Read Ephesians 2:1-10 with your family
If Christians still struggle with sin, how are we any different than unbelievers? Is Christianity just another system of moral behavior? Or does the Gospel actually change us?
The Bible clearly teaches that those who trust in Jesus are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). There is a real change between the old self that was dead in sin and the new self who is alive in Christ. One of the places we see this is Ephesians 2:1-10.
Writing to the Ephesians, Paul says, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (v.1). Then in verse 3, he says “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Without the redemptive work of Jesus, all of humanity is in a state of spiritual death.
What does it mean to be dead in sin? Paul names several things: walking in sin, following the world and Satan (the prince of the power of the air), and living out the lusts of the flesh. Let’s focus on what Paul calls “the passions” (or lusts) of our “flesh.” Notice that he is not only talking about physical desires; these are desires of both the body and the mind. Jealousy and envy are “lusts” just as much as gluttony or sexual immorality.
This gets at one of the main ways that the Bible teaches us to think about sin. In the Bible, sin is not just about external behavior. External behaviors are like the fruit of a tree; they are the outward manifestation of a person’s heart desires. We act out our loves and lusts. In other words, sinners sin because sin is what they want or desire.
Does this mean that all desires are evil? No. God created desire. When our desire for him rules over us, then all other desires begin to be put in their right places. This helps us to see that the lusts of the flesh are desires that have been corrupted or blown out of proportion. It may be a desire for the wrong thing. It may be a desire at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
Take, for example, the desire to please other people. Pleasing other people isn’t necessarily evil. Bringing genuine joy to those around us is a good thing. However, desiring to please others becomes a sinful lust when it replaces our desire for God. This can be expressed in many ways. You may be overly self-conscious, always wondering what others think of you. Wanting to please your peers may lead you into making fun of someone at school. Or, maybe, for the sake of impressing your boss, you deal unfairly with a coworker or competitor. In these examples, our desire to please others (peers, bosses, etc.) leads us into disobeying God’s commands to trust him, to love our neighbor, and to treat others with justice.
Now, if being dead means that we once lived out sinful, disordered desires, then being made alive must mean that our desires are being transformed by God. Romans 6:17 says, “you who were once slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus puts us in a right relationship with God. To be in a right relationship with God means that we are no longer his enemies; we are no longer rebels against him who seek our own way. Instead, we are rightly related to him as sons and daughters. And if we are true sons and daughters, then our ultimate desire is to love, honor, and glorify God – not only outwardly, but from the heart.
This is what separates the Gospel from moralism. Moralism focuses on outward behavior. Moralistic religion offers standards of good behavior or “morals” without changing the heart. In moralism, it is up to us to muster up the willpower to become better people. This is the basic “religion” of many Americans. People say: “I’m not perfect” (i.e., I haven’t lived up to the standard of morality), “but I’m trying to become a better person” (i.e., I change myself and my behavior). This is moralism, and it is not the Gospel.
The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died and rose again for us, in order that we might die and rise again with him. What needs to be changed is not merely our behavior, but our selves. True transformation begins in the heart. We need to be changed from people who hate God into people who love him. This change of heart – this dying and rising again – is not something we can accomplish for ourselves. Instead, it has been accomplished for us by God in Christ Jesus his Son.
A changed heart with changed desires is one of the key differences between an unbeliever and a Christian. The unbeliever neither knows God nor loves him. The unbeliever is driven and motivated by what Paul calls the lusts of the flesh. But the person who trusts in Jesus has been given a new heart, so that their ultimate desire is for God. Thus, Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). This love for God is itself a gift from God. And it is the fountainhead from which the rest of the Christian life flows.
Do Christians still struggle with the lusts of the flesh? Yes. In Galatians, Paul says that the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh (Gal. 5:17). Sinful desires still inhabit the believer. However, God has given us his Holy Spirit to dwell in us, and by his power, we put to death the deeds of the old self (Rom. 8:13). We are not eliminating desire; we are putting our desires in their right places, under the Lordship of Jesus.
God does not leave us in our sins and lusts. He has changed us; he has given us a new heart. We are no longer children of wrath, but sons and daughters. And as we allow our desire for him to rule over our desire for all other things, we are becoming more and more the true sons and daughters that he has created us to be.
Discuss: What are the desires that motivate you the most? Do those desires rule over you, or are they submitted to the rule of God? What are some desires that need to be changed or transformed by God?