I. Paul described the futile life of the Gentiles in their pagan condition (Verses 17-19). Paul begins this section by indicating that a radical break with the past has occurred: “You must no longer walk.” The status of the new life in Christ, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, acknowledgement of sin, and the granting of forgiveness puts the Christian on a different plane of reality. The world of truth, righteousness, and holiness has opened to his mind and heart, a world for which he had little to no concern and no capacity to appreciate in the unregenerate state.
A. Their manner of thinking is corrupt. Many persons look upon the mind as a pure center of knowledge and judgment. Paul understands otherwise. The mind does not operate as independent of moral predispositions. In the knowledge of God and in moral judgments the mind operates in a futile, empty, vain way.
- There is a reciprocal relationship between the mind’s ignorance of God and its rebellion against God. A darkened understanding is the result of alienation from the life of God. The living God who gives existence to all things and life to all kinds of living things in the physical realm, also gives life to the human spirit and intellect in a way that distinguishes his image bearers from beasts.
- Their alienation from the life of God, that is, the spiritual life in which we see the true nature of things, causes a darkened understanding. The mind can commit intellectual absurdities, drawing conclusions against the evidence in order to avoid a sense of responsibility to God. Also, their alienation from God not only causes greater darkness but comes from the “ignorance that is in them.”
- That ignorance is a moral and spiritual ignorance, the results of the fall of humanity in Adam and exacerbated by the continual flow of transgressions and judgments governed by passion. Paul discusses this extensively in Romans 1:18-32, giving a commentary on the declension of morality and truth that arises from the original condition of the ungodliness of men who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).
- Paul attributes this entire descending spiral of ignorance and evil to an initial “hardness of heart.” This is the death that passed on Adam and to all men in his fall. We will die physically, we are under condemnation for eternal death legally, and we are dead to the life of God and the truth of God spiritually. “Hardness of heart,” empty of love to God and to man, unresponsive to the glory of God as manifest in the gospel, the mind of the unregenerate is indeed a vain and empty mind in the knowledge of eternal realities.
B. Their affections are corrupt. Summarizing the more expanded description he gives in Romans 1, Paul affirms the condition of the unregenerate heart and the direction of their actions.
- In spiritual matters and on moral issues, they have become callous. The idea that we are made in God’s image, for his glory, and to know him in the context of his eternal purity, holiness, righteousness, and other glorious attributes makes virtually no impression on their mind or conscience. The “hope of eternal life” is a mere fantasy, so they think, impossible to know and probably only a psychological crutch for those unable to cope with the harsh realities of this present life.
- The most compelling purpose of life, therefore, is to fill it with personal pleasure, saturating the senses with immediate satisfaction. A culture once friendly to virtue, protective of religious convictions, finding its stability in the biblically-based family unit, and placing a value on the sanctity of human life begins to turn upside-down, calling good evil, and evil good. Those who are pro-life, value personal moral convictions and religious principles, and want to embrace and promote biblical views of sexuality are seen as haters of the rights of others. They are scorned and even brought into court for efforts to maintain their principles.
- The picture of a large demographic giving themselves up to sensuality greedy to practice every kind of impurity would sound exaggerated and almost mythological if we did not see the phenomenon displayed before our eyes. Movies, sitcoms, advertisements, the increasing need for pharmaceuticals to help with drug overdoses and sexually transmitted diseases witnesses to a society “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Christians must see themselves as salt and light, but also as pilgrims in a strange land, “sojourners and exiles” with a commitment to “abstaining from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2: 11).
II. Paul discussed the transforming power of knowledge of Christ (Verses 20-24).
A. The Person and Work of Christ is central to redemptive alteration of life.
- “You have not so learned the Christ.” That is, the corruption and destructiveness of the world and the minds and passions of sinners stand in stark contradiction to the purity and purpose of Christ in his redemptive work. To learn Christ involves embracing the doctrine of his person and the purpose of his incarnation.
- “If it is true that you heard him.” One comes to know Christ only if he is taught by Christ himself. The work of the Spirit of God is, indeed, the work of Christ so closely aligned is the Spirit’s work with what Christ came to do. When taught by the Spirit, we are taught by Christ. Paul confirmed this in 2 Corinthians 3, “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [We are transformed into the image of Christ and] this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3: 16-18).
- “You were taught in him.” Not only do we learn from Christ himself, but he is the sphere in which our new learning takes place. We are taught in him, that is, the riches of grace and the knowledge of God is bound up in Christ himself. Paul told the Colossians that he worked for them to “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2, 3).
- “As the truth is in Jesus-“ The knowledge of Christ’s person, grasping the grace of his redemptive work, the forgiveness of sins, understanding the purpose of God for the ages as revealed in Christ puts us into a sphere of truth unavailable to those whose passion is for this world and its temporal pleasures. Those who have not been taught by Christ, and in Christ, have closed to them the enduring reality of truth that will never perish. Jesus, however, introduces those who believe in him into a world of enduring, eternal realities that constitute the life that is life indeed. “When Christ who is you life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).
B. There is a radical change in the “self” of every converted person. Put off the “old man,” or the “old self” that was confined to the values of the unregenerate just described above. That “former manner of life” was a corruption of true life as intended by God. It was controlled by “deceitful desires.” In this term, Paul refers to the dynamic between affections and mind discussed above. The mind operates under the deceitful pressure of lust. The fallen affections control the mind so that one’s understanding always presses toward the desires of the flesh and holds the will bondage to those affections.
C. This change culminates in the restoration of the divine image. The New man, or “self” is a new creation (Galatians 6:15). The image of God, that is, the moral image of God now begins to be restored. The natural image—self-consciousness, intelligence, understanding, making choices and taking action in accord with character and understanding—is intact; the moral image is under new construction. Here Paul described that image as “true righteousness and holiness.” This means that righteous actions and choices arise from a principle of holiness in the heart. This is a process that becomes more prominent and dominant as we learn more of the “truth as it is in Jesus,” and are transformed in our affections to be more in conformity with the mind of Christ. In Colossians, Paul mentioned the image restoration in these terms: “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). The renewal of the knowledge of God is in this passage directly tied to hearing Christ and being taught by Christ according to the truth that is in Christ.
III. Paul discussed transformed behavior. Justification by the grace of God through Christ alone predisposes the believer to the love of righteousness. Though his conduct will never be in absolute conformity to perfect righteousness, he will make substantial progress in that direction. This progress will be evident in several spheres of life.
A. Knowledge of Christ brings transformation of the use of the tongue (Verses 25, 29).
- Having been converted by the power of truth as expressed in the gospel, every Christian should value truth in all communication and interaction. Both in life and tongue, we have “put away falsehood,” and now we speak truth. As members of one another in Christ, we desire for the whole body to prosper in truth.
- In light of that, we also put a guard over our lips so that no “corrupting talk” comes out of our mouths. Complaining, bitterness, gossip, carping and criticism all corrupt the atmosphere and destroy relationships. We have been saved by grace and desire to be restored to true godliness. Our speech, therefore, should be well-disciplined, measured, and filled with the truth of Scripture so that it does not tear down or insert division into relationships, but edifies. Having been saved by grace, we want to be channels of grace to others.
B. Knowledge of Christ transforms productiveness (Verse 28). Saving grace will make a thief a giver. Rather than stealing from the labors of others, the Christian will work, being productive with his own energies and gifts to provide for himself and his family. Productive labor was in the original intent of God for man (Genesis 2:15). In addition, rather than steal and thus diminish the cumulative effect of cooperative labor, he will be productive adding to the whole of beneficial goods and will soon accumulate enough to share joyfully with others.
C. Knowledge of Christ transforms emotional motivation (Verses 26, 30, 31).
- The Christian may find that under certain provocations he or she becomes angry. “Be angry and do not sin.” Paul does not command us to be angry. The command is to avoid sin when anger arises. Anger must not, therefore, become the driving motive in the long term response to such situations. Rather, a true concern for righteousness, the developing of patience, a spirit of submission to divine providence, and willingness for the discipline of unjust treatment must inform our response. Before the day is over, angry responses should be submitted to superior principles of edification.
- The Spirit of God indwells us, seals to us all the graces of the Father’s benevolence towards us and the Son’s redemptive work. He, therefore, continually operates to move us toward experiential righteousness and reconciled relationships with other people. When we indulge ourselves in flippant talk or vengeful attitudes, this opposes the direction of the Spirit’s work with us. It is antagonistic to the character of those beauties of salvation that he has sealed to us. In this way, we grieve the Spirit, for we oppose the very purpose of his indwelling.
- Returning, therefore, to the necessity of our learning to discern the corrupt nature of certain responses as opposed to the principle of edification and the ministering of grace, Paul isolates some of the most destructive tendencies of the flesh still opposing the operation of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 17). In Galatians, he points to fifteen separate issues, while here he mentions six. In Galatians he includes those sins of the flesh that involve personal immorality and debauched living. Here he highlights the destructive force of internal attitudes that challenge the direction of the Spirit’s sanctifying operations. He deals with the unloving and unbrotherly sins of the tongue and mental disposition. What an ugly potpourri of dead flowers is this: bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. As James says, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-7).
D. Knowledge of Christ transforms interpersonal relationships (Verse 32). What a massive difference comes to the heart, the mind, and the tongue when one receives the grace of God in the forgiveness of sins! Instead of bitterness, anger, and malice, kindness and tenderheartedness begin to assume the reins of our responses. Instead of wrath, clamor, and slander, forgiveness floods the soul. The one who feels the reality of how much he has been forgiven can hold no right to wrath over others. The one who has been restored by grace wants to see others sense the grace and joy of restoration.