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Chapter iv. 17—v. 21.


Ἐν καινότητι ζωῆς περιπατήσωμεν.Rom. vi. 4.




“This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart; who being past feeling gave themselves up to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.”—Eph. iv. 17–19.

Christ has called into existence and formed around Him already a new world. Those who are members of His body, are brought into another order of being from that to which they had formerly belonged. They have therefore to walk in quite another way—“no longer as the Gentiles.” St Paul does not say “as the other Gentiles” (A.V.); for his readers, though Gentiles by birth (ii. 11), are now of the household of faith and the city of God. They hold the franchise of the “commonwealth of Israel.” As at a later time the apostle John in his Gospel, though a born Jew, yet from the standpoint of the new Israel writes of “the Jews” as a distant and alien people, so St Paul distinguishes his readers from “the Gentiles” who were their natural kindred.

When he “testifies,” with a pointed emphasis, “that you no longer walk as do indeed the Gentiles,” and when in verse 20 he exclaims, “But you did not thus 262 learn the Christ,” it appears that there were those bearing Christ’s name and professing to have learnt of Him who did thus walk. This, indeed, he expressly asserts in writing to the Philippians (ch. iii. 18, 19): “Many walk, of whom I told you oftentimes, and now tell you even weeping,—the enemies of the cross of Christ; whose god is their belly, and their glory in their shame, who mind earthly things.” We cannot but associate this warning with the apprehension expressed in verse 14 above. The reckless and unscrupulous teachers against whose seductions the apostle guards the infant Churches of Asia Minor, tampered with the morals as well as with the faith of their disciples, and were drawing them back insidiously to their former habits of life.112112   “The persons here denounced,” says Lightfoot on Phil. iii. 18, “are not the Judaizing teachers, but the antinomian reactionists.... The stress of Paul’s grief lies in the fact that they degraded the true doctrine of liberty, so as to minister to their profligate and worldly living.” Comp. 1 Peter iv. 3, 4; 2 Peter ii. 18–22.

The connexion between the foregoing part of this chapter and that on which we now enter, lies in the relation of the new life of the Christian believer to the new community which he has entered. The old world of Gentile society had formed the “old man” as he then existed, the product of centuries of debasing idolatry. But in Christ that world is abolished, and a “new man” is born. The world in which the Asian Christians once lived as “Gentiles in the flesh,” is dead to them.113113   Comp. Col. ii. 20–iii. 4; Gal. vi. 14, 15. They are partakers of the regenerate humanity constituted in Jesus Christ. From this idea the apostle deduces the ethical doctrine of the following paragraphs. His ideal “new man” is no mere ego, devoted to his 263 personal perfection; he is part and parcel of the redeemed society of men; his virtues are those of a member of the Christian order and commonwealth.

The representation given of Gentile life in the three verses before us is highly condensed and pungent. It is from the same hand as the lurid picture of Romans i. 18–32. While this delineation is comparatively brief and cursory, it carries the analysis in some respects deeper than does that memorable passage. We may distinguish the main features of the description, as they bring into view in turn the mental, spiritual, and moral characteristics of the existing Paganism. Man’s intellect was confounded; religion was dead; profligacy was flagrant and shameless.

I. “The Gentiles walk,” the apostle says, “in vanity of their mind”—with reason frustrate and impotent; “being darkened in their understanding”—with no clear or settled principles, no sound theory of life. Similarly, he wrote in Romans i. 21: “They were frustrated in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened.” But here he seems to trace the futility further back, beneath the “reasonings” to the “reason” (nous) itself. The Gentile mind was deranged at its foundation. Reason seemed to have suffered a paralysis. Man has forfeited his claim to be a rational creature, when he worships objects so degraded as the heathen gods, when he practises vices so detestable and ruinous.

The men of intellect, who held themselves aloof from popular beliefs, for the most part confessed that their philosophies were speculative and futile, that certainty in the greatest and most serious matters was unattainable. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”—no jesting 264 question surely—passed from lip to lip and from one school of thought to another, without an answer. Five centuries before this time the human intellect had a marvellous awakening. The art and philosophy of Greece sprang into their glorious life, like Athené born from the head of Zeus, full-grown and in shining armour. With such leaders as Pericles and Phidias, as Sophocles and Plato, it seemed as though nothing was impossible to the mind of man. At last the genius of our race had blossomed; rich and golden fruit would surely follow, to be gathered from the tree of life. But the blossoms fell, and the fruit proved as rottenness. Grecian art had sunk into a meretricious skill; poetry was little more than a trick of words; philosophy, a wrangling of the schools. Rome towered in the majesty of her arms and laws above the faded glory of Greece. She promised a more practical and sober ideal, a rule of world-wide justice and peace and material plenty. But this dream vanished, like the other. The age of the Cæsars was an age of disillusion. Scepticism and cynicism, disbelief in goodness, despair of the future possessed men’s minds. Stoics and Epicureans, old and new Academics, Peripatetics and Pythagoreans disputed the palm of wisdom in mere strife of words. Few of them possessed any earnest faith in their own systems. The one craving of Athens and the learned was “to hear some new thing,” for of the old things all thinking men were weary. Only rhetoric and scepticism flourished. Reason had built up her noblest constructions as if in sport, to pull them down again. “On the whole, this last period of Greek philosophy, extending into the Christian era, bore the marks of intellectual exhaustion and impoverishment, and of despair in the solution of its high problem” (Döllinger). 265 The world itself admitted the apostle’s reproach that “by wisdom it knew not God.” It knew nothing, therefore, to sure purpose, nothing that availed to satisfy or save it.

Our own age, it may be said, possesses a philosophic method unknown to the ancient world. The old metaphysical systems failed; but we have relaid the foundations of life and thought upon the solid ground of nature. Modern culture rests upon a basis of positive and demonstrated knowledge, whose value is independent of religious belief. Scientific discovery has put us in command of material forces that secure the race against any such relapse as that which took place in the overthrow of the Græco-Roman civilization. Pessimism answers these pretensions made for physical science by her idolaters. Pessimism is the nemesis of irreligious thought. It creeps like a slow palsy over the highest and ablest minds that reject the Christian hope. What avails it to yoke steam to our chariot, if black care still sits behind the rider? to wing our thoughts with the lightning, if those thoughts are no happier or worthier than before?

“Civilization contains within itself the elements of a fresh servitude. Man conquers the powers of nature, and becomes in turn their slave” (F. W. Robertson). Poverty grows gaunt and desperate by the side of lavish wealth. A new barbarism is bred in what science grimly calls the proletariate, a barbarism more vicious and dangerous than the old, that is generated by the inhuman conditions of life under the existing regime of industrial science.

Education gives man quickness of wit and new capacity for evil or good; culture makes him more sensitive; refinement more delicate in his virtues or his vices. 266 But there is no tendency in these forces as we see them now in operation, any more than in the classical discipline, to make nobler or better men. Secular knowledge supplies nothing to bind society together, no force to tame the selfish passions, to guard the moral interests of mankind. Science has given an immense impetus to the forces acting on civilized men; it cannot change or elevate their character. It puts new and potent instruments into our hands; but whether those instruments shall be tools to build the city of God or weapons for its destruction, is determined by the spirit of the wielders. In the midst of his splendid machinery, master of the planet’s wealth and lord of nature’s forces, the civilized man at the end of this boastful century stands with a dull and empty heart—without God. Poor creature, he wants to know whether “life is worth living”! He has gained the world, but lost his soul.

In vanity of mind and darkness of reasoning men stumble onwards to the end of life, to the end of time. The world’s wisdom and the lessons of its history give no hope of any real advance from darkness to light until, as Plato said, “We are able more safely and securely to make our journey, borne on some firmer vehicle, on some Divine word.”114114   Phæao: § xxxv. Such a vehicle those who believe in Christ have found in His teaching. The moral progress of the Christian ages is due to its guidance. And that moral progress has created the conditions and given the stimulus to which our material and scientific progress is due. Spiritual life gives permanence and value to all man’s acquisitions. Both of this world and of that to come “godliness holds the 267 promise.” We are only beginning to learn how much was meant when Jesus Christ announced Himself as “the light of the world.” He brought into the world a light which was to shine through all the realms of human life.

II. The delusion of mind in which the nations walked, resulted in a settled state of estrangement from God. They were “alienated from the life of God.”

“Alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,” St Paul said in chapter ii. 12,115115   See p. 129. using, as he does here, the Greek perfect participle, which denotes an abiding fact. These two alienations generally coincide. Outside the religious community, we are outside the religious life. This expression gathers to a point what was said in verses 11, 12 of chapter ii., and further back in verses 1–3; it discloses the spring of the soul’s malady and decay in its separation from the living God. When shall we learn that in God only is our life? We may exist without God, as a tree cast out in the desert, or a body wasting in the grave; but that is not life.

Everywhere the apostle moved amongst men who seemed to him dead—joyless, empty-hearted, weary of an idle learning or lost in sullen ignorance, caring only to eat and drink till they should die like the beasts. Their so-called gods were phantasms of the Divine, in which the wiser of them scarcely even pretended to believe. The ancient natural pieties—not wholly untouched by the Spirit of God, despite their idolatry—that peopled with fair fancies the Grecian shores and skies, and taught the sturdy Roman his manfulness and hallowed his love of home and city, were all but extinguished. Death was at the heart of Pagan religion; 268 corruption in its breath. Few indeed were those who believed in the existence of a wise and righteous Power behind the veil of sense. The Roman augurs laughed at their own auspices; the priests made a traffic of their temple ceremonies. Sorcery of all kinds was rife, as rife as scepticism. The most fashionable rites of the day were the gloomy and revolting mysteries imported from Egypt and Syria. A hundred years before, the Roman poet Lucretius expressed, with his burning indignation, the disposition of earnest and high-minded men towards the creeds of the later classic times:—

“Humana ante oculos fœde cum vita jaceret,

In terris oppressa gravi sub religione,

Quæ caput e cœli regionibus ostendebat

Horribili super aspectu mortalibus instans,

Primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra

Est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra.”116116   “When human life to view lay foully prostrate upon earth, crushed down under the weight of religion, who showed her head from the quarters of heaven with hideous aspect lowering upon mortals, a man of Greece ventured first to lift up his mortal eyes to her face and first to withstand her to her face” (Munro).

De Rerum Natura: Bk. I., 62–67.

How alienated from the life of God were those who conceived such sentiments, and those whose creed excited this repugnance. And when amongst ourselves, as it occurs in some unhappy instances, a similar bitterness is cherished, it is matter of double sorrow,—of grief at once for the alienation prompting thoughts so dark and unjust towards our God and Father, and for the misshapen guise in which our holy religion has been presented to make this aversion possible.

The phrase “alienated from the life of God” denotes an objective position rather than a subjective disposition, 269 the state and place of the man who is far from God and and his true life. God exiles sinners from His presence. By a necessary law, their sin acts as a sentence of deprivation. Under its ban they go forth, like Cain, from the presence of the Lord. They can no longer partake of the light of life which streams forth evermore from God and fills the souls that abide in His love.

And this banishment was due to the cause already described,—to the radical perversion of the Gentile mind, which is re-affirmed in the double prepositional clause of verse 18: “because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart.” The repeated preposition (because of) attaches the two parallel clauses to the same predicate. Together they serve to explain this sad estrangement from the Divine life; the second because supplements the first. It is the ingrained “ignorance” of men that excludes them from the life of God; and this ignorance is no misfortune or unavoidable fate, it is due to a positive “hardening of the heart.”

Ignorance is not the mother of devotion, but of indevotion. If men knew God, they would certainly love and serve Him. St Paul agreed with Socrates and Plato in holding that virtue is knowledge. The debasement of the heathen world, he declares again and again, was due to the fact that it “knew not God.”117117   1 Thess. iv. 5; 2 Thess. i. 8; Gal. iv. 8, 9. The Corinthian Church was corrupted and its Christian life imperilled by the presence in it of some who “had not the knowledge of God” (1 Cor. xv. 33, 34). At Athens, the centre of heathen wisdom, he spoke of the Pagan ages as “the times of ignorance” (Acts xvii. 30); and found in this want of knowledge a measure of 270 excuse. But the ignorance he censures is not of the understanding alone; nor is it curable by philosophy and science. It has an intrinsic ground,—“existing in them.”

Since the world’s creation, the apostle says, God’s unseen presence has been clearly visible (Rom. i. 20). Yet multitudes of men have always held false and corrupting views of the Divine nature. At this present time, in the full light of Christianity, men of high intellect and wide knowledge of nature are found proclaiming in the most positive terms that God, if He exists, is unknowable. This ignorance it is not for us to censure; every man must give account of himself to God. There may be in individual cases, amongst the enlightened deniers of God in our own days, causes of misunderstanding beyond the will, obstructing and darkening circumstances, on the ground of which in His merciful and wise judgement God may “overlook” that ignorance, even as He did the ignorance of earlier ages. But it is manifest that while this veil remains, those on whose heart it lies cannot partake in the life of God. Living in unbelief, they walk in darkness to the end, knowing not whither they go.

The Gentile ignorance of God was attended, as St Paul saw it, with an induration of heart, of which it was at once the cause and the effect. There is a wilful stupidity, a studied misconstruction of God’s will, which has played a large part in the history of unbelief. The Israelitish people presented at this time a terrible example of such guilty callousness (Rom. xi. 7–10, 25). They professed a mighty zeal for God; but it was a passion for the deity of their partial and corrupt imagination, which turned to hatred of the true God and Father of men when He appeared in the person of His 271 Son. Behind their pride of knowledge lay the ignorance of a hard and impenitent heart.

In the case of the heathen, hardness of heart and religious ignorance plainly went together. The knowledge of God was not altogether wanting amongst them; He “left Himself not without witness,” as the apostle told them (Acts xiv. 17). Where there is, amid whatever darkness, a mind seeking after truth and right, some ray of light is given, some gleam of a better hope by which the soul may draw nigh to God,—coming whence or how perhaps none can tell. The gospel of Christ finds in every new land souls waiting for God’s salvation. Such a preparation for the Lord, in hearts touched and softened by the preventings of grace, its first messengers discovered everywhere,—a remnant in Israel and a great multitude amongst the heathen.

But the Jewish nation as a whole, and the mass of the pagans, remained at present obstinately disbelieving. They had no perception of the life of God, and felt no need of it; and when offered, they thrust it from them. Theirs was another god, “the god of this world,” who “blinds the minds of the unbelieving” (2 Cor. iv. 3, 4). And their “ungodliness and unrighteousness” were not to be pitied more than blamed. They might have known better; they were “holding down the truth in unrighteousness,” putting out the light that was in them and contradicting their better instincts. The wickedness of that generation was the outcome of a hardening of heart and blinding of conscience that had been going on for generations past.

III. By two conspicuous features the decaying Paganism of the Christian era was distinguished,—its unbelief and its licentiousness. In his letter to the Romans St Paul declares that the second of these 272 deplorable characteristics was the consequence of the former, and a punishment for it inflicted by God. Here he points to it as a manifestation of the hardening of heart which caused their ignorance of God: “Having lost all feeling, they gave themselves up to lasciviousness, so as to commit every kind of uncleanness in greediness.”

Upon that brilliant classic civilization there lies a shocking stain of impurity. St Paul stamps upon it the burning word Aselgeia (lasciviousness), like a brand on the harlot’s brow. The habits of daily life, the literature and art of the Greek world, the atmosphere of society in the great cities was laden with corruption. Sexual vice was no longer counted vice. It was provided for by public law; it was incorporated into the worship of the gods. It was cultivated in every luxurious and monstrous excess. It was eating out the manhood of the Greek and Latin races. From the imperial Cæsar down to the horde of slaves, it seemed as though every class of society had abandoned itself to the horrid practices of lust.

The “greediness” with which debauchery was then pursued, is at the bottom self-idolatry, self-deification; it is the absorption of the God-given passion and will of man’s nature in the gratification of his appetites. Here lies the reservoir and spring of sin, the burning deep within the soul of him who knows no God but his own will, no law above his own desire. He plunges into sensual indulgence, or he grasps covetously at wealth or office; he wrecks the purity, or tramples on the rights of others; he robs the weak, he corrupts the innocent, he deceives and mocks the simple—to feed the gluttonous idol of self that sits upon God’s seat within him. The military hero wading to a throne 273 through seas of blood, the politician who wins power and office by the sleights of a supple tongue, the dealer on the exchange who supplants every competitor by his shrewd foresight and unscrupulous daring, and absorbs the fruit of the labour of thousands of his fellow-men, the sensualist devising some new and more voluptuous refinement of vice,—these are all the miserable slaves of their own lust, driven on by the insatiate craving of the false god that they carry within their breast.

For the light-hearted Greeks, lovers of beauty and of laughter, self was deified as Aphrodité, goddess of fleshly desire, who was turned by their worship into Aselgeia,—she of whom of old it was said, “Her house is the way to Sheol.” Not such as the chaste wife and house-keeping mother of Hebrew praise, but Laïs with her venal charms was the subject of Greek song and art. Pure ideals of womanhood the classic nations had once known—or never would those nations have become great and famous—a Greek Alcestis and Antigoné, Roman Cornelias and Lucretias, noble maids and matrons. But these, in the dissolution of manners, had given place to other models. The wives and daughters of the Greek citizens were shut up to contempt and ignorance, while the priestesses of vice—hetæræ they were called, or companions of men—queened it in their voluptuous beauty, until their bloom faded and poison or madness ended their fatal days.

Amongst the Jews whom our Lord addressed, the choice lay between “God and Mammon”; in Corinth and Ephesus, it was “Christ or Belial.” These ancient gods of the world—“mud-gods,” as Thomas Carlyle called them—are set up in the high places of our populous cities. To the slavery of business and the pride of 274 wealth men sacrifice health and leisure, improvement of mind, religion, charity, love of country, family affection. How many of the evils of English society come from this root of all evil!

Hard by the temple of Mammon stands that of Belial. Their votaries mingle in the crowded amusements of the day and rub shoulders with each other. Aselgeia flaunts herself, wise observers tell us, with increasing boldness in the European capitals. Theatre and picture-gallery and novel pander to the desire of the eye and the lust of the flesh. The daily newspapers retail cases of divorce and hideous criminal trials with greater exactness than the debates of Parliament; and the appetite for this garbage grows by what it feeds upon. It is plain to see whereunto the decay of public decency and the revival of the animalism of pagan art and manners will grow, if it be not checked by a deepened Christian faith and feeling.

Past feeling says the apostle of the brazen impudicity of his time. The loss of the religious sense blunted all moral sensibility. The Greeks, by an early instinct of their language, had one word for modesty and reverence, for self-respect and awe before the Divine. There is nothing more terrible than the loss of shame. When immodesty is no longer felt as an affront, when there fails to rise in the blood and burn upon the cheek the hot resentment of a wholesome nature against things that are foul, when we grow tolerant and familiar with their presence, we are far down the slopes of hell. It needs only the kindling of passion, or the removal of the checks of circumstance, to complete the descent. The pain that the sight of evil gives is a divine shield against it. Wearing this shield, the sinless Christ fought our battle, and bore the anguish of our sin.

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