Don’t Try Harder – Learn Christ (Ephesians 4:17-5:2)


We’re twenty-five days into the New Year, which means that we’re officially off the tracks in terms of New Years resolutions. Isn’t that right? Even if you don’t believe in New Years resolutions, most of us kind of thought we would change something on January 1. We would eat better. We would work out more. We would stop smoking. But studies show that by now, most of us have pretty much abandoned the resolutions we had made. We just can’t change like we want to.

I know that most of you don’t make resolutions, because you found out long ago that they don’t work. But I wonder if you can relate to the words of a song I heard on CBC Radio 2 just a few weeks ago. It’s a song by Mother Mother:

Try to change..
I try to change..
I make a list of all the ways to change my ways.
But I stay the same…
In a decadent age I try to change
all my decadent ways but I just can’t help but
stay the same…
Carry a cane.
I carry a cane.
’cause I tried to change
and I tried too hard
so I hurt my leg and well, overall
I just stayed the same.
Now I carry a cane.

I heard that song and thought, “Now that’s a song I can relate to!” We try to change, but the harder we try, the more we find that we just stay the same. We can even hurt ourselves in our efforts to change. The conclusion of the song is, “It’s safe to say – don’t change.”

If you’re frustrated with your efforts to change, and yet you still have some hopes buried somewhere that you can change, then this morning is for you. Paul is writing to a group of people who believe in Jesus Christ, explaining how change can happen. But the way that it happens is completely different than what we think. It’s not a matter of setting new goals or trying harder. It’s far different from that. But change is possible. So let’s look at who we can become, and how it can happen.

We Can Change

The first thing we need to do is to contradict the message of the song that I just told you about. The song concludes, “Don’t change.” The message is that change is impossible, so accept yourself the way that you are. That’s the message of many in our society today, by the way: that we should accept ourselves the way we are. And it seems to make sense in one way: it’s hard to see the alternative because our efforts to change fail more often than they succeed. But it’s also a pretty depressing message. If you are in a difficult marriage, you don’t want to be told, “Get used to it. It’s not going to get better.” If you easily get angry, often lie, or use sarcasm that ruins relationships, being told "Don't change" isn't very helpful.

You need to understand that change is possible. Paul is writing to people who are not exactly naive or inexperienced in terms of sin. In verse 22 he talks about their former manner of life, and as we’re going to see, they didn’t used to be Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They were non-Jews living in a city full of opportunities for various sins. But Paul says in verses 22 to 24 that these believers in Jesus Christ are able to take that old way of life off, and put a new way of life on, just like you’d change clothes. And in verses 25 and on he gives us a picture of what is now possible:

  • honesty (4:25) – being able to speak the truth without fudging out of fear or manipulation
  • a long fuse (4:26) – the ability to overcome the anger that some of us struggle with, that causes us to blow up and hurt people around us
  • industry (4:28-29) – complete honesty and integrity in how we conduct our work lives, so that nobody could ever call us greedy or lazy
  • generosity (4:28) – not only earning money for ourselves, but also sharing what we make with others
  • an ability to speak in a way that helps others (4:29) – being able to speak in a way that builds others up and that fits the occasion, and that gives grace to those who hear us
  • able to overcome hurts (4:31-32) – able to forgive those who have hurt us, rather than responding with bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice

How would you like this to be true in your life? Whatever your flaws and sins are now, how much would you like people to say about you that you are a person of honesty and self-control? That you are a hard worker who is unquestionably generous? That when you speak, your words are always appropriate and always helpful? That you never hold a grudge, but overcome the hurts that come your way?

Paul says that this is possible. In fact, it’s more than possible: it’s commanded. The Bible never commands something that it doesn’t make possible. Paul says that it is possible for every single person present here this morning to become a person who is able to carry out the commands listed here in verses 25 and on. In fact, it’s not only possible, but it’s supposed to characterize us as a church. When people think of Richview, they should be thinking about the qualities that Paul has just listed. Talk about challenging!

Change is possible. But before we can people who are honest, long-tempered, hard-working, generous, gracious, and forgiving, we need to take an honest look at the human condition to see what’s keeping us from being like this.

We Can Change – But Our Natures are Corrupt

eBay is an online auction site that is founded on five values. The first value is, “We believe people are basically good.” If you’ve been stiffed on eBay, you may disagree with this value. But this is a popular view. Many today think that people are basically good, and that the problem is poverty or lack of education. But at the core, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with human nature.

Beatrice Webb was one of the architects of the modern British welfare system. She and her husband founded the London School of Economics. She was a socialist, activist, and reformer. In 1925, she went back and read her old diaries. She wrote:

In my diary, 1890, I wrote, ‘I have staked all on the essential goodness of human nature.’ But now 35 years later I realize how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts in us, and how little they seem to change, like greed for wealth and power. And how mere social machinery will never change that. We must ask better things of human nature, but will we get a response? No amount of knowledge or science has been of any avail, and unless we curb the bad impulse, how will we get better social institutions?

She’s saying she used to believe in the essential goodness of human nature. But she came to recognize that there’s something so wrong with us that leads to corruption that is consistent across history that nothing seems to change. How do you explain this?

Well, Paul explains it for us. The problem with us is that we are not fundamentally good. As long as you think that it’s a matter of trying harder or breaking bad habits, you’ll never really deal with the problem. Paul tells us what the problem really is in verses 17-19:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 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. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

This is going to seem harsh. The Greeks of that day prided themselves on their wisdom. People still read their literature and their philosophy. But Paul sees things differently. What he writes of the Gentiles is true today. You could substitute “Canadians” for Gentiles. “You must no longer live as the Canadians do…” Paul describes this way of life in three ways:

  • One: People’s thinking becomes distorted (4:17-18) – When you reject God, then you’ve disconnected your thinking from reality. Your thinking becomes distorted. Having lost touch with reality, you end up living for trivialities and side issues. When you lose track of the God who is ultimate, you end up in the dark, out of touch with reality. You become blind to the true purpose of life and incapable of apprehending truth.
  • Two: People become disconnected to God, who is the source of life, due to their willful rejection of him (4:18) – Paul says that people are alienated from the life of God, because they’re ignorant and have hard hearts. At some level, he says, people know about God, but they have rejected what they know to be true. They have hardened their hearts. Because they have rejected God, they are disconnected from the life that is found in God.
  • Three: They become morally desensitized, which leads to immorality and and endless pursuit of more (4:19) – As a result of the distorted thinking and the rejection of God, they become spiritually calloused. They lack moral feeling and discernment, and have therefore given themselves over to sensuality, impurity, and always wanting more. They fit what Martin Luther defined as sin: a human being curved in upon itself.

This is harsh. You may be thinking, “Wow, Paul’s talking about the really bad people here.” Not really. Centuries ago in England, thousands flocked to hear George Whitefield preach. Lady Huntington, one of Whitefield’s supporters, invited the Duchess of Buckingham to hear Whitefield preach. The Duchess refused, and this is what she wrote:

I thank your Ladyship for the information concerning these preachers. Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors in that they are perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common lechers that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting and I cannot but wonder that your Ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.

She was right. G.K. Chesterton said that the biblical doctrine of original sin is the only doctrine that can really be proven. Just look around you. It is also the great equalizer. Chesterton said, “Only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.” This is the natural human condition, not of bad people but of everyone.

Sheldon Vanauken tells of an experience he had with his wife in his book A Severe Mercy. One day he came home to find his wife’s face streaked with tears. She hung onto him desperately and wept. It took some time for her to tell him what was wrong:

Her sins, she said, had come out and paraded before her, ghastly in appearance and mocking in demeanor. What sins could this eager, loving creature have committed? Not sins as the world counts sins. Not one person had she murdered, nor one gold ingot stolen. No unfaithfulness, no secret drinking, no dishonesty, no sloth, no kicking dogs. But sometimes she had been grouchy or snappish. She had said cruel things to people, perhaps to her mother or brother… Now her words haunted her… Even worse, the sins of omission.

She had done nothing particularly bad, and she certainly wasn’t a Christian at that point, but her sins became real to her. She saw her heart and it scared her. The world fell away that night, and they never forgot.

Our problem is not the sin we commit. Our problem goes much deeper. The sin we commit is only a symptom of the real problem: our sinful natures. This also explains why it’s so hard to change. Do you ever mow over weeds in the summer? For a day or two it looks fine. The mowed weeds blend in with the mowed grass. But in a couple of days the weeds sprout up and show themselves again. Trying to change without changing your heart is like mowing the weeds. It will look good for a couple of days, but it won’t be long before the old nature starts showing up again. This is why trying harder is never enough.

So this is pretty depressing. If we’re to become the people Paul describes, how can we change? He says we can change, but not by trying harder. The problem is our sinful nature. This confronts us at times. It’s a serious problem. What do we do?

Paul doesn’t tell us to try harder. He says:

Learn Christ

Paul says in verses 20-24:

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 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; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

In these four verses, we discover how it is we go from the hopeless situation in verses 17-19, to the people we want to be in verses 25 and on. Jesus is the great divide. We don’t change by trying harder. We change as two things take place in our lives.

First: we change as we learn about Christ. That’s where it starts, according to verses 20 and 21. We enter the school of Jesus Christ.

The language here is baffling. Paul literally says that we do three things. One: learn Jesus Christ. You don’t usually learn a person, but that’s what Paul says we do. Two: we hear him. Three: we are taught in him. In other words, Jesus is the subject of our teaching. He is the teacher. And he is the atmosphere in which the teaching takes place. It’s all about Jesus.

Do you realize that change doesn’t take place as we try to change ourselves? Change comes as we see what Jesus has done, as we learn more about him, as we get to know him. Paul earlier described the pagan life as ignorance of God. The opposite of this ignorance is knowledge, specifically knowledge of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. That is how we change.

So let me ask you how much of your life is centered on Jesus? How often do you remind yourself of what he has done for you? This is what we need to preach to ourselves daily. Martin Luther said this has to be beaten into our heads. Learn Christ.

Second: we change as we apply what Jesus has done to your life every day. Have you ever put money in a machine, hit the button, and then nothing happened? You’ve paid for the Coke, but you don’t have it in your hands or in your mouth. Sometimes you have to bang the machine, and then the bottle falls, and it’s yours.

Paul says that this can happen to us spiritually. Through Christ, God has made all who trust in him into new creatures. He has called us out of the grave, just like he did with Lazarus. But some of us are still wearing the grave clothes. For some of us, the money’s been paid, but the bottle hasn’t yet dropped. Paul is saying that if you have entered the school of Christ, you’ve already been made new. Now act like it. Get those grave clothes off and act out who you really are in Christ.

One question, and then one application. First, the question. Have you entered the school of Christ? There are only two conditions possible. There is no third option. Either you are in the condition Paul describes: your thinking distorted, your relationship with God broken, and your life desensitized. Have you realized the truth about human nature: that we aren’t fundamentally good, and that apart from Christ we are human beings curved in on ourselves? Until we see the desperateness of our situation, and the hope that’s found in Christ, we’ll keep on trying to change, and we’ll keep on failing.

Now the application: If you have put your trust in Christ, then stop trying to change on your own. Focus your energies on getting to know Christ, understanding the gospel. Keep discovering new aspects of what he accomplished for you at the cross. Get to know Jesus. Preach the gospel to yourself daily. And then live in the reality of who you already are because of what Jesus has already accomplished. That’s how you change.

Father, thank you for Jesus. May every person here see the hopelessness of life apart from him. And may every person here learn Jesus, and live out the reality of what he’s done. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada