Written by Paul J. Bucknell on August, 03, 2022
Ephesians 4:17-20 Three Steps Down with Questions
17 This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way.” (Ephesians 4:17-20 NASB)
Before going down the three steps, Paul announces the need for believers to walk separate from the world: “walk no longer just as the Gentiles.” Paul is alarmed to hear that some who profess Christ would live contrary to Christ (cf. 4:20).
Paul adds extra emphasis by referring to Jesus’ teachings but provides no clue what specific words he alludes to: “affirms together with the Lord.” Paul is sure that he and Jesus are in perfect agreement.
“Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12).
Paul remains very direct about our original fallen nature. He sticks the foul ways of the world right before our eyes, hoping that all believers will hastily turn from such revolting ungodliness. Those living this manner of life are “excluded from the life of God.” They do not share God’s holy nature.
Paul describes three downward steps: ignorance, hardening, and sensuality, and apart from the grace of Christ, each leads to the inevitable next step down. Paul more thoroughly describes this downward spiral in Romans 1:21-32.
Ignorance (Eph 4:17-18)
Paul begins by relating the non-Christian’s blackened soul by referencing their darkness of mind. Paul has non-stop introduced the truth of the Gospel in chapters 1-3, but apart from God, a great divide exists. Either we are saved by the truth or left to wallow in our ignorance.
Paul uses two phrases: “futility of their mind” (17) and “being darkened in their understanding” (18), to amplify their ignorance. “Futility” here pictures their depravity of mind as devoid of truth. The mind doesn’t properly function without the truth. Jesus, in John 8:12, distinguishes between those living in the light of His truth and those walking in darkness.
“Excluded from the life of God” pictures the hold spiritual death and darkness have by allowing ignorance to rule and refers to moral blindness and a general lack of perception. The darkness brings such confusion that a person doesn’t even understand his own dire situation, leaving no escape hatch.
Hardening (Eph 4:18-19)
Paul again uses two phrases to describe this hardening process. They are related to each other and produce a cause and effect. The cause or reason is “the hardness of their heart” (4:18).
The word for hardness is the same as the physical hardening of skin, a callous. It describes spiritual hardening where one lacks the ability to respond to God.
Verse 19 further describes the results of hardening by using the word in Greek (apalgeo) for numbness, seen in a few translations as “lack of feeling.” (The NASB’s callous in verse 19, while not inaccurate in meaning, inadequately differentiates itself from verse 18’s hardness which is callous.) So, the hardness produces numbness, a process regularly seen in us. Resistance and hardness lead to an increased unwillingness to respond.
Sensuality (Eph 4:20)
As in Romans 1, Paul mentions the prevalence of impure sexual practices among non-Christians. With hardened hearts, their consciences are no longer sensitive, allowing all sorts of impure practices. “Given themselves over to sensuality” shows that sensuality has become their goddess. The body’s self-pleasure has become all important. Today’s hedonism has displayed a similar waywardness. Paul does not go into detail here about the kinds of impurity (i.e., uncleanliness) as he does elsewhere (Rom 1; Gal 5:18-21). Sensuality is a broad, inclusive term for unnatural sexual activities inside or outside a man and woman’s marriage.
Paul tags “impurity” onto sensuality: “for the practice of every kind of impurity.” Again, we see the progressive detrimental cause and effect at work. Once “given over to sensuality,” all the resistance is removed, giving rise to unclean activities. “With greediness” indicates the way profit further ruins people and societies. One society gave up their daughters to get a new roof. The supposedly advanced societies openly allow harlotry for tax revenues.
The point is that there is no room for love and care for people. They use them for selfishness, either in sexual ways or to take financial advantage.
The Three Steps
Are they steps? Does this itemization of decline show a pattern? It appears that this is Paul’s purpose, like in Romans 1. Although this downward spiral might go through numerous revolutions, the stages of this dark cycle are quite obvious. Paul repeatedly shows the casualty in these verses, indicating leaning tendencies. It just doesn’t happen to a person; they repeatedly choose it, becoming seduced by their deception.
Summary (Ephesians 4:20)
Paul concludes the paragraph as he started, speaking about Christ’s teaching: “But you did not learn Christ in this way.” Although Paul delineated various steps by which the sinful enters further darkness, there remain only two options: light and darkness, with or without Christ. He again uses all his forces to persuade the believers to be faithful to Christ in practice, to follow up their previous confession.
Ephesians 4:17-20 Bible Study Questions
Three Steps Down
17 This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way.” (Ephesians 4:17-20)
Waiting upon Christ’s Return | Part of The Godly Man Series
- What three ways does Paul describe how the Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) walk (Ephesians 4:17-18)?
- What three words does the author use to describe these three stages? Would you change them at all?
- What does it add to the meaning when he says ‘together with the Lord’ (Ephesians 4:17)?
- What are the two reasons Paul gives for the way they are in Ephesians 4:18?
- After the darkening of the mind, Paul describes other ways that their lives will further stray from God’s standards. What are they? See Ephesians 4:19.
- Do you see signs of this decline in the world around you? Explain.
- Would you agree our society is filled with sensuality? What are some signs of this?
- Can you see how some groups or societies have hardened themselves more than others?
- (Advanced) How does this pattern of ignorance > hardening > sensuality reflect itself in what the apostle has said in Romans 1:20-27?
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