CBC – October 2, 2016
How Holy Ones Grow in Holiness
Sermon Text: Eph 4:17-24
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. 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. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Meditation/Preparation –To commune with God in prayer, in the Bible, and in the assembly of His people — these things will be the holy man's chief enjoyments. He will value every thing and place and company — just in proportion as it draws him nearer to God. He will enter into something of David's feeling, when he says, "My soul follows hard after You!" "You are my portion!" (Psalm 63:8; 119:57).
I am not without fear that the description I have given of holiness will discourage some tender conscience. I would not willingly make one righteous heart sad, or throw a stumbling block in any believer's way. I do not say for a moment that holiness shuts out the presence of indwelling sin. No, far from it. It is the greatest misery of a holy man, that he carries about with him a "body of sin and death"; that often when he would do good — but evil is present with him; that the old man is clogging all his movements and, as it were, trying to draw him back at every step he takes! (Romans 7:21)
But it is the excellence of a holy man — that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are. He hates it, mourns over it and longs to be free from its company. The work of sanctification within him is like the wall of Jerusalem — the building goes forward "even in troublous times" (Dan. 9:25).
– J . C. Ryle, Holiness
1. Saints, keep fighting! (PBPGINFWMY)
2. Saints, go to school! (CSD)
Our text this morning is a call to personal holiness. Leonard referred a couple of weeks ago to our rhythm of moving text by text through Paul’s letter to Ephesus and how the two of us might angle ourselves to pass the difficult texts off to the other preacher. Today’s text, I confess, falls with some difficulty—and a lot of providence—to me, since holiness is an area of constant challenge and weakness for me.
I read a description like Paul’s account of the Gentiles in this paragraph: “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. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity … corrupt through deceitful desires,” and I examine my own heart and find that way too much of that description seems way too true of me, too much of the time. Maybe you read it that way, too. But this text and this description apply to me. If you doubt it, there is a wife up here near the front who could easily document it for you – although she might be too kind and merciful to tell you everything she could.
I am all too often “darkened in my understanding.” What about you? I do rash things before I stop to understand and think about the consequences and five seconds later—or five minutes later or five years later—I’m full of remorse. I make selfish decisions that are all about how I’ll be happy, and protect myself with a deliberate ignorance of how it might affect other people, and then later on all that becomes inevitably clear and I wish I could undo it, or redo it. Deliberate ignorance: that’s what Paul is calling “ignorant because of the hardness of heart.” Not ignorance because I don’t know. It’s ignorance because at the moment I don’t want to know because it might get in the way of my anger or my pleasure or my impatience or the defense of my ego.
And so I “become callous.” And I can give myself up to sensuality or greed. What about you? It’s hard to escape it. These days we’re surrounded by social media that feed these impulses. Ads pop up that make us greedy for more stuff that we don’t really need, or stuff that can become our next object of worship; ads that fuel our sensuality; and posts and tweets and linked-in reports that remind us of all the opportunities and achievements that other people are enjoying, so that we forget our own blessings and covet the blessings of our friends—even when we are “liking” them. In our time, it seems harder and harder just to live, rather than to live in constant comparison of ourselves with those who got the promotion we were hoping for, or who earn more, or who make better grades, or whose health is better, or whose family seems happier. Our desires are deceitful. And they corrupt us.
And then, Paul reminds us, we compound our corrupt desires by a greed not just to have things that don’t belong to us but to indulge the impure deliciousness of the very covetousness itself, or the lust or the self pity or the resentment or the other desires our old self loves to practice. Part of us would love to be rid of those things and part of us clings to them as if we couldn’t survive or be happy without them. So Paul has to tell us to “put them off,” but that’s a difficult thing for us.
Holiness is a challenge. It’s a challenge for the outsiders to the faith that Paul calls the “goy” – the nations, the Gentiles. But the first thing I want to point out about this text, because it is of some important encouragement to me, is that the “you” Paul is admonishing not to walk this way, are not the Gentiles. Paul’s command is for the Ephesians to whom he’s writing this letter. Don’t be like those Gentiles he tells the Ephesians. And who are these Ephesians? Look back at the very first verse of the letter (1:1). He’s writing to Ephesians that he describes as what? – “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”
This is amazing. You can stand like me in need of this sobering admonition in chap. 4 and still be among the saints and the faithful – so long as you are “in Christ Jesus.” This seems a little jarring at first. The word for “saint” in 1:1 comes from the word for “holy” in Paul’s language. The saints are “holy ones” – and he still has to “say and testify in the Lord” that we “holy ones” need to throw off the old self and “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” I am a saint in Christ Jesus, and I need still to put on holiness. You are a saint in Christ Jesus, and you need still to put on holiness.
How can that be? How can that work? And the answer is that it can only work “in Christ Jesus.” This side of the completed Kingdom of God, we are not and we will never will be altogether righteous and holy. But the incarnate God, King Jesus, Messiah Jesus, Christ Jesus is altogether righteous and holy. He gives all credit to God where all of it is due: in other words, Christ is just; he is righteous. He lives out all his heart in actions that trust God at every moment and that therefore conform him fully to the image of God: in other words, Christ is set apart; he is holy.
When we enter into covenant with Messiah Jesus, when we as the bride of Christ say “I do” at the altar of God to Christ our bridegroom, we marry into all his heavenly goods. When Gomer married Hosea, she was still a prostitute and sometimes continued to act like one, but she held legal title to all of his worldly goods. Legally, God looks at our marriage to Christ and at Christ’s gift to us of his holiness and righteousness and he declares that we have title to all of it. God looks at ungodly saints in Christ and says in him I count you righteous. In him I count you holy saints. That makes our hope for eternal life with God a matter of clinging in trust with all our heart and soul and mind and strength to Christ.
And the more we cling —the more we trust—, the more (says 1 Cor 3:18) “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image [of Christ] from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
It works very much the same way that trusting your doctor means that as sick as you are you will be following his medical advice and prescriptions and will be transformed from one degree of health to another as we grow into the image of complete health. And the doctor can offer us a prognosis – a promise – long before that is complete that you are a patient that I see getting well. Trusting that prognosis—trusting that promise—gives us the motive and encouragement to follow his advice and we do get well. And trusting our own darkened understanding and our own deceitful desires will only lead to growing disease and corruption.
We are sick, but at the same time we are well in the promise of the doctor if we are trusting him. We are a hot mess of unholiness, but at the same time we are holy saints in the promise of the Great Physician, if we are trusting his plan to transform us into the image of his Son. (Rom 8:29) “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that the Son might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
Being counted a saint, like the readers of the Ephesian letter is something that God declares from the first moment we say “I do” to Christ and are “in him” with a title to all that belongs to him. We who trust Christ are saints.
But becoming holy is a process that works degree by degree. It is not the quality that God looks at to determine if we are his children or if he will save us. It is not a work. It does not earn us anything. Doctors don’t look at a patient’s health and decide to make them well because their health is improving and they deserve it. If anything the doctor works all the harder the more it looks like our health is declining. Good health and good holiness are results of the Great Physician’s work in us, not the qualifications for it.
That’s why all those letters in the first point of the outline apply to us. We live in an age of texts and abbreviations and acronyms. We don’t say “ha, ha” anymore. We type “lol” and “rofl.” So you might type or you might have a T-shirt that says PBPGINFWMY: “Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet.” I’m a saint. But God is still working in me to conform me to the image of his Son.”
If you’re a saint, the fight is not over. If you’re a patient and the doctor has diagnosed you and given you good promise that you can get well, the fight goes on and the pain might continue. But we fight with hope. So, good saints, we have good promises from a God who keeps his promises. But keep fighting!
You can hear Paul argue exactly this logic in 2 Cor 7:1—“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
We may face the daily challenges of hard hearts, deceptive desires, and callous corruption. These are not signs that you are not a saint. The sign that you are not a saint is giving up the fight and surrendering to the disbelief that thinks Christ will give up on me and fail to keep his promises. Holy saints fight because sin remains an adversary even for saints, and (as Paul says in 1 Tim 6:12 and 2 Tim 4:7) faith is a fight. The difference between those who are saints and those who are not is that saints see sin as a reason to fight and not a reason to surrender. As JC Ryle says (Meditation), “it is the excellence of a holy man — that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are. He hates it, mourns over it and longs to be free from its company.” Saints keep fighting, because God is not finished with us yet.
And God has not left us without weapons for the fight. Paul offers a list in 2 Cor 6:6-7 -- purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; truthful speech, and the power of God,” and then he calls these “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.” Four chapters later (10:4-6), he elaborates further: “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience.”
When temptation rears its ugly head, the weapons we have at hand destroy arguments and topple lofty opinions that oppose knowledge of God and take thoughts captive and punish disobedience. These are clearly not primarily physical weapons. They are weapons of the mind and heart. Where do you get weapons like that? You go to school. Maybe a home school. Maybe a public school. Maybe a Sunday School. Maybe a college or university. But these are weapons that are learned. So the verbs of Paul’s admonition here are “learn” (in v.20) (the verb is the root of the word for disciple in the NT), and “be taught” (in v.21) (the verb is the root of our English word “didactic”). These are school words, but the school that Paul’s admissions counselors are going into all the world to recruit for is the school of Christ: Christ’s School of Discipleship (CSD). Let’s get that on our sweatshirts. And let’s root for that team on the playing field where the saints are playing against our archrival, sin.
Learn! Learn how to destroy arguments. Get the fighter verses under your belt. And don’t stop at memorizing verses. Memorize their arguments. So you can destroy the enticing arguments of sin. The world is full of lofty opinions that oppose the knowledge of God. Get more of the knowledge of God that topples those lofty opinions with facts and promises. Then, when life takes a fall to disobedience, punish the habit that let that happen. Watch the tapes. Get a coach. Go back to the weight room to strengthen your arguments and your discipline. This is Paul’s strategy for victory. Learn! Be taught! Go to school in Christ’s School of Discipleship. That’s the degree that prepares you for your career in holiness.
When all is said and done and the weapons of our warfare are in our hands, we can’t ever forget that these are not weapons of the flesh that we wield in our own power. The only effective weapons have divine power to destroy strongholds. We may work out our salvation with fear and trembling and waging the fight of faith with all the spiritual weapons of Christ’s School of Discipleship, but the only reason we are able and have any power to wield these weapons is that God is at work within us to will and to work according to his good pleasure. He is the doctor. We are the patient. All of our weapons, all of our therapies, are gifts from the doctor’s wisdom. We only undertake our therapies and apply the lessons from our school because we trust that our doctors and our teacher who have given them to us have the wisdom we can trust to accomplish our aims to get well and to get the knowledge of God.
God made a promise to Abraham that the Gospels still believe he is committed to keeping for all the nations because of Jesus Christ: Lk 1:73-75 – “God swore oath to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
There is no question either in the scriptures or in our daily experience that being delivered from the hands of our enemies lines us up for some mortal combat. Putting off the old man and putting on the new man is difficult and challenging work, and so our callous hearts can easily twist the fight of faith into heroic activity we can take credit for. But salvation in this fight is by grace and through faith, not of works. So we are in no position to boast about it as if it is our efforts that are responsible for our growing holiness in the fight. No more do sane patients run around boasting what great champions of therapy they have been. Patients who understand run around boasting what a great doctor they have who is empowering them to get well.
We are not in charge of this fight of faith to which Paul is calling the saints in Ephesus or in Hillsdale. His odd command is to “be renewed in the spirit of your minds” in this school of Christ’s discipleship. How do we obey a command to be the object of someone else’s activity? It seems strange at first, but it makes sense in lots of contexts. Go, be educated, your parents said when they sent you off to school. We obey that by reading the books we’re assigned, and studying hard to do well on our tests, and doing the diligent labor of research to write our papers. But it is the writers of our books and the people who design our assignments who are in charge of the process that comprises obedience to the hope and admonition to go, be educated.
And so Paul may say to the saints, go learn in the school of Christ, and he may say put off the old man and put on the new. But these are not calls to self-reliance and heroism. These are summed up in his call to “be renewed” – obedience to the imperatives, learn, and put off, and put on, does not take primary shape in methods and actions, as if our own will were in charge. They take shape in our submission to the syllabus of Christ as we learn his arguments and gain his knowledge, and obedience to the play-calls of Christ the coach in the fight against sin, and trust in the prescriptions of Christ our Great Physician. Christ is the one who renews us. We are not in charge.
That’s what the texting acronym is all about that some of you recognize in the third point: Who died and left you in charge? Christ died in the manner we celebrated around this table to put God in charge. Don’t think for a moment that our activity of worship or obedience or learning blesses us by itself. GBU: God bless you in your worship and your obedience and your discipleship.
If we are saints, it is not because we have delivered ourselves. Paul says to the Colossians in 1:13, “God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. In Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” and growth in our holiness as saints in the midst of our battles. He writes to the Thessalonians (3:13) that Christ will “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
Keep fighting, saints! Get yourself enrolled at CSD. And be renewed, because Christ died to leave God in charge.
This I say and testify in the Lord, “that I must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” This I say and testify in the Lord, “that none of us saints dare any longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” Let us resolve in Christ to help one another “to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”