RPM, Volume 18, Number 38, September 11 to September 17, 2016

Culture's Way

Ephesians 4:17-19

By D. Marion Clark


As we approach our holiday of independence, along with celebration it is also a time to take stock of our times. Much has changed in 240 years; much has changed over our life-time.


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. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

It was the Apostle Paul's special commission by Christ to take the gospel to the Gentiles, i.e. to nonJews. He presented a gospel that erased the distinction between Jew and Gentile. In our text, Paul is taking that term "Gentile" and using it to depict the old life, the old self that characterized the life of the believers before they knew Christ.

The rest of the text is a description of that life, which is depicted negatively, to say the least. The Gentiles "walk…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." These are strong depictions of the Gentile life to attribute to them — futility, darkened, alienated, ignorance.

And it gets harsher. They are not in their state because of bad fortune but out of their own obstinacy and rebellious actions. The Gentiles' ignorance and darkened mindset are "due to their hardness of heart." It is willful disobedience. This rebellious spirit has led to furthering callousness and a downward spiral in immorality. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

That is a sweeping indictment. These verses are saying that Gentiles — i.e. nonJews who have not embraced the gospel — because they have hardened themselves against God have become ignorant of him and callous to moral decency, so much so that they have given themselves over to indulging in every kind of sexual immorality.

Does that mean that Gentiles are as bad as they could be? No. In Romans 2:14-15 Paul writes: "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…" The issue is not that Gentiles are as bad as they can be, but that their way of thinking leads them along a path of immoral behavior. There are degrees, of course, for each individual and each society as to how far down the path they go, but that is the direction where their darkened walk takes them.

Now, is that an accurate assessment? Let's consider the matter in the context of our own country's culture. Take that phrase "due to their hardness of heart." Paul is referring to persons who have hardened their heart against following God. I once walked past a parked car with the bumper sticker, "No Gods, No Masters." That succinct phrase captures the thinking of the secular mind: to have a god is to subject oneself to a master, to a higher authority. And that is precisely what the human spirit recoils against. "I Did It My Way," is still the theme song of the human spirit, whether sung by Frank Sinatra or Elvis Pressley.

I think this is one perspective that secular people will agree on. They do not want a higher authority up in the sky telling us what is right or wrong for us. Even those who describe themselves as spiritual make this a line in the sand. Whatever divine being or force they ascribe to, they ascribe to it because they feel at peace with whatever it tells them. There are no inconvenient commands to adhere to. They are free to follow their own path.

Now our Scripture text's point is this. If you are going to establish a ground rule that you don't take orders from God, you are then going to be ignorant of God. That is a simple principle. If I don't listen to you, I can't know you; I can't understand you. If I refuse to follow your directions, I can't experience what it is you know.

Coaches are always harping on this, trying to get their athletes to buy into their system of training or game plan. The athlete complains, "Why am I doing this? This is dumb!" The coach replies, "Trust me. Do what I say and it will come together for you. Then you will understand." Sometimes the athlete gives up and leaves without understanding; other times he stays with it and awakens to what his coach knows. The difference between remaining ignorant and gaining knowledge is choosing to submit, the very thing that the secular mindset will not do.

So what does he do? He follows the course that he himself lays out. He borrows from what he sees around him that he likes. Anything about freedom is good. Anything that affirms that he is "good" is good. There needs to be some code to follow, and so he picks from a number of sources what seems workable and reasonable enough to get along by. If he has a "do good" bent, then he might embrace some causes. If that is not his thing, then he focuses on doing whatever seems pleasurable for the moment. Maybe he is ambitious and wants to make a name for himself. Maybe he is low key and just wants to take it easy. Maybe he is religious and so likes to do religious type things. Whatever it is that he does, he does it because it suits him. And most importantly, whatever he does, he does "his way." He determines his own course.

Our Scripture text contends that following your own course will lead you to a less moral life. It certainly will cause a society to head in that direction, and most individuals who think they are living an individual life will nevertheless follow the course of their society.

For the Christian, we do not kill our neighbor when we are upset because Scripture commands us not to do so. We do not commit adultery for the same reason. We might reason out why it is not good to kill or why it is good to remain faithful to our spouse. We might point to a natural code that is imbedded in us, but Scripture — because we believe it reveals God's will — is the authority when it comes to our moral code.

But the worldly mindset has no such outside, objective code. He has his mind to reason with, but more influential is his heart, which indeed our society upholds above all other guides for what is right. "Follow your own heart." "You alone can judge what is right for you." "You must do what feels right for you." And so, he puts together himself his own code, making each decision according to what feels right.


We can follow this line of thought in many aspects of the moral code, but our text takes us into the area of sexual morality. Probably there is no area in which the Christian and the "Gentile" mindsets so clearly differ as in what is sexually acceptable. Most of our neighbors agree with us that one should not be mean or cheat others. But our views on this subject are at best laughable to them. Indeed they regard our code — that sexual intimacy is reserved for a husband and wife — as immoral and psychologically harmful to anyone who possesses it.

Someone outside the church I was pastoring visited me with her mother, wanting to have a wedding there. She explained that she and family were lifelong Presbyterians. She was marrying someone she had dated a long time. They thought it was time for marriage and so had moved in together and were now planning the wedding. Society's morals have so changed that those outside a church adhering to scriptural authority are unaware that there is even a difference of opinion. And so the young woman, sitting beside her mother, could speak to me a minister about living together with her boyfriend, both daughter and mother being oblivious that I would see anything wrong with the situation.

When it comes to sexual morality, Gentiles have moved away even from appealing to the heart. It is human instinct — natural desire (no, natural need) to have physical pleasure. Indeed, human sensuality is moved out of the moral realm almost altogether. The only thing that really distinguishes individuals in the area of sex is their appetite and taste, much the same as differing in what foods people eat. Some want a connection with love; others do not. Some prefer heterosexual; some do not. Some want one partner; some do not. Chastity is considered something practiced by some who struggle with inhibition and is not healthy for a normal, good person.

That's the way our culture is. That's the direction sexual mores must always take if there is no divine authority, no revelation as to what constitutes moral right. The boundaries of what is right and wrong in sexual matters grow wider and wider so that those who would hold to restrictions become the ones who are pushed out of being accepted.

That is being born out in our country. In our lifetime, we have seen a progression (or rather, regression) in sexual attitudes. Before the 1960s, the Judeo-Christian ethic of reserving physical relations until marriage was the accepted code. There, of course, were those who flaunted a less restricted ethic, but, still, the official stance was that traditional moral ethic. The ླྀs ushered in the so-called sexual revolution, a revolution that gained ground throughout the ྂs. Somewhere in the ྌs the revolution turned into complete victory. The result is the example given of the daughter and mother. Good, normal people have sex before marriage. It is the natural conduct for healthy persons, and it is the reasonable conduct for anyone preparing for marriage. Not to engage in physical relations indicates a mental or emotional problem, or else adhering to a rigid and prudish belief system.

Before the ཮s, being a practicing Christian was respected, even if we were considered odd and a bit old-fashioned. After the ྂs, a practicing Christian might have some respect (for someone who is into asceticism), but our moral code was hopelessly unrealistic. Now, as we pass through the teens of the 2001 millennium, we find the Gentile moral code pushing back more boundaries as it embraces the homosexual lifestyle. Indeed, as of this past Friday, the gay lifestyle finds complete endorsement through acceptance of gay marriage throughout the United States.

This last step (finalized by the Supreme Court's decision to require all states to accept same-sex marriage) takes Gentiles and Christians into a new state of relations that hitherto has not existed. As the sexual revolution advanced and settled into the accepted code of the land, Christians who kept their moral stance lost their standing of respect. Before, we might have been ignored or ridiculed. With the advent of gay marriage, we face outright hostility so that our moral stance is being attacked.

For example, Gordon College had signed a letter requesting that Christian schools be exempt from the federal government's mandate that all institutions accept homosexual lifestyles of employees. In response, the city of Salem, which had been leasing facilities for the college to use for classes, rescinded its contract. In states that have approved same-sex marriage, business owners, such as florists, bakers, photographers, and wedding venue owners have been fined, sued, and forced into bankruptcy for refusing to provide their services for such weddings.

What same-sex marriage has done that previous changes in sexual behavior did not do is to recast the subject into civil rights. Thus, it is no longer a matter of live and let live but endorse or lose your job or your business. And so Atlanta's fire chief is fired for writing a self-published book for Christian men that includes two paragraphs of his view of homosexuality. The head of Mozilla was fired for making a donation to the bill to ban same-sex marriage. Sports announcer James Craig was fired from Fox Sports for expressing opposition to the gay lifestyle before he had been hired.

These stories will exponentially grow with the Supreme Court's decision. Though the stated decision is that same-sex marriage cannot be banned by states, what has already been demonstrated in states that legalized the practice is that all businesses and individuals who service weddings in some manner must service same-sex marriages or be fined and even closed down. How one views the subject has already cost jobs and will increasingly become the litmus test for hiring, promotion, and keeping one's job, especially in management positions.

The times are a-changin' and not only in the area of sexual mores. The mere expression of religious beliefs is under scrutiny. Cases of suppression appear in the news regularly, whether it be in government, business, schools, or military. One must be careful in expressing religious views, displaying religious symbols and Bibles, and especially in witnessing for the gospel. There is a growing effort to shut up religious expression and keep it from public display and public discussion.

There is nothing new to having people who are cold and indifferent to the Christian faith, but in recent years we are witnessing a zealous campaign of disdain against any religious belief. Authors have written bestsellers attaching religious belief with the vigor of the most religious zealot.

Again, all of these changes in mores and values are the logical proceedings of a society that no longer adheres to the Judeo-Christian belief system. The ties have been cut. The ship of the United States is drifting from its Christian foundations just as European countries have done before us.

And then, there is the actual war declared by ISIS. Here we have an Islamic movement that has picked up the mantle dropped in medieval times when Islam spread through literal warfare. Its intent is no less than seeing that its form of pure Islam is established throughout the globe, and its zeal for its cause is unmatched by any terrorist group before it.

The times are a-changin'. The times have always been changing, but the real change for Christianity in America is more than the erosion of belief and values. It is the very real change in the popular attitude and increasingly official attitude that views the Christian belief system as itself dangerous and immoral.

What then to do? Next Sunday I will address at greater length how individual Christians and churches can practically respond. But before that, I will follow the lead of the New Testament writers as they addressed the cultural pressures of their day. And that is to start with reminding us of the great doctrines of our faith.


What God has done for us in Christ

Psalm 78 chronicles the downfall of the first generation of Hebrews who were led out of Egypt. Many gave in to the pagan cultures around them, adopting those cultures' religious practices and way of life. Many wilted in the face of hardship. We know that fear of their neighboring nations caused them to falter just as they were about to enter Canaan. The psalm points to the cause for the people's failure — they forgot the salvation of God, how he had delivered them by mighty works.

We must be careful to remember what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. We must recall again and again the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7-10).

Do not forget the mighty work of Christ on the cross to deliver us from our sins. Do not forget that what matters most — the eternal destiny of our souls — is that which is most secure. It is such knowledge that has sustained Christians in hostile countries through the centuries up to this day.

For t moment the future is unsure for us as our own country turns our own values against us and views us as t wicked & t immoral. Even so, we belong to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and he has guaranteed that no one can snatch us out of his hands (John 10:28-29).

Who God is and what that means for us

God is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. He is the sovereign God whose word does not return to him empty, but rather, as he says, "It shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). And so, when we are told that he elected us before the foundation of the world and that he purposed our salvation and sanctification; when we are told that he has purposed "to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth," then know this — God's will will be done.

I hear periodically how concerned we must be for the church's survival and that of the gospel. Survival is always just a generation away. If we mean by that that the survival of any single church or how widely the gospel is accepted, then there is truth to the statement. But understand clearly that it is God's will for the gospel to spread to all nations and for the church to be established in all nations. And so it will. No Supreme Court decision, no terrorist organization, no culture, no nation can thwart the will of God.

And so our more urgent question is not how do we respond to our culture but how do we respond to our God? Will the fear of man lead us to compromise our beliefs? If not our beliefs, will fear lead us to adopt the ways of the culture to defend ourselves or to combat our culture?

Proverbs 29:25 says, "The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe." When the fear of man takes hold of us, it is then that we are in the greatest danger. Remember, remember that whoever trusts in the Lord is safe in him.

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