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.
Ephesians 4:17-24 ESV
After working our way through the first half of chapter four, we should have a firm base for understanding how we are called to live in light of our new life in Christ as described in chapters 1-3. Walking in manner worthy of our great calling in Christ means bearing with one another in patient, humble, and gentle love and using our individual gifts from the Holy Spirit for building up one another in love. In many ways, verses 1-16 are a microcosm of this whole chunk of Ephesians that we are calling Kingdom Life. Beginning here in verse 17, Paul begins to expound up these ideas and commands that he has already presented to us.
THE FUTILITY OF THEIR MINDS // VERSES 17-19
Immediately after giving us a beautiful portrait of how the church is meant to build itself up in love through all individual members speaking the truth to one another in love, the apostle now turns to warn us against what will hinder and even destroy such unity of the faith, and in doing so he also provides us with our second walk command: 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.
No longer walking as the Gentiles do is an interesting command for Paul to be writing to a predominately Gentile congregation. After all, remember that in verse 11 of chapter two he called them “Gentiles in the flesh.” In order to resolve the rather awkward wording, some translation (even ancient translations) add the word other in front of Gentiles; thus, differentiating them from the rest of the non-believing Gentiles. This, however, misses the pointed message that Paul is delivering. Remember also that in 2:12 Paul declared that the Ephesians were once “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” Yet we who were once far off have now been brought near by Christ’s blood, and where there once stood Jew and Gentile divided, Christ has formed one new man. Therefore, we “Gentiles in the flesh” are now grafted into “the commonwealth of Israel.” We have become one people (among all peoples) and one nation (among all nations) whose God is the LORD. As Paul told the Galatians (another largely Gentile area): “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).
In Christ, we are no longer Gentiles. Therefore, we must cease walking and living like the Gentiles live. Since we have been brought into God’s fold, we can no longer live as though the world is our home. We cannot live as the world lives because we are no longer of the world. There must be a disconnect between us and them. But why? Why can we no longer live as the Gentiles, as the non-believers, live? The rest of verse 17 through verse 19 give us the answer.
They walk in the futility of their minds. This is the tragic shorthand, while 18-19 explain why their minds are engulfed in futility. Futility has many synonyms, none of them positive: vanity, meaningless, worthless, pointless, useless, ineffective, hopeless. Or just read Ecclesiastes and ignore the points where God shines His face out from behind the sun. The greatest efforts of humanity without Christ are nothing more than chasing after wind. Babel is a testament to this. Humanity was united together with one common goal, yet they were united around their own glory rather than God’s. Their efforts not only failed, but God enacted their greatest fear, scattering them across the globe and confusing their languages. The effort was futile.
Likewise, to give a current example, I recently listened to a podcast where Elon Musk said that he was selling much of his possessions and choosing not to design his own home because he instead wanted to focus on figuring out how to get humans to Mars. This is a moving example of someone with great wealth, power, and intellect choosing not to indulge himself for the good of humanity. Yet without Christ, it is still futile. Don’t misunderstand me. Although the Great Commission is the perfect fulfillment of the First Commission, I believe that that Creation Mandate still stands. We are still meant to be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, and to subdue it. Everything from gardening to space travel can be a worshipful part of our exploration of and stewardship the world that God has given to us. I am, therefore, pro-Mars. I am also a big fan of Musk’s brilliance and focus. But it is all for nothing, especially for Musk himself, without Christ.
Paul, however, goes on to describe how this futile mind is created. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of their hearts. Notice how two words within this verse describe the mind: understanding and ignorance. Their thinking is futile because their understanding is darkened. Almost anything is more difficult to accomplish in the darkness rather than in the light, but imagine attempting to navigate an obstacle course without any light whatsoever. Meaningful and lasting (i.e. not futile) conversations become difficult to have with non-believers because their very understanding is in the dark, making it difficult (if not impossible) for them to navigate the obstacles of the truth.
Furthermore, their understanding is darkened because they are alienated from God, who is Truth. They divorce themselves from the Author of reality; therefore, their very views of reality begin to twist and contort, like being surrounded by carnival mirrors.
And this separation between them and God occurs through their own ignorance. Throughout the Bible, ignorance is not something that just happens to befall people; rather, the Scriptures repeatedly and consistently treat ignorance as a willful act of neglecting knowledge. How different from our current view of ignorance! We have pity for those without knowledge as if they are victims of tremendous injustice; whereas, God declares that they have rejected knowledge. The difference leads to radically different forms of evangelism. While we offer assurance that their rejection of God is not their fault, the LORD declares, “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (Proverbs 8:17).
Brothers and sisters, mark dearly this painful but nevertheless biblical truth: all who do not know God, do not know Him because they do not want to know Him. Few will find the narrow gate that leads to life because few are looking for it. Everyone wants a truth, but almost no one wants to grapple with the Truth. Paul himself says this very thing to the Romans, where he notes that men “suppress the truth” and “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (1:18, 21). All people, therefore, “are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Yet notice that Paul does not place all focus upon the mind. Indeed, it is their hard hearts that cause them to desire ignorance of God. They have sealed away their hearts from receiving the love of God; therefore, their minds cannot grasp the truth of God. But how did their hearts become hardened? Verse 20 explains: They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. Their hearts become hardened and calloused because they give themselves over to sensuality. Do you see the tragic irony of this sentence? Sensuality means being given to the pleasure of the senses, pursuing that which is physical. The sensuous lifestyle is lived for the next high, the next dopamine rush. They live to feel, but they only form callouses. This is the futility on full display. The one thing that they pursue is the very thing that their pursuit takes from them. The drug user can never capture that first high. The drunkard can never feel again that first stupor. The adulterer can never replay the first affair. The thief cannot repeat the rush of the first theft. The vain can never recreate their first time being praised. “But from the one who has not, even what he has will taken away” (Matthew 25:29). This too is vanity, a striving after wind.
In their calloused heart and darkened understanding, they also become greedy to practice every kind of impurity. Why are they greedy to practice impurity? The same ones to refuse to know God also rejoice to be ‘free’ from His ‘oppressive’ commands. We should again turn to Paul’s similar teaching to the Romans:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.Romans 1:24–32
The practice of impurity quickly becomes a devilish sacrament to remind oneself that the knee is still not bent to the Creator. Their ability to contradict God’s ingrained moral law is their proof that they are still the masters of their own fate, the captains of their own souls. Yet notice that by the end of the first chapter of Romans, Paul still maintains that “they know God’s righteous decree.” They cannot silence the still, small voice within their hearts, so they find courage to press onward by giving approval to one another, reassuring themselves that walking off the cliff’s edge will end in life rather than death.
We will discuss this more in chapter five, but I have to bring it up now: this is why the world cannot tolerate Christianity. As model citizens of the Roman Empire, the early Christians still suffered repeatedly under persecutions. As children of light, our presence exposes darkness for what it is. Our refusal to approve of their impurity makes the guilt within their hearts louder. They cannot tolerate any opposition because it reminds them that their very hearts testify against them. Carl Trueman wrote an almost prophetic article back in 2012 about the choice (particularly regarding sexual ethics) that we must now make:
The beautiful young things of the reformed renaissance have a hard choice to make in the next decade. You really do kid only yourselves if you think you can be an orthodox Christian and be at the same time cool enough and hip enough to cut it in the wider world. Frankly, in a couple of years it will not matter how much urban ink you sport, how much fair trade coffee you drink, how many craft brews you can name, how much urban gibberish you spout, how many art house movies you can find that redeemer figure in, and how much money you divert from gospel preaching to social justice: maintaining biblical sexual ethics will be the equivalent in our culture of being a white supremacist.
But even if the Gentiles succeed in creating a monolithic society, where everyone is united in approval over their debauchery, it will still be futile. The moment that they look up to admire the glorious tower that they have built is the same moment that God will scatter them again throughout the earth. They “are like the chaff that the wind drives away” and “will not stand in the judgment” (Psalm 1:4-5).
PUT OFF & PUT ON // VERSES 20-24
You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do. The fact that Paul says no longer means that we used to live according to those descriptions. We were once futile in our thinking, darkened in our understanding, ignorant of God with hardened and calloused hearts that were greedy for impurity. We were on the same broad and easy road to destruction. Yet something happened to alter our course, to raise us from death to life: we learned Christ! The truth of the gospel pierced through our dark ignorance and calloused hearts, exposing our love of sin and hatred of God, and bringing us into His light and “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Contrary to the pattern of the world, you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.
We have already studied many truths about and in Jesus so far in the letter of Ephesians. Christ has chosen us, purchased our adoption, forgiven us, sealed us with His Spirit, resurrected us, seated us with Him, united us to one another, and empowered us to love and serve one another. What particular truth of Jesus does Paul want us to understand now? He tells us three things: 1) put off your old self, 2) be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and 3) put on the new self.
The first and third points are purposely mirroring one another, to do one necessarily means doing the other. We cannot put off the old self without also putting on the new self, and we cannot put on the new self without also putting off the old self. We should also note that Paul’s descriptions of these two actions should call to mind 2:1-10. As he says that our old self belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, we should remember that we “once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:2-3). And as he says that our new self is created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness, we should remember that we have been made “alive together with Christ… For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:5, 10).
Indeed, these two commands can mean nothing to us until we are rooted in the work that Christ has already done. It is useless to attempt putting off the old self if you have never been raised to life in Christ. Our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We were once dead, but now we live. Amen! To God alone be the glory! These commands, therefore, are not attempts to earn our salvation; rather, they are commands to act saved. Telling us to put on our new self and put off our old self is like telling the resurrected Lazarus to stop hanging out in his former tomb or to stop trying not to breath. We are no longer dead in sin; therefore, we put off our ways of death and put on our garments of life. In fact, Paul’s usage of clothing imagery here is fitting because each day we must put on new clothing and each night we must take them off. In the same way, our salvation is once for all time, yet each day we must put on our new self as we put on a fresh set of clothing. Each day we must consciously choose not to walk as the Gentiles do but instead to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
Interestingly, this distinction between our old and new selves and the path of the world and of Jesus does not negate our love and compassion toward the lost and dying. The Greek word for Gentiles in verse 17 is ethos, which is the same word used by Jesus in the Great Commission when He told us to make disciples of all nations. These two ideas, therefore, must not be contradictory. We are called to disciple the nations, while also not living as they live. Indeed, our refusal to submit to their futility is the first step of showing them the truth of the gospel. No one will reach the world for Christ by becoming like the world. Of course, the approach of Paul’s sermons differed at Athens from ones in synagogues, but the message and purpose remained the same. To the Athenians, Paul was willing to quote their own poets, but he did not act like a fellow Stoic or Epicurean in order to be accepted. Likewise, Jesus was accused of being friend of sinners and tax collectors, yet they came to Him broken by the guilt of their sins and seeing that He could give them forgiveness. We too cannot become like the world in order to save the world. Rather, we must let our presence and refusal to approve of their sins expose “the unfruitful works of darkness” (5:11) and be ready to call them to repentance, hope, and forgiveness in Christ.
Finally, the link between putting off the old self and putting on the new self is being renewed in the spirit of your minds. Again we find a similar statement in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Our minds, therefore, must be renewed and transformed. We must turn away from vain and futile things and turn toward Christ. In Romans 8:5-7 describes this mental battle:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
We must actively strive to set our minds upon the Spirit and upon Christ. If we would no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds, we must “seek the LORD while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:6). We must set our “minds on things above, not on things that are of earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3). We must set our gaze upon our Treasure that cannot rust, that cannot be stolen, that cannot be eaten by moths. And let us extend the above-the-sun beauty of the gospel to those who still walk in the futility that we once walked.
 Indeed, we could call this a soft bigotry of low expectations that we place upon people. God Himself, although knowing that we cannot save ourselves, still calls us higher and to take on more and more responsibilities, and we become better because of it. A superb example is the Second Commandment, which required a mostly literate people to put away their carved images of gods and to know the true God through His written Word. While this may seem to be unfair, the ultimate result was the world’s first truly literate society. Parenting requires a similar form of ‘tough love’ because for the child’s proper formation, they must be given work that continuously just beyond their comfort zone.
 Trueman is, of course, a historian, and a wise historian can often be taken for a prophet.