You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind.
Salvation is—first and foremost—a change of mind. The apostle Paul says to believers, “You have not so learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). Christianity is cognitive before it is experiential. A person needs to consider the gospel, believe its historic facts and spiritual truths, and then receive Christ as Savior and Lord.
The first step in that process is repentance, which means that you think differently about sin, about God, about Christ, and about your life than you used to think. The Greek word for “repentance” means “to change one’s mind.” As it is used in the New Testament, it always refers to a change of purpose, specifically a turning from sin.
That change should result in a change of behavior, which also is based on the mind. In today’s verse, Paul says that unregenerate people live “in the futility of their mind.” Proverbs 23:7 says, “As he thinks in his heart, so is he.” So when you think differently, you will act differently.
4:17 Here begins the apostle’s eloquent appeal for a new morality, an appeal which extends to 5:21. Testifying in the Lord, that is, by authority of the Lord and by divine inspiration, he urges the Christians to put off every trace of their past life, as if it were a muddy coat, and to put on the virtues and excellencies of the Lord Jesus Christ. You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk. They were no longer Gentiles; they were Christians. There should be a corresponding change in their lives. Paul saw the Christless world of the nations sunk in ignorance and degradation. Seven terrible things characterized them. They were:
Aimless. They walked in the futility of their mind. Their life was empty, purposeless, and fruitless. There was great activity but no progress. They chased bubbles and shadows, and neglected the great realities of life.
17. The paragraph begins as follows: This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk. This “therefore” connects the present paragraph with all that has gone before in 4:1–16. “Because of your high calling, your duty to render service with a view to the building up of Christ’s body, no longer conduct yourselves as do the Gentiles.” The apostle introduces this admonition with all the authority he is able to summon. He says, “I say and testify.” As Bengel has pointed out: when the apostle admonishes he does it so that those addressed may act freely; when he encourages, so that they may act gladly; and when he testifies, so that they may act reverently (with a proper respect for the will of God). Note also “in the Lord.” He is speaking and testifying in the sphere of the Lord, with his authority, and in the interest of his Cf. Acts 20:26; Gal. 5:3; 1 Thess. 2:12.
They must no longer behave as Gentiles, for they no longer are Gentiles. When this statement is analyzed it becomes clear that two ideas are combined here: a. Lay aside your former manner of life (cf. 2:1–3, 12; 4:14, 22); and b. do not imitate your present evil environment. With reference to Gentile conduct Paul adds: in the futility of their mind. The rendering “vanity” instead of “futility” is not wrong, since the latter is one of the meanings of the former. Nevertheless, inasmuch as “vanity” also has another, very different and yet very common, meaning, namely, excessive pride, conceit, “futility” is to be preferred. The apostle emphasizes a very important point, namely, that all those endeavors which the Gentiles put forth in order to attain happiness end in disappointment. Their life is one long series of mocked expectations. It is a pursuing and not achieving, a blossoming and not bearing fruit. Cf. Rom. 8:20. All the rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never filled. The eye is never satisfied with seeing nor the ear with hearing. All this chasing after riches, honor, mirth, etc., is nothing but “a striving after wind” (Eccles. 1:7, 8; 3:9). Their mind or intellect is fruitless. It produces naught that can satisfy. 
The Walk of the Old Self
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. (4:17–19)
The therefore refers back to what Paul has been saying about our high calling in Jesus Christ. Because we are called to salvation, unified in the Body of Christ, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and built up by the gifted men (vv. 1–16), we should therefore … walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk. We cannot accomplish the glorious work of Christ by continuing to live the way the world lives.
Ethnos (Gentiles) is not in all of the ancient Greek texts, and may have been a later addition. But its presence here is perfectly consistent with its use elsewhere in the New Testament, including Paul’s other letters. The term basically refers to a multitude of people in general, and then to a group of people of a particular kind. It is this secondary meaning that we see in our derived English word ethnic. Jews used the term in two common ways, first to distinguish all other people from Jews and second to distinguish all religions from Judaism. Gentiles therefore referred racially and ethnically to all non–Jews and religiously to all pagans.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul uses the term in its pagan meaning when he refers to “the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:5), and that is the sense in which he uses it in our present text. Gentiles here represent all ungodly, unregenerate, pagan persons.
Like the church in our own day, the churches at Ephesus and in almost every non–Palestinian area in New Testament times were surrounded by rank paganism and its attendant immorality. Ephesus was a leading commercial and cultural city of the Roman empire. It boasted the great pagan temple of Artemis, or Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But it was also a leading city in debauchery and sexual immorality. Some historians rank it as the most lascivious city of Asia Minor.
The temple of Artemis was the center of much of the wickedness. Like those in most pagan religions, its rituals and practices were but extensions of man’s vilest and most perverted sins. Male and female roles were interchanged, and orgiastic sex, homosexuality, and every other sexual perversion were common. Artemis was herself a sex goddess, represented by an ugly, repulsive black female idol that looked something like a cross between a cow and a wolf. She was served by thousands of temple prostitutes, eunuchs, singers, dancers, and priests and priestesses. Idols of Artemis and other deities were to be seen everywhere, in every size and made out of many different materials. Of special popularity were silver idols and religious artifacts. It was because Paul’s preaching cut deeply into that trade that the Ephesian silversmiths rallied the populace against him and his fellow believers (Acts 19:24–28).
The temple of Artemis contained one of the richest art collections then in existence. It was also used as a bank, because most people feared stealing from within its walls lest they incur the wrath of the goddess or other deities. A quarter mile–wide perimeter served as an asylum for criminals, who were safe from apprehension and punishment as long as they remained within the temple confines. For obvious reasons, the presence of hundreds of hardened criminals added still further to Ephesus’s corruption and vice. The fifth–century b.c. Greek philosopher Heraclitus, himself a pagan, referred to Ephesus as “the darkness of vileness. The morals were lower than animals and the inhabitants of Ephesus were fit only to be drowned.” There is no reason to believe that the situation had changed much by Paul’s day. If anything, it may have been worse.
The church at Ephesus was a small island of despised people in a giant cesspool of wickedness. Most of the believers had themselves once been a part of that paganism. They frequently passed by places where they once caroused and ran into friends with whom they once indulged in debauchery. They faced continual temptations to revert to the old ways, and the apostle therefore admonished them to resist. This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles walk. Peter gave a similar word when he wrote, “For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you” (1 Pet. 4:3–4).
On the basis of what we are in Christ and of all that God now purposes for us as His redeemed and beloved children, we are to be absolutely distinct from the rest of the world, which does not know or follow Him. Spiritually we have already left the world and are now citizens of heaven. We are therefore not to “love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15–17). The world’s standards are wrong, its motives are wrong, its aims are wrong. Its ways are sinful, deceitful, corrupt, empty, and destructive.
The warning Paul gives did not originate from his own personal tastes or preferences. This I say … and affirm together with the Lord. The matter of forsaking sin and following righteousness is not the whim of isolated, narrow–minded preachers and teachers. It is God’s own standard and His only standard for those who belong to Him. It is the very essence of the gospel and is set in bold contrast to the standards of the unredeemed.
Paul proceeds to give four specific characteristics of the ungodly, pagan life–style that believers are to forsake. The worldly life is intellectually futile, ignorant of God’s truth, spiritually and morally callused, and depraved in mind.
The first characteristic of unregenerate people is that they live in the futility of their mind. It is significant that the basic issue of life–style centers in the mind. Paul continues to speak of understanding and ignorance (v. 18), learning and teaching (vv. 20–21), and the mind and truth (vv. 23–24)—all of which are related to the intellect. Because unbelievers and Christians think differently they are therefore to act differently. As far as spiritual and moral issues are concerned, an unbeliever cannot think straight. His rational processes in those areas are warped and inadequate (cf. Rom. 1:28; 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; Col. 2:18; Titus 1:15).
In their two–volume book The Criminal Personality, Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow maintain that criminal behavior is the result of warped thinking. Three entire sections (pp. 251–457) are devoted to “The thinking errors of the criminal.” By studying what criminals think, rather than trying to probe their feelings and backgrounds, these researchers use these sections to share their conclusions. “It is remarkable,” they write, “that the criminal often derives as great an impact from his activities during nonarrestable phases as he does from crime. The criminal’s thinking patterns operate everywhere; they are not restricted to crime.” That is a description of the depraved, reprobate mind. “Sociological explanations have been unsatisfactory,” the authors declare. “The idea that a man becomes a criminal because he is corrupted by his environment has proved to be too weak an explanation. We have indicated that criminals come from a broad spectrum of homes, both disadvantaged and privileged within the same neighborhood. Some are violators and most are not. It is not the environment that turns a man into a criminal, it is a series of choices that he makes starting at a very early age.” The researchers also conclude that the criminal mind eventually “will decide that everything is worthless.” “His thinking is illogical,” they affirm in summary.
Because man’s sinfulness flows out of his reprobate mind, the transformation must begin with the mind (v. 23). Christianity is cognitive before it is experiential. It is our thinking that makes us consider the gospel and our thinking that causes us to believe the historic facts and spiritual truths of the gospel and to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. That is why the first step in repentance is a change of mind about oneself, about one’s spiritual condition, and about God.
To the Greeks the mind was all–important. They prided themselves in their great literature, art, philosophy, politics, and science. They were so advanced in their learning that Greek slaves were prized by the Romans and other conquerors as tutors for their children and as managers of their households and businesses. Greeks believed that almost any problem could be reasoned to a solution.
Yet Paul says that spiritually the operation of the natural mind is futile and unproductive. Mataiotēs (futility) refers to that which fails to produce the desired result, that which never succeeds. It was therefore used as a synonym for empty, because it amounts to nothing. The spiritual thinking and resulting life–style of the Gentiles—here representing all the ungodly—is inevitably empty, vain, and void of substance. The life of an unbeliever is bound up in thinking and acting in an arena of ultimate trivia. He consumes himself in the pursuit of goals that are purely selfish, in the accumulation of that which is temporary, and in looking for satisfaction in that which is intrinsically deceptive and disappointing.
The unregenerate person plans and resolves everything on the basis of his own thinking. He becomes his own ultimate authority and he follows his own thinking to its ultimate outcome of futility, aimlessness, and meaninglessness—to the self–centered emptiness that characterizes our age (cf. Ps. 94:8–11; Acts 14:15; Rom. 1:21–22).
After a life of experiencing every worldly advantage and pleasure, the wisest, wealthiest, and most favored man of the ancient world concluded that the worldly life is “vanity and striving after wind” (Eccles. 2:26; cf. 1:2; 14; 2:11; etc.). Yet century after century, millennia after millennia, men go on seeking the same futile goals in the same futile ways.
Ignorant of God’s Truth
The second characteristic of ungodly persons is ignorance of God’s truth. Their thinking not only is futile but spiritually uninformed. They are 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.
General education and higher learning are more widespread today than ever in history. College graduates number in the tens of millions, and our society, like ancient Greece, prides itself in its science, technology, literature, art, and other achievements of the mind. For many people, to be called ignorant is a greater offense than to be called sinful. Yet Paul’s point in this passage is that ignorance and sin are inseparable. The ungodly may be “always learning,” but they are “never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Fallen mankind has a built–in inability to know and comprehend the things of God—the only things that ultimately are worth knowing. When men rejected God, “they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). Intellectual futility and foolishness combine as part of sin’s penalty.
The Greek word behind being darkened is a perfect participle, indicating a continuing condition of spiritual darkness. This darkness implies both ignorance and immorality. And darkness of understanding is coupled with exclusion from the life of God (cf. John 1:5). The cause of their darkness, ignorance, and separation from God is the hardness of their heart, their willful determination to remain in sin. Because men determine to reject Him, God judicially and sovereignly determines to blind their minds, exclude them from His presence, and confirm them in their spiritual ignorance. “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks,” Paul explains of fallen mankind. “Professing to be wise, they became fools. … Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Rom. 1:21–22, 24).
Because of the hardness of their heart, the ungodly are unresponsive to truth (cf. Isa. 44:18–20; 1 Thess. 4:5). Just as a corpse cannot hear a conversation in the mortuary, the person who is spiritually “dead in [his] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) cannot hear or understand the things of God, no matter how loudly or clearly they may be declared or evidenced in his presence. Pōrōsis (hardness) carries the idea of being rock–hard. It was used by physicians to describe the calcification that forms around broken bones and becomes harder than the bone itself. It was also used of the hard formations that sometimes occur in joints and cause them to become immobile. It could therefore connote the idea of paralysis as well as of hardness. Sin has a petrifying effect, and the heart of the person who continually chooses to sin becomes hardened and paralyzed to spiritual truth, utterly insensitive to the things of God.
Leroy Auden of the University of Chicago has written, “We hide a restless lion under a cardboard box, for while we may use other terms than guilt to describe this turbulence in our souls, the fact remains that all is not right within us.” By one way or another—by psychological game playing, rationalization, self–justification, transferring the blame, or by denying sin and eliminating morality—men try futilely to get rid of the lion of guilt. But it will not go away.
Satan plays a part in the blindness of those who refuse to believe, because “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). They refuse to see Christ because they refuse to see God, and their refusal is readily confirmed and reinforced by the god of this world.
And when men continually persist in following their own way, they will also eventually be confirmed in their choice by the God of heaven. The Jews who heard Jesus teach and preach had the great advantage of having had God’s Word given to them through Moses, the prophets, and other Old Testament writers. They had the even greater advantage of seeing and hearing God’s own incarnate Son. But “though He had performed so many signs before them,” John tells us, “yet they were not believing in Him. … For this cause they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘He has blinded their eyes, and He hardened their heart; lest they see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and be converted, and I heal them’ ” (John 12:37, 39–40). Because they would not believe, they could not believe. God one day says,
“Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and let the one who is filthy, still be filthy” (Rev. 22:11).
When men choose to petrify their hearts by constant rejection of the light (John 12:35–36), they became 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. That is the unspeakable tragedy of unbelief, the tragedy of the person who makes himself his own god.
Spiritually and Morally Callused
The third characteristic of the unregenerate person is spiritual and moral callousness—they … become callous. When people continue in sin and turn themselves away from the life of God, they become apathetic and insensitive about moral and spiritual things. They reject all standards of righteousness and do not care about the consequences of their unrighteous thoughts and actions. Even conscience becomes scarred with tissue that is not sensitive to wrong (1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15).
According to an ancient Greek story, a Spartan youth stole a fox but then inadvertently came upon the man from whom he had stolen it. To keep his theft from being discovered, the boy stuck the fox inside his clothes and stood without moving a muscle while the frightened fox tore out his vital organs. Even at the cost of his own painful death he would not own up to his wrong.
Our wicked society is so determined not to be discovered for what it is that it stands unflinching as its very life and vitality is ripped apart by the sins and corruption it holds so dear. It has become callous both to the reality and to the consequences of sin, and will endure any agony rather than admit that its way of “living” is the way of death.
On the other hand, sins that were once hidden or excused are now indulged in openly and blatantly. Often not even the semblance of morality is maintained. When self–desire rules, indecency runs wild and proceeds to cauterize the conscience, the God–given warning light and pain center of the soul. Those who are dying are desensitized to that which is killing them—because they choose it that way. Even when held up shamefully in full view of the world, their sins are not recognized as sinful or as the cause of increasing meaninglessness, hopelessness, and despair (cf. Rom. 1:32).
Depraved in Mind
Futile, self–centered thinking, ignorance of the truth, and spiritual and moral callousness lead inevitably to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.
Aselgeia (sensuality) refers to total licentiousness, the absence of all moral restraint, especially in the area of sexual sins. One commentator says the term relates to “a disposition of the soul incapable of bearing the pain of discipline.” The idea is that of unbridled self–indulgence and undisciplined obscenity.
Sensuality characterizes the people Peter describes as “those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self–willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed” (2 Pet. 2:10–12).
All people initially recognize at least some standard of right and wrong and have a certain sense of shame when they act against that standard. Consequently, they usually try to hide their wrongdoing. They may continually fall back into it but still recognize it as wrong, as something they should not be doing; and conscience will not let them remain comfortable. But as they continue to overrule conscience and train themselves to do evil and to ignore guilt, they eventually reject those standards and determine to live solely by their own desires, thereby revealing an already seared conscience. Having rejected all divine guidelines and protection, they become depraved in mind and give themselves over to sensuality. Such a person cares nothing about what other people think—not to mention about what God thinks—but only about what gratifies the cravings of his own warped mind.
Ungodliness and its attendant immorality destroy the mind as well as the conscience and the spirit. Rejection of God and of His truth and righteousness finally results in what Paul refers to in Romans as a “depraved mind” (1:28)—a mind that is no mind, that cannot reason, that cannot think clearly, that cannot recognize or understand God’s truth, and that loses contact with spiritual reality. In its extreme, the depraved mind loses contact with all reality. That is the mindlessness of the self–indulgent, profligate celebrity who loses his career, his sanity, and often his life because of wanton sensuality. When indecency becomes a way of life, every aspect of life is corrupted, distorted, and eventually destroyed.
The rapid increase in mental illness today can be laid in large measure at the feet of increased sensuality of every sort. Man is made for God and designed according to His standards. When he rejects God and His standards he destroys himself in the process. The corruptions of our present society are not the result of psychological or sociological circumstances but the result of personal choices based on principles that are specifically and purposely against God and His way. Homosexuality, sexual perversion, abortion, lying, cheating, stealing, murder, and every other type of moral degeneration have become unabashed and callused ways of life through the conscious choices of those who indulge in them.
Ergasia (practice) can refer to a business enterprise, and that idea could apply here. The ungodly person often makes business out of every kind of impurity. A Christian leader commented some years ago that many of the books published in the United States today rival the drippings of a broken sewer. Yet pornography, prostitution, X–rated films, suggestive TV programs, and every kind of impurity form perhaps the largest industry in our country. The vast majority of it is open, unashamed, and legally protected.
An article in Forbes magazine (Sept. 18, 1978, pp. 81–92) entitled “The X–Rated Economy” began by stating the obvious—pornography is no longer an illegal business. The market for pornography is not confined to perverts or other emotional cripples. To the contrary, the largest part of the market is middle class people. In an increasingly permissive society those who enjoy pornography are free to revel in it. The surprising revelation was that, according to one official estimate, the nation’s pornographers do more than four billion dollars worth of business a year—more than the combined incomes of the often supportive movie and music industries! Other estimates place the total pornographic business—including a large segment of the burgeoning home video market—at three times that much.
Impurity is inseparable from greediness. Pleonexia (greediness) is unbounded covetousness, uninhibited lust for that which is wanted. Immorality has no part in love, and anything the sensual person does under the guise of caring and helpfulness is but a ruse for exploitation. The world of sensuality and impurity is the world of greediness. The person given over to godlessness and immorality greedily takes whatever he can from those around him. He evaluates life only in material terms (Luke 12:15), uses other people to his own advantage (1 Thess. 2:5; 2 Pet. 2:3), and turns his back on God in order to fulfill his own evil desires (Rom. 1:29). And his greediness is no less than idolatry (Col. 3:5).
When a person determines to think his own way, do things his own way, and pursue his own destiny, he cuts himself off from God. When that happens, he cuts himself off from truth and becomes spiritually blind and without standards of morality. Without standards of morality, immorality becomes a shameless and callused way of life. When that is continued it destroys the mind’s ability to distinguish good from evil, truth from falsehood, and reality from unreality. The godless life becomes the mindless life.
That process characterizes every unbeliever. It is the direction that every ungodly person is headed, although some are further along than others. “Evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). That some people may not reach the extremes Paul mentions in Ephesians 4:17–19 is due only to the protective shield of God’s common grace that He showers both on the righteous and the unrighteous (see Matt. 5:45) and to the preserving influence of the Holy Spirit (Job 34:14–15) and of the church (Matt. 5:13).
Seeing the World as God Sees It
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. 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. 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.
There is a saying of the ancient classical world that goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It is an encouragement to conform. If you are among sophisticated people, act sophisticated. If you are among earthy, common types, act earthy and common. If you are among pagans, act like one. Above all, do not stand out—at least not if you want to get on and be successful in the world.
That is foolish advice in most contexts, because it is usually those who stand out who are successful. But what bothers me most about the saying is its wickedness. It is opposed to the way of Christ. In human terms I suppose there is some wisdom in conforming to the ways of others; it gets one liked, it opens doors. But in spiritual terms conformity to the world’s ways is fatal. That is why Paul tells us in the next section of Ephesians: “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (Eph. 4:17). The Ephesians were Gentiles and had lived as other Gentiles did in the past. But now things had become completely different. They had been called to discipleship and holiness by Christ, and they were to live as he lived. They were to be in the world—as we are in the world—but not of it.
The Holy Life
Ephesians 4:17 is the beginning of a new section of the epistle, the final one. The theme of these verses will now carry through to the end.
It is generally known that in most of his letters Paul follows a pattern of teaching doctrine first and then following it with applications. (That pattern is also repeated within the practical sections, as he brings in doctrine and applies it again and again.) Romans is a good example. The doctrinal section covers chapters 1–11. This is followed by chapters 12–16, which are practical. The doctrinal section of Galatians is in chapters 3 and 4, after a personal section in chapters 1 and 2, and the practical section closes the book.
The same is true of Ephesians. In the first three chapters Paul discusses the nature and origins of the Christian’s salvation, showing that it flows from the grace of God and has as its goal the revelation of the manifold wisdom of God in and through the church. Chapters 4–6, the second half of the book, apply these doctrines to the life of Christians in a secular world.
But the second portion itself falls into two parts: 4:1–16 and 4:17–6:24. The doctrinal section taught that God has called Christians from all nations and all walks of life to be one people who must strive for unity. That is what 4:1–16 is all about. However, the doctrinal section also taught that Christians are God’s holy people who must strive for purity. That is the burden of these closing comments.
This is an extremely important point. Christians are to live holy lives, not just because morality is good in itself (though it is) or because it promotes happiness or success or anything else (though it does), but because of what God has done. Because of what we believe about God’s actions toward us through Jesus Christ we should live as God wants and requires us to live. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “Our conduct should always be to us something which is inevitable in view of what we believe. … If my Christian living is not quite inevitable to me, if I am always fighting against it and struggling and trying to get out of it, and wondering why it is so hard and narrow, if I find myself rather envying the people who are still back in the world, there is something radically wrong with my Christian life.”
Therefore, if I am failing in the Christian life, what should trouble me is not that I am failing or that I have a problem but that I have failed God and his important purposes for me.
This Present World System
We might think that at this point, having laid his doctrinal foundation in chapters 1–3, Paul might now pass on quickly to positive moralistic instruction: Live a holy life, speak the truth, be kind and loving. He does that eventually. However, before he does, he reminds the Ephesians of some very important truths—in this case the true nature of the world system from which they have been delivered and the reasons it got to be that way.
So far as the nature of this present world system is concerned, Paul describes it in these words: (1) “the futility of their thinking,” (2) “darkened in their understanding,” and (3) “separated from the life of God” (vv. 17–18). We know that Paul is going to talk about conduct, urging the Ephesians to pursue a different and higher standard of behavior than their pagan neighbors. So what strikes us about this initial description of the world system is its emphasis on the intellectual in non-Christians’ lives. We are sometimes given the impression that what a person thinks is not important, so long as he acts properly, or again, that a person can mess up on a practical level and still have his life together intellectually. That is not the way things actually are, according to the apostle. People act as they think, and the reason they are constantly messing up is that they are vain in their thinking and darkened in their understanding as a consequence of being separated from God.
In other words, our problems go back to the mind. It is here and not elsewhere that the unsaved person has his chief flaw. He does not know God; so he cannot think properly. Everything is out of place, and his disordered and sinful conduct reflects his disordered, sinful mind.
This must have been a novel idea to many of Paul’s readers. They were Greeks, and the central principle of the Greek world-and-life view was that the best, noblest, and ultimately most worthwhile part of the human being is the intellect. In fact, the Greek made a sharp division between reason and flesh (or substance). The mind is the divine element within the human being. It links us to God and draws us upward. Our flesh is of the earth. It draws us down. For the ancient Greek thinkers salvation consisted mainly in being delivered from the powers of the flesh by human reason. Philosophy was the savior.
But, of course, philosophy did not save the ancients any more than it saves people today, and Paul wanted to impress that upon the Ephesians. Their ability to think was flawed. They thought “mind” was the solution to their problems, but it was actually the chief cause of their failures. It is true that the Greek could pursue a proper logical analysis. He could form syllogisms and paradigms and solve problems. He could master philosophical concepts. But the Greek did not know God. So at some point, though great, all his reasonings and especially his moral conclusions were distorted.
The Greeks were the greatest thinkers of the ancient world; the Romans learned from them. Nevertheless, most of the ancients were either polytheists, who believed in many gods (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and others); pantheists, who believed that god was in everything; or atheists, who believed in no god at all. What folly! Writing of the Roman period that followed and built upon the Greek age intellectually, Edward Gibbon said that the philosophers regarded all religions as equally false, the common people regarded them as equally true, and the rulers regarded them as equally useful.
It is no different today. We live in an age which prides itself on intellectual attainments, just as the Greeks did, but it lacks true spiritual understanding. People protest this conclusion. But this is the way the world is, as God sees it.
Hardness of Heart
The second important truth Paul holds before his readers in this paragraph is the reason the gentile world system has become as it has. It is because of the “hardening of [people’s] hearts” (v. 18).
Here is a place where the New International Version and other modern versions help us better than the older King James text. In the Greek language the word the niv translates as “hardening,” but the kjv translates as “blindness,” is pōrōsis. The noun from which it came was pōros, which meant “stone.” Usually it referred to a certain kind of marble.
The word was also used medically. Pōrion was a “callus.” The verb pōroō meant to “petrify” or “harden.” If it was applied to the joints, it referred to their stiffening, perhaps arthritis. If it was applied to a fracture, it referred to the process by which the broken pieces were united through the growth of new bone or cartilage. Applied to the eyes, it meant blindness. This is what the older translators picked up for the King James Version. And, of course, it is not wrong. A “blind heart” cannot see God. Still, the trouble with “blindness” is that it suggests an inescapable and therefore a morally blameless inability, and this is not the idea.
What Paul is saying is that the unsaved world is actually much to blame. People have willfully hardened themselves against God, and as a result they have become warped in their spiritual understanding. The newer translations help us at this point.
As soon as we see this, we notice that Paul is developing precisely the same line of thought in Ephesians as he did in writing the great first chapter of Romans. Beginning with verse 18 of Romans 1, Paul explains how the wrath of God is revealed against ungodly people, not because they are innocently ignorant of him but because they have willfully closed their eyes to the revelation that God has given to the world.
In Romans 1:18–23 there are four main points, which make a sequence:
- God has revealed himself to people in nature so that no one is without blame for failing to seek him out and worship him. He says, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (v. 19). This does not mean that the revelation of God in nature is a complete or saving revelation, for it is not. There is more to God than what is revealed in nature, and that includes everything pertaining to the work of redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ.
The revelation of God in nature is very limited. Paul refers to it as the revelation of “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” (v. 20). But although limited, it is nevertheless a real revelation and is sufficient in itself to lead a man or woman to worship God properly—if such a person did not have reasons for refusing to do so. It is this revelation that makes the failure of a person to know God a blameworthy offense.
- In spite of God’s revelation of himself in nature, people have rejected or suppressed the revelation. Paul says, they “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). That is, they try to hide it and deny it. They sense rightly that if they acknowledged the truth about the existence and nature of God, they would have to change their thinking and living. Rather than change, they repress the revelation.
- Because their ignorance of God is willful and blameworthy and not a natural failure, God’s wrath is upon them (v. 18). That is, he is not favorable toward them but rather judges them for their sins.
- The fourth point in this sequence is about how God judges those who willfully ignore him. Paul is thinking here not so much of the final judgment, though there will be one, but that God judges people by an inevitable working out of sin. Saint Augustine once said, “The punishment of sin is sin.” That is what Paul has in mind. Therefore, having spoken of the revelation of the wrath of God against men and women for their rejection of the truth, Paul writes of the consequential darkening of their intellects and their moral lives: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity … to shameful lusts … [and] to a depraved mind” (vv. 22–24, 26, 28).
We find an identical sequence of thought in Ephesians 4:17–19, although the Ephesians passage uses different words and is shorter. What is wrong with the world in which the Ephesians (and all other Christians) find themselves is that it has hardened itself against God. The very one who is the Christian’s joy and glory is the world’s enemy. So we are not on the same team as the world. We do not have the same goals or tasks or loyalties. If we are going to get on with anything like a vigorous Christian life in this world, we need to see that.
Prayer and Understanding
In the next section of this chapter Paul is going to carry this out in detail: “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” He will explain exactly what this means. But before we go on to that valuable explanation we need to draw a few conclusions and applications from this study.
First, we must know the world as it really is and not as it likes to think of itself or present itself to others. We live in the world and thus, sometimes almost inevitably, adopt the world’s self-assessment. The world thinks it is doing fairly well; it thinks it is getting better and will certainly be even better than it is now some day. We need to realize that this is not the case. This is how the world sees itself, but it is not how God sees it, and it is not the way things actually are. In truth, the world is a dreadful place. It has information, but it lacks true knowledge—the only knowledge that ultimately matters, the knowledge of God—and, lacking that knowledge, it becomes increasingly wicked. We are not to envy it.
Second, we must recognize the spiritual blindness with which the world operates. It is a blindness due to a willful hardening of the heart.
In his commentary on Ephesians, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives an excellent illustration of this point. William Pitt the Younger was one of the great prime ministers of England, a great intellect, and 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 evangelical conversion, and this had made him the upright man he was. 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 Englishmen of that day were, but Christianity did not mean anything to him.
In London in those days there was also a great evangelical clergyman and 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.”
Many who have witnessed to their non-Christian friends have had that experience and have been saddened by it. This sadness is proper, though surprise is not. This is that blindness and hardness of the heart about which Paul is speaking. A person like this remains blind until God softens the heart and opens the eyes to his truth.
This leads to a final application. We are going to see in this last section of Ephesians that Christians are not to live as the world. That is quite true. But our duty toward the world is not exhausted when we have rejected its values or established a different way of life. We are to pray for the world too. And if prayer for the world seems a bit overwhelming, as perhaps it is, then we must pray for specific people we know who need to have their eyes opened. I cannot tell you for certain that God will save that unsaved friend for whom you pray. But I know that the Bible encourages us to pray. It tells us that we do not receive because we do not ask. And I know that historically every great movement of the Spirit of God in what we call revival has been preceded by a long period of fervent, burdened prayer for it by God’s people.
We need such a movement of God’s Spirit today. Do you believe that? Do you believe it enough to pray for it? It is not enough to denounce the world’s sins. It is not even enough to come out from the world and be separate. We must also pray for those we know. And we must make the Word of God known to them, seeing that it is the vehicle by which God habitually turns sinners from darkness to his marvelous light
 MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 173). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1937). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Ephesians (Vol. 7, p. 209). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 165–172). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 152–158). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.