“But you have not so learned Christ” – Ephesians 4:17-24

In the tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, we are told how a couple of swindlers were able to dupe a king and his counselors and indeed an entire city into believing that they had made the emperor a suit of clothes which in fact really didn’t exist.  The key behind their fraud was that they were able to convince the people of the city that the fabric had magical properties.  The magical property was that the clothes they made with this wonderful fabric became invisible to anyone who was unusually stupid or unfit for office.  Since no one wanted to admit they couldn’t see the clothes because they had believed the tale of the fabric’s supposed magical properties, everyone agreed with the swindlers that the clothes for the emperor were magnificent.  And so the emperor went on parade with absolutely nothing on.  (This is almost like some of the parades in our cities, but that’s another story.)  It took a child to admit what was obvious to everyone, and though at first people tried to ignore the child, eventually it got around and people began to be convinced.   Even the emperor, we are told, suspected the child was right, but the procession had to go on, and so they continued on with the illusion and the fraud.

In the West, we have been similarly deceived with the blithe promises of the post-modern, post-Christian swindlers of our day.  The politicians, the academics, the pop-stars, and even the preachers of our churches have told us that we need to get rid of the rags of Biblical Christianity and to replace them with the magical fabric of post-modern morality.  And they’ve convinced us that if we don’t see the value of their worldview, it just means we are stupid.  People of course don’t want to be stupid and so we’ve gone along with things that are clearly absurd.  Like the idea that a man can be a woman or vice versa.  Or the idea that a child in the womb is not a person.  Or the idea that purposeless causes can mimic intelligent beings.  These should be obvious untruths, but since so many others go along with them, we don’t want to be the odd man out.  The emperor has no clothes, and even though a child can see the obvious, the intellectuals and the elite continue to tell us that it isn’t so and we continue to cheer the patently ridiculous.

In our text, Paul is being honest and tells us that the emperor has no clothes.  He describes what a culture is like apart from faith in Christ: the word he uses to describe a godless culture is “vanity” (17).  It’s the word the Preacher uses over and over again in Ecclesiastes to describe the purposelessness of existence apart from the knowledge of God.  There is no reason that, as Christians, we should want to go back to join the vain parade.  In fact, there is every reason for us to move in a direction opposite from the flow of a culture which is becoming more and more detached from its Christian moorings.  As it does so, we are seeing more clearly the effects of secularism upon the death of a culture.  It is not an accident that our culture is becoming more toxic, more violent, more tribal, and more enslaved to physical appetites.  The scary thing is not that this is the first time these things have popped up.  They’ve always been around to some degree or another.  The scary thing is that for the first time in a long time these things are being celebrated.

What our text does for us is to remind us why we shouldn’t join our culture in celebrating godlessness.  That’s what unbelievers do.  They know deep down they are wrong, but they don’t want to live with the conviction of sin and so they silence their consciences by celebrating wickedness with each other.  Paul described it this way in Romans: “who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them” (Rom. 1:32).  Now as followers of Christ, we have already made a break with our neighbors who don’t know Christ.  But there will always be the temptation to go back.  And so we need to be reminded again and again why.  Again, our text does that.

What the apostle does in these verses is two-fold.  First of all, he describes the situation apart from Christ (17-19).  It is a scary and an ugly accounting of life in a culture devoid of the knowledge of the true God.  But it is honest, and we need to be reminded of it because the world will try its best to cover up this reality.  And then second, the apostle urges us to be faithful to the truth centered on the person and life and work of Jesus Christ (20-24).  To be faithful we need to live out the reality that we have not only put off the old man (22) but have also put on the new man and are being renewed in the spirit of our minds (23-24). 

You could say that the banner over verses 1-16 is “walk in unity.”  The apostle begins this chapter with the words, “I therefore the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called . . . endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (1, 3).  Now, in the same way, the apostle begins again with another “therefore . . . walk” (17).  This time, the emphasis is not so much on unity as it is on purity, or holiness.  So we might say that whereas the common theme to the first sixteen verses is “walk in unity,” the emphasis in verses 17-32 is “walk in purity.”

This does not mean of course that there is no emphasis on purity in the previous verses.  In fact, the apostle’s words in verses 17-32 flow naturally out of verses 1-16.  We saw in those verses that the unity we have is a unity in diversity, and this diversity is a diversity in spiritual giftedness.  And the reason the gifts are given are so that we become more like Christ.  This idea therefore ties naturally to the apostle’s observation in verse 20: “But ye have no so learned Christ,” and the exhortation to put off the old man which is not like Christ and to put on the new man which is.

The apostle’s flow of thought therefore goes as follows: there are two reasons why you should not walk like the Gentiles.  Reason 1: because their life is a life devoid of light and life (17-19).  Reason 2: because you have not so learned Christ (20-21).  This is then followed by the twin reminders that they have put off the old man (22) and put on the new man (23-24).  Let’s now walk through this text with the apostle and really try to hear and understand his reasons and his exhortations.

Two Reasons to Reinforce

Reason One: Because their life is a life devoid of light and life.  Remember that “to walk” in this context is not a reference to locomotion but to lifestyle.  We are not to adopt the lifestyle of those who do not believe the gospel.  Why?  Because, the apostle tells us, they “walk in the vanity of their mind” (17).  It is pointed out in the various commentaries that “mind” to the Biblical writers is more extensive than what we think of when we use the term.  For them it comprehended not just an intellectual component, but a moral component as well.  Paul in Romans writes, “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient [fitting]” (Rom. 1:28).  So when Paul says that the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind, he is referring to the moral purposelessness that characterized the unbelievers.  This was the state of affairs in Paul’s day and it is the state of affairs in ours, as well.  We are becoming less and less able as a culture to give reasons why we should reject any kind of wickedness.  We are adrift in moral relativism and it isn’t pretty.  Paul is essentially asking, “Why would you want to go back to that, to vanity, to a life which is morally adrift?”

But this is only at the head of things, the final result at the end of a sad and scary sequence of events.  It really begins with “the blindness of their heart” at the bottom of verse 18, which is the fundamental reason given for the entire sequence.  Now this probably should be translated “hardness” instead of “blindness.”  This is the way the word is translated, for example, in Mark 3:5.  The verbal form of this word always means “to harden” (see Mk. 6:52; 8:17; Jn. 12:40; Rom. 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:14)[1].  In any case, spiritual blindness and hardness go together, as John 12:40 shows, which reads (quoting Isaiah 6:10), “He [God] hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their hearts; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.”  Spiritual blindness and hardness describe those who will not see the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3-4).  They cannot see (blindness) because they will not see (hardness).  The fundamental problem with humanity is not a lack of education.  The fundamental problem is a heart which is unresponsive and blind to life-giving truth.  This of course is not a hardness which leaves us unaccountable, but one which increases our culpability and guilt before God.

As a result of this hardness, such individuals are ignorant and know nothing of “the life of God” (18).  In fact, they are alienated, estranged, from the life of God.  This is the same word Paul uses in Ephesians 2:12 when he says that before they were saved, they were “aliens [alienated, estranged] from the commonwealth of Israel.”  One of the reasons why the ungodly mock the Christian is because they really do not know what they are missing.  They are spiritually dead and they think this is normal.  However, there is no reason for the Christian to want to go back to this because we do know what it was like.  We know what it was like to be alienated and estranged from the life of God.  We remember the bondage; why would we want to go back to that?

But this is not all.  Paul tells us that in this condition of alienation from the life of God, we were darkened in our understanding: “having the understanding darkened” (18).  When your heart is wrong, when the will and the affections are bent against the will and ways of God, your mind will follow suit.  It’s the reason why brilliant men can completely miss the evidence for God and the gospel.  It’s not a matter of the intellect, it’s a matter of the heart.  But again, if your heart is wrong, your mind will go with it.  Paul explained it this way to the Romans: “For the invisible things of him [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:20-22).  The word “sophomore” literally means “wise fool” and our universities are full of them.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this category belongs merely to second-year students! 

Finally, the end result is that such people walk in the vanity of their mind.  So spiritual hardness of heart leads to spiritual ignorance which leads to alienation from the life of God which leads to a darkened understanding which leads to walking in the vanity of the mind.  But unfortunately, this is not the end of the description, either.  Paul goes on to say, “Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness [sensuality], to work all uncleanness with greediness” (19). 

God created every person with a conscience.  It’s what Paul refers to in Romans 2:15 as the law of God written in the heart.  But you can get to a point where that law is not talking to you anymore.  You’ve become “past feeling.”  To Titus, the apostle describes it as the condition where one’s conscience becomes defiled (Tit. 1:15).  To Timothy, he describes those who speak lies in hypocrisy, “having their conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2).  It is a scary condition.  The result is that such people give themselves over to sensuality and uncleanness.  They not only want it, they want it insatiably.  What was at one time perhaps gross and despicable to them, they now embrace with both hands.  Sin is like leprosy; it numbs our spiritual senses so that we play with fire and end up losing toes and fingers and don’t even realize it.  This is not something you want to be.  This is a spiritual condition every bit as horrifying a physical leprosy. 

It takes the work of God to awaken a sinner from such a condition.  Like the Prodigal Son, we have to come to ourselves, to our senses (Lk. 15:17).  But our blindness and hardness of heart prevents that unless Christ comes in his power to open our eyes and awaken us from a spiritual death.  This is why Paul goes on to talk about learning Christ and being taught by him.  The Ephesians didn’t actually hear Christ himself.  But when the gospel comes to us in the power of the Spirit of Christ, it is not any different than if he were there teaching us himself.  Our eyes are opened because of the power of Christ to open our eyes; and this is his second reason.

Reason Two: Don’t walk like the unbelievers because you have not so learned Christ.  This is a remarkable saying.  Generally, you don’t learn a person.  But that is just what the apostle says in verse 20.  What does he mean?  He means that we don’t just learn about Christ; we don’t just subscribe to his doctrines and teaching.  Rather, we embrace Christ himself in all that he is for us.  We embrace him as our Savior to deliver us from the guilt and defilement of our sins.  We embrace him as our Lord and King to rule over us and to conquer our enemies.  And we embrace him as our Prophet to teach us and to deliver us from our sinful ignorance and spiritual darkness.  Hodge writes that “‘to learn Christ’ does not mean merely, to learn his doctrines, but to attain the knowledge of Christ as the Son of God, God in our nature, the Holy one of God, the Saviour from sin, whom to know is holiness and life.  Any one who has thus learned Christ cannot live in darkness and sin.”[2]

This is important to emphasize, because there has been a lot of teaching, especially in the West, that teaches that saving faith just involves affirming doctrines in the mind, whether or not it changes the heart and the life.  Sometimes this is called “easy-believism,” sometimes “antinomianism.”  But whatever name it goes under, it is unbiblical and contrary to the teaching of our text.  You don’t learn Christ and then live like the devil.  Such a person has not learned Christ at all. 

Again, the reason why this could never be is because in conversion, we don’t just come to Christ, Christ also comes to us: “If so be [assuming this has happened] that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (21).  Again, Jesus didn’t physically come to the Ephesians and preach the gospel to them.  They had heard the truth from the apostle Paul, and perhaps others.  But when the gospel came to them, it “was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).  It “came not . . . in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5).  The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16), because in the conversion of sinners more is at work than merely speaking words of truth.  The Holy Spirit is opening eyes and hearts.  We are told that the reason why Lydia received Paul’s gospel was because the Lord had opened her heart (Acts 16:14).  And so it must be with us.  If we are saved, it is not because we were smarter than the next person.  It is because God has done a work in your heart.  Conversion is a supernatural work of God.  And that being so, it is ridiculous to think that such a person could go on living as if nothing had happened.  When God speaks life into the soul, it will be so.  Grace does not leave a person unchanged.

Two Realties to Recall

From this reality follows an exhortation based upon two realities of which the apostle reminds them.  They are tied to verse 21, “you . . . have been taught by him.”  What were they taught?  They were taught to put off the old man (22) and to put on the new man (23-24).  This is an obvious reference to changing one’s clothing and the point is that as there is an obvious difference in our appearance when we have changed our clothes, even so there is a clear difference between what we were and what we are now in Christ. 

Now there is difference of opinion over whether these verses refer to something that happens only once or whether it refers to something that happens over and over again.  It is difficult to decide, but I am of the opinion that verses 22 and 24 refer to their conversion whereas verse 23 refers to an ongoing action.  There are several reasons I take this position.

First, it is true that every believer has definitively put off the old man and put on the new man.  Paul assumes this in the parallel text in Colossians: “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Col. 3:9-10).  We have already argued that those who live lives that are no different from unbelievers show that they were never saved to begin with.  This is also assumed in passages like Romans 6, where Paul’s whole argument assumes that the believer’s death to sin is something definitive that happened in the past and that it is in light of this reality they are to live.  It is in this context that he mentions the “old man” in verse 6: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.”  Again, in Galatians 3:27, the apostle writes, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ [a one-time event] have put on Christ.”  These verses indicate that putting off the old man and putting on the new man is a definitive, one-time event that happens at the very beginning of the Christian life.  As Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 5:17, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”  The old man, or old self, is what characterizes us before the new birth.  The new man, or new self, is how we are described after the new birth; it is what the new birth makes us.

Second, the tense of the verbs is different in verses 22 and 24 than in verse 23.  In verse 23, Paul uses a present middle infinitive, whereas in verses 22 and 24 he uses aorist middle infinitives, which would be the verbal form we would expect Paul to use if he had meant to refer to a once-for-all action.

Finally, this fits the apostle’s pattern of exhortation.  He often lays down a general principle and then applies that principle to specific details.  For example, in Romans 6, he tells his readers that they have died to sin, that the old man is crucified.  This is the reality they are to grasp.  On the basis of this reality, they are to go on to “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof” (12). 

To say that putting off the old man is something that happens once in conversion, however, does not mean that we are not tempted to act out in ways that characterized our life before conversion.  The NT everywhere exhorts the believer to continue to put off or put away sinful attitudes and behaviors and to put on godly behaviors and attitudes.  Though we are genuinely new people in Christ, that doesn’t mean that there are not remnants of the flesh still hanging around.  We don’t lose this all at once at conversion.  Sanctification is a continual process, right up to our death.  So there are always going to be aspects of the old nature, the old humanity that we have inherited (cf. 2:3 and Rom. 5:12-21), that we are going to have to continually fight against.  Thus, as Hodge points out[3], we are called to put off the works of darkness (Rom. 13:12), to put away lying (Eph. 4:25), and to put off anger, wrath, and malice (Col. 3:8).  We are told to “lay apart” or put aside “all filthiness” (Jam. 1:21).  On the other hand, we are told to put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27), we are to cast off the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light (Rom. 13:12).  We are to put on compassionate hearts, etc. (Col. 3:12,ff).  However, there is a difference between saying that we have put off the old man, which once it’s done is done, and saying that we are to continue to put off attitudes and actions which are reminiscent of the old man and life.  The former is done once, whereas the latter is something that we do every day.

To sum up, in verses 22 and 24, Paul is describing what happened at our conversion both negatively and positively.  In verse 23, he is describing the ongoing process of sanctification.  However, we need to be reminded of who we are in Christ and what he has saved us from.  For it is on the basis of these realities that the apostle will go on to give very specific exhortations to holiness of life in verses 25-32.

Thus, when Paul reminds them that they were taught to “put off concerning the former conversation [conduct, lifestyle] the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (22), he is essentially saying, “Don’t go back to what you were.”  As the apostle Peter would put it, “the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries” (1 Pet. 4:3).  Notice that the apostle assumes that the life he is warning them away from is something they have parted ways with.  It is the “former manner of life.”  But again, there is always the danger of going back.  And to warn us against that, he reminds us that the former lusts in which we indulged were “deceitful lusts.”  We were lured into desiring those things because they appeared to be something they were not.  These lusts were Greeks bearing gifts.  They come to us promising pleasure when in reality they are waring against our souls (cf. 1 Pet. 2:11).  Like the swindlers in Andersen’s tale, lusts offer you lavish cloths that don’t exist.  The apostle is essentially saying, “Why would you want to go back to that?  Why would you want to go back to being deceived and living a lie?” 

Then, the apostle reminds us that we were taught to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is being renewed in righteousness and true holiness” (23-24).  Whereas the old life was one of deception, the new life is characterized by truth.  One commentator translates verse 24 as “righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.”[4]   We are sanctified by truth (Jn. 17:17) and it is the truth that sets us free (Jn. 8:32).

And this new life, this new man, means becoming more and more like Christ.  For the apostle tells us that the new man is being renewed “after God.”  When you compare this with the parallel verse in Col. 3:10, it is clear that the apostle is referring to the restoration of the image of God in the soul of man.  Now, every man still has the image of God to some extent (cf. Jam. 3:9).  But it has been marred almost beyond recognition.  Christ has come to restore it, and the way he is doing that is by making us like him (cf. Rom. 8:29; 1 Jn. 3:2).  For he is the image of God par excellence (Col. 1:15). 

Of course, this does not mean that we are being deified.  Paul limits the extent to which we are being transformed into the image of Christ in the words “in righteousness and true holiness.”  Whereas our lives were once characterized by the moral purposelessness of the Gentiles, now it is characterized by the moral excellence of righteousness and holiness.  We are being conformed into the image of God’s Son by being like him in his character.

And Jesus Christ is perfection itself.  All the moral excellences of God are in perfect display in Christ.  He is strong and loving, he is wise and kind, he is utterly holy and forgiving.  To be like him is to know what perfect contentment is like.  It is to know joy that is pure and never-ending.  Why would we not want to be like Christ?  Why go back to the condition of verses 17-19 when we have learned Christ?  If you are a believer, to ask the question is to answer it.

Of course, to get there is going to take work on our part.  We have to put off and put on.  But we are to continue to be renewed in the spirit of our mind.  Perhaps the best commentary on verse 23 is Romans 12:1-2: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present yourselves a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.”  How do we do that?  By paying close attention to the teaching of our Lord in his word.  In that way we will be renewed in the spirit of our mind; not just when we absorb its truths on an intellectual level only, but when we wed that knowledge to our affections and will so that our lives and outlook are changed.

The wonderful thing is that all this is possible to us through Jesus Christ.  May we know him by faith and trust in him, who is our Savior to take our sins and purge them, who is our King to take our enemies and crush them, who is our Prophet to take our ignorance and enlighten us.  He is offered to us in the gospel; all who thirst for the life he offers may come; those who drink will be filled.

[1] Although the KJV renders the verb “to blind” in the last two references.
[2] Charles Hodge, Commentary on Ephesians, p. 256.
[3] See p. 259.
[4] Hoehner, p. 609.


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