Saying No to the Old Life
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Saying No to the Old Life

Ephesians 4:17–19  (ID: 3235)

God’s plan for the church is that His people would grow to resemble the Lord Jesus, and He has given gifts to the church to move us toward unity and maturity. Alistair Begg explains that every believer in Christ has undergone a radical transformation from death to life. As the culture in which we live is increasingly marked by foolishness and godlessness, the church should demonstrate behavior that attests to the faith we profess.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Ephesians, Volume 7

The New Self Ephesians 4:17–32 Series ID: 14907

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to Ephesians and to chapter 4, and we’ll read from the seventeenth verse.

Ephesians 4:17:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”


A brief prayer:

Spirit of God, descend upon our hearts;
Wean them from earth, and through all their pulses move,
And speak to our weakness, mighty as thou art;
And help us love thee as we ought to love.[1]

For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, those of you who are visiting with us will discover that we are here in Ephesians in our studies. We have been in Ephesus for some time, and looks like we’ll be there for a little time yet. And it is important that as we keep coming back to the book, that we keep the context pretty clearly in our minds. It’s always possible for us to begin to disengage a piece or a section or a couple of verses and treat them in a way that actually is quite harmful.

And so, we remind ourselves that Ephesus was a city in the first century. It was a large place. It had a large population. It was the richest of cities. It was part of the most prosperous region of the Roman Empire at the time. It also housed one of the Seven Wonders of the World—namely, the Temple of Artemis, or the temple of Diana. And that particular structure, along with the theater and with the Library of Celsus, tended to dominate the skyline of the time.

If you’ve visited Ephesus, you’ve been able to go into what was really the Roman sports context or to see the crumbling edifice that was once a library and to realize, just as you squeezed your eyes together, how magnificent this must have been. It dominated—that is, the Temple dominated—the society, not only architecturally but also, if you like, philosophically or spiritually, insofar as those who had heard the teaching of the apostle Paul and had become followers of Jesus found themselves to be a minority in the vastness of that city. And Luke records how on one occasion, the vast crowd had essentially drowned out those who were seeking to tell the story of Jesus by chanting in a prolonged fashion, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians! Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”[2]—and the implication being, “We know about greatness, and we don’t need to hear about your Jesus.”

The opposition to the church at that time was strong, and it was threatening. And Paul has written to them in order that they might realize just where they fit into the vast scheme of things. And if you can think all the way back to when we began through in the Commons, before we moved back in here, we began with that great symphony of praise to the electing grace of God and how Paul tells them, “You know, you have been predestined for adoption as sons to the praise of his glory, and you’ve obtained an inheritance that can’t fade.”[3] And eventually, he builds on and on: “And you’ve been seated with Jesus in the highest places. You’re in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. So just keep looking down from the vantage point in which you find yourselves.”[4]

What is God doing with those whom he has redeemed? In essence, he is making us like Jesus.

As he goes through the letter, he’s reminding them of the wonder of what God has done in making them his own. And most people, if they only know a couple of verses out of Ephesians, know 2:8–9: “For by grace you were saved through faith. And this … not your own doing; it[’s] the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” And then not everybody goes on to learn verse 10, which is equally important: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And it’s not a common picture, but it is a metaphor that Paul employs when he speaks of the church, describing it, essentially, as a workshop. As a workshop. I don’t have a workshop, because I don’t work—in the shop, that is. I mean, if somebody gave me a saw, it’s only a danger to me and everybody around me. But I do admire people that have workshops, and I have bits and pieces around my house.

I was looking as I studied yesterday in the afternoon just at a tiny piece of wood about that size that was up on a shelf, and it made me think of dear Byron Nelson—the late Byron Nelson, the golfer. And he had made these little pieces of wood to give to the members of the United States Ryder Cup team and had stamped a psalm on the back of it. And it was just cut, and I thought, “Oh, how nice and how wonderful,” and how it was representative of the grace and the commitment of the one who did the work in the shop in order to produce that.

Well, the picture is of God Almighty, as it were, painting, if you like—painting the likeness of his Son on the canvas of the lives of his children. You are his workmanship. He is fashioning you according to the likeness of his Son. What is God doing with those whom he has redeemed? In essence, he is making us like Jesus. That’s the whole plan. And he is doing it not in isolation from one another but in relationship to one another.

And that’s why after Paul gets to the end of chapter 3, he begins chapter 4, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you[’ve] been called.”[5] “God is painting on the canvas of your lives,” he says. “Therefore, when you walk out into that Ephesian culture, make sure that you walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called, so that the people who see your work, who hear your words, who witness your deeds will have some kind of inkling of the fact that Jesus Christ is alive and is able to change lives, because they will see that your life has been changed.” And as we’ve gone through these early chapters, we’ve seen again and again that there is a great need for this—a need in Ephesus and a need in Cleveland this morning.

What we have in this little section—and I’ll outline it, and we’ll work our way through it slowly—in verses 17–19, he is basically reminding the folks who are now part of the church of their lifestyle outside of Christ. It’s a general description. Not everybody would fit every specific of it. It is a description of life lived with no interest in Jesus or in the purposes for which he’s come. So, he’s going to remind them of what they were outside of Christ. And then in verses 20–24, now he says, “Let me tell you what you are. This is what you are, and you got to understand the replacement factor that’s involved. If you have put on the garments of your new life in Jesus, then you better make sure that you’re putting off the old stuff that you once wore when you were still pagan, when you were still disinterested in Jesus.” And then, from verse 25 to the end of the chapter, he is essentially saying, “And this is what you have to look forward to.” So, “This is what you were, this is what you are, and this is what you’re going to be.”

You say, “Well, how much of this will we get through?” Not very much at all. So… But at least you’ve got an outline of it, and you can say, “Well, that was what we were going to have as a sermon, and look at what we got.” But anyway, here we are.

“Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you[’ve] been called.” That’s how he begins the chapter. He then has a discourse on the nature of the church itself, of the importance of unity that is to be maintained—that unity which will then be expressed as the gifts that God has given, the gifts of his Word, are then manifested in the congregation, thereby producing ministry. And as they are involved in ministry, so the body of Christ is coming to maturity. And we have been dealing with that up until verse 16.

Now, from verse 17, it’s as though he says, “Now, the gifts that God has given to the church have been given in order that you might live in unity,” and he says, “and also that you might live in purity.” “And also that you might live in purity.” And he’s going to make it very, very clear here the vast difference between the lifestyle of the Christian and those who are yet outside of Christ.

Now, it’s important we realize—and this is why I say we have to keep going back in order that we might go forward—as, actually, Justin prayed for us, he reminded us of Ephesians 2:4–5: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” He has “made us alive together with Christ.” In other words, he has regenerated us. It was something that was absolutely necessary, because, he says, “we were dead.”[6] “We were dead.”

This is a vastly different perspective on humanity than that which we deal with on a daily basis, whereby we’re told, “You’re sick,” or “You’re dysfunctional.” You may well be sick, and I may well be dysfunctional, but the real issue is that I’m sinful and that I’m dead. I’m part of the walking dead, outside of Christ. I’m part of the walking dead, and the problem is, I don’t know I’m dead. And so we need the Bible to tell us about ourselves in a way that is, frankly, unpalatable, because it will be only then that we will realize what a wonder it is to be made alive. “And he has made you alive,” he says. “And if he has made you alive, then your life should be manifest in your lifestyle. If you now have the status of a son, or sons and daughters, then there are standards which go along with that status. If you are professing to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then there is behavior which will testify to the reality of your belief.” Okay?

So, new life, new lifestyle. New status, new standards. New belief, new behavior. So that when the standards are not present, when the behavior is absent, when the lifestyle is not there, then we have reason to say, “I wonder if I really do have a new life? I wonder if I have the status of a son? I wonder if I am simply believing in an intellectual way but not in a life-changing, heartrending, renewing way?”

And what he’s really doing here—you’ll notice the way he begins: he says, “Now this I say and testify in the Lord.” In other words, “I’m speaking as the Lord’s servant,” he says. “This comes to you from the Lord himself through me. I want to issue you a warning. I want you to make sure that you realize just how crucial this is.”

In saying what he’s saying, let’s be clear what he is not saying. Paul is not here suggesting that by trying to live like God’s children, they can make themselves God’s children. That’s not what he’s saying. You can’t make yourself God’s child by trying to appear like one. Rather, they are to become what they are now by God’s grace. “You are now part of his family; then there should be some family characteristics that are obvious. You now have the status of living in this royal household; then there should be something about your walk, there should be something about your talk,” he says, “that will distinguish you from that talk and that walk which was once yours,” which he’s about to describe. And the challenge, I think, is straightforward.

Tomorrow, today, the next twenty-four hours or so, we will be at various Memorial Day parades, many of us, and it’s almost inevitable that there will be some little coterie of musicians—probably pipe bands: people that love the sound of the pipes, not realizing that the Irish sent them to the Scots as a joke, and the Scots never got the joke. But they’ll be there, and they’ll be playing away. And they’ll be playing, essentially, national anthem two, which is “Amazing Grace.” If they can’t play anything else on the pipes, they always play “Amazing Grace,” right? And we will stand in companies of fifties, hundreds, or maybe a thousand, and there won’t be one person in ten that has any notion of what the melody line is actually conveying: that a slave trader whose mother died when he was seven but who had been so immersed in the Scriptures between zero and seven that when he found himself as a profligate, slave-trading-captain, cursing, rotten, rascal, in the darkness of the storm, it was the words of his mother that came back to call him to an understanding of what it means to be embraced by the love of God. And so he wrote,

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me[, John Newton]!
I once was lost, but now [I’m] found;
[I] was blind, but now I see.[7]

That’s what Paul is describing here. He’s not talking about a little religious shift in the community to whom he writes—that they have sort of decided to be a little more religious or that they’ve decided to embrace a different kind of formula or framework. No! No! They’ve been radically changed. They have been changed as a result of the power of Christ.

You see, it actually addresses the very issue of “What does it mean to be a Christian?” What does it mean to be a Christian? You know, it’s distinctly possible that you can listen to me or my colleagues Sunday after Sunday, and hear language used, and you’re sitting there, going, “Yeah, but I don’t really know how to join the dots on that.” Well, let me just tell you how… For example, Peter describes the believers to whom he writes, the Christians to whom he writes—he says, “Now that you have tasted the goodness of the Lord…”[8] “You’ve tasted the goodness of the Lord.” It’s a picture! They have received Christ. “Are you thirsty? Are you [hungry]?”[9] Until you’re thirsty and hungry, you’ll never come and taste of the Lord. You can walk in and walk out and go: “That was very interesting. Hm. Remarkable!” “Boring.” “Horrible.” Whatever you want to say. But when you come thirsty and you find out where the living water is, then you taste. Then you’re changed. In fact, you’re changed, and then you taste. But that’s for another time.

Paul says, “You have been rescued from the present evil world order.” So what does it mean to be a Christian? It means that I have tasted of the goodness of the Lord. It means that I have been rescued from the present evil world order. What’s that mean? Well, you can’t understand Paul unless you realize the way in which Paul’s statement of the gospel is tied always directly to Adam and to Adam—you know, so, for example, “As in Adam, all die, so … in Christ [will] all be made alive.”[10]

So the great story that Paul is always bringing to bear is the fact that God made a world, and he made it perfect. The world as man knows it is not as God has made it but as man has spoiled it. Man has sinned. Disintegration, alienation, chaos has come into the world—murder and mayhem. How in the world can this be put back together again? Well, we need a second Adam—another one who will rise up as an Adam, who will undo all the things that the first Adam has done and who will do the things that that first Adam has failed to do—namely, love God and serve him and obey him. And Paul says, “And this is the wonder of it.” As the hymn writer puts it,

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.[11]

Can I ask you this morning: If you were coming for a membership interview here at Parkside Church and you came to the question on the paper, it says, “And tell me how you became a Christian?” what would you actually write down there? Would you say, “Well, you know, for the longest time, I listened to that stuff, but I had never tasted it. But on such and such a day or on such and such a period of my life, I suddenly got it. I tasted, and I saw that the Lord was good.”[12] Would you be able to write down and say, “You know, I was in the grip of stuff that I could not get out of. I was in the grip of my ego. I was in the grip of my sinful propensities. I was in the grip of my own security”—whatever it was. “And I was just trapped in it. And then I realized that Jesus came to rescue me.” In fact, you might even say, “We sang a song one morning. It went, ‘When I was lost, you came and rescued me, reached down into the pit and lifted me, O God.’”[13] And you might say, “That was it. I remember that Sunday morning. I can’t remember which one it was.” Would you say that? Would you say that you have received Christ?

You see, don’t complicate things. To receive Christ is what John says is the issue: “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But to as many as received him he gave the right to become the children of God.”[14]

Somebody gave me a book this morning, a gift. That was very, very nice. I like gifts. And the person came to it, and he actually handed it to me like this. Now, I could have told him, “I don’t want your gift.” But I received it. It’s now mine. It’s no longer his. I received it. Some of you are sitting out there, and you’ve made this whole becoming-a-Christian thing so complicated, you don’t know whether you’re up or down. Right where you are today, you may receive Christ, acknowledge who he is, why he came, what he’s done. And the very fact that you have an inclination in your heart to accept the gift that he offers is the indication of the fact that God is at work in your heart. Otherwise, you’d be going, “I don’t know why this guy says this stuff.”

Now, that’s what had happened to these people. And that’s why he’s now writing to them. Incidentally, if you want a little story in the Gospel records of somebody who received Jesus, you’ve got the story of Zacchaeus, don’t you? And in the story of Zacchaeus, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? He—you know, he’s up the tree, and Jesus comes and stops under his tree and says, “Zacchaeus, come down. I’ve got to come to your house.” And Zacchaeus says, “Oh, no, you can’t come to my house. I don’t want you to come to my house. I just want to stay up the tree.” No, it doesn’t say that! It says, “He came down immediately and welcomed him gladly.”[15] “He came down immediately and welcomed him gladly.” He didn’t say, “Oh, well, if you’re coming back through another time… You know, I mean, I’m up the tree now. I don’t want to just be coming down the tree. It’s a nice tree!” No! You hear the gospel presented to you: “Oh…” No! Today, when you hear God’s voice, welcome him! Get down the tree and welcome him gladly. Welcome him to your heart. You don’t know everything. You won’t know everything this side of eternity. But you know enough. You know, with Newton, that you’re a great sinner and that God is a great Savior. So you receive him.

And “he came down the tree and welcomed him gladly.” And the religious establishment grumbled and said, “This is ridiculous! He has gone into the house of a sinner.”[16] And Jesus says, “Of course! The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost. I did not come to put together a religious club,” he said. “I came to call sinners to repentance.”[17] “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[18] The story of the gospel is not “Clean up, and he might accept you.” The glory of the gospel is “Accept him, and watch him clean you up.”

And the clean-up operation is right here in this putting off and in the putting on: “I testify in the Lord that you aren’t to be walking in the way that you used to walk.” They had previously just been drifting along on the stream of the ideas of their culture—the things that made Ephesus Ephesus and made them them were a part and parcel of their lives. He’s reminded them back in chapter 2 that in that situation, they were actually without “hope and without God in the world.”[19]

It’s, again, I say to you, a quite staggering description of godlessness. And these verses— that 17, 18, and 19—are really in accord with what Paul writes in his opening chapter of Romans. And I’m going to read this to you in the Phillips paraphrase just so you’ve got it in your mind: “Now the holy anger of God is disclosed from Heaven”—this is Romans 1:18—“the holy anger of God is disclosed from Heaven against the godlessness and evil of those men who render truth dumb and inoperative by their wickedness.” “Who render truth dumb.” You think about the big preoccupation of our culture now: Is there any kind of truth at all? You know, where is truth? Is there true truth, the false truth, maybe truth? No. They “render truth dumb … by their wickedness.”

It[’s] not that they do not know the truth about God; indeed he has made it quite plain to them. For since the beginning of the world the invisible attributes of God, e.g. his eternal power and divinity, have been plainly discernible through things which he has made and which are commonly seen and known,

like stars and rivers and babies and flowers and eyes and optic nerves, and all of the rest, plainly seen,

leaving these men without a rag of excuse. They knew all the time that there is a God, yet they refused to acknowledge him as such, or to thank him for what he is or does. Thus they became fatuous in their argumentations, … plunged their silly minds still further into the dark.

Behind a facade of “wisdom” they became just fools, fools who would exchange the glory of the [immortal] God for an imitation image of a mortal man, or of creatures that run or fly or crawl.

Now, both there and here, Paul is not addressing the unbeliever. It’s important for us to notice that. He is describing the godless. He is describing the pagan. In Romans 1, he is doing the same thing. He’s speaking in the third person: “This is what this was: this, this, this, this.” Notice, when he speaks to the pagan—for example, in Acts 17, when he has the opportunity, face on, to address the intelligentsia—he doesn’t give them Romans chapter 1, nor does he actually give them, “You know, you guys are futile in your understanding. You know, you’re darkened. I mean, you’re a bunch of deadbeats. I mean, I can’t believe that I’m even speaking to you!” No, he doesn’t do that at all. No, no, no, no. He’s not changing his tune. On the strength of what is true concerning the predicament of man outside of Christ, he says, “The God who made the world and everything in it doesn’t live in buildings made with hands.”[20] He starts actually where they are. He quotes their own poets. He says, “You know, God is not far away from you, as many of your own poets have said.”[21] It’s a masterful piece of work, leading them along and along and along, until he says, “And God has set a day when he will judge the world, and he’s given proof of this by appointing his Son and by raising him from the dead.”[22] And at that point, the people said, “Okay, we heard enough of this”—when the crunch came. But he didn’t go directly to the crunch.

I say that because some of us are tempted to go right back out into the community with verse 17 of Ephesians and feel that it is our duty to let everybody know that “you’re futile, you’re dark, you’re ignorant, you got a hard heart, you’re callous, you’re sensual, you’re greedy,” and so on, “and PS: have a nice day.” No! This is describing what you were, or what you and I would be, were it not for the grace of God. Exactly this! Not in every detail. Not every nice person fulfills this in all the detail. This is the trajectory of humanity when it rejects the truth of God, when it says, “No, there is no God.” Atheism is a choice. It is a choice! It is a decision: “I refuse to believe in God. I took the baby in my arms, and I refused to accept the creative handiwork of God. I looked at these things. I reject it wholesale.” It’s a choice! And the inevitability that flows from that is described in the second part of Romans 1 and also here.

You will never bow your stubborn will down before Almighty God until he shows you who you are, who Jesus is, why he came, and why it matters.

And you’ll notice without—I don’t need to belabor it—but you will notice the elements that are involve in it, the trajectory. If your Bible is open, look there where it says, “because of the ignorance that is in them, due”—or “do,” as you say—“to their hardness of heart.” “Due to their harness of heart.” So, if you start with “hardness of heart,” which is actually where it starts, you see that the progression is a downward path which begins with an obstinate rejection of the truth of God. An obstinate rejection of the truth of God. It’s an expression of the folly and futility of man. When the psalmist says, “The fool [has said] in his heart, ‘There is no God,’”[23] he’s not describing somebody who got 200 on their SATs. He’s not describing somebody that doesn’t have intellectual capacity. It is a statement concerning not the absence of intellectual acumen but an expression of ethical or moral revulsion to the truth of God. It is a foolish thing to do.

That’s why Paul, when he writes to the Corinthians, he says, “In the wisdom of God, God has planned it in such a way that man through his wisdom will not know God”[24]—that there is no intellectual road to God; that you can’t think yourself through to God. You can think every apologetic thought you like, but you will never bow your stubborn will down before Almighty God until he shows you who you are, who Jesus is, why he came, and why it matters. It’s absolutely there: “hardness of heart,” “ignorance,” “alienat[ion],” “darkened in [the] understanding,” “callous,” hardened, “given … up to sensuality,” and “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

Now, as I say to you, just as there is a general description of the Christian life which is to follow, where you were “taught,” you were trusting, you were “renewed,” you were “put[ting] on [a] new self,” so this is a general description of life outside of Christ. Outside of Christ. This is the way it goes. “Don’t walk like this,” he says. “You’re living in the culture out of which you’ve come. Don’t get sucked back into it. Don’t start to think the way you used to think, in the futility of your minds.”

It’s fifty years, in another few days, to the anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’m sure you’re very interested in that. But fifty years on, you know, the cries of that generation have become the strangulated cries of the contemporary generation. Why? Because, you see, once we turn our back on the reality of a God who loved us so much that he gave his only begotten Son to die for us,[25] there is an inevitability about what follows. We can mask it in all kinds of ways. We can be really kind of nice, bourgeoise, respectable, car-driving, mortgage-paying people on the East Side of Cleveland. But if the thoughts of our minds were put up on this screen right now this morning? Greed, sensuality, hard heart, alienated from friends, not speaking to my family. Paul says, “I’m warning you. You don’t go back down that road. Because you have been made alive in Christ. And this is what you were. This is what it would be like. If God had not intervened in your life, you’d be down here somewhere.”

That’s why, you see, none of us, if we understand anything of the grace of God, we should never be up on our high horse. We should never be going, “Can you believe him? Look at that mess!” You’re looking at yourself outside of Christ. What? Did God know you were a really special person, and he just included you in the group ’cause he liked you, ’cause he saw how good you were? No! There was nothing in us to commend ourselves to him. Amazing grace! Not, like, “Grace.” Amazing grace that saved me!

I had to write my testimony this week for a newspaper piece in England for later on in the year. And they said I had four hundred words to tell somebody how it was that I came to trust in Christ. And it was a salutary and wonderful exercise for me. And it made we wonder that God in his mercy reached into my life when I was young and small and stupid and sinful and argumentative and jealous and spiteful, and all the seeds of sin were all embedded in my little heart. But God saved me. He saved me. And he’ll save you, too, if you ask him.

See, the futility of life, you don’t have to go looking for it, do you? You don’t have to try hard. I read the Times—the New York Times—the Wall Street Journal, and The Times of London every day. And if I didn’t have a Bible, I don’t know what I would do. Because it doesn’t really matter where you go. You can go to the business section, the sports section, the Scottish section. You can go to any section you want, and as you work your way through it, what do you find? You find hard hearts, darkened minds, sensuality, greedy. I mean, even the newspapers are full of stuff that a generation ago nobody would have even printed in a newspaper. But why are we able to handle this now? Because we’ve become callous. The culture is calloused. The culture is marbleized. The culture is desensitized. So you’ve got lifestyle, you’ve got language, you’ve got all kinds of stuff that our children and our grandchildren are confronted with that we never faced when we were their age fifty, sixty years ago. What has happened? It’s the trajectory of Romans 1. How do you get out of it? Only by the grace of God.

“I charge you,” he says, “that you do not get caught up, now, again in the futility of your minds.” Don’t be sidelined by all the brilliant people. People come to me all the time and say, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of people that are much more clever than you, Begg. And they don’t believe one bit of what you’re on about.” I say, “Well, that’s not a hard exercise to find people cleverer than me. I get that part. That’s true.” But I understand that. I understand that.

Stephen Hawking, who is arguably, as a physicist, is apparently one of the greatest brains that still is alive in the Western world, investigating black holes and things that I don’t even understand. I’m more concerned about holes on the road when I’m driving home than black holes in the universe. But that just shows what an ignoramus I really am. Some of you are able to go down that line. I was very interested to discover that his doomsday report—’cause he said we’re a thousand years away from having to inhabit another planet and get out of here, because this one is over. He announced that from his research. But in the last little while, he slashed it by nine hundred years, and it’s now down to a hundred. So the pressure is on: that according to Stephen—and he is a brilliant physicist—according to his most recent analysis, humanity has a century left to evacuate the planet and become multiplanetary species. Oh, the futility of a genius! Oh, the folly of a man intellectually vast!

A testimony to what Paul writes: “Where is the … wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of [the] age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who…” What’s the last word? “Through the folly of what we preach to save those who” do what? No. See? Have I been so long with you, and still you can’t finish the sentence? It’s “through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”[26] “Believe.”

You remember when the Philippian jailer is going to kill himself when the shackles come off Paul and Silas? And Paul says, “Hey, don’t worry about it! We’re all still here.” And he comes running up, and he says, “What must I do to be saved?” And what did Paul say? “Believe.”[27] “Believe.” People told me, “It can’t be that simple.” It is that simple. And it is that profound.

Because listen: you can’t come to God on your own terms; you can’t come to God on your own time. You’ll only come on his time and on his terms. That’s why I always say to you: “Today, if you hear his voice, do[n’t] harden your hearts.”[28] ’Cause if you hear his voice, you may be sure it’s his time. And “now is the … time,” and “now is the day of salvation.”[29] You see, Stephen Hawking is a genius, but he’s marked by the futility that is here.

You remember Horace, the Latin dramatist? He instructed his students, when they were writing—they were writing dramatic plays and dramatic art—he told them, “A god must not be introduced into the action unless the plot has got into such a tangle that only a god can unravel it.”[30] Well, what the Bible says is that the plot has got into such a tangle that it’s not a god, but it is the God, the living God, the only God, in the person of his Son, who has come to untangle the knotted rigmarole of life lived outside of him.

Well, Jesus came, stopped underneath Zacchaeus’s tree. I can’t wait to ask him about that. And Jesus comes and stops at your seat and says, “Will you do what Zacchaeus did? Will you get out of your seat and welcome me gladly? Will you receive me? Do you believe in me?”

Well, we’ll come back to this.

God our Father, thank you that you are the God who seeks and saves; that you are the God who calls out through the night and reaches into our rebellious, futile, self-preoccupied souls and turns on the lights, and suddenly we realize that we’d been in the dark for so long, we were in the dark so much, we never even realized how dark it was. We didn’t even realize we were dead until you made us alive. What a mystery! Fulfill your purposes, gracious God, in us and through us this day. For Christ’s sake. Amen.

[1] George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” (1854). Lyrics lightly altered.

[2] See Acts 19:28 (paraphrased).

[3] See Ephesians 1:5–6; 11–14.

[4] See Ephesians 2:6.

[5] Ephesians 4:1 (ESV).

[6] Ephesians 2:5 (ESV).

[7] John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).

[8] 1 Peter 2:3 (paraphrased).

[9] Keith and Kristyn Getty, “Living Waters” (2016).

[10] 1 Corinthians 15:22 (ESV).

[11] John Henry Newman, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” (1865).

[12] See Psalm 34:8.

[13] Kate Simmonds and Miles Simmonds, “When I Was Lost” (2001).

[14] John 1:11–12 (paraphrased).

[15] Luke 19:5–6 (paraphrased).

[16] Luke 19:7 (paraphrased).

[17] Luke 19:9–10 (paraphrased). See also Luke 5:32.

[18] Romans 5:8 (KJV).

[19] Ephesians 2:12 (ESV).

[20] Acts 17:24 (paraphrased).

[21] Acts 17:28 (paraphrased).

[22] Acts 17:31 (paraphrased).

[23] Psalm 14:1 (ESV).

[24] See 1 Corinthians 1:21.

[25] See John 3:16.

[26] 1 Corinthians 1:20–21 (ESV).

[27] See Acts 16:28, 30–31.

[28] Psalm 95:7–8; Hebrews 3:7–8, 15; 4:7 (ESV).

[29] 2 Corinthians 6:2 (ESV).

[30] Horace, Ars Poetica, lines 191–92.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.