In Ephesians 4:17-24, Paul makes key distinctions between the old self that was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6) and our new self, made alive in Christ. We are told by Paul not to walk as unbelievers do, in their darkened understanding, alienated from God, due to hardness of heart. Our old self is corrupt in its deceitful desires, and we are to walk not in that sense but in the sense of our new identity in Christ. But what is this old self characterized by and how do we differentiate from our new self?
Seeking what’s best for self motivates the old self. The old self desires power, approval, comfort, and security at its root, and will engage in sinful behavior that it thinks will fulfill those desires. To gain power and approval, the old self engages in risky behavior, rooted in a desire for self-confidence. To achieve comfort and security, the old self will promote themselves and use others for their own benefit, whether they realize it or not.
For the sake of argument, we will call this old self, "A performance-driven life." This performance-driven person functionally rejects the centrality of the gospel and responds by craving to please the flesh. Living by the flesh is how the Bible describes our tendency to follow sin-desiring self instead of walking in step with the Spirit of God. When a person lives by the flesh, by their old self, they believe that pleasing their own desires is more justifying - earning them worth, value, and favor with God - than living in line with the gospel.
Our sinful desires are heart motivations that drive our behaviors. Sinful actions are the result of a sinful heart. When these motivations begin to drive us, they become "lusts" - longings and deep desires of our hearts, sometimes things forbidden and sometimes making good things (friendships, marriages, etc) into ultimate things.
Our desires are controlled by our needs, and at the most fundamental level these sinful desires are driven by what we will say are four overriding needs common to every human heart. Heart idols are objects of our desire that control our choices and emotions by becoming our first love. Such idolatry is all encompassing, and we will identity four idols that stand out: power, approval, comfort, and security.
Let's look a little closer, for example, at sexual sin (immorality, impurity, sensuality). The power idol uses sex to control or hurt another person. The approval idol uses sex as a means to find approval or feel loved. The comfort idol uses sex as a way to feel better about oneself and to provide comfort for the pains of the soul. The security idol uses sex as a way to find a false sense of security.
Relational sins include enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, unforgiveness, etc. The power idol takes control of relationships through strength, intelligence, mind games, threats, and anger. The approval idol uses relationships to feel whole or right about one's self, especially if a person feels loved or respected by another person. The comfort idol uses relationships to feel whole if the other person (parents, friends, spouse) provide a happy relationship. The security idol uses relationships as a means to get things done and to feel productive.
Materialistic sins include sins such as envy, covetousness, evil desires, etc. Materialism finds wholeness to life in financial portfolios, nice homes, new vehicles, money in the bank, technology, etc. The power idol uses a person's net worth to take advantage of people. The approval idol uses materialism to display to others why they are acceptable. The comfort idol uses materialism to feel a sense of ease in and around their things. The security idol uses materialism to get things they want and to provide the lifestyle they desire.
Indulgent sins are sins that include drunkenness, getting high, orgies, and things like these. The power idol has a sense of entitlement to indulge in a lascivious lifestyle. The approval idol uses indulgence to be included among others, partying in sin. The comfort idol uses indulgence to ease pain and to experience an intoxicating feeling - even if it's temporary. The security idol uses indulgence to remove inhibitions among others and to take advantage of their lost sense of justice and goodness.
As you can see, the four source idols (power, approval, comfort, and security) encompass most categories of sin. And for each of these idols and for our every sinful desire, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only solution for our innate need for power, approval, comfort, and security.
In the gospel, we see the all-powerful Son of God using His power to serve us in our great need. And now His power is available to us as well, as we follow Him in serving others. We also find that Jesus did not seek to earn approval but received it freely as a gift from His Father, and He has now given us the only approval we will ever need. The gospel tells us that we are completely accepted by the Father through the satisfactory work of Jesus. The Father provides us with the true comfort our hearts and lives need, and He has purchased our complete security, both now and into eternity, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can offer us what our hearts really need, and only Jesus is worthy of our worship. Everything else is an idol that cannot satisfy.
We have turned power, approval, comfort, and security into idols. We must inspect the sin of our heart for these idols. We are created to worship, and we all worship something or someone. We will inevitably center our lives on something to worship, whether we realize it or not. Worship is like a fire hose that has gotten stuck on the "on" position and is endlessly shooting water out with great force. We must decide where to aim the hose. As Tim Keller writes, "The solution to our sin problem is not simply to change our behavior, but to reorient and center our entire heart and life on God." Therefore, we must go after sin by penetrating to the root and simply focusing on the fruit of the sin. There are times when people will repent of sin that is simply the fruit of the idol in their heart. This does not deal with the root cause of sin; to do that, we must first learn the why of our behaviors, not just the what.
Take an example of a Christian who is angry and sees it as sin. His initial reaction will be to do better, to avoid conflict, to live at peace with others, and to establish barriers to shield him from being angry. The person may say that he is sorry for his anger, and promises never to do it again. The problem with this all-too common response is that it fails to address the motives of the heart.
To change his behavior, this person must first understand the why of his behavior. He must learn to identity the false belief he has accepted and repent of the sin beneath his anger by uncovering the idol (what he believed would provide him with the power, approval, comfort, or security he desired). So for example, he says he's angry because he's bitter, and he's bitter because his spouse is nonresponsive, and that's because of selfishness, and at the root is pride. By repenting of his pride and selfishness, the man is able to address the fruit of his idolatry, his sinful anger.
Mark Driscoll puts it this way:
The tricky thing about idolatry is that it is usually the pursuit of something that is otherwise good...Idolatry is enslavement to something we love...it's a good thing that is elevated to a god thing. So how can you figure out what your idols are? Define for yourself your "little" hell. For you, hell is being poor; for you, it's being ugly; for you, it's being fat; for you, it's being unloved; for you; it's being underappreciated. The fear of your hell compels you to choose for yourself a false savior god to save you from that hell...For those whose hell is being unmarried, your savior will be a spouse. For those whose hell is loneliness, you will choose for yourself a friend or group of friends or a pet - you will do anything for them because they are your functioning saviors from your hell of loneliness.
How do we end up making good things into ultimate things? A sin becomes an idol when we value it more than we value Jesus as our ultimate joy and satisfaction. In doing this, we reject God as our object of worship and replace Him with something else. Since our idols are things we treasure and value more than Jesus, we discover them by honestly asking ourselves what gives our life meaning, worth, and value.
The goal, as Paul puts it, is to put on the new self, to not walk as if we have darkened understanding. Paul tells the Ephesians in chapters 1-4 all about who they now are in Christ, and tells them to continually remember their new self and put on their new self, not resorting to the old self.
If that is the idea of a performance-driven life, the goal then is a gospel-centered life. Rather than resting in our own abilities, a gospel-centered believer rests in their identity in Christ. In Paul's letters, he uses the expression "in Christ" a lot. To be "in Christ" means sharing in Christ's death and resurrection, being placed under His headship rather than under the curse of Adam. It means that we now live in a completely different relationship to God. Dying with Christ means finding no life in the things that used to run our lives. It means living under a new rule and serving a new King. While self is the central motivator in a performance-centered life, Christ calls us to do everything for His glory and not our own. Before we come under Christ's kingship, our identity is dominated by our own concerns rather than by loving God and loving people as Jesus did.
If you are believer in Christ, then you are IN CHRIST. Even though you don't always feel this way, Scriptures remind you who you are in Christ.
Through Christ, you are dead to sin, you are alive, you are forgiven, you are declared righteous, you are a child of God, you are God's possession. Who you are in Christ combats the desire to seek power, security, comfort, or approval from things outside of Him. Because you are approved by God, empowered by Him to live for Him, secure in Him, loved by Him, at peace with Him, and free from sinful desires because of Him, you don't have to see those desires outside of your standing and relationship with Him.
Our actions are determined by our identity. Who we are and how we see ourselves affects the choices we make and how we respond to circumstances. Knowing our identity is crucial. When Jesus was baptized, God the Father identified Jesus by announcing, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). Immediately after this declaration of Jesus' identity as the beloved Son, the pleasure of the Father, we learn that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days.
The first area the devil tempted Him was with His identity: "If you are the Son of God" (Matthew 4). Then he tempts Him with satisfaction for His hunger and providing comfort, as well as to prove His faith in God's approval and protection. Finally the devil offers Him power to rule over kingdoms of the world if Jesus would bow down and worship him. Jesus was tempted with the idols of power, approval, comfort, and security. In response, Jesus rebukes Satan and quotes the Scriptures: "You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve."
We worship that which gives us our identity. Whatever you identity with, you worship. This is why our identity must rest in Christ.
So what do we do when we realize we our falling back to our old selves? True and lasting change can only occur when we repent of the deep-seated idols we have trusted in and in faith believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, relying on Him as our only means of salvation. We need to be a people who release our idolatry to trust in Christ. The gospel's two dynamics of repentance and faith, leading to obedience, are the only solution to the ongoing battle of unbelief. Obedience flows from the freedom of the gospel. We rejoice that Christ has done everything for us - all that we need to secure our salvation and our growth in holiness. Our prayer is, "Lord, I am an adopted child of Yours, not a slave to sin. I am accepted because of Christ. I have forgotten how loved, secure, rich, and free I am in Christ. Please let me be astonished by your love.
While idol identification and rejection are necessary for repentance, true and lasting change is not complete without turning in faith toward God. In repentance, we affirm the truth in our hearts that God is glorious (negating the idol of power); God is gracious (negating the idol of approval); God is good (addressing the idol of comfort); and God is great (countering the idol of security).
Adapted from Gospel Coach by Scott Thomas