Sermon Notes

Ephesians 4:17-19 January 30, 2000
Why Can’t I Change?

A country farmer and his boy ventured to the big city for the first time. They were amazed by almost everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and back together again. The boy asked his father, "What is this, father?" The father (never having seen an elevator) responded, "Son, I have never seen anything like this in my life, I don't know what it is." While the boy and his father were watching wide-eyed, an old lady limping slightly with a cane slowly walked up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The walls opened and the lady walked between them and into a small room. The walls closed and the boy and his father watched; small circles of light with numbers above the wall light up. They continued to watch the circles light up in the reverse direction. The walls opened up again and a beautiful 24-year-old woman stepped out. The father said to his son, "Boy, Go get your mama."

We all want change like that, don’t we? Transformation is what we desire. We long for the magic pill to come along and make everything better. We live in a culture where that promise is often made, but rarely realized. We are inundated with ads which will extol the virtue of ingested chemicals which will replace lost hair, remove unwanted pounds, wash away anxiety, conquer the flu, or restore virility.

We want change to be quick and easy. Why? Because we know how hard it really is. We picture the ideal person we want to be, the perfect dress size, the perfect amount of hair, the perfect height. Yet our desire for change is never limited to the physical. What is worse is the character issues with which we wrestle each and every day. That problem with anger, the struggle with lust, the battle with envy...whatever the issue, we may well know that what is going on in our life is bad. The trouble is we are powerless to do anything about it. We may try, but change doesn’t stick; people pull you back, the hurdles are too high.

As we saw last week, God expects change in us. Maturity, while never complete in this life, is our goal. There is to be progress, change, a transformation from the infant, tossed back and forth, to reflect the only true mature man, Jesus Christ. We are to grow up into Christ our head. But how? That is what the rest of Ephesians is all about. How are we to change, not only what is to be the goal, but what is to be the means of change. From here through the end of his letter Paul describes how the Christian life is to be radically different from the world expectations. In speech, work, interpersonal relations, family, marriage, sex, temptation there is to be change.

But before we learn how change happens, we need to understand why it doesn’t. Ephesians 4:17-19 tells us why change is so hard, what is it that keeps us from even beginning to reflect the image of Christ in our lives.

17. So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.

18. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.

19. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

Paul begins with the impossible standard of the Law: "you must no longer live as the Gentiles do."

We see this and shudder. But as we begin this series dealing with change over the next several weeks, don’t forget the context. If you’ve been with us through the fall looking at Ephesians you know the first half of the letter is written in the indicative, stating the fact of what God has done. There have been few commands, few instructions about how we are to live and plenty of explanations of God’s grace. Now, in light of God’s grace, in light of the Spirit of God indwelling the people of God to make them the Body, the Church with Christ as the Head...here is how you are to live.

His command, though, assumes we have trouble here. Literally it is: "stop living this way." Stop being like every other person in your culture. Even though you live in Ephesus, you are not to live like the Ephesians. Even though you are a Wisconsinite by birth, you are not to be one in practice. Peer pressure doesn’t stop when you leave the teen years; it continues through your twenties, forties, eighties. I guess it only lessens if you outlive all your peers. But for us still battling this pressure, why can’t we change, why do we still live like those who don’t know Christ? Why are we no different?

What is the condition that prevents change? - verse 17

Change is prevented because of our minds

What is the problem with the lives of those outside of Christ? What is the problem which causes change to be so hard for us within the Church? Paul begins by describing the condition of their thinking. Paul does not begin with the external behavior. He does not say the problem is with their environment nor with their biological structure. The problem is neither nature nor nurture. Their condition is one of the mind.

In the NIV we have the word "thinking" here, but that is not the best translation. The word does not assume that the cure for the problem is through better education. The word here (nou'"?) does not refer to the intellect to the exclusion of feelings, nor feelings to the exclusion of the intellect. "Mind" encompasses the reason, the understanding, the conscience, and the affections.

The first thing we must understand when it comes to seeing real change take place in our lives is that what we believe affects the way we behave. Wherever our reason is askew, our understanding is impartial, our conscience is limited, our affections are turned inward – there we are going to have behavior which is displeasing to God. If that mind does not grasp the truth, then change will not come.

Change is prevented because of the condition of our minds

What is it about the mind that makes change come so hard? What is it in the thinking process, as we consider options and make choices? There can be no change as long as our thinking is futile, as long as our minds are void of all the facts needed to make a correct decision.

"Futility", in Greek, means "void of purpose or appropriateness," i.e., pointless. Phillips, in his modern paraphrase puts it very superbly: "Do not live as the gentiles live. For they live blindfold in a world of illusion." The New English Bible says, "Give up living like pagans, with their good-for-nothing notions." That is exactly it, "good for nothing." Impressive, perhaps, clever, oftentimes startling, provocative, but pointless! The world in its thinking is bankrupt.

Our actions flow from our thoughts, so if our thought-life is empty, futile, pointless – then our actions will likewise be nonsensical. When our thinking is not theocentric, when we live like those who have no consideration for God’s commands, when their intellectual structure has no categories for God, then change will never come.

For Paul, it is abundantly plain that, however acute the mind that rejects God in all His love and mercy, the person who bases his or her whole life on a thought process that leaves God out confines himself or herself to an empty and ultimately futile way of life. "You have made us, 0 God, for yourself," prayed a sage in antiquity, "and the heart of man is restless till it finds its rest in You."

If you desire change and neglect the fundamental ingredients of who we are, real, lasting change will never come. If the counselor or the psychologist ignores that we are created in the image of God, that we are in rebellion to God, that God has revealed Himself to us through His Word, and that God took on flesh to remove our sin and cover us with the perfect righteousness of Christ, their conclusions will be flawed, futile, frustrated, because their minds are lacking vital data to make the proper change. If you want to change, but you operate with a materialist world view, if God is absent from the formula, then the conclusion will be faulty.

What is the cause that prevents change? -  verse 18

That is the condition: a world view which is futile due to the absence of the necessary information.

If we say that is the condition, we beg the question: "What’s the cause of that condition?" We need to take the next step back to know what the root is behind the fruit of futile thinking. First Paul lists the primary cause followed by two clauses which supply the secondary cause. Paul, in telling us why their thinking is futile, explains that ultimately, their thinking is darkened; they are alienated from God and so they are ignorant and hard-hearted.

Alienation prevents change

Change can’t occur where one doesn’t see the need to change. What one doesn’t see, one can’t change.

Dr. David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell University, did a study on incompetence. The goal of the study was to determine how to help incompetent people. If you work with such people, I know I have your attention. But unfortunately, the common trait of incompetent people is that they don’t recognize their incompetence. The skills, Dr. Dunning found, to recognize incompetence are the same skills they need to be competent in the first place. Thus the incompetent often end up "grossly overestimating" their own competency, even when they're making a mess of things. Dunning notes such studies create a unique danger for researchers. "I began to think that there were probably lots of things that I was bad at and I didn't know it," he said. (THIS is TRUE for 23 January 2000)

Paul calls this "darkened in their understanding."

The verb here is a perfect participle, conveying the force of permanence. The apostle is not referring to an occasional dark passage. The mind without God is permanently in darkness. There is a fatal flaw.

It's like a computer program with one line of code missing so that every time the program runs it executes the commands flawlessly until it hits that one road block. So it is with us apart from Christ. All knowledge is broken, unrelated, incomplete. What we think, though it may be clever, does not bring us anywhere, does not produce anything, does not better us.

The blindness mentioned here is like driving in a fog. Studies have found that the human mind, when the vision is obscured, will warp the sense of time and space; thus the person in fog often drives at a much greater speed although they can see less. The fog keeps you from having sufficient information to judge the situation correctly.

While it may be fun to poke at the darkness which is evident in the way the world thinks, Paul’s intent is to tell his readers not to engage in this nebulous realm. How do we do that?

We do whenever we make determinations based solely on questions of income, comfort, prestige, when we demand our rights and refuse to serve, when we use our tongues to belittle and not build up. Our understanding is darkened every time we ignore God’s Law.

Change cannot occur when one is separated from God.

Back in 2:12 Paul used this idea to explain their exclusion from the benefits of being a part of the people of God. Ever try to have a spiritual discussion with a person who is unregenerate? In his commentary on Ephesians, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones gives an excellent illustration of this point.

William Pitt was one of the great prime ministers of England, an immense intellect. He was also a friend of William Wilberforce, the man who devoted his life to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce had experienced a genuine conversion, and his life was transformed. It was because of his Christian convictions that he labored so long and struggled so hard against slavery. Pitt was a nominal Christian, as most of that day were, but Christianity did not mean anything to him. In London in those days there was also a great preacher by the name of Richard Cecil. Wilberforce attended Cecil's preaching regularly and was delighted with it. It fed his soul and warmed his heart. He wanted his friend, William Pitt, the prime minister, to go with him to hear Cecil. Wilberforce often invited Pitt to attend church with him, but Pitt made excuses. He was always too busy. However, a day came when Pitt told Wilberforce that he could accompany him. That Sunday morning Cecil was at his best. Wilberforce was uplifted as he had scarcely ever been before; he was glorying in God and prayed for his friend. However, when the service ended and they were going out together, William Pitt turned to his friend Wilberforce and said, "You know, Wilberforce, I have not the slightest idea what that man was talking about.' (Boice, Ephesians, 157)

Change can not occur where one is separated from the One who can change, where darkness has settled around their minds. If they see no need to change, they will not. But, even if seeing that need, but do not see the only One who will change them, change will always be a dream.

If change is a pipe dream, if all you hear here is fuzzy all the time, ask yourself the hard question: "Am I separated from the life of God? Do I know Christ as my Lord and Savior?"

Refusal prevents change

Where there is alienation, there will be a refusal to change. How often have people said, when confronted with change: "I can’t!" That is partly true, but largely false. The ability to change is absent because at the very root, the volition to change is wanting. Paul gives the secondary causes to the futile thinking that prevents change in verse 18. There is refusal to change because there is ignorance and a hardened heart.

The refusal to change comes down to a heart issue. Here the aspect of volition, of a will bent away from God and therefore bent away from change which will honor him. Their hearts are hard.

"Hardening" here is the word used of a callus, a thickening of the skin or a stone-like formation in the joints or other parts of the body. At the core of each one of us we’ve developed a loss of sensitivity; we are unaware of the problem itself. We are, in totality, insensitive to what really matters.

You can’t heal blindness with more light, but must open the eye. You can’t soften a rock hard heart through tender massage, but a transplant must occur. Regeneration is necessary for there to be spiritual discernment, and spiritual discernment as necessary to holy affections. If you want change, real, lasting change, there must be a heart which is not alienated from God; there must be a mind not darkened and ignorant of God’s grace.

What is the consequence of prevented change? -  verse 19

Where does all this take us? What happens, when change is necessary, but darkness rules thinking and hardness prevents from sensitivity to God? When an emotional rigor mortis sets in, there is not only a refusal to change, but one flees from God. Hardness of heart leads to insensitive actions, which Paul sees as inevitable when people are hardened against God. This is the inevitable end result of embarking on this downward path. So when sensitivity is absent, something must fill that void.

The idea here is that their soul is so callused by sin, it feels no conviction, is apathetic and insensitive to moral and spiritual things. (1 Timothy 4:2) "having their own conscience seared with a hot iron." But when people forget how to blush, they’ll chase after anything; they’ll pursue every pleasure. The word "sensuality" refers to a life without any standards or social sanctions. There is the indulgence to discover the next level of impurity. Pleasure for pleasure's sake, living only to feel good becomes a narcotic deadening the pain of futility, blindness, and alienation.

Years ago I saw an exhibit of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the cities buried by Vesuvius in the first century. The lifestyles depicted on the frescoes illustrated the demoralized character of the people, so much so, as one writer has said: "It was not lava but lewdness that buried Pompeii."

Some of the world's great psychologists have seen the truth of this rather clearly. In a letter to E. Stanley Jones, the great Austrian psychologist Carl Jung wrote:

"Those psychiatrists who are not superficial have come to the conclusion that the vast neurotic misery of the world could be termed a neurosis of emptiness. Men cut themselves off from the root of their being, from God, and then life turns empty, inane, meaningless, without purpose. So when God goes, goal goes. When goal goes, meaning goes. When meaning goes, value goes, and life turns dead on our hands."

Being dead to God does not mean being dead to emotions or passions

While saying No to God's Law they died to responsiveness to Him, so they would respond to themselves. They replace what is missing, looking for a substitute.

In Romans 1:24,26,28, Paul says that it was God who gave such people over to the sinful desires of their hearts. When people refuse to acknowledge God they crown themselves the supreme arbiters of what they do. So, as Augustine once said, "The punishment of sin is sin."

So what is sought after to please, only serves to disappoint. There is a constant desire for more, but never satisfaction. Life is one long series of mocked expectations. It is a pursuing and not achieving, a blossoming and not bearing fruit. Sensuality does not satisfy, but only creates a greater appetite.

For those of you who have wrestled with the trap of pornography, you well know the whirlpool which drags you lower and lower. What once tantalized now bores, so a quest for gratification continues to that which is even more debased. The same is true for chemical abuse as well as pursuit of financial security. It is true when your joy is found only your kids, even in your church.

Once dragged down like that, with eyes blinded, mind darkened, heart hardened, change will not occur.

But what we must realize as we read this, is that Paul is not giving an academic dissertation as to why those outside the Church are a messed up bunch. Remember how he began: "you saints, you elect of God, you believers...stop living this way!"

Why is change so hard? Because first we buy into the lie of life apart for God. We are confessing Christians but practicing atheists. When we seek answers to our marriage struggles in Cosmo instead of Christ, we are walking like the Gentiles. When we listen to Oprah on how to be spiritual instead of the Scripture, we are buying into blindness. When we think our political party will cure what ails our hurting hearts, we have failed.

How to change? Look at the next verse. It is a glimpse of what we will see next week. What is the cure?

How did you come to know Christ? When it comes to our minds – what does our relationship with Christ tell us? Let’s pull back the curtain a bit: change comes as you respond now as you did at first. How is that? When you take off your own righteousness and put on Christ. Change happens when the great exchange takes place, when by faith alone you trust Christ alone.

Sermon Notes