Ephesians 4:17 “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.”
Ordinarily I don’t like to dwell upon the sins of the world around us when I preach or teach. They aren’t here to be confronted. It’s more important that we hear what God’s word has to say about us. But in order to help the Ephesian Christians better understand themselves, the Apostle Paul began by describing the way of life of the non-Christian Gentiles around them.
The basis for their problem can be found in their way of thinking. Paul tells us that they live “in the futility of their thinking.” The problem of living the wrong way never starts with the things that people do. It goes back to the way they think and believe. It is a matter of the heart and mind.
Paul calls the Gentile way of thinking, the unbeliever’s way of thinking, “futile.” It is empty, worthless, and backwards. Those things which are truly valuable are eternal and spiritual–faith and forgiveness, God and heaven, worship and prayer. Yet the unbeliever values these things least of all. Instead, he gives the highest place in his life to those things which are merely material, only earthly. Jesus says of food, and drink, and clothes, “The pagans run after all these things.” The unbelieving often value most those things which aren’t even necessary for earthly life, things which are here and gone, things which serve no one but themselves–merely pleasure, merely recreation, merely luxury. Some of these may have some small legitimate place in life, but in the long run obtaining them is only meaningless, vanity, a chasing after the wind, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says. Thinking which enthrones earthly pleasure and ignores God is futile.
The Ephesian Christians knew that unbelieving way of thinking and living well. It was their former way of life, and they still carried it with them in their old self, the sinful nature. The old self hadn’t changed. It was still full of deceitful desires. It still desired all those sinful pleasures which promise more than they can ever deliver. No matter how long you and I have been Christians, we have that old self, too. Every honest believer must admit that he struggles with him every day.
But we don’t have to live under the same cloud of darkness as the rest of the world. That is not because you and I are so smart. It is because God has been so gracious. He has shown us we are more than talented animals that can taste and touch and hear and smell and see. We are more than consumers of what life has to offer, and we do not belong to just ourselves.
God has shown us we are responsible, moral human beings he created for himself. And though we have rebelled against him with our sin, no less than the unbelieving Gentiles, he has paid an aweful price to cancel the guilt of our sin and purchase us for himself once again. God’s one and only Son has sacrificed his life in place of ours, taking our futile thinking and futile living upon himself, and making his perfect life of love our own. He did this so that he might present us to his Father without any sin, pure and holy. He set us free from the darkness and power of sin.
Since God has brought us to repentance and faith, he has replaced our futile thinking with a new outlook on life. The Greek word for repentance simply means to change your thinking. God changes our minds about sin and leads us to find our sinful desires and actions as disgusting and repulsive as he does.
Then he takes a hold of our hearts and minds through the power of his word, especially through his words of promise and forgiveness in the gospel. Every time we go to worship, every time we sing a hymn, every time we listen to Christian music, every time we meditate on the word, every time some Christian piece of art leads us to ponder and believe in God’s forgiving love, God’s power is present to change our minds and make us new in faith and life.
Change is never easy. God’s daily call for us to change in repentance and faith is by far the hardest of all. But he has given us his gospel to get our thinking straight, and rescue us from the futility of the faithless way of life.