When a person becomes a genuine believer in Jesus Christ he is a changed person – he has a new relationship with God, a new outlook on life, a new set of values and new motives. He has spiritual life. But he must still live in the fallen human society from which he came, and that puts him in an awkward position. He lives and works with the people he knows, but can no longer conform to their standards of behavior.
Much of the second half of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is taken up with this problem. “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind. . .” (Eph. 4:17; NKJV). “Walk” is the biblical word for how one conducts his life; and according to this verse Christian believers are not to live like the rest of society around them. But why? What is wrong with getting along with everyone else?
Well, first of all, look at how the text describes human society. The Gentiles walk “in the futility of their mind, . . .who being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (vv. 17,19). On the one hand they are “past feeling” – their conscience no longer bothers them, and they have no sympathy for others. Then they have “given themselves over” to “lewdness.” They have largely abandoned themselves to their physical desires and appetites. The word translated “lewdness” implies a complete lack of restraint – it suggests licentiousness, wantonness, or excess. “Uncleanness” is a term Paul often uses to describe a variety of sexual sins, including homosexuality (cf. Rom. 1:24,26,27). And the Gentiles do this with “greediness” – their desire is never satisfied; they always want more. And while this may present a rather extreme example, it is nevertheless true that secular society is largely motivated by self-interest, and only the law and social stigma restrain people from the worst excesses.
But this puts human society at odds with God’s moral standards. Paul describes those standards this way: “for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth” (Eph. 5:9 – some ancient manuscripts and versions read “fruit of the light”). What God wants, what He expects of all human beings is “goodness, righteousness and truth” – we are to do what is good for others, what is right in itself, and what is honest and true.
This means, positively, that we are to make it our aim in life to be “finding out what is acceptable to the Lord” (5:10) and “understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:17). The word translated “finding out” (“trying to learn” – NASV; “try to discern” – ESV) basically means to put something to the test to determine its true character. The idea here is that we apply the general principles of God’s Word to the individual circumstances of our lives in order to determine what is “acceptable” (lit., “well-pleasing”) to the Lord. Our aim in life should always be to please God in the way we live.
But negatively this means that we are to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” (5:11). There are certain things we are not to do, no matter what the rest of society thinks. These things are “the unfruitful works of darkness,” the often compulsive, anti-social and self-destructive habits and addictions that are so widely accepted today – everything from smoking cigarettes to cheating on your spouse.
What it comes down to is that either we are going to do things God’s way or man’s way. “But,” some will ask, “what do we gain by doing things God’s way? Why make our lives difficult by going against the world?” If we just go by what we can see in the here-and-now, it may seem self-defeating to go against the world. We stand to lose family, friends and economic opportunities. What we must remember, however, is that there is more to life than just the here and now. “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (5:5). The “kingdom of Christ and God” refers to a time when the Messiah will establish peace and justice throughout the earth. Only the righteous, however, will “inherit” this kingdom, i.e., enter into it and enjoy its blessings. Exactly when and how this kingdom comes into existence is a matter of intense discussion and debate. While there is one sense in which it is already present within the church (Lu. 17:20,21; Col. 1:13), when the Scripture speaks of “inheriting the kingdom” it generally refers to a future event, i.e., when Christ returns and establishes His kingdom on earth (Matt. 25:31-34). And if the kingdom is supposed to be the reign of perfect peace and righteousness, it follows from this that the unrighteous will not be allowed in. The rich and powerful may think that they can get away with a great deal now, but they will not then. In the end it is God’s will that will prevail. “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:6,7).