“Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.” Matthew 12:45

Life, in the main, is not a grand series of accomplishments never to be revisited. It is rather a grand succession of changes. Nothing stays the same. Very little is “once and done” but rather “here a little, there a little.” Isaiah 28:10 says, “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” In that text, the fool, even the religious one, makes a mockery of the simple wisdom that virtue is accomplished one disciplined step at a time. Uncomplicated righteousness will always cause fools to stumble. But for uncomplicated righteousness to prevail it must be discovered and rediscovered, remembered and re-remembered, applied and reapplied, traced and retraced, no matter what the situation. Simple virtue, then, is our friend rather than the butt of a joke. Fools tend to seek virtue that is complicated and difficult, and therefore unattainable and hopeless.

Because life is a succession of changes, surviving life appears very complicated to the human eye. When you seek to make inner character changes, how can you be sure the changes are permanent? Why is change so often temporary? Are you doomed in slavery to your second nature?

Ephesians 4:25–31 raises some interesting thoughts in this connection. Paul says, “Therefore, putting away lying…let him who stole steal no longer…let no corrupt work proceed out of your mouth…let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”

Because life is a succession of changes, how can you be assured of permanent, inner changes? When is a liar not a liar—when he stops lying? When is a thief not a thief—when he stops stealing? Any observant person knows that cessation of activities does not mean there has been a permanent change. Catching a liar in a lie and putting a thief behind bars does not change their nature any more than the Social Gospel of the twentieth-century soup kitchens solved poverty and crime.

Ephesians 4 unfolds simple truth: a liar stops being a liar when he becomes something else. A thief stops being a thief when he becomes something else. Making change permanent will be successful when simple virtue is steadily applied in every successive change that makes up life. The solution is first found in being born again (2 Corinthians 5:17). Simple virtue that leads to permanent change is achieved first through the blood of Jesus Christ. A man must first be a disciple. Ephesians 4:17–18 calls for a changed walk, “…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.”

Paul describes discipleship in Ephesians 4:21–24, “…as the truth is in Jesus, that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” Paul’s words echo the teaching of our Lord in Matthew 12, evil things must be replaced by good things or there will be no relief and no victory. Real change is a new man (Ephesians 4:24), a renewed mind (Ephesians 4:23), righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24), a new manner of life that truly reflects God.

Putting off will never be permanent without putting on. A man is no longer a liar when he becomes a truth-teller (Ephesians 4:25). He is no longer a thief when he gets a job and works to make money honestly, becomes a giver, working hard and sharing (Ephesians 4:28). He is no longer resentful when he deals daily with problems in a godly manner (Ephesians 4:26f). He is no longer a source of corruption to those around him when he desires to build up others using wholesome words (Ephesians 4:29). He is no longer a miserable, griping curmudgeon when his heart grows tender and he practices to forgive (Ephesians 4:31f).

The discipline of simple virtue will aid you in discerning the open doors, the forks in the road, and habitual ruts along the succession of changes called life. Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little, applying self-examination, self-crucifixion, and self-discipline in pursuit of godly, simple virtue will yield for you a godly life. They say that replacing a bad habit with a permanent virtue will take three weeks of daily effort to feel comfortable, another three weeks to make its imprint on you, and then three more weeks to make virtue part of you. Most people never get that far with their good intentions.

Can a man really change? Philippians 2:12f and Galatians 5:22f say yes, through the aid of the Holy Spirit! No one learns to do anything worthwhile unless he persists and endures long enough (Psalm 1). Structure brings freedom and discipline brings liberty. Trust and obey.