“They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. –Ephesians 4:19
We must also acknowledge that the story of the Bible is a story of conflict between believers and unbelievers, or covenant keepers and covenant breakers. This conflict inhabits every chapter of the Bible, Old Testament and New. Paul referred to this conflict when he said that Christians “must no longer walk as the Gentiles” (Eph. 4:17). Believers must not think or act like unbelievers. We must no longer be like those whose minds are darkened by sin and Sin’s agents.
The difference between believers and unbelievers is that believers have faith in Christ and unbelievers have faith in something else. The difference is not in the subjectivity of the individuals, but in the object of their faith. Believers are not better than unbelievers. Rather, the object of faith for believers—Jesus Christ—is superior to the object of faith for unbelievers—themselves, history, humanity, some other god, etc. The difference between believers and unbelievers does not belong to them subjectively. They themselves are not inferior, their idea of God is.
This is widely misunderstood because each individual thinks that their group is superior—smarter, holier, more blessed, etc.—than the others. But people are people are people. The difference is not about people, the difference is about the differing objects of faith. The one true God-in-Christ is greater than all of the false gods, multiplied a thousand times over. What is real is superior to imagination.
Of course, ideas have consequences, as does believing in differing objects of faith. Paul notes that one such difference is that unbelievers are “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them” (Eph. 4:18).
Unbelievers are self-alienated. They are not associated with God because they don’t want to be. They do not like what God likes or value what God values. They prefer to live in the world of their superstitions, where they think they have control, rather than to live in God’s world, where they would have to relinquish the illusion of being in control. Their unbelief is their choice. They are free to believe otherwise, but don’t.
Paul describes the ignorance of unbelief as ἄγνοια. The Greek word can be best understood as the failure to perceive with the mind, to understand (νοιέω). We need to understand the word understand in its original meaning, which was to stand under. Unbelievers fail to stand under God, to be submitted to God. Unbelievers refuse to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. And this is the issue of dispute that has been woven into the compromise of the U. S. Constitution. Christians have always understood We The People as being people under God. But God appears in the U. S. Constitution only in the Preamble as “Nature’s God.” God is also suggested by phrases like “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator.” Such phrases allow Christians to read their Christian understanding into the document, and it allows Deists and unbelievers to disregard Christianity.
(from Ephesians—Recovering the Vision of a Sustainable Church In Christ, forthcoming, 2014)