How do people change? The simple answer: by changing their mind.

Paul presents the process of how to change in Ephesians 4:22-24. The context is about getting Christians to behave differently (“no longer walking as the Gentiles do” – v.17). He gives some examples of bad behaviour where they need to change (“sensuality” – v.19). And then he gives his famous “Put off / Put on” counsel. There are old habit patterns and behaviours that have to be put off – and the verb implies a definitive action that is as decisive as taking your shoes off. This is to be followed by another decisive action: put something else on in its place.

In the next paragraph he illustrates his point: the liar must put off telling lies and become a truth teller instead, and the thief must replace his stealing with hard work and generosity. That’s what a Christian does. So do it! If it’s that simple, why do we see so few people changing?

If we read these verses this way, we’ve missed the big point. Paul doesn’t give us a two-step program to change: Put off / Put on. It is actually a 3-step process, and the one in the middle is the key to the other two. He tells us we must “be renewed in the spirit of our minds” (v.23). He offers us a Brain Sandwich: the bread on either side is putting off and putting on, but the meat in the middle is a change of mind.

Paul makes two points here. Firstly, there is no change of behaviour without a change of mind. Of course another word he could have used is repentance, which, in its true meaning, has little to do with emotional regret or outward behaviour modification. To repent is to change your mind. The Gentiles, whose bad behaviour needed to change now that they were Christians, used to walk the way they did because of “the futility of their minds” (v.17). They didn’t need a brain transplant, but a new “spirit of the mind” – a new driving force enabling them to think differently. Telling them to “Stop being sensual” would have done no good. The heart of change is in a renewed mind.

Secondly, Paul tells us there is nothing we can do about it. So far as “Put off” and “Put on” are concerned, he is clear. This is what we have to do, and we are to act as decisively as Jesus told us to in telling us to gouge out an eye that causes us to sin. Throw out the TV on which we watch the pornographic movies, and replace the time wasted with wholesome acts of service. But in the middle, the verb changes from active to passive: “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds”. It’s something that happens to us, not something we do. So the heart of the matter is not actually to change our minds; it is to have our minds changed.

There are ways that we can resist that (by constantly reinforcing futile thinking with a steady diet of mental junk) and ways that we can facilitate it (by attentiveness to the Word of God, written and preached). But we can’t make it happen. In fact it is part of the futile Gentile mind to think we can change our minds by a two-step or ten-step program filled with human ingenuity or technique. But actually it is a work of God. Repentance is a gift. A changed mind is a gift. Without it there will be no real change.