When the apostle describes a generic condition of unbelief, it is interesting how he does it. When we lived in unbelief, what was the atmosphere we breathed continually?
“For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Tit. 3:3).
For Paul, putting off the old man, the old way of being a human, involves shedding the snake skin of malicious snark. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph. 4:31). He says something very similar in Colossians. When we lived in the world of unbelief, all such things were natural. “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (Col. 3:8).
This is not limited to the apostle Paul. It is not one of his personal hobby horses. James tells us that the spirit in us veers off toward envy (Jas. 4:5), but hastens to reassure us that God gives more grace. The implication is that apart from such grace, malice and envy are the normal default settings for us. Peter assumes the same thing. When we come to Christ, we do so “laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings” (1 Pet. 2:1).
Now all this ties in with what I have been arguing about how the world runs on envy and accusation. You can see how easily a number of such sins cluster together. The best defense is always a good offense, and rather than waiting around to be accused, many who are riddled with guilt look for opportunities to point the finger first. Their envy selects the target, the accusation puts the target back on his heels, pride makes victory mandatory and lies necessary, and so forth.
Now God’s intention for the company of believers is not to have this spirit of accusation imported, only with the addition of theological and orthodox adjectives in the accusations. We are called to do something different, and not to do the same thing decorated differently.
This means that God’s picture of the world outside is a world of tangles, strategems, lies, vituperation, malice, back-biting, and all the rest of it. God’s picture of the company of saints is that of a great pavilion, set apart from the “strife of tongues” “Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues”(Ps. 31:20).
But of course, this is not how the world of unbelief describes itself. The world of unbelief describes itself as a place or urbane sophistication, or frankness, of scientific inquiry, of openness in dialog, of integrity and mutual affirmation. Remember that the devil, the accuser, is the father of lies (John 8:44), and this is the central lie. He loves the word integrity.
Acceptance of this line of propaganda is what keeps many dissatisfied unbelievers from asking the right kind of pointed questions. In their minds, there is no question but that their world is filled with malice and envy. The home they grew up in was full of it, their education was full of it, their circle of high school friends was full of it, and all their ex-lovers were the worst. But one of the things the spirit of accusation does is reassure the unsettled that the system is fine. Such a parishioner is told that the holy mother Church is above it all — he has just been unfortunate in his choice of pew. But Scripture declares that the whole church of High-Minded Accuation is riddled with hypocrisy. The whole thing is a mess, front to back.
When someone comes to realize that the whole system is bad, they have come to the point where they will consider “putting off the old man.” In order to come to Christ, a man has to do more than depart from himself, although he must certainly do that (Matt. 16:24). A man must depart from the world (1 John 2:15; Jas. 4:4). He must repudiate the system of accusation, and the entire apparatus of it. True conversion is departure from one world, and entry into another. Regeneration is the result of dying to the old humanity and coming to life in the new humanity. The work of the gospel in the world is to highlight and make manifest the high contrast between children of God and children of the slandering accuser.
The distinction is not found in temples. The Hindus have temples. The distinction is not altars. The Buddhists have altars. The distinction is not possession of a sacred text. The Muslims have that. The distinction is not reason and science. The atheists have some of that.
“In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:10-12).
And because of this new birth into a world free of condemnation and accusation, we find that all these things have been added to us. We are a living temple made up of living stones, our lives are offered up as living sacrifices on a perpetual altar, we have a book teeming with everlasting life, and our brains, once broken and full of malice, have been set free. We are born into a world of right reason.