Put off Depravity; Put on the Likeness of God (Ephesians 4:17-24)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
I don’t remember the details exactly. Let’s just say, a particular Moeller boy, probably around the age of three, had carelessly broken one of his mom’s “pretties,” and then had hidden the evidence under his bed. (In hindsight, it was not exactly the brightest strategy, considering it was his Mom who cleaned his room; but then you can’t expect a three-year-old to come up with really brilliant plans, no matter how precocious he may be.)
Anyway, I do remember his Mom finding something destroyed that should not have been, and asking him if he knew anything about its mangled state. From the look on his face, his Mom knew he did. She also was pretty sure she knew who it was who had done the damage and the hiding! Just to be certain, however, she stated simply and clearly: “You broke it and then tried to hide it.”
That did it. Tears flowed. His hands went up to his ears. His mouth opened and out came these fascinating words: “Don’t tell me that!”
What an interesting reaction! Viewing the mangled “pretty” had troubled the boy. Having that youthful indiscretion discovered certainly bothered him. But what really hurt was having to hear with his own ears that he was the one who had broken it! His three-year-old solution? Cover his ears!
What had happened? The Law of God had done its work. Yes, even upon one so small! The Apostle Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the Law… Apart from the Law, sin lies dead” (7:7-8).
In John 16:8, Jesus tells us this exposing of sin by the Law is actually a work of the Holy Spirit. “When He comes, He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
What this means is that just by his mother stating what was true—that the boy had done something he should not have done (in this case, broken the Seventh Commandment by not maintaining and protecting someone else’s property)—the Holy Spirit convicted the boy of his sin as surely as the words of the prophet Nathan convicted David of his sins with Bathsheba.
Being so confronted, David repented. Without such a confrontation, David would’ve remained dead in his sins. That is, David’s adultery and his murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah would not have caused David to repent. In fact, without Nathan bluntly stating the obvious, David would’ve kept on living his life—probably in much the same way as I—I mean “the boy”—would have continued to live with that broken knick-knack tucked away under the bed!
But this reaction to the Law of God is not unique, is it? Each of us, at one time or another, has done the very same thing. In fact, it just may be that the Church at large itself is currently in the process of lifting up its hands collectively to stop its ears and screaming out to its pastors: “Don’t tell me that!”
What do I mean? Well, it seems that there is a general uprising in the Church against any preaching, teaching, and music which would involve the Holy Spirit, through God’s Word, convicting hearts of sin, and consequently, causing guilt. It seems that what modern Christian ears want to hear, what Christian minds want to contemplate, what Christian emotions want to feel, is not guilt but joy!
What Christian could be against such a longing? After all, joy is a fruit of the Spirit as noted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23). Certainly if given the choice between guilt and joy, it would be a no-brainer: Joy would win out every time!
But is the joy about which Paul writes simply a surging emotion—no matter what its cause or reason? More to the point: Is the joy which is a gift of the Holy Spirit the result of simply overlooking, denying, or ignoring sin? That is, of shoving sin under our beds, so to speak, and trying to forget about it?
To go at this question in another way: Should this mother have, upon finding the mangled knick knack, simply ignored it and rejoiced that her son had so much energy? “Boys will be boys, after all.” Should the boy have, upon hearing that he had broken his Mom’s “pretty,” simply denied the fact that he had done it, and rejoiced that no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? Should David have, upon hearing that he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband, Uriah, simply rejoiced that he was king, and therefore he could do whatever he wanted and no one would dare question him? If not, why?
Well, the joy of the Christian is not simply some common type of joy like we experience when we hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth or receive a promotion at work. It is a joy that flows from the relief of guilt experienced by a three-year-old boy who’s broken one of his Mom’s favorite treasures. It is the joy that can only follow the confession of sin and the conviction that sin has been forgiven because Christ died on the cross for that sin.
So David, after being confronted by Nathan, does not speak of common joy, but of the joy of salvation being returned to him, knowing that his sins had been forgiven: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy Presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uphold me with Thy free spirit.”
So if Christian joy is tied so closely to guilt, why the running away from guilt? Has the Church simply come to the point of wanting to skip the “guilt” part of life and go right to the joy? Has the Church discovered that it is easier, more peaceful, and more appealing, to shun guilt and to promote joy?
You may be thinking: “Well, isn’t that what the Church—of all institutions in society—should do? Shouldn’t the Church simply welcome, with open arms, anyone and everyone, regardless of how they live? After all, didn’t Jesus eat with tax collectors and prostitutes? Who are we then to condemn anyone? Who are we to make anyone feel guilt? Shouldn’t the Christian life be a life of joy based upon not having to worry about who we are, and what we are doing?”
The only problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that Jesus Himself frequently spoke about sin and guilt. In fact, Jesus’ first public sermon was this: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News.”
The importance of repentance in a Christian’s life led Martin Luther to assert in his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He meant that the whole life of the believers should be one of repentance.”
Now what’s that mean? How can the entire life of the Christian be one of repentance? Doesn’t that mean the entire life of a Christian should be one of guilt?
No, it does not. It does mean, however, that the Christian life should be real. The Christian, of all people, should realize that he is still confronted by sin! Being confronted by sin, the Christian himself should not shy away from its existence, but admit, that yes, sin does exist and he is, indeed, sinful. Repentance is therefore not a once-in-a-while type of situation, but a Christian’s state of being.
Yes, a Christian, through faith in Jesus Christ, has been redeemed by Christ and is now considered to be justified before the Father in heaven. The Christian, through the Word of God and the Sacraments, has received and continues to receive the Holy Spirit, who works within the Christian to produce His fruits, one of which is joy. The Christian’s sin, however, remains. It remains to bother, to haunt, to trouble, to perturb, and ultimately to kill. Until Christ’s return, a Christian’s joy is always tempered by the ongoing reality of sin—both those sins we actually commit and the sin that permeates us from conception to natural death.
As long as the Christian realizes this, spiritually he is in a “good place”, as people say. When a Christian ignores or runs away from the fact that sin is still a daily part of his life, trouble begins. He begins to believe that his heavenly Father loves him for the good things he does, or worse yet, that God doesn’t care what he does. In effect, saying to any preaching of the Law: “Don’t tell me that!”
Unfortunately, the Christian Church nowadays, in its attempt to appeal to the masses, seems to be encouraging this very type of pseudo-Christian life by making itself a guilt-free zone. To accomplish this makeover, certain aspects of Christian life are being jettisoned. Sermons which would seek to establish the guilt of sin have to go. Hymns and songs which speak of such guilt have to go. Confession and absolution? Gone. The Law of God … it must not be mentioned!
Well, that is not completely true. The Law of God certainly is mentioned in the Church nowadays, but only as a standard. Put in another way, the Law of God is not used to make anyone feel guilty, to strike fear and terror in their heart, but simply to give Christians a goal to attain or measure progress in sanctification.
Unfortunately, this has led many Christians to think they don’t really need to worry about the Ten Commandments anymore. Haven’t Christians been freed from the Law? Can’t Christians simply live the way they want to live, free from the fear of doing something that our heavenly Father wouldn’t like? Can’t Christians live lives of joy, regardless of how they live from day to day?”
That’s the way the world thinks. That’s the way our Old Adam wants us to think. But Paul won’t let us get by with it. In our text, he writes: “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 the hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Paul contrasts this pagan worldview with the holy life expected of a Christian: “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 way of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and 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.”
There is a clear-cut, irreconcilable difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate person. Still, the truth is, each of us is a little of both. We are at the same time sinner and saint. The Christian created in Baptism to be like God in true righteousness and holiness is given the strength to fight sin and the old Adam. Still, this has not changed the corrupt old man that resides within each of us.
This is a very sobering thought. The old man is constantly corrupting himself. The lusts and desires of the old man are so dangerous to Christians because they are so deceitful. They seem to promise happiness, joy, and life, while in reality, they ruin a person that follows their guidance—both in body and spirit—until he is lost forever.
There is only one remedy to this darkness, to this depravity, and that’s the Christian solution that was taught to the Ephesians: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through sinful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.”
This is not easy. A life of repentance requires diligence and persistence. But more than that, it requires the work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts of sin through the Word of Law and who awakens faith and a resolve to do good by the Gospel. Putting off the old man, being renewed in the spirit of the mind, and putting on the new man are a continuous, steady process. We must be daily renewed by the Holy Spirit through God’s means of grace, lest the old sinful nature once more gain the upper hand.
This is why Luther directs us to our Baptism, where the Holy Spirit works faith and creates in us new life with the power to overcome sin. “Our Baptism indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
By Baptism we have been made to share in Christ’s death and resurrection. As He has buried our sin, so we, too, can and must daily overcome and bury it. And as He is risen from the dead and lives, so we, too, can and must daily live a new life in Him. Every time we recall the Triune Name into which we were baptized, in church or by ourselves, we recall, claim, and confess before heaven, earth, and hell all the blessings that God has given us in our Baptism.
And so, dear Baptized, I send you home today with this exhortation: Put off depravity; put on the likeness of God. Put off your old self with its deceitful desires and put on your new self created in true righteousness and holiness. Repent and believe. You are forgiven of all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.