Summary: If we clothe ourselves only in the name of Jesus, the world will see right through it - and through us. We have to put on his life, death and resurrection as well.
If you change the word “Gentiles” in the first verse of today’s passage to “Americans” the whole lesson moves right into our own situation. They are practically a mirror of contemporary society. Listen to this: “[Americans] are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” [v. 18-19] The last verses do need a little more attention, though,
because they sound impossible, too good to be true. “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and ... clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. [v. 23-24]
Can anyone - any force - any event - really do what these verses seem to promise?
In my opinion, only the naive or the self-deluded can seriously doubt the classic Presbyterian doctrine of human depravity. We may claim to think we are basically good, especially in comparison to others, but there’s no question that something is out of kilter in the human psyche. Even so, most of us don’t feel as negative as Paul’s description puts it. Those of us sitting like us in pews around the country don’t agree that life is futile, that we are in the dark or cut off from God, ignorant, hard-hearted, or given over to uncontrolled sensuality and passions. We may think society at large is, but we don’t feel that we are.
At the same time, though, most of us wonder if we can really put off the old being and put on a new one. We don’t want to admit that we share the depth of this all-too-human plight, and aren’t sure we really believe in the alternative life-style that is held out to us. Hovering in the middle between the extremes, we are inspired neither by fear nor by hope.
The first question we have to address is whether or not Paul is exaggerating. Can it really be as bad as all that? How can Paul say the human mind is futile - worthless - when humans have accomplished so much? Many people of his time - philosophers and their students - wrestled seriously with ethical questions and earnestly sought to live moral lives.
What Paul is trying to say in this passage is that even those few who want to live moral and purposeful lives cannot do so without reference to God, without help from God, without direction from God. So, if we are honest, we know this text is not too negative, but actually describes each one of us.
Our society stubbornly ignores the question of the meaning of life. We busy ourselves and entertain ourselves so we do not have to think. Even more than drugs and alcohol, entertainment and work keep us from reflecting on life. But as wonderful as it is, life is short, painful, and - viewed from a human perspective - without a whole lot of significance. If we are merely the accidental result of a “big bang,” human existence is a cruel, cosmic joke, and no reason exists for ethical behavior. As one person put it, “You get sick and you die, so you have to keep busy.” What would it matter if we didn’t exist? ‘A voice says, "Cry out!" ... All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades... “ [ls 40:6-8] The writer of Ecclesiastes is right; life is meaningless. Without God in the picture, nothing on this earth can comfort us if we analyze it seriously. Martin Luther’s definition of sin was “humans curved in upon self”. Separated from God, human beings curl in on themselves, becoming ingrown and, finally, infected. Or, to put it another way, without God, the mind is cross-wired. Its energies go in the wrong direction, and cause short circuits and nasty, often fatal fires.
The great French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal said that all our potential dignity and effectiveness is lost when we omit God from our thinking. Paying attention to trifles and blinding ourselves to great things, we create a strange inversion, in which we are always opposed to ourselves. All of the sins are “an insubordination of the flesh.” - that is, a refusal to take orders from lawful authority. [Kyle Snodgrass, Ephesians, NIV Application Commentary] Even when we know actions are harmful to our bodies and relationships, we still choose them. We love our vices - and hate them at the same time. We hate our sins, but we can’t let go of them. By implication, of course, this text is about idolatry. And as author Tom Wright points out, “idols demand sacrifices.” [Tom Wright, Bringing the Church to the World (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1992),48. The cost of trying to manage a peaceful coexistence with our dark side is unacceptably high. The judgment of sin - at least in part - is, finally, to remain in bondage to whichever sin is your own particular enemy. Because sin is its own punishment. To be whole, to be healthy, we human beings need a higher calling than following our own desires.