Growing Out of the Past
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Ephesians 2:1-2a (Holman) And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world,. . .
You “were” dead. This verse tells us what we were, before we became Christ-followers. We brought baggage, old ways, into the Christian life with us.
We need to ponder what we were; former inclinations will still tempt us. By being reminded of what we were we can better stay true to what we are.
Before our conversion, we were “dead” in trespasses and sins. In spiritual matters, death never means annihilation. Every human being who has ever lived will exist forever. Death is not extermination. It is rather separation.
Physical death separates us from a body. Mental death divides us from intellectual faculties. Eternal death is everlasting separation from the presence of God. Our text refers to spiritual death, the separation of one’s spirit from God.
We lived “according to the ways of this world”. “This world” is human society organized for its own pleasure and profit without any thoughts of God as He truly is. Never forget; we once governed our lives by following the world’s standards, and conforming to its values. We will be tempted to revert to this.
For the lost, the spirit of the times determines what is significant. “Everyone is doing it” is their motto. Before conversion, we believers felt perfectly at home in this environment. If careless, we are in danger of being influenced by this world’s temptations. We must fight against returning to thought patterns of our past.
The world lives in a nebulous fog, led along by shifting standards of right and wrong. Believers live by God’s reliable, never changing dictates given in the Bible.
Unbelievers leave God out; believers seek to please Him in every detail of life. The world sets self and its desires at the center. For believers, everything revolves around God. Don’t go back to the old way. Let the believer beware!
Ephesians 2:2b “. . .according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient.”
“The ways of this world” are universally wrong, not by chance, but because they come under one “ruler”. Even as the Church has one Head, so does “this world”. To belong to the world is to belong to the kingdom of Satan.
“Lower heavens” is the atmosphere that surrounds us, the region of stimuli to our senses. Evil forces have ready access to us, and can at any moment suggest thoughts and kindle desires in our minds. They are universally distributed, ever nearby to tempt us, and to try to do much spiritual damage throughout the world.
“The lower heavens” draws a poignant, positional picture. Evil forces are an impediment, an obstruction between God and people. God is in Heaven, we are on Earth; evil spirits are between, in “the lower heavens”, trying to keep the two apart.
During the great “war in heaven” (Revelation 12:7-9), Michael and his angels fought the dragon and his angels. Satan “was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” At God’s decree, Lucifer fell from the higher levels of the stratosphere, resulting in “the lower heavens” becoming the seat of his kingdom.
God’s grace has removed believers from Satan’s tyrannical rule, but he still harasses us. We forget this to our peril. Satan hates us. Remember, we are fighting against one who had the brazen audacity to confront God Himself in Heaven.
We cannot escape Lucifer’s attacks, but have found a place where the power of his advances can shattered. Within the family of God, Satan’s domination is broken. He can at worst harass and tempt all who dwell in “heavenly places.”
Never underestimate the devil. At the same time, never overestimate him. Some believers spend too much time dwelling on him. He is a foe we cannot defeat, but he is a foe God’s power in us can crush. With Him we are invincible.
“Working” is present tense. Satan is yet among us. “I believe in the devil because I have to. I have to, not merely because it is here–that is enough for me–but I believe it because I cannot explain life without it” (Lloyd-Jones). To ignore Satan is to fail to understand our world. Never try to argue him out of existence.
Why has evil always been omnipresent in our world? One central pervasive presence is the only logical explanation. He has ever been at work, making evil a continuous, unbroken mass. Human history is impossible to understand without realizing Satan dominates “the spirit” that has always been at work within society.
Study history. It has uniformity and repetition. We have changed very little. Human ways remain consistent. A subtle, sinister “spirit” has always been at work.
It is futile to ponder history without reckoning with the devil. Lloyd-Jones tells of a Dr. Joad, who before World War II was an atheist, an unbeliever. After the war he became a believer in God, and explained why. He said the second war convinced him the Bible was right in at least one thing–there is a principle of evil at work. He said he could not explain World War II any other way. It was not an accident. Devilish powers were working in concert at various corners of the globe.
Evil in the world has never been isolated or accidental. Sin has always been everywhere. It is highly organized under a central command center, and caused by a timeless, international “spirit” ruled by Satan. Divine regeneration placed in us a nature strong enough to resist and overcome our native bent to yield to this evil.
Ephesians 2:3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.
“Fleshly desires” refers to the sensual part of our being, our animal appetites. Wanting food, water, sleep, happiness, pleasure, sex, to be attractive–these are essential parts of our bodily, animal nature. They are God-given longings, but our sinful human nature tries to distort them into obsessions. “Fleshly desires” make demands and assert themselves. They become a drive, a compelling force.
Nothing is wrong with wanting food and drink, but if we are gluttonous, if we live to eat and drink, we are wrong. We all need to sleep, but laziness ruins us.
It is okay to seek happiness and pleasure, but when a hobby or pastime takes away from spiritual things, it must be curbed. The sex urge is normal, but must be satisfied only in marriage. Desires must not be “inordinate” (CL 3:5), not ordered, uncontrolled. They must be “subordinate”, under order, under the Spirit’s control.
“Thoughts” can also trip us. Anything that keeps our mind totally absorbed, keeping it from dwelling on God, is wrong. Many of the unregenerate do not curse, murder, steal, etc. They thus think they are not bound by “fleshly desires”.
Desires of thought are less visible than desires of the flesh, but equally bad. Our thoughts can be as troublesome as our deeds. Our nature manifests itself in ways mental as well as physical. There are inner, intellectual lusts–pride, envy, bitterness, sinful ambition, anger, hatred, jealousy, resisting God’s revealed truth.
The mind’s desire for learning causes many to make an icon of knowledge. An insatiable thirst to intake data can crowd out time for prayer, meditation, and Bible study. This quest for knowledge can become a substitute for more important matters. I am not degrading education and learning. I am merely saying keep these things in their proper place.
Another desire of the mind is the urge to be independent of God. Some sophisticates see themselves above adultery, murder, and stealing, but not above making their own mind a substitute for God. They do not wallow in crime, but do not hesitate to follow the lead of their own unregenerate ego, wherever it directs. Being self-satisfied and self-sufficient is the height of sin. Nothing is more brazen than to feel no need for God’s grace. No sin of the flesh compares to declaring one’s self independent of God, or believing Christ did not need to die on Calvary.
We are driven by another desire of the mind; craving something new. Casting aside contentment found in God, people are often swept along by an ungodly boredom, a restless mind that causes them to be ever seeking a new thrill.
Never underestimate the damage that can be done by desires of our mind. Ultimately, the war between evil and good begins in the mind. To win the “moral” war, guard inner thoughts. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11). “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart brings forth good things; and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matthew 12:34b-35).
Thus, keep the heart clean. What we read, hear, and see on TV does make a difference. Keep out the filth! Whatsoever things are honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report; if there be any virtue and praise, think on these things (Phil. 4:8).
We believers were at one time like unbelievers, bound by lusts of the flesh, but now we are granted victory. The flesh still harasses us, but has been dethroned in our hearts, and should no longer be the center of our lives. Only one thing can accomplish this dethronement: God’s regenerating power in Jesus. Believers now possess this. Don’t be tempted to look back. Let’s keep growing out of the past.