Ephesians 4:17-19 is often quoted along with 1 Corinthians 2:14, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, and Ephesians 2:1-5 as evidence that the unregenerate person has no ability to understand, comprehend, or respond to the truth of God and the gospel.
This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Note several things about this passage.
1. Paul is Warning Believers
First, Paul is calling upon his readers to stop walking in the way that other Gentiles walk. While Paul’s readers are most likely regenerate, Paul’s exhortation implies that walking in darkness is a distinct possibility for believers. This will be seen more later when we look at the Calvinistic doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints.
2. Walking in Futility is a Choice
Secondly, however, and more to the point about Total Depravity, it appears that even these Gentiles who walk in the futility of their mind do so because they have chosen to do so. In Ephesians 4:17-18, Paul strings together several perfect participles, which means that they are dependent upon the time of the main verb in his statement. The main verb is the past-tense (aorist) found in Ephesians 4:19 where Paul says that “they have given themselves over.” In other words, this means that the reason these Gentiles are futile in their minds, have their understanding darkened, have blindness of their heart, and are past feeling, is because they gave themselves over to lewdness, uncleanness, and greediness.
There is no doctrine of Total Depravity or total inability here. What there is, however, is the all-important biblical message that first we make our choices, and then our choices make us. Paul is saying that the Gentiles of whom he is speaking made the conscious choice to live in sin, and as a result, they have become darkened in their mind, feelings, and understanding. We might say that their conscience is seared, that they live in willful ignorance, and their past choices are reaping present results.
Both Believers and Unbelievers Choose to Live in the Futility of their Mind
Based on this understanding, it only makes sense then, that Paul warns his believing readers to not make the same choices. Choices for sin, though they do not cause someone to lose their eternal life once they have it, can cause serious long-term consequences in the life of the believer. Paul wants his readers to put off that old way of conduct, and live their new life in the Spirit with the new man which was created by God for righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Ephesians 4:17-19 is not teaching about Total Depravity or total inability, but about the devastating results of choosing sin over righteousness.
These truths apply not just to unbelievers, but to regenerate believers as well.If you want to read more about Calvinism, check out other posts in this blog series: Words of Calvinism and the Word of God.