inspiring epistle of Ephesians. Ephesians is about God's eternal purpose, and an awe-inspiring thing it is, to sum up all things in Christ through the Church; it is about what God has done to achieve that purpose, and a wonderful and joyous thing that is as well: the election, redemption, and adoption of sinners to be made into sons and saints, living stones in the Church, that great eternal temple to the praise and glory of Christ. It will be about the Christian life and the Christian's warfare, how we walk worthily of that great calling; and a wonderful and marvelous thing that is too, a life of peace and purpose and power, of victory and fulfillment. But the brilliant splendor of all these truths could not be appreciated in all its majesty unless we saw also the full depths of the darkness and death from which we are saved by Grace alone, and which are the alternative faced still by those who reject the claims of Christ. We cannot fully appreciate our position in Christ until we see where we have come from. Hence our concentration on verses 1-3. Now, before we leave them, I want to highlight one phrase--really just one word: the word "formerly." You too, Paul says, formerly walked and lived like the children of wrath, the sons of disobedience.
This one word, "formerly," says volumes about what a Christian is. He is not just a person with some strange habits like going to church on Sunday. He is not just an uptight bigot out to impose his narrow and arbitrary morality on innocent secularists. He is not just a person with a peculiar set of beliefs. He is not somebody who is "into" a certain religion. A Christian is a person who has been changed. He "formerly" was living according to the course of this world. But now he is different from what he used to be. He is walking in a new direction, following the beat of a different drummer. He is a person who is not living like he did before. He is not perfect; he is not without struggles; but he IS different. And if he is not, he is not a Christian, whatever he may profess with his mouth.
This is one of the grand themes of the New Testament. We hear it from Jesus' own mouth: "Then Jesus spake again unto them, saying, 'I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life'" (Jn. 8:12). He said, "I am come as a light into the world, that whosoever believeth in me should not walk in darkness" (Jn. 12:46). We hear it in the preaching of Paul: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but you were washed" (I Cor. 6:9-11). "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). And it is particularly in the message of Ephesians: He chose us in Christ that we should be "holy and blameless before him in love" (1:4); we are saved by grace "unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (2:10); "This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye walk not henceforth as the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind" (4:17); "For you formerly were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light" (5:8). And among them you also FORMERLY walked (2:3).
In other words, the very definition of a Christian is that he is a person who has been changed. He was dead in his trespasses and sins; now he is alive to God through Jesus Christ. He was powerless against sin, a stick floating along on the current of this world; now indwelt by One greater than the world, he is able to swim upstream and buck the trend. He was by nature a child of Adam, a child of disobedience, a child of wrath; now he is born again as a child of God who is destined to holiness and has already begun to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. A Christian is a person who has been--and therefore is being--changed.
It is clear in all these passages which talk about the change that takes place in those who put their faith in Christ that they are referring to all believers, not just to the elite super-spiritual few. A changed life is the normal expectation; its absence is prima facie evidence of a spurious profession and a counterfeit faith. No exceptions are contemplated in Eph. 2:2. It is an explicitly reiterated statement: where there has been no change, there is no salvation (1 Cor. 6:9a, Gal. 5:21). It is not that perfection is required for salvation; far from it. It is not that anyone who commits adultery after his conversion is lost. But people who ARE adulterers or idolaters (or revilers, i.e., gossips!), etc, in other words, people for whom these sins are a continuing lifestyle that constitutes their identity: such people are simply deluding themselves if they think their alleged profession of faith is going to get them to Heaven. It is not that you have to change yourself to be saved, in other words; but being saved will change you. You don't have to change yourself, to make yourself worthy to come to Christ. But if you come to Christ, he will change you. If you have not begun to change, you have not come. Period.
Let me put it as plainly as I can. A changed life is not optional for believers. It is part of the very definition of what it means to be a Christian. There is no prospect of your continuing in your old ways as if nothing has happened and going to Heaven. There is no prospect of living in sin and being saved. You are saved by grace through faith alone, apart from works. But a faith that does not produce any works is not what the Bible means by faith. Faith without works is dead. But a true Christian is a person who has been made alive.
"But what about justification by faith alone?" somebody may ask. "How can salvation not be by works if I have to make all these changes or I can't be saved?" You haven't been listening very carefully. Neither Paul nor I say that YOU have to change yourself in order to be saved. Both of us are saying that if you are truly saved you are going to BE changed by Christ. That makes all the difference in the world.
Justification by faith alone apart from works is also clearly taught in Scripture: in Rom. 3:20a, 4:3-5, 6:23, and right here in Eph. 2:8-10. Nothing could be plainer. But the necessity of the change is taught as well. How can both be true?
It helps if we are able to distinguish a cause from its effect. If I cut your head off, your body is going to die. Decapitation is the cause, and death is the effect. If you lose your head, you die. But the arrow goes only one direction; it does not follow that because you died, you lost your head. In the same way, salvation by grace alone through faith alone is the cause, and a changed life producing good works is the effect. You cannot get truly spiritual good works except by God's grace received by faith alone. But effects do not produce causes. You get the good works from being saved; you cannot get salvation by trying to do the good works. If I decapitate you, will die. If you did not die, I have not decapitated you. If Jesus has saved you by grace through faith, your life will change. If it has not changed, he has not saved you. The logic is exactly the same in both cases.
You see, salvation can be a completely free gift, but accepting that gift can have consequences. Do you remember the old 50's TV show "The Millionaire"? A millionaire's hobby was picking out strangers and giving them a check for a million dollars to see what would happen. The show followed the different, and sometimes surprising, ways their lives changed as a result of accepting it. It was a completely free gift; they did not have to work for it at all; but accepting it changed their lives. If somebody gave me a million bucks today, I can guarantee you my life would be different tomorrow. There would be an addition to my house to hold the sudden increase in my library--oh, yes, I can tell you off the top of my head several hundred books I've always wanted but had neither the money nor shelf-space to get them. I wouldn't be writing any more mortgage checks. Hopefully I would not become extravagant; hopefully I would give a substantial amount to the Lord's work. But my life would change. Now, if I claimed I had been given the money, as a completely free gift with no strings attached, but time passed and nothing happened--I was still wearing threadbare suits and driving a car pushing 100,000 miles and working on a clunky computer--wouldn't you begin to wonder if I had been telling the truth? That is exactly what Paul is saying about people who claim to be recipients of God's grace but whose lives remain mired in sin as if nothing had happened. A Christian simply IS a person who has been changed. It is inescapable.
Is the change equally visible in all true believers? Unfortunately, no. There is such a thing as a carnal Christian. In other words, there are some believers who have not been changed enough. But they are still different from the non-believer. Once they understand God's will, they can no longer sin comfortably. Whether they like it or not, their faith in Christ has changed them. They no longer belong in the World. They no longer fit there. They cannot be happy in the long run unless they are walking with the Lord. If they can, they are not carnal Christians at all, but unsaved. They are yet in their sins.
What specifically are the changes we should be looking for? They are laid out in terms of the anatomy of death and worldliness we have been studying. We were children of disobedience; so self will is being replaced by the desire to follow Christ. We used to live for the indulgence of the desires of the mind and of the flesh; we are learning to live for higher purposes. We used to accept the World's ideas about how to do things; we are replacing that with a hunger for the Word of God. Read ahead, from 4:17 to the end of the book if you want the full picture, if you really want to know. And if you don't, then may God have mercy on your soul.
My purpose today is simply to remind you: were dead in your trespasses and sins; you formerly walked according to the course of this world. But you left all that behind when you received Christ. You have been changed forever, made a new creature. It is part of our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. If the change we have been describing has not happened to you, repent, accept Christ as your Lord and Savior in true and sincere faith before it is too late. If it has begun, then rejoice--and get on with it!
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams