Escape from Futility
This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard him and have been taught in him, just as truth is in Jesus.
We begin this morning a series of eleven messages based on Paul's letter to the Ephesians, 4:17 through 5:20. There are two reasons that I felt constrained to preach from this portion of Scripture.
Two Reasons for This Series
One is that many of us have sensed the need to ponder the significance of our faith in the area of personal relationships and related practical matters. Do we treat each other the way Christians should?
The other reason is that I am deeply convinced that the upshot of the 17 messages on hope from last spring and summer should be a new way of life in all its most ordinary parts. That's what this portion of Scripture is about. The sermons will have titles like, "Speak Truth with Your Neighbor," "A Small Place for Anger," "Don't Steal, Work and Give," "Make Your Mouth a Means of Grace," "Be Kind to One Another," and so on.
What About Larger Social and Global Issues?
I think it would be a fair question if someone were to ask, "Why do you focus our attention on such small, personal matters when there are large social and global issues to be concerned about? What about racial unrest in South Africa, and religious oppression in Russia and eastern Europe, and war in the Middle East, and the export of terrorism, and the threat of AIDS, and the almost forgotten hunger and refugee problems, and the elections on Tuesday?
My answer would not be antagonistic, because I really believe that the Christian message of salvation in Christ does have something to say about every problem the world faces. I would simply say two things:
1. The More Common Application in the New Testament
When you read the New Testament, what you find is that by and large (though not exclusively: cf., e.g., Romans 13:1–7) God inspired the writers to apply the great doctrinal truths of his Word to the most ordinary personal matters and daily relationships of family and work and neighbors.
I got a good letter from one of our members this week in which he said, "Theology is not optional or a toy. It is intensely practical. My view of God will determine how I live every day. It will determine how I respond when my computer crashes." That's absolutely right, and biblical preaching will reflect this emphasis.
2. The Humbling Scrutiny of the Word
The other thing I would say is that the reason for this personal focus in the New Testament is probably because on the one hand it is fairly easy to be a crusader for a distant cause, say in South Africa or Central America, and yet at the same time be a very self-exalting, corrupt, and God-belittling person. But on the other hand it is very hard to endure the personal, practical scrutiny of New Testament commands about our eating habits and sexual habits and the way we use our tongue and our money—it's hard for us to stand under this kind of moral searchlight and not be humbled by the corruption of our hearts and feel the need for a deep work of renovation in our very nature.
And wouldn't you agree that the message of Scripture is that what the world needs most—from South Africa to Central America and from Libyan terrorism to Russian oppression—is the supernatural, spiritual renovation of human hearts? For Jesus said in Matthew 15:19, "Out of the heart come evil thoughts," thoughts like atheistic oppressions, and racial degradation, and calculated terrorism—"out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander." And therefore the world is full of futility, because hard and darkened hearts have not been renovated. And so that is where our very practical text begins today.
A Penetrating Analysis of the Human Heart's Futility
It begins with a very penetrating analysis of the hardness and darkness and ignorance and corruption and futility of the human heart. Why does he do this? Because it's so important that the root of our problem be recognized. There is no point in going on in this text and telling people how to manage their anger (4:26) and their money (4:28) and their sexuality (5:3) and their time (5:16) and their tongue (4:29) if you don't help them to know and heal the disease that turns all these things into futility.
If we want to escape from futility in the practical affairs and relationships of our daily lives, we have to first of all become deep people—people who look deeply within ourselves for the cause of our futility, and who don't settle for quick fixes and superficial, upbeat attitude changes. We don't want the surgeon to keep back anything! Tell us everything you found, God! We want to be healed. We want to be free from the very root of futility.
So in 4:17–19 we get the surgeon's report on the human heart.
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live [literally: 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 licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness.
(* NOTE: these readers were once among this number; in fact, 2:3 says we were ALL among this number; in other words, apart from the renovation that Christ brings, what we read here is the universal condition of the human heart)
This is what God sees when he looks into the human heart. Until we see this clearly and agree that this is what we are by nature, we probably will be healed very lightly and very superficially, and the disease will break out more easily, and we will wonder why our external clean up operations so consistently fail. We haven't seen the real disease and haven't severed the root of our futility.
Six Levels of Evil in the Heart
As I have meditated on these three verses I have seen six levels of evil in my own heart that stand in opposition to Christ and the work he is doing.
First, the deepest problem is hardness (v. 18 at the end): "due to their hardness of heart." My deepest problem in life is that apart from the free and sovereign grace of God my heart is hardened against God. I am like a stone toward all that is spiritual. It does not move me, attract me, delight me. This is a far deeper problem than ignorance. It is the cause of ignorance, and the guilt of ignorance.
Do you see this in the last two phrases of verse 18? "The ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." The hardness is deeper than ignorance. And therefore my ignorance of spiritual things is not innocent. It is evil. It is blameworthy, because it comes not from lack of truth or evidence, but from a deep hardness in my heart against God. That is the first and deepest problem that the surgeon shows me about myself and why my life is so futile.
Second, there is in me a deep darkness that swallows up my understanding, and keeps me from seeing the glory of the gospel or the excellency of Christ (v. 18 at the very beginning): "they are darkened in their understanding." Notice 5:8: "Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of the light." Before the Lord shined in my heart, I was darkness (2 Corinthians 4:4–6). There was no light in me. And Jesus said in John 3:20 that I would not come to the light because I hated the light. And this is true whether I am a college professor or an illiterate native.
3. Deep Ignorance
Third, the result of this darkness is a deep ignorance of reality (v. 18): "alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them." I say it is a DEEP ignorance, for there is a superficial knowledge in the darkened mind of man. Apart from spiritual light I can know ten thousand things, but I can't know the true meaning of anything—not one thing. Because to know the meaning of a thing is to know why it exists. But Colossians 1:16 says, "All things were created through Christ and for Christ." So until I know in my heart that every molecule in this universe exists for the sake of Jesus Christ, I don't know the final meaning of anything. I misunderstand everything, until the darkness of my mind is taken away.
Fourth, the hardness and darkness and ignorance of my heart results in licentiousness. Verse 19: "They have become callous [which is the same as 'hard'] and have given themselves up to licentiousness." The sense of the passage seems to be that when a person is ignorant of the true meaning of things, and the true values of life as God sees them, that person will make his goal in life something other than God. It may be the gratification of his body in sex or drink or drugs or food. Or it may be the gratification of his ego with more refined intellectual and cultural pursuits. Anything but God, and everything apart from God. The heart that is hard and dark and ignorant of God will also be a licentious and covetous heart.
Fifth, inevitably the hardness and darkness and ignorance and licentiousness spill over into practices of uncleanness. Notice how verse 19 ends: "greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness." Literally, their covetousness drives them to pursue practices that in God's eyes are impure.
So we have finally reached the level of outward behavior, or what verse 17 calls "walking" or "living"—"don't walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds." In other words, Escape from futility! Live a different way. Walk a different path.
But now that we have read the surgeon's report in verses 17, 18, and 19, we know that the disease is massive. The cancer of hardness and darkness and ignorance and licentiousness has spread everywhere. And we will never be healed, we will never escape from futility by means of a psychological quick fix or a superficial, up-beat seminar on how to change our attitude. That's man's way, not God's way.
6. Alienated from the Life of God
God has a way. But that leads to the sixth level of evil in my disease that I haven't mentioned yet. Verse 18 says I am "alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in me, due to my hardness of heart." Hardness and darkness and ignorance and licentiousness and the practice of uncleanness cut me off from the one thing that could save me—the "life of God," and leave me dead (2:1, 5).
What Is the Escape from Futility?
But even though there is no man or woman or book or seminar or program that can save me from the disease and futility of my own deep depravity, God can. It IS possible not to live in futility. That's what Paul assumes when he says in verse 17: "Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds." There is an escape from futility!
What is it? He begins his answer in verses 20–21. The reason, he says, that you must not follow the Gentiles in futility is that, "You did not so learn Christ [then he mentions what he is assuming!], assuming that your have heard of him [literally: not 'heard OF' but 'heard': assuming you have heard him] and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus."
What is the escape from futility this morning? It is hearing the voice of Jesus and being taught by him (verse 21). If you have heard him and if you have been taught by him, you need not and you must not walk in futility. Jesus said, "The hour is coming, AND NOW IS, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live" (John 5:25). No longer alienated from the life of God. Jesus Christ has spoken this morning in the truth of his Word. He has diagnosed our disease, and now he gives himself as a cure and as a teacher to everyone who hears his voice and becomes his pupil.
On another occasion he said, "My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life" (John 10:16). If you hear the voice of Jesus this morning, and not just my voice, and if you follow him (like a sheep follows a shepherd), then you will no longer be alienated from the life of God. Nothing will be futile for you any more. He will make you live forever in the presence of God and every detail of your ordinary life will have meaning in him.
The text ends with these great words: "The truth is in Jesus." And Jesus said, "The truth will make you free." Free from hardness and darkness and ignorance and licentiousness and uncleanness and alienation. The truth shall set you free from futility. And the truth is in Jesus. The door to his hospital and to his school is open this morning. And I urge you in his name, become his trusting patient and become his eager pupil.
© Desiring God Foundation. Distribution Guidelines
Share the Joy! You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org