The Serene Secularist – How a Non-Christian Thinks and Acts

By: Dr. Steven Riser; ©2004
Even after we become Christians, we have a constant struggle with our “old” nature. Dr. Riser details three characteristics of the old nature, and gives guidelines to overcome them.

The Serene Secularist—How a Non-Christian Thinks and Acts

Text: Ephesians 4:17-19


Have you ever asked the question: what happens to the fallen (sinful-selfish) nature of a person who becomes a Christian? While God does not remove the sinful nature at salvation, it’s power is broken so a Christian need no longer be governed by it. Instead of removing the old nature, God gives us a new nature by the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 8:9) But there’s a constant internal warfare within the believer between the new nature of Christ, called the “new self” (Eph. 4:24) and the old Adamic nature called “the flesh” (Gal. 5:16ff).


In Ephesians 4:17-19, the Apostle Paul encourages the Ephesian Christians not to live as they had before their conversion to Christ. He describes the typical way that a non-Christian thinks and lives. What was true in the first century is also true in the 21st century. Our world today possesses a great deal of knowledge but very little wisdom. Thoreau put it beautifully when he said that we have “improved means to unimproved ends.”

In Ephesians 4:17, Paul begins, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord…” Why did Paul insist on saying this? The Bible was meant to be obeyed, not simply to be studied. We are to be doers of the Word and not hearers only deceiving ourselves. (Jas. 1:22) Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you.” (Jn. 15:14) In light of all that Christ has done for us, what is He asking us to do? The answer is relatively simply, we are to put off the old nature and put on the new nature—to take off the old GRAVE-clothes and put on the new GRACE clothes! Let’s consider three characteristics of a non-Christian.

The first characteristic of a non-Christian is— I. Futile Thinking

Paul gives us this strong admonition: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking” (17). They were formerly living “in the vanity (empty, futile, perverse, aimless) of their mind,” the way the pagans were living—with no substantial purpose. One, who does not know God, cannot properly understand the world around them, including themselves. The sad story is told by Paul in Romans 1:21-25. This mindless futility has reference to the fact that a non-Christian is ignorant of spiritual things and is unclear about right and wrong resulting in spiritual blindness and moral confusion. An aimless attitude toward life cuts the nerve of moral endeavor and behavior.

The fact of the matter is that Christians think differently from non-Christians. In 1 Corinthians 2:12-16, Paul said, “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man discerns all things, but he is not understood by others: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

Note from our text the emphasis on thinking in Ephesians 4: verse 17—mind, verse 23— mind, verse 18—understanding, verse 18—ignorance. We all know that salvation begins with repentance, which is a change of mind. The whole worldview of a person changes when he trusts Christ as His Lord and Savior. But you might ask, what’s wrong with the way a non-Christian thinks? I’m glad you asked because that is what this article is all about!

Apart from Christ, our thinking is vain and our life is purposeless. Apart from the desire to know and do God’s wonderful will, everything is vain and aimless. Peter says we “are set free from aimless living” (1 Peter 1:18). Paul says, “our labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:28). A godly purpose can deliver us from a vain, empty and godless life! Only what’s done for Christ will last.

The second characteristic of a non-Christian is— II. Darkened Understanding

[18] “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”

How was the understanding of the Gentiles darkened? It was darkened by the continued and cumulative denial of the truth. The more we deny truth, the less capable we become in understanding and apprehending truth. Every surrender to temptation encrusts the hearts, hardens its sensitivity and narrows the range of future choices. To reject God alienates us from the life of God, thus destroying the source of mental, moral, social and spiritual health.

Isn’t it ironic that those who reject the truth of God’s Word in favor of the latest secular philosophy think they are enlightened when in reality; they are living in the dark? Paul puts it this way in Romans 1:22, “Professing to be wise, they became fools.” Why do they think they are wise? Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4 because Satan has blinded their minds to God’s truth. It’s not just that their eyes are blinded so they cannot see, but that their minds are dark­ened so they can’t think straight about spiritual matters. Truth and life go together. If we believe God’s truth, we receive God’s life. Those who reject God’s truth and fail to give God His rightful place in their lives are alienated from the life of God.

Why were the Gentiles ignorant? For the same reason that non-Christians today are igno­rant: they were ignorant because they had hardened their hearts against God. The “blindness of their heart” or hardening of their heart led to a condition of callousness that made it impossible for them to experience true spiritual life that comes only from God. To be without understanding is to be without the faculty of discernment—the ability to distinguish right from wrong.

The Apostle explained that these Gentiles were personally responsible for what had hap­pened to them. He certainly did not teach some fatalistic approach where they had no responsi­bility for their actions. Paul definitely believed in the sovereignty of God, man’s freedom of choice and the necessity of exercising faith as a response to God’s grace.

What does it mean to be darkened in our understanding?

It means that there is a mental fog that blocks out the divine light.

It means that we are blindfolded and living in a world of illusion.

  1. We are living in a world of illusion if we think it’s ever in our best interests to sin.
  2. We are living in a world of illusion if we think the world revolves around us instead of God.
  3. We are living in a world of illusion if we think we can escape giving account of ourselves to God. (Rom. 14:12)

What does it mean to have a hard (petrified) heart? In part, it means to have a stubborn heart caused by foolish, rebellious pride that makes you unwilling to acknowledge and surrender to God’s rightful authority over your life. It means that they are cut off from contact with God (Eph. 2:12) and the life He alone can impart. Such a condition arises from a deep-seated igno­rance that is the result of rejecting the light of God’s truth and failing to give God His rightful place in their life. In short, the whole personality of a non-Christian is incapable of appreciating how great God truly is and what great blessings He has to offer His children.

The third characteristic of a non-Christian is his— III. Sensual Life-Style—

[19] “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.”

Where does this condition known as hardness of heart lead? The hardness of their hearts led to a condition of “being past feeling” (Losing all sensitivity). Their consciences are so atrophied that sin not longer pains the conscience. This calloused condition prevents people from experiencing any kind of moral consciousness. Just as thick calluses prevent people from experiencing physical pain, so willful rebellion against the work of the conscience eventually makes the conscience completely ineffective. This describes a person who not only loses ap­propriate feeling of guilt but also one who loses all sense of shame. We’ve all heard people ask the question, “Have you no shame?” Such a person does not care whom he hurts and what method he uses so long as he gets what he desires.

What about us? Have we lost the capacity for moral outrage? Have we lost the capacity for righteous indignation? Are our consciences as sensitive as they ought to be?

What does it mean to give yourself over to sensuality? Once you successfully stifle your conscience then you are free to engage in all sorts of immoral activity without feeling guilty. Instead of letting your conscience be your guide, you do whatever you feel. In other words, you become impulsive and irrational as well as immoral. Sensuality is sometimes referred to in the Bible as “lasciviousness” which leads to all types of impurity and immorality—one who goes deeper and deeper into sin but is never satisfied. As Paul says in our text in verse 19, “They indulge in impurity with a continual lust for more.” A sensual person is one who is determined to gratify his sensual desires at all costs, regardless of the rights and susceptibilities of others. Passion-dominated pagans exist only to satisfy their old sinful nature. A sensual person, one who does whatever he feels, is living in a world of self-deceit and decadence.

Here we have a picture of the “serene secularist”—dull in sensitivity and conviction, such persons ask no ultimate questions, and are not even concerned that they are not concerned! They have no concept of their sad spiritual condition or their need to be delivered from it, or how they can be delivered from it.

In Romans 1:24-28 we learn that in such circumstances, God leaves the sinner to endure the full consequences of his tragic decisions and actions. Three times Paul said that God gave them over to something:

  • First, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another (Rom. 1:24).
  • Secondly, God gave them over to shameful lusts (Rom. 1:26).
  • Thirdly, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom. 1:28). In short, if we want to think and act like a reprobate, God will not stop us! Enough bad news, what is the good news that God has for us today?

The good news is that we have been delivered from all this and we are in the process of being delivered from all this. We have not only experienced Christ’s forgiveness and acceptance but we have a new nature within and a new church family without and both can help us to over­come the negative influences of our old sinful nature.

The Christian’s life is not futile but purposeful. His mind is filled with the light of God’s Word, and his heart is filled with the fullness of God’s life of love. The Christian has a new nature, not just an old nature. He gives his body to God as an instrument of righteousness (Rom. 6:13), and as a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), not to sin for the satisfaction of his own selfish desires. Peter says that the Christian is called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9) In every way, the believer is different from the unbeliever, God has given us a far better alternative. Therefore, Paul admonishes us to not think or live like a non-Christian.

The good news is that Christ not only frees us from something, but he also frees us for something. Christ calls us from the slavery of sin to the service of Him. He calls us to know, love and serve God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. What greater joy or privilege could belong to any of us? He truly offers us a new beginning. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creature, the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

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