Paul has just encouraged his readers to "conduct themselves", in unity, and now in 4:17-24 he encourages them to do so in holiness. Before addressing the ethical behavior of a believer, Paul reminds his readers of their old pagan life, a life alienated from God, unable to make moral judgments, or discriminate between good or evil, v17-19. He then reminds them of their new standing in Christ. Holy living rests on a fundamental truth, that in Christ a believer has put off the old self and put on the new - we have died with Christ and are risen with Christ, alive in Christ through the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, v20-24.
v17. In the opening verse of this chapter, Paul urges his readers to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received." Having discussed the notion of the church as one body with diverse parts, Paul again returns to the issue of Christian behavior. Although his readers were once pagans, they must no longer live as pagans.
v18. In describing pagans, Paul says, "they are darkened in their understanding." Not knowing God ("separated from the life of God", cf. Col.1:21) only corrupts an understanding of the truth, of ethics, and so naturally prompts evil living. This "ignorance" of the truth increases with the "hardening of their hearts". As the conscience is slowly desensitized, so it is increasingly unable to convict. The idea here is that even a person who does not know God personally, still has an awareness of right and wrong; it is part of being "God breathed", of being in the "image of God."
v19. Continuing with the idea of the "hardening of their hearts", Paul restates the phrase in different words: "having lost all sensitivity". As the skin can become callous and less sensitive, so can the conscience. The result is that a pagan tends to hand themselves over to evil; they give themselves to "sensuality", often called "debauchery" - the flaunting of sexuality without shame. They also give themselves to "impurity", which is again some form of sexual misconduct. Also to "lust", or more rightly "covetousness".
v20-21. Paul now reminds his readers that this was not the way of life they were taught as believers. They were instructed in the "way". The phrase "Surely you heard of him....." or "I take it that you heard of Christ.....", is a facetious comment. Paul knows only too well that they were properly instructed.
v22. They were taught, says Paul, that they have put off their old corrupted self. When a person believes in Jesus the old sinful self is cast off like a worn out coat, it is put to death, it dies with Christ. In our identification with Christ, the old sinful self is buried with him and is replaced by his perfect righteousness, thus creating a new self. Some translations treat this verse as a command, a command to put off evil deeds, but that is not what Paul is speaking about.
v23. They were taught, says Paul, that they are being made new in the attitude of our minds - a present and ongoing renewal through the Spirit.
v24. They were taught, says Paul, that they have put on the new self, that they are righteous as Christ is righteous, holy as Christ is holy. Given that we have put on this new self, put on Christ, let us strive to be what we are in Christ. In the next passage for study Paul will outline an ethical response to our standing in Christ.
Living a life worthy of our calling, worthy of our relationship with Jesus, is no easy business. Our tendency is to fall back into old habits, or it may be we have never cast off those old habits. Old habits can be put to bed if we remember that when we decided for Jesus our old self was cast off like a rotten old coat and we put on a new self, righteous and holy before God.
I know it is far from helpful to use the example of someone who's life is beyond the norm. Francis of Assisi was just such a person. The key to his life lay in his total dependence on the grace of God. It is this example we must follow. Here was a man who courted a lover known to few of us. His mistress was poverty. His simple life and dedication to charity was not the action of a Christian trying to confirm his standing before God, or trying to please God, or advance his holiness. Francis actually enacted the mystery of Christ's incarnation, of his becoming one with us. Francis didn't just become poor for the sake of being poor. He became poor to identify with the poor. He became one with them in their poverty. The doing of this was wholly of grace.
His strange affinity with animals is probably the best example of this incarnational way of life. It is said he had an affinity with the animal kingdom, and this because his life was like theirs. He lived a precarious life, feeding on the scraps and refuse of humanity, along with the natural provisions of nature. He lived like the birds who "do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet (our) heavenly father feeds them." In living like them, he became one with them, and communed with them.
Renewal is achieved when we recognize that our old self is dead in Christ and our new self alive in him. In simple terms, this involves identifying with Christ's death and resurrection. By means of this identification with Christ, we find ourselves caught up in God's gracious plan for humanity; we find ourselves becoming what we are.
1. Why is the thinking of the pagan futile, "darkened", and why have they "lost all sensitivity"?
2. Discuss the idea that corrupted sensuality has affected evangelism and worship. What practical steps would you take to reduce this influence?
3. It is commonly said that to put on "the new self" is to put on righteous and holy living, in the sense of doing it. Discuss the notion that putting on "the new self" entails putting on what Christ did on our behalf, and thus that "righteousness and holiness" is something given rather than done.