Forfeiting your Freedom in Christ
… among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. Ephesians 2:3.
Ernest Hemingway, an American icon of the 20th century, one who, perhaps more than any other writer, changed the way novels in the English language are written, had a strong evangelical upbringing. His grandfather was a graduate of Wheaton College, still today one of the bastions of evangelicalism. He was also the Director of the Chicago YMCA in the late 19th century. Hemingway’s parents were strong believers as well. Ernest grew up in a home where family devotionals were held morning and evening, where church was central to his life, where he served as a leader in his youth ministry.
But Ernest was looking for adventure and became an ambulance driver in World War I, later living in Paris, giving himself over to all manner of debauchery, denying the faith of his parents and grandparents. He became a great literary man, loved and admired by many, but his life was a mess. He was terribly unhappy and finally committed suicide in 1960. He had known the freedom of the Christian faith, but gave it up. What happened and why?
Hemingway no doubt knew the great truths of the Apostle Paul, recorded in Ephesians 2:1-10, but he allowed freedom in Christ to lead him into license. Be sure of this – you will never appreciate what you have until you understand what you deserve. Paul declares to them in Ephesians 2:3 that they had two things which characterized them prior to their conversion.
First, they were living well ordered but chaotic lives apart from the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. To live in the lusts of the flesh meant that their intense desire was to live apart from God. The Greek word we translate lust can mean good or evil desires, as in Luke 22 when Jesus said that He lusted, strongly desired to eat the Passover with His disciples. But here Paul has in mind this all consuming passion to have what they wanted then, regardless of the consequences. Flesh here means life apart from God. Saul of Tarsus before his conversion, later becoming Paul the Apostle after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, comes to mind.
Second, they were consistently, creatively indulging their wills. The Greek word, translated here as indulging, is our root word for poem. It is also used in verse 10, “We are His workmanship.” In other words, the Ephesians, as well as you and I, had our own very creative way of sinning. Paul does not use lust to describe this. Instead he uses the word will, meaning we had a deliberate, well-considered, intentional, wilful choice to pursue our own brand of sinning. This was manifest in two ways – the will of the flesh and mind.
Flesh here means animalistic desires which are not necessarily sinful, at least in the beginning. God has given us natural desires for food, sleep, sex, drink, and physical exercise. However we can eat too much or too little. We can sleep too much or too little. We can pervert our natural, God-given desire for sexual intimacy through fornication, adultery, pornography, homosexuality, and all manner of variations on these. We have a natural desire for drink but we abuse it with alcohol and prescription or illegal drugs. We ought to take care of our bodies through regular exercise but we do too much or too little.
And then there is the creative, consistent indulgence of our wills in the use of our minds. This may be known in base, godless thinking like pride, envy, jealousy, bitterness, racial bigotry. But it may also be evident in more respectable thinking such as ambition, the desire to get ahead, to engage in self-improvement. And it may also be seen in good things like art, music, culture, movies, theatre, reading and thinking about our hobbies, home improvements, philosophy, history, even theology. It is one thing to satisfy natural desires which God has given, and it is not wrong to find enjoyment in the lawful pursuit of these and the higher thoughts coming from art, culture, and history; but it is quite another to become consumed by them, to be so dominated by them that they take our time, rob our affections, take us away from our spouse, children, and most importantly God.
In light of this well ordered but chaotic life in the lusts of the flesh, in light of our consistent indulgence of the wills of the flesh and mind, can you not see that God was perfectly just in declaring you a child of wrath? You were corrupt, like the sullied waist band of Jeremiah 13. You were totally worthless to God. Furthermore, your behavior was no better. You were rebellious, stiff-necked against the God who had shown such kindness to you. But God … I love to remind people of the mercy and grace of God. You deserve hell. No doubt about it. But God was merciful. He sent His Son to die for you. He opened your eyes to see your sin, He gave you a new heart to repent and believe the good news of Jesus.
This means that you are free in Christ. You are set free from your former manner of life. Why then do you go back to slavery to sin? Why do you go back to an inordinate, perverted use of your flesh, seeking to satisfy your physical desires for food, sleep, sex, drink, and the care or abuse of your body? For one reason, and it is the same reason Hemingway forgot his Christian pedigree. At that particular moment, you loved your sin more than you did Jesus.
You are free in Christ Jesus, but this does not mean you are free to do whatever you wish. You are not free to neglect public worship. You are not free to neglect your familial duties. You are not free to not seek God in private devotion. You are not free to not tithe your time and money. But you are free to not do what you ought not to do. But how can you gain victory over your propensity to go back to slavery? When we put it like this, it all seems so silly to sin, does it not? The solution is always the same, and it is very simple, yet profound. Fall in love with Jesus, day after day. Think on your Saviour. Read about Him in the gospels’ stories. Put yourself in the stories. I mean really think about what is happening. See the beauty and glory of Jesus. Ask the Spirit to rekindle your love for the Saviour. When you walk about daily, thinking on who He is and what He has done, how He has delivered you from the condemnation you so justly and unquestionably deserve, when you see how He has come to you when you had no ability, no desire, no interest, no understanding, then, at least for that moment, you will fall down in love and wonder before the God of all mercy. Now, repeat this process many, many times per day. And when you fail, and you certainly will fail, do it again. Oh, the depths of the riches, both of the wisdom and mercy of God!
Al Baker is pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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