In Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World (2021), Dr Greg Sheridan, Australian foreign affairs journalist and writer, comments: ‘In the West… religious belief has been in serious decline in recent years. The loss of faith is part of a broad movement in the culture. It is also partly, … related to a shocking loss of knowledge’.
He continues, ‘The West is a culture willing itself into amnesia and ignorance, like a patient carefully requesting their medical records and then burning them, so they and their physicians will have no knowledge of what made them sick in the past, and what made them well. … If you believe, as I do, that the Bible is true, this is our society willfully depriving itself of truth’ (p.40).
In his Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 17 Paul the Apostle writes: Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds, darkened in their understanding, separated from the love of God, because of the ignorance within them…
A world without God. Paul is not saying that people who seek to live without God can’t be academically smart. Rather, he is saying that no matter how clever people might be, they need to be taught about God. For no matter how sharp or developed their reasoning, they won’t find answers to the true meaning of life without God.
Furthermore, he comments, minds without Christ produce various moral symptoms: They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity (4:19).
Paul isn’t saying that every unbeliever is a libertine. Rather, he is speaking about the lifestyle humanity tends to adopt when it chooses to live without God. Yes, there are social inhibitions that check our desires – good families, schools, and social conventions. But, as we’re seeing around us, values are changing. Minds without God invariably slide towards self-indulgence and sensuality. And, if we’re honest, when we look into our own heart we will surely agree.
New life – new lifestyle. Having laid out what happens in a world without God, Paul turns to the new life God expects of his people. Put off the old self, he exhorts; be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new self (4:23f). With these active and passive verbs — put off, be renewed, and put on, Paul reveals that we are to play our part in adopting a new lifestyle. God will be working in our lives, but we are to own our responsibility in this new relationship.
And this awakens us to the way God works with his people. We are dependent upon God for our daily food, but that doesn’t mean that we expect him to provide house or room service. We need to work for a living and shop for food. In the same way there is a balance of this process of becoming more like God.
On the one hand, God in Christ puts a new mind in his people – an act in which we are completely passive. On the other hand, there is the part that we must play. This is why the New Testament is full of exhortations: to struggle against sin, to fight the good fight and to run the race. Christianity is not a spectator sport where we are up in the grandstand, watching the Holy Spirit win all these battles for us.
The new life requires effort. The Holy Spirit’s work is not to save us the effort, but rather to awaken us to Jesus and to enable us to run. When we become God’s people we have a new nature within us, counteracting the sin virus. God is now working within us, yes, but we have a part to play in developing qualities of holiness and righteousness. We won’t experience this perfection until the coming of the Lord. For the present we are works in progress.
What then does this new life look like? Be imitators of God… and walk in love… Paul exhorts (5:1f). Love sums up the sort of life we ought to live. However, as love is an abstract noun, it needs definition, which we find in chapter 4, verses 25 through 32.
Love means telling the truth and putting off falsehood, for we are members of one body 4:25). It means controlling our temper: In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold… (4:26). There are times when we are justly angry but we mustn’t let it overwhelm or dominate our lives. God will judge all injustice.
Our useful and honest work is to provide benefit for others (as well as addressing our own needs – 4:28). In our conversations we are not to let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up… (4:29).
We are to honor God, not grieving the Holy Spirit of God (4:30). Furthermore, there is no place for bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, as well as every form of malice in our relationships. But most of all, Paul says, be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,… Why? Just as in Christ God forgave you.
With these exhortations Paul is not setting out an exhaustive list of rules to follow. He couldn’t do this in a way that would address every situation in life. Rather he sets out illustrations for the underlying principles of honoring God and loving one another.
So, when we find ourselves in situations of moral uncertainty, inventing more rules is not the solution. Rather, we need to reflect on the perfect model – the Lord Jesus. In turn we need to pray for wisdom and strength to exemplify the kind of self-denying love that Christ showed – in his attitudes to those around him and, supremely, when he gave himself up on the cross. We will not go far wrong if we try to live a life like Christ. Be imitators of God… Paul writes. Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (5:1-2).
Here then is a response to the spiritual amnesia around us – our growing Christlike lives. Let’s then pray that God will so work with his Spirit and his Word within us that we will grow in the riches of his love and bear the fruit of his Spirit in our lives.
A prayer. Teach us, gracious Lord, to begin our works with reverence, to go on in obedience, and finish them with love; and then to wait patiently in hope, and with cheerful countenance to look up to you, whose promises are faithful and rewards infinite; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen