Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 06/06/1999
"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 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. But you did not learn Christ in this way . . ."
To walk worthily of our calling, we have first to set the Church in order, for then the individual walk becomes possible. If we are being built up in love, we are beginning to experience the fact that the New Birth leads to a New Life that has to be worked out in practice. In this section of Ephesians, then, Paul speaks of two sides of the same coin: putting off the old life, and putting on the new. Therefore he deals with the Old Life in 4:17-19; the Process of Transformation in vv. 20-24; and the details of the New Life in vv. 25ff. Both the negative and the positive approaches to this truth are needed: we must know what to avoid and also what to pursue. So today we look back at the Old Life that Christians are leaving behind, in vv. 17-19.
The old pagan life is described as one of intellectual futility. The word translated "futility" is MATAIOTES; it means vanity, emptiness, uselessness. Socrates said wisely that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was talking about the same kind of life, one of futility. And he was right. But he was not able to help us examine our lives in the only light in which true purpose and meaning can be found, the light of God's Word. Montaigne said that unless an ultimate destination has been chosen, it is impossible to dispose rationally and wisely our individual and particular actions. And he was right too. But he was clueless as to what would constitute an adequate ultimate destination for the human journey. These men only make more pressing the question, what IS the meaning and purpose of life? Can any meaning or purpose for life be found outside of Christ? The human race seems determined to try.
What is the purpose of life apart from Christ? According to evolutionary theory, survival is a sufficient end in itself. The purpose of life is to compete for the honor of passing one's genes on to the next generation. That might suffice for some lower forms of life, but when persons try to live for no other end than that, they must realize that the largest chunks of their lives must of necessity be devoted to pointless boredom. So we try to find something else to live for. For many people it becomes money, power, prestige. He who dies with the most toys wins. But wins what? A fancier casket and a bigger tombstone? There's got to be something better than that at the end of the road. So the more high minded try to serve mankind, to leave the world better than they found it. But they have no consensus on what does serve mankind's true interests, on what "better" is. So their best efforts, subject to the immutable law of unintended consequences, find themselves back to square one: to futility. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the preacher.
So what is the purpose of life with Christ, in Christ? It is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. It is to see all things summed up in Christ (Eph. 1:10), to live to the praise of His glory (1:12), to grow into a holy Temple in the lord (2:21), to let the manifold wisdom of God be made known through the Church (3:10), to have Christ dwell in our hearts so that, being rooted and grounded in love, we may comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (3:17-19), it is that to Him there may be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever (3:21), it is to attain to the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to Christ (4:13). It is, in other words, to know, to love, and to serve our Creator, and in this to find the fulfillment of our created selves, the fulfillment to which we were destined.
If we are just here by chance, then any purpose we choose for life is arbitrary and they all lead to futility. If we were created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, then there is not futility but fulfillment in serving the purpose for which we were created. You must choose between these two world views. There really are no other options: either arbitrary purpose which can lead only to futility, or rational created purpose which can lead to fulfillment. So choose ye this day whom ye will serve. "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."
There is in this passage an inexhorable Logic of Futility, tracing it back to its ultimate cause. The Gentiles walk in futility because of the darkness of their understanding, because of their alienation from God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their hearts. To see this chain with utmost clarity, we can look at the links of it in reverse. In that sense, it begins with Hardness of Heart.
The heart in biblical usage is not the seat of the emotions, as we think of it in modern America. It is rather the center of the mind and personality, the inner unity of identity from which the faculties of intellect, emotion, and will flow and are separated. The word "hardness" is POROSIS, which can mean hard, unyielding, unfeeling, dull, insensitive. The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit, neither can he know them (1 Cor. 2:14). They are foolishness to him because he stubbornly rejects them, which he does because he insists on following his own wisdom--ultimately, on being his own God. That is hardness of heart.
And it leads to Ignorance. Because the heart is hard (it refuses to receive) it is ignorant (it does not know). It is not just that the unbeliever is uninformed. This is a positive and willful ignorance--"the ignorance that is in them."--that indwells and controls. They do not want to know God because if they did they would have to bow their knee to Him. And so the ignorance that flows from Hardness produces Alienation. Because we are hardened toward God and refuse to know him, we are cut off from him. But this is to be cut off from the Source of all goodness, the Source of everything that makes purpose and meaning possible. Without God there is no purpose to life; to reject him is to choose futility.
Because of all this, we have a Darkened Understanding. None are so blind as those who will not see. Apart from God, the best and the brightest, the most well-intentioned of human thinkers are at best the brilliant creators of clever partial solutions to isolated problems. Apart from Christ they cannot see the issue of life as a whole, they cannot deal with it as a whole. And therefore they are at best the blind leading the blind. It is no wonder that we have such a pronounced propensity to head toward the Ditch.
What can be done for such people? Nothing--unless the Holy Spirit, wielding the sharp two-edged Sword of the Word, should cut through their defenses and bring them from darkness into light. We must therefore proclaim the Word which is the only solution to the problem of this futility, but proclaim it in prayer and dependence on Him. There is no other alternative.
When we have rejected the claims of Christ and tried to find purpose in a universe of arbitrary values, when we have tried all the arbitrary sources of meaning and found them wanting, the futility of the darkened mind leads inevitably to a despairing sensuality. Why not? Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. What else is there to live for but an endless and frantic pursuit of pleasure--endless because it does not satisfy and frantic because it is really an anesthetic for an empty heart. Augustine, describing this pathology in his own life before he met Christ, said, "My soul being sick, it broke out in spiritual sores, which I longed to scratch with the rub of material things." A brilliant diagnosis! And because the true cause of the disorder is spiritual, the rub of material things treats only the symptoms, leaving the disease to progress toward inevitable nihilism and death. The endless pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and experience is then a cry of desperation, the frantic tossing and turning of the uncomfortable soul on the deathbed of its futility, the hapless struggle of a life weighed down by the intolerable but inescapable burden of an empty existence. What a description this is of our generation: lost, blind, walking in futility.
What then is the bottom line? What is Paul's point in this exposition? "That you walk no longer just as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind." In other words, if you have been delivered from this darkness by Christ, DON'T GO BACK THERE! You see, isolated bits of the old life can still seem attractive to us, for there is a pleasure in sin for a season. But Paul wants us to understand these two alternative world views, these two alternative ways of life, as wholes, as two eternally opposed systems. For when you look at it that way, you can see that the old life is empty; it cannot keep its promises; it is futile. Therefore, once you understand the two walks as systematic, integrated wholes, whose conclusions flow with inexhorable logic from their premises, then you will never want to go back. Then you will want to look ahead to laying aside the old self, to being renewed in the spirit of your mind, to putting on the new self which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (v. 22-24). But that will be our topic for next week. For now, "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 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. But you did not learn Christ in this way . . ."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams