Distinctively Christian: Learning Christ and Living Accordingly
Scripture: Ephesians 4:17–32
17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Have you ever questioned the behavior of another Christian brother or sister? You know what I mean? You heard about a Christian who did this or that and thought to yourself, “Now that is not something a Christian is supposed to do.”
Have you ever considered that other Christians may have said the same thing about you?
On this Labor Day weekend, I would like to speak about the issue of Christian character and conduct. In fact, I would like to offer up a theme for the next year of sermons here at Crosstown that touches on this subject.
One of the reasons I want to do this is because I find that many Christians are confused about the proper place for proper Christian behavior. We struggle to define Christian ethics and morality in light of our insistence on salvation by grace alone through faith alone. We are worried that talking too much about behavior will make us legalists.
Yes, that is a real danger, and we will need to take care to avoid it. But it is just as dangerous to avoid the subject altogether, not least because to do so we’d have to avoid so much of the Bible.
The passage before us today is one such passage. At the beginning of chapter 4, Paul urges his readers to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which they have been called. And then he goes on to give some idea of what this “worthy manner” of living would entail: “humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” Here as elsewhere, we see that there is a way of living that is distinctively Christian, and it is expected that Christians will take care to live in these distinctively Christian ways. To be a Christian is not just to believe the right truth but also to behave the right way.
I’m not sure everyone agrees with that statement. So, consider this morning the need to live differently, the secret to living differently, and the hope of living differently.
The Need to Live Differently
First, the need to live differently. Let’s establish the fact that there is a Christian way to live, a way that is different from every other way of living. Verse 17 says that Christians “must no longer walk as the Gentiles do.” In fact, Paul begins verse 17 by saying, “I . . . testify in the Lord.” He is claiming here to speak on Jesus’s behalf, and with Jesus’s authority. If Jesus is telling us to do something, or not do something, then it is expected that Christians will do what he says.
The Ways of Life
Now when Paul says here that we must not live like the Gentiles, he does not mean that Christians are supposed to live like a Jew. The contrast here is not between the Jewish way of life and the Gentile way of life. Paul is speaking here, primarily to a Gentile audience, and he’s telling them that to be a Christian requires them to live differently, to live distinctly, in the midst of the culture in which they live. If I were to address this passage to us today and say, “You must no longer live as Americans live,” I’m not telling you to live like the British or the French. I’m telling you that in spite of the fact that you are American, there are certain things about the American way of life that is simply incompatible with the Christian way of life.
Trying to figure out what elements of one’s native culture are out of line with Christian conduct is a challenge, but it is a challenge we must accept if we intend to be Christians. Clearly, Christianity is not simply a set of doctrines to believe; it is necessarily also a way of life to adopt. To be a Christian you have to believe certain things. And, to be a Christian, you have to live in certain ways.
The Gentile Way
But we begin here with the ways Christians ought not to live. Paul gives five descriptions of the typical Gentile way of life that his readers are told to avoid.
Gentiles, he says, live “in the futility of their minds.” Their “understanding” is “darkened.” They live their lives “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” Fourth, “they have become callous,” and lastly, he says they “have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
This is probably not how the Gentiles themselves would describe their way of life. I doubt any pagan, hearing these things would say, “That’s pretty accurate to how I live, and it’s awesome!” The picture he paints here would make us think of the worst behaviors imaginable.
But this text is not written to give Christians a self-righteous look down their noses at the unholy living of unbelievers. Yeah, we don’t live like those people! I doubt the intent here is to warn us from engaging in behavior that even the ordinary Gentile would consider to be out of line. Actually, it seems to be written to warn us Christians from living just like the other ordinary people around us.
And if we are not careful, we can end up in pretty much the same place as pretty much everyone else. Before long, if we’re not careful, we who say we are Christians can find ourselves living just like non-Christians. Very little difference, if any, between us.
What makes the difference between how ordinary Christians live and ordinary non-Christians? Is it just that we go to church and avoid other kinds of religious taboos? Is it just that we don’t cuss or don’t gamble or don’t drink alcohol or don’t vote for Democrats?
Don’t you see the problem here? There are plenty of others who don’t do those things either but are not Christians. And there are plenty of others who do those exact things and are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Something is wrong when Christians find more commonality with non-Christians who vote like us than with Christians who do not.
Maybe the problem, then, is not with that person. Maybe the problem is with me. Christians should not be primarily concerned with how non-Christians live. We should be concerned with how we Christians live. We are the ones who are supposed to be different.
The Right Mindset
The problem we have here is not in expecting there to be some standard of Christian behavior but in looking at the wrong standards. And the reason we are looking at the wrong standards is because we have the wrong mindset.
Notice that the description of the non-Christian focuses on the mind. Gentiles live “in the futility of their minds.” Their “understanding” is “darkened.” There is an ignorance in them because of “their hardness of heart.” When it comes to proper Christian conduct, you cannot start with the conduct. You have to start with the mind, and you have to change the heart.
And that’s true not just for the non-Christian. It’s emphatically even more true for the professing Christian. Again, this text is not here to give us a way of psychoanalyzing our non-Christian neighbors. It’s written to us, to Christians, to urge us to live like Christians.
How do we do that?
The Secret to Living Differently
In verses 20-24, we find the answer. What is the secret to Christian living? Well, it’s no secret really.
Notice what Paul says in verse 20. “But that is not the way you learned Christ.” Here is the contrast from the standard Gentile way of being in the world. What is the contrast? It is Jesus. Not something about Jesus, but actually Jesus himself. Verse 20 is not basically WWJD—what would Jesus do? It is not telling us to follow his example.
You see, verse 20 is striking in its wording. To have a person as the direct object of the verb “to learn” is quite unusual. You can learn a job, or a subject in school, but how do you learn a person?
This way of putting things stands in parallel to the way Jews were diligent to learn Torah. For Jews, the Torah was not just a document to be memorized; it was a document to live. You study Torah not just so you can answer Bible trivia questions. You study Torah for the wisdom it gives for everyday life.
Now, for the Christian, this is even more obvious. We don’t study Torah, we study Christ himself who is the fulfillment of Torah. One commentator puts it this way.
Since Christians believed that Christ was a living person whose presence was mediated by the proclamation and teaching about him, learning Christ involved not only learning about, but also being shaped by, the risen Christ who was the source of a new way of life as well as of a new relationship with God.
The point couldn’t be more explicit and needs to be said in our day time and time again. To be a Christian is not simply to believe certain things about Jesus are true but to commit oneself to embracing his way of life. Recall what Jesus said in John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is not just the truth we believe and the life we seek. He is also the way, the way we are meant to follow. The way we are meant to live.
But so many Christians do not give this enough attention. After 50 years in pastoral ministry, Eugene Peterson wrote, “Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among” North American Christians. And this is an absolute problem. Because, as Peterson puts it, summarizing John 14:6, only “the Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life.”
Many Christians of our stripe have been eager, for quite some time, to look for distortions of Christian truth and call them out. Our love for doctrine is commendable, even necessary, but it will do us no good if we do not give just as much concern to preserving the ways of Jesus that are intended to bring light and life to a dead and dark world. “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction,” Jesus warned (Matt 7:13). Let us take warning lest many who call themselves Christians find themselves walking that way.
Haven’t You Heard?
It is easier than we might imagine and demands our vigilance to keep on the narrow path.
Some will want to keep us on the narrow path by spelling out the rules we all have to follow, you know, to be good Christians. But Jesus warns of those who would “tie up heavy burdens . . . and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matt 23:4). Pay attention to the legalists and you may actually find yourself curving right and off the narrow path. The same Jesus who said that the “easy path” is the one who leads to destruction also said that his own “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light” (Matt 11:30). “Hard” is not always the Jesus way.
So, others will come along and tell us to give no attention to this matter. In response to the cold, impersonal rules of religion, they will urge us to not worry about it so much and just get on with our lives. But what that really means is to just go on living in the world on the world’s terms—living in the ways of the world—and just the Jesus stuff relegated to your private and religious life.
“What? Haven’t you heard about him?” Paul asks in verse 21. What do you think Christianity is? Or rather, who do you think Christianity is?
There is nothing cold and impersonal here, not if we’re talking about genuine Christianity.
Changing Our Humanity
That’s why, in verses 22-24, Paul tells us the basic script for how to live distinctively Christian lives. It’s like changing your clothes. “Put off your old self,” in verse 22. “Put on the new self,” in verse 24.
Easy enough, right? For some it seems easy. “Just stop doing this and start doing that.” I admire those who can say it as if it is as simple as it sounds.
I once tried to stop drinking coffee one day a week. What’s so hard about that? I’ll tell you what is hard: desires, cravings, and headaches. I finally realized that if I didn’t want to hate living one day a week, I had two choices. I had to stop drinking coffee for much more than one day a week, or I had to abandon this project altogether. I chose the latter!
There is nothing easy about the re-shaping project described in verses 22-24. There simply is no way around the reality that this will take a lot of effort. But, like learning a new language or kicking a nasty habit, we are not talking about something that cannot be done. We are not talking about the need for a leopard to change his spots or for you to not be the person God made you to be. The goal here is not to be robotic imitations of anyone. Far too much of Christian ethics is focused on uniform behavior, while avoiding the key element of transformation. Notice it there in verse 23. We must be “renewed in the spirit of [our] minds.”
We have to learn to think in a different way. We must learn Christ! That is to say, at the heart of this transformation is a way of thinking about what it is that Christ has actually achieved. That is the whole grounding that Paul labored for three chapters to demonstrate.
You see, in Paul’s metaphor, he is telling us not to simply change our habits. He’s telling us to change our humanity. Put away the old self, the old humanity is what he is talking about. The one that is plagued by sin and destruction. And then, in verse 24, he tells us to put on the new humanity, the one “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
The Hope of Living Differently
Now, if we’re listening carefully here we should see that we are talking about something entirely impossible apart from Jesus but also about something entirely expected because of Jesus. Without Jesus we are without hope; with Jesus we have real hope, a hope that makes a huge difference, a hope that transforms the world.
The New Creation
Christian conduct is never a matter of just “turning over a new leaf” or getting a “fresh start” with no assurances whatsoever that we won’t just mess it up like we did the first time. This is not a do-over, the deathly challenge to just try again or try harder.
No way! Christian conduct is a matter of a new self, a new humanity, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” In other words, this new creation is a kind of life and existence that is patterned after God’s own existence. No one can just try harder and get that.
But at the same time, early Christianity took root and spread rapidly because of radically different ways of living. Here were people who faced martyrdom out of loyalty to an executed criminal. Here were people who demonstrated a love that knew no racial boundaries. Here were people who “sternly forbade sexual immorality, the exposure of children, and a great many other things which the pagan world took for granted.” At the same time, the characteristics of these Christians indicated that they were some kind of a new group that had previously been unknown to the ancient world. What, exactly, were they? One historian writes:
In many ways they were not like a ‘religion’; they had no sacred sites, no animal sacrifices. They were not like a political group, since they looked for a kingdom not of this world. They were like Jews, not pagans, in that they gave allegiance to the one creator god, and they reused standard Jewish polemic against paganism. But they insisted, too, upon using the language of divinity for Jesus, and upon a completely non-racial fellowship, both of which put them decidedly outside the range of mainstream Judaism. What sort of movement was this? From our brief study of early Christian [behavior] we can only say that . . . it was a new sort of movement, that could only properly be described by creating a new category alongside Greeks, barbarians and Jews. It was a new way of construing what it meant to be human.
A Taste of What’s to Come
This is what God is up to in Jesus, and what it is we are invited to participate in. To me, this sounds exciting! And I am eager to learn Christ with you in the coming year. So, our theme will be Learning Christ and Living Accordingly. And just think of what our Lord might want to do through us as we learn to live his way rather than our own! There are problems in our community that he has called us to bring light to. The reality of the kingdom of God means the reality of manifestations of that kingdom in some of the most broken places.
I don’t know what God might want to do as we live his way, but perhaps verses 25-32 give us some idea of where we might begin.
After all, what if we Christians were known as the people who “put away falsehood” and always “speak the truth” (v. 25) even when that costs us political power and influence or even if it exposes our own sins? We speak the truth because “we are members one of another.” We see in Christ that God has made us human beings in solidarity with one another so that telling lies to our neighbor not only hurts them but also harms ourselves.
What if we Christians were known as the people who are long-suffering and self-controlled, not allowing anger to cause us to sin (vv. 26-27) because we know that where anger is allowed to simmer, the devil is allowed to trespass.
And what if we saw our vocations as an opportunity not only to make an honest living for ourselves but just as much as the opportunity “to share with anyone in need” (v. 28)? After all, we “know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9).
What if we did not believe the lie that “sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never hurt me” and gave thought to using timely words that would build up rather than being so quick to complain and criticize? We know the one who knows how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Isa 50:4), so ought not the world expect something similar from us?
And what if we Christians were known for our refusal to entertain bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and malice, swapping them out instead for kindness and tenderheartedness even to our enemies? After all, we who have experienced the forgiveness of God in Christ, aren’t we commanded to extend that forgiveness to others (Matt 6:15)?
To help us in our quest, over the next year we will give ourselves to the study of the Sermon on the Mount (September-November), Micah (December), James (February-April), and Genesis (May-June).
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ light our path as we seek to live distinctively Christian and fully human lives before the watching world.
 Recall Galatians 2:14 where Paul seems to commend the Jewish Peter for “living like a Gentile” in some respects rather than like a Jew.
 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 4.
 Ibid., 1.