Ephesians 4:17-24 – The old pagan life contrasted with the new Christian life

Ephesians 4:17-24.





In the first half of ch.4 which we looked at over three Sundays we focused on the unity of the church – that fact that we must be united to Christ and to each other. We are called to be ‘one people’ and Paul argues that we must cultivate unity. However, Christians are not only called to be united but are also called to be holy.


In these following verses Paul is going to deal with the purity of the church. He does this by contrasting the old pagan life with the new Christian life. He is going to make the point that a changed spiritual nature demands a changed behaviour. Christians have become different people therefore they must behaviour differently.


Paul is concerned that the Ephesians grasp what they were as Pagans and what they are now as Christians and he does this by describing first the old life and then the new.


  1. OLD LIFE.


As Paul describes the pagan life he is doing so in general terms – not all the gentiles [as he calls them] were / or are / as bad as he describes.


We need to remember the circumstances of the Church to whom Paul is writing. Ephesus was a leading commercial and cultural centre of the Roman Empire. It was the location of the great pagan Temple of Artimus [Diana], one of the seven wonders of the world. It was a city renown for sexual immorality. Some historians described it as the most bedauched city in Asia Minor. All kinds of sexual perversion were common place. Artimus herself was a sex goddess – she was served by thousands of temple prostitutes, eunuchs, singers, dancers, priests and priestesses. The Greek philosopher, Herculitus, [5thC BC.], himself a pagan, describes Ephesus as the darkness of vileness. The morals were lower than animals and the inhabitants of Ephesus were fit only to be drowned.


It was out of this society that many of the Ephesian Christians had come – they had at one time been participants in the Temple worship etc.


It is no wonder that Paul says to them :

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,


In our Western society, in spite of the turn away from the Church, we are still heavily influenced by the Christian faith. Many of our laws were originally based on Christian foundations. Sadly we are moving away from these foundation in too many instances.


Paul now goes on to describe the characteristics of this old pagan life. Bear in mind that he is generalising and describing the extremes of this condition.


  1. a) Being without God affects the mind.


that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them


futile thinking – We tend to think of the effects of sin in terms of morality – and of course sin has affected our behaviour – but sin has also affected the mind – it has affected our abilities to think spiritually.

We are not for one minute saying that a person who in an unbeliever is stupid and unintelligent. That is clearly not true. There are many non-Christians who are brilliant academics.


There is an inherent inability to think spiritually until a person has been born again by the Spirit of God. The first step in spiritual thinking is agreeing with God about our sinfulness and repenting and asking his forgiveness.

The unbeliever plans and resolves everything on the basis of his or her own thinking or based on the thinking of another person.


This is futile in terms of spiritual life and eternity. Solomon, the richest and wisest man of the ancient world [and probably of the modern world] – he experienced every worldly advantage and pleasure and yet concluded that in the final analysis it was futile.

Ecclesiastes 1:7-9 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 3:9

9 What does the worker gain from his toil? (NIV)

Ecclesiastes 2:11 11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (NIV)


Darkened understanding – Mankind in his fallen sinful state has an inability to know and comprehend the things of God.

Paul says to Timothy regarding the ungodly: 2 Timothy 3:7 7 always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. (NIV)


Houlden [in Stott p.177] ‘Pagan immorality is seen as wilful and culpable …, the result of their deliberate refusal of the moral light available to them in their own thought and conscience.’


In a parallel passage to this one, Romans 1, Paul points out that through creation and conscience people have opportunity to know God but wilfully surpress the truth.


Paul explains that the reason for this lack of understanding and ignorance is the hardness of people’s hearts.


  1. b) Attitudes – stubborn, hard hearts.


18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.


The hardening that is referred to is a calcification, often used to refer to the hardness that forms around bones and become harder than the bones themselves. Sin has a petrifying [hardening] effect – a person who continually chooses to sin and to ignore God becomes continually hardened and paralysed to spiritual truth and insensitive to the things of God.


The Bible makes it clear that it is possible to dull the conscience .. 1 Timothy 4:2 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. (NIV)


Every one has a conscience – a sense of right and wrong – a sense of guilt and shame. The more we ignore our consciences and ignore the restraints of society the more depraved we will become.


ILLUS.: If we had asked most Yugoslavs 10 years ago if they could kill, rape and torture most would have said NO , yet we know that it has happened.

WHY? Consciences have been dulled and legal restraints removed. As a consequence many have become debased in their behaviour.


  1. c) Behaviour – degenerate acts.


This is what Paul describes in v.19 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.


The word ‘sensuality’ carries with it the idea of total licentiousness, the absence of all moral restraint, especially in the area of sexual sins.

Certain practices and behaviours which were once hidden are now excused and openly indulged in. Indecency runs wild and society is desensitised to the shamefulness of sin.


ILLUS.: HOW MANY STARS – RICH AND FAMOUS – have , with the new found wealth and the element of freedom that brings, indulged their desired to the point where their desires have ruined their lives or even been the cause of their death.


But we need to look to ourselves – we too have become desensitised to how far our society has slipped down the moral ladder. Under the cloak of personal freedom and tolerance we see increased selfishness – on a large scale companies restructuring for the selfish greed of the shareholders and bosses and to the detriment of the workers – it might be prudent in some cases but has it not gone too far. Society is becoming less and less caring.


In the area of morality, under the guise of freedom of expression, there has been a huge increase in the sex industry – pornographic material in books , magazines and movies is now considered normal and to object to such things is frowned upon as an infringement of anthers rights.


BUT were does it lead to – the majority of 16 years old are sexuality active; 17 school girls become pregnant in England every day; 400 abortions each day in the UK; the number of marriages has halved in the last 10 years and of those that do marry 5/10 end in divorce. And as a consequence we are ending up with a nation of psychologically and emotionally damaged people.


When a person determines to think his own way, do his own thing, and pursue his own destiny, he cuts himself off from God.


Hardness of heart lead first to darkness of mind, them to deadness of soul under the judgement of God and finally to recklessness of life. Having lost all sensitivity people lose all self-control.


When people continually reject God’s offer of salvation and his love he ultimately rejects them.


Romans 1:22-30 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is for ever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; (NIV)


Let me remind you again that Paul is describing the extremes of moral decadence. That some have not reached these extremes is due to the protective shield of God’s common grace that he gives to the righteous and the unrighteous and the preserving influence of His Spirit and His Church.

  1. NEW LIFE.


Paul now moves on to remind the Ephesians Christians of the new life that they have in Christ.


  1. a) Renewed mind.


Whereas before their minds were dark, now their minds have been renewed – they know Christ. They know Christ because they have heard the Truth.


Hearing the Truth.

21 Surely you heard [of] him – the ‘of’ would be better left out. Paul is making the point that they didn’t simply hear about Christ – rather they hear his voice and responded to him. He is talking about their salvation – when Christ called them they responded and committed their lives to him. This is the first step to new life.


Learning the Truth.

There need to be the new life received but there also need to be on going learning. The problem with some Christians is that they are not learning and consequently the are not growing.


What about you? Are you growing as a Christian? Is this Sunday service the only spiritual input you have for the week? If it is then you will not be growing!! We read in Acts that the early church met together daily in the Temple and in their homes. If you are not having fellowship and study with other Christians during the week then you are not growing!!


For the Church to be learning it not only needs good teachers it also needs good learners – disciples!


Knowing the Truth.


As Christians we have come to know Christ but we must continue to know him. It is a relationship and like a marriage relationship it needs to grow if it is to be healthy.


Ultimately Jesus himself is the teacher – people are the agents through whom he teachers – he is the teacher and he is the subject of the teaching – we are learning to know him [ not just an academic knowing but a personal knowing] – he is also the environment in which we are taught – Paul’s favourite phrase ‘in Christ’.


  1. b) Renewed Character.


Ephesians 4:22-24 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (NIV)

In these verses the NIV is telling us that we need to get rid of the old and put on the new BUT the parallel passage in Col. 3 read as follows.


Colossians 3:9-10 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (NIV)


This would be supported by the whole context of Ephesians – in ch. 1-3 Paul has explained that they have been brought from the old life to the new. They have received salvation. They are now to live in the light of the new life they have already received.


Because our minds have been renewed – we have been given a new attitude – made new in the attitude of your minds – we have been made new.


Paul gives us a picture of the old and the new – the old was corrupt, in the process of degenerating, on its way to ruin and distruction; The new has been freshly created after the likeness of God.


Christians have become and are still becoming. If it is true that heathen degradation is due to the futility of their minds THEN Christian righteousness depends on the constant renewing of our minds.

Paul is not suggesting that we can bring about our own righteousness – that is as ridiculous as suggesting the a person can give birth to himself – conversion is God’s work, our part is repentance (which is what we do by his grace).


God is in the process of renewing us – on the inside in the attitude of our minds and also on the outside – our actions and behaviour.






  1. c) Renewed Behaviour.


The reason for putting off the old and putting on the new is so that we can be like God in true righteousness and holiness.


A difficult area to reconcile is why do some so-called pagans who openly reject God and Jesus and anything to do with religion often live more honest, better lives than some who claim to be Christian. They have higher moral standards; they do more good works and are often simply nicer people to be with than some Christians.


Let’s look at a diagram which I hope will go some way to explaining the situation.


Our relationship with God is not dependent on our moral good works. All who are Christians have been transplanted there from the pagan world – by nature we are all in the pagan world. When we are transplanted we are on different levels of human morality.

Those on the pagan side – even high up the moral scale are still cut off from God and their basic direction of life is away from God.

The Christian’s direction – even low down on the moral scale – is still basically towards God.


What Paul is commanding us to do in this passage is to grow in righteousness and holiness so that our claim to be Christian is matched by our behaviour.


Sadly some Christians appear to be more pagan than the pagans {pagan – not a savage in the jungle – but someone who rejects God} – There is a view that there are three classes of people in relation to God [1] non-Christians [2] carnal Christians [3] Christians — NO! you are either a Christian or you are not, there is no in between category. BUT there are some Christians who live in a carnal way.


ILLUS.: Restaurant – steak is leathery [leather like] it is not leather but it is like leather.     My shoes are leather or leather.


In a similar way with Christians – Paul is saying ‘You are not a pagan so therefore don’t do the things that pagans do!







we need to grasp in terms of Christian holiness.

I can’t put it better than John Stott :-

_[These two doctrines] are like two roots from which holiness sprouts and grows. First we have experienced a new creation, and secondly, in consequence, we have received a new mind which is constantly being renewed. Moreover, the tow are organically related to one another. It is our new creation that has given us a new mind; and it is our new mind which understands our new creation and its implication. [Stott p.183]


We need a new mind to understand our new creation but in order to have a new mind we need to be recreated.


God has give Christians a new life and a new mind to understand spiritual things – our responsibility, with his help, it to live holy and godly lives in this present age.

A new life demands a new lifestyle – godly actions and godly behaviour.


Next time we will look at the implications of this new life – v.25 begins therefore and continues to expand on some of the practical out workings of the new life in Christ.
































































































EPHESIANS 4:17 – 24.






                        being without God affects:

            Mind       – futile thinking

                        – darkened understanding

                        – inward ignorance


            Attitudes      – stubborn, hard hearts


            Behaviour – degraded acts 




                        knowing Christ should lead to:


            Renewed mind – hearing the Truth

                                          – learning the Truth

                                          – knowing the Truth


            Renewed character  – having put off…

                                                – having put on …


            Renewed behaviour – to be like God

                                                – to be righteous

                                                – to be holy


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