God's New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians: Walk Like A Gentile?

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on April 23, 2006

Ephesians 4:17-24

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The Lord’s Day

April 23, 2006

Ephesians 4:17-24

“Walk Like a Gentile?”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with
me to Ephesians, chapter four, as we continue our way through this great letter.

Jesus emphasized to His disciples that they were
to be in this world, but not of it.
He said to them on one occasion that
they were to be salt and light in this world, and that their light was not to be
hidden nor was their salt to lose its saltiness, because their very distinctness
from the world was precisely the way He planned for them to be a blessing to the
world. That call for believers to be distinctive is a call which is heard
throughout the New Testament, and it’s heard in this passage today. It’s a call
for Christians to live differently than worldlings live, for Christians to be
different than pagans are. It’s a call to a different set of moral norms and
priorities than that which is exhibited in the world and amongst unbelievers,
but it is far more than simply a moralistic or legalistic sermon that says “be

It’s very interesting. In this whole passage from
Ephesians 4:17 down to the end of the chapter the Apostle Paul is going to be
spelling out some specific ways in which Christians are to live. But before he
gets (in verses 25-32) to the six specific exhortations or commands about
particular areas of the Christian life in which we are to be different from the
world, He first pauses to remind us again of the principles of the Christian
life. In fact, He reminds us of the doctrine of union with Christ in order that
we will understand that he is not simply announcing the whole of the message of
Christianity as “be good.”

By the way, so often we hear a call to have a
Christianity that has less doctrine and is more practical, but you understand
that from the Apostle Paul’s perspective if he does not frame the practical
teaching of the New Testament with that doctrine of grace, what does it become?

It becomes either legalism or moralism. It is precisely the grace of God
displayed in Jesus Christ and our understanding of that doctrine that prevents
the commands of the New Testament from turning into just one other set of
moralisms or legalisms. And there are plenty of those out there today, and so
the Apostle Paul wants to remind us that when we hear him saying “live this way,
don’t live that way” we won’t hear him saying that Christianity is merely a list
of do’s and don’ts. We will hear him saying that once one has been embraced by
the grace of Jesus Christ one’s life is transformed; and, therefore, there are
things that you do, and there are things that you don’t do. And that is a world
apart from the reduction of Christianity to merely a list of do’s and don’ts.

So let’s look to God’s word here in Ephesians 4,
beginning in verse 17. Before we read it, let’s look to God in prayer and ask
for His help and blessing.

Lord, this is Your word. Teach us truth from Your
word. Our minds and eyes are often blinded to the glory of Your truth, because
our hearts are not always right with You. Our ears do not always hear the truth
as we ought to hear it, because our hearts are not right with You. So by Your
illuminating work, open our eyes to behold wonderful truths from Your word; to
receive it, to believe it, to embrace it, to live it. We ask this grace in
Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the word of God:

“This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you
walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind,
being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of
the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they,
having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the
practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ
in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as
truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay
aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of
deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new
self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and
holiness of the truth.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

It was the year 1986, and The Bangles were singing
to us, Walk Like an Egyptian. Now you’re going to be thinking about that
tune for the rest of the sermon! It was a novelty song, kind of cute; talked
about people sort of looking like Egyptian hieroglyphs as they went about their
tasks…policemen, waitresses, et cetera. Well, somewhere around A.D. 50, about
1,940 years before, the Apostle Paul had told the Ephesians, “Don’t walk like a

Now, you understand that what The Bangles were
talking about had nothing to do with what the Apostle Paul is talking about.
They were talking about walking in a non-metaphorical sense. There was no
deep truth to what they were saying; it was just a happy little song. Paul was
using walk as it often is: a metaphor in the Scriptures for the way we
live our lives. “Don’t walk like a Gentile” means for the Apostle Paul “Don’t
live like a Gentile.” We even use the word that way sometimes. Have you ever
talked to a person in your small group or a dear friend and asked them, “How’s
your walk?” And you meant by that maybe “How’s your practice of prayer? Your
devotional time? How’s your life with God going? How is Christ working His way
into and out of the whole of your family life?”

Walk is a metaphor for the whole of life, and
the Apostle Paul is saying to the Ephesians, “Don’t walk like a Gentile. Don’t
live like a Gentile.” That doesn’t mean that the Apostle Paul is saying that the
Ephesian Christians can’t do anything that Gentiles do. He’s not saying to you
today ‘Gentiles drive cars: you shouldn’t drive cars, you should drive a horse
and buggy. Gentiles use medicine: you shouldn’t use medicine. Gentiles get blood
transfusions: you shouldn’t get blood transfusions. Gentiles work in government:
you shouldn’t work in government.’ That’s not what he’s saying.

Now, he spells out what he means to not live like
a Gentile by indicating that we are not to live a life that is not centered on
God, a life that is not God-centered and God-honoring and God-exalting and
God-desiring and God-focused–like the Gentiles do.
Because the Gentiles, no
matter whether they worship many gods or none, in the end are worshiping only
themselves. And so, in that way we are not to live like Gentiles.

But that is not simply to have an effect on our
doctrine, it’s to have an effect on the way we live practically;
so, in this
passage from verses 25-32 the Apostle Paul is actually going to spell out six
particular ways in which our lives are to be different from the Gentiles,
because they’re God-centered lives. But before he gets there he wants to review
once again the foundations of the moral life of Christians, and I want to look
at that with you in four parts today.

The Apostle Paul’s thesis is simply this: that
Christians are not to live or think or believe or desire or speak or behave like
worldlings–like Gentiles, like pagans.
And by the way, those aren’t just
swear words that we’re throwing over against people who are different from us
that we don’t like. Those are words rooted in Scripture simply to describe those
who are not trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the
gospel, and thus not under the beneficent sphere of His rule and blessing.
Christians in fact are called upon to love and care for, and serve and do right
by and seek the well-being of pagans, of worldlings, of Gentiles. We are also
called not to live like them, not to desire like them, not to emulate their
moral life, and the Apostle Paul spells that out in four things in this passage.

I. Who commands our obedience?

The first thing I want you to notice is whose
command this is, because it’s prominent in what Paul says in the very first
words of verse 17.
Who commands that Christians not live like Gentiles? Do
you notice who Paul says?

This is so important. Paul is emphasizing here in
verse 17 that this is God talking to you; this is Christ’s word to you. This is
not merely Paul’s opinion. Have you ever noticed in the New Testament that Paul
does not give you his opinion many times? He doesn’t ‘share’ his perspective
with you. He delivers what the word of God is. He’s not about opinions and
sharing: he’s about proclamation of God’s word, and he emphasizes this here.
Notice what he says in verse 17: “So this I say, and affirm together with the

In other words, the Apostle Paul is emphasizing that
both he and Jesus positively proclaim this command to you to live in a certain
way, and that’s so important. And it’s not the only time that the Apostle Paul
does it. For instance, turn back with me in your Bibles to I Corinthians 7. The
Apostle Paul is talking about marriage and divorce amongst Christians and
non-Christians, and he says in verse 10, I Corinthians 7:10: “To the married I
give instructions…” and then he pauses and he says, “Not I, but the Lord.” Now
why does Paul do that? Because what he’s about to tell the Corinthians is simply
a reiteration of what Jesus had already told all Christians, so this is not a
revelation from God that is unique to the Apostle Paul. Jesus Himself had
already told all Christians what Paul was about to say.

And then, in verse 12, notice what he says: “But to
the rest, I say, not the Lord….” Now, the Apostle Paul is not by those words
announcing ‘Now, we don’t have a word from the Lord on this, so the rest of this
is my opinion.’ No, the Apostle Paul is saying ‘The Lord Jesus hasn’t spoken
directly in the words that have been given to us of His to the issues that I’m
about to speak to, but I want you to understand that what I’m about to say is
just as authoritative as if Jesus Himself had said it. I tell you, this is the
way it’s going to be, Christians, even though we don’t have a direct word from
the Lord Jesus Christ about this.”

That’s so important for us to understand: that there
is no difference in the inspiration and authority of the red-letter words in the
New Testament and the black-letter words in the New Testament…because there
are a lot of people today that want to pit those things against one another.
They want to say ‘If it’s not in the red letters, if it’s not the words that
Jesus said, it’s not authoritative. If it’s in the black letters, well, that’s
up for debate. But if it’s in the red letters we follow that.’ That’s crazy! And
I want you to understand that if you take that position, you’re opposing Jesus.
Because Jesus said in John 14 and 16 that there were certain things that His
disciples could not bear to learn, and therefore He had not taught them; but
that when He had ascended on high and was sitting on the right hand of God the
Father Almighty, He was going to pour out His Holy Spirit, Who was going to be a
teacher to us and Who was going to guide us in all things–give us moral guidance
that we would not have been able to understand if Jesus had tried to teach it to
His disciples during His earthly ministry. And so if we reject the apostles, the
inspired apostles of the New Testament who came under the inspiration of the
Holy Spirit preaching and writing the word of Christ to us, we’re rejecting

And the Apostle Paul made that clear, didn’t he?
Turn forward now in your New Testament to I Corinthians 2:13, where he says,

“For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the
word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it
really is: the word of God.”

You see what Paul is saying: ‘Thank God for you
Thessalonians, that you understand that when I stand up here and proclaim the
truth to you, I’m not just giving you the opinions of a man. I’m preaching to
you the very word of God.’ The Apostle Paul is reminding us of that here in
Ephesians 4:17: “So this I say and affirm together with the Lord….” Who’s
commanded this? Paul and Jesus. This is a word from God to us. This is a command
from God to us.

II. What is commanded?

Now, what’s the command? You see it there in
verse 17: Do not think and live and desire like pagans. How does he put it?
“…That you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk….”
The command
is that we are not to live and think and desire like pagans. What does that
mean? Does it mean that we have to start wearing funny outfits that will
identify us as Christians and everybody else as pagans? Does it mean that we
have to stop using electricity? Does it mean…? What does it mean, that we
can’t live like pagans?

Well, the Apostle Paul spells it out for you, and he
begins to do that right here in verses 17-19. And this is the third question:
How is it that Gentiles walk or live?
What do you mean, ‘Don’t walk like
they walk, don’t live like they live?’ What is it about the way that they live,
that you don’t want us to live in that way?

Well, Paul spells it out. Look at verses 17-19.
And there are three things to look for.
This is a complex sentence, but just
look for three things. The Gentiles walk — how? “In the futility of their
minds, being darkened in their understanding.” In other words, just remember
this. They are culpably ignorant of the truth of God. Remember that.

Secondly, they are excluded from the life of God
because of the ignorance that is in them because of the hardness of their heart.

There is a moral resistance to the truth in the commands of God in them.

Consequently, thirdly (verse 19), they have
“become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of
every kind of impurity with greediness.”
Now right away, Bible scholars,
you’re thinking of Romans 1, and you’re right to think of Romans 1, because the
Apostle Paul is saying something very similar. But close your eyes for a second
and look around in your mind’s eye at the world around you, and listen to this:
These people are culpably ignorant of God. In other words, it is not that God
has not revealed Himself to them in His world, in His word, or even in their
consciences. It is that God has revealed Himself to them, and they’ve done —
what? They’ve suppressed that truth. And what does Paul say they’ve done in
Romans 1? They’ve “worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.” So they’re
ignorant of the one true God, but not because the one true God hasn’t revealed
Himself, but because they’ve suppressed that truth.

Secondly, they have become morally resistant to
the gospel and to the truth of God.
And because of that moral resistance,
their culpable ignorance has been increased and it has led them to–what? An
unrestrained, unchecked pursuit of sensuous, sinful passions. They are Gentiles
gone wild.

Does that sound familiar to you? Welcome to America
in the twenty-first century. And the Apostle Paul is describing what always
happens apart from the grace of God at work in the lives of sinful human beings:
first, a culpable ignorance of God’s truth; then, this moral hardness to the
word of God, which leads to unchecked impurities.’

Have you ever wondered, “Where do Talibans come
from? Where do totalitarian, tyrannical, oppressive regimes come from that
manage to get all the women in the country to wear burkas and have all sorts of
crazy moral restrictions on the lives of individuals? Where do those come from?”
They come from human beings trying to come up with some answer to unchecked,
uncontrolled licentiousness–inflamed passions that have gone wild.

And think of it — think of Afghanistan. For a
century or more, since the British had control of Afghanistan, what has
flourished there? The opium trade. And the opium and drug trade had wrecked the
moral fiber of that country, and into that vacuum came — what? The Taliban, to
impose some order on that unchecked, unbridled licentiousness. But it didn’t end
up being freedom, it ended up being just another kind of bondage.

And you see, the Apostle Paul is saying we can watch
this play out in Gentile history everywhere in the world, in every age and
generation. And the Apostle Paul is saying to Christians, ‘Don’t live like that.
The Gentiles reject the truth of God. They become hard to the moral demands of
God and to the truth of His gospel, and then it leads them into all kinds of
craziness…unchecked immorality. Don’t live like that.’

You see, the Apostle Paul is emphasizing there that
there is a moral component to Christianity that sets Christianity apart from
everyone else in the world, that sets Christians apart, that sets the church
apart from everyone else in the world. And, my friends, it is that distinction
that is so crucial to our witness in the world, because when the world looks at
us and says ‘You are not so different from me’, the effectiveness of our witness
is sapped because the claim of our message to produce in us the workings of
God’s grace so that we are made to be what God intended us to be originally is
undermined, undercut. And so it is precisely in the church’s response to this
exhortation of Jesus and Paul that we have the most effective aspect of our
witness-bearing to the world.

III. How Christians are to

And that leads me to the last thing, and you’ll
see this in verses 20-24. How, in contrast then, are Christians to live?

Well, we’re to live and think and believe and desire and speak and behave like
Christians–not like pagans, not like Gentiles, not like worldlings. [Yeah, but
what does that mean, Paul?] Well, he’s going to give you six specific examples
next week! But today I want you to see three things that he tells you that lays
the foundation for those six specific examples.

First of all, notice verses 20 and 21: “But you
did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been
taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus….”
You see what the Apostle Paul
is saying. He’s saying ‘Christian, you need to understand that the Christian
life, the whole of the Christian life, is all integrally and inseparably
connected to Jesus Christ.’ The whole of the Christian life is integrally and
inseparably connected to Jesus Christ. Notice what he says: “You did not learn
Christ in this way.” What was the subject of their learning? Christ. You didn’t
learn Christ in this way. Jesus Christ is the subject, He’s the content of what
the Christian learns.

And then notice what he says: “If indeed you have
heard Him and have been taught in Him….”
Who’s the Teacher from whom
Christians learn Christ? Christ. He’s not only the subject, He’s the speaker.
He’s not only the content, He’s the teacher.

And then he doesn’t stop there: You’ve been
taught in Him just as the truth is in Jesus.
What’s the context of Christian
learning? Where does a person come to understand the truth that is in Jesus, the
truth that is about Jesus, the truth of Jesus, the truth that Jesus teaches? You
come to learn it only–how? where? In relationship with Jesus. In union with
Jesus. In the sphere of His blessings. In fellowship and communion with Him,
which is–how? By faith in Him.

So notice how Jesus is the content of the truth,
the conveyor of the truth, and He’s the context of the truth.
He’s the
subject of the truth, He’s the speaker of the truth, and He’s also the sphere in
which you learn the truth. It’s in relation to Him that you learn from Him of
Him, and so the Apostle Paul is wanting to say you look at the whole of your
life as an extension of what you have learned about Jesus from Jesus, in
relation to Jesus, by faith in Jesus. That’s the first thing that the apostle
wants us to see: that the whole of our life is related to Jesus Christ.

Why is that important? Because Jesus said–what? “It
is my food…” to do what? ”It is my food to do the will of Him who sent Me.”
In other words, Jesus delighted to do His Father’s will, and Paul is reminding
the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ that if you’re really a disciple of Jesus
Christ, if you’ve really come to know Jesus Christ, you, too, will delight to
know the Father’s will and delight to do the Father’s will, because Jesus
delighted to do the Father’s will. And if all of your life is connected to
Jesus, then you’re going to recognize that there is a moral component to
Christian teaching.

There is a moral response to the gospel of grace,
and Paul reiterates that in verse 22.
Notice what he says there: “…In
reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is
being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit….”

In other words, the Apostle Paul is saying that
there is a moral transformation that comes with becoming a Christian. There is a
moral dimension to the Christian faith. We have died with Christ, and thus laid
aside our old self and our old life. There is a moral transformation that comes
with being a Christian, in which we are morally different from the world around
us. It is not that the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Be good, and God will save you;
be good, and God will love you; be good, and you will earn your salvation.’ But
he is saying that once you have embraced the free grace of God in Jesus Christ,
there will be a moral response to that. There will be a moral component
to your life and fellowship with God, and it will set you apart from the world
around you.

And just in case we missed that, he says a third
thing in verses 23-24: that you, being “…renewed in the spirit of your mind,
and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in
righteousness and holiness of the truth.”

In other words, he wants to emphasize to you that
His message is not ‘Be good, and then God will make you different.’ It is that
God has in Christ, in your union with Christ as you have trusted in Christ
alone, He has united you to Christ, and in uniting you to Christ, He has made
you a new creation. He has renewed you.

And notice how he emphasizes that this isn’t
superficial, it’s from the inmost being.
It’s from the inside out. How does
he put that? “You have been renewed in the spirit of your mind,” in the deepest
part of who you are. In your heart, in your thinking, in your understanding, in
your will, in the seat of your affections and desires, you have been renewed in
your spirit. In other words, God has done a re-creative, renewing work. John
calls that regeneration. Paul calls that resurrection. But both of
those pictures emphasize–what? You can’t do them. God has to do them. Anybody in
here caused yourself to be born? No. Anybody in here capable of causing yourself
to be raised from the dead? No. Only God can do that, and that’s how John and
Paul emphasize this is the sovereign grace of God at work, to renew you and
recreate you. But, having been renewed and recreated by the sovereign,
one-sided, powerful working of God in His grace, you are to live a new life. You
are to live differently from the world around you.

You see, the Apostle Paul’s logic is, yes, there are
do’s and don’ts in the Christian life, but the do’s and the don’ts are the
of God’s grace at work in us, not the cause of God’s
grace at work in us. They are the result of God’s work of grace in us, not the
thing that achieves the grace of God in us.

In other words, the Apostle Paul says, oh, yes,
there is a moral component to the Christian life, but it’s not that salvation is
by faith plus works.
Or that if you’ll believe in Jesus Christ and be good,
you’ll be saved. No, no! He’s saying this: Salvation is all of God. He must give
you new life. He must renew you. He must give you resurrection. He must make you
a new creation; but when He does, He does that so that you will be morally
different, so that you will be transformed. And as the Apostle Paul will say in
Romans 12:1-2, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” and not
conformed to this world.

Now you’re saying to yourself, ‘Well, how
specifically does that work out in the Christian life?’ Well, Paul will tell us
next week.

Let’s look to God in prayer.

Our Lord and our God, we recognize that we
wrestle with being too much like the world around us in ways that we ought not
to be like the world around us. Sometimes we come to love some of the sinful
things that the people of this world love. Sometimes we come to behave in some
of the sinful ways that the people of this world behave. Sometimes we, who ought
to be living God-centered, God-loving, God-honoring, God-desiring lives, live as
if You didn’t exist. We confess ourselves before You, O God, and beg Your
forgiveness in Jesus Christ. We do not want to be conformed to this world, but
transformed by the renewing of our minds. We want to walk with Jesus; we want a
closer walk with God; we want to see sin’s dominion diminished in our lives. We
want to bear witness that the power of God’s grace at work in us is not some
futile fantasy, but it is an undeniable force, so that men and woman and boys
and girls who don’t know Christ will be able to look and see, ‘Well, there’s a
sinner who’s been transformed by God’s grace. This must be true.’ We pray that
as we live differently, O God, that You would be glorified and honored, and we
be assured and built up. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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