Ephesians 4:25-29 “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
We spent an evening this week with a cousin of my wife, a man who was in school with her almost fifty years ago. He was there at a time when numbers of young people professed faith in Chris, They were in church twice or more on Sundays, were attending weekly Christian meetings, and summer camps. These professing Christians spoke about their faith to everyone in school who’d listen, and so they made many people face up to the claims of Christ. This cousin of Iola was one such person; he looked at his fellow teenagers with some respect and yet with a certain detachment, never joining them. As they talked he remembered one of them in particular, a girl called Nerys. “I wonder where she is today,” he mused. “She lives in northeast Wales,” Iola told him. Then he said with real respect, “My, what a change occurred in her when she became a Christian. She was really ‘converted’.” My wife remembered it well. There had been a time when that girl had had no time for Christianity; her speech was laced with swear words. Then somehow she got drawn into this circle of young people and through their testimony she was ‘born again.’ There was a change of such dimensions as that overused phrase ‘born again’ suggests; her language and very demeanor were different. She went on and on in the faith. She and her husband became missionaries in India, and having returned to Wales she today works in her church and loves her minister (who in fact once sat in this congregation as a student and who is soon leaving that church to himself become a missionary). Nerys comes most years to the Aberystwyth Conference to look after a stall in the Missionary Exhibition.
So here is a person like many of you, who heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and was converted. There was a change in her life, and she has gone on living that Christian life ever since, buy many of those young people from that North Wales town didn’t continue very long in the Christian life. Their attraction to religion was temporary, a burst of youthful enthusiasm. That’s a well-known phenomenon, and that is why older people are suspicious. They will not themselves become Christians merely by observing the enthusiasm of the young. They have seen that sort of thing before, and they know that for many people it doesn’t last. Some of the teenagers who have been baptized in this congregation have also quickly fallen away. Jesus prepares us for this sadness in his parable of the sower; some seed falls in shallow ground, he says. It quickly springs up and then just as quickly it withers. That factor, which is very familiar to every one of us, doesn’t disprove the reality of conversion. The fact that there are some counterfeit ten pound notes in circulation doesn’t mean we throw away every ten pound note we have – “Aaah! They’re all forgeries!” The counterfeit is in fact a testimony to the reality and value of the genuine. Who bothers to counterfeit Monopoly money? It can get us nothing. There are many people, I say, converted fifty years ago who are still believing in the Son of God and following him today. I and my wife are such people.
Paul’s aim for all the Ephesian congregation, from this point on in his letter, is that they go on displaying a newness of life. They claim to be converted to Jesus Christ. Right! “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (v.17). There must be a pervasive change in your life because the living God has found you. In this passage the letter continues to change direction and begins to describe in increasing detail the new lifestyle of every genuine Christian.. What Paul is doing is not describing some abnormal way of life but a return to normality after the perverting influences of sin.
1. THE CHANGE OF LIFE COMES BY THE TRUTH.
Notice the emphasis on teaching and knowledge in these verses. “You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught . . .” (vv.20-22), and so on. The first thing that happened to these people was that a new knowledge came to them, especially knowledge about Christ. They were taught about him and they started asking questions; “Where was Jesus born? What did his father do for a living? Where did he go to school? What was his message? Is he still alive? When did he die?” And so on. They were given information about Jesus. For example, one of the early Christians named Philip comes across a man from Ethiopia and he teaches him from Isaiah 53 about the Saviour. Earlier he has gone to a community and he preaches there to everyone in Samaria who will listen to him about Christ. That’s what we have to do, to one person or a thousand, tell them all about the Lord Jesus.
There is, however, a certain edge to our teaching and it is this, that the knowledge we give them is truth. That is our claim. I know a lecturer who spoke boldly about the faith to other teachers in his department, but more than once he was stopped dead in his tracks when men would say something like this to him: “It’s okay for you to believe in Jesus. Just don’t tell me that what you believe is true.”
That is very common, a typical modern response, that religious belief is just that – belief. It has nothing to do with matters of truth and falsity. One either believes or doesn’t, and it’s okay for me choosing to believe Jesus is the only way to God while it is okay for someone else to believe that there are other ways. The fact that these claims are contradictory is beside the point. They are belief claims, not truth claims. You are speaking to someone and they say to you, “That’s true for you, but it doesn’t have to be true for me.” Or, “Jesus is God to you, but he’s not God to me. It’s okay for you to believe as you do, but don’t be so intolerant as to try to make me believe it too.” So Jesus Christ becomes a value to such people not a fact.
Why do we Christians think it is dishonest to respond to the person of Jesus Christ like that, to deflate Jesus of Nazareth to a mere value? It is because of the claims that Christ made. He said he created this world; he’s made you with a conscience, a monitor that tells you what’s right and wrong. He claims that he is the author of every good thing that you’ve ever received. You are in debt to him. He is also the one who stood on Sinai and gave the world the Ten Commandments, and so telling you how you should live. Those ten words confirm the voice of your conscience and enlighten it. He claims to be the Saviour who has dealt with the enormous problem of our guilt by his sacrifice on the cross. “I am giving my life as a ransom for many; that is why I came.” He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. One day he’s going to judge you. One day you are going to stand before him and hear your destiny from his lips.
So what our message is as Christians is not simply a lot of religious values for fulfilled self-integrated living, but claims that Jesus of Nazareth is the only Lord there is, that he is your God and your Judge and he can become your Saviour. Are these things true? If they are not true can they be of any value at all as a myth? Not much. The Santa Claus myth is entirely benign, but Jesus introduces some earnestness, and warnings, requiring us to respond to his claims by trusting him completely, denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses and following him. If he is not God he is deluded or crazy or evil or even satanic to ask such things of ourselves. But if he and his words are truth then they must have the most stupendous effect upon us. By Jesus we come to know who God is, what life is all about, how our sins can be forgiven, how we can have everlasting life. This is so only if the information about Christ coming to us is truth, but that is the most basic of all Christian convictions. See it here in our passage; “you heard of him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught . . .” (vv. 21 and 22).
You have every right to look at the evidence and examine it and put it to the test, but you have no right to turn truth into some vague religious value. I am not interested in making people religious. Think of a man who cheats on his wife and the excuse he provides for breaking his marriage vows is that the vows were simply a set of human values that he acknowledged then but they have no abiding significance at all. Or think of a treaty to which one country becomes a party and to which it signs its consent – like those which the nations of Europe have been signing in the last twenty years – but then this country pays no attention to the terms of the treaty because, it says, those were just some temporary values it held at that time. Then, of course, the whole treaty would disintegrate. Wars have been fought over less. You can see the importance of the binding demands of truth at every level, in science and banking and business and in the media. Lies and rumours need to be nailed down before they destroy lives. How precious is the truth. There is no other reason for a person becoming a Christian than the fact that Christianity is true.
The Bible will make little impact upon us unless in its words we are being confronted with the truth day by day, but that was the conviction of the Son of God about the word of God. For example, when Jesus was in the midst of temptations he quoted from Scripture saying, “It is written . .” He said later, “Scripture cannot be broken.” His apostles had the same conviction, quoting from it to underline and validate what they were writing. All Scripture is God – breathed, said Paul, and because of that it can equip the man of God for every good task. Do you need patience to curb your runaway tongue? Isn’t that a good task? The Bible is the means of helping you; it has a sanctifying dynamism because of its truth. You need some soothing balm to cool your lusts? The Bible is that balm – there’s nothing like it. You need strength to be loving and gentle and patient and forgiving? The Bible alone can do that for you. It can equip you for caring for an elderly parent or a handicapped child, or having to live with your own troubles. The Bible will do it – not experts, not other religious freaks. Holy Scripture can thoroughly equip you for every good work only because truth has a transforming energy that human deceit doesn’t have. Remember the Lord Jesus prays for us to grow more loving and holy with these words, “Sanctify them by the truth. Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). The Bible doesn’t only tell us what is right, but it gives us strength to do what’s right.
So the first thing that is needed to be truly changed is to know the truth about how God expects us to live. For example, in this section Paul is speaking about God requiring us to put off the dirty clothes of our old self and put on new pure clothes. God’s goal for us is this, to be “created like him in true righteousness and holiness” (v.23.). He is calling for radical change, across the board, in every area of our lives. We dare not present Jesus to you merely as a kind of add-on to the ‘really important things’ with which you fill your life – doing well in business and enjoying home life and travelling the world.
2. THE CHANGE OF LIFE COMES BY ESTABLISHING NEW PATTERNS.
In our text Paul is dealing with deliverance from four common sins that trouble all of us, lying, anger, theft and unwholesome language. His approach to them individually is the same as his broad approach he has already set out, of establishing a pattern of putting off the old self’s sins and putting on the new self’s graces. Paul’s concern is that these Christians establish radical new habits of Christian discipleship.
An unbelieving lifestyle is a matter of sinful patterns. The old self with which you were born has habituated into your thinking and your behaviour. That is an ancient attitude with which even the prophet Jeremiah was confronted. He said this to the people, “I warned you when you felt secure, but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ This has been your way from your youth; you have not obeyed me” (Jer. 22:21). They had grown accustomed to sinful ways of life from their youth; they were comfortable with them. We’re all like that, bringing these ‘old life’ patterns with us into the ‘new life’ of the kingdom of God when we were born again. So every Sunday we need to be confronted with our inconsistencies and taught what to do about it.
We are all indebted to Jay Adams for the emphasis he has given to this. This is what he says, “Habit is very much a part of your life. If you were to remove all habits, you couldn’t get along. The capacity to do things by habit, i.e., automatically, unconsciously, skillfully and comfortably (the four characteristics of a habit) – is a blessing of God. That is what enables you to do two things at once. You can drive and talk. You can instantly put the brakes on when the car in front of you flashes its brake lights while singing along to the radio. You can eat while watching a news bulletin on TV. Indeed, habit is so much a part of your moment-by-moment living that you don’t realize it. Doing things by habit, we say, is ‘second nature.’ You do them as if you were born with them . . . Sinners learn from the earliest days to program into the habit capacity all sorts of sinful responses which, in turn, become a part of them. When they’re hit, they hit back – harder. When someone says something uncomplimentary about them, they retort with something equally so. And so it goes. It is these sinful habit patterns that make up the Gentile lifestyle according of which Paul says to Christians, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (v.17). (Jay E. Adams, “The Christian Counselor’s Commentary: Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon,” Timeless Texts, Hackettstown, NJ, 1994, pp. 101&102). So people vaguely hear something disturbing or encouraging about Jesus Christ, but immediately an old habit triggers a response, “Ah, that’s religion,” and they stop thinking.
Let me go in this direction for a moment, to the fact that people plead their personalities as an excuse for their behaviour. “I’ve got a worrying temperament,” says the Christian who simply isn’t trusting the promises of God. “I’m just a bit larger than life,” says the Christian who is loud and thoughtless; “That’s how I am.” “I was just made with a hard head,” says the Christian who is determined to have his own way, who won’t cooperate with other people. He is the loner; the man who won’t be a deacon; not a team player; he likes to go and come to and from the fellowship as it pleases him. “I’m just naturally aggressive,” says the Christian bully and wife-demeanor. “I’m just naturally more emotional and sensuous than other more cerebral Christians,” says the Christian who is a slave to his lusts. “Maybe I’ve been born with a homosexual inclination,” thinks the 18 year-old Christian student coming to terms with his sexuality. In other words those people think there’s nothing they can do about their attitudes or behaviour because, they claim, “that is just the way I am.”
The bottom line to this is self-justification and self-pity, to go on whining and bemoaning your pitiful lot that’s made you – unlike other people – a prisoner of your sins, so that you’ve become an inevitable failure in life and there’s nothing you or anyone can do to change it. What deception you’ve believed. I’m challenging your attitude saying that in fact you have learned much of your conduct from other people, and in much of your behaviour you are simply imitating what you see around you. The New Testament insists, “You – take responsibility for your life, for the state you are in today, and for the damnation you are heading for.” You have no right to go on living as you are. Neither have you any right to constant happiness. You have forfeited all that by the fall of your father Adam and your own falls. God through his grace alone has brought you to this place to hear this wake-up call, to show you what he expects of you and how things can be put right in your life. There is no other way. Read my lips. It is only through the grace of the living God your life can be changed. Reject that grace and all you’ve got is you for ever, in this world and in hell. Just you.
From today you are going to remember what you’ve been taught, that change is possible through Christ. Every new pattern of behaviour that God in the Bible requires is possible for you. Length of time and age is no hindrance; hereditary is no hindrance; poor education is no hindrance; bad companions are no hindrance to living a blessed new life. You can change into a mature Christian life-style. Nothing is too formidable for the grace of God. I can say that to the most discouraged Christian here today. This passage is giving us hope, pointing out the direction and presenting us with the means. The Holy Spirit provides the power, and learning the discipline of new patterns is the new method.
Think of the old joke, “When is a door not a door?” You know the answer, “When it’s ajar.” Let’s just answer that question with these words, “When it’s something else.” When change occurs and is sustained over the passage of many years then Nerys is no longer the old Nerys. She is the new Nerys who doesn’t defy God and swear and desecrate the Lord’s Day and so on. When is Nerys not Nerys? When she is new. You ask that question about the passage before us. When is a liar not a liar (v.25)? When is an angry man not an angry man (v.26)? When is a thief not a thief (v.28)? When is a foolish talker not a foolish talker (v.29)? What is the answer? When the man stops lying and stealing? No. That is not the answer. A man may stop stealing because he’s in solitary confinement and has no opportunity to steal. Just because a man at the present isn’t stealing doesn’t mean he has ceased be a thief. He mightn’t have the opportunity just now. You may have caught him at a time in his life when he is recovering from a disastrous fall, and he is particularly sensitive to the wickedness that has brought him low. Today he is simply a thief between jobs.
In other words, since thieves do not always steal at all times, and drunks aren’t always drunk the absence of these things from their lives is no indication of permanent change. Indeed, if the only thing that’s happened to this man is that he has stopped committing the sins that have easily beset him, so what? He is now a mere non-thief; a non-drunk; a non-liar. What sort of person is a non-person? Men are going to say to one another, “How long before he’s back to his old ways?” So let me ask these questions again and this time answer them biblically: When is a liar not a liar? Answer: when you notice that he’s always speaking truthfully to his neighbour conscious that he and his neighbour are members of one body (v.25). When is an angry man not an angry man? Answer: when he refuses to let the sun do down on his anger and never gives the devil a foothold in his life by outbursts of rage (v.26). When is a thief no longer a thief? Answer: when he steals no longer but does something useful with his own hands and has something to share with those in need (v.28). When is a foolish talker no longer a foolish talker? Answer: when wholesome beneficial talk comes out of his mouth building others up according to their needs (v.29). So the answer to every one of these questions is the sinner is not a sinner when he has become something else. Putting off will not be permanent without putting on. Putting on will be outward and temporary unless it is accompanied by putting off.
3. WHAT SINNERS HAVE TO DO.
Paul looks at four categories of common wickedness, defining the evil and explaining the change:
i] Let’s begin with the person who tells lies. “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (v.25) It would be a terrible thing if you said of me, “He’s a liar.” Put off falsehood all you who carry tales and you who slander others! The Christian is a man who hates to tell a lie. It is almost physically impossible for him to lie; it causes him such pain. He won’t give false evidence; he won’t send for false witnesses (like the chief priests at the trial of Jesus of Nazareth); he won’t call evil good or good evil; he won’t backbite or whisper or scoff or revile or misconstrue meaning. He won’t make generalisations out of individual acts ‘typical’ he says at some little slip in running the church. He won’t flatter; he won’t deny the gifts God has given; he won’t overstate small faults; he won’t unnecessarily expose faults; he won’t spread rumours and reports; he won’t refuse to hear a just defence; he won’t harbour evil suspicions; he won’t look on others with scorn and contempt; he won’t fail to keep a promise. The Christian stands for the truth, promotes the truth, and perseveres in the truth. He speaks it from his heart. His yes is yes, and his no is no. He doesn’t need to exaggerate and distort. He is a man of utter integrity. This is what Paul is saying when he tells Christians to put off falsehood and speak truthfully to our neighbours.
ii] Now let’s look at the Christian who finds it difficult to control his temper. “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (v.26). There is a righteous indignation that Christ had when he saw the men in the synagogue opposing his healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. There was a time when he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple and drove them out with a whip. There you see God’s righteous anger against sin. Our God is not like the changeless unemotional Buddha, half-smiling and contemplating his navel while hurting crying people are all around him. What a monster! Our God is angry with the wicked every day. In Jesus’ anger he yet did not sin. Paul is concerned here with a man who batters his wife or children, or a wife who hits her husband. The man who badmouths another and calls him a fool. Paul is referring to all hateful passions in our hearts towards other men, desiring their destruction; envying them, aching for revenge for what we think they’ve done to us, speaking provocative words and displaying provocative gestures, quarrelling, hitting out at them, desiring in our hearts their downfall, setting traps to achieve this, seeking to shorten their lives by not caring for them lovingly. That is what anger does. Rather Paul wants us to put on new garments such as patience, forgiveness, submission to the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit, a sober use of God’s provisions of food and drink, work and sleep, recreation and occupation. He is talking about loving thoughts towards another, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness. The apostle wants them to put on courtesy to another, forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patience, forgiveness and requiting good for evil, comforting our enemies when they are distressed and protecting the weak and innocent.
How can there be Christian testimony if people are seeing anger? But what a witness to the reality of life in Christ is a meek and gentle spirit. A Christian student whom we shall call Jonathon, was approaching the end of his Ph.D. dissertation. He had spent over two years on it and had written nearly two hundred pages. Then his supervisor was denied tenure and was even dismissed from the faculty. Jonathon took his project in his hands and visited the rest of the faculty, looking for someone who would take him on. None would. Finally one professor relented and agreed to take him, but with a completely new project. So, as Jonathon said, “I put two hundred pages and two years of my life on the shelf, and started all over again.” One day, after about a year on the new project, the new supervisor gave Jonathon a ride home. When they stopped outside the house and Jon was about ready to get out, the professor said, “Oh, Jonathon, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. I’ve been watching you. If I were in your shoes I would be an angry man. I would be angry at the university. I would be angry at the faculty; I would be angry at my new supervisor; I would be angry at the world. But you’re not. Tell me, does that have anything to do with your Christian faith?” So for the next hour and a half they talked about a God who call bring a new condition into a human heart.
iii] What of the thief? “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (v.28). When Paul says, “steal no longer” then he is referring to more than robbery and receiving anything that has been stolen. He is dealing with fraudulent dealing, using false weights and measures; removing landmarks, not keeping the terms of a contract you’ve made with someone, extortion, the activities of the Mafia or other political gangs that threaten force unless money is paid them; bribery; dispossessing people of their land; artificially creating shortages; enhancing prices and organising cartels to keep prices up; withholding from one’s neighbour what is his; covetousness; envying the prosperity of others; idleness, reckless wastefulness and gambling. Put all that off, says Paul, and put on the garment of helpfulness to others. The good Samaritan had money in his pocket to help a man in trouble. Paul is talking about giving and lending freely, a sense of moderation towards our worldly goods, wisdom in making our wills, diligence in our different callings; encouraging the wealth of others as well as our own. Have something to share with others. Have something to put in the offering box on the first day of the week.
iv] What of the foolish talker? “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (v.29). Unwholesome talk comes in so many forms, suggestiveness, irritability, impatience, grumpiness, gruffness, sharpness, unsociability, sourness, huffiness, touchiness, readiness to take offence, pugnacity, peevishness, petulance, a hot temper, seductiveness; much talking about oneself; self-pitying words, four letter words and blasphemies even on the lips of children and women and so on. It was George Orwell who said that the degradation of a culture begins with the degradation of its language, and that is where Great Britain is today. You, though, as children of the mighty God put on another spirit; you love your neighbour as yourself and as a consequence you want to build your neighbour up in love, joy, peace, wisdom, contentment, submission, and godliness. You speak a word in season to your neighbours and they are greatly profited by it.
So what we have set before us is the New Testament pattern of rehabilitation. We build up new life patterns. We cease doing what is sinful and in its place we do what is right. Unless we do the putting on as well as the putting off then at a period in our lives when we become weary, or we are under pressure, or virtually lying on the floor in depression, at such seasons all our good resolutions will go out of the window. Resolution alone will not be enough. Giving up something by itself won’t enough. The old sinful habits have to be replace by new attitudes and patterns of life which we strengthen and resolutely maintain. The thief not only has to stop his thieving, he has to be converted, get a job, work hard earning his living; he learns the blessing of giving to others. He has to put on the garment of hard work and sharing, or he is still a thief.
I am saying that this is the pattern right through the Bible. For example, Peter tells us not to return evil for evil, or insult for insult but instead giving a blessing (I Pet. 3:9). John tells us, Don’t imitate evil people, but imitate those who are good (III John 11). The writer of the Hebrews says, “Don’t forsake the assembling of yourselves together as the habit of some is, but encourage one another.” The works of the flesh have to be replaced by the fruit of the Spirit. The man who gets drunk filling himself with wine must henceforth be filled with the Spirit. The disciple must deny himself and follow Jesus. In other words Biblical change is all about repenting of our sin and trusting in Christ. It is about laying aside every weight and the sin that besets us, and looking unto Jesus.
4. YOU CAN CHANGE AND BECOME A NEW PERSON IN CHRIST.
You can change. By the grace of God you can conquer your bad habits. You can know deliverance from all kinds of dependencies and addictions and patterns of antisocial behaviour. The truth of the gospel can achieve this. The dying love of Jesus for you can do this. The indwelling energy of the powerful Spirit can do it. The new mind that God creates can do this. The thought of slipping into the furnace of hell for ever and ever can do it for you. The living Saviour interceding at the right hand of God can do this for you. The powerful word each Sunday, the praying fellowship each Tuesday, can do this for you. Christian friends can do this for you. The loving heavenly Father who will work all these things in the combination and force that you most need – he will achieve this for you. God will establish new happy patterns in your life. As you continue to do something long enough it becomes a part of you.
i] All of us are creatures of habit.
Old habits are hard to destroy because we are comfortable with them, but you can change them. Think of the habits you’ve picked up without any thought. For example, which arm do you put into the sleeve of your shirt or coat first of all, your left or your right? Maybe you scratch your head for a moment before answering because you do it without thinking. You get on with life and do what you’ve unconsciously done hundreds of times before. You don’t have to think about details. This is the capacity that God has given to us.
Think of the first time that you sat behind a car’s steering wheel. What a frightening experience it was. Jay Adams says it like this (but I have Anglicized our terms for a motor car), “There you sat, thinking, ‘Here is the wheel (it looked about ten times bigger than it was), and there is the gear lever, there is a complex instrument panel and there are the foot pedals down below. I have to learn how to use and to coordinate all of these! And at the same time I must look out for lines painted down the middle of the road, and signs along the highway, and pedestrians, and buses, and dogs. How will I ever do it?’ Can you remember back to that time? But now – now – what do you do? At midnight, on a moonless night, you slide into the car seat as someone else slips into the seat beside you. Deftly you insert the key into the car-lock, switch on the engine, press down the clutch, shift the gears, gently press on the accelerator, back out of the drive into the street and set off down the road, all the while arguing some abstruse point of Calvinism! What an amazing feat that is when you think about it! Well, just think about it” (Jay E. Adams, “The Christian Counselor’s Manual”, P&R Publishing, 1973, p.180)
You have learned to perform highly complex behavior unconsciously. Think of what Tim Henman and Jonny Wilkinson and Ryan Giggs have learned to do in the same way. How did you learn? How did they? By practice – disciplined practice. You drove the car often enough to make driving a part of you. It has become second nature to you and I’m telling you that we all learn to do what we want to do by practicing. William Hague was the leader of the Tory party four years ago when they were defeated in a General Election. So Hague resigned as leader and then had some time on his hands. He was around 40 years of age, and he decided he would learn to play the piano. He found a sympathetic teacher and he gave himself to practicing regularly, and now he is able to play the piano and give little recitals to his family and friends. He no longer sits at the piano and asks, “Where is Middle C?” He can sit on a piano stool and play pieces of music because he practiced. There is no question that the habit capacity is in every one of us.
ii] The problem with our capacity for doing things out of habit is that it can also be used for the wrong purposes.
It can work for the harm of sinners. As a principle it operates in either direction. You can’t avoid habitual living, because this is the way that God made you. He gave you the ability to live a life that doesn’t demand conscious thought about every action or response. It is a great blessing, that God should have made us thus, but sinners take that faculty and use it to their destruction. Think of the alcoholic, or the porn addict, or the homosexual, or the obese woman. How often have you heard the words, “I simply couldn’t stop myself”?
iii] The Christian sets out to establish new patterns of godly living by the instruction of the Bible and the energising of the Spirit.
That is what Paul was talking to Timothy about when he wrote “discipline yourself for godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). That is how one establishes a life style and lives according to it – by developing godly habits. From the beginning of our Christian lives, Sunday morning and Sunday evening, we meet with other Christians around the Word of God in the meetings of the church. We sit under the best preaching we can find every single Lord’s Day, and we never stop.
Then we put into practice what we hear week by week. Jay Adams points out, “The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:13ff.) speaks clearly about this matter. There he is upbraiding the Hebrew Christians because, although they’d received so much teaching of God’s Word, yet they hadn’t profited from it. The reason was that they hadn’t used it. Consequently, when they ought to have become teachers they still needed to be taught. He says that everyone ‘who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a baby’ (v.13). He continues: ‘But solid food (meat and potatoes) is for the mature who because of practice (because they have done it so often) have their senses trained to discern between good and evil.’ There it is. The practice of godliness leads to the life of godliness. It makes godliness ‘natural.’ If you practice what God tells you to do, the obedient life will become a part of you. There is no simple, quick, easy way to instant godliness.” (ibid)
“But,” you protest, “I don’t seem to be able to do it.” The protest is invalid. You already have. You have practiced and learned many things. You have developed many unconscious patterns. Even as a mere sinful human being bent toward sin, you have practiced sinful practices so that they have become a part of you. We’ve all been there. Now is the time, by unfailing access to an indwelling Saviour, to establish new healing patterns of life, to steadily change and live a life which is to God’s glory. That will be a happy and rich existence for yourself and for all the people who know you. You will be fulfilling your chief end.
“Not me,” you protest. “I couldn’t change. I’m too weak. I couldn’t get into those godly patterns.” I’m telling you that you already have learned some complex skills. Let me return to my fundamental point. When you were ten years old you learned how to operate a yo-yo, and then, many years later, you were able to pick up the yo-yo with which one of your grandchildren had been playing and you soon found that the old skill was still there. Perhaps you haven’t ridden a bike for years, yet you know that you could do so. It probably wouldn’t take you five minutes to get the feel of it again. It would come right back to you. The real question, then, is not whether a fifty year-old man can learn new ways; the question is can anyone, even a ten-year-old, change once he has learned a wrong practice? Yes he can, God says. “You mean,” you say in astonishment, “when a practice has become so much a part of a person that it has continued without reinforcement for over thirty years, that it is possible for him to change?” Yes! The answer is that all change is hard, but every change that God requires is possible. By the grace of God, you can change. It is God who works in you (Philippians 2:13). All holiness, all righteousness, all godliness is the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22, 23). It takes nothing less than the power of the Spirit to replace sinful habits with righteous ones, for a ten-year-old or a fifty-year-old. God never said that once a person reaches forty or fifty or eighty that he is incapable of changing. Look what Abraham or Moses did as old men. Look at the tremendous changes that God demanded of them in old age. The Holy Spirit can change any Christian, and he does. You will be able to say, “My last years were my best years.”
iv] Don’t give up.
Christians should never fear change. They are committed to believing in progressive change because that is what the Bible teaches, moving on from one degree of glory to another by the Spirit. The Christian life is a life of continual transformation. In the Scriptures it is called a “walk,” not a rest. They may never say while in this life, “I’ve finally made it.” Rather they are always pressing on to the mark of their high calling. They mustn’t think, “There is nothing more to learn from God’s Word, nothing more to put into practice tomorrow, no more skills to develop, no more sins to be dealt with.” When Christ said, “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), he put an end to all such thinking. He represented the Christian life as a daily striving to change.
Too many Christians give up. They want the change too soon. What they really want is change without effort. Sometimes they give up when they are on the very threshold of success. They stop before receiving. Many people have got despondent because they don’t ‘get on’ in the world as fast as they think they deserve to do. Having planted their acorn they expect to see it grow into an oak tree overnight. It’s only in fairy stories that magic beans sprout a stalk that reaches into the heavens by the next day and brings down gold in vast supplies. Do you want to live in a fairy tale world or the real world? Instant oaks are everywhere in today’s self-help books. That is why they are so attractive. They promise feckless losers deliverance . . . without pain . . . before they’ve even finished the book! “What part of your life is in tatters – your mental, emotional, physical or financial life? We can sort it all out – immediately!” If only it were so.
There is no quick fix. It usually takes at least three weeks of proper daily effort for someone to feel comfortable in performing some new practice – I am talking of daily reading the Scriptures, thinking about what you’ve read, and praying in the light of what you’ve learned. I’m talking of not sitting and watching the TV for four hours each night but finding useful things to do with that time, developing the heart of a servant. I’m talking about a new frugality that faces up to your debts, or establishing a new pattern of life that can resist the craving for nicotine. Concerning resolution by the grace of the Spirit, the support of your friends, your own crying to God for help – that first month is all important. Then it will take another month to make the practice part of oneself. Yet, many Christians don’t continue even for three days. If they don’t receive instant success, they get discouraged. They want what they want now, and if they don’t get it now, they quit. We are talking about the first few months in which you develop new patterns of godly living. In the Christian life as in the physical life we grow by inches. When Isaac Newton was asked what were the means by which he’d worked out his extraordinary discoveries he replied, “By always thinking about them.” When Joshua Reynolds was asked how long it had taken him to paint a certain picture he said, “All my life.” In this part of the letter to the Ephesians Paul is talking about developing character, and he is defining for us specifically Christian character. You fight to attain it every step of the way. The Christian life is described as a battle, a warfare, a race, a marathon, a carrying of our cross and following Jesus. This battle of life is fought up-hill and stony-ground hearers give up too early. But Nerys didn’t, and many of you haven’t and why shouldn’t the rest of you be changed by the same patient forgiving Father who hangs in with us in all in our struggles and falls every day?
Let me return to this theme of learning new patterns through repetition. Remember how you’ve already done this in other areas without the power of the Spirit of Jesus to help you. Remember when you first sat in front of a computer and you thought you would never learn how to use it. Of course you crashed a few times, and wiped out all you’d written, but you too courage and went back to the silent screen, and you got more and more competent as you used it. That is how we learn and you’ve gone on learning ever since. A lot of people make a decision to quit right there and then. They don’t consider the trouble of learning to use a computer to be worth the embarrassment, awkwardness, and fear that it usually entails. But we all know that it is worth while learning to use a computer. Everyone else has gone on in spite of all the trouble. Why not you? They’ve steadily improved so that there came a point at which an activity began to be and then did become a part of them. It will be exactly like that with you too, but you’ve got to work at it; you have to stay with it long enough through the disappointments and failures. People are going to give you bad advice about computers. You are going to misunderstand and make mistakes about computers. but you can survive that. It is just like that in the Christian life.
Every Christian here finds it difficult to put to death indwelling sin, to overcome resentment and bitterness, to forgive people for the hurt they’ve done to him. All of us find the disciplines of maintaining a personal devotional life hard, but it gets easier if you develop a routine and you stick at it. Failing is a reason for working harder; not for quitting. Week after week we gather here, and we’ve all been outstanding failures in following Christ during the previous week; all of us without exception. There’s been a lack of what the Bible calls ‘endurance.’ Stickability, I reckon, is one of the keys to godliness through discipline. No one learns to do such thing as playing the piano, using a yo-yo, becoming competent at a computer, or driving a car unless he persists long enough in doing so. He learns by enduring in spite of his failures, through all the embarrassments, until the desired behavior becomes a part of him. He trains himself by practicing to achieve what he wants to so with his life. God says that the same things is true about godliness. The liar changes; the thief changes; the loudmouth changes; the angry man changes. They do so by the grace of God. They put off that old way of life and they put on a new life of joy and peace and holy living. They do it by the power of the Spirit.
There’s an awareness in the country today that things are not what they should be, and the evidence I cite for believing that observation to be true is in our national fascination with self-help books. Amazon’s sales of self-help books rose by 40% last year. Self-help titles take six of the top 20 slots in its current list of bestsellers. “We need help to change,” people are saying. They are dissatisfied with their lives; they are in an affluent mess. They do need to change, but that help is found in the reality of the grace of the living God. Ask the Saviour, the Son of God, to help you. Why look east to the Hindu mystics? Why look west to the American self-help salesmen. Go to God! Go to him with nothing in your hand and tell him how much you need his assistance. Without Jesus Christ you can do nothing. None of our own efforts apart from the Holy Spirit can produce godliness. It is through the power of God you can change. By his own efforts alone, a man may learn to ride a bike, or work a computer, or play the piano, but he won’t persist in the pursuit of godliness. A Christian does good works because the God has begun a good work in him, and if he begins that work in us he doesn’t cease working until the day of Christ. “The work of the Spirit is not mystical. The Holy Spirit’s activity often has been viewed in a confused and confusing manner. There is no reason for such confusion. The Holy Spirit himself has plainly told us how he works. He says in the Scriptures that he works through the Scriptures. The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s book. He inspired it. He moved its authors to write every wonderful word that one reads there. This is his book; the sharp tool by which he accomplishes his work, his sword. He didn’t produce the book only to say that it could be laid aside and forgotten in the process. Godliness doesn’t come by osmosis. Human ideas and efforts will never produce it. There is no easier path to godliness. It always requires the prayerful study and obedient practice of the Word of God.” (Jay Adams, ibid. pp. 186&187). So keep coming to church, and keep hearing the apostle describing to us the new life we can live by the grace of God. Keep asking him to help you live this life. Who has ever earnestly prayed to God for such new life and been disappointed?
23 January 2005 GEOFF THOMAS