Ephesians

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This 63-part expository study of Ephesians was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2007-8. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.

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Lesson 1: Spiritual Wisdom for God’s Saints (Ephesians 1:1-2, and overview)

If you could buy a book that contained a distillation of a lifetime of thinking and experience on spiritual matters by one of the greatest Christian leaders of all time, would you do it? Would you read it and study it and try to plumb the depths of its wisdom? What about if you could read aloud all six chapters of the book in only 19 minutes? I’m speaking about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

Even though Ephesians is so short, Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ exposition of it takes eight volumes! He has 37 messages on chapter 1 alone! John Calvin’s 48 sermons on Ephesians take up 705 pages. The Puritan William Gurnall in The Christian in Complete Armor takes almost 1,200 pages to expound on Ephesians 6:10-20! So there is far more depth in this short epistle than I can begin to understand or apply to my own life, much less to expound on. So as we come to it, we must pray with the apostle Paul (1:17-19),

… that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.

The English poet, Samuel Coleridge, said that Ephesians is “the divinest composition of man.” Another writer refers to it as, “the Grand Canyon of Scripture,” because “it is breathtakingly beautiful and apparently inexhaustible to the one who wants to take it in” (cited by, James Boice, Ephesians [Baker], p. 1). Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls Ephesians “the sublimest and the most majestic expression” of the gospel (God’s Ultimate Purpose [Baker], p. 12).

Background and Occasion:

There is an element of uncertainty about the background and occasion of this letter because three of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts omit the words, “at Ephesus” in verse 1. It is difficult to explain why these manuscripts would drop those words if they were in the original. But without them, the Greek grammar is awkward, implying that some city was designated. Almost all other Greek manuscripts contain the words, so it was in some way associated with that church.

But there are internal reasons why many scholars doubt that this letter was intended exclusively for the Ephesian church. Paul had spent more than two years laboring in Ephesus, resulting in the gospel spreading throughout the entire region (Acts 19:11). He would have known not only the leaders of the Ephesian church, but also many of its members. Yet in Ephesians, there are hardly any personal references and there are some verses that seem to indicate that Paul and his readers were not well acquainted (1:15; 3:2; 4:21). He does not address any specific problems that may be traced to that particular congregation.

Thus many scholars believe that Ephesians was a letter intended for distribution among several of the churches in western Asia Minor, with Ephesus being the major city and church. Colossians and Ephesians have much in common. Both letters, along with Philippians and Philemon, were written while Paul was in prison, probably in Rome. The situation was probably that Epaphras, perhaps the founder of the Colossian church, had reported to Paul in Rome how the church was doing. While there were many reasons for joy, there were also some serious doctrinal problems plaguing the church. Paul wrote Colossians to address these problems, exalting the person and work of Christ.

As he reflected on what he wrote to the Colossians, Paul was caught up with the glory of God’s purpose for His church, the riches of His grace toward us in Christ, and how these great truths should effect how believers live. So he penned Ephesians, intending it to be circulated among all of the churches of that region. Peter O’Brien (The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 57) explains, “He writes Ephesians to his mainly Gentile Christian readers, for whom he has apostolic responsibilities, with the intention of informing, strengthening, and encouraging them by assuring them of their place within the gracious, saving purpose of God, and urging them to bring their lives into conformity with this divine plan of summing up all things in Christ (1:10).”

At the same time, Paul also wrote the short letter to Philemon, pleading for forgiveness for his runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul had led to Christ. He sent these three letters—Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon—back to that region with Tychicus, a faithful worker who was with Paul in Rome (Col. 4:7; Eph. 6:21; Philemon lived in Colossae), sometime around A.D. 60-62.

Content and Themes:

Ephesians falls into two halves. In chapters 1-3, Paul presents our position in Christ in the heavenly realms, all because of His sovereign grace. The main idea is that God’s wisdom, glory, and power are displayed in His eternal purpose for the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, reconciled in Christ. After the introduction, he outlines the incomparable blessings that come to us because the Father chose us (1:4-6), the Son redeemed us (1:7-12), and the Holy Spirit sealed us (1:13-14), all “to the praise of His glory.” Because these truths are so profoundly important and deep, Paul prays that God will open our minds to comprehend the riches of all that God has given to us as members of the body of Christ, the head over all (1:15-23).

In chapter 2, Paul contrasts what we were before we met Christ, dead in our sins, with what He has done for us by His grace (2:1-10). He raised us from the dead and seated us with Christ in heaven! He wants the Gentile Christians to remember that formerly they were completely alienated from God and His covenant promises, but now they have been brought near in Christ Jesus. He Himself is our peace, who reconciled the Jews and Gentiles into one body through the cross, so that together we are being built into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (2:11-22).

In chapter 3, Paul begins by mentioning that he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of the Gentiles. This thought gives him concern that his imprisonment may cause some of the Gentile believers to doubt God’s sovereign control over these trials. So he digresses to show them that God had revealed to him the mystery that had been concealed in the past, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and members of the body of Christ. God’s wisdom is now being displayed through the church in accordance with His eternal purpose. So Paul’s tribulations were on behalf of the Gentiles, for their glory (3:1-13). This causes Paul again to break into prayer, that God would, according to the riches of His glory, grant that these believers could comprehend the unfathomable love of Christ, that they may be filled up to all the fullness of God (3:14-21).

Then, in chapters 4-6, Paul shows how comprehending God’s glorious purpose for the church and our position in Christ (chapters 1-3) should cause us to live in practical godliness in this world. From 4:1-6:9, Paul describes four (or, five) different “walks” and their effects: the worthy walk in the one body (4:1-16); the purposeful walk in the one new man (4:17-32); the loving walk, which also is a walk as children of light in this dark world (5:1-14); and, the careful walk of wisdom, especially as it affects the family and the workplace (5:15-6:9). He concludes by showing (6:10-20) that to walk well in this evil world, we must learn to stand against the unseen forces of evil by putting on the full armor of God.

Because in chapter 2 Paul described how we are seated with Christ in heaven, in chapters 4 & 5 he outlines how we are to walk in this world, and in chapter 6 how we are to stand firm against the forces of evil, Watchman Nee titles his treatment of Ephesians, Sit, Walk, Stand [Christian Literature Crusade]. “Sit” pictures our new position in Christ. “Walk” describes how to live in this world. “Stand” captures our resistance against the spiritual enemy.

In unfolding these marvelous truths, Paul emphasizes a number of themes. One is God and His sovereign, eternal purpose of summing up all things in Christ (1:9-11; 3:11). The rich salvation that He has graciously bestowed on us in spite of our sin is another wonderful theme (1:3-23; 2:1-22). In this regard, the word “riches” occurs five times; “grace” occurs 12 times; “glory” occurs eight times; “fullness,” “filled,” or “fills” occur six times; and the phrase, “in Christ” occurs 15 times. Because God’s gracious salvation and the depths of what it means are incomprehensible to the unaided human mind, twice Paul prays for God to give supernatural understanding into these glorious truths (1:15-23; 3:14-21).

Closely coupled with salvation is that the church as the body of Christ is at the heart of God’s purpose (1:22-23; 2:19-22; 3:4-11; 5:25-27, 29-32). Related to that is the mystery, hidden in the past but now revealed, that the church is a new creation, made up of both Jews and Gentiles on equal footing (2:11-22; 3:1-12). This means that the unity of the church is very important, which is another dominant theme (2:14-22; 4:1-13, 25).

Although there is a great correspondence between Colossians and Ephesians, in Colossians there is only one reference to the Holy Spirit (1:8), whereas in Ephesians He takes a major role. We have received the seal of the Spirit as the pledge of our salvation (1:13-14; 4:30). We have access in one Spirit to the Father (2:18). We are being built into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (2:22). The Spirit now has revealed the mystery of Christ to the apostles and prophets (3:5). The Spirit strengthens us with power in the inner man (3:16). We are to maintain the unity of the one Spirit (4:3, 4). We must be careful not to grieve the Holy Spirit (4:30), but rather to be filled with the Spirit (5:18), to take up the sword of the Spirit (6:17), and to pray at all times in the Spirit (6:20).

Of course, foundational to all of these themes is the centrality and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has purposed to sum up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ (1:10). Thus we must know Him and His power (1:17, 19). God raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand, far above all other powers, not only in this age, but also in the age to come (1:21-23). Everything in God’s dealings with us centers in the person and work of Jesus Christ and our organic unity of being “in Him.” These, then, are some of the great themes that we will try to understand in a deeper way as we work through this rich epistle.

Keep in mind (as Lloyd-Jones reminds us, p. 23) that these profound, unfathomable truths were not written to great scholars or theologians, but to ordinary church members. Many of them were slaves. Most of them were Gentiles who were formerly pagan idolaters with no knowledge whatsoever of the living and true God.

Ephesus was noted for its temple of Artemis or Diana, a structure that was four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Artemis herself was a many-breasted idol, worshiped through immoral encounters with prostitute priestesses. Her annual festival drew much revenue into the city, like the debauched Mardi Gras in New Orleans. When the many new Christians stopped buying silver shrines of Artemis, it led to a riot by the silversmith guild, whose prosperity depended on that business. Ephesus was also a center for occult practices. When the gospel took root in Ephesus, the new believers burned their occult books, which Luke reports as being worth 50,000 pieces of silver, probably equivalent to 50,000 days’ wages (Acts 19:18-41)!

So it was to ordinary Christians from this pagan background that the inspired apostle wrote this letter. He knew that these great themes, including God’s sovereign choice and predestination of us before the foundation of the world (which he plunges right into in 1:4-11) were essential for all of us to know and rejoice in if we want to live holy lives in this evil world. So don’t dodge them! I find that many Christians avoid the doctrine of election because they cannot understand it or it causes a lot of controversy. So they shrug their shoulders and skip the many verses that state this truth. In so doing, they miss a good portion of the riches that God has provided for their spiritual growth and health.

With that as a general overview and background, let’s spend the rest of our time on the introduction (1:1-2). We can sum it up:

God wants us to know who we are in Christ and how we came to be in Christ.

First, there is Paul, the author of this letter. His description of himself tells us some things about who he was and how he came to be that way. Then, there are the believers. His designation of them also tells us much about who we are and how we came to be this way. Finally, his greeting sums up both how Paul and all believers came to experience this great salvation in which we now stand.

1. Paul’s self-description tells us who he was in Christ and how he came to be that way (1:1a).

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (1:1a). As you know, Paul’s given name was Saul. He was a Jew, born into the tribe of Benjamin, whose namesake was the first king of Israel. Paul was trained as a Pharisee under the famous rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He was advancing in Judaism beyond many of his countrymen, being more extremely zealous for his ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14). He heartily approved and assisted when the Jewish leaders stoned Stephen to death. After that, Paul had ravaged the church, entering homes and dragging off both men and women to put in prison and put to death (Acts 8:3; 9:1).

As he was on his way to Damascus to bring any Christians from that city bound to Jerusalem, God sovereignly intervened in Paul’s life. A bright light from heaven suddenly blinded him. He fell to the ground and heard the Lord say (Acts 9:4), “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” When Paul responded, “Lord, who are You?” the Lord said (9:5-6), “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” Paul was not dissatisfied with Judaism. He wasn’t considering various religious alternatives. Rather, he was militantly opposed to Jesus Christ and the gospel when (as he puts it in Gal. 1:15-16), “God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles….”

In other words, Paul did not have anything to do with his dramatic conversion and his appointment as an apostle. Rather, it all happened by the sovereign will of God. Paul was fiercely opposing God at the very moment that God literally stopped him in his tracks, blinded him physically, but opened his eyes spiritually to see the risen Savior. As an apostle, Paul was appointed and sent by God to preach the gospel especially to the Gentiles, whom he formerly despised with a passion.

While perhaps none of us have had such a dramatic conversion as Paul had, if we know Christ as Savior we know that it was not our doing. We were spiritually dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1), living in futility, darkened in our understanding, excluded from the life of God because of our ignorance and hardness of heart, given over to sensuality and impurity with greediness (4:17-19). While we were in that condition, the glorious words of 2:4-5 broke into our lives: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)….” It was all because of “His kind intention which He purposed in Him” (1:9)!

2. Paul’s description of believers tells us much about who we are and how we came to be this way (1:b).

“To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:b). First, we are “saints.” Contrary to popular usage, “saints” is not a term describing extraordinary believers, who stand a notch above the rest of us. Rather, in the Bible, all believers are saints and all saints are believers. The word means, “set apart ones,” “holy ones,” or “sanctified ones.” It means that we have been cleansed from all our guilt by Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf (Heb. 10:10, 14). Thus we are separated from this evil world and set apart unto God for His holy purposes.

When we were in Nepal recently, we saw people at the Hindu temple trying to cleanse themselves from their sins by offering sacrifices and by washing with the putrid water from a supposedly holy river. It was a tragic sight! There is only one way to be cleansed from your sin and guilt, and that is through faith in the blood of Jesus, who offered Himself as the substitute for sinners.

Paul’s second phrase to describe believers is that they are “faithful in Christ Jesus.” “Faithful” may mean that they are reliable or obedient, but here it probably has the meaning, “believers.” No one is saved apart from believing personally in the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the object of our faith, and so we must understand something of who He is and what He did when He died on the cross.

While saving faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29), it is at the same time something that we must exercise. When God opens our blind eyes to see our own guilty condition and also the beauty and glory of the person of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross, we cease from our efforts to save ourselves. We cast ourselves totally on Christ. God places us “in Christ Jesus,” so that all that is true of Him becomes true of us. As Paul puts it (1 Cor. 1:30-31), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” Finally,

3. Paul’s greeting sums up how we came to experience this great salvation in which we now stand (1:2).

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is Paul’s common greeting, but it is more than just a greeting. As Lloyd-Jones puts it (p. 36), “No two words are more important in the whole of our faith than ‘grace’ and ‘peace.’ Yet how lightly we tend to drop them off our tongues without stopping to consider what they mean. Grace is the beginning of our faith; peace is the end of our faith.”

Grace is God’s unmerited favor. We deserved His judgment, but He saved us and blessed us. Peace with the holy God is the basic need of every sinner. We cannot appease Him by our own sacrifices or good deeds, because these cannot erase the stain of our sin. But, as Paul puts it in 2:14, “He Himself is our peace.” Christ reconciled us to God; He gives us peace within our hearts, even in the midst of trials; and, He reconciles us to one another.

When we experience God’s grace at the cross, instead of being our Judge, God becomes our Father and Jesus Christ becomes our Lord. Rather than running from God because we wanted to hide our sins and because we feared His judgment, we can draw near to God with hearts washed clean (Heb. 10:22). Instead of proudly running our own lives to promote our own interests, we now submit gladly to Jesus as Lord and Master, seeking to do His will.

Conclusion

Do you know personally what I’ve been talking about? Has God intervened in your life and rescued you from your sins? Has He opened your eyes to see the beauty of the One who offered Himself on the cross to be the substitute for your sins? If so, now you are a saint, a holy one, set apart to God from this evil world. You are a believer in Christ Jesus. You revel in His grace and abide in His peace. In the next few weeks, we will begin to explore the treasures of this great salvation.

Application Questions

  1. What if a person grew up in the church and has not experienced a dramatic conversion—how can he know that he’s saved?
  2. Why does Paul state that he is an apostle by the will of God? Why was this important to emphasize?
  3. Why is it important to know that every Christian is a saint? What implications does this have?
  4. Why is God’s grace foundational to salvation and the Christian life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 2: Blessed, We Bless (Ephesians 1:3)

I read recently of a treasure-hunting company that found a sunken galleon with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coins. Of course, no sooner had they announced their find than some government claimed that the treasure really belonged to them, not to the finders. But, I’ve often thought that searching for lost treasures would be a fun job.

The Christian life is really a treasure hunt as you progressively discover the vast wealth that already is yours because you are now in Christ. From the moment He saves you, God bequeaths on you, as Paul puts it, “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Verse 3 is the opening topic phrase of a long sentence (in Greek) that runs down through verse 14. Some Greek scholars have called it one of the most complex Greek sentences in the entire Bible to sort out, as Paul piles phrase upon phrase to explain what some of those spiritual blessings are.

Throughout eternity we will go on discovering the riches of God’s grace, which He lavished upon us (1:7-8). We are spiritually rich in Christ beyond our capacity to imagine. One of the most important things for your spiritual growth is to ask God to open the eyes of your heart so that you will know “what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (1:18).

But, why does God lavish His blessings upon us? Is it all about us or is it about Him? One of the most important truths in Scripture to grasp is that God is passionate about His glory. John Piper explains this in many of his books, but especially in God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books], half of which is a reproduction of Jonathan Edwards’ treatise, “The End for Which God Created the World.” It is not an easy book to read (I have read it twice now), but it is worth grappling with! Edwards argues that because God is infinitely perfect, He must seek His own glory, because to seek the glory of any being or thing less perfect than God would be sin. For any creature, self-glorification is sin. But, because God is infinitely perfect, He would be unrighteous if He did not glory in that which is perfect, namely, in Himself.

So, why does God bless us with every spiritual blessing in Christ? It is so that we may in turn bless and glorify Him, the giver of every good and perfect gift. Blessed by God, we bless God.

Because God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, we should bless God.

To bless God as we should, we need to understand how He has blessed us.

1. God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.

Paul will unpack that idea in 1:4-14, but today we will just seek to understand and apply verse 3.

A. The gospel begins with God, not with us.

From cover to cover, the Bible is a book that reveals to us who God is. It begins (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It ends with the Revelation of Jesus Christ, the supreme manifestation of God to us. As He told His disciples (John 14:9), “He who has seen Me has seen the Father ….” Because God is a spirit, invisible in the brightness of His glory from our fallen human eyes, we cannot know Him through human philosophy or intuition. If we are to know Him, He must reveal Himself to us, which He has done in Christ.

The Bible shows that we must be radically God-centered. As Paul exclaims (Rom. 11:36), “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” And so Paul begins this magnificent unfolding of the gospel by being radically God-centered. Note the repetition of God and Jesus Christ in these opening verses: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”; “in Christ Jesus: (1:1). “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (1:3). He continues (1:4), “He chose us,” (1:5) “He predestined us,” “through Christ Jesus to Himself,” “His will,” (1:6) “to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Work your way through the rest of this long sentence and notice how radically God-centered it is.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones observes (God’s Ultimate Purpose [Baker], p. 13), “Much of the trouble in the Church today is due to the fact that we are so subjective, so interested in ourselves, so egocentric. That is the peculiar error of this present century.” He goes on to argue that the message of the Bible is to bring us back to God, to humble us before Him, so that we can see our true relationship to Him in all of His glory. He argues (ibid.), “We must not start by examining ourselves and our needs microscopically; we must start with God, and forget ourselves.”

When God opens your eyes to get a glimpse of Him in His glory, majesty, holiness, power, and wisdom, like Isaiah, you are instantly humbled in the dust to cry out (Isa. 6:5), “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” That glimpse of God shows you why you need the Savior. So we must begin by some understanding of who God is.

B. The gospel begins with God blessing us.

You do not understand the gospel if you think that you can bring anything or contribute anything to God in order to gain salvation. This is one of the greatest errors that keeps people from receiving God’s blessing of salvation: they think that they must be a good person or do some sort of good works in order to earn a place in heaven. But the good news is that you come to God just as you are and receive everything from Him as His gift. That is the meaning of the word, grace. If you do anything to deserve it or earn it, it is not grace. God’s grace means that He justifies the ungodly, on the basis of faith alone, not works (Rom. 4:4-5).

This goes back to the matter of God’s glory. If we could contribute anything toward our salvation, then we could share in the glory. But, if it all comes from God on the basis of His grace, then He gets all the glory. The giver gets the glory. So we can only come to God empty-handed, deserving His judgment, but pleading for grace through the merits of Jesus Christ. God is pleased to pour out the blessings of salvation on those who acknowledge that they do not deserve it. Then He gets all the glory. So we must come to God as those who are needy, asking Him to bless us.

C. The God who blesses us with salvation is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Why does Paul use this designation of God in this context? (He uses a similar phrase in 2 Cor. 1:3; see, also, 1 Pet. 1:3.) I’m sure that there is much more here than I understand, but in part, Paul uses this designation to focus on the fact that while He was on this earth, the Lord Jesus, the eternal Son of God, depended on the Father for His every need. In His humanity, Jesus knew the Father and leaned upon His all-sufficiency for every need to show us how we should live in dependence on the Father.

Also, Jesus is the one and only mediator between the Father and us (1 Tim. 2:5). All that we receive from God, we must receive through the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ becomes our heavenly Father when we come to Him through His Son. The Son of God is eternally God, but He laid aside His glory and took on Himself the form of a servant, becoming obedient to death on the cross to secure our salvation (Phil. 2:5-11). Thus all spiritual blessings come to us through the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the obedience of the Son of God to His God and Father.

This means that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ. If good people can earn their salvation by their good deeds, then the Son of God did not need to leave His glory in heaven and come in obedience to the Father to die on the cross. Any system of salvation apart from Christ and the cross is false. It diminishes what Jesus Christ did for us, shedding His blood to secure all the blessings of heaven for us, even while we were yet sinners.

D. God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, not necessarily with every physical or material blessing on earth.

A modern heresy teaches that it is God’s will for all of His children to be healthy and wealthy in this life. The false prophets of this cult live in huge mansions, drive expensive cars, and indulge themselves in every flagrant luxury that they can, luring their gullible followers with promises of the same. It is completely anti-Christian! While God promises to meet our basic physical needs, He knows that our deepest need is spiritual, to be rightly related to Him. So He blesses us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.

Our lives on this earth are short and uncertain, at best. But, we will spend eternity either with God in heaven or in hell under His judgment. As the story of the rich man and Lazarus illustrates (Luke 16:19-31), it is far better to live in dire poverty and suffering in this life and have eternal riches in heaven than to live in luxury in this life and spend eternity in the agonizing flames of hell. Or, as the apostle John puts it after telling us not to love the world or the things in the world (1 John 2:17), “The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”

You may be thinking, “But isn’t this impractical? What good are spiritual blessings to me if I can’t live comfortably in this life? Isn’t this just ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’? Aren’t those who focus on heavenly blessings not much earthly good?”

Hardly! In fact, precisely the opposite is true. C. S. Lewis saw this when he wrote, “The Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have begun thinking less of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.” (Source in Lewis unknown; cited on: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/ articles/onsite/Hardly! In fact, precisely the opposite is true. C. S. Lewis saw this when he wrote, “The Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have begun thinking less of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.” (Source in Lewis unknown; cited on: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/ articles/onsite/sermonmanuscripts.html.)

Or, as Paul commands (Col. 3:1-2), “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” Our treasures or blessings are all in Christ, in the heavenly places. Our greatest need is spiritual and we have every spiritual blessing in Him.

If you’re still thinking, “But this is so impractical,” keep in mind that when Paul wrote this, he was in prison. Every time he moved he could hear and feel the heavy chains clanking around his wrist and his ankle. He could have been depressed and complaining about his circumstances. He could have said, “I don’t need spiritual blessings right now! I need to get out of this stinking cell and have my physical needs met!”

But, instead, he breaks into this doxology, praising God for giving him every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. If understanding those blessings could sustain Paul in a Roman prison and give him the buoyant hope that he exudes in all of his letters, then this stuff is about as practical as you can get! It will sustain you in whatever difficulties you face.

E. God’s blessing us with every spiritual blessing in Christ shows us the all-sufficiency of Christ for our every need.

All blessings come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5), but in Him we have every spiritual blessing. In Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” and “in Him you have been made complete” (Col. 2:3, 10). God’s “divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3).

Either these promises are pious platitudes that are of no practical value (as “Christian psychology” often insinuates), or these and many other Scriptures show us that God has given us in the person and work of Jesus Christ all that we need to face life’s problems. He has given us His Holy Spirit to indwell us and to produce in us the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). These qualities describe an emotionally or psychologically whole person. Most of those qualities have a relational aspect, so that the person with these qualities will be able to get along harmoniously with others. These qualities are promised to every person who walks by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16).

In other words, God does not say, “My Spirit will produce love in all of you, except for those who have never been loved and who have an anger problem. You’ll need therapy to work through your anger.” Or, “I will give joy to everyone except those who are clinically depressed. They may need Prozac if they want My joy.” He does not say, “Every Christian can experience My peace, except for those with an anxiety disorder. They’re going to need the insights of Carl Rogers to get through this thing!”

I’m not saying that counseling is wrong or that the use of psychotropic drugs is always wrong (although they should not be the first resort). I am saying that psychology has infiltrated the church and its effect has not been to direct hurting people to their spiritual blessings in Christ, but rather to human wisdom on how to cope with trials apart from reliance on God and repentance from sin. I have heard supposedly Christian psychologists say that to give Bible verses to a hurting person or to tell him to trust in God is worthless and even cruel advice! A Christian counselor should direct you to the all-sufficient Lord Jesus Christ and your spiritual riches in Him.

And I’m saying that before you take a drug to get over your problem, make sure that you have allowed your problem to drive you to greater dependence on Christ as your all in all. I read last week the story of a Christian woman suffering from severe anxiety and depression. Without even probing for the causes of her problems, her pastor told her to go to a doctor and get an anti-depressant. She followed his advice and felt better within a few weeks. But she did not confront the sin in her life that was at the root of her troubles. It was only years later when she started attending a church where sin is called sin and people are held accountable that she saw her own sin, confessed it, and began to be truly healed in Christ. (For more on Christians and psychology, I have two articles on the church web site.)

God directs trials into our lives so that we will learn not to trust in ourselves, but in God and His mighty power (2 Cor. 1:8-9). He uses trials to make us examine ourselves in a deeper way, so that we will root out any selfishness, pride, or sin. If we try to solve our problems without digging deeper into the treasure house of our riches in Christ, we have missed God’s purpose in sending those trials. So make it your lifelong quest to understand and be satisfied with Jesus Christ and all that God has made Him for your soul.

F. These blessings are for everyone that personally knows the Lord Jesus Christ.

Note the emphasis in these verses on “us”: He has blessed us in Christ (1:3). He chose us in Him (1:4). He predestined us to adoption as sons (1:5). He freely bestowed His grace on us in the Beloved (1:6). In Him, we have redemption and forgiveness according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished on us (1:7-8). He made known to us the mystery of His will (1:9).

Who is “the us”? It is all of us who have come to know God’s abundant grace through faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, these blessings are not just for some super-saints. Rather, they are God’s gracious gift to every child whom He adopts into His family. While some of His children do not know and enjoy the blessings of their inheritance in Christ, they are just as much heirs as those that do enjoy these riches. So every Christian should diligently seek to discover, enjoy, and apply these vast riches in Christ Jesus.

To the extent that you understand and enjoy these riches, you will bless God for them.

2. Because God has blessed us with every blessing in Christ, we should bless God.

Paul uses the word “blessed” in two senses in this verse. When he says that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing, he means that God has freely bestowed His good gifts on us in the person and work of His Son on our behalf.

But when we bless God, we cannot give Him anything that He lacks, because He has no lack. So our blessing God means to speak well of Him, or to praise Him for His glorious attributes and for His gracious actions toward us in Christ (Ps. 103:1-5). We thank Him for all that He is to us and for all that He has done for us and for all that He promises yet to do for us throughout eternity. We bless Him by joyfully giving back to Him what He has first given to us, namely, our time, our talent, and our treasure.

When my children were little, they liked to bless me with some sort of gift on my birthday or at Christmas. Where did they get the money to buy me a gift? They got it from dear old dad! I gave them what they needed and they took my gift and returned it to me as their gift or blessing. I blessed them, but they also blessed me by their gifts.

So we bless God by offering up “a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.” We bless God when we “do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16). We bless God when our hearts overflow with joy in Him because of His abundant grace towards us in Christ.

Conclusion

Martyn Lloyd-Jones states (ibid., p. 49), “there is no more true test of our Christian profession than to discover how prominent this note of praise and thanksgiving is in our life.” To what extent do you find praise, adoration, thankfulness, and joy in God welling to the surface in your daily life? I’m not talking about glibly going around saying, “Praise the Lord” all the time. I am talking about heartfelt joy and satisfaction in Christ that floods into your soul. It should not be a rare experience!

If it is not as frequent as it ought to be, spend time meditating on Scriptures such as Ephesians 1 or Romans 8, which tell of the spiritual riches that are ours in Christ. Meditate on the Psalms, which are filled with the praises of God in the midst of life’s difficult trials. Allow your trials to drive you to a deeper experience of the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ for your soul. Make it your lifelong quest to “count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [your] Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Being blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, bless the God who has so blessed you!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to view trials as an opportunity to discover more of the riches of Christ for your soul? Why is grumbling in trials wrong (Phil. 2:14-16)?
  2. Some will argue, “If psychology helps people with their problems, what’s wrong with that?” Your answer? (See my article, “Christians and Psychology: Some Common Questions Answered.”)
  3. Why is the “health and wealth” gospel heretical?
  4. When (if ever) should a Christian use prescribed psychotropic drugs? What guidelines apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 3: He Chose Us (Ephesians 1:4)

Do you rejoice in the doctrine of God’s sovereign election? Do you consider it a precious blessing from Him? You should because Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did! When he exclaimed (1:3), “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,” the first blessing he goes on to mention is (1:4), “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world….” We cannot praise God properly for His great salvation if we deny or dodge the truth of His choosing us.

There are many professing Christians who openly deny the doctrine of election. They always claim to be “moderate” or “balanced” in their views! Many others give a brief nod to the doctrine, but they quickly skirt around it because it is divisive and difficult to understand. But I would agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (God’s Ultimate Purpose [Baker], 1979, p. 84) and long before him, John Calvin (John Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians [Banner of Truth], 1973, p. 25), who both pointed out that dodging what the Holy Spirit has put in Scripture for our understanding is sin. It is our business to come to grips with the inspired Word and allow it to speak to our hearts in the manner that God intended.

In order to do that, we must approach this truth with the right spirit before the Lord. If we come proudly to debate and prove that we are right (no matter which side we are on), we approach it wrongly. Rather, we must come with submissive hearts to God and His Word, asking Him to open our eyes to truth that the natural man cannot understand. If we come contending against God’s sovereignty because we think that it denies our free will, the words of Paul rebuke us (Rom. 9:20), “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” God put this truth front and center for our encouragement and upbuilding in the faith. But we must come with submissive, teachable hearts.

When you take Ephesians 1:3-4 together, Paul is saying:

One of the greatest spiritual blessings that God has given to us is that He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before Him.

Without any argument or apology, Paul begins enumerating our blessings in Christ by stating that God chose us and He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ (1:4-5). Limiting ourselves to verse 4, note first:

1. The doctrine of God’s choosing us for salvation is one of His greatest blessings because it guarantees our salvation.

What does election mean? Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], 1994, p. 670, italics his) defines it as: “Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.” The Greek verb translated “chose” means, “to select or pick for oneself” (all Greek lexicons). Note three things that stem from our text:

A. No one is ever capable or inclined to choose God unless God first chose him.

Election is unconditional in the sense that God did not base His choice on His foreknowledge of whether certain people would choose to believe in Christ. If He had done so, it would be a denial of His grace, because then their salvation would be based on something which they did in and of themselves. But Scripture is clear that salvation is totally by God’s grace (unmerited favor; Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 9:11-18; 11:5-6).

Also, if God’s choosing us were based on His foreknowledge that we would choose Him, then He really didn’t choose us at all. Rather, He only would have responded to our choosing Him by then choosing us. But this would make God’s plan of salvation depend on the choices of fallen sinners, rather than on His purpose and glory. It would be puzzling as to why Paul plainly states, “He chose us,” if in fact, it were the other way around.

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (ibid., p. 83), there are only two possibilities: Either God chose us according to His good pleasure, “entirely apart from anything we have ever done or said or thought.” Or, He chose us because He foresaw that we would choose Him. He says, “There is no third possibility.” (Norman Geisler tries to propose a third alternative in Chosen But Free [Bethany House], pp. 53-55. But he misrepresents the Calvinist view, never deals with the biblical meaning of foreknowledge, and uses faulty argumentation throughout. James White, The Potter’s Freedom [Calvary Press], capably refutes Geisler on this point in chapter 2, “Determinately Knowing.)

Also, as Calvin points out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Eph. 1:4, p. 198), “We were all lost in Adam; and therefore, had not God, through his own election, rescued us from perishing, there was nothing to be foreseen.” In other words, God would not have foreseen any lost people choosing of their own free will to be saved, because Scripture is clear that by nature we all were “fast bound in sin and nature’s night” (Charles Wesley, “And Can it Be?”). As Paul drives home (Rom. 3:10-12), “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” Scripture also piles up metaphors such as being spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), blind (2 Cor. 4:4), deaf (Matt. 13:14-15), lame (Luke 14:21), hardened (Eph. 4:17-19), and enslaved (John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:6), to show that as sinners, we had no inclination or ability to choose Christ or believe in Him.

Invariably, those who deny God’s sovereign, unconditional election also have to deny that sinners are unable to come to Christ by themselves (theologians call this, “total depravity”). They try to argue that God has given “prevenient” grace to all, so that they are able to respond to the gospel invitation. Otherwise, they say, it would be a sham for God to command men to believe in Christ when He knows that they are unable to do so.

Such reasoning fits with human logic, but not with the revealed Word of God. Jesus plainly stated (John 6:65), “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” No one can means, no one is able. Clearly, the Father did not grant this to everyone, or Jesus’ statement would be needless. Jesus also said (Matt. 11:27), “no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Knowing the Father depends on the Son of God choosing to reveal Him to the individual, which He does not do for everyone. But, what are the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth? “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Jesus saw no contradiction between saying, “No one can know or come, unless I will it; therefore, come!” Neither should we! When Paul says, “God chose us,” we pervert Scripture if we twist it to mean, “We first chose God.”

B. It is only through Christ and what He did for us, not through anything in us, that we may be saved.

Paul says, “He chose us in Him.” As we saw in verse 3, all of the blessings that we receive from God come to us “in Christ.” Calvin explains (Commentaries, p. 198, italics his), “if we are chosen in Christ, it is not of ourselves…. In short, the name of Christ excludes all merit, and everything which men have of their own; for when he says that we are chosen in Christ, it follows that in ourselves we are unworthy.”

I regret having to detract from such glorious truth to refute error, but because error floods into the church, I must. Some say that verse 4 does not teach that God chooses individuals, but rather that He chose Christ and those who believe in Him, not individually, but in a group sense. Thus we make ourselves part of “the elect” when we choose Christ.

It should be evident that such teaching is only trying to dodge the plain meaning of the words of inspired Scripture. “He chose us” is not ambiguous! The “us” refers to persons or individuals in the church. There is no hint of Paul meaning, “What I’m really saying is that God only chose Christ and then we chose Him, so God really didn’t choose us.” Paul adds, “He chose us in Him,” to show that all of the spiritual blessings we receive center in Christ.

Spurgeon put it this way (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 1986, 38:355): “God called us in Christ. He justified us in Christ. He sanctified us in Christ. He will perfect us in Christ. He will glorify us in Christ. We have everything in Christ, and we have nothing apart from Christ.” Again, the point of these words, “in Him,” is to take our thoughts away from anything in ourselves and to focus us on the merits and love of our Savior, who gave Himself for us. Although we must believe to be saved, salvation is not to be traced to our faith or to anything else in us. Rather, salvation is to be traced to God’s eternal purpose through Jesus Christ and all that He did for us. We were not chosen because of anything in us, but rather we were chosen in Him. Bless His name!

C. The blessing of salvation is part of God’s eternal plan to glorify Himself.

Paul adds that God chose us “before the foundation of the world.” He adds this time element because in this extended sentence (1:3-14), he is talking about God’s plan for the ages to glorify Himself through His plan of salvation. It is inconceivable that the all-wise Creator of the universe would create the world and place people on it without some sort of predetermined plan for the ages! We would say that a builder who tried to build a house without any sort of plan in mind beforehand and without any ability to accomplish his unplanned house was inept and crazy. Surely, then, God did not create the universe without a plan and the ability to carry out that plan. He would not leave such an important plan dependent on the rebellious will of humans.

And, when man fell into sin, God didn’t say, “Oh no, now I have to modify My plan!” If He had done so, then He would be a changeable being, not the immutable Sovereign of the universe. And, if He is not sovereignly in control of all events who knows whether He may have to change His plan again in the future? How could we even know whether His promises and plan would finally prevail, if He is not sovereign over all things, including the evil deeds of men?

This phrase, “before the foundation of the world,” is there for our comfort and assurance, so that we will bless God for His choosing us. It means that you were not an afterthought in the mind of God! It means that He set His love on you long before you ever existed or even before the world existed! It means that your name was written in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; 17:8)! If your salvation depends on your choice of God, you can never be assured of it. But if it depends on God’s choice of you before He created the world, then it is a sure thing. The God who planned it before the world began will bring it to completion.

Some argue that if God chose us for salvation apart from anything that we do, it will lead people to say, “Then we can live as we please.” But our text shows that this is not so.

2. The doctrine of God’s choosing us for salvation is one of His greatest blessings because it guarantees our becoming holy and blameless before Him.

First, we must deal with a technical difficulty: do the words, “in love,” go with what precedes or with what follows? Many scholars understand the words to go with the preceding, “that we would be holy and blameless before Him in love” (KJV, NJKV; although the NASB, ESV, and NIV put the words with what follows). Taken this way, “in love” would refer to our love for God and for one another as a manifestation of God’s choosing us. The reasons for connecting the phrase with the preceding words are (Harold Hoehner, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], ed. by John Walvoord & Roy Zuck, 2:617), “(1) In this context the modifying phrases always follow the action words (vv. 3-4, 6, 8-10). (2) The other five occurrences of ‘in love’ in Ephesians (3:17; 4:2, 15-16; 5:2) refer to human love rather than divine love. (3) Love fits well with holiness and blamelessness, for this would denote a balance between holiness and love.”

On the other hand, to connect the words “in love” with what follows fits well with God’s predestining us “to adoption as sons … according to the kind intention of His will.” In other words, God’s predestining us was not a mechanical, arbitrary process, but rather, it stemmed from His great love (Rom. 5:8). So it is difficult to decide. Both are true biblically: God’s choosing us will result in our growth in love; and, His choosing us stems from His special love for His elect (Eph. 5:25; John 13:1; Deut. 7:7-8).

God chose us “that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” Paul connects God’s calling or choosing us so that we will be holy in at least two other texts. In 2 Timothy 1:9 he writes that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” And, in Romans 8:29-30 he writes, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

By the way, the word “foreknow” in the New Testament does not mean simply to know in advance. In that sense, God foreknows everyone who has ever lived. Romans 8:29 (also, Rom. 11:2; 1 Pet. 1:2, 20; Acts 2:23) refers to God’s advance choice to know certain individuals in a relationship of love. Clearly, Paul is distinguishing those on whom God set His purpose to save from the rest of humanity. Thus God’s foreknowledge contains the concept of His foreordination of people and events.

God chose us to be holy and blameless. Both of these words look at our sanctification, but from slightly different angles. To be holy is to be set apart to God from all sin and from the evil influences of this world. We are to be distinct from the way that the world thinks and distinct from the values of those who are enslaved to greed and various lusts. Blameless means to be without spot or blemish. Paul says that Christ’s aim for His church is (5:27) “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” To be blameless is to have integrity. It means that you are the same in private as you are in public. You think and act the same when no one is watching as you do when the eyes of others are upon you.

Paul adds that we are to be holy and blameless before Him. That is the key, to live all of your life openly before God, knowing that (Heb. 4:13) “all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” You live in the presence of God (“coram deo”). You have fellowship with the living God, knowing that He knows your every thought, word, and deed. Therefore, you quickly confess any sin and appropriate His cleansing blood (see 1 John 1:1-10).

While it is true that we will never be completely holy and blameless before God as long as we are in this body of sin (Rom. 7), if we are God’s chosen people, we will be growing in holiness. And, however you interpret the phrase “in love,” the essence of holiness is love, because “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). Love is the supreme virtue of the Christian life (1 Cor. 13). It leads the list of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Sometimes we wrongly picture a holy person as being somewhat relationally challenged. We may think of a hermit or monk, who distances himself from others and hardly speaks to others. But biblical holiness requires that we love one another, especially in our families and in the local church. We treat others as we would want to be treated. Paul links God’s choice of us with our holy, loving behavior in Colossians 3:12-13: “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”

Conclusion

I originally thought that I should deal in this message with some of the common objections that are raised against the doctrine of election. But to do so would detract from the apostle’s aim for our text. (You may read many such defenses of election by going to monergism.com, under the subject, “Election.”) Paul does not debate the matter or apologize for it or tiptoe around it. He states it as plainly as language could put it: “He chose us. That is one of the greatest spiritual blessings that God has given to us because it guarantees our salvation and our holiness. You won’t experience the joy of that blessing if you fight with God’s Word over it.

In his wonderful book, A Pastor’s Sketches ([Solid Ground Christian Books] vol. 1, p. 244, italics his), Ichabod Spencer, a Brooklyn pastor in the first half of the 19th century, tells of a pastor who had preached on the sovereignty of God. After the service, a well-educated woman came up to him and thanked him for his sermon. She said, “O sir, it has done me good. All my life I have been troubled with the doctrine of election. I have studied it for more than twenty years in vain. But now I know what has been the matter,--I have never been entirely willing that God should be God.” Spencer concludes, “And when you are entirely willing that ‘God should be God,’ election will trouble you no longer.”

I found that to be true in my experience about 40 years ago. I thought that I was fighting Paul in Romans 9:18, where he argues, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” Paul next anticipates the argument of those who fight against the doctrine of election (Rom. 9:19): “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” In other words, if God sovereignly chooses those whom He saves and passes over the rest in their sin, how can He blame unbelievers for not believing? I used to go around and around with Paul, thinking, “Come on, Paul, answer that question!” I thought that his answer was a cop out.

Then one day it was as if God tapped me rather strongly on the shoulder and said, “You’re not fighting with Paul. You’re fighting with Me! I did answer the question. You just don’t like My answer!” His answer is (Rom. 9:20), “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?”

I realized that I had not been willing to let God be God. I repented and submitted to what God’s Word plainly teaches (Eph. 1:4): “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” The doctrine of election became a source of joy and comfort in my Christian life. I pray that you will let God be God, submitting to His Word that is given for your joy in Christ, so that you will rejoice in the doctrine of election!

Application Questions

  1. How can a person know if God has chosen him/her for salvation?
  2. Why is the doctrine of election essential if we want to glorify God? How does the denial of it detract from His glory?
  3. One main argument against election is that if God only chose to save some, He doesn’t love everyone. Your response?
  4. Some Christians say that we should avoid doctrines such as election, because they are so controversial. Why is this wrong?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 4: Predestined to Adoption (Ephesians 1:5-6)

I read an article recently about a trend among well-off or retired Americans to spend their own money to travel to needy parts of the world to work as volunteers. The woman writing the article had spent two weeks at an orphanage in Romania. She spent her time giving focused attention to some handicapped children who are hardly ever touched, cared for, or loved. One woman who stayed on after the other volunteers went home reported that the children were mostly neglected, left with squalid diapers and no one to give them any attention. Because most of the children in the orphanage have physical or mental handicaps, they are not sought after for adoption.

Before you and I met Jesus Christ, we were in far worse condition than the worst of these poor orphans. Even if we were decent, moral, responsible people in the eyes of the world, from the standpoint of God, who is absolutely holy, we were like newborn infants who had been thrown into a field. We were filthy and squirming in our blood, left to die (this is God’s description in Ezek. 16:2-6). Our sins, whether pride, lust, greed, selfishness, anger, or whatever, rendered us abhorrent in God’s holy sight. There was no merit in us, that He would choose us to be His children. And yet, to the praise of the glory of His grace, “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (1:5)!

That is the amazing spiritual blessing that Paul wants us to contemplate in these verses. He is saying,

The fact that God blessed us by predestining us to adoption as His children should cause us to praise Him for the glory of His grace in Christ.

Praising God for the lavishness of His grace is Paul’s theme here. He begins this section by exclaiming (1:3), “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” He concludes this first section by directing us back to praising God, the source of our blessings (1:6), “to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Central to the apostle’s thinking is that God chose us (1:4) and predestined us (1:5) to these amazing blessings. Thus any teaching that subverts or diminishes God’s sovereignty in our salvation also subverts or diminishes the praise that is due to His name. When we understand that God chose us and predestined us to be His children, we will be caught up in wonder, love, and praise.

1. God blessed us by predestining us to adoption as His children (1:5).

The Bible uses two similar, yet different analogies to picture our salvation from different angles. One is that of regeneration, or the new birth. We become God’s children by being born spiritually into His family (John 1:12-13; 3:1-8). Yet at the same time, we are also God’s adopted children. The emphasis in regeneration is that we receive new life from God. The emphasis in adoption is that we receive a new legal standing and relationship with God because He chose us to be full members of His family. Note four things:

A. Adoption is both a present reality and yet a future promise to be fulfilled.

Adoption was a relatively rare practice in ancient Israel, but it was a common practice in the first century Greco-Roman world. The adopted son was taken legally into his new family and assumed all of the rights and responsibilities associated with that new family.

Theologically, Paul is the only New Testament writer to use this term (Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). In Romans 8:15-17, Paul writes about the present reality of our adoption: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” The picture here and in Galatians 4:5-7 is that of moving from the status of slaves to that of sons and heirs. Thus we presently enjoy all of the privileges of being members of God’s family.

Yet, in Romans 8:23 Paul writes of a future aspect of our adoption: “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” So on the one hand, we enjoy our new standing as children in God’s family, being able to call Him “Father.” And yet, on the other hand, our adoption will not be finalized until we get our new resurrection bodies when Jesus returns.

B. God’s predestining us to adoption means that our relationship with Him is based on His sovereign, loving purpose and thus is secure.

The word “predestined” does not imply impersonal, deterministic fate. It means to mark out or decide beforehand and refers to God’s plan for the ages. It is reasonable that an all-wise God had a plan in mind before He created the universe. Being God, He has the inherent ability to carry out His plans. Part of His plan to glorify Himself was to reach down to the gutters of sin and adopt certain miserable street urchins to be His own sons and daughters. There was nothing attractive or desirable about us that prompted God to adopt us into His family. To the contrary, we were repulsive to God because of our sin. But His great love took pity on us and snatched us out of the gutter. He cleaned us up, clothed us with His righteousness, and brought us to His house and banquet table, where we enjoy every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.

Whether the phrase “in love” goes with verse 4 or with verse 5, there are several other verses that connect God’s choosing us for salvation with His love. Note just two (others are, Col. 3:12; Rom. 9:25): in 1 Thessalonians 1:4, Paul says, “knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul repeats to the same church, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”

In our text, Paul states that God predestined us to adoption “according to the kind intention of His will.” “Kind intention” is a single Greek word that means “good pleasure.” It means that God chose us and predestined us to be His children apart from any cause in us, but rather simply because it pleased Him to do so. It excludes any personal merit as the basis for God’s action.

The practical point of this truth, that God “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,” is that it gives us solid assurance of salvation. If we are saved because of any goodness or merit or faith that stems from our corrupt hearts, then we are on shaky ground, because we never know if we have enough of whatever it is to qualify us for salvation. But if our salvation stems from God’s choice and purpose, which He determined before He created the world, then we have a sure foundation. And, if you ask, “How can I know that I am one of God’s elect?” let me answer in John Calvin’s words (Sermons on Ephesians [Banner of Truth], p. 47): “How do we know that God has elected us before the creation of the world? By believing in Jesus Christ.” Related to this is the third truth in verse 5:

C. God’s predestining us to adoption is through Jesus Christ, not through anything in us.

Everything that we have from God is in Christ and comes to us because He was willing to go to the cross to secure our salvation. God blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (1:3). He chose us in Christ (1:4). He predestined us to adoption through Jesus Christ (1:5). He freely bestowed His grace on us in Christ, “the Beloved” (1:6). He redeemed us in Christ (1:7). He purposed all of these blessings “in Him” (1:9). We obtained an inheritance in Him (1:10-11). It is all in and through Jesus Christ and not at all in or through anything in us. So, He gets all the glory!

D. God’s predestining us to adoption means that we now enjoy all of the privileges and responsibilities of being God’s children.

It always brings a loving father great joy to watch his children light up with delight when they open a birthday or Christmas gift. Or, sometimes, just because you love your kids, you surprise them with a gift for no other reason except that they are your kids. Even so, the heavenly Father delights to pour out His blessings upon His chosen, adopted children. Here are just a few (for more, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 739-742):

(1). We are now in a close, personal relationship with our loving Father.

“He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself” (1:5). A wealthy businessman could adopt some poor children from an orphanage and give them everything that money can buy. But what if the businessman were too busy with his many enterprises to spend any time with the children? No doubt, their physical situation is better than it was when they were in the orphanage. But every child craves to know and be loved by his father.

God not only bestows on us all the wealth of His spiritual blessings in Christ; He also brings us into an intimate relationship with Him, where we now know Him as “Abba! Father!” Abba was a Hebrew term of endearment meaning, “Daddy,” or “Papa.” While I’m uncomfortable addressing God as “Daddy” (it always strikes me as a bit too irreverent), the glorious truth is that we can draw near to His loving arms and know that He will receive us as His beloved children! Adoption emphasizes our new relationship with our heavenly Father.

(2). We are heirs with Jesus Christ.

As we saw in Romans 8:17, in the context of adoption, “and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” God’s riches are our riches, not in the sense of the heretical “prosperity gospel,” but in the sense that He will supply our needs “according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Because our physical bodies are frail and life is short, our greatest needs are spiritual and eternal. In that sense, God has given us the gift of eternal life in Christ and throughout eternity we will discover the riches of our inheritance in Him. Related to this…

(3). Our eternal future is secure.

If a poor orphan were adopted by a multimillionaire, we would say, “He’s fixed for life.” He would have everything he ever needs as far as material comforts go. Being adopted by God means that we are fixed for eternity. God has written us into the will, so to speak. Because He did it totally by His grace and not at all because of anything in us, it is certain that He will keep His promises.

(4). We are brothers and sisters in God’s forever family.

Adoption brings us into a new relationship with all of God’s children, no matter what their national or economic background. It is always a wonderful experience when I’ve been able to visit other countries to meet people I’ve never met before and instantly feel the bond of love and brotherhood that we share in Jesus Christ. In Christ, racial and economic barriers are abolished. The local church should reflect the racial and economic makeup of the community. Also, the local church should function as a family, with young and old being together, caring for one another, and learning from each other. As family, we should enjoy hanging out with the saints, getting to know one another and sharing in the things of God.

Much more could be said, but I need to move on to the practical application of our adoption:

2. Being adopted by God should cause us to praise Him for the glory of His grace in Christ (1:6).

Verse six goes all the way back to verse 3, showing that all of God’s spiritual blessings in Christ lead to the praise of the glory of His grace. But verse 5 shows that one such blessing is God’s predestining us to adoption as sons and daughters. Note four things:

A. Anything that robs God of His glory in our salvation is not from Him.

The Hebrew word translated glory has the literal meaning of “weight,” and thus points to God’s worthiness, reputation, and honor. The Greek word comes from a word meaning to think or seem. Thus it has the idea of God’s reputation. His glory is the revealed magnificence or splendor of His attributes and presence.

Here Paul focuses on one attribute that evokes our praise, the glory of God’s grace, His undeserved favor. If we mix any of our merit, worth, or works with His grace, we pollute it and detract from His glory. As Calvin wrote (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], ed. by John McNeill, 3:13:2), “we never truly glory in him unless we have utterly put off our own glory…. whoever glories in himself, glories against God.”

As Paul implies in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” the essence of sin is to fail to glorify God. So the main goal of our salvation, which rests on God’s choosing and predestining us, should be to bring us to a realization of the glory of God, where we boast only in Him. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, where three times he repeats, “God has chosen.” Then he adds that it is by God’s doing that we are in Christ Jesus (1:30) and concludes (1:31), “so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

B. To praise God properly for the glory of His grace in Christ, we must remember what we were before His grace found us.

We can never truly appreciate God’s grace until we get the biblical perspective on the depths of sin from which God rescued us. As Paul will go on to say (Eph. 2:1-3), we were dead in our sins, sons of disobedience, and children of wrath. To use the adoption analogy, we were not clean, well-mannered, bright, attractive children with great potential when God picked us for adoption. Rather, we were dirty, defiled, disobedient, disrespectful, and defiant. There was nothing in us to draw God towards us. Rather (Rom. 5:8), “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

C. To praise God properly for the glory of His grace in Christ, we must recognize the extravagance of His grace.

Paul piles up words to emphasize how extravagant God’s grace is. The phrase, “His grace, which He freely bestowed on us,” is literally, “His grace, which He graced on us.” (The KJV translation, that we are “accepted in the Beloved” is more of a paraphrase.)  Paul goes on to talk about (1:7-8) “the riches of His grace which He lavished on us.” Later, when describing how God raised us from spiritual death, Paul says (2:4-5), “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”

Then, in case you missed it, two verses later he says (2:7), “so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you still miss it? He repeats (2:8-9), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” How can anyone, much less an entire branch of Christendom, read these verses and then teach that we must add our good works to what Christ has done in order to be saved? Our salvation is entirely due to God’s extravagant grace. All the glory and praise goes to Him alone!

D. To praise God properly for the glory of His grace in Christ, we must see that He gave His beloved Son for our salvation.

Paul says (1:6) that God freely bestowed His grace on us “in the Beloved.” Why does Paul use that designation of Jesus Christ here? There could be several reasons. The eternal love that exists between the Father and the Son is a perfect love. When the Father adopts us into His family, we are drawn into this circle of infinite, perfect love (John 15:9). In Jesus’ great prayer for His disciples just before the cross, He prays (John 17:23), “I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” What a staggering thought, that the Father loves us even as He loves His own Son! So Paul calls Jesus “the Beloved” to show that we are now in this relationship of love with the Father and the Son.

Also, Paul may call Jesus “the Beloved” to show the great price that God paid to adopt us as His children. Jesus was supremely God’s beloved Son, in whom He was well pleased (Matt. 3:17; Col. 1:13; Luke 20:13). Yet the Father and the Son were willing to interrupt this perfect relationship of love so that the Son could go to the cross and endure the wrath of the Father on our behalf! As Paul writes (Rom. 8:32), “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”

Sometimes people ask, “Why couldn’t God just forgive our sins without Jesus needing to die? If someone offends me, I can just forgive him. Why couldn’t God do that?” The answer is, because God is absolutely holy and you are not! God’s holiness and justice demand that the penalty for sin be satisfied. His love moved Him to send His own Son to pay that penalty as the substitute for all who believe on Him. Because the Son of God paid the price, the Father is free to adopt us who were sinners into His family. He covers us with the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness, giving us the full standing as His children and heirs. Amazing grace!

Conclusion

There is a story in the Old Testament that is difficult to understand, unless you view it in light of the cross. God promised to give Abraham a son, but He withheld the fulfillment of that promise for over 25 years, until Abraham was 100 years old. Finally, Isaac, the son of the promise, was born. You can imagine how much the old man loved his son! He doted on that boy as he watched him grow. But then, when Isaac was probably in his teens, God told Abraham to do something that is utterly shocking (Gen. 22:2), “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”

How could God do that? It goes against His commandment, that we should love one another! It is incomprehensible to any loving parent how God could command such a thing! It is equally shocking that Abraham proceeded to obey God without any word of complaint or any request for an explanation! He didn’t know yet that God would provide the ram as a substitute.

Why is that incident in Scripture? It’s there to show us in graphic, emotional terms what the Father did for us by not sparing His own Son to secure our salvation. We should keep the wonders of His redeeming love before us every day. “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (1:5-6)! Praise God for the glory of His freely bestowed grace!

Application Questions

  1. Some say that the doctrine of predestination is just a divisive theological debate with no practical value. Why is this not so? What are several practical implications of this truth?
  2. Why is it crucial to insist that even saving faith comes from God, not from us? What is at stake?
  3. Can someone who insists that salvation depends in part on us consistently believe that our salvation is eternally secure? Why/ why not?
  4. What are some other practical benefits of God’s adopting us?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 5: Your Greatest Need (Ephesians 1:7-8a)

What is your greatest need? If you’re sick, you may think, “My greatest need is to be healed of this illness.” If you’re unemployed, you may think, “My greatest need is to get a good job to provide for my needs.” If you’re single, you may think, “My greatest need is for a mate.” If you’re in a difficult marriage, you may think, “My greatest need is for harmony in my marriage.” If you have a child who has become ensnared by drug abuse, you may think that your greatest need is for your child to be free from this addiction.

While all of these are important needs, none of them are your greatest need. The greatest need of every person, whether he recognizes it or not, is to have God forgive his sins before he dies and faces God’s eternal punishment. Health, adequate money, and a happy family are wonderful blessings, but if you die without God’s forgiveness, these blessings will be useless. Your greatest need is to know that God has forgiven your sins and that you are reconciled to the holy Judge of the universe.

The subject of knowing and experiencing God’s forgiveness of our sins is so important that the enemy of our souls has worked overtime to sow seeds of confusion and error. Our modern pagan society often deals with the problem of guilt by telling us that we don’t need to worry about it. This is crassly summed up in a bumper sticker that advises: “Screw guilt!” In other words, since guilt doesn’t make me feel good about myself (which is my aim in life), when my conscience condemns me, tell it to take a hike. Rather than being ashamed about our sins, we now celebrate them under the guise of being “true” to ourselves.

Another ploy of the devil is to get us to invent a god who is not perfectly holy and to view ourselves as basically good people. This god is tolerant and loving. He couldn’t possibly condemn a nice person like me! Of course, I’m not perfect, but compared to terrorists who blow up innocent women and children and perverts who abuse little children, I’m not so bad. So I can excuse my relatively “minor faults” and dismiss my need for God’s forgiveness.

Satan also sows confusion about God’s forgiveness under the guise of religion. All of the world’s non-Christian religions, some branches of Christianity, and all of the cults that claim to be Christian teach that we must do something—fasting, prayer, penance, self-denial, good works—to help pay for our sins and to earn God’s favor. Often religious people base their hope of forgiveness on the fact that they have faithfully performed certain religious rituals—going to mass, praying the rosary, observing Lent—for many years.

Several years ago, I went into the Orthodox Church in the main square of Timisoara, Romania. I noticed a woman on her knees, weeping and praying to an icon (a picture of a “saint”). She was dressed very immodestly and may have been a prostitute. Others nearby were lighting candles and going through other religious rituals. Meanwhile, a priest in his long robe strolled around, quietly observing these people who desperately needed to know what the Bible says about obtaining God’s forgiveness. I wanted to grab him by his robe and scream, “Tell them how they can be forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ!”

As we have seen, the apostle Paul begins this powerful letter to the Ephesians with a long sentence (in Greek) that runs from verse 3 through verse 14, in which he blesses God for all of the spiritual blessings that He has freely given to us in Christ. In 1:3-6, he blesses God for the work of the Father; in 1:7-12, he unfolds the work of the Son; and, in 1:13-14, he shows the work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation. So, in verse 7, we begin a new section of this extended exclamation of praise. Paul is saying,

In Christ, we have redemption through His blood, the abundant forgiveness of all our sins.

Before we consider the meaning of Paul’s words here, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of these truths for your life. If you try to seek God’s forgiveness in any way other than what Paul here states, you will waste your time and endanger your soul. If your hope of heaven rests on anything that you must do to earn it, you will hear, “I never knew you; depart from Me” on that great day. If, as a Christian, you do not understand and live daily in light of the truths that Paul here sets forth, you will not grow in godliness. You will be defeated by sin and guilt. So these truths are vital for a healthy Christian walk.

1. In Christ we have redemption.

“In Him” is literally, “in whom,” and refers back to Christ, whom Paul calls “the Beloved” in verse 6. Jesus Christ is God’s beloved Son, in whom He is well-pleased (Matt. 3:17). His perfect life and His substitutionary death on the cross obtained redemption for all whom God has predestined to adoption as sons (Eph. 1:5).

A. All of God’s blessings come to us in Jesus Christ.

As Paul puts it (2 Cor. 1:20), “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; …” Spurgeon succinctly put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 37:310), “We have nothing apart from Jesus…. Our wealth of mercy is all in Christ.” Whatever spiritual blessing you need, God has given it to you “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).

So, if you lack redemption or forgiveness of your sins, you will not find it anywhere except in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Trust in Him and you get it all! As Jesus proclaimed (John 7:37-38), “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” All you need is in Jesus Christ!

B. Redemption means that Christ paid the price to free us from the penalty and power of sin.

Leon Morris points out (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [Eerdmans], p. 11) that we use words such as “redeemer” or “redemption” as religious terms. “But when the man of the first century heard them he immediately thought in non-religious terms.” It brought to mind the common picture of a slave being purchased and then set free. Redemption meant release from bondage by the payment of a price. Every Gentile in the Roman world would have thought of this when he heard the word, “redemption.”

The word also has roots in the Old Testament, which refers to a “kinsman-redeemer.” For example, in the Book of Ruth, Naomi’s family property, due to debt, had fallen into other hands. Because she had lost her husband, she could not afford to recover it. Boaz was a near relative who had the right to redeem the property by paying the price, which he did.

In other Old Testament contexts, God is seen as the one who redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt (Exod. 6:6). As you know, the Jews had to put the blood of the Passover lamb on the lintel and doorposts of their homes. It was a picture of our redemption through the blood of Christ.

A third Old Testament example of redemption was that God commanded the Jews to redeem the firstborn of their sons and of their farm animals (Exod. 13:12-13; Num. 18:15-17). In the case of sons and of some animals, it meant paying a price. In the case of other animals, it meant offering the firstborn on the altar. It was a picture of God’s redeeming Israel from Egypt (Exod. 13:14-15). The main idea was the payment of a price to effect release from bondage or captivity.

Paul uses the word in a spiritual sense to refer to Christ’s paying the price of our sin by His sacrificial death on the cross on our behalf. We were helplessly, hopelessly enslaved to sin and under God’s just condemnation. But with His own blood Christ paid the penalty to release us from bondage. We now belong to Him.

And, while I cannot (for lack of time) develop the thought, the Bible is clear that we are now released not only from sin’s penalty, but also from its power (Romans 6). For a believer to live in sin is to contradict the redemption that Christ secured for us.

Implicit in the biblical doctrine of redemption is that God did something for us that we could not do for ourselves. We were enslaved to sin and had no power or means to free ourselves. God did not need our help in paying the price. In fact, it is an insult to Christ if we think that we can add anything of our own to the great price that He paid. If someone offered you a gift that was worth thousands of dollars and you reached in your pocket to give him a penny to pay for it, you would insult him. Jesus graciously paid it all. We can do nothing except to receive His gift and then live every day in light of what He so graciously and generously did for us. Peter exhorts us to conduct ourselves in the fear of God and then adds (1 Pet. 1:18-19), “knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with the precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.”

Thus all of God’s blessings come to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Redemption means that He paid the price to free us from the penalty and power of sin. Also,

C. We can know and enjoy our redemption right now.

Paul does not say, “In Him, someday we hope to be redeemed.” Nor does he say, “We’re working at obtaining redemption, but we don’t know yet if we’ll get it until we see whether our good works tip the scale.” Rather, he says, “In Him, we have redemption.” It is our current possession and experience. True, we await the future redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). The finalization of our redemption will not occur until Jesus returns (Luke 21:28). But, even so, right now “we have redemption” in Christ.

Knowing that should fill us with joy and gratitude and love for Christ. It should remove any fear of judgment and fill us with hope beyond the grave. It should motivate us to be holy. If you have trusted in Jesus Christ as the payment for your sins, God wants you to know and enjoy the fact that He has redeemed you from bondage to sin.

2. The redemption that we have in Christ is through His blood.

Jesus shed His blood to redeem us from our sins. Many are offended by the teaching that Jesus had to shed His blood to secure our redemption. But, you cannot get rid of the necessity of the blood of Christ and claim to believe in the Bible. Why does the New Testament insist on the necessity of Jesus’ shed blood?

Romans 6:23 makes it clear, “The wages of sin is death….” If God declared that the wages of sin is death, but then eliminated the penalty, He would compromise His perfect justice. He would be like a judge who told a murderer, “You’re forgiven; try not to do it again.” We would be rightly outraged at such a miscarriage of justice. Justice demands the appropriate payment for the crimes committed. Hebrews 9:22 states plainly, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This takes us back to Leviticus 17:11, where God explains, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.”

So Paul here uses the word blood to point us back to the Old Testament sacrificial system, all of which Jesus fulfilled when He offered Himself on the cross (see Heb. 10:1-18). Those animal sacrifices pointed ahead to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who by His death redeemed all whom the Father gave Him. Thus, God can be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

So the issue is, either you trust in what Jesus Christ did on the cross as the full payment for your sins, or when you stand before God at the judgment, you must pay for your sins through eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15). There will be no second chance (Heb. 9:27). That is why making sure that you have redemption through the blood of Jesus is your greatest need! Paul goes on to elaborate on what such redemption means:

3. Redemption through Christ’s blood means that all of our trespasses are forgiven.

Redemption encompasses more than forgiveness, but Paul mentions forgiveness because it is the first and foundational thing to know and experience when you are redeemed. Forgiveness means loosing or letting someone go from what binds him. Trespasses is synonymous with “sins,” but the nuance indicates individual acts of sin, not sin in general. Paul wants us to know that our specific, shameful, embarrassing sins that loom up in our memories to condemn us are all forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ.

It is crucial for your Christian life that you understand and experience on a daily basis this liberating truth that God forgives all of your sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. In 2 Peter 1:5-8, Peter lists a number of virtues that you are to add to your faith so that you will be useful and fruitful in your walk with Christ. Then he adds (2 Pet. 1:9), “For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.” The devil knows this, which is why he is the accuser of the brethren. The saints overcame his accusations because of the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:10-11).

Here’s how this works practically. You are a believer in Jesus Christ, but you have just sinned. You disobeyed a clear command in God’s Word. Maybe it was anger or lust or foul language or stealing or whatever. The Holy Spirit convicts your conscience through your knowledge of the Word that what you did was sin. So, you repent and confess your sin to God and appropriate His cleansing (1 John 1:9). So far so good!

But, then the enemy comes and whispers, “A fine Christian you are! Do you really think your sins are forgiven? Ha! You’re not even saved! You’re guilty and you know it. Forget all of this nonsense of being saved by grace!”

How do you answer him? It would seem that he is right. You claim to be a Christian and yet you deliberately, knowingly sinned against God. There is only one way to answer the devil when he accuses you: “You’re right, Satan, I did sin. But my salvation does not rest on my sinless performance, but rather on the blood of Jesus that paid the price for my sin. I’m trusting in His shed blood and if His blood isn’t adequate to acquit me, I am doomed. So the Lord rebuke you, Satan!” (Zech. 3:1-5.)

But, perhaps you’re thinking, “This is fine for everyday, minor sins. But, my sins are too terrible and too repeated for God to forgive. Surely, I must do something to make up for or pay for the awful things I’ve done.” “Not so!” says Paul.

4. Redemption through Christ’s blood is according to the riches of God’s grace, which He lavished on us.

Paul adds, “according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us,” to show that there are no sins too great for God to forgive through the blood of Christ. This has always been God’s appeal to repentant sinners. In Isaiah 55:6-7, the prophet calls, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” Abundant pardon! Rich grace lavished on us!

The measure of God’s forgiveness is not according to how much we flagellate ourselves or mourn over our sin, although we should mourn we when realize how we have spurned God’s great love (Matt. 5:4). Rather, the measure of God’s forgiveness is according to the riches of His grace, lavished on us (on God’s riches, see Eph. 1:7, 18; 2:4, 7; 3:8, 16). Paul does not say, “out of the riches of His grace,” but “according to the riches of His grace.” If you go to a multi-millionaire and ask for a contribution for a worthy cause and he gives you $100, he has given out of his riches. But if he hands you a blank check and says, “Fill in what you need,” he has given according to his riches.

The word “lavished” may be illustrated by ocean waves. They just keep coming and coming and coming. They never stop. God’s forgiveness is like that for those who are redeemed through the blood of Jesus. If you have trusted Christ as your sin-bearer, Paul wants you to experience the extravagant, lavish undeserved favor of God in forgiving all of your sins. Do you experience this?

You may be thinking, “Steve, you’re going too far! If you preach like this, people will go out and sin, knowing that they will be forgiven.” If you thought that, I’m glad, because when Paul taught this same truth in Romans, he anticipated that response: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2). When you know that the Beloved Redeemer shed His own blood to secure your forgiveness, it binds your heart in love to Him. It makes you hate your sin and strive against it all the more.

Conclusion

Do you believe this: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us”? “Yes,” you say, “I’m a Christian. I believe this.” But, do you experience it personally? And, do you extend God’s lavish grace and forgiveness to others?

One night in a church service God opened the heart of a young woman to respond to His call and believe on Christ as her Lord and Savior. She had a very rough past, involving alcohol, drugs, and prostitution. But, the change in her was evident as she experienced God’s forgiveness. Over time, she became a faithful member of the church, and served by teaching young children.

It was not long until she caught the eye and heart of the pastor’s son. The relationship grew and they began making wedding plans. But then the problems began. Many in the church did not think that a woman with a past such as hers was suitable for a pastor’s son. The church began to gossip and argue about this matter. So, they decided to have a meeting. Emotions heated up, tension increased, and the meeting was getting out of hand.

The young woman became very upset about all of the things being brought up about her past. As she began to cry, the pastor’s son stood to speak. He said, “My fiancé’s past is not what is on trial here. What you are questioning is the ability of the blood of Jesus to wash away sin. Today you have put the blood of Jesus on trial. So, does it wash away sin or not?” The whole church began to weep as they realized that they had been slandering the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (source unknown).

We sometimes sing the old hymn, “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Either that’s true or it’s not. If the blood of Jesus does not wash away all of our sins completely, then we’re all in a lot of trouble, because we all have a lot of sins to deal with. If it only atones for minor sins, what good is that? “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished on us.” Thank God that is true! Cling to it and live it each and every day!

Application Questions

  1. Is there a proper place for remorse and mourning over our sins? When does it cross the line by muddying God’s grace?
  2. Many churches use guilt to control and motivate people. Is this a biblical approach? Why is grace a better motivator?
  3. If God forgives all of our sins at the moment we’re saved, why do we need to confess them to obtain forgiveness (1 John 1:9)?
  4. Why does the true grace of God lead to holiness rather than to licentiousness? Why is it wrong to “tone down” grace for fear that people will shrug off sin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 6: God’s Plan for the Ages (Ephesians 1:8b-10)

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Most of us recognize that sentence as the familiar Law One of the Four Spiritual Laws. It is true, of course: God does love you and He has a wonderful plan for your life.

Having said that, however, I must add that God’s actual plan for your life and your idea of God’s plan for your life may not be one and the same! Your idea of God’s wonderful plan for your life may be a comfortable home in the suburbs, a good job, a happy, healthy family, and a good church where you have many Christian friends. God’s actual wonderful plan may include financial pressures, a difficult marriage, a debilitating illness, children who rebel, or other unforeseen trials.

Or, God’s actual wonderful plan may be that you move to a difficult part of the world that is entrenched in a non-Christian religion, to take the gospel to these people. You will have to learn a difficult language and adapt to a strange culture. You may have to endure corrupt and ineffective government, daily power outages, undrinkable water, pollution, the lack of modern medical facilities, and opposition from the local people. You will face the difficulty of rearing and educating your children in a non-western culture. And, although you are serving God in a difficult situation, you and your family are not exempt from disease and other trials.

Also, you may be plagued by a lack of adequate support from the comfy Christians back in the homeland, who are enjoying all of the latest gadgets and conveniences that the American dream provides. While they are building equity in their homes and retirement portfolios so that they can cruise America’s National Parks in their RV’s, you will not own a home or have a retirement portfolio of any substance. This may be God’s actual wonderful plan for your life! Although it may not sound inviting, in truth you will enjoy God’s true blessing, because you are living your life in light of His eternal plan for the ages.

The apostle Paul is enumerating some of the spiritual blessings that God has graciously bestowed on us in Jesus Christ. He has mentioned God’s choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him (1:4). He tells us that in love, God predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will (1:5). He says that in Christ, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us (1:7).

Some scholars link the next phrase, “in all wisdom and insight,” with the preceding phrase, meaning that God gave us wisdom and insight to understand our redemption and forgiveness. Or, it may (as in the NASB) point ahead to the next blessing, that God has given us wisdom and insight to understand the mystery of His will, or His plan for the ages. In 1:8b-10, Paul’s message and its application are,

Because God’s plan for the ages is to sum up all things under Christ, we should submit ourselves to Jesus as Lord.

Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life is phenomenally popular, and as long as you understand it properly, from God’s perspective, the message is valid. If you tweak the message into an Americanized version, where you use God to help you reach your goals, you have perverted the biblical message. But, if you understand that God’s purpose is to be glorified through your submitting all of your life to the lordship of Jesus, then the message is valid. If you want your few years on this earth to count for eternity, you must bring your life under Christ’s lordship and in line with God’s purpose for the ages, which is to bring all things into one harmonious whole under Jesus Christ as Lord. Note four things:

1. God has a plan for the ages.

It is only reasonable that an all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful God would have a comprehensive plan for the world that He spoke into existence and that He would have the ability to carry out that plan.

A. God has a plan and He has the ability to carry it out.

Many Scriptures affirm this evident truth. For example, Job 42:2 declares, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”

Psalm 103:19 rejoices that, “The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all.”

Psalm 115:3 states, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”

In Isaiah 46:9-10, God declares, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.”

In Daniel 4:34-35, the humbled Nebuchadnezzar blesses, praises, and honors the Most High, who lives forever, “For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”

Or, as Paul comprehensively states in Ephesians 1:11, we have “been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”

Some deny that God is sovereign over all that happens, because they think that it would make Him the author of evil. But, the Bible is clear that God decreed beforehand what will happen in history, including such evil events as the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28) and the rise of the Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:8-10; Rev. 13). Yet, at the same time, God is not the author of evil or responsible for it (1 John 1:5). God declares (Isa. 45:7) that He is “the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” Or, Amos 3:6 asks rhetorically, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” God declares to the prophet Habakkuk that He is raising up the evil Chaldeans to discipline His people Israel. In that context, the prophet rightly declares of God (Hab. 1:13), “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor.” God is sovereign even over evil, yet He is not the author of evil and is not responsible for it. The Bible is clear that He has a plan and He can and will carry it out.

B. God’s plan is according to His own good pleasure.

Paul states (Eph. 1:9) that God’s will is “according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him.” “Kind intention” is a single Greek word that means “good pleasure” (the same word is in 1:5). Jesus used this word in Luke 10:21, when He said, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.” It refers to the fact that God does what He does simply because it pleases Him to do so. In other words, He does not determine His plan based upon anything outside of Himself. He did not look down through the corridors of time and then make up His plan after He saw who would choose Him. He did not base His choice on any merit or worthiness that He foresaw in us.

John Calvin (Sermons on Ephesians [Banner of Truth, 1973], p. 58) points out that Paul uses this word to “put away and shut out all opinion which men might conceive of their own worthiness.” Then he adds, “For God’s good pleasure can have no place unless men are barred from all deserving and come to him utterly empty.” So, God’s plan to save us (which is Paul’s subject in the context here) is totally because of His grace and good pleasure.

C. God carries out His plan according to His sovereign timetable.

Paul says (1:10) that God’s purpose is “with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times….” “Administration” (New KJV = “dispensation”) here refers to God’s “comprehensive arrangement and administration of [His] plan according to … [His] decree” (John Grassmick, unpublished class notes, Dallas Theological Seminary). “The picture is that of a great household of which God is Master and which has an orderly system of management controlled by Him.” It means that “God orders everything in its full time and in sovereign wisdom orders the time of all things” (ibid.).

Paul uses a similar phrase in Galatians 4:4-5 with reference to the incarnation: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In other words, God brought the Savior into the world in His perfect timetable. He promised to send a Savior to Adam and Eve after they fell into sin (Gen. 3:15). But at least 2,000 years went by before God chose to call Abraham out of Mesopotamia. God promised to give Abraham a son and the land and to bless the nations through His descendant, Jesus Christ.

But, Abraham’s descendants had to spend 400 years in captivity in Egypt, while the world waited for the Savior. Then there was about 1,000 years of Israel’s mostly disobedient history, including the Babylonian captivity. There were 400 more silent years, with no prophetic word from God. Finally, at least 4,000 years after Adam and 2,000 years after Abraham, God sent His Son into this world.

Was God late? Perish the thought! Although we may wonder why God waited so long, while millions of people down through the centuries died in their sins, God sent His Son at precisely the right moment, from His divine plan. He is in charge of the events of history, and no evil tyrant or disobedient nation can thwart God’s plan.

This truth gives us encouragement and hope, especially when we see frightening international events unfolding, such as the threat of militant Islamic terrorists who are determined to destroy our nation. It also applies to our individual history, when tragedies hit or things seem to be spinning out of control. God is still in charge and He does not allow anything to disrupt His sovereign plan.

2. God has graciously given us wisdom and insight to know His plan for the ages.

“All wisdom and insight” (1:8b) refers to the wisdom and insight that God has graciously given to us so that we can know “the mystery of His will.” We need to understand several terms. Wisdom is a general term that refers to understanding the true nature of things, whereas insight refers to practical discernment that results in right action in daily life. In the context here, the idea is that God has given us the wisdom we need to apprehend His gracious eternal plan of salvation and the practical outworking of it in our daily lives. William Barclay put it (cited by Grassmick, ibid.), “Christ gives to men the ability to see the great ultimate truths of eternity and to solve the problems of each moment of time.”

Paul says (1:9) that God “made known to us the mystery of His will….” Mystery does not refer to a closely guarded secret that only those in the secret inner circle understand. (It was used in this way in the “mystery” religions of the first century.) Nor does it refer to something vague, nebulous, and indefinite. Rather, it means something that was previously unknown, but now has been revealed. God has graciously revealed to us what we never could have figured out by ourselves, namely, His sovereign will or plan for the ages, to sum up everything in Christ.

Paul uses this idea of God revealing the mystery of His will, in other places. In Romans 16:25-26, he writes, “Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested ….” Or, in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul contrasts the wisdom of the world, through which they could not come to know God, with the wisdom of God as displayed at the cross. Then, in 2:6-7, he explains, “Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory.” He goes on to explain how God has to reveal this wisdom to us, because the natural man is incapable of understanding it (2:14).

Even though God has given us wisdom and insight into the mystery of His will, such wisdom and insight is not automatic! We have to study the Scriptures diligently, asking God to give us such wisdom and insight, so that we might walk in His ways. As Proverbs (2:2-4) tells us, we must seek for wisdom as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures.

Thus, God has a plan for the ages and He has graciously given us wisdom and insight to know this plan.

3. God’s plan for the ages is to sum up all things under Jesus Christ as Lord.

The Greek verb translated “summing up” means to bring together or to gather up in one. It implies that things were before in disharmony or disarray (because of the fall), but now they will be brought together in unity. Sam Storms explains (http://www.en­joyinggodministries.com/article/17-14), “The idea is that the discordant and disintegrating elements in the creative realm will be renewed and unified under the Lordship of Jesus. Everything will be brought into submission to his will and subservience to his glory.” The Greek scholar, J. B. Lightfoot concludes (Notes on Epistles of St. Paul [Baker, 1980 reprint], ed. by J. R. Harmer, p. 322), “Thus the expression implies the entire harmony of the universe, which shall no longer contain alien and discordant elements, but of which all the parts shall find their centre and bond of union in Christ.”

Paul explains “all things” by adding, “things in the heavens and things on the earth.” This is a figure of speech that expresses comprehensiveness. It includes the restoration of the fallen creation (Rom. 8:18-23); the salvation and perfect sanctification of all of God’s elect (Eph. 1:4); and, eternal rest from conflict for the elect angels (1 Tim. 5:21), whose ministry to us engages them in battle with the forces of Satan (Daniel 10:12-13; Rev. 12:7-9).

God’s summing up all things in Christ (reconciling all things to Himself in Col. 1:20) does not mean, as some erroneously teach, that eventually everyone (including Satan!) will be saved! The Bible is clear that Satan and his evil demonic forces, will be forever subdued and confined to the lake of fire, along with all who die without believing in Christ (Rev. 20:11-15). But, every knee will someday bow before Jesus and acknowledge Him as Lord, either willingly or forcibly (Phil. 2:9-11).

Paul will go on (in Eph. 2 & 3) to emphasize that the church is now the prototype of God’s ultimate plan of reunification. Specifically, the mystery that God has now revealed is that the Jews and the Gentiles (who were about as discordant groups as you could find!) are now fellow members of the one body of Christ (see 3:4-6). Thus in chapter 4, he emphasizes strongly the need for practical, demonstrable love and unity in the church.

But here he is laying the theological foundation for such behavior, namely, that the church is the first glimpse of what God ultimately plans to do. His plan for the ages is to reunite in Christ everything that has been torn apart and alienated through sin. There will be no strife or rivalry or selfishness or jealousy or tyranny of one person over another in the future kingdom of Christ. While we wait for that great day, we must labor to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). The bottom line of Paul’s theology here is:

4. When we understand God’s eternal purpose, it will lead us to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord of all.

If all things will be subject one day to Jesus Christ as Lord and if all of His subjects will dwell together in the unhindered harmony of heaven, then it follows that we now should bring every area of our lives and every relationship under His sovereign lordship. God has told us that His plan for the ages is to sum up or reunite all things in one harmonious whole under Jesus Christ. We know that God will do as He purposes to do. It is certain that He will accomplish all His good pleasure (Isa. 46:10). Every knee will bow before Jesus as Lord, either willingly or under force. It is far better to bow willingly now than to bow under force at the judgment, when there will be no chance for repentance!

To submit to Jesus as Lord begins with your thought life. You must be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom. 12:1-2). When sinful thoughts pop into your mind, you must turn from them and enthrone Jesus as Lord. As Paul puts it (Rom. 13:13-14), “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” Behavior always comes from the heart (Mark 7:21-23), so you must begin there.

Submitting to Jesus as Lord also requires that you bring your priorities and values in line with His Word. He commanded us (Matt. 6:33), “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” In the context, “all these things” refers to the things that unbelievers eagerly seek, especially material things. How we manage the money that the Lord entrusts to us is a litmus test of our faithfulness to the Lord (Luke 16:10-13).

Enthroning Jesus as Lord also means that we bring our schedules under His lordship. We all are given a certain amount of time on this earth. Many hours each day are taken up with necessary activities, such as sleeping, eating, personal grooming, and work. But, how do we spend the other hours? Do we make spending time alone with God a priority? Do we hunger and thirst to know Him? Or, do we fritter it away with useless pastimes?

Living under Christ’s lordship also means that we order our relationships according to His Word. We must learn truly to love others, even as He has loved us. We must speak kindly to one another. We must put away selfishness and strife. As Paul wrote (Col. 3:12-14), “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

Conclusion

Suppose that you were out of the country and had no access to news during the World Series. Since we’re supposing things, let’s also suppose that the Arizona Diamondbacks were in the series and that they had defeated the Boston Red Sox. I had watched the series and videotaped it.

When you returned, I said to you, “Let’s watch the series, but before we do, let’s make a friendly wager. I’ll give you 10-1 odds that the Diamondbacks will beat the Red Sox.” You’d be a fool to put any money on the Red Sox in such a bet. Why? Because the outcome is certain and I know the outcome!

The outcome of history is certain and God has revealed it to us in advance. He is going to sum up all things under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Knowing that outcome, you’d be a fool to bet your life on anything else. God wants each of us to submit now to Jesus as Lord and to spend our lives furthering His kingdom purposes. In light of His revealed sovereign purpose, that’s the only wise way to invest your life!

Application Questions

  1. Some (who claim to be Christian) argue that if God’s plan is fixed, it denies our “free will.” Thus, they deny that God has ordained all things. How would you answer them?
  2. The same (professing) Christians argue that God “never forces the will” of anyone. Thus, salvation depends on the will of the sinner, not on the power of God. Your answer?
  3. Some argue that to preach Jesus as Lord for salvation is to confuse faith and works, thus muddying the free gospel offer. Your response?
  4. Why is understanding God’s eternal plan foundational for a life of holiness and fruitfulness?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 7: Glory to Our Sovereign God (Ephesians 1:11-12)

Whenever Scripture presents a doctrine that is intended to lead us to praise and glorify our great God, but certain men attack that doctrine, it is a sign of the enemy at work. Satan is opposed to anything that exalts God and humbles proud man. So when the truth of God’s Word is proclaimed in a way that brings us to absolute dependence on His sovereign grace, the enemy attacks. Such is the case with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as it relates to our salvation.

Several popular authors and Bible teachers in recent years have attacked God’s sovereignty in our salvation, which they label as “extreme Calvinism.” Invariably, these writers claim to be balanced or moderate, neither Calvinist nor Arminian. But then they proceed to espouse Arminianism without the label so as to deceive those who don’t know any better. In so doing, they rob God of glory and give some of His glory in saving us to fallen sinners.

Paul begins this letter to the Ephesians with an exclamation of praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, because He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (1:3). The first blessing that the inspired apostle lists is (1:4), “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.” Then (1:5) he immediately adds, “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” Those verses obviously emphasize God’s sovereignty as the main reason behind our salvation. The practical result (1:6) is, “to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

Then Paul turns to the work of God the Son in redeeming us through His blood (1:7). But he still can’t get away from the truth that our salvation is rooted in God’s will (1:9), “according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him.” But, that’s not enough. Paul keeps hammering on this theme in our text, emphasizing that the reason we have an inheritance in Christ (1:11) is that we have “been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” The emphasis is on God’s will, not on our will. Again, the bottom line practically is (1:12), “to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.” The doctrine of God’s sovereignty as the underlying cause of our salvation is all about praise and glory to His name!

If you think that if this is a hobbyhorse of mine, I want you to understand that it is because it was the consistent theme (hobbyhorse, if you will!) of the inspired apostle, who wrote at least 13 New Testament epistles. This theme is in all of his epistles, except one. He expounds on the theme of God’s sovereignty in salvation in Romans 9-11. It is significant that Paul’s climax in those chapters is an exclamation of praise to God (Rom. 11:33-36).

God’s sovereignty in our salvation is also the dominant theme of 1 Corinthians 1-2, where Paul humbles the pride of worldly “wisdom,” and shows that God’s way is the foolishness of the cross. Three times (in 1:26-28) Paul repeats, “God has chosen,” and his bottom line is (1:29), “so that no man may boast before God.” Then he adds (1:30-31), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

In Paul’s next epistle, he states (2 Cor. 4:4) that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Then (4:6) he adds, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Paul compares our salvation to God’s creation of light by the word of His power. Just as He spoke light into existence because it was His purpose to do so and light came into existence because of His sovereign will (light didn’t have to cooperate with God in the process!), so He spoke and our blind eyes were opened. Note also that it is all about “the knowledge of the glory of God.” If He did it all, then He gets all the glory. If we helped Him out, then we share His glory.

Go to Paul’s next epistle, Galatians. In 1:15-16, Paul describes his own conversion: “But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood ….” Paul was zealously pursuing his Jewish religion and persecuting the church. He was not dissatisfied with his religion or investigating Christianity. Rather, God sovereignly intervened in Paul’s life because God had set Paul apart before he was born.

Ephesians is Paul’s next epistle, and we’ve already seen his emphasis there. In Philippians 1:6, Paul assures his readers, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” The fact that Paul just mentions this in passing, without any elaboration, shows that he had taught the Philippians that God had begun the work of salvation in them and that He would complete the process. In fact, when Luke describes the beginning of the Philippian church, he says (Acts 16:14), “and the Lord opened her [Lydia’s] heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” Paul also tells the Philippians that it was granted to them to believe in Christ (1:29). Faith is God’s gift; it does not originate within us.

When you go to Paul’s next letter, he states (Col. 3:12), “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Again, he simply mentions in passing the doctrine that God chose us for salvation, without explanation or defense. Obviously, Paul had grounded these believers in this basic truth.

In Paul’s next letter, we find the same thing. He writes (1 Thess. 1:4), “knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.” No need to explain, because he had already explained it. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul writes to the same church, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”

In 1 Timothy, Paul does not specifically mention God’s choosing us. But he does mention in passing the “chosen angels” (5:21), and that Timothy had been called to eternal life (6:12). Paul also (6:15) praises God as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

In 2 Timothy, Paul exhorts Timothy to join him in suffering for the gospel, and then adds (1:9) that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” He also explains (2:10), “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” Paul suffered so that all of God’s elect would come to salvation.

Paul opens his next letter, Titus (1:1), “Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God….” Out of all of his letters, it is only in the short letter to Philemon, which deals with a specific issue of receiving back a runaway slave, that Paul does not mention God’s sovereignty in our salvation. I have not taken you to the many other references to this theme in the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, and Jude. (See, Foundations of Grace, by Steven Lawson [Reformation Trust], who traces these truths through both the whole Bible.)

Why is there this emphasis on God’s sovereignty in the matter of our salvation? Because it humbles our pride and it leads to God’s glory. Any view that has us helping God out in the process, even with faith that supposedly originates with us, detracts from God’s glory because we then had a share in our salvation.

To come back to our text, Paul is continuing his flow of thought from 1:10, namely, that God has purposed to sum up all things in Christ. His plan for the ages is to reunite under the lordship of Christ all that has been damaged by man’s fall into sin. This includes bringing two disparate groups, the Jews and the Gentiles, together in one body in the church. This theme runs through our text and into verses 13-14. In verse 12, Paul mentions “we who were the first to hope in Christ,” a reference to the Jews. God had chosen the Jews as His special people when He chose Abraham, about 2,000 years before Christ. Chronologically, the Jews were the first to hope in Christ as Savior (Matt. 10:5-6). But, Paul goes on (1:13-14) to show that the Gentiles (“you also”) had received the Holy Spirit of promise when they had believed, just as the Jewish believers had. He is given as the common pledge of inheritance for both groups (“our,” 1:14). In 1:11-12, Paul is saying,

Our sovereign God purposed to save us so that we would be to the praise of His glory.

1. God purposed to save us.

Paul piles up words to make this point clear: “predestined,” “purpose,” “counsel,” and “will.” It is only reasonable that the Sovereign Creator of the universe had a plan for His creation and that He is capable of fulfilling His plan. Note two things:

A. God’s purpose centers in Jesus Christ, in whom we have every spiritual blessing.

The sentence begins with “in Him.” Paul has used “in Him” (or, “in Christ”) in 1:3, 4, 7, 9, and 10. All of God’s blessings center in and come from Jesus Christ and what He did for us on the cross. We have nothing apart from Christ, but in Him, we have all of God’s blessings. Our salvation should lead us to an increasing spiritual understanding of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4).

B. God’s purpose was to choose us to obtain an inheritance in Christ.

The Greek word translated “we have obtained an inheritance” occurs only here in the New Testament and is difficult to interpret, as seen by the various translations. It literally means, “to be chosen by lot,” and it relates to the concept of an inheritance that is chosen by lot (Num. 26:55). This does not imply “random chance.” The Bible teaches that God sovereignly determines the outcome of the casting of lots (Prov. 16:33). The sense of the verb here is “to be destined, appointed, or chosen” (Buist Fanning, unpublished class notes, Dallas Seminary). Thus the NIV simply translates it, “we were also chosen.”

Since the verb is passive and there is no direct object, some interpret it to mean that we who believe are God’s inheritance or portion, a common theme in the Old Testament and one that Paul mentions in Ephesians 1:18. But in the more immediate context (1:14), Paul says that the Holy Spirit is the pledge of our inheritance. The parallel in Colossians 1:12 states that we “share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” So, it is difficult to decide between these options, since all of them are true biblically. But, in line with the truth of Ephesians 1:3, 4, and 14, I think Paul means that God chose us to obtain an inheritance in Christ. The Holy Spirit is our pledge or first installment of this inheritance, which we will fully receive in heaven. But, Paul’s point is that everything we have in Christ is due to God’s sovereign purpose to save us.

But, we need to ask why Paul emphasizes God’s sovereignty here. One reason is to give us assurance that He will complete what He began. We know that we will finally be saved because…

2. The God who purposed to save us is sovereign over all things.

Paul says that the reason we have been chosen to receive an inheritance in Christ is that God predestined us according to His purpose; and, He is the God who works all things after the counsel of His will.

A. We are saved because God predestined us according to His purpose.

“Predestined” means, “to decide upon beforehand” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [The University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed.], by Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and Wilbur Gingrich, p. 709). It means, “The omniscient God has determined everything in advance, both persons and things in salvation history, with Jesus Christ as the goal” (K. L. Schmidt, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Eerdmans], ed. by Gerhard Friedrich, V:456). The doctrine stems from the fact that God is eternal, outside of time. In eternity, before He created the world of space and time, God freely determined His purpose and plan, which is all for His glory (see John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books], which contains Jonathan Edwards’ essay, “The End for Which God Created the World”).

As I said, I believe that the main reason Paul emphasizes this here is to give us assurance that our salvation rests on God’s eternal, unshakable purpose, and not on anything in us. Also, as verse 12 makes clear, Paul wants all the praise and glory for our salvation to go to God alone.

But, some have objected to the doctrine of predestination because, they argue, it destroys our free will. It makes us robots or puppets. I don’t like the term “free will,” because it is widely misunderstood. None of us are absolutely free; we do not make any choices with complete freedom. I did not choose to be born as a white male in 1947, to American parents who had just become Christians. All of that was determined. And, we all make choices based on many factors that are outside of our immediate understanding. We choose based on our upbringing, our culture, our knowledge, our life experiences, and many other factors. We are responsible to God for the choices we make, but we do not make those choices from a position of absolute freedom.

While the Bible teaches that God foreordains or predestines everything that happens, including sin and evil, it also teaches that He is not the author of evil or responsible for it. Joseph’s brothers committed a great evil by selling him into slavery. They did it on one level, yet on another level, God did it for a higher purpose (see Gen. 45:5, 7, 8; 50:20). Evil men crucified the sinless Son of God, and they were responsible for their actions. Yet, at the same time, God purposed and predestined to put His Son to death on the cross (see Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Isa. 53:4, 10). If God predetermined the cross, then He necessarily predetermined the fall of man into sin. If anyone objects that God did not predetermine the fall, but only permitted it, then I ask you the question that John Calvin asked such objectors: Did He permit it willingly or unwillingly?

B. We are saved because God sovereignly works all things after the counsel of His will.

Again, objectors try to argue that “all things” couldn’t possibly mean, “all things.” If it did, it would rob us of our “free will” and it would make God the author of evil. They argue that terrible events, whether it be on a widespread scale, such as the Holocaust, or on a personal level, such as rape or a tragic accident, are not included in the “all things” that God works after the counsel of His will (Gordon Olson, Getting the Gospel Right [Global Gospel Publishers], pp. 292-293, argues that God could not have anything to do with such tragedies). Some say that catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes are outside of the “all things” of Ephesians 1:11. They can’t square these events with a “God of love.”

But Paul states here that God “works all things after the counsel of His will.” Works means that He actively brings these things to pass. The Bible is clear that the “all things” includes inanimate things, such as fire, hail, wind, rain, snow, and lightning (Ps. 148:8; Job 37:6-13; 38:22-30). It includes wild animals (Ps. 104:27-29) and even seemingly chance events, such as the casting of lots (Prov. 16:33). God controls the affairs of nations and the rise and fall of powerful world leaders (Job 12:23; Dan. 4:34-35). He ordains all of our days before we were even born (Ps. 139:16; Job 14:5). (See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 315-351.)

Also, those who argue against God’s sovereignty over all say that it would mean that God holds us accountable for things that He predestined to occur or for things that we are not able to do (such as, believe in Christ), which would be unjust. These scoffers fail to note that Paul anticipated this very objection in Romans 9:19. His answer (Rom. 9:20) is pretty clear: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?”

If you deny that God works all things after the counsel of His will, you rob believers of the comfort that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). It would be a scary universe indeed if some things are not under God’s sovereign control! The Bible rather presents a universe under the sovereign control of a wise, loving, omnipotent God who will judge all evil in His perfect time and plan. A god who is not in control of all the evil things that happen is not the God of the Bible! We can trust Him to keep His promises because He works all things after the counsel of His will. But, there is another important application:

3. The end of our salvation is that we would be to the praise of God’s glory.

There are two important things to note here:

A. Salvation is first and foremost about God’s glory, not about us.

We are so man-centered that we mistakenly think that salvation is all about us. Thank God, salvation does rescue us from His awful judgment and give us eternal life in heaven! But, we need to understand that it is primarily about His glory. He saves us by His sovereign grace so that we will be to the praise of His glory. He owed us nothing but judgment, but He gave us infinite love and mercy. Even if we suffer terribly in this life, we can only praise and glorify Him for His sovereign grace!

B. The test of sound doctrine with regard to salvation is that it gives all glory to God and none to us.

Those who emphasize our “free will” and our faith, which they say we can exercise apart from God’s gracious intervention, undermine God’s grace and glory. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote (God’s Ultimate Purpose [Baker], p. 225), “In every view of salvation the place given in it to the glory of God provides the ultimate test. The proof that it is truly scriptural is that it gives all the glory to God.”

Conclusion

As I said at the outset, it is evidence of the enemy at work that the clear, straightforward, inescapable truth that Paul sets forth here even needs to be debated among those who claim to believe in Christ. The truth that our sovereign God predestined to save us according to His purpose and the assurance that He will bring it to pass because He works all things after the counsel of His will, should fill us with great joy. We should bow before His throne, lost in wonder, love and praise.

We should join the apostle Paul in exclaiming (Rom. 11:33-36), “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

Application Questions

  1. Why is it essential to affirm (with Jonathan Edwards) that God’s glory is the end for which He created the world? Does this imply that He is a cosmic egotist, as some charge?
  2. Why is “free will” a misnomer? How can the concept be stated more accurately?
  3. Cite some biblical examples that show that God is sovereign over evil and yet not responsible for it.
  4. Some argue that everyone can believe in Christ if they choose to do so, and that such faith is not a gift from God. Why does this undermine God’s grace and glory?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 8: Secure in Him (Ephesians 1:13-14)

One of the joys of childhood (and maybe adulthood, too) is to receive presents at Christmas or your birthday. Sometimes you can guess what is underneath the wrapping paper, but it’s still fun to open the present and find out what gifts you have been given.

That’s what we’ve been doing in Ephesians 1. In verse 3, Paul says that if you are in Christ, all of the gifts under the tree have your name on them! God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. Then Paul begins unwrapping the gifts for us. He shows that we have been chosen by the Father (1:4-6); redeemed by the Son, who revealed to us His eternal purpose (1:7-12); and, now, sealed by the Holy Spirit (1:13-14); all, to the praise of His glory (1:6, 12, 14).

Today we will unwrap the third gift, the truth that believers have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is also called the pledge of our inheritance. God gives us these pictures of the Holy Spirit to make us feel secure in Christ. Many Christians struggle with a lack of assurance of their salvation. The enemy knows that if he can stir up doubts about your salvation, you will not glorify God as you should.

Imagine a cruel parent, who always threatened his or her child with, “If you do that again, I’m going to disown you as my child! I’ll take you to an orphanage and abandon you!” The poor child would never praise such a cruel parent for his love. That kind of cruel threat undermines any kind of close relationship. Every loving parent wants his child to feel secure in his love. That assurance of steadfast love undergirds strong parent-child relationships.

Even so, the loving heavenly Father wants all of His children to feel secure in His steadfast love. After all, before we even existed, He chose us in Christ and determined that we would be adopted into His family (1:4-5). When He did that, He knew everything about us and yet He still chose us, based on His grace, not on anything in us. To assure us, He gives us the Holy Spirit as the seal and pledge of our future inheritance, guaranteeing that He will complete what He has begun. So, Paul here says,

We should praise God because when we believed, He secured us in Christ with the seal and pledge of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is one of the most controversial and divisive subjects among Christians today. Many churches have split over differences regarding the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophetic utterances, speaking in tongues, miracles, and healing. Some argue that all such miraculous gifts ceased with the apostolic era, while others argue that they should be experienced on a normative basis by the church today. My opinion is that we cannot prove biblically that such gifts have ceased. Yet, at the same time, most of what goes under that banner today is not genuine. The enemy is the great counterfeiter. Thus, we need biblical discernment in these matters (1 John 4:1).

I cannot deal with all of those issues today, but I want to ask and answer five questions that stem from our text regarding the Holy Spirit and His ministry of making us secure in Christ. Some of you may disagree with me on these matters. I would only ask that we treat one another in Christian love and that we allow any differences to drive us to ask God for more understanding from the Scriptures.

1. How do we get the Holy Spirit? We get the Holy Spirit by hearing the gospel and believing in Jesus Christ.

Some teach that not all believers have the Holy Spirit, but we must seek God to give us the Spirit. They usually teach that the sign of receiving the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. They also call this experience “being baptized in (or by) the Spirit.” They base this on some texts in Acts, as well as Luke 11:13, where Jesus tells the disciples that the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.

In seeking to understand these matters, it is crucial to understand that on the Day of Pentecost, God did a new thing with regard to the Holy Spirit. Before Pentecost, only some believers were indwelled by the Holy Spirit, and even at that it was not necessarily permanent. Thus David, after his sin with Bathsheba, prayed (Ps. 51:11), “… do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” While believers today may grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) or quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19), they cannot lose the indwelling Spirit. It is part of God’s gift of salvation after Pentecost.

In the Upper Room, Jesus promised the disciples (John 14:16-17) that after He left them, the Father would send “another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” Later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, He knew their need for the Spirit’s presence until they permanently received Him seven weeks later at Pentecost. Thus (John 20:22), “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Just before He ascended, Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for what the Father had promised, namely, the baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5).

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon the believers, thus fulfilling God’s promise. The Book of Acts must be interpreted as a transitional book to the age (or dispensation) of the Spirit. We see the Spirit coming first on believers in Jerusalem, then in Samaria, then on the Gentiles, and then to those in the “remotest part of the earth” (see Acts 1:8; 2:1-21; 8:14-17; 10:1-48; 19:1-7). After the transitional time, all believers in Christ receive the Holy Spirit.

Other Scriptures affirm this interpretation. In Acts 15, during the debate at the Jerusalem Council, Peter refers back to his experience of preaching to the Gentiles (Acts 10). He says (15:7-8) that they heard the word of the gospel and believed, and that God gave them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to the Jews at Pentecost. In Galatians, Paul argues that they received the Spirit at the beginning of their Christian experience by hearing [the gospel] with faith, not by works of the Law (3:2, 3, 5). And, in Romans 8:9, Paul writes, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Every believer in Christ has the Holy Spirit dwelling in him.

In our text (Eph. 1:13), Paul gives the same order. “You also” refers to the Gentiles (contrasted with the Jews, 1:12). First, they listened to the message of truth, the gospel of their salvation. Then, they believed that message and they were sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit of promise. The gospel is the good news, that God forgives all our sins and gives us eternal life as His free gift through faith in Christ, apart from our good deeds (Eph. 2:8-9). The moment you believe that message and put your trust in Christ, God seals you with the Holy Spirit and gives Him to you as His pledge that you will inherit all the blessings of heaven for all eternity.

2. Who gets the Holy Spirit and when? All believers receive the Holy Spirit the instant they believe in Christ.

I’ve already said this, but need to address it further because many teach that there is a time lapse between believing in Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit and that only some experience the sealing of the Spirit. This view was fostered by the old King James translation, which stated, “in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” The word after implies a time lapse. Even Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, whom I greatly respect, err in arguing that the sealing of the Spirit is an experience that only some believers receive subsequent to salvation. But that undermines Paul’s entire point here, which is to assure all believers that God has sealed them with the Spirit at the moment of faith in Christ.

While the Greek grammar of Ephesians 1:13 allows for the translation, “after you believed,” it also may be translated, “when you believed.” We must go to the context and to other Scriptures to determine which is correct. In the context here, Paul is enumerating all of the blessings that we received in Christ.

And, as we’ve seen, other Scriptures (Gal. 3:2-5; Rom. 8:9; and the Book of Acts, properly interpreted) show that we receive the Spirit at the moment of salvation. But there are more. In 2 Corinthians 1:22, Paul writes that God “sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.” He repeats in 2 Corinthians 5:5, “Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.” He does not say that this only applied to those in Corinth who were spiritually mature or who had sought this blessing, but he writes it to the entire church. To the same church (1 Cor. 12:13), he wrote, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” In Ephesians 4:30, he commands, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Again, he does not imply that only some had been sealed. It was the blessing of all in the church of Ephesus who had believed in Christ.

Also, it is significant that believers are never commanded to be baptized with the Spirit or to be sealed with the Spirit. If these were experiences that we need, surely there would be commands to this effect. We are commanded to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18), which is a repeated and growing experience. So while every true believer in Christ has the Holy Spirit indwelling him from the moment of salvation, not every believer experiences the fullness of the Holy Spirit in daily life. We should ask God for that and remove every hindrance in our lives so that we increasingly are characterized by being full of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 11:24).

3. How do we know if we have the Holy Spirit? Many evidences reveal the Spirit’s presence in our lives.

Our Pentecostal brethren argue that speaking in tongues is the normative sign or evidence of having the Holy Spirit. But, even if you allow that the gift of tongues is valid for today, Paul is clear (1 Cor. 12:30), “All do not speak with tongues, do they?” In the context, he is arguing that we all have differing gifts. What are some evidences of the Holy Spirit in our lives? We could list many more, but here are five:

(1). We heard the gospel of salvation and recognized it to be the truth.

In Ephesians 1:13, Paul recounts what had happened to these Gentile believers. First, they heard the good news about salvation and the recognized it to be the truth. For that to happen, the Holy Spirit had to open their blind eyes. In Ephesians 4:18, Paul writes that unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” In 1 Corinthians 2:14, he states, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” So, for anyone to understand the truth of the gospel, the Holy Spirit must open his blind eyes (see John 8:43; 9:39).

(2). We believed the gospel and were saved.

While no one is able to believe of his own “free will” (because the will is enslaved to sin and not free), at the same time no one can be saved apart from believing in Jesus Christ. So how does a person come to believe in Christ? Answer: the Holy Spirit must open spiritually blind eyes to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ so that the person can believe in Him (2 Cor. 4:4-6). So if you have believed the gospel and God has saved you by His grace through faith in Christ, it is an evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life.

(3). The Holy Spirit replaced our despair with hope in God’s promises.

In Ephesians 2:12, Paul describes unbelievers as “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But when God saves us, His Holy Spirit makes us heirs of God’s promises and gives us hope (Rom. 15:13). He is “the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13).

(4). We began to enjoy the riches of our inheritance in Christ.

Although we will not experience the fullness of the riches of God’s grace even throughout eternity, the instant that we trust in Christ we begin to discover and enjoy all that God has prepared for those who love Him. Paul says that God reveals these things to us through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-10).

(5). The Holy Spirit began to produce His fruit in us.

Paul writes (Gal. 5:22-23), “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Again, fruit takes time to grow, but if the Spirit of God dwells in us, He begins the process of character transformation. Over time, you will see these qualities developing in your life. He makes you progressively holy (2 Cor. 3:18).

These are just some of the evidences that God’s Spirit is at work in your life. But, Paul’s main emphasis in our text is the security that we now enjoy because of the seal and pledge of the Spirit.

4. What does it mean to me to have the Holy Spirit? I have the security of knowing that I belong to Christ forever.

I want each of you that knows Christ to personalize this. He wants you to feel the security of His unchanging love. Paul uses two metaphors to drive home this point:

(1). You can feel secure in Christ because the Holy Spirit is the seal of God’s promises to you.

The seal in biblical times was usually made of hot wax, impressed with a signet ring or other official insignia. It represented at least three things:

         Security

The seal made something secure. The Roman guards sealed the tomb of Jesus so that no one could steal His body (Matt. 27:66). They probably put a rope across the stone that blocked the entrance and secured both ends with wax, stamped with the official Roman seal. Also, a letter or legal document was sealed with wax and stamped with a special seal so that the recipient could be sure that it had not been tampered with. When you trusted in Christ, God sealed you with His Holy Spirit, making your salvation secure. No one can break God’s seal.

         Identification of ownership

The seal marked out property or documents as belonging to the one who put his seal upon it. Much like a brand on cattle, the seal showed who officially owned something (Jer. 32:10). Even so, God’s Spirit is the seal on the believer, showing that you are no longer your own. He bought you with the blood of Christ and you now belong to Him. No one can take you from Him.

         Authentication

A seal makes something official or authentic. If it has the official seal on it, you know that it’s genuine. If you’ve ever had to get an official transcript from a school or an official copy of your birth certificate, it had to have the official seal on it to be valid. Or, a notary public will authenticate your signature on an important document by stamping it with his seal. Even so, God’s Holy Spirit assures us that we are His genuine children. False believers do not have the Holy Spirit.

In Romans 8:16, Paul says, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” I believe that He does that mostly by an inner assurance that God’s promises in His Word are true and applicable to our lives. In other words, when you read the Scripture and find yourself exclaiming, “Praise God, this promise is for me!” it is the Holy Spirit giving you authentication that you are God’s child. You belong to Him.

So, the Holy Spirit is God’s seal, testifying to us that we are His for time and eternity. But, also …

(2). You can feel secure in Christ because the Holy Spirit is the pledge of your inheritance in Christ.

The word pledge might better be translated as down payment or earnest money. A pledge is something valuable that you give as temporary collateral until you complete the agreement. But a down payment or earnest money is the first installment, with more of the same to follow. If you are selling a house, the other party gives you earnest money to show that he is serious and he plans to complete the deal. In modern Greek, the word used here for pledge means an engagement ring. It is a token of a promise that says, “Take this for now, but there is more to follow.”

God gives us the Holy Spirit as the down payment or earnest of the full blessing of our future redemption. In one sense, we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ (1:7). But, in another sense, our redemption is not complete until we get to heaven. Right now we can begin to enjoy the inheritance that is ours in Christ. But it’s just a foretaste of future glory. We don’t get the complete inheritance until we go to heaven.

Scholars are divided over whether “the redemption of the possession” (“God’s own” has been added by translators) refers to our receiving the fullness of the redemption that we now partially possess; or, does it refer to God’s redeeming His people as His possession? While both ideas are true biblically, most understand it to mean that God has put down the earnest of His Holy Spirit to show that He will take full possession of what is rightfully His (1 Pet. 2:9). The Holy Spirit’s indwelling us shows us that God will complete the deal. God uses these two metaphors, the seal and the pledge, so that if you have believed in Christ as your Savior, you will feel secure in His promise of eternal life.

5. How should we respond to having the security of God’s seal and pledge? We should praise and glorify Him.

Paul especially wants his Gentile readers to know that they now enjoy equal standing in Christ before God with Jewish believers. F. F. Bruce puts it (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 267), “That such language should now be applied to Gentile believers is a token of the security of their new standing within the community of God’s own people, fully sharing present blessing and future hope with their fellow-believers of Jewish stock.” He goes on to point out that Paul is here echoing the words of Isaiah 43:20-21, where God says, “My chosen people, the people whom I formed for Myself will declare My praise.”

For 2,000 years, the Gentiles were for the most part excluded from God’s promises to Israel. But now, as Paul goes on to argue (chapters 2 & 3), “the Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:8). This should cause us to praise His glory (1:14).

Conclusion

If you have trusted in Christ as Savior, God gave you His Holy Spirit as the seal and pledge of your inheritance so that you will praise and glorify Him. In other words, you will not praise and glorify God properly unless you feel secure in His eternal love that saved you from your sin and sealed you for His own possession. Since the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, you need to feel secure in the salvation that He has given you so that you fulfill that purpose. So, unwrap the present and revel in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, who secures your salvation!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to distinguish between the sealing of the Spirit, the baptism of the Spirit, and the filling of the Spirit?
  2. What dangers are inherent in the view that we receive the Holy Spirit (or the baptism of the Spirit) as a “second” blessing, subsequent to salvation? Are there dangers in the view that these blessings are received once and for all at salvation?
  3. When a professing believer is living in sin and justifying himself, should we give him assurance of salvation? Why/why not?
  4. When a believer is grieving over his sin, should you help him regain his assurance of salvation? If so, how?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 9: Knowing God More Deeply (Ephesians 1:15-17)

A. W. Tozer begins his classic, The Knowledge of the Holy [Harper & Row], p. 9) with this provocative sentence: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” He goes on to argue (ibid.), “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.” His words, of course, reflect the psalmist’s comment concerning those who worship idols (Ps. 115:8), “Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them.”

If Tozer was right, then Martyn Lloyd-Jones was also right when he said, “Our supreme need is to know God” (God’s Ultimate Purpose [Baker], p. 342; he said this often in his writings). He meant, of course, to know God well, to know Him deeply, to know Him truly, as He is revealed in His Word.

There is a legitimate sense in which every believer has come to know God. Jesus prayed (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” If you have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, you have come to know God. And yet there is another sense in which we need to know God far more deeply than we do. After 25 years as a believer, the apostle Paul said that he had not yet attained to knowing Christ as he ought, but he pressed on toward that goal (Phil. 3:8-14). And if that was true of Paul, who wasn’t exactly an average believer, how much more is it true of us! As the prophet Hosea wrote (6:3), “let us press on to know the Lord.”

That his readers would know God more deeply is the main theme of Paul’s prayer (Eph. 1:15-23). He has just unfolded in one long sentence (1:3-14 in the Greek) that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. These blessings include being chosen by the Father (1:4-6); redeemed by the Son, who has also revealed to us God’s eternal purpose (1:7-12); and, sealed by the Holy Spirit (1:13-14). Then Paul writes (1:15), “For this reason…” and goes on to tell them how he prayed for them. The logical connection is, “Because God has given us such a wealth of spiritual blessings, I pray that He would grant you a deeper experiential knowledge of Him.” Paul’s prayer shows us that we should pray often for one another and what we should pray when we do pray.

We should also apply Paul’s prayer to ourselves. We often pray, “Lord, heal me of this illness. Give me this job. Help me to do well in school.” While there is nothing wrong with such prayers, they are rather shallow. We also ought to be praying, “Lord, give me a spirit of wisdom and revelation in knowing You. Grant the same for my mate and my children, and for all of the saints in our church.” Paul’s prayer here teaches us that…

We should pray that God would grant that His people know Him more deeply.

It has often rightly been said that Christianity is not a religion. It is a personal relationship with the living God. Personal relationships do not run on autopilot. It’s easy to have an exciting relationship when you first fall in love, but it takes deliberate effort to keep your marriage close and growing as the years go on. The same is true in your relationship with the Lord. When you first come to Christ, it’s new and exciting. But, it’s easy to lose that first love for Christ and to grow distant in your relationship with Him. It becomes a routine or ritual. You aren’t growing to know Him more intimately. So, you need to pray with Paul for yourself and for other believers, that God “may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (1:17).

1. Since all spiritual blessings come from God alone, we should continually pray with gratitude for all the saints.

A. All spiritual blessings come from God, so we must ask Him for them.

We have already seen that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, but that does not mean that we automatically experience these blessings. We must desire these blessings and seek God for them, both for ourselves and for all of God’s saints. Jesus said (Matt. 5:6), “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Hunger and thirst are pretty strong desires! When a man is hungry or thirsty, he has only one thing on his mind, to find food and drink. He knows that he will die unless those needs are met soon. He is driven to satisfy those needs. That’s how we should seek to know God.

In Luke 10:21-22 we read of Jesus, “At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, ‘I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son will to reveal Him.’” Thus, if we want to know Him, we must lay aside all pride in our wisdom and intelligence and approach him as infants, in simple trust. We must ask Him to reveal Himself to us.

But there is more, if we want the Lord to disclose Himself to us. In John 14:21, Jesus said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” Maybe you’re thinking, “Doesn’t God love everyone unconditionally? Then why does Jesus say that He will love the one who obeys Him? That sounds like conditional love.”

There is a general sense in which God loves the entire world and sent His Son, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:16). But, there is also a special, intimate love that is reserved for those who obey Him. It is only to those in this close, love-trust relationship, that He reveals more of Himself.

We understand this principle from our relationships. You only disclose your heart to those whom you trust. If you walk up to a stranger and start revealing personal matters, he will rightly think that you are weird. Intimate, personal disclosure is reserved for those we know well, who are trustworthy of that information. The same is true spiritually. As David wrote (Ps. 25:14), “The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and He will make them know His covenant.” But, Paul’s prayer here gives us further instruction in how to pray:

B. Knowing that God has given us all that we are and have, we should continually thank Him.

Paul did not cease giving thanks because he had heard of the Ephesians’ faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all the saints. Some argue that this letter could not have been intended for the church in Ephesus, because it sounds as if Paul heard these things second hand. But, it had been at least four years since he had been there, and he was now in prison in Rome. So he was continually thanking God for the good reports that he heard.

In a sermon on this text (Sermons on Ephesians [Banner of Truth], p. 83), John Calvin argues that Paul would have no reason to thank God for the Ephesians’ faith and love, unless these qualities came from God alone. If people can believe of their own free will apart from God’s sovereign grace, as many asserted in Calvin’s day and still assert, then the praise for it ought not be given to God, because He didn’t have anything to do with it. Calvin attacked the Catholic Church, which (like many evangelicals today) granted that God must help us by His grace in part, “but, for all that, they will still have man exalted and to attain to faith by his own doings.” But Calvin calls this a devilish opinion and shows that it robs God of all the glory that He deserves in our salvation.

So, if faith and love come from God, we should thank Him in our prayers for these things. We can commend those who are walking in faith and love, but we must be quick to divert all the praise and glory to God alone, because if we were left to ourselves, we would never be inclined to faith and love. Since all spiritual blessings come from God, we must continually pray with gratitude for all of the saints when we see them walking with God.

2. Those marked by faith and love have begun well, but we should pray that God would grant that they come to know Him more deeply.

Most of us would be quite content to hear of other believers who are living by faith in the Lord Jesus and with love for all the saints. After all, that is virtually a summary of the two great commandments. What more could you ask for? As Paul wrote (Col. 2:6), “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” We received Him by faith, and so we should walk daily by faith in Him. And we should love one another, as He commanded us (John 13:34).

But, even though these believers in Ephesus were walking by faith in the Lord Jesus and with love for one another, Paul prays for more. He prays that God would give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” He asks God to open the eyes of their hearts so that they would know “what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (1:18-19).

My point here is that it is not enough to pray for your loved ones that they come to faith in Christ. Yes, pray for that, but don’t stop there. Once they’re saved, there is more! Pray that they would come to know God more deeply! Pray this prayer of Paul for other believers and for yourself. If we’re complacent in our Christian walk, if we’re content where we’re at, we’re in spiritual danger. There is always more of God to know and experience. Faith in the Lord Jesus and love for all the saints is basic; so yes, pray for those qualities. But, also, pray for deeper knowledge of God.

3. Pray that God would give others and you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.

Note two things:

A. The mystery of the Trinity and the inherent glory of God preclude us from knowing Him through our own understanding.

Paul refers to God as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory.” Whether you take “spirit” in verse 17 to refer to the Holy Spirit or not, the doctrines of the Trinity and of God’s glory are evident in Ephesians 1. No one can figure out who the glorious, triune God is from philosophy or reason or intuition. While creation reveals His invisible attributes, His eternal power, and His divine nature, unbelievers cannot know God through creation because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-20). The natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).

When Paul calls God “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ,” it does not imply that Jesus is not God. As Charles Hodge argues (Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 70), Paul’s words (1:15), “faith in the Lord Jesus” imply His deity. The Bible is clear that we should not put our faith in any mere man, but in God alone. Also, Paul here refers to God as “the Father of glory,” while in 1 Corinthians 2:8 he refers to Jesus as “the Lord of glory.” Clearly, Paul believed that Jesus is equal to the Father in His deity.

So when Paul here says, “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he is putting the emphasis on the humanity of our Lord. While He was on this earth, Jesus referred to the Father as “my God” (Matt. 27:46; John 20:17). In His humanity, Jesus trusted in the Father as His God and He often prayed to the Father.

Why does Paul use this designation of God here? I believe it is because Jesus showed us while He was on this earth how to live in complete dependence on the Father and obedience to His will. He showed us how to commune with the Father in prayer. Paul calls Him “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” to show us that through Christ our Mediator, we have access to the same God that Jesus prayed to when He was on this earth. He is our great example.

But, Paul also calls Him, “the Father of glory.” That phrase is almost an oxymoron. Father implies intimacy, love, and acceptance, but glory implies that He is transcendent and unapproachable. God’s glory refers to His brightness, His majesty, and the awesome splendor of His presence. Whenever in the Bible anyone gets a glimpse of God’s glory, the response is always fear and trembling. That God is “the Father of glory” implies that He is the source of all glory. All things have been created to glorify Him. As Paul has just shown, He chose us in Him “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (1:4-6). Christ redeemed us and revealed God’s eternal purpose, “to the praise of His glory (1:7-12). He sealed us with the Holy Spirit, “to the praise of His glory” (1:12-14).

The point is, God is not “the old Man upstairs.” He is not our “good buddy in the sky.” No, He is “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory.” We are mere creatures, and sinful creatures at that, who have rebelled against this awesome God. The only way that we can come to know Him more deeply is if He will graciously open our eyes and reveal to us a glimpse of His glory.

One of the most instructive biblical illustrations of this knowledge of the Holy One is when Moses asked God to show him His glory. Moses had already seen the burning bush and heard God speak through it. He had already seen God inflict the ten plagues on Egypt. He had seen God part the Red Sea and provide a dry path for Israel, and then destroy the Egyptian army. He had seen God provide water from the rock. He had met God at the tent of meeting, where the cloud of God’s glory descended. He had spoken to God face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. He had just been on the mountain in the presence of God for 40 days and nights, where he received the Ten Commandments, written by the very finger of God.

For most of us, that would be more than enough, but not for Moses! After all of this, he dares to ask God (Exod. 33:18), “I pray You, show me Your glory!” The Lord’s response is very interesting (Exod. 33:19-20):

And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!”

Then the Lord told Moses to hide himself in the cleft of a rock, where God would cover Moses with His hand and pass by. Then the Lord said that He would take away His hand and let Moses see His back, but His face would not be seen. Did you notice that when God revealed His glory to Moses, He emphasized sovereign election? “I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” His glory is inextricably bound up with His sovereign right to show mercy to whom He wills and to harden whom He wills (see Rom. 9:15, 18).

I’m going to make a radical suggestion. If you don’t agree with me, then at least give it some thought. It is: if you have not submitted to God’s sovereign right to be gracious to whom He chooses and to harden whom He chooses, you do not yet know God as deeply as you should. I base that statement on Ephesians 1, Romans 9, and also on Exodus 33, which show that when God reveals His glory, He speaks about His sovereign right to be gracious to whom He wills. Also, I make that statement because human reason would never come up with the concept of God’s sovereign election and at the same time assert the responsibility of men and women before Him. Human reason would accuse such a God of being unjust (Rom. 9:11-23). You can only submit to that truth and rejoice in it, as Jesus did (Luke 10:21-23) when the Holy Spirit reveals it to you.

B. Because God dwells in unapproachable light, we must ask Him for a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.

Scholars are divided as to whether “spirit” refers to the human spirit or to the Holy Spirit. Some say that “a spirit of wisdom” makes sense, but “a spirit of revelation” does not. Thus they take it as a prayer that the indwelling Holy Spirit (1:13-14) would reveal the knowledge of God to these believers.

But, while recognizing that it must be the Holy Spirit who gives such knowledge, others say that the language of God’s sealing these believers with the Spirit (1:13-14) would not fit with a prayer here for God to give them the Holy Spirit. So perhaps it is better to say that Paul is praying that God would give these believers spirits characterized by wisdom and knowledge of Him that is revealed by God’s Spirit. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2, God’s Spirit is the One who reveals the things of God to us. As Isaiah 11:2 prophesied of Messiah, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

So Paul is praying that we would have spirits that are receptive to the truth about God that the Holy Spirit reveals through His Word. There is no new revelation about God today apart from the revelation of Scripture. If someone claims to have some new revelation that cannot be found in the written Word, run for cover! The spirit of wisdom enables us to live wisely by applying the knowledge of God through His Word to our daily lives. The spirit of revelation opens our eyes to see truths about God from His Word that natural reason and understanding cannot grasp (truths such as sovereign election, predestination, and God’s working all things after the counsel of His will). Any dreams or visions about God must line up with Scripture, or they are false.

Conclusion

Maybe you’re a history buff, and you have read a lot about President Bush. You know many detailed facts about the man’s life and his presidency. But, you’ve never met him. You don’t know him personally. Knowing him personally involves knowing many facts about him, but it involves more. Personal knowledge involves a relationship. It requires time spent together.

Paul is not praying for an academic knowledge of theology about God, although that is necessary in the process of knowing God. Rather, he is praying for a personal, experiential knowledge of God Himself through Jesus Christ, who is the only way to know the Father (John 14:6, 9).

Are you growing to know God personally through Jesus Christ, as the Holy Spirit reveals Him to you through His Word? Is spending time with God in His Word a priority to you? Knowing God is your supreme need, as Dr. Lloyd-Jones asserted. The quest of your life should be to know Him more and more. With Paul, you should be able to say (Phil. 3:8), “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.”

Application Questions

  1. Someone says, “Knowing God sounds like a difficult process. Why can’t it be easier?” Your response?
  2. How can a Christian who is prone to grumbling develop a thankful heart in all things?
  3. How can we develop and maintain a passion to know God?
  4. Can we know God rightly apart from understanding sound doctrine? Can we know doctrine without knowing God? If so, what’s the difference?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 10: What God Wants You to Know (Ephesians 1:18-19)

When you buy a new gadget, it comes with an owner’s manual that tells you how to operate it. Many of us skim the manual quickly (at best), or never bother to read it at all. That’s too tedious, and besides, we think that we’re smart enough to figure this out without reading the directions. But then we can’t figure out why this stupid product doesn’t work right! Maybe we need to go back and read the manual!

God has given us His Word as the manual for our salvation. It tells us all we need to know to walk with God and live wisely in light of eternity. But, as we do with so many owner’s manuals, we read it superficially or hardly at all and then wonder why the Christian life isn’t working the way it’s supposed to! We need to go back and read the manual carefully, asking God to give us His wisdom and understanding.

In Ephesians 1:15-23, Paul is praying that God would give the saints a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the true knowledge of Him. In 1:18-19, he elaborates on what that means, namely, that God wants us to know three essentials about our salvation that will give us assurance about our high calling as God’s people. They will give us the hope and eternal perspective that we need to endure trials. They will give us the strength to persevere in godliness.

God wants you to know the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the surpassing greatness of His power toward believers.

1. To know these important truths, you must ask God to enlighten the eyes of your heart.

The first phrase of verse 18 is literally, “the eyes of your heart having been enlightened.” I understand it to be explaining in more specific detail Paul’s words in verse 17, that God would give us “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the true knowledge of Him.” To know these spiritual truths, God must open our eyes.

Paul describes unbelievers as (Eph. 4:18), “being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” In other words, sin blinds the minds of unbelievers and renders them incapable of understanding the truth of the gospel, unless God opens their blind eyes (2 Cor. 4:4, 6).

But here, Paul is writing to believers (“saints,” “us who believe,” 1:18, 19). Even though God has opened our eyes to see and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we still must seek Him to enlighten the eyes of our hearts so that we will come to a deeper understanding of these crucial truths. “The eyes of our hearts” refers to our total inner person, which includes the intellect, the emotions, and the will. In other words, this is not just an intellectual ability to understand or teach these truths. There are seminary professors who can exegete the Greek text here, but these glorious truths do not thrill their hearts. The knowledge that Paul is praying for includes an intellectual grasp of the truth, but it also grips our emotions and brings our will into greater submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Here is how this applies: As a believer, you are always in need of the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of your heart to the great truths of the Bible. Many Christians have a “stick your head in the sand” attitude when it comes to grappling with the difficult doctrines of the Bible. They say, “I don’t bother with theology. I just love Jesus.” Some even think that studying theology is spiritually dangerous. But they are being intellectually lazy and exposing themselves to spiritual danger! Paul saw fit to teach simple believers, many of whom were slaves, the great doctrines of Romans and Ephesians and his other letters.

Certainly, there is always the danger of spiritual pride that comes from thinking that you know more than others know. There is the danger of stopping at knowing doctrine, rather than allowing the doctrines to give you greater personal knowledge of the God of whom the doctrines speak. But the antidote to these dangers is not to remain ignorant. Rather, it is constantly to be praying as you study the Word, “Lord, enlighten the eyes of my heart so that I may know, love, and obey You better!”

Having prayed then that God would enlighten the eyes of our hearts, Paul specifies three things that God wants you to know:

2. God wants you to know what is the hope of His calling.

Paul later (4:4) will talk about “the hope of your calling,” but here he refers to “the hope of His calling.” Why does he do that?

A. The hope of His calling means that He took the initiative in our salvation.

“Call” or “calling” is used with reference to salvation in two senses. There is the general call of the gospel that goes out to all people. Jesus used the word in this sense when He said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). The invitation goes out to everyone: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” But many ignore the invitation or make up excuses for why they cannot respond.

But there is also the effectual call that always accomplishes God’s purpose of saving His chosen people. Paul writes (Rom. 8:30), “And these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” That sequence is certain! Spurgeon compared the general call of the gospel to the sheet lightning that you see on a summer night. It gives off light, but it doesn’t strike anything in particular. But the effectual call is the lightning bolt that connects. Paul always uses the word “call” to refer to this effectual call of God that actually saves the one called (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 75).

The practical application of this is that your salvation does not rest on your choosing Christ, but rather on His choosing you. As Paul puts it (2 Tim. 1:9), God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” Knowing that you are saved because in eternity God purposed to save you and that His purpose is certain, will give you assurance you when you’re struggling with doubt or failure. It will encourage you to go on. It will fill you with thanksgiving, joy, and hope. It is “hope” that Paul here links with God’s effectual call:

B. The hope of His calling is the certainty of increasing blessing and joy in Christ, beginning now and lasting through all eternity.

Scholars are divided over whether “hope” refers to the subjective emotion or to the objective content of our promised blessings in Christ. In my opinion, you can’t separate the two, because when your eyes are enlightened to know objectively all that God has promised to give you in Christ, it fills you with hope subjectively in your heart. Paul describes people who do not know Christ (Eph. 2:12) as, “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

But, as we’ve seen (1:13), believers have been “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Since God’s promises are as certain as He is faithful, the hope of our calling is not some vague, wishful thinking that everything will work out for our good. Rather, if we are the called according to God’s purpose, then we know that He is actively working all things together for our good, both in time and in eternity (Rom. 8:28)! So even in the most difficult trials, we can be filled with hope (see Rom. 15:13).

Thus as Christians, we should be filled with hope because we know that God has called us to salvation. Our faith in Christ did not originate with our feeble will, but with the sovereign, eternal will of God. Thus we know that He will fulfill all of His promises to us. We will be with Him forever in heaven, where there will be no suffering or tears or death. We will be perfect in righteousness and in love for God and one another. We will enjoy perfect happiness in a perfect environment where nothing will be spoiled by sin. Even more, we will be in the presence of the One who loved us and redeemed us with His blood.

Thus as 1 John 3:2-3 puts it, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” So pray for others and for yourself, that God will enlighten the eyes of your heart through His Word so that you will know what is the hope of His calling.

3. God wants you to know what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.

It would have been a tall prayer if Paul had prayed that we would know God’s inheritance in the saints. It grows even taller when he prays that we would know the glory of God’s inheritance in the saints. But it is mind-boggling when he prays that we will know “the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints”! How can we begin to fathom a prayer like that?

The Greek text may be interpreted in either of two ways. Some take it to mean, “the riches of the glory of the inheritance that comes from God and is enjoyed among the saints.” In other words, they take it to be a prayer that we would come to know all of the spiritual blessings that God has given to us. In favor of this view is the context of Ephesians 1 (verses 3, 11, & 14). Also, the parallel passage (Col. 1:12) refers to our sharing “in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Other Scriptures also refer to the inheritance that is stored up for those who are God’s children through faith in Christ (Acts 20:32; 26:18; Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:4). One argument against taking it this way is that it becomes almost a repetition of the first part of the prayer, to know the hope of His calling. But there are many good reasons to interpret the text this way.

A second way to interpret it is that it refers to the inheritance that God has in His people. In other words, we are God’s possession, purchased by the blood of Christ. Thus we are His portion or inheritance which He will finally and ultimately possess throughout eternity. Many Old Testament texts speak of Israel as God’s chosen portion or inheritance. For example, Deuteronomy 32:9 says, “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” Psalm 33:12 proclaims, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance.” (See, also, Deut. 4:20; 7:6; 9:26, 29; 1 Kings 8:51, 53 Ps. 28:9; 33:12; 78:62, 71; 106:5, 40; Isa. 19:25; 47:6; 63:17; Jer. 10:16; 51:19; etc.).

In Ephesians 1-3, Paul is emphasizing that although the Gentiles were formerly alienated from God and strangers to His promises to Israel, now in Christ they are equal members of God’s covenant people. Just as the Jews were formerly God’s chosen inheritance, now His inheritance is in the saints, the church, made up of Jewish and Gentile believers on equal footing.

New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce writes (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 270), “That God should set such high value on a community of sinners, rescued from perdition and still bearing too many traces of their former state, might well seem incredible were it not made clear that he sees them in Christ, as from the beginning he chose them in Christ.”

Why did God do this? Bruce adds (p. 271), “Paul prays here that his readers may appreciate the value which God places on them, his plan to accomplish his eternal purpose through them as the first fruits of the reconciled universe of the future, in order that their lives may be in keeping with this high calling and that they may accept in grateful humility the grace and glory thus lavished on them.”

Our future is that throughout eternity we will actually share in Christ’s glory! In Ephesians 5:27, Paul says that God’s aim is “that He might present to Himself the church, in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” In Colossians 1:27, Paul says that to the saints, “God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

While I can’t begin to explain this adequately (I need more enlightenment from God!), Paul wants us to get a glimpse of our glorious future so that we will live in light of it right now. Either way you interpret this phrase, whether we are heirs to a vast fortune in heaven or whether we are God’s special inheritance (both are true), the application is the same. We must live as citizens of heaven who belong to God. We must live as saints, God’s holy ones, separate from this evil world.

Warren Wiersbe (Be Rich [Victor Books], pp. 13-14) writes, “When she was young, Victoria was shielded from the fact that she would be the next ruling monarch of England lest this knowledge spoil her. When her teacher finally did let her discover for herself that she would one day be Queen of England, Victoria’s response was, ‘Then I will be good!’ Her life would be controlled by her position. No matter where she was, Victoria was governed by the fact that she sat on the throne of England.” Even so, we will reign with Christ! Knowing that, we should live as His special people.

So Paul asks God to enlighten the eyes of our hearts so that we will know what is the hope of His calling and what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints. Finally,

4. God wants you to know what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.

Again, Paul piles up words to describe God’s power. It would seemingly be enough to mention the power of God, who is omnipotent. But, Paul adds, “the surpassing greatness of His power,” and then goes on to say (1:19b-21) that this power is “in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Wow!

John Calvin helpfully explained why Paul throws in just about every word that he can to describe God’s power towards us who believe. He said that godly people who are engaged in daily struggles with inward corruption realize that it requires nothing less than the surpassing greatness of God’s power to save us. He said that we never form adequate conceptions of the treasure of the gospel, or if we do, we can’t persuade ourselves that these things pertain to us, because they are so far from what we experience. Then he adds (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on Eph. 1:19, p. 214):

Paul’s object, therefore, was not only to impress the Ephesians with a deep sense of the value of Divine grace, but also to give them exalted views of the glory of Christ’s kingdom. That they might not be cast down by a view of their own unworthiness, he exhorts them to consider the power of God; as if he had said, that their regeneration was no ordinary work of God, but was an astonishing exhibition of his power.

There are at least six ways that God wants us as believers to know the surpassing greatness of His power toward us:

A. God wants us to know the surpassing greatness of His power that saved us.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (God’s Ultimate Purpose [Baker], pp. 391-422) argues at length that Paul is referring here to the power of God in raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life when He saved us. He argues (p. 391) that Paul’s object in this section is to give the saints assurance and certainty in their faith. Thus here Paul is emphasizing God’s power that already saved us rather than the power that He gives to sustain us. In other words, if we now have come to believe in Christ, we can know that it took nothing less than God’s mighty power to bring us to that point. Salvation is not a joint project, where we teamed up with God to bring it about. Rather, as Paul will go on to say, we were dead in our sins, but God raised us up. Paul wants to encourage us as we realize that our salvation is evidence of God’s surpassingly great power at work in us.

I agree that this is Paul’s main aim. But, also…

B. God wants us to know the surpassing greatness of His power that enables us to persevere through trials.

In the parallel prayer in Colossians 1:11-12, Paul prays that we would be “strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” In other words, God’s glorious, mighty power enables us to endure trials steadfastly, patiently, and joyously, with a thankful heart to the Father.

C. God wants us to know the surpassing greatness of His power to overcome temptation and live in holiness.

God’s mighty power has granted us all that we need for life and godliness, so that we can escape the corruption that is in the world by lust (2 Pet. 1:3-4). His power provides the way of escape from every temptation that we face (1 Cor. 10:13; Eph. 6:10-13).

D. God wants us to know the surpassing greatness of His power to serve Him faithfully.

Paul explained (Col. 1:29), “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Laboring in His power is the antidote to burnout.

E. God wants us to know the surpassing greatness of His power for everything that He has called us to do.

Paul wrote (Phil. 4:13), “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” He meant that he was able to face and accomplish whatever God called him to do (see also, Eph. 3:20).

F. God wants us to know the surpassing greatness of His power to keep us to the end.

The fact that God exerted such mighty power to save us implies that His same mighty power will keep us. 1 Peter 1:5 says that we “are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Jude 24-25 proclaims, “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” As Paul shows (Rom. 8:30), the God who predestined you and called you will also glorify you. Our salvation from start to finish is due to the surpassing greatness of His power!

Conclusion

So if you’re having problems in your Christian life, if things don’t seem to be working as they should, maybe it’s time to go back and read the owner’s manual! But you can’t understand this manual by mere human insight or wisdom. To understand it, you must continually ask God to enlighten the eyes of your heart. He wants you to know the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the surpassing greatness of His power toward you. To the extent that you understand these vast spiritual resources, you will enjoy God and glorify Him forever.

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to know “what is the hope of His calling”? What are the practical applications of this truth?
  2. Why is it important to know “what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints”? How does this apply?
  3. Why is it important to know “what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe”? How does this apply?
  4. If God’s power toward us is so great, why do so many Christians fall into serious sin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 11: God’s Mighty Power (Ephesians 1:19-23)

I begin by admitting that our text creates some problems for me. While there is an interpretive problem, Paul’s overall point is pretty clear: God’s mighty power that saved us has exalted Christ over all rule and authority in the universe. He is the head of His body, the church, of which we are members if we have believed on Him. Therefore, this mighty power of God is presently available for us.

That’s the problem. As a pastor, I often deal with Christians who are defeated by sin. Some are enslaved to pornography or sexual immorality, or to alcohol or drugs. Some have ruined their marriages and families because of anger and verbal abuse. Many are just plain worldly, wasting their lives by frivolous activities that have no bearing on the kingdom of God. They spend their money just as the world does, with no thought of laying up treasures in heaven. They spend their time living for themselves, with no thought of seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness. They feed their minds with godless TV shows and movies, but don’t read and study God’s Word. What is worse, I often hear of pastors and Christian leaders who live like this! My question is, “Where is God’s mighty power in the lives of these people?”

Some will say that God’s mighty power should be seen by frequent miracles of healing or by speaking in tongues or by words of supernatural knowledge or prophecy. But, all too often, those making such claims are guilty of living just as the world lives. When their immorality and worldly lifestyles become known, the world mocks and the gospel is discredited.

So the question is, how can we reconcile what Paul says here about God’s mighty power toward us who believe with what we see all around us? What do these words mean and how do they apply to us? How can we legitimately experience the reality of God’s power in our personal lives?

To grapple with these verses, we must remember what Paul prays in verses 18 & 19, “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know … what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” We will not be able to know God’s mighty power unless He opens the eyes of our hearts. So we must continually ask Him for understanding.

Also, as Paul makes clear in Philippians 3, this is a lifelong process. He states there that his aim is (3:10) “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection….” But, then he adds (3:12), “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” Paul wrote those words about 25 years into his Christian experience. So the process of coming to know Christ’s resurrection power is one that we should be growing in until we meet the Lord.

With that as a context, in our text Paul is saying that…

God wants us to understand the magnitude of His mighty power that saved us and exalted Christ over all, so that we will properly represent Him on earth.

1. God’s mighty power that saved us is the same power that raised Christ from the dead (1:19-20a).

I have never understood why the NASB inserts the words, “These are” at the beginning of the sentence in the middle of verse 19. The Greek text is literally, “according to…” and refers back, not to all three things that God wants us to know, but only to the third one, “the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” So if you want to break up the sentence, a better translation would be, “This is in accordance with….” In other words, Paul prays that we would know the surpassing power of God that saved us, which is in accordance with the same power that raised Christ from the dead.

The mightiest power ever unleashed on this earth was not the power of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. It was not the power of an earthquake, volcano, tornado, hurricane, or flood. The mightiest power ever unleashed on this earth was when God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Satan and all of his evil forces were aligned in full battle force when Jesus lay in the tomb. If he could have kept Jesus from rising from the dead, Satan would have been triumphant. And so Paul piles up words to make the point that God’s power in raising Jesus from the dead was the mightiest display of power ever known.

Paul not only refers to God’s power, which would seem to be sufficient (since He is omnipotent!). He adds, “the greatness of His power,” and then tops that by adding, “the surpassing greatness of His power.” Power is the Greek word dynamis, from which we get our word, dynamite. It is often used of miraculous power. But Paul goes further, stating that this power is “in accordance with the working of the strength of His might.” We get our word “energy” from the Greek word translated working. Paul uses it in 1:11 to refer to God’s working all things after the counsel of His will. It refers to the exercise of His power, or to action that gets results. It accomplishes what it sets out to do. Strength may also be translated “dominion” (1 Tim. 6:16) or “power” (Heb. 2:14). Might refers to inherent strength.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (God’s Ultimate Purpose [Baker], p. 397) points out that there is a logical flow here: “He first speaks of energy, a power in action; and then says that it comes from a force which is irresistible, which in turn comes from the ocean of God’s might, the eternity of God’s illimitable power.”

It is important to note that Paul is not praying that God would give us this mighty power, but rather that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened to know that this power has already been displayed in us if we believe in Jesus Christ. Since he goes on (in 2:1-6) to state that when we were dead in our sins, God raised us up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places, his point here is that the same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at God’s right hand is the power that saved us. Paul wants us to know that if we have believed in Christ, it did not come from human will power or reasoning. No, it came from God’s mighty power, the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

It seems to me that this may be a large part of the answer to the problem of those who claim to be Christians, but are not living in accordance with God’s mighty power. These people need honestly to ask, “Do I have new life in Jesus Christ? Whereas I once was dead in my sins, am I now alive to God through His resurrection power?” It takes nothing less than a resurrection from the dead to make a genuine Christian!

The modern view is often that when a person decides to go forward and believe in Christ, he is saved. Evangelists will exult that there were so many decisions after the meeting. But, we shouldn’t be so quick to count heads. The Puritans were much more guarded. They would say, “There are so many who seem to be hopeful of eternal life.” But they waited to see the fruit.

Even the most famous modern evangelists admit that only ten to fifteen percent of those who make decisions at their crusades are going on with Christ five years later. Why is this? It is because there is a difference between making a decision and being born again. All that are truly born again believe in Christ. But, not all that profess to believe in Christ are born again. People can make decisions based on the emotions of the moment, or because they think that following Christ will get them what they want out of life. But being born again requires an act of God that raises a person from death to life. No one decides to be born. No one decides, “I think I’ll be raised from the dead!” You can’t even help God out in the process. It requires God’s sovereign, mighty power.

Maybe you are wondering, “How can I know whether I am truly born again?” First, do you truly believe in Jesus Christ and His shed blood as your only hope for eternal life? If you do, such faith did not come from within you. It came from God. He had to open your blind eyes to see your need for Christ. He had to give you the faith to believe the gospel. If He had not done so, you would have thought that it is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18-31).

Also, if God has raised you to new life in Christ, your desires are changing. Whereas before, you loved a dirty joke, now such jokes repulse you. Before, you liked watching steamy sex scenes in movies, but now you don’t want to defile your mind with such filth. Before, you didn’t hesitate to cheat to get ahead, but now, you are honest, even if it costs you. Before, you never read the Bible, but now, you find that it feeds your soul. You used to hate being around Christians, but now you delight to be around God’s people and talk about spiritual matters. There are many more such changes. While these changes are not automatic or instantaneous, they are evident and growing since becoming a Christian. You could sum them up by saying, “God changed my heart!”

So Paul’s prayer is that God would enlighten the eyes of our hearts so that we will know the surpassing greatness of His power that saved us. It is the very power that raised Christ from the dead.

2. God’s mighty power seated Christ at His right hand, far above all spiritual powers (1:20b-21).

God not only raised Christ from the dead. Also, He ascended bodily into heaven, where He now is (1:20b-21) “seated at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” God’s right hand refers to, as Calvin puts it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on Eph. 1:20, p. 215), “the power which the Father has bestowed on Christ, that he may administer in his name the government of heaven and earth.” Calvin adds (p. 216) that the phrase, “in the heavenly places,” “directs us to contemplate the heavenly glory amidst which our Lord Jesus dwells, the blessed immortality which he enjoys, and the dominion over angels to which he has been exalted.”

Paul piles up four different words, “rule, authority, power, and dominion,” to encompass all spiritual powers. These words may indicate different gradations of rank or power among the angels and demons (Matt. 12:45). But Paul isn’t putting our focus on the finer points of angelic or demonic organization. Rather, he means that whatever levels of spiritual power exist, Jesus is over them all. And if we ask why he didn’t just call them “angels,” Calvin answers (pp. 216-217), “it was to convey exalted views of the glory of Christ…. As if he had said, ‘There is nothing so elevated or excellent, by whatever name it may be named, that is not subject to the majesty of Christ.’”

Paul adds, “not only in this age but also in the one to come” to make it clear that Jesus Christ is exalted to the place of absolute, supreme power in the entire universe. His authority is not just for a period of time, but for all eternity. Although we do not yet see everything subject to Him (1 Cor. 15:23-28), that day is soon coming. As Psalm 110:1 states, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’” God never gave that invitation to any of the angels or to any other created being. He only gives it to His eternal Son, who is of the same nature as the Father. Scripture promises that Jesus will come again to crush Satan and all that follow his evil ways. So, even though Satan and his evil forces still have frightening power, they are on God’s leash. They can only go as far as He permits.

As we know from the Book of Acts, the believers in Ephesus came out of a culture steeped in idol worship and the occult. Demon possession was so common that some made a living by trying to cast out demons. When the Ephesian believers got saved, they burned their magic books, which amounted to a small fortune (Acts 19:11-20). Such people would not have regarded Paul’s words in our text as an interesting point for theological discussion. For them, these words were intensely practical. They knew and had been fearfully enslaved by the power of Satan. But now they had a new Master and Lord, who is seated far above not only all of the evil spirits, but even above the most powerful angels. Paul wants them to know that the power of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ is available to them in their struggle against the forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (see Eph. 6:10-17). That same power is available to us if we are in Christ.

3. God’s mighty power put all things in subjection to Christ and gave Him as head over all things to the church (1:22).

The phrase, “He put all things in subjection under His feet,” reflects Psalm 8:6, where David reflects on the honor given to man to rule over God’s creation on earth. This goes back to God’s words at creation, that man would fill the earth and rule it, having dominion over all the animals (Gen. 1:26-28). What the first Adam lost through sin, Christ as the second Adam regained. While the complete fulfillment of these words awaits Christ’s return and final victory over Satan and death (1 Cor. 15:24-27; Heb. 2:8-15), His resurrection, ascension, and present enthronement at God’s right hand guarantees the outcome. All things, including the terrible forces of evil in the heavenly places, are under Christ’s feet, even now. As I said, Satan is on a leash.

Then Paul adds that God “gave Him as head over all things to the church.” This is the first mention of the church in Ephesians, and it is a major theme of the book. The Greek word translated “church” means, literally, “the called out ones.” It never refers to a building, but only to God’s people, called out of this evil world to follow Jesus Christ. Note that Paul does not simply say that Christ is the head of the church, but that God “gave Him as head over all things to the church.” The idea is that Christ’s ruling authority (headship) over everything in the universe is God’s gift to us, the church. Thus, “The Church has authority and power to overcome all opposition because her Leader and Head is Lord of all” (Francis Foulkes, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Ephesians [IVP/Eerd­mans], p. 65).

What does all of this mean practically? I think that the practical application is inherent in the final verse:

4. God’s mighty power is at work in us so that we will properly represent Christ on earth (1:23).

Paul adds that the church “is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” The last clause is difficult to interpret. But before we consider it, note that Paul here brings in the familiar analogy, that the church is Christ’s body. He is the only New Testament author to use this picture. He develops it at great length in 1 Corinthians 12 as it relates to our relationships with one another, each with different spiritual gifts. But here it is the idea that Christ is the head and we are His body.

This implies an inseparable, organic union between Christ and the church. Organic means that it is a living union—we share in His life. If you sever your hand from your body, it is not in this living, organic union. We cannot do anything to produce or attain this union. It comes from God’s resurrection power alone. It also implies our submission to the Head. In a human body, if the limbs are not subject to the commands of the head, it is a spastic or malfunctioning body. If God has saved you through His mighty power, you must make it your aim to obey Jesus Christ as Lord of every area of your life. A disobedient Christian is like a spastic leg, jerking uncontrollably. He does not bring glory to the Savior!

But we need to tackle this difficult phrase, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Some have taken “the fullness” to refer to Christ, who they say is the fullness of God, who fills all in all. But that is a heretical view. The Bible says that all the fullness of deity dwells in Christ (Col. 1:19; 2:9), but it never says that Christ is the fullness of the Father, which would put the Father under the Son. So the word “fullness” refers to Christ’s body, the church.

The next question is, does the word “fullness” have a passive or an active sense? If it is passive, it means that the church is filled or completed by Christ (somewhat similar to 3:19). If it is active, it means that the church in some sense fills or completes Christ. If this is the meaning, it is not implying that Christ is somehow lacking or dependent on us. As the eternal Son of God, He is self-sufficient and has no need of us. Rather, it is an extension of the head-body analogy, that the head is not complete without a body. The body expresses the wishes of the head. In the wonderful purpose of God for us, He has given us the task of expressing Christ to the world. In that sense, we are His fullness.

Calvin takes this view (p. 218) and then points out that the next phrase, “who fills all in all,” “is added to guard against the supposition that any real defect would exist in Christ, if he were separated from us.” Rather, all that we are and have as His people comes from His gracious hand. Christ’s filling all in all not only refers to His gifts and power as given to the church, but also to His supreme presence and power in all the universe. As God asks (Jer. 23:24), “‘Can a man hide himself in hiding places so I do not see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?’ declares the Lord.” So the phrase means (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 151), “Christ pervades all things with his sovereign rule, directing all things to their appointed end (cf. Heb. 1:3), and this entails his functioning as the powerful ruler over against the principalities (1:21) and giving grace and strength to his people, the church (4:13, 15-16).”

So the practical import of God’s opening our eyes to see the magnitude of His mighty power that saved us and exalted Christ over all, is that we should properly represent Him on earth. People do not see the risen and exalted Christ, but they see His body, the church. What do they see? Do we represent our risen, exalted Head in a proper manner? Do they see His grace, His love, and His holiness through our lives?

Conclusion

Warren Wiersbe (Be Rich [Victor Books], p. 30) tells of the late, wealthy newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst. He spent a fortune collecting art treasures from around the world. One day he found a description of some valuable items that he felt he must own. So he sent his agent abroad to search for them. After months of searching, the agent reported that he had finally found the treasures. They were already in Mr. Hearst’s warehouse. Hearst had been searching for treasures that he already owned!

If you are a Christian, God’s mighty power is already yours, but perhaps, like Mr. Hearst, you are not aware of what you possess. Are you experiencing God’s mighty power to overcome temptation and live a holy life? If not, you should entreat God to open the eyes of your heart so that you will know the surpassing greatness of His power toward you. If you have no desire to overcome sin and to represent Christ on this earth, you may not have experienced the power of being raised from spiritual death to spiritual life. Ask God to give you new life in Him. Then live according to His mighty power.

Application Questions

  1. What are some evidences that you have experienced God’s mighty power in salvation? What signs should raise some doubts about this?
  2. How would you counsel a person who was living a very worldly life, but who said, “I’m going to heaven because I believe in Jesus”? Should you give him assurance of salvation?
  3. Which is a more certain evidence of God’s saving power: Performing miracles or a godly life (see Matt. 7:21-23)?
  4. Can demons plague true Christians? If so, to what extent? (Consider 2 Cor. 12:7-9; Luke 13:11-16; 1 Cor. 5:5.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 12: The Deadly Power of Sin (Ephesians 2:1-3)

The late Anglican bishop, H. C. G. Moule, wrote (Ephesian Studies [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 70), “Never was there a heresy, but it had something to do with an insufficient estimate of sin.” He was right, because an insufficient estimate of sin means that we do not need the radical solution of the cross. And Satan does all that he can to undermine the necessity of the cross. He works overtime to get us to ignore what the Puritans called, “the exceeding sinfulness of sin.”

Sadly, many modern churches that claim to be evangelical minimize sin. Some of them simply avoid the word, preferring to focus on more positive aspects of what they call “the gospel.” But there is no need for the gospel if people are not desperately, hopelessly alienated from God because of sin. Some of these churches swap the label on sin, referring to it with all sorts of psychobabble. But the Father did not send Jesus Christ into this world to help us cope with our problems. He did not put His Son on the cross to make us feel better about ourselves or to boost our self-esteem. Christ came and offered Himself on the cross to deal with our most fundamental, pervasive, and eternally devastating problem, that our sins have made us objects of the wrath of the holy God.

Some say that they don’t want to focus on the negatives, such as sin, but rather on the positives, such as God’s love and grace. But if we don’t understand the depths of sin from which God rescued us, we will not appreciate the riches of His grace and the magnitude of His love. As J. C. Ryle wrote (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], on Luke 20:9-19, p. 326), “Christ is never fully valued until sin is clearly seen.”

And if we underestimate the deadly power of sin, we will surely fall prey to it. One of the greatest mistakes a general can make before going into battle is to underestimate the power of the enemy. If he thinks that the enemy is weak when they really are strong, his troops will not be prepared and will be routed. And so we must have an accurate, biblical view of our own sinfulness if we would have victory over sin.

In chapter 1, the apostle Paul begins with an extended exclamation of praise to God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (1:3). He unfolds those blessings by showing that the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (1:4-6). The Son redeemed us through His blood and made known to us the mystery of His will for the ages, the summing up of all things in Christ (1:7-12). And God sealed us with the Holy Spirit of promise (1:13-14). God graciously lavished these blessings upon us, all to the praise of the glory of His grace (1:6, 12, 14).

Then (1:15-23) Paul shares his constant prayer for the Ephesians, that God might grant them a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. Especially, he prays that they might understand (1:18-19) “what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” This mighty power of God is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all authority and power. And He gave Christ as head over all things to the church, which is His body.

But Paul knew that we will never praise and glorify God as we should if we lose sight of the depths of sin from which He saved us. We will not be filled with gratitude for our salvation if we forget where we were and still would be if God had not reached down to us with His abundant grace. So in chapter 2 Paul shows what God has done for us individually (2:1-10) and corporately (2:11-22) in saving us from our sins. He follows the same pattern in both sections: our past (2:1-3, 11-12); our present (2:4-9, 13-18); and, our future (2:10, 19-22). In 2:1-3, Paul wants us to remember our past before the Lord rescued us from judgment, so that we will appreciate the riches of His grace. He shows that…

All who are outside of Christ are spiritually dead, living under the power of the world, the devil, and the flesh, by nature under God’s wrath against sin.

Before we examine these verses, I want to say a word to those of you who like me grew up in the church. You may not have an outwardly sordid past. Perhaps like me, you’ve never been drunk. You’ve never used illegal drugs. You’ve not had multiple sex partners. You’ve lived an outwardly moral life. You may not have come to Christ because you saw that you were a wretch who needed saving, as John Newton put it (“Amazing Grace”).

In my spiritual experience, the dawning awareness of the wretched sinfulness of my heart did not come before salvation, but rather afterwards. As the light of God’s Word has shone more fully into the depths of my heart, I have grown to understand that it was only my outward circumstances of growing up in a Christian home that kept me from all manner of evil. If I had grown up in a pagan home with no moral training, I would have committed horrible sins, because my heart by nature is corrupt.

In our text, Paul begins by describing the past sinfulness of the Gentile believers (“you,” 2:1). But lest the Jewish believers smugly think, “I’m glad that I’m a religious Jew who has never done those terrible sins,” Paul includes himself and all Jews (“we too,” 2:3). His argument is much the same as in Romans 1-3, where he first indicts the Gentiles, but then shows that the religious Jews are equally guilty before God, concluding (Rom. 3:23), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So even if you have a relatively clean past, God wants you to see yourself in the mirror of Ephesians 2:1-3, so that you will be on guard against the deadly power of indwelling sin and so that you will thank God every day for saving you from the eternal consequences of sin.

1. All who are outside of Christ are spiritually dead, walking in their trespasses and sins.

For some reason, the translators of the King James Version added the words (in 2:1), “He made alive.” Paul will state that wonderful truth in 2:5, but his point in these opening verses is to emphasize our woeful spiritual condition before God made us alive. He wants us to feel the desperate situation that we were in (2:1-2a): “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked….”

The truth that we are spiritually dead before God saved us is a watershed in one’s theology of salvation. Those who deny God’s sovereignty in our salvation have to redefine what it means to be spiritually dead. Above all else, they want to avoid the conclusion that it implies inability, because if sinners are spiritually unable to believe the gospel, then salvation must be totally of God and not at all due to man’s free choice to believe. So they argue that spiritual death only means being separated from God. It does not imply the inability to respond in faith and repentance to the gospel (Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free [Bethany House], second edition, p. 57-67, argues for this; for an excellent refutation of Geisler, see James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom [Calvary Press], especially pp. 91-120).

It is true that spiritual death includes being separated or alienated from God. But the very picture of being dead and the need for God to impart new life strongly implies a lack of ability on the part of the dead sinner to do anything to effect his own resurrection. When Jesus cried out (John 11:43), “Lazarus, come forth,” Lazarus didn’t exercise his free will to come back from the dead! He arose because Jesus imparted life to him. That miracle was a picture of what Jesus had said earlier of spiritual life (John 5:21), “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” The only “free will” that Jesus mentions there is His own will to give life to whom He wishes.

Jesus also stated the inability of sinners to come to Him. In John 6:44, Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” In case we missed it, Jesus repeats (John 6:65), “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” The words, “no one can,” in those two verses means that they are unable to come apart from God’s powerful intervention. They are spiritually dead until God imparts new life.

In John 8:43, while contending with the obstinate Jews, Jesus said, “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.” Obviously, they could hear Jesus’ voice. They weren’t physically deaf. But their spiritual deafness meant that they were incapable of hearing Jesus’ words in the sense of responding favorably to them.

Of course the apostle Paul lined up with the Lord Jesus on this same point. After stating that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18), he went on to explain (1 Cor. 2:14), “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” He did not say that the natural man chooses not to understand spiritual truth, but rather that he cannot do so. He lacks the capacity because his foolish heart is darkened by sin (Rom. 1:21; Eph. 4:18).

Using the analogy of blindness rather than death, Paul states of those who are perishing (2 Cor. 4:4), “in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Blind people do not have free will to see. Rather, they are incapable of seeing.

So spiritual death includes being separated from the holy God because of our sin, but it also includes being spiritually incapable of responding favorably to the truth of the gospel unless God raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life.

Paul adds that the sphere in which these Gentile believers were dead was “your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked.” Trespasses and sins are essentially synonymous when used as plurals (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 280). Paul seems to use both words and to add that we walked in them to emphasize that our entire way of life before God saved us was one of repeated, perpetual disobedience to God.

This is further underscored by the description of unbelievers as “sons of disobedience” (2:2). “Sons of” is a Hebrew expression that means, “characterized by.” To pick one word to describe those who are spiritually dead, they are disobedient toward God. They may be moral, law-abiding, decent people, humanly speaking. But in their hearts, they are not in submission to God. As Paul sums up the depravity of the human race (Rom. 3:18), “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Note also that Paul says that the Ephesians formerly walked in their trespasses and sins. While believers do sin, it cannot be said of them that they walk in sin and are characterized by a life of sin. As 1 John 3:9 states, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” If you profess to be born again but continue to live in sin, you need to examine whether you are truly born of God. Walking in sin characterizes the person who is spiritually dead.

2. All who are outside of Christ live under the power of the world, the devil, and the flesh.

A. All who are outside of Christ live under the power of the world.

Paul says that these Gentiles “formerly walked according to the course [lit., “age”] of this world.” This is a unique phrase that seems to call attention to the transitory nature of this present evil world, in contrast to the eternal, heavenly future of the believer. “The world” is the organized system under the control of Satan that is opposed to God. The main operating principle of the world system is self-seeking and independence from God. If we can use God to achieve our selfish goals, so be it. But man is on the throne.

The apostle John strongly warns (1 John 2:15-17), “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever.”

Sometimes in the attempt to escape from the corrupting influence of the world, believers have withdrawn into monasteries or cloistered communities. But Jesus prayed for His disciples (John 17:15-18), “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” So the Lord wants us to live in the world, but to be distinct from it because we live in light of His Word of truth.

Those outside of Christ live for this present evil world, because it is all they have. They may believe in heaven, but not enough to live in light of it. They may believe in hell, but they figure that only the worst of the worst will go there. But their focus is on how to get ahead in this world. They have no thought of laying up treasures in heaven nor of seeking first God’s kingdom.

B. All who are outside of Christ live under the power of the devil.

Paul says that they formerly lived “according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” He is referring to Satan, who is over all of the fallen angels (demons) who followed him in his rebellion against God. Paul refers to him as the prince of the power of the air to show that these spiritual powers are both invisible and powerful. He later calls them (6:12) “the world forces of this darkness …, the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” It’s one thing to fight an enemy that you can see. But it’s a whole different battle to fight a powerful, unseen enemy!

“Sophisticated” modern man scoffs at the notion that such unseen spiritual powers exist. Yet everyone accepts the existence of unseen radio waves, microwaves, and X-rays that travel through the air. We cannot see them, but we can see their effects. It is the same with demonic power. We cannot usually see demons, but we can see the results of their evil power.

Paul is not saying that all unbelievers are demon-possessed. But he is saying that Satan and his evil forces actively work in this world through unbelievers. In most cases they are oblivious to it. They go about their lives without much thought about it, except perhaps at Halloween. But worldly people are actually in Satan’s domain of darkness (Col. 1:13). By living independently of God, with no fear of God in their hearts, they are inadvertently furthering Satan’s evil plans to usurp God’s sovereignty.

C. All who are outside of Christ live under the power of the flesh.

Lest religious people exclude themselves from this indictment of the sinfulness of the human race, Paul adds (2:3), “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, …” We too refers to religious Jews, including Paul. “The flesh” refers to “human nature as conditioned by the fall” (Moule, p. 72). In Galatians 5, Paul sets the desires and deeds of the flesh against power and fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16-23). This shows that although believers have been delivered from the dominating power of the flesh, we still must do battle against it by walking in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But unbelievers are totally dominated by the desires of the flesh. In Romans 8:6-8, Paul states, “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Note, again, the emphasis on inability. Unbelievers, who do not have the indwelling Holy Spirit, have only one option: they live to gratify the flesh.

This includes, of course, sensual desires and living according to what feels good at the moment. But it also includes what Paul here calls the desires of the mind. This includes such sins as pride and selfish ambition. His point is that before God saved us, even those of us who were religious lived to gratify selfish desires, whether physical or intellectual.

Thus, all who are outside of Christ are spiritually dead, walking in trespasses and sins. They also live under the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Finally,

3. All who are outside of Christ are by nature under God’s wrath against sin.

Paul goes even deeper in analyzing the condition of man apart from God. The problem is not just behavior or even thoughts, but our basic nature. Of the religious Jews, Paul states that they were “by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” When Adam sinned, the entire human race was plunged into sin (Rom. 5:12-21). This means that we are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are by nature sinners. We are born alienated from God, in rebellion against Him.

This is why unbelievers cannot exercise their “free will” to believe the gospel: they do not have a nature that is inclined toward God. They may dress up their old nature with good works, but it’s like dressing a pig in a tuxedo. He may look nice for a short while, but his nature will drive him back to wallowing in the mud. To change the pig, you’ve got to change his basic nature!

Paul says that those apart from Christ are “by nature children of wrath.” This Hebrew expression means that they are characterized by being under God’s holy wrath against sin. While modern man scoffs at the notion of God’s wrath, it is a concept that occurs hundreds of times in both the Old and New Testaments, especially in the final book of the Bible, Revelation. It refers to God’s holy, settled hatred against all sin that will result in His final, eternal judgment against all sinners, casting them into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15). John 3:36 states, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Conclusion

I realize that this is a rather negative, depressing message, but I believe that Paul wants us to gather around the edge of the cesspool of what we once were so that we won’t forget it. He wants us to remember our former condition so that we will appreciate what he goes on to proclaim (Eph. 2:4-5), “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…”

I leave you with this question: Is there a “but God” in your life? As you look at this gruesome portrait of the deadly power of sin, can you say, “Yes, that describes what I once was! But God by His grace broke into my life and made me alive together with Christ!” If so, let it flood you with thankfulness for His abundant grace!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to affirm that unbelievers are totally unable to believe in Christ unless God imparts new life to them?
  2. What is the essence of “worldliness”? How do these three enemies, the world, the devil, and the flesh, assert themselves in the lives of believers?
  3. Some argue that believers no longer possess “an old nature,” and thus should not view themselves as sinners. Do you agree?
  4. Why must we hold firmly to the concept of God’s wrath? What do we lose if we minimize or deny it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 13: Salvation is Totally of God (Ephesians 2:4-7)

The late Bible teacher, Harry Ironside, was quite a character. On one occasion, he was on a trolley car in Los Angeles when a rather peculiar looking lady got on board and sat down beside him. She was dressed in what he described as red bandanna handkerchiefs pieced together, with a shawl over her head and a lot of spangles on her forehead. As soon as she sat down, she asked Ironside if he would like to have his fortune told. Her fee was a quarter.

Ironside asked her if she was sure that she could do it. He explained that he was Scotch, and he hated to part with a quarter if she could not deliver the goods. She looked a bit bewildered, but then assured him that she could reveal his past, his present, and his future. Just give her the quarter and she would tell all.

Ironside said, “It’s really not necessary because I have had my fortune told already. I have a little book in my pocket that tells my past, present, and future.” She said, “You have it in a book?” “Yes,” he said, “and it’s absolutely infallible. Let me read it to you.” He got out his New Testament and the fortuneteller looked startled. He opened to Ephesians 2 and said, “Here is my past.” He read verses 1-3, about being dead in his trespasses and sins and living in the lusts of his flesh.

The nervous fortuneteller said, “I don’t care to hear more.” But Ironside held her gently by the arm and said, “But I want to tell you my present.” He read (2:4-6), “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

“That’s plenty,” the woman said, “I do not wish to hear any more.” But Ironside said, “There is more yet, and I won’t charge you a quarter to hear it. Here is my future.” And he read verse 7, “so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

By now, the woman was on her feet and Ironside could not hold on to her arm any tighter, lest he be charged with assault. She fled down the aisle, saying, “I took the wrong man! I took the wrong man!” (Adapted from, In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], pp. 97-98).

Ironside was right: these verses reveal our spiritual past, present, and future. In the past, we were dead in our sins, living for selfish pleasure, completely alienated from the living God. We were mercifully saved by His grace alone when He made us alive together with Christ. In the present, God raised us up with Christ, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places. And in the future, we will be trophies of the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us. The overarching theme of these verses is that salvation is totally of God. Because salvation is God’s doing, there is hope for even the worst of sinners.

Because our salvation is totally of God, there is eternal hope for all who are dead in their sins.

These verses (and the ones we will study next time) are a wonderful summary of the gospel, the good news that God saves sinners. On the one hand, the gospel is simple and easy to understand. Young children can grasp its truth as God opens their eyes to see. Yet on another level, the gospel is deep and unfathomable. It is, as Paul puts it (2 Cor. 4:4) “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” That is an unfathomable subject! So the gospel is like the ocean, where a child may wade on the shore, but it is so deep and vast that we can never explore all of its depths. If you do not yet know Christ as Savior, pray that God will open your eyes to your desperate condition as a sinner and to the abundant riches of His grace. If you do know Christ, ask Him to take you deeper in your understanding of these glorious truths.

1. In the past, the cause of our salvation was God, who brought us from death to life because of His rich mercy, His great love, and His almighty power.

A. God and nothing else is the cause of our salvation

To get the flow of these verses, we need to go back and reread 2:1-3: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Then, the next words jump out at us with a startling contrast, “But God….”

Those are the greatest words of hope that we could want to hear! Death robs us of hope. When someone dies, hope of him returning to life is gone. And to be spiritually dead is to be without hope—unless you bring God into the equation.

God warned Adam that in the day he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die (Gen. 2:17). When Adam and Eve ate of that fruit, the entire human race was plunged into spiritual death (Rom. 5:12-21). As we saw (Eph. 2:3), by nature we all are born under God’s wrath because of sin. Those who are spiritually dead have no capacity to seek God (Rom. 3:10-18), to understand spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14), or to believe in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). It is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1:18). In verses 1-3, Paul wants us to feel the helplessness and hopelessness of our spiritual past. We were dead.

“But God!” What man cannot do, God can do! When you bring God into the equation, there is hope for the chief of sinners! After the rich young ruler walked away from salvation, Jesus explained to the disciples (Matt. 19:23-24), “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Contrary to a popular idea, Jesus was not talking about a certain low gate in the Jerusalem wall. He was talking about a literal needle! So we read (19:25-26), “When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ And looking at them Jesus said to them, ‘With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”

There are many evangelicals today who view salvation as a joint project between God and men. God has done all that He can do, and the rest is up to the free will of the sinner. They don’t view him as dead, but rather as sick or wounded. Like a drowning man, there still is life in him. He can grab the rope if we throw it to him. But, if he refuses to cooperate, even God can’t save him.

That is an unbiblical view of salvation! The biblical view is summed up in the short sentence, “Jesus saves!” As the angel announced to Joseph concerning Jesus (Matt. 1:21), “He will save His people from their sins.” He didn’t say, “He will do all that He can, but He is limited by the sinner’s stubborn will.” He didn’t say, “He will throw the rope to everyone, but they’ve got to grab on to be saved.” God isn’t frustrated in heaven, wishing that He could do more: “I’d like to save Saul of Tarsus, but the guy is so stubborn!” No, the hope of the gospel is that God saves sinners. We were dead—but God! He made us alive!

B. God saved us out of His rich mercy and great love.

Many wrongly think that in the Old Testament God is portrayed as a stern God of judgment and wrath, whereas in the New Testament, He softened into a tolerant God of love. That is false. When Moses asked to see God’s face, He told him that he could not, because no man can see God and live (Exod. 33:20). But then God told Moses to hide himself in the rock. God would pass by so that Moses could get a glimpse of His back. Then we read (Exod. 34:6), “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.’” The Hebrew word translated “lovingkindness” often has the flavor of His mercy, His compassion for our miserable condition due to our sin.

Later, when Moses is predicting to the nation her apostasy and idolatry, and how God would scatter them among the nations because of their sin, he added that they would then return to the Lord and listen to His voice. He adds the reason for this (Deut. 4:31), “For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your father which He swore to them.” When David rehearsed God’s many blessings, he wrote (Ps. 103:8), “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

When Jonah, the disobedient prophet, tries to explain to God why he did not go to Ninevah the first time, he says (Jonah 4:3b), “for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” In other words, he knew that it would be just like God to forgive the evil people of Ninevah, but Jonah wanted them to get zapped!

When Nehemiah prayed, confessing the sins of Israel that had led them into captivity, he rehearsed the stubbornness of the people in the wilderness, who wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. Then he added (Neh. 9:17b), “But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.”

The theme of God’s compassion and mercy runs throughout the Old Testament and, as you may expect, into the New Testament also, where the Greek word for mercy appears over 70 times. Instead of berating sinners or blasting them into oblivion, God delights to show them mercy if they will repent (Micah 7:18).

As if God’s rich mercy were not enough, Paul throws in His great love (Eph. 2:4)! How can I describe such a thing! One of the best attempts outside of Scripture is the hymn, “The Love of God.” A Nazarene pastor, F. M. Lehman, heard what is now the third verse recited at a camp meeting. A Jewish rabbi had composed it in Arabic in 1096. Later it was found inscribed in English on the wall of an insane asylum after the inmate had died. Pastor Lehman added the other verses and chorus (from Amazing Grace, Kenneth Osbeck [Kregel], p. 47). The third verse reads,

Could we with ink the ocean fill

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill

And ev’ry man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above

Would drain the oceans dry,

Nor could the scroll contain the whole,

Though stretched from sky to sky.

The chorus goes, “O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong! It shall forevermore endure—the saints’ and angels’ song.”

God’s redeeming love was at the heart of Paul’s life after he met Christ. In Romans 5:8, he wrote, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He brings Romans 8 to that great crescendo, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39). He explained to the Galatians (2:20), “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

Is this your view of God towards you, that He is rich in mercy and great in love? Before you met Christ, you were His enemy. But His great love, as shown at the cross, rescued you from His wrath and made you His child. The enemy will still try to get you to view God as your enemy, or as an angry parent who doesn’t want you to have any fun or joy in life. Don’t believe it! As Paul exclaimed (Rom. 8:31-32), “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” Ask God to give you a greater experience of His rich mercy and great love!

C. God saved us through His mighty resurrection power and His grace.

Paul continues (2:5), “even when we were dead in our transgressions, [He] made us alive together with Christ….” Then, although it will be his theme in verses 8-9, it’s as though Paul can’t wait to say it, he interjects parenthetically, “(by grace you have been saved).” Grace means that we did not deserve it. We deserved God’s wrath because of our sins, but He saved us by His unmerited favor. We were walking corpses, living for the lusts of the flesh, but He made us alive together with Christ.

This goes back to 1:19-20, where Paul prayed that his readers would know God’s surpassing power towards us who believe. It is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at God’s right hand, far above all rule and authority in the universe. It took that mighty power of God to save us, because, like Jesus in the tomb, we were dead.

We need to understand that salvation is not a matter of a spiritually sick sinner deciding to take the medicine. If it were, we could perhaps talk him into making that decision. It is not a matter of a drowning man grabbing the life ring. Who wouldn’t grab it, if he knew his desperate condition? Rather, the sinner is a corpse, floating face down in the water. He’s dead. God must raise him from the dead. But the good news is, God can raise the dead! He can impart new life to dead sinners. If He can’t, then why pray for the conversion of anyone? Is God in heaven saying, “Yes, I wish I could save him, but he just won’t take the life ring”? No, God made us alive even when we were dead in our sins.

That’s your past, if you now believe in Christ as your Savior. God saved you from spiritual death because of His rich mercy, His great love, His almighty power, and His grace alone.

2. In the present, the result of our salvation is that God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly places.

God not only made us alive from the dead, but Paul continues (2:6), “and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….” Note the repetition in 2:5-6, God “made us alive together with Christ,” He “raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Paul means that we are totally identified with Jesus Christ in His death, resurrection, ascension, and present position in heaven! All of the blessings that we enjoy come to us by virtue of our identification with Jesus Christ. There is no salvation apart from Christ and all that He is to us.

When Paul speaks of being raised up with Christ, it refers not to His resurrection from the dead, but rather to His ascension. When He ascended into heaven and took His place at the right hand of the Father, we are there in Him. Although we still live on this earth, we are now citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). We were formerly members of Satan’s domain of darkness, but now we live in a different realm, as a part of God’s heavenly kingdom (Col. 1:13). So we should behave here as foreigners and pilgrims. We don’t really belong here. Our true home is in heaven.

This is not an easy concept to grasp, but to the extent that we see our identification with Christ in heaven, we will live differently on earth. We won’t be ensnared by the world’s vain treasures. We will seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at God’s right hand. That is where our true life is hidden (Col. 3:1-4).

Also, our being seated with Christ in heaven means that we can exercise His authority over the forces of evil. As we saw in chapter 1, God’s right hand is the place of authority over all rule and dominion. While there is still a battle raging, in that all of Christ’s enemies are not yet subject to Him, we are to engage in that battle through prayer. When we pray against the forces of darkness, we do so in the name of Jesus and because we are in Him. We cannot stand against the enemy in our own strength, but rather because we are seated with Christ in heaven. He administers His authority through His praying church. That is our present position and privilege!

But we may worry, “What if I don’t make it as a Christian? What if my faith fails?” Paul goes on to reveal our glorious future:

3. In the future, the ultimate purpose of our salvation is to show the surpassing riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ.

Paul assures us by showing that God’s purpose in saving us is bound up with His glory and thus extends throughout eternity, which he calls, “the ages to come.” If God brought you from death to life through the death and resurrection of His Son, He isn’t going to let you go! We all will be trophies of His grace and kindness throughout all eternity, to the praise of His glory! The angels themselves will marvel at the surpassing riches of God’s grace when they see the company of the redeemed in heaven (1 Pet. 1:12). Our salvation is first and foremost a demonstration of the glory of God. As Jonathan Edwards astutely argued, God created the world and put us here to further His glory (see John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books]). That theme extends through eternity!

Martyn Lloyd-Jones pointed out (God’s Way of Reconciliation [Baker], p. 111, italics his), “Salvation vindicates the greatness and the character of God in a special way and in a manner which nothing else does.” Satan’s object in tempting Adam and Eve was to detract from the glory and majesty of God. But God allowed sin to enter this world in part because His plan of redemption revealed certain aspects of His holiness, justice, wisdom, mercy, love, and grace that would not have been known apart from the cross (see Rom. 9:22-23). It’s mind-boggling, but we will play a part in displaying the surpassing riches of God’s grace throughout eternity!

Conclusion

Paul wants us to know that because our salvation is totally of God, there is eternal hope for all who are dead in their sins. The dead can’t raise themselves and they can’t even decide to do so, but God is in the business of raising the dead! If He has opened your eyes to your true condition as a sinner under His just wrath, flee to the cross. Trust in Christ alone. He has a vast fortune of surpassing riches of grace for every sinner who comes to Jesus.

If you have received new life in Christ, God wants you to live in light of it. Seeing your past and what He did in raising you from death to life should fill you with gratitude and joy. Seeing your present, totally identified with Christ in heaven, should cause you to live as a citizen of heaven, separate from this evil world. Seeing your glorious future as a trophy of His grace should give you assurance and hope, even in the midst of trials or in the face of death itself. Praise God for His rich mercy, His great love, and the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to affirm that salvation is not a joint effort between God and men, but that it is all of God? What is at stake?
  2. Does your view of God begin with His abundant mercy and great love? If not, why not? Note that His discipline is because of His love (Heb. 12:6).
  3. What are some practical implications of our present identity with Christ in the heavenly places?
  4. Do you look forward to heaven or view it as kind of boring? Ask God to fill you with the hope of Ephesians 2:7.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 14: Salvation by Grace through Faith Alone (Ephesians 2:8-9)

One of the questions that we ask on our membership application (which comes from the Evangelism Explosion training) is, “If you were to die today and stand before God and He asked, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’ what would you say?” The question gets to the heart of, “What are you trusting in for eternal life?”

As such, there is no more important question in the world to be crystal clear on! If you place your hope of eternal life in something, only to find when you stand before God that it will not get you into heaven, you’re doomed! There are no makeup exams at the judgment seat! You’d better get it right before you die!

From every possible angle I try to make clear what the Bible says about this crucial question. But even so, it is not uncommon to have people that have sat under my teaching for months answer, “I’ve lived a good life and done the best that I could do.” Or, “I am a basically good person and I’ve never tried to hurt anyone.”

Those are wrong answers when it comes to getting into heaven! Of course, getting into heaven is not just a matter of answering a question correctly. It requires a spiritual resurrection from the dead, as we have seen. It requires having God forgive your sins, so that you are truly reconciled to Him. But for that to happen, you must be clear on the biblical truth of how that happens. And Satan has worked overtime to sow confusion among the world’s religions, including the major branches of Christianity, on the question of how a person gets eternal life.

Paul answers this crucial question in these verses. He wrote these truths to those who were already saved, to clarify and solidify their understanding of these vital matters. When you share the gospel with others, their misunderstanding of God’s grace and the relationship between faith and works will be the major issues you will need to clarify.

Also, as I mentioned last week, even if you have known Christ for many years, you should be growing in your understanding of the gospel. It is an inexhaustible subject and it should thrill your heart every time you think about it or hear it proclaimed. If you find the gospel boring, you should be concerned about your own soul! We all need to be clear on these matters for our own sakes, and so that we can share it clearly with others.

When you include verse 10, Paul’s message is that salvation is by grace through faith apart from good works, but it inevitably results in a life of good works. But we are only going to focus on verses 8 & 9 today, where Paul says,

Salvation is by grace through faith alone, not as a result of good works, so that God alone gets the glory.

To get a handle on this text, you must understand five key concepts: “saved”; “grace”; “faith”; “gift” (as opposed to “works”); and, “boast” (or, glory).

1. To be saved means that the Lord Jesus Christ has rescued us from God’s wrath and judgment.

As we saw in 2:1-3, we were formerly dead in our trespasses and sins, and “were by nature children of wrath.” God’s wrath is not a popular topic in our day, but if you get rid of the concept, you may as well throw out your entire Bible, because it is throughout both the Old and New Testaments. It reaches a climax in the Book of Revelation, which shows that God will pour out His wrath on this evil world, culminating in the final, eternal judgment of the lake of fire. Because of sin, we all are alienated from God in His holiness. All who are not saved are under God’s righteous judgment, objects of His wrath.

Theological liberals have always emphasized God’s love and denied His wrath. But in our day, this kind of watered down thinking is not only in liberal circles. It is also popular among those who profess to be evangelicals. Last Sunday, the TV show, “60 Minutes,” did a segment on Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s largest church and author of the best seller, Your Best Life Now [Warner Faith]. Host Byron Pitts was surprised at the absence of any mention of God or Jesus Christ in the main points of Osteen’s latest book, To Become a Better You, which was just released last week.

Osteen’s response was, “That’s just my message. There is scripture in there that backs it all up. But I feel like, Byron, I’m called to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified to say, ‘Here’s a book that going to explain the scriptures to you.’ I don’t think that’s my gifting.” He got that right! But then why is he a pastor? How can you genuinely help lost people if you don’t point them to the cross of Christ?

Pitts got Michael Horton’s take on this. Horton is a professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. Horton rightly observed: “[Osteen’s] core message is God is nice, you’re nice, be nice….” (The above taken from, http://psalm8611.blogspot.com.)

The point is, if we are not under God’s wrath, then Jesus didn’t need to go to the cross and we don’t need to be saved. By going to the cross, Jesus paid the penalty that we are under because of our sin. Paul here says, “For by grace you have been saved….” Either you have been saved or you haven’t. There is no middle ground. Either Jesus has rescued you from God’s wrath or you are not saved. The next word to understand is, “grace.”

2. Salvation by grace alone means that we did absolutely nothing to earn or merit salvation.

Simply defined, grace is God’s unmerited favor. If you did anything to earn it or deserve it, it is not grace. If God owes it to you because you’re a pretty good person or you’ve tried to do the best you can, it is not grace. If God gives it to you because He foresaw that you would believe in Him of your own free will, it is not grace. Grace means that you get the opposite of what you deserve. You deserve God’s wrath because you have sinned against Him. Instead, He saves you by His grace.

Grace cuts directly against the grain of human thinking, because it is not fair. We value fairness. If someone does wrong, he should get what he has coming. If someone does right, he should be rewarded. But if someone does wrong and gets rewarded in spite of it, we protest, “That’s not fair!”

Take a guy who is a thief. He has stolen from hardworking people. On some occasions, he has hurt his victims or even killed them. But he shrugs it off and continues his life of crime. Finally, he is apprehended and convicted. On death row, he hears that God will forgive all of his sins if he will trust in Christ, even though he does not deserve it and he cannot make up for what he has done. At first, he can’t believe it. It sounds too good to be true. But then he does believe it. He trusts Christ to save him from eternal judgment. He dies and goes to spend eternity with God in heaven. That’s not fair!

Or, take the case of a guy who is very religious. He prays several times a day. He fasts twice a week. He gives ten percent of his income to charitable causes. He doesn’t swindle people out of money. He treats others fairly. He has been faithful in his marriage. He thinks that doing all of these things will commend himself to God. But, he dies and goes to hell. We cry, “That’s not fair!”

But, I didn’t make up these stories. The thief was hanging next to Jesus on the cross. Jesus paid his debt and the thief went to heaven that very day (Luke 23:39-43). The religious man was the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who thought himself to be righteous (Luke 18:9-14). He was not justified from his sins, because he was trusting in his own good works to save him.

If God were fair, we’d all go to hell, because we all have sinned. God did not compromise His righteousness or justice to forgive us. His justice demands that the penalty be paid. Jesus paid the penalty on the cross for all that trust in Him. In that way, God can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). Someone has rightly described G-R-A-C-E as, “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” We naturally resist God’s grace because it robs us of all our pride. But there is no other way of salvation. It is by grace alone. But we also need to understand, “faith.”

3. Salvation through faith alone means that we receive salvation through trusting in what Jesus did for us on the cross.

Many people misunderstand the nature of saving faith. Some have a sort of general, vague faith in God, whoever He may be, that is kind of like positive thinking. “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows! I believe in the basic goodness of people and the goodness of God. Everything will turn out for the good in the end.” But that is not saving faith.

Some think that faith is mere assent to certain facts. In other words, they think that making a decision to accept Christ constitutes saving faith, even if there is no repentance and no subsequent obedience to Christ as Lord. That kind of mere assent to the facts of the gospel is not saving faith. To understand saving faith, you need to grasp two things:

A. Saving faith includes knowledge, assent, and trust.

First, there must be knowledge. There is content that must be understood. Some say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.” That’s like saying, “It doesn’t matter what medicine you take, as long as you’re sincere.” It matters greatly that you take the right medicine in the right dose, or you could die!

To be saved, you must know something about God. He is righteous, holy, just, and loving. You must also know that you have sinned against God and stand guilty and condemned before Him. You must know that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who took on human flesh, born of the virgin Mary. He lived a perfect life and died on the cross as the substitute for sinners, paying on their behalf the penalty that God demands. But God raised Him from the dead and He ascended into heaven. He will return bodily to judge the living and the dead, but also to save all that have trusted in Him. These are basic facts, revealed in the Bible, that you must know to be saved.

But, also, you must give assent to these facts, or agree that they are true. A student could know all of these facts well enough to pass an exam, but not affirm that they are true. Saving faith includes intellectually assenting to the truth of the gospel.

But if that is all that saving faith entails, then Satan and the demons are saved. They know these things and they know that they are true. The third element in saving faith is personal trust, or commitment. To illustrate, you may be an expert on aircraft. You know that a certain plane is well constructed and mechanically sound. You may also agree that the plane will fly. You’ve watched it fly many times. You affirm that it is a good plane. But knowing these facts and agreeing to them will not get you anywhere. To get to a destination, you must commit yourself to get on board the plane.

Saving faith is personally trusting Jesus Christ, committing your eternal destiny to what He did for you on the cross. Just as you entrust your life totally to the pilot when you get on board a plane, so you entrust your eternal destiny totally to Jesus and His death as your substitute on the cross. You trust God’s promise that He will justify the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). And, implicit in “getting on board” with Christ is that you can’t keep one foot on the “terminal” of sin, and the other on board with Christ. You must commit yourself to follow Him as your Lord.

B. Saving faith does not originate with us.

After saying that we have been saved by grace through faith, Paul adds, “and that not of yourselves….” There is debate about what “that” refers to. In Greek it is neuter, whereas both “saved” and “faith” are feminine. Grammatically, it is possible that it refers to faith, and no less a scholar than Charles Hodge argues for this interpretation. He argues that it best suits the design of the passage, where Paul is arguing, “You are not only saved by faith in opposition to works, but your very faith is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Also, to say that salvation is not of yourselves doesn’t add anything to what has just been said, that you are saved by grace.

But Calvin and most modern expositors argue that “that” refers to the entire process of salvation by grace through faith. It is all from God, not of ourselves. Whichever view you take, there are other Scriptures that show that saving faith and repentance (which are inextricably linked) are not from ourselves, but are God’s gift. For example, in Philippians 1:29, Paul says, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” In Acts 11:18, the response of the Jewish Christians when they hear of the Gentiles getting saved is, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” (See, also, Acts 3:16; 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:25; Heb. 12:2.)

Earlier in my ministry, I did not understand this point. I thought that all people have sufficient faith to believe in Christ. After all, we all exercise faith in many things every day. When we drive, we trust that others will obey the traffic laws. We trust that our food and water are not contaminated. We trust the doctor who scribbles an unreadable prescription and the pharmacist, who looks at this scribbling and hands us a bottle of pills. We trust the bank with our paycheck. I used to think that people just needed to transfer such faith to Jesus as the object of their faith.

But saving faith is different. To the natural man, the cross is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). He cannot understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). He is blind to the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). He is not able to submit to or please God (Rom. 8:7-8). For the unbeliever in this darkened spiritual state to believe, God must first impart new life to him. His immediate response is to believe in Christ.

C. H. Spurgeon, the great Baptist pastor, explained it this way (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 61:474):

I ask any saved man to look back upon his own conversion, and explain how it came about. You turned to Christ, and believed on his name: these were your own acts and deeds. But what caused you thus to turn? … Do you attribute this singular renewal to the existence of a something better in you than has been yet discovered in your unconverted neighbor? No, you confess that you might have been what he now is if it had not been that there was a potent something which touched the spring of your will, enlightened your understanding, and guided you to the foot of the cross.

So Paul has shown that salvation—being rescued from God’s wrath—is by grace alone through faith alone in what Jesus did for us on the cross. Also…

4. Salvation is God’s free gift to us.

He adds, “it is the gift of God, not as a result of works….” He is at pains to show that the entire process of salvation comes to us apart from anything in us or anything that we do. Some will argue that God chose us for salvation because He foresaw that we would believe. But then salvation would not be a gift by God’s grace, but rather something that we merited by our faith. Spurgeon answers this error (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:167):

What did He foresee about my faith? Did He foresee that I should get that faith myself, and that I should believe on Him of myself? No; Christ could not foresee that, because no Christian man will ever say that faith came of itself without the gift and without the working of the Holy Spirit.

Paul adds that God’s gift is “not as a result of works.” It is completely free, stemming from God’s grace alone. The Roman Catholic Church muddies the grace of God at this point, teaching that we are saved by grace through faith, but not by grace through faith alone. Rather, we must cooperate by adding our works. As a result, not even the pope can say for certain what Paul says in verse 8, “you have been saved.” The tense of the Greek participle shows that salvation has happened in the past with continuing results. It’s a done deal! But when the last pope died, the present pope urged the faithful to pray him into heaven. If even the pope can’t be certain about being saved, how much less the rank and file of the church! Under that system, you can never be sure that you have enough works to merit heaven.

But the Reformers rightly argued that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But there is a final point that Paul makes.

5. Salvation gives all the glory to God and none to us.

He concludes verse 9, “so that no one may boast.” Or, as he puts it in 1 Corinthians 1:31 after arguing that salvation rests on God’s choosing us, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” If any part of salvation, including the faith that saves, comes from us, then we have some grounds for boasting. No, Paul says, if salvation is totally of the Lord, then He gets all the glory.

Conclusion

Spurgeon tells how he came to see these truths for the first time (Autobiography, 1:164-165):

When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me. I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this. I can recall the very day and hour when first I received those truths in my own soul—when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a hot iron, and I can recollect how I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man—that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God. One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher's sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me, How did you come to be a Christian? I sought the Lord. But how did you come to seek the Lord? The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, “I ascribe my change wholly to God.”

If, as Paul here proclaims, salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for God’s glory alone, then there is hope for every sinner. Salvation does not depend on you, but rather on God, who is mighty to save. Flee for refuge to Christ and these wonderful verses apply to you: “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Application Questions

  1. Why is it essential to hold to the doctrine of God’s wrath against sinners? What is lost if we abandon it?
  2. How does the doctrine that God chooses us because He foresaw our faith undermine the doctrine of grace alone?
  3. Why must saving faith include repentance and submission to Christ as Lord? Is this adding works to faith, as some contend?
  4. How does the view that we can believe in Christ of our own free will detract from God’s glory in salvation? Is this a minor or a serious error?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 15: Salvation and Good Works (Ephesians 2:10)

When it comes to the subject of “salvation and good works,” there are two serious errors that plague the church. One is that of Roman Catholicism, which teaches that in order to gain enough merit for salvation, we must add our good works to what Christ did on the cross. Under this view, you can never know for sure whether or not you are saved, because there is no way to check your “merit balance” to see if you’ve stored up enough. So you have to keep adding good works in the hope of gaining eternal life. Under Roman Catholic teaching, a person could never say what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8, “you have been saved.”

The other error, which is more pervasive in evangelical circles, is that good works have no connection whatsoever with salvation. This view teaches that since we are saved by grace through faith alone, a person may believe in Christ as Savior, but there may not be a life of good works to follow. A person may pray the sinner’s prayer and profess to believe in Jesus as his Savior. Later he may profess to be an atheist and live in gross sin, but he will be in heaven because he made a decision to receive Christ. This view fails to realize that salvation requires God’s raising a sinner from death to life, which inevitably results in a changed life. It divorces repentance from saving faith and teaches that saving faith is simply believing the facts of the gospel. Submitting to Christ as Lord of your life may follow salvation, but it is not a necessary aspect of saving faith, according to this error.

Ephesians 2:10 succinctly answers both of these errors. Paul is explaining (“For”) the previous two verses, where he has said that we have been saved by grace through faith, apart from any works on our part. It is all the gift of God, so that He alone gets all the glory. Now Paul further explains that…

Genuine salvation is entirely of God and it inevitably results in a life of good works.

Sometimes it is said that there is a conflict between Paul and James over the matter of justification by faith versus works (compare Rom. 3:24, 28; James 2:18-26). But both men are saying the same thing from different angles to address different issues. Paul was attacking the Pharisaic idea that our good works will commend us to God. He argues that no one can ever be good enough to earn salvation. God justifies guilty sinners through faith in Christ alone. But James was attacking the view that saving faith does not necessarily result in good works. He shows that genuine faith always produces good works.

That is precisely what Paul is clarifying in Ephesians 2:10. While salvation is entirely of God, so are the good works that follow salvation. God has ordained the entire process. Just as we cannot claim any glory for ourselves in our initial salvation, even so we cannot claim any glory in our subsequent good works. God is behind the entirety of our salvation from start to finish. Thus He gets all the glory. Note five things from verse 10:

1. Genuine salvation involves a new creation that is entirely God’s doing.

Paul says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus….” “His” is emphatic in the Greek, underscoring the point that Paul has been making throughout chapters 1 and 2, that our salvation was ordained by God from eternity and that we had nothing to do with it. We were dead in our sins, but God raised us from the dead (2:1, 5). Just as God created the universe out of nothing by the word of His power, so God created us in Christ Jesus by His mighty power.

The Greek word translated, “workmanship,” occurs in only one other place in the New Testament, where it is translated, “what has been made.” In Romans 1:20, Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Paul is referring to the original creation. Just as God powerfully brought that creation into existence for His purpose and glory, so it is when He saves a soul. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

If you think that I have been emphasizing this point too much in the past few weeks, it is only because Paul emphasizes it repeatedly in these first two chapters. He knows how prone we are to take some of the credit for our salvation. If we can’t claim any reason to boast in our salvation, then we’ll try to boast in our good deeds after salvation.

But Paul is saying that the entire process is from God. It comes from His eternal, sovereign choice to save us and from His mighty creative power. Just as the physical creation cannot claim any grounds for boasting in its beauty, so neither can we who are God’s new creation in Christ claim any grounds for boasting in our salvation or in our good works. “In Christ Jesus” (see the same phrase in 2:6, 7) shows that everything God has done for us comes through Jesus Christ. Apart from Him, we have nothing. In Him, we have every blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). He gets all the glory.

Many Christians confuse making a decision to accept Christ with genuine salvation. Certainly, everyone who is genuinely saved receives Christ or decides to trust in Him. But, not everyone who makes a profession of receiving Christ or trusting in Him is genuinely saved. When God genuinely saves someone, that person becomes a new creation in Christ. God changes his heart of stone for a heart of flesh that is obedient to Him (Ezek. 36:26-27). He changes the bent of our lives from hostility towards God to submission to Him (Rom. 6:17-18; 8:1-13). While genuine believers do sin, they hate it and fight against it. If there is no change of heart, then the person needs to question whether he has been created anew in Christ Jesus.

2. Genuine salvation inevitably results in a life of good works.

Those who argue that there is no necessary connection between saving faith and subsequent good works believe that they are defending the Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace alone, apart from works. (See, for example, Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free [Zondervan], pp. 207-208; 222-223). But the Reformers would be aghast at the view that a person may be truly saved and yet live a life of sin. C. H. Spurgeon, who firmly held the Reformed view of salvation, said (All Round Ministry [Banner of Truth], p. 310), “We have been clear upon the fact that good works are not the cause of salvation; let us be equally clear upon the truth that they are the necessary fruit of it.” John Calvin said (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press] ed. by John McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, III:XVI:1, p. 798), “Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify.”

We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works. Those different prepositions make all the difference in the world! Good works are the evidence of salvation, not the cause of it. If there are no works or change of life to follow salvation, then it should be questioned whether the person is truly saved.

Jesus taught this very plainly. In warning about false prophets (Matt. 7:15-17) said, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.”

Paul makes the same point in Titus 1:16, in a warning about false teachers. He says, “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” He goes on to show the relationship between saving grace and good deeds. He explains (Titus 2:11-12) that God’s grace instructs us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires. Then he adds (2:14) that Christ “gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”

Throughout the book of 1 John, the apostle emphasizes the same point against the backdrop of false teachers. In 1 John 3:7-10, he writes, “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious; anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”

The Book of James (especially, 2:14-26) makes the same point, that genuine saving faith manifests itself in good deeds. If a person claims to have faith but has no resulting works, his claim is suspect.

What are these good works for which we were created? Spurgeon summarizes them as, works of obedience, works of love, works of faith, and acts of common life (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 31:152-153). By works of obedience, he means obeying the commands of Scripture. Works of love includes both love for God and love for our fellow man, with an eye to God’s glory. Works of faith refers to all that we do in reliance upon God and His promises. By acts of common life he meant whatever we do at home, at work, traveling, or on a sick bed, that we do all to the glory of God. In other words, the entire bent of our lives after we have been saved by God’s grace should be lived with a God-ward focus, to please Him.

Thus, genuine salvation involves a new creation that is entirely God’s doing. This new creation is made for good works. Also,

3. God prepared these works before He saved us.

Concerning these good works, Paul adds, “which God prepared beforehand….” What does he mean? The only other use of this verb is in Romans 9:23, where after writing that God prepared vessels of wrath for destruction, Paul states, “And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” So Paul taught that God not only predestined our salvation, but also the works that follow. We already saw in Ephesians 1:4 that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless….” So this continues the same idea, that God’s sovereign plan does not stop with salvation, but also includes a life of godliness, leading to final glorification (Rom. 8:29-30; 2 Thess. 2:13-14).

But why does he add this phrase, that God prepared these good works beforehand? It seems to me that there are two practical applications. First, if God not only planned my salvation before the foundation of the world, but He also planned my good works, I have no grounds to boast in anything that I do for the Lord. When you understand it properly, there is no more humbling doctrine than that of predestination. In The Institutes, John Calvin argues that a main practical application of the doctrine of sovereign election is humility, because it gives all the glory to God and none to us (III:XXI:1, pp. 921-922). He also argues that it makes us feel how much we are obliged to God and it is our only ground for assurance (ibid.). So when we recognize that God predestined both our salvation and our sanctification, it humbles our pride.

Second, the fact that God prepared these works shows that we are not to engage in our projects and good deeds, but rather to seek God for what He wants us to do. Some of the false teachers in our day tell people to dream their own big dreams. They promise that God will help you succeed in whatever you want to do. But that puts us in control of our lives and God merely becomes our helper to achieve our goals. That is completely backwards! Rather, we should never engage in any service for the Lord without first waiting on Him as to what He wants. If He is directing, then we should follow. He is the Lord and we are only His servants, seeking to do His sovereign will.

Some wrongly conclude from the doctrine of predestination that we can then sit back and do nothing. If God has ordained it, it will happen whether we do anything or not. But this is fallacious, because God not only foreordains the ends. He also foreordains the means to those ends. Thus,

4. Although God sovereignly ordained these good works before time began, we are responsible to walk in them.

Paul says that God prepared these works beforehand “so that we would walk in them.” Harold Hoehner explains the balance (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck [Victor Books], 2:624), “The purpose of these prepared-in-advance works is not ‘to work in them’ but ‘to walk in them.’ In other words, God has prepared a path of good works for believers which He will perform in and through them as they walk by faith. This does not mean doing a work for God; instead, it is God’s performing His work in and through believers.” He then refers us to Philippians 2:13, where after telling us to work out our salvation, Paul adds, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

Walking in these good works which God has prepared for us implies a lifelong process. Once we are saved, the direction of our lives should be to walk on the path of obedience to God in everything. Also, walking in good works does not mean that we dabble in them in our spare time, when we don’t have anything better to do. We don’t “volunteer to serve” God when we get a little extra time on our hands. Rather, serving God becomes the bent of our lives every day in every situation. There is no division between the sacred and the secular for the Christian. When you’re at work, you serve God there (Col. 3:23-24). When you’re with family, you serve God there. The same applies to church. Every Christian should be seeking to serve the Lord in accordance with his gifts and desires in every situation of life.

Note that the walk in good works closes the paragraph that began with our formerly walking in trespasses and sins, according to the course of this world (2:1-2). The contrast is stark and deliberate. Either you are walking in sin in accordance with this evil world or you are walking in good works in accordance with God’s work of salvation in your heart. Also, in 2:3 Paul mentions Satan’s working in the sons of disobedience. But here it is God working His good works that He has ordained in us.

The application is, if God has saved you by His grace, He has saved you for a life of good works. If you are not engaging in these works, you need to confess your self-centered lifestyle to the Lord and seek Him for how He wants you to serve Him. He doesn’t save anyone so that they can live for themselves. He wants everyone who has tasted His grace to engage in a life of good works.

Thus, genuine salvation involves God creating something new. It inevitably results in a life of good works because God ordained such works before He saved us. But the fact that God foreordained these works does not absolve us of responsibility. We must actively engage in such good works. There is one final idea:

5. The good works that we walk in should be done in a corporate context.

Our American culture inclines us toward independence. We tend to idolize the “self-made man,” who goes it alone. But Scripture teaches that when God saves us, the Holy Spirit baptizes us into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). We are individually members of this body, each with a role to perform. But we must work in coordination and cooperation with other members of the body. Paul uses three words in verse 10 that point us towards this corporate aspect of these good works:

*We—He means, “We Jews and Gentiles together, who make up the body of Christ.” This sets the stage for 2:11-22, where Paul shows the blessings that have been poured out on us corporately as members of this new entity, the church. One real danger in the early church was that it would split along racial lines, with the Jewish and Gentile Christians separating from one another. Paul strongly opposed this tendency, writing that in Christ, the new man which God has created, “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). The local church should be multi-racial and multi-cultural.

*Workmanship—We get our English word “poem” from this Greek word, which means “something that is created or made.” A poem consists of words carefully crafted to fit together so that the whole presents a beautiful picture that the individual words cannot convey in isolation. Even so, the church as God’s poem or new creation shows forth His nature and glory as the various parts work together in harmony.

*Created—This points us to the church as the one new man (2:15). We are the body of which Christ is the head. What was lost by the first created man, Adam, God is recovering through the new man, Christ and the church.

The practical application is that we need to learn to work together more closely in the local church. As members of the body, we need to think and work interdependently. Many times I hear of people who launch new ministries or mission endeavors independently of the local church. Often these people have been hurt by a local church. Rather than working through their differences, they just go out on their own, usually without any coordination or cooperation from a local body of believers. It’s easier and they don’t want the hassles.

But I believe that God’s program for this age is the local church. That’s primarily why I am a pastor, rather than launching “Steve Cole Ministries, International.”. While there is a legitimate place for independent mission or evangelistic agencies, I think that they need to be much more closely tied to the church. Together, we can reflect Christ to this community in a way that we cannot if we act independently of one another.

Conclusion

In closing, there are two main applications. First, make sure that you are a new creation in Christ. Have you truly been saved by His grace through faith in Christ alone? Spurgeon (ibid., p. 150) pointed out that the only way you can become a Christian is by being created. He anticipated the objection, “But we cannot create ourselves!” He answers, “It is even so. Stand back, and quit all pretence of being creators; and the further you retreat from self-conceit the better, for it is God who must create you. How I wish that you felt this!” He then anticipates the reply, “It would drive us to despair!” He answers, “It might drive you to such despair as would be the means of your flying to Christ, and that is precisely what I desire. It would be greatly to your gain if you never again indulged a shred of hope in your own works, and were forced to accept the grace of God.” The point is, you cannot work for God until God first has done His work of saving grace in you.

Second, if you have been saved, the focus of your life should be, “Lord, what will You have me to do?” Paul asked God that question immediately after his experience on the Damascus Road. The Lord answered (Acts 22:10), “Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.” God had already prepared beforehand Paul’s future ministry! Paul had to learn God’s plan and walk in it. So do you!

Application Questions

  1. Why does Paul keep emphasizing that salvation is totally God’s doing? What is his practical aim?
  2. If someone said, “I’ve accepted Christ as my Savior, but I haven’t decided yet to make Him my Lord,” what would you say?
  3. What is Paul’s practical point in stating that God prepared beforehand the good works that we should do?
  4. God is sovereign and yet we are responsible. How do we maintain the proper biblical balance here?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 16: Remembering Then, but Now! (Ephesians 2:11-13)

P. G. Wodehouse (America, I Like You [Simon & Schuster], in Reader’s Digest [July, 1984], p. 113) told about a member of the British Parliament who was once standing in the lobby of the House when a tall, distinguished looking old gentleman came up and begged for a moment of his time. He had a sad story to tell.

By hard work and thrift he had amassed a large fortune, and now his relatives had robbed him of it and, not content with that, had placed him in a mental home. This was his day out. “I have put the facts down in this document,” he concluded. “Study it and communicate with me at your leisure. Thank you, sir, thank you. Good day.”

Much moved by the man’s exquisite courtesy, the Member of Parliament took the paper, shook hands, promised that he would do everything in his power and turned to go back to the debate. As he did so, he received a kick in the seat of the pants that nearly sent his spine shooting through his hat.

“Don’t forget!” said the old gentleman.

Sometimes we need a kick in the seat of the pants to help us remember something important that we tend to forget. In our text, the apostle Paul gives us that needed kick. In a way he is repeating himself. In 2:1-10, he has rehearsed our dreadful past when we walked in our sins (2:1-3), followed by that glorious contrast, “But God,” leading to the amazing blessings that we now enjoy in Christ (2:4-9). Then he spells out the consequence of God creating us anew, that we now should walk in good deeds (2:10).

Then he repeats the same progression in 2:11-22, but with the focus not so much on our blessings individually, but rather, corporately. He reminds us of our spiritual past (2:11-12), when we were alienated from God and His covenant people. Then he comes in again with the glorious contrast, “But now,” followed by our present corporate blessings of being reconciled to God and His people (2:13-18). He concludes (2:19-22) with the consequence, that we are now being built together into a holy temple where the Lord Himself dwells in the Spirit.

Paul is elaborating on and driving home the point of Ephesians 1:10, that God’s purpose for the ages is to sum up or reconcile all things in Christ. This is a mystery that had not been revealed in previous ages, that God would make “the Gentiles fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6), all in accordance with His eternal purpose in Christ Jesus (3:11).

In our text, Paul kicks us in the pants to remember our hopeless past so that we will always thankfully rejoice for what Christ did for us on the cross.

Remember your desperate situation before God saved you so that you will rejoice in what Christ did for you on the cross.

“Therefore” (2:11) refers back to 2:1-10. Paul is saying, “In light of the fact that you have been saved by God’s grace through faith unto a life of good works, remember the place from which God brought you.

1. We are commanded to remember our desperate situation before God saved us (2:11-12).

First, note that…

A. “Remember” is a command, not a suggestion.

Paul doesn’t say, “If it grabs you, you may want to try it.” Rather, he commands us, “Remember,” and goes on to specify what it is that we are to remember, namely, our lost, hopeless condition before God saved us by His grace.

Paul is writing these things to the Gentiles as a group. For 2,000 years, from Abraham to Christ, God chose to work almost exclusively with the Jews. If you were a Gentile, the only way that you could know God and have your sins forgiven was to be circumcised and follow the Jewish rituals and sacrificial system. Even then, the Jews considered you a second class citizen. There was a special court in the temple, the court of the Gentiles, where you could worship from a distance. But you could not go beyond the dividing wall, at the threat of your life (Acts 21:28-29). But now, in Christ, that barrier of the dividing wall has been broken down (Eph. 2:14). Christ has reconciled the Jews and Gentiles to God and to one another through the cross.

Behind Paul’s command was a long history of animosity between the Jews and the Gentiles. As you know, when people get saved, they don’t leave all their baggage at the door of the church before entering. So there was a very real danger that the early church would split into separate Jewish and Gentile churches, even by a friendly mutual agreement. They easily could have rationalized the split by saying, “We have different customs and preferences as Jews and Gentiles. We Jews like the ceremonies and feasts from our old way of worship. The Gentiles think that all of these things are meaningless rituals. So, we’ll just worship separately.”

Besides the religious differences, there were deep cultural and racial divisions. The Jews viewed the Gentiles as unclean “dogs.” Jewish men prayed every morning, “Lord, thank You that You didn’t make me a Gentile or a woman.” They would never eat with a Gentile (Acts 11:2-3). They derisively spoke of them, as Paul here mentions, as “the uncircumcision.” Paul ridicules their view by pointing out that it is only an external difference, made by human hands. But he brings it up to show that the division between Jew and Gentile was deep. The Jews despised the Gentiles.

And the Gentiles returned the favor. The Greeks saw their culture and language as superior to all others. They called others, “barbarians,” a term that made fun of the way that foreign languages sounded to the Greeks. It was as if these unsophisticated foreigners went around babbling, “bar-bar.” They couldn’t even speak Greek, the language of the gods!

But Paul saw that the very mystery of Christ and the goal of the gospel centered on this new man created by God, consisting of Jews and Gentiles as fellow members of the body on equal standing before God. All of this relates to the eternal purpose of God, that His manifold wisdom would “now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). So Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that their reconciliation to God necessarily entailed their reconciliation to one another as Jews and Gentiles. Thus they must strive to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3).

At the root of all racism is the sin of pride. Even though God had made it clear that He did not choose the Jews because of anything in them (Deut. 7:7-8), they became proud over their special status and despised the Gentiles. And, even though Paul has made it clear that God chose the Gentiles by His grace alone while they were dead in their sins, they were in danger of becoming proud of their new status (Rom. 11:17-21). So Paul is quick to command them to remember where they were as a people before God saved them by His grace, so that they will not become arrogant. Rather, we should always be amazed that God’s grace came to us.

This applies to us as American Christians. We have a great privilege that few peoples around the globe enjoy, that our nation is saturated with the gospel. We have Bibles and Christian books and good Bible teaching in abundance. We could easily take these things for granted. But the truth is, if we become arrogant or complacent, in 100 years America could be like Afghanistan today, where the gospel is hardly known at all. God could justly remove the light that we enjoy and America would be cut off from the gospel. So, “remember” is a command. What are we to remember?

B. Remember your desperate situation before God saved you.

Paul describes the condition of the Gentiles before the cross as one of utter hopelessness and despair. We now live in an age of God’s blessing on the Gentiles. Our churches are largely made up of Gentile believers. But this has not always been so. Paul reminds the Gentiles of five facts of their past before God saved them:

(1). Before God saved you, you were separate from Christ.

That word “separate” should jar you! You were cut off from Jesus Christ! Before the gospel came to Ephesus, these Gentiles had not heard the name of Jesus. They had no idea how to have their sins forgiven and be reconciled to God. They worshiped the idol Artemis, and feared the evil spirits, trying to keep them at bay through magic. But, they were separate from Christ, with no way of knowing Him.

I was in my thirties before I learned that my great-grandmother on my father’s side was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. Since then, I’ve often thought, “What if I had been born a few generations earlier, before the Pilgrims came to this land? I would have been born into a pagan culture with no knowledge of the living God and no way to come to know Him. I would have been separate from Christ!”

That term, “separate from Christ,” ought to burden our hearts with compassion for those around the world who have yet to hear the gospel! We ought to pray and give and go to these yet to be reached groups with the good news of Jesus Christ!

(2). Before God saved you, you were excluded from the commonwealth of Israel.

Israel could rightly say, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 33:12), and they could refer to God as “the God of Israel” (Ps. 72:18). But that was not true of any Gentile nation. They were excluded from the people whom God had chosen as His own. If you’ve ever traveled in a foreign country, you feel a bit excluded, like you don’t belong. The people treat you as an outsider. You don’t speak the language, so you are excluded from conversations. You don’t know their customs, so you often feel stupid or unable to do things that you know how to do in your own country. You’re excluded. Remember that you once were excluded from the people of God and go out of your way to make any new person at church feel welcomed and included.

(3). Before God saved you, you were strangers to the covenants of the promise.

The Greek text has the definite article before “promise.” “Covenants” refers to the several covenants that God had made with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:7-21; 17:1-21), Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5), Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15), the nation (through Moses, Exod. 24:1-8), and David (2 Sam. 7). “The promise” refers to the underlying promise of all of these covenants, to send the Savior (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 9:4-5). Before God sent the Savior, many generations of Gentiles had lived and died without any knowledge of God’s covenant promises. That could have been us today, had we been born in a place where the gospel is not yet known! Remember!

(4). Before God saved you, you had no hope.

Without God’s covenant promises, there is no hope! His promise to send the Messiah was “the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20; Jer. 14:8; 17:13). But the Gentiles had no hope, at least, no hope based on the sure promises of God. The tombs of the Pharaohs show that they had some hope of an afterlife, but it was an empty hope. Only the Jews had hope in the living God (Ps. 71:5).

Sometimes, unbelievers look at the suffering in the world, especially the suffering of little children, and scoff, “If there is a God, why does He allow these terrible things to happen?” But what they don’t realize is, if you remove God from the picture, you just made the situation utterly hopeless! Without God, you may be born as an unwanted child, sold into prostitution, be abused by wicked men, and die of AIDS. There is zero hope there. But if that girl or the brothel owner hears the gospel and gets saved, there is hope that brightens the darkest corners of the earth! But, it gets even worse:

(5). Before God saved you, you were without God in the world.

Those may be the saddest words in the Bible, “having no hope and without God in the world.” The world is a wicked, cruel, violent place. The world means robbery, injustice, slander, hatred, warfare, disease, and death. Even if you live a relatively comfortable life, the best you can hope for is expressed in a bumper sticker I saw recently: “Eat healthy, exercise, and die anyway!” But to face all of life’s trials without God and without the hope of eternal life is a terrible thing!

Paul wants us to remember these things so that we never forget where we would be if the Lord had not snatched us from the pit that we were in because of our sins. Why? Because if we forget, we will grow lukewarm and apathetic about the things of God. If we forget, we will lose the joy of our salvation. If we forget, we will lose our hunger and thirst to know God more deeply through His Word. If we forget, we will lose our motivation to take the gospel to the lost. So, remember your desperate situation before God saved you. It’s a command!

2. Rejoice that in Christ Jesus, you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (2:13).

I realize that the word, “rejoice,” does not appear in verse 13, but it is the dominant emotion that hits me when I read it: “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” I want to shout, “Rejoice!” Four brief observations:

A. Rejoice that God’s salvation resulted in a glorious contrast in your life.

“But now!” What wonderful, glorious words! We saw the same thing in verse 4, “But God!” As Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked in a sermon on that verse, “Is there a ‘but God’ in your life?” Before the gospel, we were separate from Christ, excluded from the people of God, strangers to God’s covenant promises, with no hope and without God Himself. “But now!” Hallelujah! When God breaks into your life with the gospel, you simply cannot be the same person that you were before. All things become new (2 Cor. 5:17).

B. Rejoice that formerly you were separate from Christ, but now you are in Him.

“In Christ Jesus” is Paul’s favorite phrase. He has used it (or some variation, such as “in Him”) at least 13 times so far! It means that we are totally identified with Christ in His death, resurrection, and present position at God’s right hand. As we saw (1:3), we now have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.

C. Rejoice that formerly you were far off, but now you have been brought near to God.

“Far off” and “near” are Old Testament terms that refer to the Gentiles and Jews respectively. In Ephesians 2:17, Paul cites Isaiah 57:19, “And He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” (See, also, Acts 2:39; 22:21). “Brought near” is a passive verb, meaning that God acted upon us to bring us near to His presence. Even though as Gentiles, we would have been kept away from the worship that the Jews enjoyed, now God has brought us near to Himself. The term implies the intimacy of a personal relationship with the living God.

D. Rejoice that formerly you were a guilty, condemned sinner, but now you can draw near by the blood of Christ.

Under the Old Covenant, only the priests could enter the holy place, and that only with the blood of the sacrificial victim. But only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, only once a year on the Day of Atonement. But now, Jesus’ shed blood has cleansed us from all of our sins, once for all (Heb. 10:10, 14) so that we can draw near to God! Paul’s mentioning Christ’s blood reminds us of the great price that He paid to secure our redemption. Rejoice that His blood covers your guilt and condemnation, once for all!

Conclusion

What are some practical benefits of obeying Paul’s command to remember our desperate, hopeless past in contrast with our glorious present situation of having been brought near by the blood of Christ? Chew on these five:

1. Remembering “then, but now” curbs our pride.

There was absolutely nothing in us that prompted God to send His Son to die on the cross to save us from our sins. We were not seeking God or longing to know Him before He began to work in our hearts (Rom. 3:10-18). Even though I grew up in a Christian home, except for His gracious providence that kept me from many sins, I would have been just as wicked as the worst sinners in the world. There is no basis for any pride when we remember where we would be had we not heard the gospel.

2. Remembering “then, but now” deepens our love for Christ.

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus was dining with Simon the Pharisee when a woman of ill repute came in and anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. She wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair as she kissed them. Simon was shocked that Jesus would allow a sinner to touch Him in this manner. But Jesus told Simon that this woman loved much, because she was forgiven much. He added (Luke 7:47), “but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” He did not mean that the Pharisee had fewer sins than this woman. Simon was filled with pride and self-righteousness, which are abominable to God. But, he didn’t see himself as a sinner, and so he didn’t love Jesus much. Remembering your past sins deepens your love for Jesus, who gave Himself for you.

3. Remembering “then, but now” deepens your compassion for the lost.

Do you ever look at the faces of people and see the hurt that sin has brought into their lives? Jesus saw the crowd as distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd, and He had compassion on them (Matt. 9:36). Even people who seem to be happy are heading for death and eternal judgment. Remembering that you were once there will give you the compassion of Christ for these hurting people and motivate you to do all you can to get the gospel to those who have not yet heard.

4. Remembering “then, but now” fosters racial reconciliation.

In Paul’s day, it was Jew against Gentile. In ours, it may be prejudice between blacks and whites, or other racial or cultural groups. It goes both directions, of course, because we’re all sinfully proud of things that we had absolutely no control over! But there is no place for any racial prejudice in the body of Christ. At the cross, He broke down all the barriers that wrongly divide us.

5. Remembering “then, but now” results in praise for God’s abundant grace.

If your heart has grown cold toward the Lord, remember where you were when He saved you and where you would be today if He had not. It will thaw out your frozen heart. The Puritan preacher, Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) wrote to his son (A Frank Boreham Treasury [Moody Press], compiled by Peter Gunther, p. 72),

When I was threatening to become cold in my ministry, and when I felt Sabbath morning coming and my heart not filled with amazement at the grace of God, or when I was making ready to dispense the Lord’s Supper, do you know what I used to do? I used to take a turn up and down among the sins of my past life, and I always came down again with a broken and a contrite heart, ready to preach, as it was preached in the beginning, the forgiveness of sins. I do not think I ever went up the pulpit stair that I did not stop for a moment at the foot of it and take a turn up and down among the sins of my past years. I do not think that I ever planned a sermon that I did not take a turn around my study table and look back at the sins of my youth and all my life down to the present; and many a Sabbath morning, when my soul had been cold and dry, for the lack of prayer during the week, a turn up and down in my past life before I went into the pulpit always broke my hard heart and made me close with the gospel for my own soul before I began to preach.

Don’t forget! Remember where you were without Christ and praise God for where you are now!

Application Questions

  1. How do you square Paul’s command here to remember your spiritual past with his comments in Philippians 3:13-14 about forgetting the things behind?
  2. How is it that the truth that God has chosen us for salvation can lead either (rightly) to greater humility or (wrongly) to sinful pride? How can we avoid becoming proud about this?
  3. A person from a Christian upbringing may remember his past and not identify with a person with a sinful background. How does Luke 7:36-50 help correct this skewed perspective?
  4. Why is racial prejudice always sinful? How can we as a church guard against it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 17: Reconciled Relationships (Ephesians 2:14-18)

Two stories in the Bible evoke strong feelings in me every time I read them. One is the story of Joseph and his brothers. The other is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The reason that these stories often cause tears to well up in my eyes is that they are stories of reconciled relationships.

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, treats them kindly, and forgives them for the terrible thing that they had done in selling him into slavery, it is a moving testimony to the power of reconciled relationships. Later, when their father has died, the brothers fear that Joseph would inflict revenge that he had been withholding. But Joseph wept and treated them kindly because he recognized God’s sovereign purpose in what had happened.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the young man impudently rejected the love of his father and chose instead the company of his fast-living, fickle friends. The father’s broken heart longed for the return of his wayward son. When he finally saw him coming in the distance, the father felt compassion for him, ran to him, embraced him, kissed him, and joyously welcomed him back into the family. That powerful story shows the tremendous joy both of reconciled human relationships and also of sinners being reconciled to the heavenly Father.

God created us to have close, personal relationships with Him and with one another. Jesus said that the greatest commandment in the Law is to love God with our entire being. The second greatest is that we should love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). Those are both relational commandments. But when sin entered the human race, it alienated Adam and Eve from God and from one another. They tried to hide from the presence of God and then Adam blamed God and Eve for his own sin (Gen. 3:8, 12). Sin always causes alienation towards God and between people.

And so the great problem of the human race is, how can we be reconciled to a holy God from whom we are estranged because of our sin and rebellion? And, how can we be reconciled to one another? We need peace between nations in this war-torn world. We need peace in our communities. We need peace in our churches, which are supposed to be models of Christ’s love, but often are marked by division and strife. And, we need peace in our immediate and extended families. But, how?

Paul addresses this vital subject in our text. The logical way to deal with the topic would be to start with reconciliation with God and then go on to reconciliation on the human level. Being at peace with God is the foundation for peace with others.

But Paul begins here with peace between formerly alienated people (2:14-15) and then goes to the underlying cause of this reconciliation, namely, reconciliation between those groups and God (2:16-18). Perhaps his heart was burdened with the very real danger of the Jewish and Gentile wings of the church splitting into factions. So he begins with the problem at hand and then goes deeper to the foundational reconciliation with God that results in reconciliation between formerly hostile groups. He is saying,

Through the cross, Christ reconciled us all to one another and to God.

It’s easy to discern Paul’s theme here. He uses the word “peace” four times (2:14, 15, 17 [twice]). He talks about Christ making the two groups into one, breaking down the wall between them, and creating the two into one new man. He mentions twice that Christ removed the enmity and that He reconciled the two groups into one body, so that they both have common access to the Father through the one Spirit. Reconciliation is his theme.

1. Through the cross, Christ reconciled us all to one another (2:14-15).

Paul has just rehearsed the sad plight of the Gentiles before Christ (2:11-12). They were separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. While the Jews were God’s chosen people because of His grace alone, not because of anything meritorious in them, they had become proud and had developed an intense hatred for the Gentiles. They viewed them as uncircumcised dogs. They shook the dust off their feet after traveling in Gentile territory before coming back to the Holy Land, so as not to defile the land. They would never eat with a Gentile. Even Gentile converts to Judaism had to keep their distance in the temple.

We cannot begin to understand the radical nature of what Paul proclaims here unless we keep in mind this centuries-long hostility that had existed between the Jews and the Gentiles. We might compare it to the divide between whites and blacks in the South in our country, or to the conflict between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. Paul is making the radical assertion that Christ has erased these centuries of racial hatred. So it is vital for the local church to display the peace of Christ in order to glorify Him before a world that only knows strife and conflict. Note three things from these verses:

A. Apart from the cross, there is deep alienation between those from different backgrounds.

The source of the hostility between the Jews and Gentiles was sinful pride. Pride is at the heart of all racism and all sin. Satan appealed to the pride of Adam and Eve by tempting them to think that they knew better than God what was good for them. Cain proudly thought that his sacrifice to God was better than his brother’s sacrifice. When God rejected Cain’s sacrifice, he grew angry and murdered his brother. His root sin was pride.

Paul pictured the alienation between the Jews and Gentiles in his day as “the barrier of the dividing wall.” He was probably referring to a four-foot wall in the temple precincts that divided the Court of the Gentiles from where the rest of the Jews could worship. On this wall were inscriptions that have been discovered by archaeologists, which warn that if a Gentile goes beyond the barrier, he will have himself to blame for his death which follows. If Paul was writing to the Ephesians from his imprisonment in Rome, they probably would have known about this barrier, even if they had never visited Jerusalem, because the incident that had led to Paul’s imprisonment involved one of their men. Paul was in the temple when a mob falsely accused him of bringing Trophimus, an Ephesian Gentile, beyond the barrier (Acts 21:27-36). This led to a riot, which led to Paul’s imprisonment. This barrier in the temple symbolized the deep hostilities between the Jews and the Gentiles. At the root of those hostilities was religious and ethnic pride on the part of the Jews.

Pride and selfishness account for everything from wars between nations to conflicts in our families. Rulers want greater power and more territory because it feeds their pride. Husbands and wives argue and fight because each one wants his or her way and is not willing to consider the other’s point of view. Children rebel against their parents because they want their way. Selfish pride is at the root of most of the anger that divides families.

The greater the social and cultural differences between people, the more likely it is that conflict will increase. Because men and women are different, we are prone to conflict in our marriages. Teenagers think that their parents don’t understand the younger generation. People from one nationality have difficulty understanding those from other nationalities. The rich think that the poor are lazy and the poor think that the rich are greedy. So it goes!

At the heart of all of these conflicts is sin. But the world refuses to acknowledge this. For example, many in our country say that if we had just used diplomacy with the Muslim extremists, we could have avoided war. But they grossly underestimate the sin problem. Invariably, pacifists make the mistake of thinking that people are basically good (not basically evil) and if we just treat them nicely and sit down and talk, they will be nice to us in return. Neville Chamberlain made that mistake with Hitler. He thought that he had negotiated “peace in our times,” but he ignored Hitler’s pride and evil intent.

I’m not suggesting that we should be quick to go to war, but I am saying that if we try to negotiate, we had better keep in mind the fact that all people are selfish, proud sinners. To underestimate the sinfulness of the human heart only leads to disaster later. There cannot be any lasting peace among sinners apart from the radical solution of the cross. As John MacArthur put it (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Ephesians [Moody Press], p. 76), “Peace comes only when self dies, and the only place self truly dies is at the foot of Calvary.”

B. Christ Himself is the only source of peace between those who have been hostile towards one another.

“For He Himself is our peace…” (2:14). Christ not only made peace, but He is our peace. Peace can be found only in one place, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, because He alone can deal with our inherent sin problem. When He saves us, we are “created in Christ Jesus” (2:10). If you are in Christ and I am in Christ, then He Himself becomes the source of peace between us. We have to view any and all conflict through the lens of the person of Christ.

The fact that Christ is our peace does not mean that peace happens automatically, even between sincere, godly believers. The Corinthian church was rife with conflicts and divisions. Two faithful women in the Philippian church had some sort of conflict, which Paul was concerned about (Phil. 4:2-3). Even Paul and Barnabas had a sharp dispute that led them to part ways in their missionary endeavors (Acts 15:36-40). Paul seemed to realize that sometimes peace is not fully attainable when he wrote (Rom. 12:18), “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with all men.” He says (Rom. 14:19), “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” The Bible says that we must “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet. 3:11).

So even though we are prone toward conflict, even with other believers, the way toward peace is to have Christ reigning as Lord in each heart. To the extent that He is truly Lord of your life and my life, we will experience peace between us, because He does not fight with Himself. One of the marks of true conversion is when those who formerly were deeply hostile towards one another begin to pursue peace with one another. At the source of this new peace is that Christ has come to dwell in each heart, subduing our selfishness and pride. Paul explains how Christ established this new peace between the Jews and Gentiles:

C. Christ established peace through the cross by abolishing the old covenant law and by creating one new man, the church.

(1). Christ established peace through the cross by abolishing the old covenant law.

I prefer the marginal reading of the NASB (Eph. 2:14-15), “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, the enmity, by abolishing in His flesh the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.”

Jesus Christ broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, which created enmity between the Jews and the Gentiles. He further explains that the source of this enmity was “the Law of commandments contained in ordinances.” The word “abolished” means “nullified” or “rendered inoperative.” “In His flesh” refers to Christ’s death on the cross. Paul goes on to say (2:16) that through the cross, Christ put to death the enmity.

In my opinion, the relationship between the Law and the believer is one of the most difficult subjects in the Bible, and I can only be brief! As I understand it, Paul is saying here what he elsewhere states (Rom. 10:4), that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” God ordained the Law for Israel to demonstrate the impossibility of sinners earning standing before God through law-keeping (Gal. 3:19-24). The law shut up everyone under sin. God’s holy law created a barrier between sinners and God.

But the law also created a barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles. The law was given exclusively to Israel as God’s covenant people. Many stipulations in the law excluded Gentiles from the Jewish forms of worship. The priests alone could perform the sacrifices and ceremonies. Only Jews who had properly gone through the cleansing rituals could approach the altar with their sacrifices. So the law created a barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles.

Through the cross, Christ fulfilled and thereby nullified or abolished the old covenant law (this harmonizes Eph. 2:15 with Matt. 5:17-19). He instituted the new covenant in His blood, which puts His holy law into the hearts of believers (Heb. 8:6-13). So, as Paul writes, because Christ bore the curse of the law on the cross (Gal. 3:14), “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” So through the cross, Christ established the basis for peace between sinners and the holy God and peace between the Jews and the Gentiles. In Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Also,

(2). Christ established peace through the cross by creating the one new man, the church.

The Greek word translated “make” (NASB, 2:15) is literally, “create.” What Adam and Eve lost through sin in the original creation, Christ is recovering through the new man, the church, which is His new creation. F. F. Bruce points out (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], pp. 295-296), “Whereas Jews formerly tended to speak of the division of humanity into Jews and Gentiles, Paul makes a threefold classification into Jews, Greeks (Gentiles), and church of God (1 Cor. 10:32), the last embracing former Jews and Gentiles.” Thus the church is a new humanity or new race.

The practical implication of this is that there is no basis for dividing the church along racial lines, unless there is a language barrier that keeps us from worshiping together. By being multi-racial and multi-cultural, the church should demonstrate to the world this one new man, which Christ created through the cross.

Thus Paul’s first point is that through the cross, Christ reconciled us all to one another. Christ Himself is our peace. Also,

2. Through the cross, Christ reconciled us all to God (2:16-18).

Paul makes three points here, which I can only touch on:

A. Through the cross, Christ reconciled us in one body to God, having put to death the enmity of the law (2:16).

This overlaps what he said in verse 15, but the focus shifts from our reconciliation to one another to our reconciliation with God. Through the cross, Christ brought Jews and Gentiles into one body, the one new man. Now He reconciles this one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. The law condemned Jew and Gentile alike, because it clearly proves that we all have sinned against God. Jesus Christ perfectly kept God’s law, not only externally, but also on the heart level. The Father testified of Jesus (Matt. 3:17), “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Because Jesus satisfied God’s righteous demands, through His death that paid our penalty, God offers complete reconciliation and peace to everyone who trusts in Jesus. As Paul puts it (Rom. 5:1), “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” So the basis for being reconciled to God is not anything that you do, but only by trusting in what Jesus did for you on the cross.

B. Through the cross, Christ preached peace both to pagans and to the religious (2:17).

In verse 17, Paul paraphrases Isaiah 57:19, “And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near.” By “you who were far away,” Paul means, the Gentiles. They were the strangers to the covenants of the promise (Eph. 2:12). But Christ also preached peace to those who were near, the Jews. Probably Paul is referring not only to Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also to His preaching the gospel through the apostles and others in the early church, who, beginning with Peter, preached to the Gentiles (Acts 10; 11:20).

But the point of verse 17 is, it is not only the pagan Gentiles who need to hear the good news of peace with God through the blood of Christ. Religious people (the Jews), those who know about the covenants of God’s promise of salvation, also need to hear the good news. Religious observance, even of the strictest kind, cannot save anyone. Paul chronicles his own religious credentials (Phil. 3:5-6), “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” But, keep reading (3:7), “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” He goes on to emphasize that he did not stand before God in a righteousness of his own derived from the Law, but rather through the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (3:9).

This means that if you are counting on getting into heaven because of your religion or your good deeds, you will not succeed. Peace with God comes only through the cross of Jesus Christ. He paid the debt in full for all that believe in Him!

C. Through the cross, we all have access in one Spirit to the Father (2:18).

Verse 18 is deliberately trinitarian, because the Trinity demonstrates perfectly the harmony and unity that we are to strive for in the church. While the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery that we cannot completely explain or understand, the Bible is clear that the one God exists in three eternal persons, each of whom is fully God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They each are distinct persons and yet they are not three gods, but one God. The one God has enjoyed perfect fellowship and love between the three persons from eternity.

Here Paul says (2:18), “through Him [Christ], we both [Jew and Gentile] have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” At the heart of the gospel is that we now have access to God, whom Paul here calls, “the Father.” This means that Christianity is not a religion of rituals. It is a personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit.

“Access” means “introduction,” much as a common person would be introduced to the king through the king’s representative. If you know the White House chief of staff, he can gain you access to the President. Jesus Christ gains us access to the God of the universe, who is a Father to us because of the cross! What an indescribable privilege, to be able to come into the presence of the Father, through the Son, in dependence on the Holy Spirit! Whether Jew or Gentile, the way into God’s presence is the same: it is through the cross of Christ.

Conclusion

There are two obvious applications of these verses. First, and foremost, do you have a personal relationship with the Father because you have trusted in the blood of His Son Jesus to cover all of your sins? The only way to know peace and reconciliation with the holy God is to be justified by faith (Rom. 5:1). Good works won’t gain access to the holy God. Religious rituals won’t reconcile you to Him. Only the cross, where Jesus reconciled sinners with God, gains access into heaven. Make sure your trust is in Christ alone!

Second, are you pursuing peace with your fellow believers? This includes members of your family. It includes people in this church. Perhaps they are a part of another church. If they have been reconciled to God through faith in Christ and you have too, then you must do all that you can to be reconciled to them. The testimony of the cross before a strife-torn world depends on it.

Application Questions

  1. If Christ is our peace, why couldn’t two godly men, like Paul and Barnabas, get along in the ministry?
  2. Because Christian unity is such a big deal, is it sinful to form various denominations?
  3. How can we work to restore demonstrable unity among genuine believers?
  4. Reconciliation with God must be the basis of reconciliation among believers. What implications does this have for Christian unity?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 18: The Church: Why Marry It? (Ephesians 2:19-22)

I’m going to begin with a radical statement: I believe that most Christians have inadequate or misguided views of the local church. Now, let me try to defend it.

First, most Christians think in terms of attending church, not being the church. For them, church is a nice thing to attend on Sunday if you don’t have anything else to do and if you weren’t out too late the night before. So, you attend church much as you attend the theater. You hope that the program will be enjoyable and make you feel good. You greet a few of the other attenders and then get home quickly, because you don’t want to miss the big game on TV.

But, meanwhile, you have no concept of being built together with other saints in the household of God, the temple where He dwells in human hearts. In support of my contention that most Christians think this way, pollster George Gallup found that while almost half the country attends church services, only 6 to 10 percent of all Americans are what he terms “highly spiritually committed” (cited by Charles Colson, The Body [Word, 1992], p. 31).

Here is a second reason that I think most Christians have inadequate or misguided views of the church: they choose their church as spiritual consumers, not in terms of being built up and ministering in the most holy faith. They shop around for a church that best meets their felt needs, much as they decide whether to shop at Wal-Mart or Target. If they like the services offered and they get a good feeling when they attend, they will give the church their business for a while. But, if they get bored or decide it isn’t meeting their needs, they shop around for another one that suits them better. They don’t evaluate a church on the basis of whether it teaches sound doctrine or whether it has an emphasis on the Great Commission or other biblical criteria. Rather, their evaluation is focused on whether or not the church meets their felt needs.

Charles Colson (“Breakpoint” [Prison Fellowship, 1995], p. 5) told about some friends of his that had started attending a Unity church. Colson exclaimed, “What? You’re a Christian—and Unity is a cult.” “Really?” The man looked surprised.

“Of course it is,” Colson explained. “They don’t believe in the Resurrection or even in one true God.”

Then the man’s wife spoke up. “Oh, but we love it there. We always come away from the service feeling much better.”

Colson comments, “Feeling better? Is that what church is all about? For many people, unfortunately, the answer is yes.”

A third line of evidence that most Christians have inadequate views of the church is, as Joshua Harris puts it (Stop Dating the Church [Multnomah Publishers, 2004]), most Christians are dating the church, but they aren’t married to it. His profile of a church-dater is (pp. 16-17), first, he is me-centered. He goes for what he can get. Second, he is independent. He doesn’t want to commit himself or get too involved, especially with people. Often this is because the church-dater got burned in a previous church. Third, he tends to be critical of the church. This is where the consumer mindset kicks in. The church-dater is looking for the best product for the price. And so he is fickle, always hunting for a better deal.

Let’s face it: if you’ve been involved in a local church for very long, you have been hurt or frustrated or disillusioned. But I would venture to say that if you’ve been married for very long, you have been hurt or frustrated or disillusioned. But I hope you’re still married! Commitment is what keeps you going in your marriage, to work at making it better. In the same way, you need to commit yourself to the church and work at making it better. I want to persuade you to marry (and stay married to) the local church. After all, Christ loved the church as His bride and gave Himself for her. If I want to be like Christ, then I need to love the church and give myself for her, even if I get hurt or frustrated or disillusioned. Why?

You must commit yourself to the local church because it is God’s kingdom, His household, and His temple where He dwells.

That is Paul’s teaching in our text. He does not use the word “church,” but that is obviously what he is talking about (see 1:22, 3:10). And, he does not specifically exhort us to be committed to the church, although that is the only conclusion that you can draw if you understand his words. Rather, he elevates our understanding of what the church is, so that we will be motivated to marry it “till death do us part.”

1. You must commit yourself to the local church because it is God’s kingdom.

“So then” introduces the consequence of the preceding verses, that the Gentiles and Jews have been reconciled to one another and to God through the cross. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints….”

Paul is using the analogy of the church as God’s nation or kingdom. From Abraham until the time of Christ, the Jews were God’s chosen nation. He revealed Himself to them in a way that He did not do with any other people on earth. He made exclusive covenants and promises with them (Rom. 3:1-2; 9:4-5). But now God has created a new man, the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles. The church is presently His kingdom people on this earth. The Gentiles are not second-class citizens in this new people of God, but rather, they are fellow-citizens with the saints (all of God’s holy ones).

Note that Paul again reminds the Gentiles of what they once were: strangers and aliens (see 2:12). He does not want us to forget where we would be if God had not graciously brought us near. The two words are somewhat synonymous, but if there is a distinction, “strangers” refers to a foreigner, while “aliens” refers to the foreigner who lives in the land as a resident alien (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos, 1999], p. 211). Both words convey exclusion. You’re an outsider. Even though you may be living in the country legally, you don’t possess the same rights as legal citizens. You’re treated differently. You don’t’ really belong. As Gentiles, that was our status before the cross.

But now, Paul says, “you are fellow citizens with the saints.” Your spiritual new birth in Christ has made you a natural citizen of His kingdom. You now live under His rule. You now have certain privileges and responsibilities as a member of this spiritual kingdom. You enjoy the benefits that He provides, such as protection from enemies. But also, you must obey His sovereign rule. If He calls you into battle, you must willingly go and fight. If He asks you to represent Him, you gladly do so. As a member of His heavenly kingdom of light, you are distinct from those who are citizens of this earthly kingdom of darkness. The sovereign of this heavenly kingdom demands your total allegiance.

Paul continues to emphasize that the Jews and the Gentiles, who were formerly alienated from one another, are now fellow-citizens in Christ’s kingdom. This means that there are no racial or cultural distinctions among the people of God. We all have equal standing before God in Christ Jesus. Because the church is His kingdom, you must commit yourself to it.

First Peter 2:9-10 puts it this way, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Then Peter applies it (2:11), “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.”

But because a single analogy is insufficient, Paul adds another:

2. You must commit yourself to the local church because it is God’s household.

This is an advance on the idea of being members of God’s kingdom or nation. To be a citizen of a kingdom is a great privilege, but it is rather impersonal and large-scale. I don’t know any of our government leaders personally and they don’t know me. There are millions of citizens of our nation. But, to be a member of a household is personal and more intimate. Family members know one another pretty well. In Paul’s day, to be a member of a household meant refuge, protection, and identity (O’Brien, p. 212).

The sense of belonging is much stronger in a family than in a national sense. I read about a student who went to a university away from his hometown. In the evenings, he would often take a walk. He was lonely because he was away from his family. He would sometimes look into the well-lit windows of homes that he would walk by and see the families gathered around the dinner table. Occasionally, a family member would see him outside and get up and close the curtain. He felt excluded from that household!

But, Paul says, though you once were excluded, now you are of God’s household. You’re family. You’re included. When the family gets together, you want to be there, because it is a great privilege to be a member of this family. When they talk about the things that matter most to the family, the things of God, you delight in the conversation. You want to hang out with the family when they get together just because you’re family. If the family of God gathers for worship, you’re there. If they gather for a meal, you join them. If they meet to talk about family matters, you’re there. You’re committed because you’re part of the family. Do you see the difference between attending church and being a member of God’s family?

So, you must marry the church because it is God’s kingdom and His household, or family. But Paul goes even higher:

3. You must commit yourself to the local church because it is God’s temple, where He dwells.

Paul uses a third analogy, of a building. But he is not talking about just any building, but rather, the temple, where God manifests His presence in a special way. God is omnipresent, but there is a special sense in which He dwells in His holy temple. The Jews experienced this as the Shekinah, the brilliant manifestation of the glory of God. But now, Paul says, the church is this temple.

Keep in mind that Paul is talking about the church as people, not as a literal building. In the Old Testament era, the temple was a sacred building. It may have been appropriate then for some old saint to tell the children, “Behave yourself! Don’t you know that this is God’s house?” But for New Testament believers, there is no such thing as a sacred building. God’s temple now consists of His people. The New Testament sometimes refers to individual believers as God’s temple, where His Holy Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 6:19). But here Paul is referring to the saints corporately in a given locale. The people of God who gather in that locale are together the temple where God is worshiped and where He dwells.

Paul describes here the foundation, the formation, and the function of this new temple of God (Harold Hoehner, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck [Victor Books, 1983], 2:627):

A. The foundation: God founded the church on New Testament truth, with Jesus Christ central to everything (2:20).

The church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” Paul means that the foundation consists of the apostles and prophets, with Christ being the cornerstone. Apostles refers to the Twelve and Paul, along with James and, perhaps, Barnabas (1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19; 2:7-9; 1 Cor. 9:6). They had seen the risen Lord Jesus and He commissioned them with special authority to found the church. Prophets refers to New Testament prophets in the early church (Eph. 3:5; 4:11). Before the canon of the New Testament was completed, the prophets received direct revelation from God to build up and encourage the church (Acts 15:32; 1 Cor. 14:3, 29-32). While there is debate over whether the gift or office of prophet is still functional in the church today, Paul’s point here is, the church was founded on the truth that we now possess in the New Testament, the testimony about Jesus Christ.

This means that one crucial criterion for you to consider before you marry a particular local church is, does it emphasize the preaching of God’s Word as His absolute truth? If the leaders of the church dodge certain doctrines in the Bible because they are not popular or they compromise key doctrines for the sake of “unity” with other churches that do not hold to these truths, you should not commit yourself to that church (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Not only is the church founded on New Testament truth, but also, that truth necessarily puts Jesus Christ in the center of everything. He is the cornerstone. Some argue that this refers to the capstone that finished off a building. But the context here clearly shows that Paul is talking about the foundation stone that was first laid at the corner. It had to be positioned perfectly, because all of the lines of the building came off that corner stone.

Isaiah 28:16 prophesied of Christ, “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.’” Psalm 118:22 predicted of Jesus, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone” (see Matt. 21:42).

This means that “the temple is built out and up from the revelation given in Christ, with the apostles and prophets elaborating and explaining the mystery, which had been made known to them by the Holy Spirit (3:4-11, esp. v. 5). ‘But all is built on Christ, supported by Christ, and the lie or shape of the continuing building is determined by Christ, the cornerstone’” (O’Brien, pp. 217-218, citing M. Turner, New Bible Commentary in the last sentence). Thus any church that diminishes the person or work of Jesus Christ is not a true church. Any church that undermines the inspiration and authority of the Bible must be rejected. Such churches are buildings without a solid foundation.

B. The formation: God is fitting and growing the members of the church together into a holy temple in the Lord (2:21).

“In whom” (2:21 & 22) refers to Christ. Everything depends on being in union with Him. In Him, “the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord.” Paul mixes metaphors here, in that he first refers to the church as stones in the temple, which were carefully fit together. But since “dead stones” is an inadequate picture, he shifts to a living analogy, stating that they are growing into a holy temple. So, like Peter, he views the church as living stones, an intriguing oxymoron!

In the construction of Solomon’s Temple, the stones were quarried and shaped away from the construction site and then brought to the site and fitted carefully together (1 Kings 6:7). It is a picture of the Lord fitting us together with one another, so that each stone contributes a vital part to the entire wall. Individual stones are not of much value apart from the whole, but when they are fit together, the entire structure becomes a beautiful, functional place where God is worshiped. The implication is that it is only in close relationships with one another that God uses us for His purpose and glory. To do that, He often has to chip off our rough edges, which is a painful process! It is often through relational conflicts in the church that we learn where we need to grow and change. If we submit to the process, the end result is worth it!

C. The function: God is building the church together to be His own dwelling place in the Spirit (2:22).

What an amazing truth: God is building us together into His dwelling place in the Spirit! In the Old Testament, the temple was the special place where God met with His people and revealed Himself. But now, not in a physical building, but in the hearts of His people gathered in one locale, knit together in love (Col. 2:2), God dwells.

As stated explicitly in verse 21 and implicitly in verse 22, the church as God’s dwelling place must be holy. Temple refers to the inner sanctuary, the most holy place. God does not dwell where sin is tolerated or excused away. How much of your behavior would you change if you sensed that you were gathering each week in a place where God in all of His holiness dwells? If you had an awareness of God’s presence in your life personally, would you live differently? In one of his books, Watchman Nee says that if you have a small amount of change in your pocket, you can walk along rather carefree. But if you have a large amount of money in your pocket, you’ll walk more carefully, guarding the treasure. When we realize that both individually and corporately, the living God dwells in our midst, we will be careful to walk in holiness.

This also means that when we gather as the church, we should come to meet with God. We want to sense His presence in our midst. As Moses prayed (Exod. 33:15), if the Lord’s presence does not go with us, we don’t want to go at all! So pray and prepare your heart before you gather with the saints, “Lord, I want to meet with You! I want You to show your glory in Your temple!”

Conclusion

What does getting married to a church look like? Josh Harris describes it in seven ways (pp. 67-77). I can only hit the highlights:

(1). You join.

You officially join the church so that the pastors and others there know that you’re part of the team. Here at FCF, this means going through the New Member Class, filling out an application, and being interviewed by an elder. Joining expresses your commitment to be here and serve together.

(2). You make the local church a priority.

You build your life around your priorities, so that other things take a back seat. Harris advises you to think carefully before you move for a better job or go away to college, if it means leaving a solid church to do it. You may or may not find such a church in the new location.

(3). You make your pastor’s job a joy.

Harris quotes Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” He advises you to embrace, obey, and love God’s Word. Also, pray for your pastor and refuse to engage in slander against him. I like that advice!

(4). You find ways to serve.

Harris says (p. 72), “Serving is the fastest way to feel a sense of ownership in your church. It’s also the best way to build relationships.” Don’t wait to be asked to serve. Look for ways to serve.

(5). You give.

“Because the local church is where you are nourished spiritually, it should be the first place you invest financially” (p. 74).

(6). You connect with people.

Being married is a relationship. Being married to the church means getting to know some of the members on a level that you cannot do just in passing on Sunday mornings.

(7). You share your passion.

When you’re in love with the church, you can’t keep it to yourself. You want others to experience the same joy. Harris (pp. 64-65) cites John Stott, “If the church is central to God’s purpose as seen in both history and the gospel, it must surely also be central to our lives. How can we take lightly what God takes so seriously? How dare we push to the circumference what God has placed at the center?”

When you see that the church is God’s kingdom, His household, and His temple where He dwells, it should motivate you to fall in love and get married. Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. So should you!

Application Questions

  1. I mentioned three ways in which most Christians have an inadequate view of the church. Can you think of more?
  2. At what point should a person leave a church that has problems? What criteria should he use to evaluate this?
  3. I mentioned two criteria to evaluate whether you should join a church (the Word and the Great Commission). What are some other important criteria? (Josh Harris lists ten.)
  4. The early church did not have official “membership.” Why should we?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 19: Grateful for the Gospel (Ephesians 3:1-7)

The Thanksgiving holiday reminds us that we often take God’s gifts for granted, rather than giving thanks. God gives us many common blessings, such as the gift of sight to enjoy a beautiful sunrise or sunset. He gives us the gift of sound, so that we can enjoy the laughter of children or conversation with friends or a favorite song. He gives us the gift of taste, so that we can enjoy good food. We enjoy many material blessings in this country—our homes, cars, and many gadgets that make life more comfortable. Traveling to some of the poorer areas of the world helps you to see how life could be, had you not been blessed to be born in America! So we should be thankful!

But the greatest gift that God gives us is the gospel—the good news that Jesus Christ came into this world to save us from our sins. If He has opened the eyes of your heart to trust in Jesus Christ as the One who bore your eternal punishment on the cross, then even if you are going through terrible suffering, you have reason to rejoice and be thankful! And if God has saved you, He also has given you some way that He wants you to serve Him. The fact that former selfish, rebellious sinners could be redeemed and now put into service for the King of kings should fill our hearts with joyful gratitude to Him. This is what the apostle Paul both says and exemplifies in our text:

We can be joyfully grateful even in our trials, if we remember God’s gift of salvation and the gracious privilege of serving Him.

These verses are a bit difficult, so track with me as I try to explain them. In 2:11-22, Paul has outlined the unprecedented blessings that God has now poured out on the Gentiles. For 2,000 years from Abraham to the time of Christ, God’s blessings were mostly restricted to the Jews. The Gentiles were excluded from the nation of Israel, were strangers to God’s covenants of the promise, and thus they had no hope and were without God in the world (2:12).

Then comes that glorious contrast (2:13), “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Paul shows how through the gospel, Christ now has reconciled the Jews and Gentiles to one another and He has reconciled both groups in one body to God through the cross. As a result, the Gentiles are no longer strangers and aliens, but they are fellow citizens of God’s new people, they are members of His household, and together with the Jews, they are being built into a holy temple where God now dwells (2:19-22).

In light of these wonderful truths, Paul is about to pray for the Ephesians, that God would make these truths a reality in their experience. He will pray (3:17) that Christ will dwell in their hearts by faith, in line with what he has said about them being built into the dwelling of God (2:22). In line with the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, he will pray (3:17) that they may be rooted and grounded in love.

But, before he gets to his prayer, something diverts Paul’s attention. Perhaps he heard his chains clank and it brought him back to his present situation, of being a prisoner. Paul’s persistent enemies, the Judaizers, were no doubt plaguing the Ephesian church, arguing that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses to be saved. One of their arguments was to discredit Paul. If he really is God’s apostle, then why is he in prison?

So Paul begins (3:1), “For this reason [because of the reconciliation of the Jews and Gentiles to one another and to God], I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—” but then, instead of launching into his prayer, he interrupts himself. He will come back to the prayer in 3:14, but he goes into a digression to show the Ephesians that his imprisonment in Rome should not cause them to doubt God or to question Paul’s apostleship. Rather than losing heart because of his sufferings, they should see that his tribulations on their behalf were actually for their glory (3:13). So in this digression, he reminds them again of God’s great gift of the gospel and of the gracious privilege of being able to serve and to suffer for Christ’s sake. Rather than grumbling about his imprisonment, Paul overflows with joyful gratitude to God. He not only tells us, but also shows us, how to have this same joyful gratitude in the midst of our trials.

1. All believers will suffer, but in our sufferings we need to maintain God’s perspective.

The teaching that God promises health and wealth to all of His children is heresy. But, although most of us don’t buy into that error, we often think that if we walk obediently with the Lord, He will reward us with protection from trials. Or, when trials come, some teach that it is okay to get angry with God. The assumption behind this is, “I don’t deserve this kind of treatment!” I once saw a booklet from the ministry that publishes “Our Daily Bread” titled, “Forgiving God”! That’s a blasphemous title, because it implies that God did something wrong! It was about a woman who had lost her four-year-old, and how she had to learn to forgive God for this tragedy! But, if Job (the most righteous man on earth) did not need to forgive God for taking all ten of his children in one accident, then neither do we need to forgive God, no matter how difficult our trials. He never treats us unjustly or sends trials into our lives without a loving purpose on His part.

Paul was suffering unjustly from a human perspective. He had not done anything wrong. He was suffering because he had gone to a lot of personal bother to do something good. He had raised a gift from the Gentile churches and had personally taken it to Jerusalem to help alleviate the suffering of the Jewish people. Behind his actions, no doubt, was his strong desire to see the Jewish and Gentile wings of the church united in love. But when he got there, some Jews saw him in the temple and started a riot by falsely accusing him of bringing some Gentiles beyond the barrier in the temple. The riot led to Paul’s imprisonment, which had been going on now for about five years. During those years, Paul easily could have grown bitter towards the Jews who had falsely accused him, and even toward God, who had allowed this to happen.

Also, Paul was not suffering because he denied the truth, but rather because he boldly proclaimed the truth. You can dodge a lot of hassles as a preacher if you tiptoe around difficult doctrines and just preach “nice” messages that make everyone feel good. But God had revealed certain truths to Paul, and he lived to please God, who examines the heart, not to please people (1 Thess. 2:4). It would have been much easier for Paul just to make peace with the Judaizers, saying, “We don’t agree, but unity is more important than truth.” But, instead, he always stood firmly for the truth of the gospel of grace, even if it meant hardship and persecution.

When Paul says (3:2), “if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you,” he is not implying that some of the Ephesians had not heard. Probably Paul was using irony (H. C. G. Moule, Ephesians Studies [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 110). His ministry to the Gentiles had been well known for many years and was at the heart of why he was in prison. So here, he is using understatement to say, “If perhaps you have heard a few things about my ministry to the Gentiles…”! They were Christians because of his ministry to the Gentiles!

Note one further thing about Paul’s perspective on his sufferings: Although he did not deserve to be in prison, he was joyfully grateful because he understood and submitted to God’s sovereignty over his sufferings. He calls himself (3:1), “the prisoner of Christ Jesus.” If Paul had seen himself as the prisoner of the Jews, he would have been bitter at the Jews. If he had seen himself as the prisoner of the Roman government, he would have been angry about the miscarriage of justice. But, he saw himself as the prisoner of Christ Jesus. Paul knew that the Lord only acted toward him with grace and kindness. And so, he could rejoice even in his sufferings.

There is an error today called “open theism” that teaches that God is not sovereign over the tragic things that happen. He is just as upset as you are, but He can’t do anything about it. They are trying to get God off the hook for all of the evil and suffering in the world. But, it is fundamentally unbiblical. In the Bible, God makes it clear that He is sovereign over everything, including our trials (Exod. 4:11; Isa. 45:7; Amos 3:6). Also, by denying God’s sovereignty over our trials, the open theists take away the only source of comfort in our trials, namely, that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

So here is Paul, suffering for no wrong that he had done. But there is not a hint of self-pity or complaint on his part, because his focus was on Christ Jesus as his sovereign Lord, and also on helping the Ephesians understand God’s purpose in Paul’s imprisonment. But, there is more:

2. We can be joyfully grateful in our trials if we remember that we are beneficiaries of God’s gracious salvation.

Paul never ceased to be thankful for God’s grace that had been shown to him in the gospel. Though he was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor, yet he was shown mercy, and God’s grace was more than abundant for the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13-15). If you think about where you used to be as a sinner, and where you would be today if God had not broken into your life with His grace, it will cause you to overflow with gratitude. Note four things about God’s grace in the gospel:

A. God’s grace in the gospel is a precious, undeserved gift.

Paul was so moved by God’s grace in saving him that he just can’t stop repeating himself. In 3:2 he writes, “if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you…” Then, again in 3:7, he says, “of which I was made a minister [servant], according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power.” He continues (3:8), “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” He just couldn’t get over it! Neither should we!

No one has ever come to Christ by his own intelligence, will power, or good works. If you are a Christian, it is not because you thought through all of the options and due to your superior intelligence and high moral standards, you decided to follow Jesus. Rather, the Bible indicts us all (Rom. 3:10-18):

As it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

If you’re thinking, “Well, that may describe others, but it doesn’t describe me,” then you do not understand God’s grace in the gospel. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). You have to feel how lost and helpless you are before you will cry out to Jesus, “Save me, Lord, or I perish!” Salvation is totally a precious, undeserved gift of God’s grace.

B. God’s grace in the gospel cannot be grasped by human reason, but God must reveal it to us.

Paul writes (3:3-6), “that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel….”

To understand Paul’s flow of thought we need to understand what he means by mystery. He uses this word 21 out of the 27 times in the New Testament, and with different shades of meaning in different contexts. But the basic meaning is that it refers to God’s revelation or disclosure of something that formerly was hidden. Such information cannot be attained by human reason or wisdom, but only when God reveals it by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:7-10).

In Ephesians, Paul first refers to the mystery in 1:9, where it refers to God’s revealing His eternal purpose to sum up all things in Christ. So the key idea in the mystery centers on God’s eternal plan of bringing all things together in the person of Jesus Christ. When Paul says (3:3) that he wrote before about this in brief, he is referring back to 1:9 (see, also, Col. 1:25-27).

But, this one supreme mystery has a number of applications (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 110). Thus in our text, Paul refers to the general sense of the mystery of Christ (3:4), but then specifies the application of that mystery to the now revealed truth that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). Paul had written about that aspect of the mystery in 2:11-22. So, to sum up (O’Brien, p. 236, citing John Stott), “The mystery or open secret of Christ is ‘the complete union of Jews and Gentiles with each other through the union of both with Christ.’”

When Paul says that this aspect of the mystery had not been made known in other generations as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets, he means that God has revealed new truth with regard to the church. The Old Testament often spoke of God’s blessing on the Gentiles, but it was always through the Jews. But now, (Gal. 3:14) “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” In other words, the newly revealed truth that Paul and the New Testament (“holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit”) proclaim is that the Gentiles are equal with the Jews in the church. They are (3:6) “fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The point to apply is that the truth about the centrality of Jesus Christ and the gospel is not something that anyone can arrive at by human logic, intuition, or study. It’s not like math, where if you work at it, eventually you can get it. Rather, to understand God’s truth, especially the truth of the gospel, He must open your eyes (see, Matt. 13:11-13). So, if you do not understand the good news about Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross, cry out to God for understanding and search the New Testament as if you were looking for buried treasure until you find Him!

C. God’s grace in the gospel comes to us by the working of His power.

Paul mentions (3:7) that the gift of God’s grace “was given to me by the working of His power.” God’s mighty power transformed a violent racist like Paul into the apostle who now loved the very people he had hated, the Gentiles! Maybe, like the Ephesians, you were into the occult and all manner of evil. But, God’s mighty power transformed these people who engaged in sexual immorality at the pagan Temple of Diana into a holy temple in the Lord (2:21).

Not all conversions are as dramatic as Paul’s or the Ephesians were, but all conversions require the same working of God’s mighty power. Maybe, like me, you were raised in a Christian home and were at church every time the door was open. You still need to be saved from your self-righteousness, pride, hypocrisy, lust, greed, and other sins by God’s mighty power. Beware of cultural Christianity, where you assume that you’re a Christian because you live in a Christian country and attend a Christian church! You are not a Christian unless you know the life-transforming power of God in your heart!

D. God’s grace in the gospel is a special privilege that we now enjoy.

To overflow with joyful gratitude, even in your trials, keep in mind that you enjoy God’s revealed grace in a way that millions in history never have. Paul says that the mystery of Christ was not made known in other generations as it now is made known! But even now, there are hundreds of millions of people around the globe who live in spiritual darkness in countries where the gospel is hardly known.

But, we have these transforming truths revealed to us in the New Testament as a precious treasure! If it was revealed to you that somewhere in your back yard, a strongbox with a million dollars was buried, you’d be out there this afternoon with pick and shovel, and you wouldn’t stop digging until you found it! Well, you’ve got something far greater than money—you’ve got “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (3:8), hidden in your Bible! Start digging!

So, we can be joyfully grateful even in our trials if we remember God’s gift of salvation, revealed in Jesus Christ. Finally,

3. We can be joyfully grateful in our trials if we remember that we have graciously been given the privilege of serving God.

Being an apostle was not Paul’s career choice! Rather, it was given to him as a sacred stewardship of God’s grace. When he says that he “was made a minister” (3:7), it is a passive verb, meaning that he didn’t choose it. Rather, God acted on Paul. On the day of Paul’s conversion, the Lord told Paul (Acts 22:10), “Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.” He was drafted!

“Minister” (Eph. 3:7) is not a stained glass word, referring to a member of the clergy. That concept is foreign to the New Testament. Rather, it is the Greek word, diakonos, meaning, servant. It referred to one who waited tables. As such, a servant obeyed his master. He was not free to do his own thing, but he did what his master commanded.

Although none of us are apostles and although you may not be in so-called “full time ministry,” if you know Christ, you are His servant. Even if He calls you to suffer for His name’s sake, from your prison cell you can joyfully serve Him if you remember what a great privilege it is to be a steward of His amazing grace.

Conclusion

Before his conversion, John Wesley, who was very religious outwardly, but lacked the inward reality of God’s grace, had a conversation with a poor porter at his college that deeply impressed him. Wesley discovered that the man had only one coat and that he had not had any food that day, but only water. And yet his heart was full of gratitude to God. Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon. What else do you thank him for?”

“I thank him,” answered the porter, “that He has given me my life and being, and a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.” (In The Inextinguishable Blaze, by A. Skevington Wood [Eerdmans, 1968], p. 100.) That porter knew the reality of God’s saving grace. Like him, we can be joyfully thankful even in our trials if we remember God’s gift of salvation and the gracious privilege of serving Him.

Application Questions
  1. Some teach that it is okay to be angry at God when we suffer and that we should be honest in expressing our feelings. Why is this at odds with Scripture?
  2. How can a person who grew up in a Christian home get a deeper appreciation of God’s abundant grace in salvation?
  3. Who is more difficult to reach with the gospel: a thorough pagan or a self-righteous churchgoer? Why?
  4. Why is it important for every believer to see himself as a steward or servant of Christ? How does this attitude help us?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 20: The Unfathomable Riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8)

It is my normal, weekly experience to feel overwhelmed by inadequacy as I attempt to preach God’s Word. But when I come to a subject as vast as the unfathomable riches of Christ, I am almost paralyzed! It makes me realize how little of these immeasurable riches of Christ that I experience personally. It overwhelms me to think about what I can say on so profound a subject. So I am unusually aware that unless God anoints His Word with power, my feeble words will surely fail.

You would think that if you announced on the sign out front and in the newspaper that someone was speaking on the unfathomable riches of Christ, people would line up hours before the services, waiting to get in. “Free eternal riches will be given out at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship! Come and get all that you can!” But, as far as I know, no one had to wait in line to get in the door.

Even among the Lord’s people, some had “more important” things to do today than to come and explore more deeply the unfathomable riches of Christ. Some were too tired or too busy. I hope not, but perhaps some saw the title and thought, “Ho hum! That doesn’t sound very practical! Why doesn’t he talk about more relevant things?”

Maybe Jonathan Edwards sheds some light on this when he observed (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:147), “The more holy any being is, the more sweet and delightful will it be to him to behold the glory and beauty of the Supreme Being.” He was preaching on Ephesians 3:10, where Paul says that the manifold wisdom of God is now made known through the church to the angelic hosts. The angels, who are perfect in holiness, greatly delight in the manifold wisdom of God as seen in the unfathomable riches of Christ. So if the subject bores you, you had better check your heart. The glory and beauty of Jesus Christ should captivate us so that out of great joy, we sell everything in order to gain the treasure of Christ (Matt. 13:44-46).

I was going to preach on verses 8-13, which are a unit, but Paul not only talks about the unfathomable riches of Christ, but also of God’s eternal purpose as it relates to the church and of two practical consequences of these mind-boggling truths. So I had to limit myself to verse 8, which shows us that…

Sinners may freely partake of the unfathomable riches of Christ.

1. The unfathomable riches of Christ are offered only to sinners.

Luke 1:53 states, “He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.” The spiritually hungry are sinners who see their need for forgiveness. The rich see no need for salvation. Bill Gates doesn’t spend his time standing in line at the welfare office. He doesn’t need their help. If you think that you have enough righteousness on your own to get into heaven, then you will not see your need for the unfathomable riches of Christ. Three things in our text show that these riches of Christ are offered only to sinners:

A. Paul preached the gospel to the Gentiles.

The Gentiles were not godly people! The religious Jews despised them as filthy dogs. They did not obey the Jewish Law. They made up their own standards for morality, which were abominable in God’s sight. The Ephesians, as we’ve seen, were steeped in the occult, and so many of them were plagued by demons that it spawned an industry for professional exorcists (Acts 19:13-16). They “worshiped” at the pagan Temple of Diana, which involved immorality with the temple prostitutes. They did a thriving business selling idols, which ignorant people bought in hopes of solving their problems. These Gentiles were about as far from the living and true God as anyone could be.

And yet, when Paul came to Ephesus and preached the unfathomable riches of Christ, so many got saved that it threatened the idol-makers’ business. The same thing happened when Paul preached the gospel to the notoriously immoral Corinthians. He wrote to them (1 Cor. 6:9-11):

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Or, as he wrote to the Christians in Rome (Rom. 1:16), “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” In fact, the most difficult sinners to reach are religious sinners, because they do not see their desperate need. If God has opened your eyes to see that you have sinned against Him and are guilty of eternal judgment, then He offers to you the unfathomable riches of Christ in exchange for your spiritual poverty.

B. Paul saw himself as the least of all saints.

Paul coins a word that means, “I am less than the least.” This was not a mock humility on Paul’s part, but rather his honest feelings as he thought about his sinful past. In his self-righteousness, he had persecuted the church. His spiritual pride led him to think that he was doing God a favor by killing sincere, innocent believers! So, after God graciously stopped him in his tracks, Paul never got over the great mercy that God had shown to him. In 1 Corinthians 15:9, he said, “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Here, he sees himself as the least of all the saints. And, later in life (1 Tim. 1:15), he says that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” He uses the present tense.

The closer you draw to God and see His holiness, the more aware you become of the sinfulness of your own heart. We see this with Isaiah, who instantly became aware of his sinfulness when he saw the Lord. Job, the most righteous man on earth, repented in dust and ashes when he had his encounter with God (Job 42:6). That has been the uniform experience of every saint throughout history. The closer they are to God, the more they lament their own sinfulness. John Calvin points this out often in his writings. For example, he wrote (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Psalm 32:1, p. 526), “The more eminently that any one excels in holiness, the farther he feels himself from perfect righteousness, and the more clearly he perceives that he can trust in nothing but the mercy of God alone.”

The point is, the unfathomable riches of Christ are only offered to those who see themselves to be poverty-stricken sinners. The only servants that God uses are those who see that they are inadequate clay pots, but that God has put His treasure in them (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5; 4:7).

C. Paul could only preach Christ because God had given him grace.

As we saw last week, Paul was so overwhelmed by God’s grace that he couldn’t stop repeating himself. He mentions it in 3:2 and 3:7, as well as here in 3:8: “this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” Paul knew that the only reason he could preach Christ was that God had given him grace.

Paul was like the workers in Jesus’ parable (Matt. 20:1-16) who got hired late in the day. The story involved a landowner who went into the marketplace early in the day and hired some workers, agreeing to pay them a denarius for their day’s labor. Later in the morning, he hired some more, promising to give them whatever is right. He did the same thing in the early and mid-afternoon. Finally, an hour before quitting time, he hired some others.

When it came time to pay the workers, those who were hired at the last hour were paid a denarius. Those who had worked all day thought that they would get more, but they just got the denarius that the owner had promised them. When they grumbled, the owner told them that they had no right to grumble. He gave them what he had agreed on. But, if he wanted to be generous with what is his, why should they be envious?

That parable illustrates God’s grace. We wrongly start thinking that God owes it to us because of our hard work for Him. But if He owes it, it’s not grace. Grace is always undeserved. Since we did nothing to deserve it, we can’t demand it. So, if we grew up in the church and God saves us and calls us to preach His good news, it is pure grace. If we grew up in the streets as gang members and God saves us and calls us to preach, it is pure grace. As someone has well said, when we share the gospel with others, it is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

Before we leave this point, that the unfathomable riches of Christ are offered only to sinners, note three applications:

         When you present the gospel, you must speak about sin, righteousness, and judgment.

If the person you are talking with is clearly broken and repentant over his sin, you don’t have to hammer it so hard. But in my experience, most people think of themselves as basically good. They think that God will let them into heaven because they aren’t as bad as the child molesters and terrorists of the world. If you tell these people that God loves them and recite John 3:16, they think, “Yes, of course, I am so loveable! But, thank you for reminding me!” But if they are not convicted of sin and do not see the absolute righteousness of God and do not fear His impending judgment on their evil thoughts, words, and deeds, then they do not see their need for the Savior. Take them to the Sermon on the Mount and show them that in God’s sight, anger is murder and lust is adultery.

         When you pray for the lost, pray that they will come under conviction for their sin.

Unless, as Spurgeon put it, they feel the rope around their neck, they will not weep for joy when the Savior cuts it and frees them. Pray that unbelievers will read God’s Word and that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their guilt in God’s sight.

         After you have trusted in Christ, you become a saint who is yet at the same time a sinner. Don’t lose the balance.

There is some popular, but badly unbalanced teaching on this matter. Neil Anderson’s books emphasize that as a believer, you are not a sinner, not even a sinner saved by grace. Rather, you are a saint who occasionally sins (see, Victory Over the Darkness [Regal Books], pp. 44-45; see my review on the church web site, under “Articles”). He is rightly trying to present our new identity in Christ, but he denies what every godly person in the Bible and down through history has affirmed, that we are both saints and yet sinners. The closer we draw to God, the more we feel the tension. If we let go of either side, we are out of balance spiritually. The unfathomable riches of Christ are offered only to sinners. Second,

2. The unfathomable riches of Christ center on the person of Jesus Christ.

If we have Jesus Christ, then we have every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3). All of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). God’s “divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3). Note two things:

A. The gospel is not about rules, regulations, or religious rituals, but rather about knowing Jesus Christ Himself.

Paul did not proclaim to the Gentiles the moral rules of Christianity, although there are obviously moral standards in the Bible. He didn’t proclaim to them how they could go through baptism or receive the Lord’s Supper or pray the rosary or go through any other religious ceremonies or rituals to get right with God. Rather, he proclaimed to them the good news of the unfathomable riches of Christ.

Paul himself had sought to please God by keeping all of the Jewish rituals. In fact, he prided himself in how well he observed the Jewish law (Phil. 3:5-6). But he said of these things (Phil. 3:8), “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” Christianity is at its heart a matter of knowing Jesus Christ personally. If you do not know Him, then all of the religious rituals in the world will be of no value to you. You must know Christ and be growing to know Him more deeply.

B. Jesus Christ possesses in Himself unfathomable riches and He gives these riches to all that call upon Him.

Here is where I’m in way over my head! Jesus Christ is the infinite, eternal God who took on human flesh so that He could give Himself as the only satisfactory and perfect sacrifice for our sins. As Paul expresses it (2 Cor. 8:9), “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”

The person of Christ is unfathomable, in that we can never completely get to the bottom of who He is and what He did for us on the cross. The word, “unfathomable,” is used only one other time in the New Testament, in Romans 11:33, where Paul exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” The word is used twice in the Greek Old Testament to describe God’s unfathomable ways in His creation (Job 5:9; 9:10). One preacher compared it to a man who was tracking out the confines of what he thought to be a small lake. But he discovered that it was an arm of the ocean, and so he was confronted by the immeasurable sea (J. H. Jowett, The Passion for Souls, p. 10, cited by Francis Foulkes, Ephesians [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 97).

“Riches” refers to true, lasting, eternal spiritual wealth that we have in Jesus Christ. Jesus told the parable of the rich man who decided to build bigger barns to hold more wealth, but God required his soul of him that very night. Jesus said (Luke 12:21), “So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” He instructed us not to lay up treasures on earth, which can and will be taken from us, “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matt. 6:19).

The fact that Christ possesses in Himself unfathomable riches and that He gives these riches to all that call upon Him means that He can and will supply our every spiritual and personal need. He allows trials into our lives to drive us to a deeper experience of His all-sufficiency for our needs. Are we depressed? He is our joy! Are we discouraged? He is our hope! Are we troubled, anxious, or fearful? He is our peace! Are we weak? He is our strength! I could go on and on, but for sake of time, I just went through Ephesians up to where we’re at and came up with these ten needs that Christ richly supplies:

(1). We need redemption and forgiveness; He is our redemption and the substitute for our sin penalty.

Ephesians 1:7-8a: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us.”

(2). We need love; He predestined us in love to adoption as His children.

Ephesians 1:4b-5, “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.”

(3). We need holiness; He chose us to be holy and blameless in Him.

Although we formerly lived according to the lusts of the flesh (2:3), Ephesians 1:4 tells us, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.”

(4). We need a sense of purpose; He made known to us the mystery of His will and created us in Christ for good works.

Ephesians 1:9, “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him.” And (2:10), “For we are His workmanship,  created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

(5). We need an eternal inheritance; He predestined us to obtain that inheritance in Christ.

Ephesians 1:11 says that in Him we have obtained an inheritance, while 1:14 adds that the Holy Spirit has been given to us as the pledge of our inheritance.

(6). We need hope; God has made us fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (3:5).
(7). We need power; the surpassing greatness of His power brought us from death to life (1:19-20; 3:7).
(8). We need life; He raised us from death to life (2:1, 5).
(9). We need peace with God and with one another; He Himself is our peace (2:14, 16).
(10). We need access to God for all our needs; He is our access through the Spirit to the Father (2:18; 3:12).

If you want to read more about the unfathomable riches of Christ, read Spurgeon or Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who are far more eloquent than I am and who both experientially knew the riches of Christ far better than I do. But I hope that from this brief survey, you can see that we do not need to turn to the worldly insights of psychology to meet our deepest needs. We need to go deeper in our knowledge of the unfathomable riches of Christ for our souls.

One final thing to consider:

3. Christ invites you to come and partake freely of all that He is.

The word translated “preach” is literally, “to proclaim the good news.” It would not be good news to hear that Christ has unfathomable riches to offer, but you must earn them. It would not be good news to hear that you must first clean up your life to qualify for these riches. It is only good news if, as is really true, Christ offers these riches freely to all that call upon Him. He invites sinners (Matt. 11:28), “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” He promised (John 6:37), “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Will you come to Christ?

It would be unthinkably foolish to hear that a treasure is available for the taking, but to say, “Sorry, I’m too busy!” It would be an insult if a wealthy man sent his limousine to bring a hungry beggar to his lavish banquet, and the beggar said, “I can’t come until I can pay for it.”

Christ offers Himself freely to every sinner. He has unfathomable riches to bestow on you for the asking. Come to Him and begin to enjoy the treasure that you will go on discovering more of throughout all eternity!

Conclusion

John Newton, a drunken slave trader who experienced the unfathomable riches of Christ and became a pastor and the author of “Amazing Grace,” put a plaque with Deuteronomy 15:15 over his mantle: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”

Late in life, a pastor friend noticed that Newton was showing signs of old age and urged him to stop preaching and take life easy. “What!” he replied, “shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak at all?”

He wrote his own epitaph: “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had so long labored to destroy.” Late in life he said, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!” (In A Frank Boreham Treasury, compiled by Peter Gunther [Moody Press], pp. 72, 77, 78.) Newton knew that sinners may freely partake of the unfathomable riches of Christ. Do you?

Application Questions

  1. Can conviction of sin and repentance come after conversion or must these things be present for conversion to take place?
  2. Neil Anderson argues that if you see yourself as a sinner, you will sin. Thus we should see ourselves only as saints who occasionally sin. Agree/disagree? Why?
  3. Christian psychologists argue that sometimes a Christian needs more than the Bible to help with severe emotional problems. Agree/disagree? Why?
  4. Discuss: God permits problems in our lives to teach us more about the all-sufficiency of Christ. If true, what implications does this have for “Christian psychology”?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 21: God’s Eternal Purpose and You (Ephesians 3:9-13)

Let me share with you what goes through my mind as a pastor when I read a text like this one, which scrapes the heavens by talking about God’s eternal purpose. I wonder, “How do these verses relate to people in this church who are struggling with troubled marriages; trying to rear their children; worried about paying bills; juggling busy schedules; and who are grappling with powerful temptations and sins?” Thinking about God’s eternal purpose may be interesting for theologians and philosophers, but how does it help people who wrestle with the kinds of ordinary challenges that life throws at them?

To answer those questions, I first must assume that Paul knew that the people he wrote to in Ephesus were normal people with these same sorts of problems. True, they didn’t have mortgages to pay or the modern media bombarding them with worldly temptations. But, they had common, everyday problems to face. So Paul must have thought that it would help them to understand something about God’s eternal purpose as it related to them, the church in Ephesus. They needed to know this and so do we.

So then I have to grapple with, how do the truths that Paul sets forth here help us to live more godly lives? What prompted Paul to write these things?

As I thought about these questions, it seemed to me that what Paul is doing is raising our vision for what God is doing with the church. All too often, even among Christians the church is viewed as maybe nice (if it’s a relatively good church), but rarely as necessary. Many who claim to be born again view the church as optional. If it meets your needs, that’s fine! But, if it doesn’t, then don’t bother with it. It’s really not that important in the overall scheme of things.

Of course, in the world, the church has even less importance. What matters to the world are things like multi-national peace treaties, the threat of terrorism, global warming, the AIDS epidemic, the upcoming election, and the fluctuations in the stock market. The church wouldn’t make it into a list of the 50 most important matters facing America right now. This marginalizing of the church seeps into our thinking, so that we miss God’s perspective and priority for His church.

What matters to God is the church. Christ said, “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). That’s what He is doing. That’s where His focus lies. “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). God’s eternal purpose centers on Christ and His church. If we want our lives to count for eternity, we’ve got to get God’s vision and purpose for the church and live accordingly.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of three men who were working on a stone pile at a construction site. A curious passerby was eager to discover what was going on. He asked the first worker, “What are you doing?” “Chiseling stone,” was the reply.

Trying for a better answer, he asked the second worker, “What are you doing?” “Earning a living.” Another washout.

He had one more hope. He asked the third worker, “Sir, what are you doing?” He dropped his sledgehammer, stood erect, and with a gleam in his eye exclaimed, “I’m building a great cathedral!”

All three men were doing the same job, but only one of them saw how his role fit into a larger, more important vision. Paul wants us to see how our lives fit into God’s glorious eternal purpose for His church. When we see this, it will help us very practically to deal with life’s difficult trials. He is saying,

Since God’s eternal purpose is to make known His manifold wisdom through the church, we must pray and not lose heart in our trials.

First, Paul sets forth God’s eternal purpose (3:9-11) and then he gives two practical applications (3:12-13).

1. God’s eternal purpose is to make known His manifold wisdom through the church (3:9-11).

This is not an easy topic, so track with me! I will try to explain it under five headings:

A. God has an eternal purpose and nothing can thwart it.

We saw this in Ephesians 1:9-12:

“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.”

God’s eternal purpose is to sum up all things in Christ. He is the centerpiece of history. All of the Old Testament looks forward to Christ. All of the New Testament testifies of Him. All of history will climax when He returns in power and glory to reign. Since He is the head of His body, the church, it is central to God’s purpose. It is in the church that God is bringing together both Jews and Gentiles, reconciling them to one another and to Himself through the cross (2:11-22). Paul says (3:8) that his ministry, in addition to preaching to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, is also (3:9) “to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things.”

What does he mean? One key to understanding Paul here is to resolve why he refers to God as the one “who created all things.” If we go back to Genesis (1:26-27), we learn that God created man as male and female to rule over creation and to reflect His image. You have to ask, “Reflect His image to whom?” There weren’t other people on the earth yet. I believe that God wanted Adam and Eve to reflect His image to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” that is, to the angels, both good and evil. Behind the scenes of human history is this cosmic spiritual battle between the forces of good and evil. God’s purpose for man (male and female) was to rule on earth and reflect His image. That purpose was temporarily thwarted by the fall, but it is being recovered by the new creation, the church (2:15).

While books have been written on what the image of God in man means, at least part of that image includes the unity and love that exists between the members of the Trinity. Thus when Paul discusses Christian marriage (Eph. 5:22-33), where husbands are to love their wives and wives are to submit to their husbands, he ties it all in to the original creation of man and woman (Eph. 5:31) and then adds (5:32), “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” He is saying that Christian marriage is a smaller picture of Christ and the church, and that both marriage and the church are linked back to God’s purpose in creation, that we would rule on earth under His lordship and that we would reflect His image to the angelic hosts.

There are some further parallels to consider. Just as Eve was taken from Adam’s body in his sleep and then given back to him as his wife, so the church was brought forth through Christ’s sleep (death) and given to Him as His bride. Just as Eve was a part of Adam’s body, so the church is Christ’s body. Just as male and female together were to reflect God’s image in the original creation (Gen. 1:27), so now it is the Bridegroom (Christ) and His bride (the church) that are to reflect His image as we dwell in His love and willingly submit to Him. It is in this sense that we are His fullness (1:23) and that Paul can pray that we would be filled up to all the fullness of God (3:19), so that there will be glory to God in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations (3:21).

This is all kind of mind-bending! What Paul is doing is elevating our understanding and vision for what God is doing through the church. Stay with me!

B. God’s purpose was a mystery hidden for ages, but now brought to light through Paul.

“Mystery,” as we have seen, refers to something that was previously unknown, but now has been revealed. “The mystery of Christ” (3:4) refers to God’s eternal plan to sum up all things in Christ, the Savior (1:9-10). But, one application of this mystery was the previously hidden aspect of God’s uniting the Jews and Gentiles on equal standing in the one body of Christ (3:6). The Old Testament predicted the salvation of many Gentiles, but it did not reveal that God would unite them as one body with the Jews in the church, seat them with Christ in the heavenly places, and display His manifold wisdom through them throughout the ages.

If we ask the question, “Why did God hide this truth for thousands of years?” the answer is, “Because He so willed.” He is the Sovereign of the universe, and as the Sovereign, He has the right to do as he pleases. In Acts 14:16, Paul tells the pagans of Lystra, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways.” He could have intervened much sooner and made known His way of salvation if He had chosen to do so, but He didn’t. As Paul puts it in Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son….” God knew the right time to send His Son and He did it right on schedule. He has a purpose and nothing can thwart it. Although His purpose was hidden for ages, now it has been revealed. With Paul, we should always be amazed that we have become the objects of His grace!

C. God’s purpose was carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.

“Carried out” translates the Greek aorist tense of the verb, “to do.” It points to an accomplished action. God’s purpose was accomplished through Christ Jesus our Lord through His death and resurrection. It was at the cross, especially, that God demonstrated His manifold wisdom. People often wonder, why did God allow the fall of man into sin? He easily could have made man like the elect angels, so that we would not have sinned and then would be incapable of sinning.

While we need to be careful not to press the issue too far, we can say that God permitted the fall and ordained the cross because it demonstrated His wisdom and glory in a way that no other plan would have shown. God’s sending His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserve displays His wisdom, love, and justice in ways that would not have been seen otherwise. His wisdom is displayed in choosing a person who is both divine and human, because no other person could have fulfilled the role of mediator and substitute for our sin. He had to be infinitely holy and apart from all sin. He had to be a person infinitely dear to the Father, to give infinite value to His sacrifice. No created person, whether man or angel, would have been fit for this task. Only Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, qualified. (I am indebted here to Jonathan Edwards, “The Wisdom of God displayed in the way of salvation,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:142-144.)

D. God’s purpose is to make known His manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

Most of us don’t often think about the angels, but Paul brings them into the center of God’s eternal purpose! We know that the holy angels are in God’s very presence (Isa. 6:1-3). They are at war with the fallen angels (Dan. 10:13). The holy angels were especially involved in praising God at the birth of the Savior (Luke 2:13-14; Heb. 1:6). They have a special interest in the church, so that Paul tells the Corinthian women to wear long hair (or a head covering) in the assembly because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:10). They rejoice at the salvation of sinners (Luke 15:10). Throughout eternity, we will join the angels in heaven, singing praises to God because of the salvation that the Lamb secured for us (Rev. 7:9-12).

Some scholars think that Ephesians 3:10 refers only to the holy angels, some think it refers to the fallen angels, and some to both. I think it probably refers to both. (The fallen angels are referred to by the same terms in 6:12; in 1:21, it probably includes both.) To the fallen angels, the church, which exists because of Christ’s triumph at the cross, displays God’s wisdom and reminds them of their impending doom. The fallen angels thought that they had triumphed at the cross, but God displayed His wisdom by using that very means to gain ultimate and final victory (Col. 2:15).

As for the holy angels, through the cross they “see a great and wonderful manifestation of the glory of God” (Edwards, p. 147). Edwards points out that the happiness of angels, as well as of people, consists very much in seeing the glory of God. And, he says (ibid.), “Perhaps all God’s attributes are more gloriously manifested in this work, than in any other that ever the angels saw.” God’s mercy, grace, love, justice, and power are all magnified in the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus Peter tells us that the angels long to look into the matter of our salvation (1 Pet. 1:12).

E. God’s purpose is to make His wisdom known through the church.

F. F. Bruce (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], pp. 321-322) says, “The church thus appears to be God’s pilot scheme for the reconciled universe of the future, the mystery of God’s will ‘to be administered in the fullness of the times,’ when ‘the things in heaven and the things on earth’ are to be brought together in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10).” He adds that the church, created by God’s reconciling the Jews and Gentiles into one body, is God’s agency to help bring about the final reconciliation. John MacArthur explains (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Ephesians [Moody Press], p. 97), “Every sinner who repents and turns to Christ adds another spiritual stone to God’s temple, another member to His Body, and becomes another forgiven and cleansed sinner who is made eternally one with every other forgiven and cleansed sinner.”

We show this wisdom of God to the principalities and powers by being the church that God created. John Piper says  (“The Cosmic Church,”
http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/ Sermons/ByScripture/3/289_The_Cosmic_Church),

We don’t usually hit targets that we are not aiming at. And the target for the church is to demonstrate to the evil powers of the cosmos that God has been wise in sending his Son to die that we might have hope and be unified in one body, the church. Therefore, when we fail to live in hope and to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we send this signal through the galaxies: God’s purpose is failing; he was not wise, he was foolish.

Again, the overall point that Paul is driving home is to elevate our understanding of the importance of the church in God’s eternal purpose, so that we will give it the proper priority in our lives. He wants us to understand what a great privilege it is that God has chosen us to be the agents of carrying out His eternal purpose through the church. The church is not just a nice place to drop by on Sundays if you’re not doing anything more interesting! The church is God’s vehicle for making known His manifold wisdom, not only on earth, but also to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. So we must see how our lives count for eternity.

After setting forth God’s eternal purpose, Paul applies it in two ways:

2. Because we are at the center of God’s eternal purpose, we must pray and not lose heart in our trials (3:12-13).

A. Because we are at the center of God’s eternal purpose, we must pray (3:12).

As I understand Paul’s flow of thought between God’s eternal purpose and prayer, it is this: Prayer is the primary means by which the church exercises God’s authority and brings about His rule on earth over the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. This is reinforced in 6:18-20, where immediately after telling us to put on God’s full armor so that we can stand against the devil, Paul calls us to prayer for all the saints, that the gospel may go forward.

This means that prayer (to use John Piper’s analogy) is not an intercom to call the maid to bring more refreshments to the TV room. Rather, it is a walkie-talkie to call the general to send more troops and supplies to the front line. Our focus in prayer should be, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Prayer is to help advance God’s eternal purpose in Christ through His church.

Also, note Paul’s emphasis on the boldness and confident access that we have in prayer through Christ. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes (The Unsearchable Riches of Christ [Baker], p. 96), “Of all the blessings of Christian salvation none is greater than this, that we have access to God in prayer.” “Boldness” means that we can come before God without fear of rejection or penalty. “Confidence” implies familiarity. If you were an aide to the President, the first time you approached him in the Oval Office, you probably would be a bit hesitant and unsure of yourself. But after you’ve gone there a hundred times, you’d enter with confidence. “Access” means that you have the privilege of admission. If you have access to an exclusive club, the person at the door knows you and lets you in, whereas he will stop someone without access. We have boldness and confident access to God in prayer.

How is this possible? Paul mentions it twice: “in whom,” and “through faith in Him.” It is only in Christ and through faith in Christ that we can approach God’s holy presence to ask Him for what we need to further His kingdom. Prayer is our means of seeing God’s eternal purpose enacted on earth.

B. Because we are at the center of God’s eternal purpose, we must not lose heart in trials (3:13).

Paul’s focus was not on himself, even though he was the one in prison, but on these Ephesian believers. He didn’t want them to become discouraged on account of his trials, because they would result in the Ephesians’ ultimate glory. In Romans 8:18 Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” As he goes on to share in that chapter, God works all things together for our good, using even the trials to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. So even if persecution comes against us, we should not become discouraged, but rather remember that we are at the center of God’s eternal purpose. Our good and ultimate glory are included in His purpose. The greatness of the cause is worth the hardship of the suffering.

Conclusion

When Apple Computer fell on difficult times some years ago, their young chairman, Steven Jobs, went to New York to try to convince Pepsico’s John Sculley to move west and run the struggling computer company.

As they sat in Sculley’s penthouse office overlooking the Manhattan skyline, Sculley started to decline the offer. He said that Apple would have to offer him an astronomical salary and benefit package. Flabbergasted, Jobs gulped and agreed—if Sculley would move to California. But Sculley would only commit to being a consultant from New York.

Finally, Jobs confronted Sculley: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?” It knocked the wind out of Sculley. He hadn’t thought of it that way. He accepted the offer and moved west. (From, Leadership, Spring, 1991, p. 44.)

Many Christians don’t commit themselves fully to the local church because they’re too focused on themselves and they don’t have the big picture. The church is at the center of how God wants to change the world. It is His eternal purpose to display His manifold wisdom through the church. We should respond by committing ourselves to it and praying for God to use it mightily. We should be willing to endure hardship to see it become all that God wants it to be.

Application Questions

  1. How would this church be different if you got a vision of God’s eternal purpose? Be specific and practical.
  2. What practical effect would it have if Christians realized that their daily behavior was revealing something to the rulers in the heavenly places?
  3. Someone asks you, “Why did God permit evil into this world?” Your response?
  4. Discuss: Prayer is not an intercom to call the maid for more refreshments, but a walkie-talkie to the general from the front lines for more resources for the battle (adapted from John Piper). How would this change your prayer life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 22: Making Christ at Home in Your Heart (Ephesians 3:14-17a)

A sign in the entranceway of an English castle open to the public reads, “It is the duty of the host to make his guests feel at home. It is the duty of the guests to remember that they are not” (Reader’s Digest, March, 1983).

With regard to Jesus Christ dwelling in our hearts, the first part of that duty applies to us: we need to make Christ feel at home in our hearts. The second part does not apply to Christ, because He does not come into our hearts as a guest, but as the rightful owner. He bought us with His blood. When He comes to dwell in our hearts, He is taking possession of that which is rightfully His.

We often talk about “inviting Christ into your heart,” but it may surprise you to learn that this is the only text in the New Testament that uses that sort of imagery, and it refers to Christ dwelling in the hearts of those who were already believers. It is not an evangelistic verse. In Revelation 3:20, Christ pictures Himself as standing at the door and knocking. He promises to come in and dine with anyone that opens the door. But the text never states that it is the door to your heart. And, He is speaking to those in the church of Laodicea, who already professed to be Christians. We may argue that they were not genuine believers. But in any case, they were associated with the church.

Our text is Paul’s second prayer for the Ephesians (the first was in 1:15-23). He started to pray in 3:1, but he interrupted himself and went into a digression about his ministry on behalf of the Gentiles in light of God’s purpose for the ages. Now, he comes back to his prayer, which runs through verse 19, followed by a benediction in 3:20-21. I plan to deal with the section (3:14-21) in three parts. If you think I’m going too slowly, I would defend myself by pointing out that Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who has been called the greatest preacher of the 20th century, took 17 messages (The Unsearchable Riches of Christ [Baker], pp. 106-315)! He also confessed that he could not recall any other Scripture in his preaching ministry where he was so conscious of his own inadequacy and inability as this one (ibid., p. 155). If you want more depth than I can offer, I refer you to his fine work.

Although there is debate on the structure of Paul’s prayer, it seems to me that he offers two main requests, which are both prayers for power. The first (3:16) is that the Ephesians would be strengthened with power through the Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in their hearts by faith. The second request (3:18) is that they would be able (have the power) to comprehend the incomprehensible love of Christ, so that they may be filled up to all the fullness of God. This is a prayer for their spiritual maturity, that they may be fully conformed to Jesus Christ.

If Paul’s request seems humanly impossible, his benediction reminds us that God is able to do far more than we can ask or think, according to His power that works within us. And, he reminds us, all of these amazing blessings are not primarily for our happiness (although we will be supremely happy when they are applied to us), but rather for God’s eternal glory. We should also note that this prayer is Trinitarian: Paul prays to the Father that Christ may dwell in their hearts through the power of the Spirit.

Limiting ourselves to the first part of Paul’s prayer, there are three things you need to make Christ at home in your heart:

To make Christ at home in your heart, you need prayer, power through God’s Spirit, and faith.

1. To make Christ at home in your heart, you need prayer (3:14-16a).

Paul’s prayers are models for us to pray for others and for ourselves. It is significant that although he was in prison when he recorded this prayer, he does not mention his need for deliverance. When he finally does get around to asking prayer for himself (6:19-20), he asks them to pray that he will be bold in making the gospel known as he should. I wouldn’t have thought that Paul needed prayer for boldness, but he did! Briefly, note five lessons on prayer:

A. Prayer should aim to bring God’s purpose and promises into reality.

Paul begins, “For this reason….” This takes us back to 3:1, which looks back to chapters 1 & 2, but especially to 2:19-22. Paul is saying, “Because God saved you by His sovereign grace and brought you as Jews and Gentiles into one new man, the church; and because you are being built together as a dwelling place of God in the Spirit; therefore, I pray.” What he prays is that God would make real in their experience what is true of them positionally in Christ.

Sometimes critics will ask, “If God is sovereign and has ordained everything that comes to pass, why pray?” The answer is, because God has ordained prayer as part of the process by which He works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). And, because there are examples in Scripture of godly men praying for what God has already said that He would do. God promised to restore the Jews to the Promised Land after 70 years of Babylonian captivity, but both Daniel and Nehemiah turned that promise into prayer (Daniel 9; Nehemiah 1). Even so, we should take the revealed purpose and promises of God and turn them into prayer.

B. Prayer should be offered with reverence and submissive intimacy before the Father.

Paul could have said, “I pray,” but instead he says, “I bow my knees before the Father.” He is not mandating a posture for prayer so much as he is revealing an attitude for prayer. The Bible reveals people offering prayer as they stand, sit, lay prostrate, and kneel.  Kneeling revealed reverence, submission, humility, and adoration before God. The Greek word translated, “before,” means, “toward,” or “face to face with.” Along with the word, “Father,” it implies the intimacy of a child coming before his father, who will welcome and receive him in love. In that culture, “father” was not only a term of intimacy, but also of authority. The father sought the good of his family, and ruled the family as he saw best (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 255).

While we are invited to come to God as our loving Father, we should always do so with reverence and submission to His sovereign authority. He is not our “good Buddy in the sky”!

C. Prayer should be made in light of our new standing as children in God’s forever family.

Next, Paul adds, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” The translation, “every family,” is the way that the Greek construction would normally be translated, but in my judgment, it goes against the context. Paul has been emphasizing the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the one body of Christ. Why would he interject this new idea of every family, which implies individuality, not unity?

I prefer the translation, “the whole family,” which is permissible from the Greek (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 180, defends this view; A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament [Broadman Press], p. 772, concedes that it is possible, although he prefers, “every family”). This view fits the context. Paul was referring to all of the saints, whether in heaven or on earth. He used this expression to emphasize to the Ephesians that they were no longer Jew or Gentile, but that they all belonged to God’s new family, or household (2:18), the church (Lloyd-Jones, p. 117). God’s giving each family its name signifies His authority in bringing them into existence and exercising dominion over them (O’Brien, p. 265).

Thus when we pray, we should recognize that we belong to this great family, the saints in heaven and on earth. As God’s children, even the most insignificant believer can come before Him with the same confidence that the apostle Paul did. But, I would add, you must be born into this family through the new birth. Otherwise, you do not have the family privilege of coming before the Father with your requests.

D. Prayer should bring us before the Father on the basis of His grace.

Paul prays that God “would grant” the Ephesians these blessings. The word means to give freely. It recognizes that we never should ask God for anything based on any merit of our own. Rather, we only receive from Him according to His grace.

E. Prayer should be made in light of God’s infinite riches.

Paul asked God to grant them, “according to the riches of His glory.” Some translate it, “His glorious riches,” but I prefer, “the riches of His glory.” God’s glory is the sum of all of His attributes, or everything that makes Him glorious (Hodge, p. 181). He is “the Father of glory” (Eph. 1:17). The universe declares the glory or splendor of His mighty power (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20). Paul does not ask God to give out of the riches of His glory, but according to those riches. If a billionaire gives you $100, he gave out of his riches. If he gives you ten million dollars, he gave according to his riches.

The point is, God is not lacking in resources to meet our needs. As Paul prays (Phil. 4:19), “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Here (Eph. 3:16), Paul wants God to grant us “according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man.” Do you pray this for yourself? Do you pray it for other believers? To make Christ at home in your heart and for Him to be at home in the hearts of other believers, begin with prayer.

2. To make Christ at home in your heart, you need power through God’s Spirit in the inner man (3:16b).

Paul prays for the power of the Spirit (3:16b-17a), “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” He is not talking about a dramatic, one-time experience, but rather an ongoing experience of God’s power to change our hearts, as we walk in the Spirit every day, that results in Christ’s taking up residence in us in a deeper, more conscious way than we experienced at conversion.

Why do we need this power in the inner man? Many reasons could be given, but here are three:

A. We need the power of the Spirit because we all face problems that are beyond our power to resolve.

Jesus plainly stated (John 15:5), “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” We are totally dependent on Him, although we often forget this, as seen by our prayerlessness. Zechariah 4:6 reminds us, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord.” It is good to ponder the question, “If God withdrew His Spirit from me, how long would it take me to miss Him?”

B. We need the power of the Spirit because we never outgrow our need for His strength.

No one is born into God’s family as a mature adult, or even as a teenager. We all start out as babes. As you know, babies are totally dependent on their parents for everything. Spiritually, even when we grow to maturity, we never outgrow our need for the power of the Spirit in the inner man. Hudson Taylor said that when God decided to open inland China to the gospel, He looked around to find a man weak enough for the task (E. H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, p. 40). He said, “All God’s giants have been weak men, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them” (cited by Warren Wiersbe, Walking With the Giants [Moody Press], p. 61).

C. We need the power of the Spirit because God changes our outward behavior by dealing with the inner person.

Paul’s phrase, “the inner man” (3:16) is synonymous with the heart (3:17). He uses the same phrase in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Therefore, we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” Those of us who are over 50 know exactly what he is talking about! Our bodies are wearing out! That should be a good reminder that our days on earth are limited and we need to focus on the inner, hidden qualities of the heart.

The battle against temptation and sin is a battle that is won or lost in the heart or inner man. Jesus pointed out that the outward sins that we see all come out of our hearts (Mark 7:21-23). You may be able to change your outward behavior through various techniques or methods that you learn in counseling or through a seminar. But if God doesn’t change your heart, you are merely learning to be a better hypocrite! The Pharisees looked good on the outside, but Jesus said that on the inside they were full of uncleanness and lawlessness (Matt. 23:27-28). Genuine Christianity is not just a moral improvement program. God is in the business of changing our hearts—our motives, our attitudes, and our desires. For that kind of inner change, we need nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit. Only He can make your heart the kind of place where Jesus is pleased to dwell.

So to make Christ at home in your heart, you need prayer and you need the power of God’s Spirit changing the inner man.

3. To make Christ at home in your heart, you need faith (3:17a).

The aim of the Spirit strengthening you with power in the inner man is “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” It is clear that Christ indwells every believer through the Holy Spirit (Gal. 2:20). If Christ does not live in you, you are not a Christian, no matter how religious you may be or how strongly you affirm the Christian creeds (Rom. 8:9-10).

So, why then in our text does Paul pray that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith? He was writing to Christian believers. The only conclusion is that Paul is talking about something more than Christ indwelling us at the point of salvation. He is talking about Christ being at home in our hearts. He is talking about having close fellowship with Christ. Let’s look at this from two angles:

A. Christ comes to be at home in our hearts as we live by faith.

Biblical faith is not passive, where you “let go and let God.” Rather, it is an active reliance on God and His promises, often in the face of impossible circumstances. Charles Hodge (ibid., p. 186) explains, “Christ dwells in us by faith, because it is by faith we perceive his presence, his excellence, and his glory, and because it is by faith we appropriate and reciprocate the manifestations of his love.”

Biblical faith is always linked with obedience. If you trust God, you obey God. To obey God, you must trust that His Word is true. Jesus spoke of the link between our obedience and His being at home in our hearts in John 14:23, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” Christ is not at home with a disobedient Christian who keeps a dirty house.

B. Christ comes to dwell in our hearts by progressively taking lordship over every area of our lives.

The verb that Paul uses refers to a permanent indwelling or residence of Christ in the heart. He means that we should welcome Christ into every aspect of our lives, so that there is no known area of our lives that we would be uncomfortable having Christ share it with us.

Perhaps no one has put it better than Robert Munger, in his little booklet, “My Heart, Christ’s Home” [IVP]. He tells of how after Christ entered his heart, in the joy of that newfound relationship, he said, “Lord, I want this heart of mine to be yours. I want to have you settle down here and be perfectly at home. Everything I have belongs to you. Let me show you around and introduce you to the various features of the home so that you may be more comfortable and that we may have fuller fellowship together.”

So, he took Christ into the study or library, which represents the things that the mind focuses on. The Lord had a bit of cleanup work to do there, getting rid of books and magazines, as well as some shameful pictures on the wall. They moved on to the dining room, which represented eating worldly fare rather than doing the will of God. Worldly pleasures do not satisfy in the long run. Our food should be to do His will.

From there, they moved to the drawing room, or sitting room. It had a fireplace, overstuffed chairs, a bookcase, and a quiet atmosphere. They agreed to meet there each morning to start the day together. At first, they spent some wonderful hours there. But then, as pressures mounted, the time began to be shortened. Then, Munger got so busy that he started skipping these times. One morning as he was rushing out the door, he saw that the door to the drawing room was ajar. There was a fire in the fireplace and the Lord was sitting in there alone. He said, “Master, have you been here all these mornings?” “Yes,” said the Lord, “I told you that I would be here every morning to meet with you.” The Lord went on to explain that the problem was, Munger viewed the quiet time only as a means for his own spiritual progress, rather than as a time to meet and fellowship with the living Lord.

They moved on to the workshop, where the Lord showed him how He could work through him to produce good works. Then, the Lord asked about the playroom. He was hoping that the Lord wouldn’t bring that up. There were certain friendships and activities that he just didn’t feel comfortable inviting the Lord to join in. But finally he realized that he would have no joy unless the Lord remodeled that room of the house also.

He thought that the Lord had finally finished the remodeling and was comfortable living there. But then one day he came home to find the Lord waiting at the door. He said, “There is a peculiar odor in the house. There is something dead in here, in the hall closet.” Munger knew about that closet, but he had the key to it and wanted to keep it off limits. He certainly didn’t want Christ to see what was in there. In fact, he was angry that Christ had mentioned it. After all, he had given the Lord access to the library, the dining room, the drawing room, the workshop, and the playroom. Now He was trying to pry into a small closet! He thought, “This is too much! I’m not going to give him the key!”

But the Lord said, “Well, I can’t stay in here with that foul odor. I’ll make my bed out on the porch until this is cleaned up. Munger says, “When you have come to know and love Christ, the worst thing that can happen is to sense his fellowship retreating from you. I had to surrender. ‘I’ll give you the key,’ I said sadly, ‘but you’ll have to … clean it out. I haven’t the strength to do it.” The Lord said, “I know you haven’t. Just give me the key and authorize me to take care of it and I will.” Finally, Munger signed over the title deed to the Lord and said, “You run the house!”

That’s how God works in our hearts. He wants to move from room to room until every area of our lives is suitable for His dwelling place.

Conclusion

So the question I want to leave you with is, “Are you acting as a good host to Jesus Christ in your life? Are you making your heart a comfortable place for the holy Son of God to dwell? To do it, you must pray. You must experience the power of God’s Spirit in your inner man. And, you must obey Christ by faith as you allow Him progressively to exercise His lordship over every nook and cranny of your heart.

Application Questions

  1. How would following Paul’s prayer as a model change the way you pray?
  2. How (practically) can a Christian experience the power of God’s Spirit in the inner man?
  3. Some Christians say that we need self-confidence. Is this right?
  4. Are there any hidden closets in your life that you haven’t allowed Christ to clean out? How can we discover these areas?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 23: Knowing the Unknowable Love of Christ (Ephesians 3:17b-19)

Do you find that spending consistent time alone each day with the Lord in the Word and in prayer is a difficult duty, not a joyous delight? Is your spiritual life often dry and routine? Are you often defeated by temptation and sin?

At the risk of being overly simplistic, I believe that all of these problems stem from a common source: You do not know experientially the love of Jesus Christ as deeply as you should. A young man who has just fallen in love doesn’t regard spending time with his new love as a difficult duty! He doesn’t think, “I really should spend time with her today but, nah, I think I’ll skip it.” Why not? Because he is motivated and captivated by love. He rearranges everything else in his schedule to make time to be with her. Such love is a powerful force that literally changes your life. It motivates you in ways that you do not understand.

But, as we all know, it’s one thing to fall in love, but it’s another thing to sustain it and cause it to grow deeper over the years. It doesn’t run on autopilot! It requires focus and effort. The same is true with regard to knowing the love of Christ. You come to know it at salvation, but you’ve got to work at growing to know Him and His love in deeper and deeper ways.

We are in the middle of Paul’s second prayer for the Ephesians. In the first part, he prays that God would grant according to the riches of His glory for his readers to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith. This prayer grows like a pyramid. Spurgeon compares it to Jacob’s ladder, with each rung taking us higher toward heaven.

So the next step, built upon Christ’s dwelling in our hearts through faith, is that we will be rooted and grounded in love. With that foundation, Paul prays that we will be able to comprehend with the saints the infinite dimensions of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. The final result will be that we will be filled up to all the fullness of God. As many have said, this is the epitome or climax of all prayer. You can’t go any higher! It is a prayer for our complete spiritual maturity. To summarize:

To grow to full spiritual maturity, we must build our lives on love and have God’s power to lay hold of and know the unknowable love of Christ.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (The Unsearchable Riches of Christ [Baker], pp. 181-301) devotes ten messages to these verses that I am skimming in one! So if you want more in depth teaching, I refer you to the good doctor. I offer four main observations:

1. The Christian life is rooted and grounded in love.

Paul mixes his metaphors, using one from botany and another from architecture to strengthen his point. We must keep the connection with the earlier part of the prayer in mind. The result of being strengthened with power through God’s Spirit in the inner man is that Christ will come to be at home in our hearts through faith, resulting in our being rooted and grounded in love. Paul does not specify whether this is God’s love for us or our love for Him or our love for one another. So at this point, he is talking about love as the main principle of the Christian life. God’s great love for us as demonstrated in sending His own Son to be the sacrifice for our sins undergirds everything. Stemming from that, all of His commandments are summed up by saying that we are to love God and love one another. Thus the Christian life is rooted and grounded in love.

To be rooted in love pictures a sturdy, growing tree that sinks down roots that enable it to withstand drought and fierce storms. A tree is a living, growing organism. Even so, the Christian life is a living, growing relationship with God and with others. God’s love is the soil in which it is rooted and it necessarily results in our growth in love for Him and for others. Love is the first-listed fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). If you are walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, love will be manifesting itself obviously in your life. Conversely, if you are not growing in demonstrable love for God and others, it indicates that you are not walking in the Spirit. At best, you are a babe in Christ and He does not yet make His home in your heart. At worst, you may not be a genuine Christian at all.

To be grounded in love pictures a solid building, with a foundation that goes down to the bedrock. It can withstand a flood or an earthquake, because it is built on the rock. This pictures a love for God and for others that is not based on fluctuating feelings or circumstances. Rather, it is solid and steady, undergirding everything else in life.

We need to be very realistic and practical in applying Paul’s point here. Some come into the Christian life from an upbringing where love was nonexistent. They have known only anger and abuse. But, they hear about the love of Christ on the cross, they trust in Him as Savior and Lord, and they step into a brand new world. But since they have never experienced genuine love, they don’t know how to love others. Where do they begin in the Christian life? Paul’s words here suggest that they must begin to sink down roots into God’s love and they must build a foundation centered on loving God and loving others. Love must become the motive for all that they think and do.

Often, these new believers are directed into acquiring Bible knowledge. Knowing the truth of Scripture and its great doctrines is essential. There is no growth in the Christian life apart from knowledge. But, if you acquire knowledge without love, you only feed pride (1 Cor. 8:1). Paul says that if we have all knowledge, but do not have love, we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). So while we should strive to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word, it must always be practically oriented towards helping us love God and others.

Sometimes new believers also are directed towards serving the Lord. Again, it is vital that every believer use the gifts that God has entrusted to him or her in some sort of ministry. The parable of the talents shows that God expects us to use and multiply what He has given us for His kingdom. But, if such service is not rooted and grounded in love, it profits us nothing (1 Cor. 13:3).

Even if you were raised in a Christian home where you were loved and you were taught from childhood to think of others ahead of yourself, you still must work to sink down roots and lay a foundation in love. At the heart of loving God and others is dying to self, and none of us dies to self without a lifelong struggle. You may think that you are a loving person, but then you don’t get your way. Maybe God doesn’t answer your prayers as you think He should. Or, you’ve been obedient to Him, but then you get hit with an unexpected, difficult trial. Maybe your family members don’t go along with the way you want things done. Or, you show love towards someone who responds by betraying you or slandering you. Or, you give yourself in what you thought was selfless service, but nobody notices or says thank you. So your feelings get hurt.

Just as the test of a tree’s roots is a strong storm and the test of a building’s foundation is an earthquake or flood, so the test of your love is when these sorts of trials hit. Do you shake your fist at God because He disappointed you? Do you get angry with those who have wronged you or who were insensitive to your hard work? If so, you’ve got more work to do on the foundation of your Christian life. You’ve got to sink your roots deeper into love.

2. Being built on love, we must have God’s power to lay hold of Christ’s love with all the saints.

The focus shifts in verse 18, from love in general to Christ’s love for us. The Greek verb translated, “may be able,” means, “to have the strength.” The verb translated, “comprehend,” means, “to lay hold of or seize.” So Paul is praying that we may have the power to lay hold of or comprehend the immensity of Christ’s love for us, which, paradoxically, is beyond comprehension.

A. Comprehending Christ’s love does not come naturally, but supernaturally.

“To be able to comprehend,” or, “to have the strength to grasp” this immense love of Christ shows that it is not an easy or a humanly attainable goal. We must have God’s power. And, as we will consider in a moment, this is not a one-time attainment, but a lifetime and even an eternal quest. We can never say, “I’ve arrived!” And, we will not grow towards this goal if we are not experiencing God’s power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ is coming to dwell in our hearts through faith.

We have to be careful, because we all flatter ourselves by thinking, “I’m just a naturally loving person. The problem is all of these selfish, unloving people I have to live with! But me, hey, I’m just a naturally loving guy!” Nonsense! To become a loving person and to be able to grasp the love of Christ, you must die to self. To do that, you need God’s power.

B. Comprehending Christ’s love is the need of believers.

D. A. Carson (A Call to Spiritual Reformation [Baker/IVP], p. 191) points out that the remarkable thing about this prayer is that Paul “assumes that his readers, Christians though they are, do not adequately appreciate the love of Christ.” It’s not a prayer that we might love Christ more, although we should. Rather, Paul is praying that we might better grasp Christ’s immense love for us. While there is an intellectual side to this, it is not merely intellectual. Paul is praying that we who already know Christ’s great love might come to experience it at ever-deepening levels.

Every child of God knows the love of Christ in some way. Probably when you first heard the gospel, you heard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Or, you heard Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Coming to know the great love of God in Christ is at the heart of responding to the gospel.

Yet, while every true Christian knows something of Christ’s great love as shown at the cross, we do not all know it to the same extent. Some are babes in Christ, who, like all babies, are quite self-centered. They assume that Christ loves them because they are so loveable! But as you grow in Christ, you begin to see how wretchedly sinful your heart was and, apart from God’s preserving grace, still is. And yet, wonder of wonders, He still loves you! You see examples in the Bible, such as Peter, who denied the Lord. And yet, the Lord still loved Peter and restored him. You grow deeper in Christ’s love as you realize that He loves you in spite of all your failures and sins.

I was blessed to grow up in a home where my parents loved me and made me feel secure in their love. But I never appreciated how much they loved me until I held our firstborn in my arms. I felt this wave of love for her as I thought, “I would lay down my life to protect this helpless little one, who depends totally on me!” Then, it hit me, “That’s how much my parents loved me!” And then I realized, “And God loves me far more than that!”

So comprehending Christ’s love requires God’s supernatural power, because it is not naturally discerned. It is our need as believers, no matter how long we’ve known Christ, to know His love on an even deeper level. But, also…

C. Comprehending Christ’s love must happen in community.

Paul prays that we may be able to comprehend with all the saints this measureless love of Christ. Saints, of course, is a reference to all believers, not just to some superior believers. The word means, “holy ones,” or those who are set apart from the world unto God.

There are at least two ways in which it requires all the saints for us to grow in our comprehension of Christ’s great love. First, we grow in our own comprehension of Christ’s love when we hear other believers tell of how He saved them and how He has sustained them through difficult trials. No one of us has even come close to experiencing the fullness of Christ’s love, so we grow to appreciate it and comprehend it more as we hear the stories of His love toward others. Even if we could pile up all the stories of all the saints down through history, we’d still fall short of the depths of His love, but we’d be closer. That’s a good reason to read Christian biographies. You gain a richer experience of His love.

A second reason that it requires all the saints to grow in our comprehension of Christ’s great love is that the outworking or expression of His love comes to us through other believers. Quite often we grow in love when another believer demonstrates the love of Christ to us during a time of need. Sometimes, we grow in Christ’s love when we have to work through relational difficulties with another believer. Any love that is merely theoretical and has not been forged in the fires of real life relationships is not tested. Genuine love must be worked out with people. That requires that we grow in forbearance, patience, kindness, and forgiveness. John Stott (cited by Carson, p. 198) writes, “It needs the whole people of God to understand the whole love of God.”

So, the Christian life is rooted and grounded in love. Being built on love, we must have God’s power to comprehend Christ’s love with all the saints. Third,

3. Knowing Christ’s love is a never-ending process, because it is unknowable.

Paul writes (3:18-19), that we may be able to comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge….” It is a deliberate paradox. We can know something of His great love, and it is definite knowledge, not just speculation. But, in another sense we can never know it completely, because it is unfathomable. Throughout eternity we will never come to the place of saying that we know all that there is to know of Christ’s great love for us.

The measurements that Paul gives emphasize the immensity of Christ’s love. You can go left or right, forward or backward, or up or down as far as you can, and you still haven’t explored all that there is to know of Christ’s great love. While Paul probably did not have anything in particular in mind with each dimension, many writers have expounded on the various aspects of it. (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 12:475-479) goes into great detail on each of these dimensions. Lloyd-Jones devotes an entire chapter to it, pp. 218-229.)

Briefly, we can consider that the breadth of Christ’s love encompasses a great multitude that is beyond number, consisting of people from every nation and tribe and people and tongue (Rev. 7:9). It also takes in every concern of every child of God in every age. No care of ours is beyond the breadth of His love.

The length of Christ’s love extends from eternity to eternity. We have already seen (Eph. 1:4-5) that “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” It is an eternal love that will not let us go!

The height of His love lifts us up to our exalted position of being seated with Him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). His eternal purpose for us is that we will be holy and blameless, lifted far above the temptations here below that so easily beset us.

The depth of His love caused Him to leave the glory of heaven and His exalted position there and come to this earth to be born as a baby. It moved Him to go to the extreme suffering of the cross, where He who knew no sin was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). It reached all the way down to where we were in our sin. Although we were rebels and enemies of God, the love of Christ redeemed us from the slave market of sin and made us heirs with Him. As Charles Wesley wrote, “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

We can never get to the end of such immense love! We need to ask ourselves, “Am I growing more and more to know this unknowable love of Christ?” Do I know His love experientially more today than I did a year ago? Finally,

4. Knowing Christ’s love results in spiritual maturity.

The top rung of the ladder (to use Spurgeon’s phrase) is, “that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (3:19). “The fullness of God” probably refers to the perfection of which God Himself is full. Paul is praying that we will attain to spiritual perfection, having all that God is fill us to overflowing. As our capacity to receive it grows, He keeps filling us again and again. The idea of fullness implies total dominance or control, so that God perfectly controls our minds, our emotions, and our will. Paul uses similar language in Ephesians 4:13, where he says that the goal of the ministry is that “we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”

Can we ever attain such perfection in this life? The greatest of the saints have all lamented on their deathbeds that they are miserable sinners, saved by God’s grace alone. They all have been quick to admit their many remaining faults and shortcomings. But, as Paul states (Rom. 8:29), God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. We know that He will accomplish His purpose for all of His elect. As John tells us (1 John 3:2, 3), “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” So we should join Paul (Phil. 3:14) in pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Conclusion

D. A. Carson (ibid., p. 196) points out that just as a loving home is required for children to grow to personal maturity, so we must come into the knowledge of Christ’s great love for us, in His household, the church, if we are to grow to spiritual maturity. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote (ibid., p. 219), “Indeed, our chief defect as Christians is that we fail to realize Christ’s love to us.” He adds (p. 223), “How important it is that we should meditate upon this love and contemplate it! It is because we fail to do so that we tend to think at times that He has forgotten us, or that He has left us.”

If you were to ask the apostle Paul, “What motivated you to give up everything for Christ and the gospel? How could you endure all that you did for Christ and keep going?” I believe you would see tears well up in his eyes and he would answer, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). He might add (Rom. 8:38-39), “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Live there and you will grow to spiritual maturity!

Application Questions

  1. How would you define biblical love? (See John 3:16; 13:34-35; Eph. 5:25-27.) Why is it important to keep the biblical definition in mind as you seek to grow in love?
  2. How can a person from an abusive background learn to love God and others in a biblical way? Be practical.
  3. Discuss: If I frequently get my feelings hurt, I am deficient in knowing experientially the love of Christ.
  4. What does it mean to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit? Describe practically how you do it.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 24: God is Able! (Ephesians 3:20-21)

A woman once approached the famous preacher, G. Campbell Morgan, after he spoke and asked, “Do you think we should pray for even the little things in our lives, or just for the big things?” In his dignified British manner he replied, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?”

The apostle Paul would have said, “Amen!” He has just prayed that the Ephesians would be filled up to all the fullness of God. It’s a prayer that they would come to total spiritual perfection! You can’t go any higher than to be filled with all the fullness of God! Paul adds this doxology to say, “In case you think that it is too much to ask God to fill His saints to all of His fullness, remember that He is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to His power and for His glory.”

God is not just able to do beyond what we ask, but abundantly beyond. But that’s not enough, He is able to do far more abundantly beyond what we ask. But, we still aren’t to the limit: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.” Now, what is it that you need?  I want to encourage you to pray in faith, asking God to do far beyond all that we can ask or think.

Yet at the same time, I want to be realistic in applying this text. There are certain mysteries about the interaction between our prayers and the sovereign will of God that I cannot explain. When John the Baptist was imprisoned, I am sure that his disciples were praying for his release. It would have brought glory to God if John had been released to preach for many more years. Yet, John lost his head. Although God easily could have freed John (as He later freed Peter), it was not His will to do so.

When Jesus predicted Peter’s denials, I would have thought that it would be right to pray that Peter not sin at all. But, Jesus didn’t pray that. Rather, He prayed that after Peter had sinned and was restored, that he would strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:31-32). God’s sovereign will permitted Peter’s sin in order to strengthen Peter and others in the long run.

Even the apostle Paul, who penned these great words, had many disappointments in his ministry. Demas was one of Paul’s fellow workers, and yet he deserted Paul because he loved the world (cf. Philemon 24, 2 Tim. 4:10). Surely, Paul prayed for Demas to repent, but there is no biblical record that he ever did so. Paul prayed for the conversion of the Jews (Rom. 9:1-5), and yet they largely rejected the gospel. In church history, Adoniram Judson was a great man of faith, who gave his life to reaching the people of Burma. And yet, he labored for years before his first convert, and even when he died, there was not much visible fruit.

Over the past 31 years of my ministry, I am painfully aware of many situations where God has not answered my prayers for Him to do for His glory far more than I could ask or think. There have been lost people for whom I have prayed that they would be saved, but they were not saved. There have been broken Christian marriages that I have prayed would be restored, but they ended in divorce. There have been sinning Christians for whom I have prayed that they would repent, but there has been no repentance.

And so I want to motivate you to pray big prayers with faith in a mighty God, who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. And, yet at the same time, I don’t want to gloss over the difficult struggles that you will surely encounter in your prayer life. We simply cannot know the big picture of what God is doing, and so invariably we will experience disappointments in prayer.

Keep in mind that in the context, Paul’s prayer for God to do abundantly beyond what we ask or think is not a prayer for physical miracles, but rather for Christ to dwell in the hearts of believers so that we may comprehend His great love for us, so that we will grow to complete spiritual maturity. In that context, Paul is saying:

Because God is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, we should pray for that which would further His glory through Christ and His church.

There are two themes in Paul’s doxology:

1. God is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us (3:20).

Under this heading, note two things:

A. God is able to do far more abundantly beyond what we ask or think because He is omnipotent.

From Genesis to Revelation, we see God’s mighty power at work. We can summarize it under four headings:

(1). God’s power is seen in creation.

God spoke the entire universe into existence out of nothing by His word alone! In Romans 1:20, Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The psalmist exclaimed (Ps. 33:6, 9), “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host…. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” Or, as Jeremiah (32:17) exclaimed, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You.” Every day all around us, we have evidence to remind us of God’s omnipotence.

Whether we look at the vastness of the universe, with billions of galaxies containing billions of stars, or at the complexity of our own bodies, or at the incredible design on the microscopic level, we see evidence of a powerful Creator. Have you ever swatted a little gnat that was flying in front of your face? Have you ever stopped to think about how difficult it would be to design a creature that small that can not only fly, but also eat and reproduce? Or, as Michael Behe explains (Darwin’s Black Box [Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster], pp. 51-73), microscopic proteins and bacteria have intricately designed, irreducibly complex structures that must be all there for them to work. They could not have evolved gradually. All creation shouts, “God is a powerful Creator!”

(2). God’s power is seen in His judgments.

Throughout the Bible there are examples of God unleashing a small amount of His power to bring judgment on rebellious sinners. He brought the worldwide flood in Noah’s day. He confused the languages of the proud men at the tower of Babel. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. He unleashed the ten plagues on Egypt and then destroyed the Egyptian army in the sea. On numerous occasions, God destroyed thousands of people in a short time, through plagues or warfare or natural disasters (Num. 16:25-35, 46-49; 25:9; Judges 7:22; 2 Kings 19:35; 2 Chron. 20:22-23; Ps. 18:12-15).

(3). God’s power is seen in His converting sinners.

The apostle Paul is exhibit A, of course. He was persecuting the church with vengeance, when God stopped him in his tracks and changed him into the man who would preach to the Gentiles, whom he formerly detested. In our text, Paul refers to “the power that works within us.” That takes us back to Ephesians 1:19, where Paul said that the same power that raised Christ from the dead (the greatest display of power in human history) is what raised us from spiritual death to life. In Ephesians 3:7, Paul refers to the working of God’s power that converted him and made him a minister of the gospel to the Gentiles. In 3:16, he referred to God’s power through His Spirit that strengthens us in the inner man.

When the rich young ruler walked away from salvation, Jesus told the disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved. When they exclaimed, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answered (Matt. 19:26), “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We need to remember that the conversion of a soul is not a display of human willpower, but rather a display of God’s mighty power in raising the spiritually dead to new life.

(4). God’s power is seen in His working when we are unable to do anything.

The whole point of prayer is to ask God to do what we cannot do in our own strength or ability. If we think (erroneously) that we can pull it off ourselves, then we don’t need to pray. God often puts His people in impossible situations to display His power and glory. There are far more examples of this in the Bible than I can list, but here are a few.

Abraham and Sarah were physically beyond the ability to conceive children. Even when they were younger, Sarah had been unable to conceive. When Sarah laughed at the idea that she would conceive, the Lord confronted her with the rhetorical question (Gen. 18:14), “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” In response to God’s promise, she did conceive Isaac. Later, when God asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham obeyed because (Heb. 11:19), “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead….” Nothing is impossible for the Lord!

God directed Moses and the Israelites to leave Egypt by a route where they had the Red Sea in front of them and the pursuing Egyptian army behind them. They had no human means of escape. In that impossible situation, Moses told the panicked people (Exod. 14:13), “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today….” The Lord miraculously opened the sea so that the Israelites could pass through, but He closed the sea over the Egyptian army. Nothing is impossible with God!

Elisha was surrounded by the army of the king of Aram, with horses and chariots that had come to take him captive. When his panicked servant told him that they were surrounded by this hostile army, Elisha calmly answered (2 Kings 6:16), “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he prayed (2 Kings 6:17), ‘“O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’ And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” Nothing is impossible with God!

Later, when the same king had surrounded Samaria, the famine was so bad that women were eating their own children in order to survive. Elisha predicted that the very next day the famine would be completely lifted. The royal officer of the king of Israel retorted (2 Kings 7:2), “Behold, if the Lord should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” Elisha responded by predicting that official’s death, but affirmed that the famine would end, according to the word of the Lord. The following day the Lord caused the invading army to hear the sound of chariots and horses, so that they panicked and fled, leaving all of their supplies behind. In their haste to plunder the camp of the Aramean army, the people of Samaria trampled to death the king’s official, exactly as Elisha had predicted. Nothing is impossible with God!

I could cite many more examples, but here is one from the New Testament. Herod had imprisoned the apostle Peter, and was planning to execute him the next day. Peter was chained to two guards, inside a locked cell, with more guards outside, inside a prison with a locked iron outer door. In response to the church’s not-very-believing prayers for Peter’s release, the Lord sent an angel who caused Peter’s chains to fall off. He led Peter through opened iron doors, past all the guards, and out into the streets as a free man. Again, we see, nothing is impossible with God!

I should point out, however, that prior to Peter’s escape, Herod executed James, the brother of John. Was the church praying for James’ release? We are not told, but I cannot imagine that they did not pray. Although God easily could have delivered James, He allowed him to die, while rescuing Peter. We need to remember the words of Hebrews 11:33-35a, which tell of great heroes of faith, “who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.” We all say, “Amen, preach it brother!” We like stories like that!

But, keep reading (11:35b-39), “and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” They believed God, but He did not deliver them from their trials.

And so while God often displays His mighty power by working when we are incapable of doing anything in our own strength, at times for reasons we do not usually understand, He chooses not to display His power in such ways. At those times, His power is displayed through the patient, joyous endurance of His people in the midst of their suffering (Col. 1:11-12; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). But even when God chooses not to deliver us, it is not because He is lacking in power. He is able to do far beyond what we ask or think because He is omnipotent.

B. God is willing to do far beyond what we ask or think because He is good.

Satan tempted Eve by getting her to doubt that God and His commandments are good. When we are facing impossible trials, we must be on guard against the same temptation. It is easy to begin to doubt that God really cares about us. But, Paul reminds us (Rom. 8:31-32), “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” If He did the greatest thing in giving His own Son, He will now do the relatively smaller things, according to His good and perfect will.

In the same vein, Peter writes to those who were suffering terrible persecution at the hands of the wicked Nero, telling them (and us) to cast all of our cares on the Lord, because He cares for us. Then he warns about the devil’s prowling around like a lion to devour us, and adds (1 Pet. 5:8-10), “But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” So, even in the worst of trials, we should remember that God in His goodness is willing to do far beyond what we ask or even think.

There is far more here, but I must move on! Note, also,

2. We should ask for that which would further God’s glory through Christ and His church (3:21).

Note two things:

A. God’s glory is the end for which He created the world.

Jonathan Edwards wrote a brilliant (and not easy to follow!) essay on this subject. John Piper is the best modern author to help us understand this point (see, God’s Passion for His Glory [Cross­way], which contains the complete text of Edward’s essay). Edwards argued that God would be unrighteous if He did not delight fully in what is most beautiful and worthy of delight, namely, in Himself and His glory. While it would be utterly sinful for us to delight in our own glory, because we are imperfect and sinful creatures, it is utterly right for God, because He alone is the absolutely perfect, eternal Creator.

Also, God’s glory is the goal of redemption, as Paul has made clear (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14, 18; 2:7; 3:10, 16). As God saves people who were formerly dead in their sins, (2:1-3), seats them with Christ in the heavenly places (2:6), and builds them into His holy temple (2:21), He is glorified. As Peter O’Brien notes (The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 269), “The doxology at the end of Paul’s prayer concludes the first half of the letter on the same note with which it began in the introductory eulogy (1:3-14), namely, in praise of God for his mighty salvation, initiated in eternity, carried into effect in Christ, and intended to redound to the praise of God’s glorious grace for all eternity. Paul wants his readers to have a theological perspective on God’s mighty saving purposes.”

B. God’s glory is displayed in His church when we live in harmony and obedience and ask Him to work through us for His purpose and glory.

Paul puts the church first, because he has been showing how the church is God’s new creation, brought into existence by the cross that broke down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. As F. F. Bruce puts it (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 331), “God is to be glorified in the church because the church, comprising Jews and Gentiles, is His masterpiece of grace.” But, since the church is the body of Christ, the head, God’s glory in the church “cannot be divorced from his glory ‘in Christ Jesus’” (ibid.). And, this glory to God in the church and in Christ Jesus will continue not only in time, but throughout eternity, as He continues to “show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:7).

In the context, Paul is laying the doctrinal foundation for the appeal to love and unity and holiness, which follows (4:1-5:21). So the application of this mind-stretching truth is that God is only glorified in the church in the present age when we live in harmony (

Conclusion

Here are four ways to apply these wonderful verses:

First, don’t be guilty of not having because you haven’t asked. God says (Ps. 81:10), “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt; open your mouth wide and I will fill it.” So, open wide! Ask!

Second, don’t’ be guilty of not having because you doubt God’s ability or His willingness to give. Nothing is impossible with God! As the loving Father, He will give good gifts to His children who ask (Matt. 7:11). We can’t always understand His purposes, but we never should doubt His ability or His goodness towards us.

Third, don’t be guilty of praying small prayers. Pray “big” prayers! It is impossible to ask God for too much, assuming that it is in line with His will and for His glory. Phillips Brooks said, “Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings.”

Fourth, pray for yourself and for this church that for His glory, God would do through us that which is humanly inexplicable. Don’t try to scrounge up 200 denarii to barely meet the needs of the hungry multitude. Pray for the Lord to multiply our few loaves and fishes, so that He would get all the glory. Pray for the powerful conversion of many sinners. Pray for repentance and holiness for His saints. Pray that He will be glorified in His church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations forever and ever. Amen!

Application Questions

  1. How can we pray in faith (Mark 11:22-24) when we can’t know God’s sovereign will for certain in advance?
  2. How can we sort out whether our prayers are selfish or for God’s glory or some mixture of both?
  3. Put yourself in the place of the apostle John. Your brother is executed, while Peter is miraculously freed. How would you feel? How would you process your confusion over this?
  4. Some claim that if we have faith in God, He must answer our prayers. Why is this wrong? (See Heb. 11:33-39.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 25: Preserving Unity (Ephesians 4:1-3)

In coming to the subject of Christian unity, I am reminded of the familiar story of two old Quakers who were chatting. The one said to the other, “You know, sometimes I think that everyone in the world is a bit off except for me and thee. And, sometimes I wonder about thee!”

We smile at that story because we recognize ourselves in it. We all are prone to think, “I alone see things clearly and everyone else is a bit off.” I wonder how people can be so blind as not to see things my way! As comedienne Merrill Markoe observed, “It’s just like magic. When you live by yourself, all of your annoying habits are gone” (Reader’s Digest [2/07], p. 107).

As all of us who are married know, when you put into close contact two individuals from different backgrounds, different personalities, and different genders, sooner or later there will be misunderstandings and conflict. If you add children, the potential for problems increases. If you expand the numbers to 100 or 200 or more in a local church, it doesn’t take a statistician to figure out that the potential for conflict is at the alert stage!

Unity among believers is a big deal in the Bible. Jesus prayed for it just before He went to the cross (John 17). Paul has just spent the first three chapters of Ephesians arguing that God’s eternal purpose is to sum up all things in Christ (1:10). He has shown that the mystery of the gospel includes God bringing together two formerly alienated and hostile groups, the Jews and the Gentiles. He has made them into one new man, establishing peace (2:14-16). In Christ, both groups have access in one Spirit to the Father (2:18). Together, we are being built into a holy temple or dwelling place of God in the Spirit (2:21-22).

Paul’s insight into the mystery of Christ was that the Gentiles now are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (3:6). Thus Paul ends the third chapter by praying that the Ephesian Christians would be rooted and grounded in love, so that they could comprehend with all the saints the infinite love of Christ (3:17-19).

So, in chapters 1-3 Paul lays the solid doctrinal foundation that he builds upon with practical application in chapters 4-6. “Therefore” (4:1) shows that what follows is inextricably linked to what went before. Chapters 4-6 show specifically how the church brings glory to God and to Christ Jesus (3:21). This is to say that sound doctrine always must undergird godly living. If you focus on doctrine to the exclusion of practical application, you have aborted the process and will become arrogant. On the other hand, if you focus on practical application without the doctrinal foundation, you will easily fall into legalism or superficial Christianity. And so in almost all of Paul’s letters, he first lays the doctrinal foundation and then he applies it to the problems of everyday life. What you believe affects how you behave.

It is also significant to note what Paul emphasizes first in this practical section. After discussing the lofty truths of God’s choosing us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless, we might have expected Paul to emphasize the need for holiness. He will do that (4:17-5:18), but first he emphasizes Christian unity (

But the point is, instead of appealing to us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, with all holiness and purity, Paul immediately states that a worthy walk involves all humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and love. These are relational words. As you read through Ephesians 4-6, you can’t help but notice the importance of interpersonal relationships in the church and home. The call to follow Christ through the gospel is also a call to grow in loving relationships with one another. The first and the second great commandments are linked. As John tells us (1 John 4:20), “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

So Paul begins with this appeal to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel by relating to one another in ways that preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. He makes three points:

To preserve the unity of the Spirit we need to understand its importance, practice the qualities that preserve it, and exert the effort to preserve it.

To understand Paul here, we need to notice an important distinction that he makes regarding Christian unity. In verse 3 he says that we are to preserve the unity of the Spirit. This unity is not something that we must work to achieve or attain to. It already exists. It does not refer to organizational unity, but rather to the organic unity which the Holy Spirit produces when He baptizes us all into the one body of Christ through the new birth. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul states, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” So the unity of the Spirit is the organic unity of the one body of Christ, consisting of all believers everywhere who have been regenerated by God’s Spirit.

But, in Ephesians 4:13, Paul talks about the unity of the faith, which we must attain to as we grow to maturity in Jesus Christ. It does not yet exist. This is an experiential unity that grows stronger as we grow in the faith. It will not be perfectly attained to until we are all in His presence, free from all selfishness and sin, complete in our knowledge of Jesus Christ and the truth of His Word.

In our text for today, we are looking at the organic unity that already exists among all true believers in Christ. How can we preserve it, as Paul tells us to do?

1. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we must understand its importance.

Verse 1 is a topic sentence that governs the rest of this epistle. Paul will spell out in detail how we can walk in a manner worthy of our calling. The importance of preserving the unity of the Spirit is implied, as I have already stated, by the fact that Paul puts it first. But, beyond that, we can specify three reasons that the unity of the Spirit is important:

A. The unity of the Spirit is important because Paul suffered for it.

After “therefore,” which shows the connection with chapters 1-3, Paul refers to himself as “the prisoner in the Lord” (literal translation). Paul didn’t see himself first as the prisoner of the Jews or the prisoner of Rome, but rather as the prisoner in the Lord. His identity in Christ mattered more than his external circumstances.

Paul opened chapter 3 in a similar manner, by identifying himself as “the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” Paul was in prison because the Jews in the temple in Jerusalem had started a riot by falsely accusing Paul of bringing a Gentile (from Ephesus) into the Jewish section of the temple (Acts 21:27-30). But Paul was willing to suffer for the truth that the Gentiles were fellow members of the body of Christ because he understood that truth to be tied up with God’s eternal purpose of summing up all things in Christ. Through the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men, God is demonstrating His manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (3:10). So this unity of the Spirit is a big deal!

Sadly, down through history the church has remained unified when it should have divided and it has divided when it should have remained unified. It has remained unified when it should have divided because when professing Christians deny the gospel, deny cardinal doctrines of the faith, or tolerate sins that the Bible condemns, there needs to be division, not unity. When denominations debate homosexual marriage or whether clergy can be practicing homosexuals, true believers need to separate themselves, because such matters are not up for debate if you believe the Bible.

On the other hand, there have been many sad divisions among Protestant churches over minor matters where unity should have been preserved. Often these divisions stem from personality conflicts or matters of opinion on which Scripture is not precisely clear. For the church to divide along racial lines is to violate the core principle of unity between the Jews and Gentiles for which Paul was imprisoned. I realize that there are difficult issues, such as the doctrine of baptism or charismatic gifts or prophetic views, where godly Christians differ. Sometimes, even godly men like Paul and Barnabas must decide to work separately because they cannot agree on how to carry out the ministry. But, unity among true Christians is a big deal. We should not divide over minor issues.

B. The unity of the Spirit is important because Christ died to secure it.

Just before He went to the cross, Jesus prayed for all who know Him to be one (John 17). As Paul has spelled out in Ephesians 2:13-18, it was through the cross that Christ broke down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles and brought them together in the one new man, thus establishing peace. Christ died to create the one new man, His church. Preserving this unity is crucial.

C. The unity of the Spirit is important because we are called unto it.

Paul directs us (4:1) to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” He is referring to the effectual call of the gospel that saved us. He refers to this in Romans 8:30, “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” Or, in 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul says that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”

The word “worthy” has the idea of weight balanced on a scale. The idea is, on the one side is the glorious gospel of God’s grace towards us in Christ Jesus. On the other side, our godly conduct should match this high calling, especially in loving behavior that preserves the unity of the Spirit. Have you ever had your picture taken at an amusement park where you put your head through an opening above a body that doesn’t fit? Maybe you look like a muscle-bound weight lifter. The head doesn’t fit the body. Christ is our head. As His body, we shouldn’t make Him look ridiculous. We should walk worthily of our calling as His body. Foremost, Paul says, is that we preserve the unity of the Spirit. But, how?

2. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need to practice the qualities that preserve unity.

Walking in a manner worthy of the gospel call implies a lifelong process. There will be setbacks, but the overall pattern should be one of growth in these godly character qualities. Also, note that you do not need these qualities when others treat you well. You only need patience and tolerance when someone is irritating you or being difficult to get along with. While it is easier just to avoid such difficult people, Paul’s appeal that we practice these qualities implies that we are seeking to work through relational differences. Several of these qualities—love, peace, patience, and gentleness—are listed as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), showing that we must walk in the Spirit in order to grow in these graces. There are five listed in verse 2:

A. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need humility.

Paul says “all humility and gentleness” to show that we can’t be half-hearted about it. Humility is literally, “lowliness of mind.” The Greeks did not regard it as a virtue. It is, of course, the opposite of pride, which is at the root of every sin. Pride is the number one enemy of harmonious relationships. Humility is the recognition that all that we are and have are due to God’s grace. As Paul wrote (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”

Often I have read that if you think that you’re humble, you’re not. But that is neither helpful nor correct. It’s not helpful, because how am I supposed to get it if I can’t know when I have it? There are many verses that exhort us to be humble (Phil. 2:3; Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 5:5). It would be very puzzling to attempt to become what we can’t know if we’ve got it! And, it’s not correct because Paul had told the Ephesian elders that he had served the Lord in Ephesus with all humility (Acts 20:19). So, apparently Paul knew that he had it and he didn’t lose it by saying so!

Briefly note two things. First, humility means being Christ-sufficient, not self-sufficient. The proud person trusts in himself. He thinks that he can do it. You often hear, “you’ve got to believe in yourself.” No, the humble Christian trusts in Jesus. He knows that if he believes in himself, he will fail big-time!

Second, humility does not mean dumping on yourself. Rather, the humble person recognizes that God has graciously given him certain abilities that he is to use for God’s glory and purposes. So, with Paul we can say, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5; see, also, Rom. 12:3).

B. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need gentleness.

The King James Bible translates it as meekness, which we often associate with weakness. But that is not the idea of this Greek word, which is difficult to translate with a single word. It has the idea of “strength under control.” It pictures a person who controls his temper and does not retaliate or seek revenge. Secular writers used it of tamed animals. A tame horse is a powerful animal, but it is completely obedient to the tug of the master on the reins. It is gentle towards children. It is significant that Jesus used both humility and gentleness to describe Himself (Matt. 11:29): “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was tender with the bruised and broken soul, but strong and forceful with the proud, self-righteous Pharisees.

C. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need patience.

The word literally means, “long-tempered.” It is the opposite of a person with a short fuse. Thankfully, God is patient towards us (Rom. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). It is the first-listed quality of love (1 Cor. 13:4). To preserve unity, we must be patient with one another.

D. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need tolerance.

I prefer the older NASB translation, “forbearance,” because tolerance has come to mean throwing out all absolute moral standards and not judging anyone for any sin. Clearly, the Bible spells out absolute standards of right and wrong and calls us on lovingly to confront or correct those who persist in evil or serious doctrinal error. But “forbearance” or “tolerance” in the right sense means bearing with someone’s shortcomings or quirks. It means giving the other person room to be different in non-moral areas. Pride makes us think, “Anyone with half a brain could see that my way is the best way to do this.” Tolerance says, “That’s not my preference, but it’s okay.” Finally,

E. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need love.

Don’t just “tolerate someone.” Do it “in love.” Love seeks the highest good of the other person. This keeps tolerance from turning into a grit your teeth and seethe on the inside kind of endurance. It also prevents tolerance from becoming indifference, where you think (or say!), “I don’t care what you do! Just leave me alone!” If you see someone doing something that will lead to spiritual harm, love cares enough to try to help him. Tolerance means that you wait and pray for the right time, but love motivates you to get involved if the other person will let you.

Thus, to preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need to understand how important unity is and practice these qualities. Finally,

3. To preserve the unity of the Spirit, we need to exert the effort to preserve unity.

“Being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). Diligence implies deliberate effort. It has the nuance of haste or speed, which suggests that we are not to allow disunity to fester. We are to go after it quickly. As Paul says (Rom. 14:19), “So then, we pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another.” Diligence and pursuing both imply exerting the effort to preserve this unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It won’t happen automatically while we’re passive.

Peace is the quality that binds us all together. Jesus said (Matt. 5:9), “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” “Bond” is used (Col. 2:19) to refer to the ligaments in the body, that hold the bones together. Paul uses it to refer also to love as “the perfect bond of unity” (Col. 3:14). As Paul has already stated (Eph. 2:14), Jesus Christ Himself is our peace. When He rules as Lord of your life and as Lord of my life, we will enjoy peace between us.

But the point is, although true unity among believers already exists because of the mighty work of the Sovereign Spirit, we must work hard to preserve it. Harmonious relationships in our homes and in the church will not happen automatically. At some point, your feelings will get hurt or you will hurt someone else’s feelings. There will be disagreements, sometimes over difficult issues. There will be personality clashes, when someone gets on your nerves. There will be different preferences, sometimes over minor matters, but sometimes over important things. To resolve these problems, we must understand how important unity is to our Lord. He calls us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling as saints. We must practice these qualities that preserve unity. And, we must exert a lot of effort to work through problems in a godly manner.

Conclusion

Rebecca Manley Pippert concludes her book, Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World [IVP, 1979], pp. 177-178) with an unforgettable story. When she first went to Portland, Oregon, to work with a campus ministry, she met a student named Bill. He was always disheveled in his appearance and he never wore shoes. Rain, sleet, or snow, Bill was always barefoot.

Bill became a Christian, but his appearance didn’t change. Near the campus was a church made up of mostly well-dressed, middle-class people. One Sunday, Bill decided to worship there. He walked into church with his messy hair, blue jeans, tee shirt, and barefoot. People looked a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Bill began walking down the aisle, looking for a seat. But the church was quite crowded that day, so he got all the way down front without finding a seat. So he just plopped on the carpet, which was fine for a college Bible study, but a bit unnerving for this rather formal church. You could feel the tension in the air.

Suddenly, an elderly man began walking down the aisle toward Bill. Was he going to scold him about how you’re supposed to look when you come to church? People thought, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. His world is far removed from that boy’s world for him to understand.”

As the man kept walking slowly down the aisle, all eyes were on him. You could hear a pin drop. When the man reached Bill, with some difficulty he lowered himself and sat down next to Bill on the carpet. He and Bill worshiped together on the carpet that day. There was not a dry eye in that church.

That elderly man was practicing what Paul is talking about here. He was walking in a manner worthy of his calling, demonstrating humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance in love. He was being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. May we imitate his obedient faith!

Application Questions

  1. If unity among believers is so important, how can we know when (if ever) we should divide?
  2. What’s wrong with the common view, that if you think you’re humble, you’re not? What is biblical humility? How can we cultivate it?
  3. Since God’s patience sometimes runs out, is it ever right for us to be impatient? Think carefully before you answer!
  4. Why do loving relationships in the home and the church require effort? Isn’t love supposed to be spontaneous?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 26: The Basis for Christian Unity (Ephesians 4:4-6)

The subject of unity among professing Christians is a difficult issue for conscientious pastors. From time to time I have been asked why I do not promote and lead the church to participate in some of the ecumenical events in town. I have also heard via the grapevine that I am labeled a separatist because I do not join in most of these events. I assure you that it is not because I do not care about Christian unity. I am very concerned about unity, but I also am very concerned that those who promote unity often do so with scant concern for sound doctrine. In the heat of the Downgrade Controversy, C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin” (cited by John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel [Crossway Books], p. 212). I agree!

In the 1990’s, evangelical leaders Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, J. I. Packer, and others signed the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. It called on Protestants to come together with the Catholic Church in the many areas where we agree, setting aside our differences over matters like justification by faith alone. For many years before that, the Billy Graham crusades have worked in cooperation with the Catholic Church.

The popular Promise Keepers movement added pressure in the same direction. At their national pastors’ conference in 1996, popular author Max Lucado called on 40,000 pastors in attendance to set aside the labels of Catholic and Protestant and to recognize that we’re all sailing on the same ship with Jesus as our captain (tape, “Fan into Flame,” copyright Promise Keepers). Before serving communion, Lucado urged the pastors who had ever criticized another “denomination” (he clearly meant the Catholic Church) to find a pastor from that denomination and ask his forgiveness. (Presumably, the way that you could find such a pastor would be by his priestly collar.) If Luther and Calvin had been present, Lucado would have urged them to apologize to the pope!

In addition to these strong forces urging us to set aside doctrinal differences for the sake of unity, we now have the emerging church movement, strongly influenced by the postmodern philosophy that there is no absolute truth, or if there is, we cannot know it with certainty. Thus we are being urged to be tolerant of all that claim to be Christian and even of non-Christian religions. They claim that doctrine is divisive and that those who claim to know the truth are arrogant. Thus for the sake of love and unity, we should set aside our doctrinal convictions and accept one another, without criticizing doctrinal beliefs (see D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church [Zondervan] and John MacArthur, The Truth War [Thomas Nelson]).

I hope that this message will help clarify what I believe on this important, practical subject and why I believe it. (To read more of my thinking, see my articles on the church web site, “Separation vs. Cooperation”; and, “The Basis for Christian Unity.” For more on Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy, see MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, pp. 197-225; and, Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon [Banner of Truth].)

The foundation for our text is verse 3, where Paul exhorts us to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In 4:4-6, Paul describes the basis or elements that make up this foundational unity of the Spirit. As we saw last week, this unity already exists. We must be diligent to preserve it. Paul sets forth seven elements that form the biblical basis for unity, all prefaced by the word one. Three elements are in verse 4; three in verse 5; and one in verse 6. Seven, of course, is the biblical number of perfection. It may be that Paul structured this section in this way to show “that the unity of the Church is a manifestation of the perfection of the Godhead” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Christian Unity [Baker], p. 49).

These seven elements of Christian unity are arranged around each member of the Trinity. Since Paul has just mentioned the Spirit in 4:3, he begins with the Spirit (4:4), moves to the Son (“one Lord,” 4:5), and ends with “one God and Father” (4:6). In verse 6, he repeats “all” four times. God is “the Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Lloyd-Jones (ibid.) says that Paul’s principle for unity is, “that we should see ourselves as members of the Church, and see the Church as a reflection on earth of the oneness of the Triune God—Three in One, One in Three….”

He also points out (Knowing the Times [Banner of Truth], p. 134) that the unity Paul is describing is not a question of friendliness or fellowship or doing good together. Rather, “It is something … which lifts us up into the realm of the blessed Holy Trinity…!” So we must always think of unity in this exalted way. True Christian unity isn’t sharing a cup of coffee and discussing football scores! Rather, it is bound up with our common relationship with the Triune God. In our text, Paul is saying,

To preserve Christian unity, we must make sure that we all are founded on the biblical basis for unity.

Let’s look at each of these seven elements of Christian unity:

1. Biblical unity is built on the truth that there is one body.

This is one of Paul’s favorite analogies to describe the church. It is the body of which Jesus Christ is the head. He has already used this expression twice in this letter and will develop it further (1:23; 2:16; 4:25 5:23-32). Even in Ephesians, Paul uses other analogies to bring out other aspects of the church. In chapter 2, he refers to it as God’s kingdom of which we are fellow citizens, God’s household of which we are family members, and God’s temple of which we are His dwelling place in the Spirit. In chapter 5, he will refer to the church as the bride of Christ. But here, he says that unity is built on the fact that we are one body.

As you know, your body is an organic unit. You can’t cut off a body part and have it function separately from the whole. It all has to work together. Although the parts are different, each part is necessary for the healthy function of the whole body. (Paul develops this idea in greater detail in 1 Cor. 12:12-31.) So although the body has this fundamental unity, it also necessarily has diversity. This means that we do not all need to look alike and act alike and do the same things. There is room for differing gifts, ministries, and personalities in this one body.

Also, while a human body is highly organized, it’s distinguishing characteristic is that it is living. A complex machine is highly organized, but it lacks life. The church differs from human organizations in that it has this extra essential of new life from God. Each member of the body has experienced the new birth. Once we were dead in our sins, but God in His rich mercy made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:1, 5). The Holy Spirit baptizes every believer into the one body of Christ  (1 Cor. 12:13), so that we become “members of one another” (Eph. 4:25).

There are some profound implications of this truth of the one body of Christ. First, Paul is not referring to the visible church, but rather to the unseen, spiritual body of Christ, composed of all genuine believers in every time and place since the Day of Pentecost. These believers worship in a multitude of local churches, but corporately they and the saints in heaven compose this one spiritual body of Christ. Even though a local church seeks to screen its membership (as we do here), every local church no doubt has some people on the membership rolls who are not members of the one body of Christ, because they have not been born again. So this isn’t an organizational unity or a unity based on belonging to the same church or denomination. It is a unity of the Spirit.

Stemming from this, a second implication is that true Christian unity is always based on this principle of new life in Christ, not on an organizational basis. True believers may come together and form organizations for evangelism or missions or other cooperative ministries. But if we form or join with an organization composed of those who profess to know Christ, but deny the gospel or other core Christian truths, we do not have biblical unity. It is not the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. It is not the unity of the Spirit that Paul talks about here. Genuine unity exists among all that are born again by God’s Spirit.

Whenever you meet someone who has experienced the new birth, you have the basis for genuine fellowship, because you are both members of the one body of Christ. The person may be from a different background or denomination or even from a different country, but when you meet, you sense the unity because you both have been born again. It is unity based on shared life in Christ.

A third implication is that if other individuals or other local churches are members of this one body of Christ, we should rejoice when they do well. There should not be competition or rivalry between members of the one body. If another church preaches the gospel and believes in and teaches God’s Word as the truth, and it is growing and healthy, praise the Lord! It would be ludicrous for my kidneys to be jealous of my liver because my liver is healthy! They’re all part of this one body, and so the individual members should rejoice when the other members are doing well.

2. Biblical unity is built on the truth that there is one Spirit.

Paul means, of course, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the agent of regeneration or the new birth. In John 3:6-7, Jesus explained to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”

It is ironic that although Paul mentions the Holy Spirit as a primary element in Christian unity, believers have often divided over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Based upon some of the transitional passages in Acts (8, 19), some argue that you must receive the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion, accompanied by speaking in tongues. But in Romans 8:9, Paul clearly states, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” In Galatians 3:2, Paul asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” It is clear in the context that he is talking about receiving salvation. At the moment of salvation, we receive the Holy Spirit.

Christians are also divided over whether we must be baptized with the Spirit subsequent to salvation. Some mistakenly use the terms, “the baptism of the Spirit” and “the filling of the Spirit” interchangeably (sadly, Martyn Lloyd-Jones does this). But the terms are distinct in Scripture. The Holy Spirit baptizes all believers into the one body of Christ at the moment of conversion (1 Cor. 12:13). Subsequently, we must learn to walk by the Spirit and be filled with the Spirit (Gal. 5:16; Eph. 5:18). But in spite of these differences among believers, Paul’s point in our text is that true biblical unity rests on the truth that there is one Spirit of God and that He alone imparts the new birth to us.

3. Biblical unity is built on the truth that there is one hope of your calling.

This takes us back to 4:1, where Paul implores us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called. There is a general call of the gospel that goes out to all (Matt. 22:14), but there is the effectual call of God that opens our hearts to respond to the gospel with saving faith (Acts 16:14; see Rom. 8:30; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Pet. 1:10; Rev. 17:14). It is that call that saves us that unites us into the one body through the one Spirit.

When Paul mentions “the hope of your calling” (see 1:18, “the hope of His calling”), he is referring to the yet future aspect of our salvation, the second coming of Jesus Christ, when we will be changed totally to be like Christ and share His glory. Paul refers to Christ’s coming as “the blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). John says that when we see Jesus at His return, we will be changed into His likeness. Then he adds (1 John 3:3), “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”

In the Bible, hope is not uncertain, as we often use the term. We say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” but it is just a wish. But biblical hope is absolutely certain, but not yet realized. It is certain because God has promised it and He never fails to keep His promises. We just haven’t experienced it yet at this point in time. Although mockers may scoff at the promise of Christ’s coming, God is not slow about His promise  (2 Pet. 3:3-4, 9). When He comes, we will be caught up to be with Him forever. Those who reject Him will face His wrath and judgment. As with the doctrine of the Spirit, so with matters of prophecy, there is division among Christians. But all genuine Christians are united on this one fact, that Jesus is coming back bodily in power and glory. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us hope as we believe in the promise of His coming (Rom. 15:13). This is the hope of our calling.

4. Biblical unity is built on the truth that there is one Lord.

We move here from the Spirit to Jesus Christ. It is significant that “Lord” is consistently used in the Old Testament to refer to Yahweh, the one true God, whereas in the New Testament, it most often refers to Jesus Christ. This one Lord, Jesus Christ Himself, “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). Thus all true biblical unity centers in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our eternal Lord.

If a person or a religious group denies what the Bible teaches about the person of Jesus, that He is fully God and fully man, we are not in unity with them. If they deny His substitutionary death on the cross as the only means by which we can be reconciled to God, we are not one with them. If they deny the need to submit everything to Jesus as Lord and to live so as to please Him, we are not one with them. He is our Lord both by virtue of who He is, the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe; and, by what He did, purchasing us with His blood on the cross. If someone claims to know Christ as Savior, but denies that He is their Lord, you need to challenge him on whether he truly knows Him as Savior. At best, you cannot enjoy true fellowship with a professing Christian who by a disobedient life denies the lordship of Jesus Christ.

5. Biblical unity is built on the truth that there is one faith.

Some reputable commentators interpret this to mean the faith that saves or justifies us (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 336; Harold Hoehner, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John Walvoord and Roy Zuck [Victor Books), 2:633). But I agree with most commentators that it refers to the Christian faith (in the sense of Eph. 4:13; Jude 3), especially to the core truths that are essential for the gospel. While godly believers may disagree over certain doctrines, there are some essential doctrines that every true believer affirms.

Every true believer holds that the eternal God sent His eternal Son, who took on human flesh through the virgin birth. This God-man lived a perfect life and offered Himself on the cross in the place of sinners, paying the debt that we owe. He was raised bodily from the dead, He ascended bodily into heaven, and He is coming back bodily to judge the world and to reign forever. We receive the salvation that He offers by grace alone through faith alone, apart from any merit or works on our part. If a person denies any of these core truths of the gospel, he does not hold to the one faith and there is no basis for unity with him and us.

6. Biblical unity is built on the truth that there is one baptism.

Some think that this refers to the baptism of the Spirit, which takes place at salvation. But it occurs here in the verse about God the Son, the one Lord. Thus I think it refers to the act of water baptism, where those who have trusted in Christ as Savior confess Him publicly in obedience to His command.

Again, as with the one Spirit and one hope, so there is controversy among Christians over the subjects and mode of baptism. Some baptize infants by sprinkling. We baptize by immersion only those children or adults who confess Christ as Savior and Lord. These debates will probably go on until we’re all with the Lord (at which point, we’ll all be Baptists!). But here Paul is focusing on the basic meaning of baptism, namely, identification with Jesus Christ. When a person is baptized, it signifies that he or she is totally identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, so that now we walk in newness of life in Him (Rom. 6:3-6). The water signifies being cleansed from all our sins (Acts 2:38). Baptism in water is not necessary for salvation (to say so would be to commit the Galatian heresy), but it is the necessary result of salvation, which produces obedience to Christ in the hearts of His children. Finally,

7. Biblical unity is built on the truth that there is one God and Father of all.

Commentators differ over whether the four “all’s” in this verse are masculine, referring to people, or neuter, referring to the cosmos. There is a sense in which both are true, but in the context, Paul is talking about the church. He means that God is the Father of all believers. He is over them in a personal sense as their Sovereign Lord. He is through all believers in the sense of working through them. He is in all in the sense of personally indwelling us. We are His dwelling place in the Spirit (Eph. 2:22; see, John 14:23).

Paul’s fourfold use of “all” emphasizes the common unity that we share with all true believers. If God is the Father of all believers, we are brothers and sisters. If He is over all, then we all submit to Him as our Sovereign Lord. We hold His Word as the authority for faith and practice. If He is through all, I must trust that He is working through my brothers and sisters, as well as through me. I am not His only servant; He has many others. If He is in all, then I must respect my brother or sister’s experience with God and I must see God in them. When I serve them, I am serving Him. When I love them, I am loving Him.

Conclusion

J. C. Ryle, the godly 19th century Anglican bishop, wrote (source unknown), “Unity and peace are very delightful; but they are bought too dear if they are bought at the expense of truth…. Controversy, in fact, is one of the conditions under which truth in every age has to be defended and maintained, and it is nonsense to ignore it.”

To apply Paul’s words, we must be diligent to preserve the true unity that already exists among all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, we must be careful not to water down, compromise, or set aside these fundamental elements that form the basis for true Christian unity. We are not one with those who deny or pervert the gospel. To act as if we are causes great confusion and harm. It causes undiscerning believers to fall into serious error. It causes unbelievers to be confused about the gospel, by which alone they might be saved. To preserve Christian unity, we must make sure that we are founded on the biblical basis for unity—these truths that Paul here sets forth.

Application Questions

  1. Since error is always a matter of degree, how can we know when it crosses the line from “serious” into “heresy”? When must we break fellowship with a professing believer?
  2. Are there different levels of unity or fellowship? Can we have fellowship on an individual level that might not be advisable on a church level?
  3. Which is more important: love or truth? (Yes, this is a trick question!)
  4. How can we hold firmly to sound doctrine without falling into the error of spiritual pride and wrongful divisiveness?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 27: Christ’s Purpose for His Church (Ephesians 4:7-10)

As you probably know, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life [Zondervan] has become one of the best selling books of all time. I am neither critiquing nor endorsing that book here, but I am raising the question, why has it been so popular? I read an article on the brilliant marketing strategy behind the book’s success. But beyond the marketing strategy, it seems that the theme of the book taps into a deeply ingrained human need: We want a meaningful purpose to govern our lives.

What is the point of getting through school? You say, “To get a good job!” What is the point of getting a good job? “To make enough money to support a family and do the things we want to do.” So, assume that your marriage stays together and you raise a family. The kids grow up and leave the nest. You retire from your job, enjoy your grandkids, play some golf, catch some fish, drive around the country in your motor home and take videos of all the national parks, get sick and die. What did your life count for? What is the purpose of life?

Every Christian knows that we are here to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But, how do we do that? We glorify God and enjoy Him by living each day in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and by using the spiritual gifts that He has given to us to extend His kingdom. The context for exercising these gifts is in the local church, where each member works for the growth of the body, to build itself in love (Eph. 4:16).

Paul has just emphasized the importance of the unity of the spiritual body of Christ. As we saw last time, this is an organic, spiritual unity, founded on seven essential unifying factors, related to the three members of the Trinity (4:4-6). But, unity does not imply uniformity. Paul goes on to show (4:7-16) how the various members of the body have different gifts. As we exercise these gifts under the headship of Jesus Christ, the one body grows in maturity and strength. In our text (4:7-10), Paul is saying that…

The ascended, victorious Christ has given spiritual gifts to His church to extend His sovereign rule over all.

These are not the easiest verses in Ephesians to understand, so stay alert! There are some difficult interpretive matters where I cannot be dogmatic, because godly scholars disagree. But, the overall theme is fairly clear. Paul is showing that Jesus is the ascended, victorious Lord over all and that He has sovereignly given various spiritual gifts to His church so that “He might fill all things” (4:10). As I will explain, that means, “so that He might extend His sovereign rule over all.”

1. The ascended, victorious Christ has given spiritual gifts to His church (4:7).

The words, “But to each one,” signal the shift from the one body to the individual members of that body. “Grace” is not Paul’s usual word for spiritual gifts. But he used the word in this way in 3:2, 7, & 8, where it refers to God’s grace that called Paul into his ministry toward the Gentiles. It focuses on God’s undeserved favor that took Paul from being a persecutor of the church to an apostle and preacher of the gospel. But, here he says that this same grace extends to “each one of us.” Note two things:

A. Make sure that you have received God’s grace in salvation.

“Each one of us” refers to those to whom Paul wrote Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” If you have not been rescued from God’s judgment (that’s what saved means) by God’s undeserved favor (grace) through faith in Christ’s death as your substitute, then nothing else that I am going to say in this message applies to you. You must receive God’s gracious gift of eternal life before you receive His gracious spiritual gift that enables you to serve Him. If you think that you can earn salvation by serving God, you do not understand the gospel.

B. If you have received His grace, the ascended Christ has given you a gift to use in serving Him.

Paul includes himself with all of those to whom he wrote, “to each of us.” He didn’t want anyone to think, “Of course, Paul has many gifts, but who am I in comparison with him? I don’t have any spiritual gifts to speak of.” Note four things:

(1). Every believer has been given a gift.

Four chapters in the New Testament talk about spiritual gifts. The significant thing is that each chapter emphasizes that every believer has at least one spiritual gift. Romans 12:3: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” He goes on to talk about some of the various spiritual gifts. In verse 6, he says, “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us….” So he is saying much the same thing as in Ephesians 4:7, that we all have received a gift; whatever we have is due to God’s grace; and, that His grace varies according to His sovereign purpose.

In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 & 28-30, Paul gives two lists of spiritual gifts. As in Ephesians 4:4-6, he follows a trinitarian outline. Note (1 Cor. 12:4-7): “And there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” After listing some of the gifts, he emphasizes again (12:11), “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” So twice he states that each one has a gift.

Besides Ephesians 4, the other text is 1 Peter 4:10-11, which groups all of the gifts under the general headings of serving gifts and speaking gifts: “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” Note, again, each one.

So if you have received God’s gracious gift of salvation, you have also received His gracious spiritual gift to use for His glory.

(2). Christ distributes these gifts according to His sovereign purpose.

Paul emphasizes this each time he speaks about spiritual gifts. In Romans 12:3, 6, he mentioned that God has allotted to each a measure of faith and that these gifts differ according to the grace that God has given to us. In 1 Corinthians 12:11, he attributes the distribution of the various gifts to the sovereignty of the Spirit. Here (Eph. 4:7), it is, “according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” John MacArthur explains (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Ephesians [Moody Press], p. 135), “The measure or specific portion given is by sovereign design from the Head of the church. The Lord has measured out the exact proportion of each believer’s gift….”

I confess that I am sometimes jealous of those who can sing and play musical instruments, but God didn’t give me those gifts. I am also jealous of those who are gifted in evangelism, but that isn’t my gift. We have to bow before His sovereignty and accept how He has gifted us.

(3). Since Christ gave these gifts, we must use them as He directs.

He is the sovereign Lord who distributes gifts according to His purpose. Thus we are accountable to Him to use the gifts that He has given as He directs. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no distinction in the New Testament between so-called “clergy” and “laity.” It is true that some may be supported so that they can work full time in various ministries (1 Cor. 9:6-14; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). Some are given leadership gifts to equip the rest of the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). But every Christian is “in the ministry” in the sense that every Christian has a spiritual gift and will give an account to God for how he used it.

In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), Jesus pictured a man about to go on a journey who entrusted five talents to one slave, two to another, and one to yet another. A talent was a measure of money, not an ability to do something special. The man with the five talents went and traded with them and gained five more. The man with the two talents did the same and gained two more. But the man with only one talent hid the money until the master returned and gave him back his one talent. The master accused that servant of being a wicked, lazy slave and ordered that he be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

That’s a frightening parable, in that the lazy servant goes to hell! (I didn’t make it up; Jesus did.) Two brief observations: First, the danger is for the person who isn’t given much to bury his talent. If you think, “I can’t do much for the Lord, so I won’t do anything,” take heed! Second, not to serve the Lord in any capacity is an indication that you are not truly saved. If the one talent guy had used the talent to gain another one, he would have shown that he was a true servant of his master. He would have faithfully used what the master gave him. But by not using it at all and spending his time on his own selfish pursuits, he showed that he was not a true servant. So each of us needs carefully to consider, what gifts has the Lord entrusted to me and how does He want me to use them for His kingdom purposes?

(4). Using your gifts to serve Christ is an undeserved privilege.

Paul emphasizes this by repeating the terms, “grace,” “given,” and “gift” (4:7). Because our spiritual gifts were given to us by grace, there is no place for boasting. As Paul asks rhetorically (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”

Also, there is no place for grumbling when you serve the Lord. The very fact that you, a former rebel, are serving the Lord Jesus Christ, is pure grace! Think of where you could be, without hope and without God in this world (Eph. 2:12), living for vain pleasures and headed toward eternal punishment. When you’re tempted to quit serving the Lord because someone hurt your feelings or didn’t appreciate you as much as he should have, stop and think about the undeserved privilege of serving Him!

But, serving Christ, especially if we should be persecuted as Paul was, only makes sense if Christ is who He claimed to be. So Paul goes on to show that…

2. Christ’s humiliation and victorious ascension qualify Him to give these spiritual gifts to His church (4:8-10).

This is where things get difficult, so stay with me! Paul makes three points, one in each verse (8, 9, & 10):

A. Psalm 68:18 pictures Christ’s victorious ascension (4:8).

Paul cites Psalm 68:18, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” As I will comment on in a moment, Paul changes one key word, “received,” to “gave.” It is a psalm of David and is difficult to follow in places. But one scholar sums it up (Richard A. Taylor, “The Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 in Light of the Ancient Versions, Bibliotheca Sacra [July-September, 1991], p. 322), “The overarching message of the psalm is that God is to be praised as the One whose past acts of deliverance and provision for His people give confidence of His continuing care for His people. The message of verse 18 in particular is that in the person of the victorious king (or possibly in the location of the ark of the covenant) God ascended Zion in triumph over His enemies, receiving from submissive peoples congratulatory gifts of honor.” So Paul takes this verse about a victorious Israelite king leading his captives in triumphal procession, receiving gifts of booty and applies it to the victorious, ascended Christ in relation to His church.

Note several things. First, Psalm 68:18 in its context obviously refers to the Lord ascending and Paul applies it directly to Christ. This is seen very clearly if you read through the entire psalm, but to be brief, note just verses 17 & 18: “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them as at Sinai, in holiness. You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, even among the rebellious also, that the Lord God may dwell there.” The poetic picture is that the Lord’s people were in trouble and the Lord came down and delivered them. Then He ascended again into heaven as the victorious warrior. Paul applies this directly to Christ.

Second, the verse pictures Christ ascending into heaven after securing victory over His enemies. This includes Satan and his evil hosts, as Christ defeated them at the cross (Col. 2:15). But it may also allude to all of us who were formerly his enemies, but who were brought into willing submission at the cross. We are now His willing captives, ready to obey the One that we formerly hated.

Third, after His ascension, Jesus gave gifts to His church. The picture is of a victorious warrior, receiving spoil after his victory and then distributing that spoil as gifts to his people. (Peter expresses a similar idea of the ascended Christ’s receiving and giving in Acts 2:33.) The difficult issue to decide is, why did Paul change “received” from Psalm 68:18 into “gave” in our text? The bottom line (after reading many different proposed solutions) is that no one knows for sure!

Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Eph. 4:8, p. 273) points out that Paul sometimes does not quote the exact words of the Old Testament, but rather conveys the substance of it in his own language (see, also, Frank Thielman, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [Baker], ed. by G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, p. 823). So here, Paul may be drawing an analogy from the psalm that did not contradict the sense of the original context. When a victorious king received booty, he would distribute that booty among his loyal subjects.

But, Calvin is inclined to a different opinion, that Paul purposely changed the word to adapt the psalm to his own purpose in Ephesians. He suggests that Paul is drawing a comparison between the greater and the less. The lesser is seen in an earthly king who gathers spoils from the vanquished. But Christ’s victory and ascension is greater in that He graciously gives His bounty to His people.

However you explain Paul’s change of words, his overall point is that Psalm 68:18, which clearly refers to the Lord God, pictures Christ’s victorious ascension.

B. Christ’s victorious ascension assumes that He first descended into the lower parts of the earth (4:9).

In verse 9, Paul is reasoning that if Christ ascended, He first had to descend. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus (John 3:13), “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” Jesus claimed to have come down from heaven to this earth, sent by the Father (see John 6:33, 38, 51, 58). So when He ascended into heaven, Jesus was returning to the place where He dwelled before the foundation of the world (John 6:62).

But, what does Paul mean when he says, “the lower parts of the earth”? There are three options. Some say that it simply means, “the earth as contrasted with heaven.” (The NIV translates it this way.) Or, some take it to refer to Jesus’ descent into Hades during the time between His death and resurrection (based on one interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-20). Or, it could refer to the grave, which is my preference. So the idea here is parallel to Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul states that Jesus laid aside the glory that He had in heaven and took on the form of a bond-servant. He became obedient even to death on a cross. Therefore (Phil. 2:9), “God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.” So Ephesians 4:9 shows us that the risen, ascended Jesus is qualified to bestow spiritual gifts on His church because He came to this earth willingly to go to the cross.

C. Christ’s victorious ascension places Him above all powers, so that He may reign through His church (4:10).

Paul concludes (4:10), “He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.” The idea of this verse is similar to Philippians 2:9-11, but in the context of Ephesians, it takes us back to 1:20-21, where Paul states that after God raised Jesus from the dead, He was seated in heaven, far above all rule and authority. He then adds (1:22-23), “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

Jesus’ filling all in all, or all things, refers to His sovereign rule over all. The connection with the church shows that Jesus exercises His sovereign rule and displays His spiritual presence through the church. As we live in submission to Jesus’ lordship, the world gets a glimpse of that future day when He will reign supreme. The world should see in the church a display of that yet future kingdom, when He will rule over all as King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:15-16). As we exercise the spiritual gifts that the ascended, victorious Savior has given to us, we help to extend His sovereign rule over all before He comes to reign supremely.

Conclusion

Four applications stem from these difficult, but important verses:

*(1) To extend Christ’s sovereign rule over all, I must begin with me. Am I living daily under His sovereign rule? Am I obedient to Christ, beginning on the thought level? Am I seeking to know Him and His will through His Word so that I can obey Him?

*(2) To extend Christ’s sovereign rule over all, I must be committed to the local church, where I must discover and exercise the gifts that He has given to me. It is through the church, locally expressed, that Christ fills all in all (Eph. 1:23). If all you do is attend a weekly church service, but you’re not involved in using your gifts to serve, you are not fulfilling Christ’s purpose for your life.

*(3) To extend Christ’s sovereign rule over all, I must engage in spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness. These verses are steeped in warfare terminology (which will be further developed in 6:10-20). When you use your gifts to serve Christ, you are engaging the spiritual forces of wickedness in battle. Satan does not want to see Christ’s kingdom extended through an obedient church. So don’t be naïve. Serving Christ is not a Sunday School picnic! It is warfare and you need to be armed and ready for combat. Often the wounds come from friendly fire, not directly from the enemy!

*(4) To extend Christ’s sovereign rule over all is to engage in a battle that will ultimately succeed. You will grow weary in the battle. You will often feel as if your efforts are not accomplishing anything of lasting value. You will often feel like quitting. When you get wounded, you will be tempted to drop out of any kind of service. At such times, remember Paul’s climatic words at the end of his great chapter on the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:58), “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”

Christ’s victorious ascension means that His church will triumph with Him. We will display and share in His glory. But for now, we must engage in the battle by using the gracious spiritual gifts that He has given to us. That is our God-given purpose!

Application Questions

  1. How can a believer discover what his spiritual gifts are? Do we have only one, or more than one? Cite Scripture.
  2. What are the dangers in the common notion that there is a distinction between clergy and laity? Are there any valid aspects of this distinction?
  3. Why must a believer’s purpose in life be tied in to the local church? Are we as American believers too individualistic?
  4. How would our church be different if every member viewed himself or herself as a servant with a ministry to fulfill?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 28: Growing into a Mature Church (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Pastor Stuart Briscoe once told about an incident that happened the first week that he was the pastor of Elmbrook Church. A woman came up after the service and asked him if he would find the answer to a technical question that she had about a particular Bible text. Briscoe replied, “No, I will not.”

The woman got a shocked look on her face, as if she didn’t hear him correctly. “What?” she exclaimed. “No,” Briscoe repeated, “I will not find the answer to your question.” She looked at him as if to say, “Well what are we paying you for?” He continued, “But here’s what I will do. I’ll show you how to find the answer for yourself.” And, he proceeded to do that for her.

In that exchange, Pastor Briscoe was following a sound biblical philosophy of ministry, based on our text. Rather than doing the ministry for that woman, he was equipping her to do the ministry herself, so that she would grow to maturity in Christ.

One of the most crippling ideas to pervade the church over the centuries is that there is a special class of Christians, called “clergy,” who do the ministry, while the rest of the church sits back and lets them do it. John Stott (One People [Falcon], p. 30, cited by James Boice, Ephesians [Baker], p. 142, italics in Boice) quotes a remark of Sir John Lawrence to this effect: “What does the layman really want? He wants a building which looks like a church; clergy dressed in the way he approves; services of the kind he’s been used to, and to be left alone.”

Many pastors, perhaps out of a lack of trust in the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the flock, or perhaps out of a wrongful need to control everything, have perpetuated this crippling distinction. They do almost everything in the local church, while many just attend the services and do nothing else.

As a result, many local churches look like the description of a football game that Bud Wilkinson once gave. He was the coach of the Oklahoma Sooners when they were a football powerhouse. A young reporter asked, “Coach, how has the game of football contributed to the health and fitness of America?”

To the reporter’s shock, Wilkinson responded, “It has not contributed at all!”

“What do you mean?” stammered the reporter. Wilkinson said, “I define football as 22 men on the field, desperately needing rest, and 22,000 fans in the stadium, desperately needing exercise!”

In our text, the apostle Paul gives us a sound biblical philosophy of ministry for the local church. He is saying,

Those with leadership gifts are to equip the saints for the work of service, so that the body will grow to unity, maturity, and Christ-likeness.

To get Paul’s flow of thought, we must go back to his citation of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8. In 4:9-10, Paul expounded upon the phrase, “He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives.” Now, he expounds on the phrase, “He gave gifts to men.” He is showing how the ascended, victorious Christ gives gifts to His church so that the church will grow to maturity. All of this is “so that He might fill all things” (4:10). Peter O’Brien explains (The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 297), “Having achieved dominion over all the powers through his victorious ascent, he sovereignly distributes gifts to the members of his body. The building of the body is inextricably linked with his intention of filling the universe with his rule, since the church is his instrument in carrying out his purposes for the cosmos.” Paul makes three main points:

1. The Lord gives leadership gifts to some (4:11).

Although some think that there are five gifts here, most count four, with “pastor-teacher” referring to a single gift. While the lists in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 focus on the gifts, here Paul’s emphasis is on the gifted men. He is not listing all possible gifts, but rather concentrating on leadership gifts. Also, each of these leadership gifts centers on the Word of God, showing that the Word is foundational to a mature church. When the Word is diminished or compromised, the church will be anemic. T. H. L. Parker’s fine book, Calvin’s Preaching ([Westminster/John Knox Press], 1992), shows that Calvin’s main emphasis in reforming the church was his amazing expository preaching ministry. The same could be said of Luther and of the Puritans a century later. This is why I devote myself to the work of expository preaching of the Word. Let’s look at these various gifted men:

A. The Lord gave some as apostles.

Apostle means, sent-out one. It is used in two senses in the New Testament. First, it is used of the twelve apostles appointed by Christ, along with the apostle Paul (some would add, James, the brother of the Lord; Gal. 1:19). These men had seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:7-9) and were commissioned directly by Him (Mark 3:13-14; Gal. 2:7-8). The Lord gave them the ability to perform miracles as an authentication of their apostleship (2 Cor. 12:12). He gave them authority to found the church and build it up (Eph. 2:20; 2 Cor. 10:8). Their inspired and authoritative writings constitute the bulk of the New Testament epistles (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Because their role and qualifications were unique, when they died, there were no legitimate successors.

In the second sense, apostle is also used of others sent out under the authority of the church or of the twelve for some task (Acts 14:4; 1 Thess. 2:6; Rom. 16:7; 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25). The men in the first group are designated as “apostles of Christ Jesus” (Gal. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; etc.), whereas the other men are called “messengers [apostles] of the churches” (2 Cor. 8:23). In a very loose sense, the term might apply to modern missionaries (which comes from the Latin word for “apostle”), although they probably fit better under the heading of “evangelists.” But to avoid possible confusion, it is best not to use the term apostle at all. After the apostle John died, no one legitimately has apostolic authority.

B. The Lord gave some as prophets.

Along with the apostles, the New Testament prophets laid the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). This term is a bit more difficult to define, resulting in more disagreement among scholars. Some (e.g., Wayne Grudem, Sam Storms) argue that there is a legitimate use of the term today. But most conservative scholars insist that (as with the apostles) the gift passed off the scene after the completion of the New Testament canon.

The New Testament prophets received direct revelation from God, which they imparted to the church. Sometimes they predicted the future, but at other times they expounded on revelation already given (Acts 11:27-28; 13:1; 15:32; 1 Cor. 14:3, 24-25, 29-32). Although I have heard supposed examples of prophecy, I am skeptical that there is a legitimate sense of this office or gift today. All evangelical scholars would agree that there is no current revelation on a par with that of the New Testament.

C. The Lord gave some as evangelists.

The apostles and prophets gave us the Word of God by direct revelation. The evangelists proclaim the Word at it relates to people’s need for salvation. This noun is only used in two other New Testament texts (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5), but the verb (“to proclaim the gospel”) is used 54 times and the noun (“good news,” or “gospel”) 76 times (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Ephesians [Moody Press], p. 142). Although some (Calvin, Martyn Lloyd-Jones) limit this office to men like Titus and Timothy, and thus argue that it has passed off the scene, I am not convinced by their arguments.

Although all believers must proclaim the gospel, evangelists are those with a special gift to do so. They may do so as missionaries in foreign cultures or in their own culture (George Whitefield, John Wesley, Billy Graham). They may travel around or function mainly in one church (2 Tim. 4:5). As verse 12 implies, evangelists should not only preach the gospel, but also help equip the rest of us to do it better. Sadly, in recent times those who are noted evangelists are not so well noted as being sound theologians. But with so many winds of doctrine blowing that purport to be the gospel, it is essential that evangelists be well grounded in sound doctrine.

D. The Lord gave some as pastors and teachers.

The two words are linked by a single definite article, which leads most scholars to view them as a single gift. But some scholars argue on grammatical grounds that there are two different gifts with overlapping functions (O’Brien, p. 300, who cites D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar; Calvin held this view). According to this view, all pastors must be teachers, but not all teachers are pastors. Thus teachers could function in a seminary or in the local church without having the duty of shepherding the flock. But wherever it is exercised, teaching should not be only academic, but also must aim at godly living (Col. 1:28).

The word pastor means shepherd. This is the only place in the New Testament where the noun is used to refer to a ministry in the church, but the verb appears several times in this sense (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; see, John 21:16). The words pastor, elder, and overseer (= bishop) are used interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 3:1; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). Elder points to the fact that church leaders must be mature men of God. Overseer looks at the main task, that of managing, leading (Heb. 13:7, 17), or overseeing the church. Pastor looks at the task from the analogy of a shepherd and his flock. In that sense, he must feed (teach) the flock with God’s Word, guard the flock from wolves, and gently care for the flock.

The main point to keep in mind with all of these gifts, and especially with pastor-teachers, is that they must be centered on the Word of God. If a pastor does not concentrate on preaching and teaching the Word, he may be a nice man and even a godly man, but he is not doing the main work of a shepherd. I stand firmly against the modern evangelical trend to dumb down or even do away with the systematic, expositional preaching of the Word. J. I. Packer rightly contends “that the well-being of the church today depends in large measure on a revival of preaching in the Puritan vein.” He adds, “to the Puritan, faithful preaching was the basic ingredient in faithful pastoring” (A Quest for Godliness [Crossway Books], pp. 281, 283).

2. Those with leadership gifts are to equip the saints for the work of service (4:12a).

The King James Version put a comma after the word “saints,” making the sentence read as if the pastors had three tasks: to equip the saints, to do the work of the ministry, and to build up the body of Christ. I was surprised to find that some still advocate this view (O’Brien, pp. 302-303, discusses and refutes this view). But the context (4:7, 16) and the Greek syntax (there is a change of prepositions after the first “for”) support the view that the task of those with these leadership gifts is to equip the saints so that the saints may do the work of service (or ministry), to the building up of the body of Christ.

Of course, evangelists and pastor-teachers are also engaged in the work of the ministry. But the point is, they don’t do it by themselves. Rather, they equip the entire body to work in accordance with their various spiritual gifts. Every Christian is “in the ministry” in the sense that every Christian has a ministry to do for the Lord in building the body of Christ.

The word equip has the idea of “making someone adequate or sufficient for something” or some purpose (O’Brien, p. 303). It is used of James and John mending their nets (Matt. 4:21). In classical Greek, it was used to describe restoring a dislocated limb or of setting broken bones in place. It also was used of furnishing a guest room, to get it ready for guests.

So the idea is that pastor-teachers are to teach the Word to help the rest of the body become adequate or prepared so that they may serve the Lord in accordance with their gifts. We do this here at FCF through the preaching of the Word on Sunday mornings, through the various Bible Institute classes, through Sunday evening discussions of the sermons, through various home fellowships or other small groups, and through various men’s and women’s ministries. Also, we seek to equip the saints through one-on-one contact, whether in counseling or over a cup of coffee or a meal. To the degree that you are equipped, you should also engage in teaching others (2 Tim. 2:2), so that the entire body grows to maturity. That’s the final goal:

3. The goal is that the entire body will grow to unity, maturity, and Christ-likeness (4:12b-13).

Note four things in this regard:

A. The goal is that the body will grow or be built up.

Building up pictures a building under construction, but Paul uses it here with the body of Christ, where the analogy would be physical growth. This includes both adding new members to the body through evangelism and seeing all of the members growing spiritually as they come to know God and His Word in deeper ways. In the first sense, we read in the early chapters of Acts how “the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:47b), so that the church in Jerusalem came to number in the thousands (see, 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7). I am not content with the fact that we see very few coming to saving faith here. I realize that there are unusual times of revival, when the Spirit of God brings many to repentance and salvation. But, we should pray for such and we should, even in more normal times, be seeing lost people coming to salvation.

In the second sense of the word, being built up refers to spiritual growth among those who are saved. As Paul wrote (Col. 1:28), “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Or, (Col. 2:6-7), “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” In both texts, Paul mentions teaching or instruction as a primary way that these saints were being built up.

B. The goal is that the body will attain to the unity of the faith by knowing well the Son of God.

Grammatically, there are three phrases in 4:13, each beginning with the word to. Thus, “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” is one phrase. Attain “to a mature man,” is the second phrase. Attain “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ,” is the third phrase. Attain is used nine times in the Book of Acts to refer to travelers arriving at their destination. Thus each of these phrases involves a process that results in a goal. While the goal will not be perfectly attained to until Christ returns, it is something that we should aim at.

As we saw in 4:3, there is a unity of the Spirit that already exists by virtue of the new birth. Every born again saint is baptized into the one body of Christ by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion (1 Cor. 12:13). But, here Paul refers to the unity of the faith, not as already existent, but as a goal to be attained to. The faith (as in 4:5) refers to the essential truths of the Christian faith, centered on the gospel. So Paul is referring here to doctrinal unity that comes about through the teaching of the Word (4:11). The more that you understand of God’s Word, the closer will be your experience of unity with others that know the Word well. At the heart of that unity is a common knowledge of and love for Jesus Christ.

Thus Paul links the unity of the faith with the knowledge of the Son of God. Paul rarely uses the title, Son of God (see, Rom. 1:4; Gal. 2:2; 1 Thess. 1:10). It emphasizes the deity of Christ, who was sent to this earth by the Father to secure our salvation. Knowledge has the nuance of real or true knowledge (it is an intensive form of the more usual word for knowledge; R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 285). Thus he is not just talking about an academic ability to recite various doctrines about Christ, although that is important. Rather, he is talking about knowing the Son of God in an intimate, personal way. As we come to know Christ more deeply, we will experience a closer unity in Christ, which is Paul’s point here.

C. The goal is that the body will grow to a mature man.

Paul uses the singular word for a full-grown male. He is probably referring back to the “one new man” of 2:15, which is the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles reconciled to Christ and to one another. It contrasts with the picture in the next verse (4:14) of the church as children, tossed about by every wave and wind of doctrine. So he is not just referring to our individual maturity in Christ, but also to our corporate maturity as a church. In our relationships with one another and in the way that we love one another as we work together in the cause of Christ, and in our doctrinal maturity, the world should see beyond us to our Savior. Hence,

D. The goal is that the body will grow to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

Stature may refer either to age or physical stature, but it speaks figuratively of maturity. The measure of spiritual maturity is nothing less than the fullness of Jesus Christ, who is the very fullness of God (Col. 1:19; 2:9)! John MacArthur writes (p. 157), “The church in the world is Jesus Christ in the world, because the church is now the fullness of His incarnate Body in the world (cf. 1:23). We are to radiate and reflect Christ’s perfections.” Thus the goal is that the church would grow to complete Christ-likeness, so that when the world looks at us, it gets a glimpse of the Savior.

Conclusion

Some of you are relatively new Christians. You should take advantage of the different opportunities for being equipped with God’s Word, both on Sundays and throughout the week. As you grow in the faith and apply the Word to your own life, look for ways to impart God’s truth to others.

Others of you are more mature in your faith and you’re involved in ministry to others. I would encourage you not to grow weary in the work (and it is work!) Helping others grow in Christ is kind of like raising kids. It’s a long process, and in church terms, you no sooner get some out of the nest and on their own, but there are more needing to grow in Christ.

But my concern is for those of you who have been Christians for quite a while, but you’re not involved at all in ministry to other believers. Perhaps you’ve become stagnant in your walk with Christ. Start there, by recovering your first love for Him. But, also, look around for new people in the church that need a friend. Older couples should look for younger couples who need mentors. Invite them over to your home and get to know them. Suggest that you study the Bible together, or if you don’t feel gifted to lead a study, take them with you to a Bible study and then interact on the truths that you both are learning.

The point is, get out of the stands and onto the playing field Christianity is not a spectator sport! If you need more equipping, then get equipped. But, use what you’ve got in the work of service toward other believers. In that way, this church will grow to maturity in Christ. His kingdom rule will be extended through us. And, the world will get a glimpse, however imperfect, of the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. Why is the distinction between so-called “clergy” and “laity” harmful? Is there any way in which it is helpful?
  2. Where is the balance between feeling “adequate for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17) and feeling inadequate (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5)?
  3. How would this church be different if every member viewed himself/herself as a minister of Christ?
  4. It is usually said that “doctrine divides.” Yet, the unity of the faith is primarily doctrinal unity. Explain.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 29: Vital Signs of a Healthy Body (Ephesians 4:14-16)

Whenever you feel sick and go to the doctor, he will check your vital signs. He will take your temperature, your blood pressure, and your heart rate. He will listen to your heartbeat and to your breathing through his stethoscope. He knows what the vital signs of a healthy body should be and he compares your vital signs with the standard to determine just how sick you really are.

As the body of Christ, the church should measure up to certain standards of spiritual health. You need to know these standards so that you can help the church to which you are committed grow in health. Also, if you move and need to look for another church, you need to know what to look for. While no church is perfect, at least you should join one that is reasonably healthy and headed in the right direction.

Or, sometimes a friend will move and ask if you know of a good church in the new location. You need to have some biblical criteria by which to evaluate which churches are healthy and which are not so healthy. Just because a church calls itself “Christian” or by an appealing name does not mean that it is a place that will nourish you spiritually. There are many churches that promote serious and damaging errors. You need to know how to spot them and avoid them.

In our text, Paul gives us four vital signs of a healthy body. These are not comprehensive. He does not mention the quality of a church’s worship. He does not bring up whether the church has a heart for missions and evangelism. Perhaps we could think of other important areas.

While in our immediate text, Paul does not mention solid Bible teaching, that requirement undergirds this entire section in its context. In the Greek text, verses 11-16 are one long sentence. Our text begins with, “as a result,” or, “so that,” indicating the logical connection with what precedes. It is as the pastor-teachers in the body equip the saints for the work of service through the Word of God that the body grows to maturity in Christ. We saw (in 4:13) that a mature church grows into doctrinal unity on the core essentials of the faith. We grow into a deeper knowledge of the Son of God through our deepening knowledge of the Word of God, which reveals Christ to us. So as a result of the pastor-teachers equipping the saints with the Word, the church will not be tossed around by every wave and wind of doctrine, but rather will grow up into Christ, the head.

So Paul gives us here these four vital signs of spiritual health. He is especially focused on the health of the whole body, although the individual members must be healthy and growing for the entire body to be strong.

A healthy body has doctrinal discernment; truth balanced with love; growing Christlikeness; and, every member ministry.

1. A healthy body has doctrinal discernment (4:14).

It is highly significant that when Paul talks about the spiritual maturity of the church, doctrinal discernment and stability is at the top of his list! I would venture to say that it would be at the bottom of most lists among American Christians in our day, if it even made the list at all. American Christians are not into doctrine.

We have been infected with the cultural virus of postmodernism, which holds that there is no such thing as absolute truth in the spiritual realm, or if there is, we cannot know it. So, if anyone claims to know the truth, we think that he is arrogant or insensitive toward the views of others. Postmodernism makes “truth” subjective, so that what is “true” for one may not be “true” for another. Thus tolerance and acceptance of any and all views becomes the supreme virtue. The only view that postmodernism cannot tolerate is that of someone who claims to have the exclusive truth.

That kind of thinking pervades the evangelical church today, flooding in not only through mainline liberal churches, but also through the growing emerging church movement. But it comes straight from Satan. It is somewhat surprising that it has gained such a foothold among those who claim to follow Jesus, because He plainly declared (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” You can’t get much more narrow and exclusive than that! In fact, when Jesus spoke with Pilate at His trial, He said (John 18:37b), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Since testifying to the truth was Jesus’ stated mission, undermining the truth as it is in Jesus is Satan’s determined mission.

Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). He promised to send the Spirit to the apostles to teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had spoken to them (John 14:26). We have that word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) through the apostles contained in the New Testament.

The entire Bible (especially the New Testament) is filled with warnings about false teachers and exhortations to believe the truth as revealed by God and hold to that truth at all costs. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:15), Jesus warned, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” His explanation of the end times emphasizes the danger of false Christs and false prophets, who will deceive many (Matt. 24:23-26).

The apostle Paul warned of false apostles, who are disguised as angels of light and servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13-15). He warned the Galatians (1:8-9) that if men distorted the gospel of Christ, they were to be accursed. He warned the Colossians of those who were trying to take them captive through philosophy and empty deception (2:8). He warned the Thessalonians that in the end times, there will be a major apostasy that will deceive many (2 Thess. 2:3-13). In his final three letters to Timothy and Titus, there are frequent exhortations to preach sound doctrine, along with warnings about those who have turned to false doctrine. And, in his final meeting with the Ephesian elders, he warned them (Acts 20:29-30), “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” What a frightening warning!

Beyond this, the epistles of John, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation all have strong warnings against the dangers of false teachers. Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments (Christian Unity [Baker], p. 232), “Indeed it might almost be said that the New Testament came into being in order to warn Christian people to beware of the terrible ever-present danger of being led astray by false teaching concerning our Lord Himself and His great salvation.”

In our text (4:14), Paul says that we are no longer to be children, but we need to grow to maturity (4:13, 15). There is a sense, of course, in which we are to be like little children, with a simple trust in Christ (Matt. 18:3) and a longing for the milk of the Word (1 Pet. 2:2). But in the sense Paul is using it here, we should not remain children, but rather grow to strong maturity so that we are not tossed around by the waves and winds of false doctrine.

These waves and winds of false teaching are the powerful currents of worldly philosophy that Satan brings on the scene to undermine biblical truth. These false ideas vary from generation to generation, but they always represent an assault on God’s Word of truth. Almost thirty years ago when I preached on this text, I warned the church about the danger of existentialism. It was a dominant worldview of the time. Now, I am warning you about postmodernism, a new assault on the truth. Paul’s picture of being tossed about by waves and carried about by the winds of doctrine may be rooted in his memories of being shipwrecked at sea. Without rudder and without sails, his ship was tossed around by forces far more powerful than the sailors could overcome.

It has always amazed me how the ideas of philosophers filter down to kids on the street, who have no idea why they are acting as they do. They’ve never read these philosophers, but their godless ideas directly influence the thinking and way of life of these youths. For example, you can trace the reasons why kids dress in black and exalt self-mutilation and death directly to the nihilism of Nietzsche. Most of the hippies of my younger days never read the existentialists, but their lives largely followed the implications of that philosophy. And, many today that profess to believe in Jesus, but do not see the need for sound doctrine, are being carried around by the waves of postmodernism. They have never studied that philosophy, but it warps their view of Scripture and it makes them vulnerable to all sorts of serious errors.

Children tend to act impulsively, based on their feelings of the moment, rather than thoughtfully and carefully. Part of helping your children mature is to help them learn to think about the consequences of their actions before they act. You want to help them learn to act on the basis of right beliefs, not according to the whim of the moment. Children often lack self-control. Very few kids ever think about disciplining their time or money or appetites for a greater goal. Also, because of their ignorance and relative inexperience, children are easily deceived by evil people that want to take advantage of them. Every conscientious parent warns his child about the dangers of strangers or even family members who might touch them inappropriately or lure them into a dangerous place.

Spiritually, there are many comparisons. Paul here says that false teachers use trickery. The Greek word is kubeia, from which we get our word “cube.” It referred to cheating at dice playing. In his many travels, Paul had probably watched some salty old sailors use loaded dice to fleece some unsuspecting victim. They enticed them by greed and used the loaded dice to take away their money in what looked like an honest game of chance.

Paul also says that these false teachers use “craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Craftiness is used of Satan deceiving Eve (2 Cor. 11:3). Deceitful scheming indicates that there is a deliberate plan. The word scheming originally had the idea of tracking someone as a wild animal tracks its prey (Lloyd-Jones, p. 236). That is exactly how the cults work, going after unsuspecting, untaught young believers, purporting to explain the Bible in a better way!

Also (as Lloyd-Jones points out, pp. 229-230), children invariably enjoy entertainment and showmanship. Many of the religious hucksters parading on TV draw in untaught Christians like a barker at a circus lures people to pay to see the freak show. Although these teachers brazenly deny essential biblical truth, people send them money in the hopes of being healed or having a serious problem resolved. Although these false teachers flaunt expensive watches and jewelry, poor people send them more money to buy a new personal jet airliner! It’s incredible! It all stems from a lack of doctrinal discernment.

So, Paul says, “Grow from childhood to maturity so that you don’t get taken in by the spiritual hucksters!” This means not only reading, but also studying your Bible. Don’t dodge the difficult doctrinal sections. They’re in there to help you mature in the faith. Take advantage of the classes that we offer on systematic theology, the attributes of God, surveys of the Bible, etc. Read solid books, such as John MacArthur’s recent, The Truth War [Thomas Nelson], or his earlier, Ashamed of the Gospel [Crossway], or David Wells’ No Place for Truth [Eerdmans]. Work your way through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology [Zondervan], or some of the excellent doctrinal books by R. C. Sproul. They will help you grow in this much-needed vital sign, doctrinal discernment.

2. A healthy body practices truth balanced with love (4:15a).

In contrast to the spiritual children who are tossed around by the waves and winds of false doctrine, a healthy body speaks the truth in love.

A. A healthy body practices the truth.

The Greek word is not literally “speaks,” but rather, as some have coined the term, “truthing it in love.” It encompasses both truthful words and an honest lifestyle (see, 4:25, 28). But, in this context, Paul is not primarily thinking about honesty and integrity. Rather, he is emphasizing the need to hold to and proclaim the truth of the gospel, which includes the core truths of the faith (4:5, 13; see, 1:13). Of course, we must also live out these essential truths, so that our lives back up our profession of faith. But, Paul is mainly talking about holding firmly to the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ (4:21).

This implies, against postmodernism, that there is such a thing as absolute truth in the spiritual realm and that we can know such truth with reasonable certainty. In other words, spiritual truth is not subjective, according to individual preference or experience. It is objective and true in every time and every culture. This truth is defined in written propositions in God’s Word. This means that we can know and judge whether someone holds to the truth or espouses error. I realize that those who have been tainted by postmodernism will accuse us of arrogance, intolerance, divisiveness, and a lack of love. They will say, “Jesus did not say that the world will know that we are Christians by our doctrinal correctness, but by our love!” But they fail to recognize that in the same context, Jesus said (John 17:17), “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” A healthy body must hold to, proclaim, and practice the truth of the gospel.

B. A healthy body balances truth with love.

Speaking the truth of the gospel is to love others, because it is only by believing the gospel that people will be saved from God’s eternal judgment. It is not loving to tolerate or promote heresy. Spiritual error on the essentials of the gospel is both evil and cruel because it results in eternal ruin for those that are deceived by it.

Biblical love is a commitment to seek the highest good of the one loved. We should be patient, kind, and sensitive in how we talk with others (1 Cor. 13:4; Col. 4:6). We should show compassion to those who are lost and alienated from Christ (Matt. 9:36). In all things, our heart’s motive should be to win people to Christ and to build them in the faith. Love does not take selfish advantage of others, but rather sacrifices self for the good of others. Love is to be the very atmosphere that permeates the church as we grow in Christ (Eph. 4:16b). In fact, the phrase “in love” occurs six times in Ephesians (1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 15; 5:2), more than in any other New Testament epistle.

But, biblical love is not always nice and outwardly sweet. Jesus, who always acted lovingly, called the Pharisees hypocrites, blind guides, fools, and whitewashed tombs (Matt. 23:13, 16, 17, 27)! He often confronted the disciples as men of little faith. I’m not suggesting that we go around calling people names or blasting them in the name of love or truth, but we need to understand that love necessarily involves confronting false teachers and those who persist in sin, because continuing in sin will destroy them.

Truth without love can be harsh. But, love without truth becomes flabby. It is not genuine love, because spiritual error always destroys. A healthy body has doctrinal discernment and it practices truth balanced by love.

3. A healthy body grows toward Christlikeness by submitting to His lordship in all areas (4:15b).

Paul includes himself when he writes, “we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.” Growing in Christ is a lifelong quest. Even after Paul had been a Christian for many years, he said that he had not yet arrived, but he pressed on toward the goal of maturity in Christ (Phil. 3:12-14).

We are to “grow up in all aspects into Christ.” This means bringing every area of your life under Christ’s lordship as commanded in His Word. Your thought life should grow up into Christ. Your emotional life should grow up into Christ. How you use your body, including eating, exercise, rest, modest clothing, and moral purity should grow up into Christ. The same applies to all of your relationships and to your business practices. It applies to your use of time, money, and possessions. The fruit of the Spirit as contrasted with the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-23) is a good place to see what is involved in Christlike behavior, but all of the New Testament expands on what this means.

Paul’s mentioning Christ as the head refers to His lordship and to His care for His body. Just as your head controls your body and directs the members of the body to care for one another, so Christ does in the church. Just as your head does not cut off a sore finger, but tenderly nurses it back to health, so Christ does for a wounded member of His body. Thus you can draw near to Him when you’re hurting, knowing that He cares for you.

4. A healthy body has every member contributing to the growth of the whole (4:16).

Verse 16 goes full circle back to verse 7, where Paul emphasized that each of us has been given a gracious spiritual gift to use in service to one another. The church is not a one-man-ministry. Every part has something vital to contribute. Some scholars argue that “every joint” (NIV has “ligament”) refers to the gifted leaders of 4:11, whereas “each individual part” refers to the rest of the body. But in my opinion, that seems to read too much into Paul’s analogy. He is simply saying that every part of the body has a function to perform. When all of the parts are working in accordance with their specific function, the body grows in love.

This verse has two practical applications. First, the phrase “fitted and held together” implies that we must be close to one another in order to grow. Paul used “fitted together” in 2:21 to refer to us as stones in the temple being joined together. To fit those stones together, the mason has to chip off the rough edges. For us to be fitted and joined together, God has to chip off our rough edges and teach us to show forbearance to one another in love (4:2).

Second, Paul’s emphasis on every joint supplying and each individual part working properly shows that every Christian must be a functioning, serving member of the body. If your body has a non-working part, you are somewhat incapacitated. God saved you to serve Him in some capacity. The goal of all ministry is “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” As I’ve said before, ministry is having your cup brim-full of Jesus Christ and then getting around others and slopping Christ onto them. Figure out where you fit into the body and start serving the Lord!

Conclusion

I don’t share these four vital signs so that we will go around taking the specks out of the eye of other churches. May the Lord keep us from all spiritual pride!

I do share them so that we will honestly evaluate ourselves and take the log out of our own eye! Are you growing in doctrinal discernment, so that you are not tossed around by all of the modern waves and winds of doctrine? Are you practicing, confessing, and proclaiming the truth of the gospel in the love of Christ? Are you growing towards Christlikeness in all areas of life as you submit to His lordship? Are you serving so as to contribute to the growth of the whole body in love? As we grow in these areas together, this city will get a glimpse, however imperfect, through this body of our glorious head, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. How can we develop doctrinal discernment without becoming proud, judgmental, and overbearing?
  2. How can we discern between areas where there is room for tolerance of doctrinal difference versus areas where we must not compromise at all?
  3. Is it ever loving to set aside essential truth so as not to offend? Why/why not?
  4. How would you respond to a critic who said, “They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal correctness”? Why is that statement out of balance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 30: How Not to Live (Ephesians 4:17-19)

Numerous polls over the years have shown that anywhere from one-third to almost one-half of Americans claim to be born again Christians. But before we celebrate, we should also note that the same polls indicate that there is no appreciable difference between the way that professing born again Christians live and how the rest of the culture lives.

Christians, including Christian leaders, have an atrocious rate of sexual immorality, whether viewing pornography on the Internet or actually engaging in sexual sin (see Leadership [Winter, 1988], pp. 12, 24). Evangelical Christians actually have a slightly higher divorce rate than the rest of the American population! We watch the same amount and the same content of filthy TV shows and movies as the population at large.

One researcher found that half of baby boomers claiming to be born again say that religions other than Christianity are equally good and true. One-third of that group believes in reincarnation and astrology. Nearly half support abortion rights (Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, reported in “The Watchman Expositor,” vol. 18, # 1, 2001, p. 22). A 2001 survey indicated that two-thirds of adults who attend conservative, Protestant churches question whether absolute moral truth exists (cited by John MacArthur, The Truth Wars [Thomas Nelson], p. 216, from the barna.org web site)!

In light of these alarming conditions, Paul’s words scream at us (4:17, my translation): “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk….” This refers to what he is about to say. Therefore goes back to his exhortation (4:1) to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” From 4:4-16, he developed how the worthy walk pertains to church unity and maturity.

Now, he turns to how the worthy walk affects personal holiness. Affirm means to testify as in court, when you summon a witness. It shows that Paul isn’t giving some helpful hints that you may want to try if you feel like it. He is giving the Lord’s commandments for how His people must live. Together with the Lord should be translated, in the Lord. It points to Paul’s source of authority—the Lord Himself—and to the sphere in which both he and his readers now live. By God’s mercy, they have been rescued from this present evil age and now live as new creatures in Christ.

Paul paints this graphic portrait of how unbelievers live, which is how the Ephesians had lived before they met Christ. It is a shorter version of a similar picture in Romans 1:18-32. Paul is showing that when you become a Christian, there must be a distinct break from the past. People should be able to see clearly the difference in your life, so that they wonder, “What happened?” His message is quite simple:

Believers must not live as unbelievers live.

In verse 17 Paul makes a general statement about how unbelievers live, “in the futility of their mind.” In verse 18, he shows why they live this way. It is not easy to chart the relationship of the four clauses in verse 18 (commentators differ). But the idea seems to be that the reason unbelievers live in the futility of their mind is that they are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God. The reason they are alienated from the life of God is that deep within them, they are ignorant of God. They do not know Him. The reason for this ignorance is that their hearts are hardened due to sin. Then in verse 19, he shows where this kind of futile lifestyle inevitably leads, namely, into giving themselves over to unbridled and insatiable sensuality and impurity.

Romans 1:21 parallels our text, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” He goes on to describe their plunge into moral degradation.

Our text reveals five ways that unbelievers live, that we must not follow. Paul describes them with the word walk. A walk is a way of life. A true Christian may fall into these behaviors on occasion, but they should not be characteristic of his lifestyle.

1. Don’t live as unbelievers, who walk in the futility of their minds.

Futility is the same word that is used 36 times in Ecclesiastes (LXX) translated, vanity. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities!’ All is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). It comes from a Hebrew word meaning breath or vapor. It refers to anything transitory, frail, or lacking in substance. Solomon had tried to find satisfaction through knowledge, through wealth and all that it affords, and through the pleasures of music and art and women. He had houses and lands with beautiful gardens and ponds. But none of it brought fulfillment. He observed that even if you have all of these things, you live a few years and then die. It is all futility, striving after the wind (Eccl. 2:17).

We could picture a child chasing soap bubbles. He grabs one, but it bursts in his hand, leaving him with nothing. One early Christian writer gives examples of building houses of sand by the seashore, chasing the wind, shooting at the stars, or pursuing one’s shadow (Gregory of Nyssa, cited by R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 181). None of these activities results in anything of lasting value or significance.

Many unbelievers live for a purpose, even for noble purposes. Some aim to use their money for benevolent causes. Some want to find a cure for cancer or help others who are victims of disease. Some want to go into politics so that they can help our country be a better place. Some want to teach children so that they can have a better life. These are all good purposes that benefit society.

But, if they do not take God and eternity into consideration, what is gained? You live a few years and help a few people and then you die. Those who are helped may benefit for a few years before they die, or they may discard all that you have labored to get for them. Or, someone else may come along and undo everything that you have accomplished. It’s all vanity or emptiness, unless it is done in light of God and eternity (1 Cor. 15:58).

Paul says that the futility of those without God exists in the mind. He is referring to their entire inner being, personality, or soul (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Darkness and Light [Baker], p. 33). Paul emphasizes the mind in these verses: mind (4:17, 23); understanding, ignorance (4:18); learn (4:20); taught (4:21).

To live in the futility of the mind is to think and live without any regard for God and eternity. It is to live for selfish gratification or fleeting pleasure, without regard to the consequences, whether in this life or in eternity. It is to live according to the world’s philosophies that leave God out. Philosophers speculate about this and that, but they don’t have solid answers for life’s problems in light of death and eternity. Paul is saying, “Don’t live that way!” Don’t live as if God did not exist. Don’t live as if Christ had not died for your sins. Don’t live as if there were no judgment or no heaven or no hell. Don’t live in the futility of your mind.

Let me be very practical. If you want to avoid living in the futility of your mind, think often about your death. Join Jonathan Edwards, who as a young man resolved, among many other things, “to think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:xx). You may think that that is morbid, but it is a vital principle for wise living! Then, keeping the shortness of life in view, join Moses in praying (Ps. 90:12), “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” In light of standing before God and in light of what you know of His Word, how do you want to spend the fleeting years that the Lord gives you? When you look back from the end, what do you want to have accomplished in light of eternity?

Then, in light of these godly purposes, prayerfully think through and write down some goals that will move you in that direction this week. These will vary depending on where you’re at right now. Maybe establishing a regular time alone with God in the Word and in prayer is where you need to start. If some besetting sin trips you up, devise a practical, biblically based plan to overcome that sin. Review and revise these goals from time to time. Don’t just drift through life as unbelievers do, living for the next momentary pleasure. Don’t live in the futility of your mind. Live with godly purpose in light of eternity.

2. Don’t live as unbelievers, who walk in the darkness of their understanding.

This idea is similar to that of living in the futility of their mind, but it goes further in explaining why they live that way: their understanding is darkened. When man sinned, it plunged the human race into mental darkness and alienation from God. People’s minds were cut off from knowing God. They became incapable of reasoning through things from God’s perspective. They were not able to understand spiritual truth (John 8:43-47). As Paul wrote (2 Cor. 4:4), “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Or (1 Cor. 2:14), “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” Or, as we saw (Rom. 1:21), “their foolish hearts were darkened.” When sin came into this world, the lights went out spiritually.

Even though we inherited this spiritual darkness from Adam, we are responsible for it. We can’t blame Adam! We can’t blame God, who decreed that Adam’s sin would be imputed to the entire human race. If you say, “That’s not fair,” you are sinning with incredible arrogance to accuse the Sovereign of the universe of being unfair! And, the fact is, if you had been in the garden instead of Adam, you would have done the same thing that he did. So, each person is responsible for his own spiritual darkness.

Not only are unbelievers darkened in their understanding, but also they love it! Jesus said (John 3:19-20), “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” So the biblical picture is not that sinners are crying out, “O, if only I could see!” No, they’re partying in the dark and don’t want the light to expose their sin.

Paul says, “Don’t live that way! Don’t walk around with a darkened understanding!” To put it positively (1 John 1:7), “walk in the Light, as He Himself is in the Light.” Again, Paul is referring to the understanding, to how you think. As a Christian, you need to be renewed and transformed in your mind (Eph. 4:23; Rom. 12:2) through God’s Word. Sound doctrine about God, man, sin, salvation, and every area of life is the foundation for spiritual understanding and light. Become a biblical thinker about every issue that you face, whether how to relate to others, how to manage your time and money, or how to act on the job.

3. Don’t live as unbelievers, who walk in alienation from the life of God.

Being “excluded from the life of God” further explains why unbelievers walk in the futility of their minds. They are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1). They lack new life from God. Becoming a Christian is not a matter of eliminating sinful behavior and replacing it with moral behavior, although that will follow. Becoming a Christian is a matter of receiving new life from God. As Jesus said (John 3:16), whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

In the 18th century, John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, along with some others, formed a club at Oxford called “The Holy Club.” Through self-denial, discipline, good works, and reading and studying their Greek New Testaments and other books, these young men sought to be holy. But it all stemmed from human effort. None of these young men were born again.

Then, George Whitefield read a little book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, written in the previous century by a young Scotsman, Henry Scougal. Whitefield said that by that book, “God showed me that I must be born again, or be damned! I learned that a man may go to church, say his prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian. How did my heart rise and shudder, like a poor man that is afraid to look into his account-books, lest he should find himself a bankrupt.” (Cited in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield [Cornerstone Books], 1:73.) Whitefield thought of throwing that book away, but instead he searched it more and asked God to make him a real Christian. He came to realize that being a true Christian involves “a union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us” (ibid.). It was the first time that he realized that he must become a new creature.

After a lot more effort and agony of soul, he finally came to reject all self-trust and cast himself on the mercy of God through Christ. He said, “God was pleased to remove the heavy load, to enable me to lay hold of His dear Son by a living faith, and by giving me the Spirit of adoption, to seal me even to the day of everlasting redemption” (ibid., p. 77). After that, God used George Whitefield’s preaching to bring many from empty religion to new life in Jesus Christ. Paul is saying to us, “Don’t live as unbelievers do, being excluded from the life of God.” Make sure that you have eternal life through genuine faith in Jesus Christ!

4. Don’t live as unbelievers, who walk in spiritual ignorance due to hard hearts.

The phrase, “because of the ignorance that is in them,” explains why unbelievers are alienated from the life of God. They do not know God personally. Ignorance translates the Greek word from which we get our word, agnostic. It means to be without knowledge. It is ironic that agnostics often boast of their great knowledge, as if it were their knowledge that led them to their “enlightened” state of not knowing if there is a God! But, Paul traces their spiritual ignorance to something else, namely, to “the hardness of their heart.” (The KJV wrongly translates it, “blindness,” but the word means, “hardness,” as in a stone.) The person who is hard of heart ignores God and His commands. He refuses to bow before God as the sovereign Lord. Hardness of heart results in not knowing God. That spiritual ignorance due to sin is why unbelievers are cut off from the very life of God.

This means that people are not agnostics because they have intellectual problems with the Bible. Rather, they are agnostics because of moral rebellion against God. They want to live as they please, not as God commands. In order to justify and excuse their sinful lifestyle, they have to get rid of God.

So, they claim that they have intellectual problems with the existence of God. They may use evolution or the problem of evil and suffering in the world, or whatever. But get through the smokescreen and behind it you will find sin. They do not want to acknowledge the existence of God because they know that they are in big trouble if He exists! When you’re talking with such a person and he throws at you some intellectual objection to the gospel, ask him, “Are you saying that if I can give you a reasonable answer to that problem, you would follow Jesus Christ as Lord?” Invariably, he will say, “Well, no, there are a lot more problems.” But keep pushing him and the real problem will become evident: he does not want to submit to Jesus as Lord. He loves his sin!

Paul says, “Don’t live that way!” As a believer, be seeking daily to know the living God in a more intimate way. Submit every area of your life to Him. Don’t let sin harden your heart and produce doubts and spiritual ignorance. Finally,

5. Don’t live as unbelievers, who walk in callused sensuality and insatiable moral impurity.

Verse 19 describes the final result of this downward spiral into sin. To become callous means to cease to feel pain; thus, spiritually, it is to “lose the capacity to feel shame or embarrassment” (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 322). The first time a person commits a sin, he thinks, “I’ll just do it this once.” But, after he does it, his conscience bothers him. He feels guilty. But, the next time, it’s a bit easier. He rationalizes it by thinking, “Well, others do worse!” Each time, it becomes easier to sin as his conscience develops a spiritual callus. Finally, he gives himself over to sin with abandon. He has no shame about it. In fact, he goes on TV talk shows to boast about it!

In Romans 1:24, 26, 28, there is the repeated frightening phrase, “God gave them over.” But here, they “have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.” It is describing the same thing from the sinner’s perspective. Sensuality refers to a person who casts off all restraint and has no regard even for public decency. It is to be openly, shamelessly in violation of God’s moral standards. In this context, impurity with greediness probably refers to an insatiable appetite for sexual sin. For the practice of has the nuance of making an occupation out of impurity! Pursuing sensuality and greed feeds on itself, because what once was new, exciting, and pleasurable soon becomes boring and unfulfilling. So the sinner has to seek new depths of perversion. Like using drugs, giving yourself over to sensuality and impurity becomes enslaving.

Paul says, “Don’t live like that!” Jesus said that we must cut off such sin as we would cut off our hand or pluck out our eye (Matt. 5:29-30). Keep your conscience tender towards God! Do not give yourself over to sin. It never satisfies and it always enslaves!

Conclusion

Some of you may be thinking, “Paul is being kind of extreme here. I know many unbelievers who don’t fit his dire description in these verses. They are decent, moral people. They are faithful in their marriages. They love their children. They are responsible to work and pay their bills. They’re good neighbors. So, how does what Paul says here apply to them?”

Consider two things. First, in His grace, God restrains people from being as bad as they possibly could be. If God let all sinners go, the human race would have self-destructed centuries ago. The doctrine of “total depravity” does not mean that people are as bad as they can be. Rather, it means that sin has tainted every part of our being. It corrupts our minds, our emotions, our will, and our bodies. But because of His grace, God restrains the evil of the fallen human heart, so that unbelievers may be kind, loving, and responsible people.

Second, God looks not only on the outward behavior, but also on the heart. God’s assessment when He looked on the wickedness of the human race just before the flood was (Gen. 6:5), “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” After the flood, God’s assessment did not change. He said (Gen. 8:21), “for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” As Jeremiah 17:9 puts it, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”

If God were to let any one of us go, indwelling sin would impel us toward all manner of evil and corruption. We should not look on someone who fits the description of verse 19 and say, “How can he do that?” Rather, we should look at verse 19 and say, “There but for the grace of God, am I!” So, even as believers, we must get into the habit of instantly judging our own sin on the heart level. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind through God’s Word and you will not live as unbelievers live.

Application Questions

  1. How would you counsel a person who claimed to be born again and yet was living as verse 19 describes?
  2. How should a believer prioritize which biblical goals to pursue when there are so many?
  3. I said that people are not agnostics due to intellectual problems, but due to moral problems. What implications does this have for witnessing?
  4. How can a believer keep a tender conscience? Is it possible to have an overly sensitive conscience? Where’s the balance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 31: The Changed Life (Ephesians 4:20-24)

When it comes to the subject of changing our lives, we all feel the same as we feel about going to heaven: We’re all for it, but we’d rather not go through what you have to go through to get there! The idea of change sounds good, but when it gets right down to it, we think, “You mean I actually have to live differently? No way!”

But the Christian life is fundamentally a changed life. If you claim to believe in Christ, but are living just as you did before you believed in Him, you need to examine whether you truly believe in Him. Becoming a Christian requires turning from your sin to God (repentance). But repentance is not a one-time event. It defines the lifestyle of a believer. God changes us radically at the moment of salvation by imparting new life to us, but this is followed by a lifetime of changing into the image of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).

In Ephesians 4:17-19, Paul paints a grim portrait of how unbelievers live. While not all unbelievers are as bad as they possibly could be, they all live “in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (4:17b-18). That bleak picture describes each of us before we met Jesus Christ.

But now (4:20) Paul draws a sharp contrast: “But you did not learn Christ in this way.” He gives us a brief sketch of the changed life that every believer should be experiencing. He’s saying:

The changed life stems from the transformation that God works in us through the gospel as we put off the old life, are renewed in our minds, and put on the new life in Christ.

First, Paul shows the changes that God works in us through the gospel (4:20-21) and then he shows us how the process of changes works in our ongoing experience (4:22-24).

1. The changed life begins by coming to know Christ personally (4:20-21).

Paul describes the changed life in four ways:

A. The changed life begins when you learn Christ.

To “learn Christ” is an unusual phrase that occurs no where else. Paul does not say, “you did not learn about Christ,” but rather, “you did not learn Christ in this way.” This way refers to the way of unbelievers that he has just described.

What does he mean, to “learn Christ”? He is saying that to become a Christian is a matter of coming to know Christ personally. Yes, you must know something about who He is, as revealed in Scripture. The entire Bible testifies to the truth of who Jesus is, that He is the Christ (Messiah, God’s anointed One), the Son of God. He is the eternal God in human flesh. You must also know something about the significance of what He did when He died on the cross as the substitute for sinners. He satisfied God’s wrath toward our sin, so that we are free from condemnation when we trust in Christ to save us.

But it is possible to know all of these facts and more and yet not to know Jesus Christ personally. In John 17:3, Jesus prayed, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The Christian life begins when you receive eternal life from God through faith in Jesus Christ. At that moment, you come to know Him personally. Yes, that initial encounter with Christ is only the beginning of an eternal relationship with Him. But, if you have not entered into that personal relationship with Christ, you are not a Christian in the true sense of the word. You may be a theologian or a Bible scholar. But you are only like a historian who knows much about the President, but who has never met him or spent any time with him personally. The changed life begins when you learn Christ.

B. The changed life begins when you hear Christ.

“If indeed” does not express any doubt, but rather affirmation. Paul is saying, “I know that you have heard Him.” Probably none of the Asian believers had heard Jesus in Palestine when He was on earth. None of them had had a personal encounter with the risen Christ, as Paul did on the Damascus Road. Rather, Paul means that when he and others had preached the gospel, these people had heard it as God speaking to them. God opened their deaf ears so that they didn’t just listen to words, but they heard Jesus Christ calling them to Himself. They heard so as to obey His call to faith and repentance.

In John 8:43, Jesus asks the Jews that were challenging Him, “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.” He goes on to identify the root problem, that they were of their father, the devil. Satan had deafened their ears so that they could not hear Christ’s words of eternal life in order to believe and be saved. The changed life begins when God opens your ears to hear Jesus Christ in the gospel and respond with obedient faith.

C. The changed life begins when you are taught in Christ.

The proper translation is not, taught by Him (KJV), but rather, taught in Him. The phrase “in Christ” sums up Paul’s view of what it means to be a Christian. As we saw in chapter 1, the saints are “faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1). We have received every spiritual blessing “in Christ” (1:3). God chose us “in Him” before the foundation of the world (1:4). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (1:7). He made known to us the mystery of His will, which He purposed “in Him” (1:9). “In Him” we have obtained an inheritance (1:10-11). “In Him” we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise (1:13). God’s surpassing power towards us was revealed “in Christ” when He raised Him from the dead (1:20). These are just the references to being “in Christ” in chapter 1! The blessings that are ours because we are “in Christ” keep piling up!

So, to be “taught in Him,” means to be taught from the standpoint of this new relationship with Christ that entails this new position in Christ. Before, you stood outside, not understanding the things of God. But now, because of God’s mercy and kindness toward you in Christ, you are “in Him” for time and eternity. To be taught in Him is a lifelong process that begins at the moment of salvation, but never ends. Since Christ is the center of all of Scripture, to be taught in Him is to grow to know the glory of Christ in His person, His offices, and His work on our behalf. Someday when we see Him as He is, we will be instantly changed to be like Him (1 John 3:2). Meanwhile, we must engage in the process of being taught in Him.

D. The changed life begins when you know the truth that is in Jesus.

The phrase, “just as truth is in Jesus,” qualifies the preceding comments about learning Christ, hearing Him, and being taught in Him. The reason that Christ is the focus of instruction is that He is the embodiment of truth (John 14:6). The truth of salvation is only in Jesus Christ. In Him, we learn the truth about who we are, the truth about sin and righteousness, and the truth about God’s purpose for why we are on this earth. We learn the truth about how to love God and how to love one another. We learn the truth about the coming judgment, and about heaven and hell. All of the truth that we need for life and godliness centers in the person of Jesus Christ.

Note that Paul here makes a deliberate shift in how he refers to Christ. In verse 20, he talks about learning Christ, but here he says that the truth is in Jesus. This is the only time in Ephesians that he uses the name Jesus by itself. Why did Paul not say, “just as the truth is in Christ”? The change seems to be more than stylistic.

The name “Jesus” focuses on the historical person who was born of the virgin Mary, who worked as a carpenter, and who walked around Israel teaching and healing the sick. He was crucified, raised bodily from the dead, seen by many of His disciples after the resurrection, and ascended bodily into heaven. All of these historic facts lie behind the name, “Jesus.”

But, why does Paul want us to think of the truth that is in Jesus? Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Darkness and Light [Baker], p. 100) explains, “the Christian is not saved by a philosophy of redemption; he is saved by that historic Person, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God!” Some of the false cults talk about “the cosmic Christ,” or the “Christ principle within us all.” But that is just metaphysical mumbo jumbo!

As Lloyd-Jones points out (ibid.), all of the world’s major religions are built around teachings and ideas. But, in sharp contrast, the truth of the gospel is rooted in history. The Christian message is the proclamation of certain facts that happened in history in the person of Jesus. If the gospel accounts are fictional stories, then there is no salvation in Jesus! If the historic person of Jesus did not die on the cross and rise bodily from the dead, as testified by many reliable eyewitnesses, then you are still in your sins (1 Cor. 15:17). Everything in the Christian faith rests on the truth being in the historical person of Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead!

So Paul’s point (in 4:20-21) is that the changed life stems from the transformation that God works in us through the gospel. When we meet Jesus Christ personally through faith, we are changed people! But, how does the process continue? Paul goes on (4:22-24) to explain these changes with three infinitives (in Greek): “lay aside”; “be renewed”; and, “put on.”

There are different opinions about how these infinitives function. In my opinion, the best view is that the infinitives explain the changes that took place when we trusted in Christ, but they also have the force of ongoing commands. At the moment we trusted Christ, we did in fact lay aside the old life and put on the new life, much as a baptismal candidate took off his old clothes and put on a new, white robe for his baptism. We began the process of inner renewal. But, day by day we must continue to put off the dirty old life and put on the new life in Christ, as we are renewed in the spirit of our mind. In other words, we must live daily in light of the truth of what God says we now are. We are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Live each day in light of that truth by decisively putting off the old life, being renewed in your mind, and putting on the new life. Let’s look at each of these.

2. The changed life requires putting off the old man (4:22).

Paul’s phrase is literally, “the old man.” He identifies this as being “in reference to your former manner of life.” So the old man refers to all that we were before we were saved, when we were ruled by the evil desires and practices (see 4:19; 2:3). Paul uses the same phrase in Romans 6:6, where he says, “our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” Romans 6 is really a longer exposition of what Paul says more succinctly here.

In Romans 6 (and in Col. 3:9), Paul refers to the putting off of the old man as an accomplished fact. When Christ died on the cross, we died with Him positionally. When He was raised from the dead, we were raised up with Him. We are to reckon these facts to be true in our daily practice, so that we will not yield to sin (Rom. 6:11). Because in those passages Paul clearly states this putting off of the old life as a done deal, some argue that it is not something that we have to go on doing now. They contend that it was a once and for all matter that happened at the cross.

But, although we died with Christ, in other places Paul commands us to put to death our members that are on the earth (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5, literal translation). Why do we need to put to death our members if we already died?

My understanding is that we must daily apply experientially the facts that are true of us positionally. So, yes, at the moment we got saved, we put off the dirty clothes of the old life. But, every day we must reckon that this is so by putting off everything associated with the old life and putting on the new life in Christ.

Lloyd-Jones (ibid. p. 123) uses a helpful illustration. When Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, they were officially free from their many years of servitude, but some of them went on living as if they were still slaves. The President’s proclamation gave them legal standing as free citizens. It was a done deal—they were no longer slaves. But, out of habit and way of thinking, many of these poor people still lived like slaves. So, they needed to live in accordance with the new facts. When they were tempted to think like a slave, they needed to say, “No, the truth is I am now a free man!” They needed to appropriate that truth into their daily experience.

Even so, our old life involved a process of being corrupted by the lusts of deceit. Sin deceives us into thinking that it will give us freedom and fulfillment, but it’s a lie. Sin only defiles, enslaves, and ultimately destroys the person who is deceived by it. When Christ saved us, He liberated us from bondage to sin. We died to sin by virtue of His death on the cross. We were raised to new life in Him. Now, we must daily put off the dirty clothes of sin and put on the new clothes of righteousness and holiness in Him, because He freed us. There is still in us a strong tug toward the old life, but we do not have to yield to it. The changed life involves putting off the old man.

3. The changed life requires being renewed in the spirit of your mind (4:23).

“Be renewed” is a present passive infinitive, which means that it is an ongoing process that God performs in us as we cooperate with Him (see Phil. 2:12-13). The renewing takes place “in the spirit of your mind.” God does the renewing as we obey Him by saturating our minds with His transforming Word of truth. So God’s Spirit performs the work of renewal in us, but we are responsible to use the means of renewal, namely, His Word, which renews our hearts and thoughts as we submit to it.

Why does Paul here refer to the spirit of your mind? Why not just, be renewed in your mind (as in Rom. 12:2)? Some interpret “spirit” as the Holy Spirit, but the phrase, “of your mind” doesn’t fit with this. The Spirit isn’t a part of our minds. Others take it as the human spirit, but Paul does not use “spirit” in that way anywhere else in Ephesians. Some think that “spirit” is in apposition to “mind,” so that it means, “the spirit, which is your mind.” But, why would he say it that way? Others take it to mean, “the attitude or disposition of your mind.” Some say that it simply refers to your inner being.

Perhaps the best view is that it refers to the principle that regulates or controls the mind. In this sense, “the spirit of the world” (1 Cor. 2:12) is the principle that controls the world, or makes it what it is (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 264). Thus, the spirit of the mind is not just mental ability, “but the power that controls and directs the abilities” (Lloyd-Jones, p. 156). Paul means that our entire way of thinking and what controls our thinking needs renewal. We need to think in line with God’s thoughts, as revealed in His Word.

This means that true biblical change must not bypass the mind. Sometimes, evangelists use emotional stories or music or a dramatic setting and then appeal to people to make a decision for Jesus. But they have bypassed the mind. Such decisions, made on the basis of emotions, will not last. God reasons with us through the truths of His Word. The doctrines of Scripture make sense, because they are God’s truth. When the Spirit of God opens a person’s mind to the truths revealed in the Word, the truth will result in changed emotions and changed wills. Any change that bypasses the spirit of the mind will not last.

So, the changed life begins by coming to know Christ personally. It requires putting off the old life of corruption and deceit, and being renewed in the spirit of our minds. Finally,

4. The changed life requires putting on the new man (4:24).

Again, I believe that the sense is that we did put on this new man once and for all at the point of conversion, but we must continue putting on this new man every day by making true in our experience what is actually true of us positionally. In other words, we must live by applying the truth of the new man in every situation that we face. Paul will make this very specific in 4:25-6:9. When you face the temptation to lie (the old man’s way of acting), instead you speak the truth (

Note several things about this new man. First, while Paul is applying it individually here, it also has a corporate aspect. He used the phrase, “new man,” in 2:15 to describe the church as the new creation of Jew and Gentile in Christ. Whereas the old man lived for self, the new man considers others ahead of self. Whereas the old man was full of racial prejudice and pride, the new man erases those distinctions and views others in the body equally as brothers in Christ. This corporate aspect of the new man implies that if you are not involved with a local church, where you are being built together with other believers, then you do not understand a major part of the new way in which you are supposed to live.

Second, God is the creator of this new man. As we saw in Ephesians 2:10, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” This shows that the changed life of the believer is not something that we must conjure up by our own will power. God created us anew in Him. But, at the same time, we must walk in the good works that He has prepared for us.

Third, God is the pattern of this new man. It has been created (literally) “according to God,” or, as the NASB interprets it (in line with Col. 3:10), “in the likeness of God.” Specifically, Paul mentions “righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Righteousness and holiness are aspects of God’s character in Psalm 144:17 and Deuteronomy 32:4. See, also, Luke 1:75; 1 Thess. 2:10; Titus 1:8.) These qualities are essentially synonymous, but righteousness refers to living according to God’s standards, whereas holiness has the nuance of essential purity. Both qualities are the result of the truth, namely, the truth as it is in Jesus. In other words, the truth of sound doctrine results in holy living.

Conclusion

We don’t all have dramatic conversion, as the apostle Paul did. Many of us that were raised in Christian homes may not know exactly when we came to faith in Christ. But no matter what our experience of conversion, we ought to know that God has changed our hearts. Formerly, we did not know Christ, but now we do, however imperfectly. Formerly, even if we maintained an outward veneer of virtue, we lived for self. Now, we live for Christ, to know Him and serve Him. Formerly, we were being corrupted by the evil desires of sin that deceived us into thinking that they would bring fulfillment. Now, we are new creatures in Christ, living for righteousness and holiness, which come from the truth that is in Jesus.

While it is a lifelong process of renewal, you should be able to see the distinct difference between the old person that you were and the new person that you now are in Christ. You should be able to relate to the old Black preacher who said, “I ain’t what I want to be and I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but praise God, I ain’t what I used to be!”

Application Questions

  1. If a person did not have a dramatic conversion, how can he know that he was truly born again? Cite biblical support.
  2. If the “old man” is dead and removed at salvation, why do we still have such an intense struggle against sin?
  3. What are some practical ways to be renewed in the spirit of your mind? Be specific.
  4. How do lusts deceive us? How can we avoid this deception?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 32: To Tell the Truth (Ephesians 4:25)

One of the greatest moral issues that we all struggle with is that of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The book, The Day that America Told the Truth, states (p. 45) that 91 percent of us lie regularly (cited by Alistair Begg, “Cedarville Torch, Fall, 1994, p. 15). “Of the people interviewed, 92 percent said the main reason for their lying was to save face, and 98 percent said the reason they told lies was so as not to offend people” (ibid.).

Another survey of 20,000 middle- and high-schoolers indicated that 92 percent admitted to lying to their parents in the previous year, and 73 percent said that they told lies weekly. Despite these admissions, 91 percent of all respondents said they were “satisfied with my own ethics and character” (Reader’s Digest [Nov., 1999], pp. 81-82). Their consciences were insensitive to their sin!

Lest you think, “Well, these surveys were probably taken among pagans,” pollster George Gallup indicts us when he says, “church attendance makes little difference in people’s ethical views and behavior with respect to lying, cheating, pilferage, and not reporting theft” (cited by Vernon Grounds, “Focal Point” [Summer, 1995], p. 8).

We bend the truth in many ways. There is the half-truth. You sort of tell the truth, but not the whole truth. You tell your employer, “I wasn’t feeling well,” which was sort of true. But, in reality, you were not so ill as to miss work. You just wanted to do something else. Or, there is the white lie, a supposedly “innocent” lie that doesn’t hurt anyone. “Yes, your new hairdo is beautiful!” “Thank you, I just love fruitcake!”

There are the lies that cover for someone or for ourselves: The boss is in the next room, but you say, “He’s not here right now to take your call.” Often, the rationalization for cover-up lies is that the truth would hurt too many people. This was the excuse behind the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. It would “hurt the country” if the truth were known!

Or, lies often go undercover as exaggeration. You stretch the story a bit to make yourself look better or to evoke sympathy. One of the easiest lies to fall into is the silent lie. This is where someone assumes something about you, which you know to be untrue. But, their mistaken view makes you look good, so you just let it go by and don’t say anything to correct it. In a similar way, we use evasive lies. We change the subject or don’t directly answer the question.

We also bend the truth by cheating on our income taxes, always with the justification that the government wastes so much money or that the tax system is unfair to the little guy (that’s me!). We cheat on tests with the excuse, “everyone else does it.” Or, we pilfer from our employer with the rationalization that they don’t pay me enough. Or, if the clerk at the store makes a mistake to our advantage, we don’t say anything to make it right. We figure, “They overcharge for everything, anyway!”

The Bible is brutally honest in exposing the failures of some of the great men and women of faith when it comes to lying. Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Aaron, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, and David all lied, along with Peter in the New Testament. If these saints struggled with being truthful, then none of us is exempt! So we all need to take Paul’s exhortation to heart (Eph. 4:25): “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”

“Therefore” takes us back to the preceding context. Paul has told us generally how we are to be different from our former life of corruption “in accordance with the lusts of deceit.” Since God has changed us through the gospel, we are to live in light of the truth by putting off the old life, being renewed in the spirit of our minds, and putting on the new life (4:22-24). But, it’s easy to hear that and think, “Amen, preach, it Brother Paul!” But we leave it out there in the realm of generalities and don’t apply it specifically.

So beginning in 4:25 (and going through 6:9), Paul gets specific. He goes from preaching to meddling! He names a bunch of specific sins from our old life that we are to put off and godly behaviors that we are to put on. While there are some exceptions, his usual method is to state the sinful behavior that we are to put off, the godly behavior that we are to put on, and the motive or reason for the positive behavior. In 4:25 he is saying,

We who have experienced the new birth must lay aside falsehood and speak the truth, because we are members of one another.

To define our terms, truth is an accurate representation of the facts. Especially, truth is conformity to God’s standards as revealed in His Word (John 17:17). God is the truth and He always speaks the truth. Falsehood or lying is any deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.

Also, keep in mind the directive of Ephesians 4:15, that we must speak the truth in love. We must be kind and gracious when we speak the truth. We need to phrase the truth in a way that is least offensive and most sensitive to the other person’s feelings. We need to apply the golden rule: how would I want someone else to tell me this truth? I must speak it in the same manner.

Also, being truthful does not mean that we need to reveal everything we know about a matter. God does not do that with us. If you need to keep a confidence or if you think that making the truth known would be damaging, you may simply reply, “I’m not free to talk about that matter.” Being truthful does not require sharing your thoughts on everything. If being silent would imply agreement when you disagree, you may need to clarify things. But, sometimes wisdom requires keeping your thoughts to yourself (Prov. 10:19).

With that as a background, let’s explore Paul’s thought here:

1. The new birth is the starting point for a life of truthfulness.

As I said, “therefore” takes us back to 4:22, where Paul has just said that we are to “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit.” Deceit permeated the old life. We were deceived by sin and we deceived others by our self-serving hypocrisy and greed. It also takes us back to 4:24, where Paul said that we are to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Truth characterizes our new life in Christ. We are to live in accordance with the truth which is in Jesus (4:21). And, we are now to live as truthful people.

Some unbelievers are truthful people, but usually their truthfulness is self-serving. They take great pride that their word is good. Or, they are truthful because they fear the punishment or shame that comes if their duplicity comes to light. But, only those who have received new life through God’s grace can be truthful out of the motive of pleasing and glorifying Him.

One of my seminary professors told us about an incidence where he was at the bank with another of our professors. The teller gave this other professor too much change. He called it to her attention and gave the money back. She exclaimed, “Thank goodness that you’re honest!” Many of us would have taken the credit, but he quickly replied, “I’m not honest by nature. I would have ripped you off, but Jesus Christ is now my Savior and Lord. He makes me honest.” He gave the glory to Christ, as we should do. His saving grace is the starting point for a life of truthfulness.

2. Those who are new creatures in Christ must lay aside falsehood and speak the truth.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Great, but how do you do it?” I suggest five strategies for becoming a person of truth.

A. Recognize the source of truth and the source of falsehood.

God is the source of truth. He is the only true God, whose word is truth (John 17:3). As such, He cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Jesus Christ is the embodiment of the truth (John 14:6; Eph. 4:21). He spoke the truth (John 8:45). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). On the other hand…

Satan is the source of falsehood and lies. Jesus called Satan “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Satan introduced “the lie” in the garden, when he implied that God was lying in the threat of punishment if Eve ate the forbidden fruit. He deceived Eve with the lie (Gen. 3:4), “You surely will not die!”

We need to keep in mind who is the source of truth and who is the source of falsehood because our culture strongly pressures us into compromising the truth. This is especially true with the postmodern philosophy that tells us that there is no such thing as absolute truth. I was talking last week with a pastor who lives near a major evangelical seminary. The seminary requires chapel attendance, which the students must report on. He was talking with the seminary chaplain, who said that many of the students skip chapel regularly and then just lie on their report. They excuse it by saying that they don’t get anything out of chapel and it’s a better use of their time to do something else! This is a conservative, Bible-believing seminary! But I wonder how many of those students would glibly lie if they thought about the fact that when they lie, they are in league with Satan, the father of lies!

B. Recognize the importance of truthfulness to God.

Truthfulness is important to God because He is the God of truth who hates lying and falsehood. Since falsehood is contrary to God’s holy nature and is, in fact, a part of Satan’s rebellious nature, God hates it. In Proverbs 6:16-19, Solomon lists seven things which God hates. Two of the seven have to do with lying. Proverbs 12:22 states, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight.”

Truthfulness is important to God because truth is the basis for all communication. The instant that Adam and Eve sinned, they experienced a breakdown in the close fellowship with God and with one another that they had known before the fall. They tried to hide from God and they were uncomfortable with their nakedness before one another. When God confronted Adam, he blamed Eve for his sin and she blamed the serpent. We all have struggled with communication ever since. When you think about it, it’s ridiculous not to be honest before God, because He knows our every thought. But, we still try to hide our sins from Him!

At the heart of good communication and close relationships is trust. If you do not trust someone, you instinctively draw back and protect yourself. If you think that he will take personal matters that you share in confidence and broadcast them to others, you will not open up and share your heart. Distrust results in distance in relationships and dishonesty causes distrust. You can spend a lifetime building trust in your marriage or on the job, but one stupid lie can erode that trust in an instant. So, truthfulness is very important to God, because it is the basis for all communication.

C. Choose to obey God by making a prior commitment not to lie, but rather to speak the truth.

First, you must choose to obey God. When Paul addresses this subject, he does not say, “Go to a therapist and try to figure out why you are prone to lying. There must be something in the way your parents treated you at the root of this problem!” Nor does he say, “Pray for victory in this area.” Rather, he says, “Stop lying and start speaking the truth!” In other words, choose to obey God.

Second, make a prior commitment not to lie. In other words, you must decide not to lie before you get into a situation that hits you broadside. Paul says here that you must decisively throw off lying as you would throw off dirty, smelly clothes. It’s part of the old life of corruption and deceit, so as a new creature in Christ, commit yourself to say no to the temptation to lie.

You have to make this commitment before the temptation hits because it’s easy to get trapped into lying. Note how Satan set up Peter for his fall. The servant girl who kept the door said to Peter (John 18:17), “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” The question begs for a negative answer. Peter fell into sin by replying, “I am not.” Maybe your dad says, “You don’t know how this scratch got into the fender of the car, do you?” Be careful! It’s so easy to say, “No, what scratch?” And then, once you’ve lied, it’s even more difficult to correct yourself and tell the truth the next time. So, you dig yourself in deeper with another lie and another one, until it becomes a habit pattern of sin.

Third, make a prior commitment to tell the truth, even if it makes you look bad. Usually, we lie because the truth will expose our sin. Or, we fear what will happen if we’re honest. When Abraham went down to Egypt to escape the famine, he told Sarah to say that she was his sister, because he was afraid that if the Egyptians knew that she was his wife, they would kill him in order to take her (Gen. 12:10-20). He justified the lie because it was half true. She was the daughter of his father, but not of his mother. But, the truth was that she also was his wife. Not learning his lesson the first time, Abraham repeated the same lie years later with Abimelech (Gen. 20:1-18). Isaac later followed dad’s steps with the same sin (Gen. 26:7-11). Each time, it was out of fear of what might happen if they told the truth. Such fear never stems from faith in God.

One way to begin this battle to become a person of truth is to resolve to speak the truth even in small matters. Invariably, those who fail in major ways, such as perjury, fraud, or illegal cover-ups, don’t begin there. They lie about small things, until their conscience is callused. Lying doesn’t bother them anymore. Then, they get hit with a major temptation that could send them to prison. Out of habit and panic, they lie. It is far better to be scrupulously honest about everything.

So, to lay aside falsehood and speak the truth, recognize the source of truth and of falsehood. Recognize the importance of truth to God. Choose to obey God by making a prior commitment to speak the truth in every situation.

D. Confess your sins immediately, first to God and then to the ones you have sinned against.

We fall into a habit of lying because we don’t want God or others to know about our sin. As I said, it’s ridiculous to think that we can hide our falsehood from God. He sees the hidden thoughts of our hearts (Heb. 4:13). But, we mistakenly think that it is to our advantage to hide our sins from others. But it is not, because invariably the truth comes out and our sin is exposed. The more we have covered up, the more it erodes any sense of trust. It’s far better to ask forgiveness even after a minor falsehood, to keep your conscience tender and to maintain trust in relationships. Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.”

E. Consider the consequences of lying.

Proverbs 19:5 warns, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who tells lies will not escape” (see, also, Prov. 19:9; 21:28). Although you may be able to cite cases of those that have lied and gotten away with it, they didn’t get away with it before God! If you sow falsehood, you won’t reap God’s blessing. Ask yourself the following questions about lying:

How could my lying bring glory to God? Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Everything we do should be for His glory (1 Cor. 10:31). It is hard to conceive of how a lie could glorify the God of truth who cannot lie!

How will my lying affect other believers? We will consider this more in a moment. But, since lying erodes trust and leads to breakdowns in communication, lying is not for the good of others. You may think that it protects them, but invariably it hurts them.

How will my lying affect my family? If your mate has reason to doubt your truthfulness, it will create distance between you. If your children see you bending the truth, they won’t need to be taught to follow your example! Rather, they should see you telling the truth even when it costs you. Use the occasions when a clerk gives you too much change to teach your children the value of honesty.

How will my lying affect my testimony before unbelievers? People read your life. They know that you profess to be a Christian and attend church. If they see you lying on the job, or keeping quiet about the truth when it is to your financial advantage, you have no basis for telling them about the Savior. If a boss asks you to cover for him by lying, you need to be ready graciously to refuse and explain why. He may not like you and he may even fire you. But your testimony is worth much more than a job!

How will my lying affect my eternity? I am not saying that you will lose your salvation by lying. As I said, some great men and women of faith were guilty of lying. But I am saying that if you claim to be a Christian, but you continue to live as you did before you became a Christian, you need to take a serious look at whether your faith in Christ is genuine. Those who are characterized by lying or who always excuse it in some way are not giving any evidence that they have been created anew in righteousness and holiness of the truth. Revelation 21:8 warns with regard to all liars, “their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” As Christians, we must fight our fleshly tendency towards lying. We must become people of truth. At the end of our verse, Paul tells us why:

3. The motive for laying aside falsehood and speaking the truth is that we are members of one another.

Paul already used the analogy of the body of Christ in connection with speaking the truth in love (4:14-16). Here, he brings it up again, citing Zechariah 8:16, where the Jews as the restored people of God are exhorted to speak truth with one another. But, Paul adds this reason, that we are members of one another.

The health of your physical body depends on truthful communication between the members through the nervous system. If you put your finger on a hot stove and your nerves do not relay to the brain, “this is hot,” you will suffer severe injury. A person with leprosy lacks this communication between the nerves and the brain. He can actually destroy his own hand without knowing it.

This means that if you lie to your mate or to another member of the body of Christ, you are injuring yourself and, even worse, you are injuring Christ, because He is one with His body. So if you would not deliberately injure yourself, and if you don’t want to injure your family, and most importantly, if you don’t want to injure the Savior who gave Himself for you on the cross, you must develop the habit of laying aside falsehood and speaking truth, for we are members of one another.

Conclusion

Augustine shrewdly observed (Confessions, Book X, chapter XXIII), “I have had experience of many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived.” If you don’t want others to deceive you, then don’t deceive others. If the Holy Spirit has used this verse to convict you of falsehood, confess it to the Lord and to those whom you have wronged. Become a person who habitually speaks the truth in love.

Application Questions

  1. Is it ever morally right to lie? What about to protect someone’s life? What about to protect someone’s reputation?
  2. Is lying a matter of degree or is it black and white? What if you withhold some of what you know—is this lying or prudence?
  3. Why is it important to be truthful even in small matters? How should you respond when a host asks whether you liked a meal that you disliked? Etc.
  4. Does being truthful require sharing your every thought? Why/ why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 33: How to Be Both Good and Mad (Ephesians 4:26-27)

A 27-year-old man pleaded guilty to assault after he was arrested for accosting a 59-year-old woman in St. Paul, Minnesota. They were waiting for a bus when he began yelling at her, “Why don’t you show me some respect?” When she took out a cell phone to call police, he hit her in the face. When a 63-year-old man intervened, the angry young man hit him with a folder, which fell on the ground as he fled. Police tracked the man down after finding his name in the folder, along with his homework from an anger management class, where he was headed when he lost his temper and hit the woman (Flag Live [March 6-12, 2008])! Well, I guess we can be glad that he’s working on the problem!

Anger is a huge problem, not only in the world, but also in the evangelical church. During my years in the ministry, I’ve seen many Christian marriages break up because of abusive anger. I’ve even heard of pastors who use anger to intimidate and control their families and to dominate others in the church. I have seen fathers and mothers who are abusively angry towards their children, usually under the excuse of exercising biblical discipline. I’ve seen church members angry with other church members to the point of leaving the church, rather than be reconciled.

Almost always, those who are angry deny it. I once had an elder at my church in California whose face was red, the veins on his neck were bulging, and his fists were clenched as he vehemently said to me through clenched teeth, “I am not angry!” I would venture to say that there are some here today who may put on a happy face for church, but the rest of the week, you are like a smoldering volcano, waiting to erupt.

In light of the enormity of this problem, we may rightly be puzzled at Paul’s command in our text, “Be angry, and do not sin.” The NIV interprets the phrase with its paraphrase, “In your anger, do not sin.” It is literally a command, quoted from the Septuagint version of Psalm 4:4: “Be angry, and do not sin.” Why would Paul command us to be angry, especially in light of what he commands just a few verses later (4:31), that we put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor” [yelling]?

The NIV paraphrase is one interpretation, that Paul is acknowledging that we all get angry, but is telling us not to sin when we do. But it stretches the grammar to take that interpretation. It is better to say that Paul is using the citation of Psalm 4 to say that we should be angry about some things, but even then we need to be careful so that it does not become sinful anger.

In the context of Psalm 4, David is being falsely accused by his enemies who are seeking his life. In verse 4, he is probably addressing his over-zealous supporters, who would quickly settle accounts by giving vent to their fierce anger (see Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 [IVP], p. 56). The Hebrew verb is literally, “Tremble,” which the translators of the LXX understood to be, “tremble with anger.” The idea is, “Be angry enough so that you don’t passively acquiesce to sin, but don’t allow your anger to boil over into sinful vengeance or excessive reaction.”

Keep in mind that Paul is telling us specific ways in which we need to put off the old way of life and put on the new. One characteristic of the world is that worldly people do not get angry about the right things. They see sins that destroy people, shrug their shoulders and say, “Whatever!” Or, even worse, they laugh at these sins as they are portrayed on the evil sitcoms on TV. In this apathy toward sin, they are very un-godlike.

God hates sin and He displays His righteous wrath against it (Rom. 1:18). Since sin destroys people, God would be neither righteous nor loving if He did not hate sin with a holy passion. And, if we want to be godly people, we must learn to hate sin. First of all we must hate and be angry at sin in ourselves. We must take the log out of our own eye first! But, also, we must be angry at the sin and injustice that we see in the world. But, in our righteous anger, we must be careful, lest we fall into sin. So Paul here is saying,

When you are righteously angry, deal with it promptly, carefully, and biblically, so that the devil does not gain an opportunity in your life.

All of the sins that Paul deals with in this section (4:25-5:2) disrupt the unity of the body (which is the theme of

1. Righteous anger is a God-given emotion that can help if you process it biblically.

As I said, righteous anger is an attribute of God. It reflects His settled opposition to and hatred of sin. Jesus, who never sinned, was righteously angry. When the Pharisees opposed Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, Mark 3:5 states of Jesus, “After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart….” Although the Bible does not use the word “anger” to describe Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, it does not require a stretch of imagination to conclude that He was very angry with the sin of those who were making a profit in that place of worship. The same may be said when He pronounced woe after woe on the Jewish religious leaders for leading the people astray (Matthew 23). When He comes again in power and glory, He will tread “the wine press of the fierce wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15).

This means that as we grow to be more like Jesus, we will also grow in righteous anger towards sin. First and foremost, we should be angry at our own sin, which should lead us to take whatever drastic steps are needed to deal with it. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus links the sin of anger with the command against murder and says that those who do not deal with this sin are headed for hell. A few verses later, He says the same thing about the sin of lust, telling us to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand, rather than go to hell. He did not mean it literally, of course, but He used this graphic, drastic language to say that we must hate our sin with a passion.

And, with proper constraint and carefulness (which I will describe in a moment), we need to be righteously angry at sin in others. I would probably never write a letter to the editor of the paper if I didn’t get angry about what I read there. The anger motivates me to proper action. I would never go to the hassle of confronting someone in sin if I were not angry and grieved at how the sin is destroying lives.

So, if you hear of a man who is ruining his family because of sexual sin or because of sinful anger, you should get angry. If you hear of someone who is dividing a local church over petty issues or by spreading gossip, anger is a proper response. If you hear of a little child who is being mistreated, it should anger you. Anger is the proper response in each situation because it is God’s response. We have to be very careful in how we process our anger, but we would be wrong not to be angry in those situations, because apathy towards sin is not a godly response.

I might add that even unbiblical anger may be useful, in that it often reveals blind spots in your life that you need to address. Just as what you laugh about reveals much of your heart, so also what you get mad about reveals much of your heart. My anger at slow drivers who don’t let you pass reveals my impatience, which is sin. This leads to the second point:

2. When you are angry, you must determine whether it is righteous or unrighteous anger.

This is not always an easy task, because anger is a strong emotion, and when you are emotional, you’re not very rational! So you need to cool down enough to think rationally and biblically about your anger. God confronted Cain with his anger by asking (Gen. 4:6), “Why are you angry?” Of course, God wasn’t puzzled about Cain’s anger! He wanted Cain to analyze his own anger (see, also, Jonah 4:4). Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Scripture Truth Book Company], 6:707) cites one who says, “If we would be angry and not sin, we must be angry at nothing but sin; and we should be more jealous for the glory of God than for any interest or reputation of our own.” That’s a helpful guideline!

A. Righteous anger is a reaction to sin or injustice, usually against others.

As I said, we need to be angry at our own sin, but when someone sins against us, we need to be careful. We may feel angry, but we need to check our anger and respond with compassion and understanding towards the other person. Remember the parable that Jesus told (Matt. 18:23-35) about the slave who owed his master an astronomical sum, which the master graciously forgave. Then the slave went out and grabbed a fellow slave who owed him far less by comparison, but couldn’t repay. In a rage had him thrown into prison. A major point of that story is that when we are wronged, we need to keep in mind how much God has forgiven us, so that we show compassion towards those who have wronged us.

But when we see someone else who is sinned against or we see some terrible injustice that is done towards a class of people, it should move us to enough anger to take action as we are able. I realize that we must pick our battles or else our every waking moment would be consumed with speaking out against the abundant evils of our culture. But I can’t help but wonder whether our nation would have abolished or greatly restricted abortion on demand if more Christians had expressed outrage at this terrible sin. Would our culture tolerate pornography, gambling, and drunkenness, if God’s people wrote letters to legislators and to newspapers, speaking out against these destructive sins? When we see sin or injustice against others, it should move us to righteous anger, which should motivate us to action. But, we must be careful because it is easy to confuse righteous anger with unrighteous.

B. Unrighteous anger is a reaction based almost always on selfishness.

If you analyze your own anger, you will probably come to the embarrassing conclusion, as I have, that most of it stems from pure selfishness. Like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, I am angry because I wanted my way and I didn’t get my way! I had a right to something and my rights were violated! Even most frustration, which is borderline anger, stems from the same thing. I want to get somewhere in a hurry, and this stupid driver ahead of me is going under the speed limit. I’m frustrated because I’m not getting my way! Or, if others don’t see things my way, I’m frustrated with their “insensitivity” or “stupidity.” All of these angry feelings stem from my inherent selfishness. All such anger is really ultimately directed against the sovereign God. If He would just do it my way, I wouldn’t be in these frustrating circumstances! It’s embarrassing, but if you will analyze your own anger, I think you’ll agree that most of it is due to simple selfishness.

Also, in the Bible anger is almost always sinful if it is quickly and explosively expressed. Paul says that love is both patient and not provoked (1 Cor. 13:4, 5). James 1:19-20 states, “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Proverbs 17:14 states, “The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so abandon the quarrel before it breaks out.” The picture is that of the devastation that happens when a dam breaks. You will hear people say, “I just explode and then it’s all over!” Yes, just like a bomb—but look at the devastation!

Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin” (the NASB translators added yet). How can we be angry and at the same time avoid sin?

3. Deal with all anger promptly, carefully, and biblically.

We will deal further with unrighteous anger when we get to verses 31-32. But for now, here are seven ways to deal with your anger in a prompt, careful, and biblical manner:

A. Control your anger.

You may be thinking, “That’s my problem! I can’t control it! Before I even think about it, I explode. I just have a short fuse!” But, the truth of the matter is that you can control it. You just do not want to control it, because controlling it means judging your own selfishness, which is at the root of most of it.

You can control your anger because God commands it. Often in Scripture God commands us to control our anger. He would not do so if it were impossible. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control, which certainly includes the control of anger. Not to control your anger is to deny the power of the gospel in your life and it is to deny the principle of the one body of Christ. If you smash your thumb with a hammer, you don’t cut off the thumb in anger for getting in the way, or whack off the hand that held the hammer for being so careless. Rather, you nurture the sore thumb back to health because it’s part of your body. If you remember that you are members of the same body with other believers, you will control your anger.

Furthermore, you can control your anger because your experience proves it. Suppose for the sake of illustration (this is purely hypothetical!), you and your mate are having an angry quarrel when the phone rings. I am on the other end. How do you speak with me? In a cheery voice you instantly turn off your anger and say, “Hello, pastor! Yes, we’re all fine around here!” You’re controlling your anger instantly because you don’t want to be embarrassed. You do the same thing at work when your boss irritates you. You control your anger because you don’t want to lose your job. So you can control your anger. It’s just that often you don’t want to!

But the Bible is clear that all uncontrolled anger is sin. When Shechem violated Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, Jacob was sinfully apathetic about it. Jacob’s sons were rightly grieved over the incident, because it was a shameful thing (Gen. 34:7). But then they wrongly allowed their righteous anger to move them to sin. They deceived the men of the city, so that they could slaughter the entire male population, loot the city, and take the women and children as captives. What began as righteous anger got out of control and ended in cruelty and violence  (see Gen. 49:7).

B. Analyze your anger as to whether it is righteous, unrighteous, or mixed.

I’ve already touched on this, but I mention it again because it’s a tricky process. Often, even righteous anger gets mixed up with selfish motives. Maybe I’m in a theological debate, defending God’s truth with a fair amount of passion. Maybe, but often my passion is not so much for God’s glory as it is for my being right! So you have to sort it all out and judge your pride.

C. Be careful with all anger, since it can easily move from righteous to unrighteous.

As I said, Jacob’s sons were probably righteously angry, but they let it move into sinful anger. We are so easily governed by selfish motives that we need to be very careful when we feel angry. When a village of the Samaritans would not receive Jesus, James and John were indignant. They asked Jesus (Luke 9:54), “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They could have cited chapter and verse for that response, because that’s what Elijah the prophet did when the king of Israel sent soldiers to arrest him (2 Kings 1:9-16). But, Jesus rebuked James and John for their lack of compassion! So, be careful!

D. If your anger is righteous, prayerfully think through a course of action that will bring glory to God by furthering His righteous purpose.

This applies to disciplining your children or to confronting your mate or confronting someone in the church who has sinned against you. Your aim should never be to win or to show them who is right. Your aim should be to help the other person grow in godliness and maturity. While anger may motivate you to take action, the action you take must be done with gentleness and kindness, looking to yourself, lest you, too, be tempted (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). It is always sinful to hit your child with frustration or uncontrolled anger. It is always sinful angrily to call someone names or to put him down. These kinds of angry reactions do not further the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

E. Allow your righteous anger to motivate you to prompt action.

When Paul says, “do not let the sun go down on your anger,” he is not speaking literally. If he were, an Eskimo could stay angry all summer! Rather, Paul meant, be prompt in dealing with it so that it doesn’t fester into unrighteous anger or bitterness. As Jesus said (Matt. 5:23-24), if you’re worshiping and there remember that you’re at odds with your brother, go be reconciled immediately and then come back and worship. If you leave the house after an angry exchange with your wife, call her the instant that you are convicted of your sin. Or, if you are righteously angry about something, take prayerful action as you as you can. Don’t let the anger grow into bitterness or rage.

F. Attack the problem, not the person.

I know, sometimes this is a difficult thing to sort out, because the person is the problem! But your aim should be to help restore the person, not to win or to prove that you are right. Remember your own shortcomings and sins, so that you go with humility and compassion. Emphasize that you desire to have the relationship with the person restored.

G. Be careful to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, even when you are righteously angry.

Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim. 2:24-25), “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” Kindness, patience, and gentleness are all fruits of the Spirit, the first of which is love. Even when you’re righteously angry, you must speak the truth in love. In 4:27, Paul adds the reason why we must deal even with righteous anger in a careful, biblical, and prompt manner:

4. If you do not deal with anger in a biblical manner, you give the devil an opportunity in your life.

Unrighteous anger opens the door of your life so that the enemy can come in and wreak havoc! Calvin rightly says (Sermons on Ephesians [Banner of Truth], p. 450) that verse 27 ought to make the hair on our heads stand up! Satan is a hideous enemy who seeks to destroy and devour you like a roaring lion (1 Pet. 5:8). If there were a lion loose in your neighborhood, I’m sure you’d lock all your doors at night!. Sinful anger leaves your door ajar against the lion prowling for souls! If you don’t want a lion loose inside your house, you’ve got to deal with your anger biblically!

Conclusion

The Scottish hymn writer, George Matheson, said, “There are times when I do well to be angry, but I have mistaken the times.” He is right! There are times when it is sin to be apathetic, but be careful! It is so easy to justify sinful anger by labeling it as righteous. It is possible to be both good and mad, but we must deal with it promptly, carefully, and biblically, so that the enemy does not gain a foothold in our lives.

Application Questions

  1. Since there is so much sin and injustice in the world, how can we know when we should take action against it?
  2. Since we’re all so prone to self-justification, how can we objectively evaluate whether our anger is righteous or not?
  3. Agree/disagree: Most anger stems from selfishness or wounded pride?
  4. Is it right to use some vehemence to express righteous anger (e.g., the biblical prophets)? When do we go overboard?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 34: To Cure a Thief (Ephesians 4:28)

At first glance, you may wonder why Paul included a verse about stealing in a letter to Christians. And, you may wonder why I would devote an entire message to this verse. After all, isn’t stealing just a problem for unbelievers, not for us evangelical Christians?

I won’t do it, but to get us to face reality, I could ask for a show of hands (heads bowed, eyes closed, of course) as to how many were tempted to steal or actually stole something in the past month. Since most of us have been working on our taxes during that time, it might be more skewed than at other times. We’re all tempted to think, “The government wastes billions of dollars every year. They won’t miss the tax on the extra income that I made in cash if I don’t report it!” But to act on that temptation is stealing!

While few of us would be tempted to pull off an armed robbery, if the situation is just right, it can be very tempting to take what does not belong to us. A 20-year Pinkerton study found that 30 percent of the population will steal, not only if the opportunity arises, but also will create the opportunity whenever possible. Forty percent will steal if there’s little danger of getting caught. Only 30 percent won’t steal at all (L. M. Boyd column, 9/6/1999). But I would venture to say that even the 30 percent would be tempted,

         If there’s no chance of getting caught;

         If it’s something you really need and can use;

         If it’s a small item that won’t be missed;

         If you figure that the company or government agency can afford it; or,

         If you rationalize that everyone else takes little things.

People don’t need much encouragement to steal. According to a 2002 National Retail Security Survey, inventory shrinkage (a combination of employee theft, shoplifting, vendor fraud and administrative error) cost U.S. retailers over $31 billion, which was 1.7 percent of their total annual sales. Inventory shrinkage remains the single largest category of larceny in the United States, more than motor vehicle theft, bank robbery and household burglary combined. Ultimately consumers are hurt the most in the form of higher prices. An average family of four will spend more than $440 per year in higher prices because of inventory theft (http://retailindustry.about.com/od/statistics_loss_prevention/1/ aa021126a.htm). And, that number probably does not include the amount that retailers spend on security and theft prevention!

The Internet has opened up a whole new avenue for thieves, namely, identity theft. Back in 2003, one in four American households were victims of identity theft in the previous five years (USA Today, 9/04/2003). In 2003 alone, identity theft cost individual victims $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses and nearly $48 billion in losses to businesses and financial institutions (http://www.white­canyon.com/identity-theft-statistics-ut-09-2003.php).

So, stealing is a widespread human problem. As such, it is a huge temptation for us as Christians living in this evil world. In the context of our text, Paul is spelling out in detail a number of changes that Christians must make as a result of the new birth. In general terms, we must put off the old way of life, be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and put on the new way of life (4:22-24). Specifically, this includes putting away falsehood and speaking the truth (4:25); putting aside sinful anger and being careful with righteous anger (4:26-27); and, not stealing, but instead, working and giving (4:28). Stealing goes hand in hand with falsehood, because thieves must lie and deceive in order not to get caught. But,

Believers must stop stealing and instead work hard so that they can give to those in need.

Verse 28 implies several changes: from selfishness to service; from taking to giving; from thinking only of my needs to thinking of the needs of others; from laziness to hard work; from deception to honesty; and, from irresponsibility to responsibility. Our lives as Christians should reflect these changes. Paul doesn’t go into any analysis of why people steal. He just says, “Stop doing it.” In effect, he is saying, “Stealing isn’t Christian behavior. You’re a Christian now. So stop stealing.” But the Bible does reveal several root causes that lead people to steal. So I want to examine five causes of stealing, contrasting them with five changes that will cure a thief.

1. Stealing stems from a lack of genuine conversion; a main cure for stealing is truly to trust in Christ as your Savior.

A. Stealing stems from a lack of genuine conversion.

People can change from being thieves to being honest apart from the gospel, but that is just moralism. Many unbelievers pride themselves on being honest people, and I’m glad that many of them are honest, in that it makes for a better world. But, apart from God giving a person a genuine change of heart, they are prone to thievery. Jesus said (Mark 7:21-23), “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

So if stealing proceeds from within, from the heart, the problem cannot truly be dealt with apart from a supernatural change of heart, which the Bible describes as the new birth:

B. A main cure for stealing is truly to trust in Christ as your Savior.

Paul warned the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:9-11), “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

The great news of the Bible is that none of these terrible sins put a person beyond the reach of salvation. Jesus came to save sinners. Even though your life has been consumed with any or all of these sins, as many of the Corinthians’ lives had been, God can deliver you from them through the power of the cross (see 1 Cor. 1:18-31).

But, Paul’s warning indicates that a person may make a profession of faith in Christ and yet continue to live in these sins. Such a person is deceived into thinking that he will inherit God’s kingdom, but he will be shocked to hear the Lord say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). In other words, while believers may fall into these sins, if they characterize someone’s life, with no repentance and no effort to change, it is evidence that he is not genuinely converted. So the cure for stealing is to make sure that you have been washed from your sins through faith in Jesus Christ, crucified in your place.

2. Stealing stems from a temporal value system; a cure for stealing is to establish biblical priorities.

A. Stealing stems from a temporal value system.

If you’re living for the things of this world, you’ll be tempted to steal to get those things if the opportunity presents itself. Jesus said (Matt. 6:19-21), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If your treasure is on earth, your heart will be on earth. And since theft is a heart problem (Mark 7:21-23), you’ve got to ask God to change your heart from a temporal value system to an eternal one, where your supreme treasure is the joy of being with Jesus in heaven.

The apostle John wrote (1 John 2:15-17), “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever.” He’s making the same point as Jesus: a person with a temporal value system—who values money, status, and material things above eternal matters—has a heart problem. It is a matter of what you love or desire. If you love earthly things more than heavenly treasures, you will be more prone to steal to get them.

A person with a temporal value system will usually be out of line in several ways:

         He views things, not God, as the key to happiness.

He thinks that if he can just get that new car, that nicer home, or that latest gadget, he will be happy. His happiness centers around a steady influx of new things. Heaven may be nice for the far-distant future, but his focus right now is on accumulating more and more things. The “prosperity gospel” (which is heresy, not a gospel at all) promotes this mindset. God becomes the means to your material prosperity. But He is not your chief joy; rather, it’s the stuff that He can provide for you.

The most tragic example of this in the Bible is Judas, who was the treasurer for Jesus and the disciples. Rather than pursuing the joy of knowing Jesus intimately, Judas used his position to steal (John 12:6). This set him up for Satan’s main aim, which was to get Judas to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. That was the worst of all possible trades!

         He views things as the key to success and status.

This is the “boastful pride of life,” to think that success and status will bring satisfaction to your soul. This person seeks to impress others with his things—the way he dresses, the cars that he drives, or the expensive toys that he owns. Such a life is built around a temporal value system.

         He views things as the key to future security.

A person with a temporal value system isn’t trusting in the Lord for the future, but rather in his financial portfolio. If a man thinks that he is set because he has plenty of solid investments, or extensive real estate, or a fat retirement account, he’s trusting in the wrong things. All of those things could be taken in an instant, if an enemy overthrew our government. They will be taken in a heartbeat when he dies (Luke 12:16-21). While the Bible strongly commands us to provide adequately for our families (1 Tim. 5:8), it is wrong to trust in our provisions rather than in the Lord.

If you are living for temporal values, rather than for eternity, you will be more prone to steal when the temptation comes, as surely it will. Even Christians can fall into this. My dad once had business dealings with a man who was a prominent and gifted Sunday School teacher in a large Baptist church. In fact, he was featured in a film about how to be a successful Bible teacher. In his business life, he offered first trust deeds to investors. I saw some of these offerings. They pictured beautiful homes with their addresses. You could invest in the mortgage, supposedly secured by the properties, and receive a secure rate of return.

The problem was, because of his position as a well-known Sunday School teacher, people trusted him without checking on these investments. It came out that he was just making them up and using investor funds to pay early returns, in a sort of Ponzi scheme. The last I heard, this man who was then in his seventies was arrested and sent to prison for fraud. You would think that at that point in life, his focus would be on eternity! But his temporal value system led him to steal.

B. A cure for stealing is to establish biblical priorities.

Godliness, not financial gain, should be your aim. In 1 Timothy 6:5, Paul warns Timothy about men “who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.” They were an early version of today’s prosperity teachers, using religion for personal financial profit. Paul goes on to say that we didn’t bring anything into the world, so we won’t be taking it with us in a U-Haul! He then warns (6:9-11),

But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love perseverance and gentleness.

A starting point to establish biblical priorities is to yield the rightful ownership of all your assets to God. You don’t own any of it; He owns it all. You just manage it for Him and you will give Him an account someday of how you managed it in light of His kingdom purposes. If you think of your money and possessions as belonging to God, you will not be prone to stealing.

3. Stealing stems from not trusting God to supply your needs; a cure for stealing is to trust God for finances through prayer and financial faithfulness.

A. Stealing stems from not trusting God to supply your needs.

A person who steals is obviously not trusting God to provide. Rather, he is disobeying God and probably justifying it by thinking, “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to survive.” Martin Luther once came upon a group of peasants who were breaking into a mill to take some corn. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. Terrified, one of the men answered, “We know it’s wrong to steal, but after all, we have to live.” Luther indignantly responded, “I do not know that one must live. But one must be honest!” (In “Our Daily Bread,” Summer, 1979.) Not trusting God leads to stealing.

B. A cure for stealing is to trust God for finances through prayer and financial faithfulness.

God not only wants you to pray, but also to work hard, as we’ll see in a moment. But we all need to depend on God through prayer to provide for our basic needs. The Lord taught us to pray (Matt. 6:11), “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Also, part of trusting God for adequate finances is that we act with financial faithfulness. In other words, you can’t ask God to provide for your financial needs at the same time that you’re squandering His resources on careless living. I have repeatedly seen Christians who ask the church for financial help. But then I see them taking the family out to dinner, or I go to their house and see a large screen TV, hooked up to the cable! Or, they run up credit card debt on frivolous purchases, but they don’t pay their basic bills. So, when an opportunity to steal comes along, they yield to the temptation. At the root of their sin is that they are not trusting God for finances and they’re not being faithful stewards.

4. Stealing stems from laziness; a cure for stealing is to assume responsibility through hard work.

A. Stealing stems from laziness.

The thief doesn’t want to work, so he steals instead. I have seen people who work so hard at stealing that if they worked that hard at a real job, they’d do okay! But working would take weeks or months to get what you can often steal in a few minutes. So thieves are often lazy people.

Some lazy people manage to hold down jobs, but they’re still prone to steal whenever they see an opportunity. They don’t want to work hard and be disciplined with their money. They see stealing as an easy and quick way to get ahead. Laziness is at the root of their sin of stealing.

B. A cure for stealing is to assume responsibility through hard work.

Paul says, “but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good.” The word, “labor,” means hard work or toil. God ordained work as a good thing. Adam was given work to do in the garden before the fall. And while Paul’s mention of working with our hands does not prohibit management or desk jobs, it does indicate that manual labor is a reputable and godly way to make a living. After all, Jesus was a carpenter and Paul made tents.

If you struggle with the temptation to be lazy (and thus to steal), my counsel is to get a job that pays a fixed wage and requires you to work fixed hours, because the discipline imposed by that kind of job will help you. A self-employed person must be self-motivated to discipline himself for work, or he will not succeed. So, get a steady job. When Paul says, “what is good,” he means a job that is useful in some capacity to people. There are certain jobs that Christians should not work in. For example, Christians should avoid working at casinos or liquor stores. Some jobs may be permissible, but they will put you in situations of strong temptation. If your job is causing you to stumble, look for another job.

To this point, a person could stop stealing and start working to provide for his own needs, and yet live a self-centered, materialistic lifestyle. So the final point is essential:

5. Stealing stems from selfishness and greed; a cure for stealing is to look for opportunities to serve and give.

A. Stealing stems from selfishness and greed.

Thieves are selfish and greedy. They do not care about others or think about others’ needs, but only about themselves. They want what they want and they will take advantage of others to get it. Often, such selfish people think, “They owe it to me,” or, “I deserve it.” I’ve read that studies show that prisoners, who are often there because of theft, have much higher self-esteem than the population at large! Their inflated view of self makes them think that they can take what belongs to others.

B. A cure for stealing is to look for opportunities to serve and give.

The person who works so that he can accumulate more stuff for himself has not dealt the axe-blow to the temptation to steal, because he is still essentially a selfish and greedy person. The cure for stealing is to work to earn money so that you can give to those in need. In other words, your mindset has to change radically from using money to serve yourself to using it to serve others.

The Bible condemns lazy people who refuse to work and then try to sponge off of others (2 Thess. 3:10; plus many references in Proverbs about the sluggard). If someone is able to work but does not; or he spends money on frivolous things and then doesn’t have money for necessities that he knew would come up later; the Bible mocks him as a fool. We are not under obligation to give to such people. In fact, to give to them is wrong, because it only encourages them to continue in their irresponsible ways. Love tries to teach, but if the person refuses to obey, love allows him to suffer the consequences of his foolish behavior.

But, there are people who are unable to work due to physical limitations or who have suffered financial setbacks due to health problems or some catastrophe. The cure for stealing is to look for those in need and serve them by sharing what you have earned through hard work.

Conclusion

A few years ago, a Church of England priest made the news when he suggested that it is not a sin to shoplift, as long as the victim is a big store. He said that it is wrong to steal from individuals or from small merchants. But, he rationalized, with giant retail corporations it’s different. He said that he wasn’t encouraging shoplifting, although he said, “if people wander in and wander out without paying for the stuff, I think it is a perfectly comprehensible action” (Arizona Daily Sun, 3/6/97)!

If by “comprehensible” he means, “understandable,” I’d say, “Yes, I understand why people steal.” But if he means that it is justifiable to steal, he is denying God’s Word! Believers must stop stealing and instead work hard so that they can give to those in need. When the former thief becomes a worker and a giver, he has cured the problem!

Application Questions

  1. What should a Christian (who can’t afford to lose his job) do if his boss asks him to fudge an account statement in favor of the company?
  2. How can a lazy person recognize this sin in himself and then overcome it? What steps should he take?
  3. What are some jobs that a Christian should never take? What are some jobs that may be morally difficult for Christians?
  4. Is it wrong for Christians to gamble? Is this a form of stealing? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 35: Transformed Talk (Ephesians 4:29)

A catering manager was discussing a baby-christening party with a young couple. She told the mother of the baby, “You look like you’ve lost most of your pregnancy weight.”

“Thanks,” came the clenched-teeth reply. “We adopted” (Reader’s Digest [June, 2005], p. 67). File that away in your memory as what never to say!

Try as we may, we all have erred with our tongues! James 3:2 says, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” While we may never achieve perfect control over our tongues, I’m convinced that if husbands and wives would consistently apply Ephesians 4:29, we would rarely see divorce. If parents practiced this verse toward their children, we would see few children from Christian homes rebel against their parents. If we applied it towards one another in the church, we would see few churches split over personality conflicts or minor doctrinal issues. In short, Ephesians 4:29 is a verse that would bring radical change in all of our relationships if we would apply it conscientiously: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”

As we’ve seen (4:22-24), Paul has taught us that believers will put off the old way of life, be renewed in their minds, and put on the new way of life, which is consistent with being a new creature in Christ. Then he goes from preaching to meddling by getting very specific: Put off falsehood and speak truth (4:25). Put on righteous anger, being careful not to let it spill over into sinful anger, which would give Satan a foothold in your life (4:26-27). Stop stealing and instead, work hard and give to those in need (4:28). Now, he says that Christians must transform their talk.

Transformed talk is implicit in truthful speech, in righteous anger, and in not stealing, since stealing usually involves lying. Paul will also deal with our speech in 4:31 (bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander) and in 5:3-4 (impure speech, coarse jokes). So our talk is a major area where the gospel will make a huge difference. Just as you can often tell where someone is from by his accent, so people should be able to tell that you’re a Christian by your transformed talk. Paul is saying that…

Rather than using your words to tear down others, use them to build up others.

We will follow Paul’s outline by first looking at the problem and then at the solution.

1. The problem: We can use our words to tear down others.

I do not advise it, but if you turn on any TV show on any night of the week, you will not have to watch very long before you hear examples of speech that tears down others. Most of the “humor” on TV sitcoms comes from husbands and wives, parents and children, or coworkers putting each other down! But, that is a characteristic of the old life, not of our new life in Christ. If you want God to transform your speech in line with our text, you should not be watching, much less laughing at, shows where the “humor” comes from the people putting each other down.

A. To get rid of unwholesome speech, you must identify it.

The Greek word translated “unwholesome” means rotten, useless, or unprofitable. It is used (Matt. 7:17-18) to refer to rotten fruit. It is also used of rotten fish (Matt. 13:48). John Piper (http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByScrip­ture/3/562_Make_Your_Mouth_a_Means_of_Grace/) observes that such rotten speech, like rotten fruit and rotten fish, will not nourish anyone. It contaminates. It will make you sick. And, it smells bad and creates an unpleasant atmosphere for anyone who gets near it. So Paul tells us to get rid of it like rotten fruit or fish.

B. Some examples of rotten speech:

We could probably come up with more, but here are twelve examples of rotten speech:

(1). Name-calling, put-downs, & trading insult for insult.

Often this is done for so-called “humor,” but it does not honor God or build up others. 1 Peter 3:9 says that we should not return insult for insult, but give a blessing instead.

(2). Inaccurate labeling.

This is not usually as caustic as name-calling, but it still tends to tear down others by lumping them with a negative group. Labels may be useful in identifying where a person is at on an issue, but they become harmful when we use them too quickly to write off someone because of some association. So be careful!

(3). Sarcasm, ridicule, mockery.

Godly people in the Bible occasionally use sarcasm, ridicule, and mockery against those who are leading people astray. Elijah, for example, mocked the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27). Jesus ridiculed the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and legalism (Matt. 23). But my experience is that using sarcasm is like righteous anger. It must be carefully controlled or it spills over into sin. I would advise you never to use sarcasm or ridicule as a couple toward each other or with your children. Never mock something that a person cannot change, such as a physical feature or a family background issue.

(4). Blaming, exaggerated attacks.

Blaming others came in with the fall, and it is a major element in ungodly speech. Often it is coupled with exaggeration, such as, “you always,” or “you never.”

(5). Griping, complaining.

Those in the world gripe and complain about everything, as you know if you have served in the military. But Christians are to do all things without grumbling or complaining (Phil. 2:14), because all complaints are ultimately directed at God, who sovereignly ordains our circumstances. Rather than griping about the difficult people in your life, thank God for them (1 Thess. 5:18).

(6). Destructive criticism.

If your words are not aimed at helping or healing, but only at venting your spleen, you are sinning. Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

(7). Angry words, including threats and revenge.

Such words are only trying to dominate or control the other person through fear and intimidation. Parents, of course, sometimes must warn a child of impending consequences if his behavior doesn’t change. But it should be done calmly with careful thought, not in the heat of anger. The aim should be to help your child grow in godliness, not to get revenge or to intimidate.

(8). Arguments where you seek to win so as to maintain power.

As husbands and wives, when you disagree about something, your aim should never be to win the argument, but rather to promote godliness in your marriage. You’ve got to judge your pride and allow Jesus Christ truly to be Lord of your tongue.

(9). Deception, lies, and manipulative speech.

We’ve already looked at this (4:25). Using manipulative speech to get your way is a form of deception.

(10). Gossip and slander.

Often, gossip and slander spread partial truths mixed with falsehood to make the other person look bad. Sometimes gossip and slander may be true, but the one you’re telling has no need to know the information. Sometimes it is done under the cover, “I wanted you to know so you could pray.” Often the one spreading gossip is feeding his pride by being in the know.

(11). Profanity.

We are not to take the Lord’s name in vain. This includes using shortened forms of the Lord’s name, such as (I would not even say it, but I often hear Christians say it), “O Jeez!” The same applies to the frequently used expression, “O my God!”

(12). Filthy talk and coarse jokes.

Paul specifically hits this (5:3-4). It includes all dirty jokes and using words for sex, which ought to be sacred, as swear words.

We could probably come up with more examples of rotten speech, but that list should give you enough to work on!

2. The solution: As new creatures in Christ, use your words to build up others.

Paul says that we should use “only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need [the translators added, of the moment], so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Five things:

A. To build up others, you must be a new creature in Christ.

Unbelievers may learn how to communicate civilly, but Paul is talking here about the transformation that stems from putting on the new man, “which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (4:24). If you teach an unbeliever how to communicate in a nice way, you’re just putting a tuxedo on a pig. You haven’t changed his nature, which is prone to pride and self-seeking. So his nice speech is really just a tool to get his way or to manipulate people for his own goals. But the Christian uses godly speech to glorify his Savior. It is a completely new motive stemming from the new birth.

B. To build up others with wholesome words, such words must first be in your thoughts.

The deeds of the flesh include (Gal. 5:20-21a) “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying….” Jesus said (Matt. 15:19), “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” He also said (Matt. 12:34), “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” So evil speech is rooted in an evil heart, which is why genuine conversion is the foundation for transformed talk.

But, I have even found Christians who do not judge their sin on the thought level, and so their evil thoughts escalate into evil words and often into evil actions. For example, a couple is having conflict in their marriage. He digs in his heels, and she clams up in anger. He storms out the door in the morning and throughout the day thinks, “That woman is so difficult to live with!” All day long he runs her down in his thoughts. Meanwhile, she does the same: “That man is so insensitive to my feelings!” She cries her eyes out and maybe calls up her friend and commiserates about how difficult it is to live with such a monster.

It’s a no-brainer: after both of them have spent the day thinking such sinful thoughts about each other, they aren’t going to have a wonderful evening together when he gets home from work! Their mouths will speak out of the sinful overflow of their hearts.

The solution is, judge your evil thoughts! Examine your own sins and shortcomings and ask God and your mate to forgive you. Take the log out of your own eye. Then, thank God throughout the day for your mate and pray for him or her to be a godly person. Think about how you can speak in such a way that will build up your mate. William Penn said, “If you think twice before you speak once, you will speak twice the better for it. Better to say nothing than not to the purpose. And to speak pertinently, consider both what is fit, and when it is fit, to speak” (Leadership [Summer, 1986], p. 75, old English updated).

C. To build up others, use wholesome words.

In Paul’s words, “what is good for edification.” Use words that will help the other person to grow in godliness. You can think of more, but here are nine examples of wholesome words:

(1). Encouragement and praise.

Paul writes (1 Thess. 5:11), “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.” Too often, parents only criticize or correct their kids. Instead, catch your kids doing something right and praise them for it! Encourage them in areas where they are doing well. Do the same with your mate.

(2). Appreciation and gratefulness.

This is related to encouragement and praise, and it must come from the heart (not as flattery or manipulation). If you are thinking rightly about your mate or children or co-workers, express it verbally. Tell them how much you appreciate all that they are doing. They won’t know it if you don’t put it into words.

(3). Loving words.

Say often, “I love you.” Say it to your mate, to your children, and to your parents. Someone has said, “If we knew that the world would end in ten minutes, everyone would be on the phone telling someone else, ‘I love you.’”

(4). Patient words.

“Love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4). This is often expressed not only by words, but also by facial expression and body language. Sometimes you should say, “That’s okay, you’re doing fine.” Impatience communicates pride on your part, because you’re really saying, “If you’d just get it together like me, things would be okay!”

(5). Kind words.

“Love is … kind” (1 Cor. 13:4). You should especially be kind when someone has done something dumb or has failed. It is tempting to ridicule the person, but at that moment, godly words of kindness are needed. You can say something like, “You know, I’ve done the same thing many times. It’s okay.”

(6). Gentle words.

The fruit of the Spirit includes gentleness (Gal. 5:23). The Greek word does not imply weakness, but rather strength under control. The gentle person is under the control of the Spirit, who is pictured as a gentle dove. Gentleness means thinking about how the other person feels and how your words will make him feel.

(7). Scripture that God has used in your life.

I’m not talking about preaching or using Scripture to berate the other person, but rather, using Scripture as God has taught you. This is probably the most edifying kind of speech, because God’s Word is given to build us up in the faith. You can say, “A verse that God used in my life when I was discouraged was, …”

(8). Words of loving correction, when needed.

Sometimes we must use our words to correct someone who is thinking or acting wrongly. Never just lash out, even if the person is in the wrong. Rather, always pray and think about how to speak in the most effective manner, with the aim of helping the person to grow in Christ. Every pastor and every Christian should know and practice 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.”

(9). Prayer.

Sometimes, you may not know what to say, but you can always say, “I don’t have the answer to this problem, but God does. Let’s ask for His wisdom and help.”

So, to build up others, you must be a new creature in Christ. You must first have wholesome words in your thoughts, the kinds of words that we have just seen some examples of.

D. To build up others, be sensitive to their needs.

Paul says that you must use words of edification, “according to the need.” This implies that you are sensitive enough to understand what the person’s real needs are. If you don’t understand the person’s needs, even well intentioned words can often hurt more than they heal. So, how do you find out the person’s needs?

(1). Learn the person’s needs by listening.

We’ve all had the frustrating experience of trying to talk to someone who wasn’t really listening. Perhaps the person offered a pat solution to your problem, but it was useless advice because you felt that he didn’t really hear what your need was.

You’ve got to listen to discern what the other person’s needs are. This is especially true when the other person is upset with you or criticizes you unfairly. You’ll be tempted to reciprocate by tearing into him. But, whether the other person’s comments are accurate or not, that person has a need and your words can either be like sword thrusts or like a scalpel that brings healing (Prov. 12:18). Coupled with listening well is…

(2). Learn the person’s needs by asking questions.

Proverbs 18:13 states, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” To listen well, you’ve got to ask clarifying questions so that you really understand the other person. You can ask, “Are you saying, …” and repeat back what you hear the person saying to find out if you’re hearing correctly.

(3). Learn the person’s needs by picking up non-verbal clues.

This is part of listening well, because much of communication is non-verbal. You can say, “I can see that you’re really upset. I’d like to understand what is wrong and help if I can.” But you won’t build up the other person unless you are sensitive to his needs.

E. To build up others, give them grace.

Paul says, “so that it will give grace to those who hear.” If you are at odds with anyone, perhaps because he or she has wronged you, you’ll be inclined to think, “But this person doesn’t deserve words that build him up! He deserves to be put down!” But, grace is undeserved favor! Grace extends to others what God has extended to you. It also extends to others what you need in return from others, because you often fall short or fail them. So, although it may be true that the other person does not deserve kind words that build him up, give him such words anyway!

When God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus, John (1:14) says, “and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus is full of grace and truth! As those who have put on the new man, created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph. 4:24), we should make sure that our words and actions are full of grace and truth. When Marla and I were raising our children, I used to say to her, “If we have to err in relating to our kids, let’s err on the side of grace, not of being overly strict.” I said that because God saved me by His grace alone, not because of anything I deserved. His grace is the main thing that motivates me to holy living. So use your words to give grace—God’s grace that you have experienced—to others.

Conclusion

There is a story in the Jewish Talmud about a king who sent two jesters on an errand. He instructed them, “Foolish Simon, go and bring me back the best thing in the world. And you, Silly John, go and find for me the worst thing in the world.”

Both clowns were back in short order, each carrying a package. Simon bowed low and grinned. “Behold, Sire, the best thing in the world.” His package contained a tongue.

John snickered and quickly unwrapped his bundle. “The worst thing in the world, Sire.” Another tongue! (Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], # 6387, p. 1422.)

An unknown poet wrote (ibid., #6380, p. 1421):

A careless word may kindle strife.
A cruel word may wreck a life.
A bitter word may hate instill;
A brutal word may smite and kill.
A gracious word may smooth the way;
A joyous word may light the day.
A timely word may lessen stress;
A loving word may heal and bless.

Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Paul says (Eph. 4:29), “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Rather than using words to tear down others, as a new creature in Christ, use your words to build up others.

Application Questions

  1. How would you counsel a professing Christian who admitted that his speech was often unwholesome, but who wanted to change? Where would you start?
  2. To which form of unwholesome speech are you most inclined? How do you plan to change?
  3. How can you think wholesome thoughts about a person who is acting in ungodly ways? Is it wrong to tell this person how he makes you feel? How do you confront in love?
  4. Won’t giving grace to a person just encourage him to sin more? Discuss in light of Romans 6:1-14; 1 Cor. 15:10.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 36: Why Not Sin? (Ephesians 4:30)

C. H. Spurgeon relates a conversation that he had with a Wesleyan man who believed that he could attain spiritual perfection on this earth. The man had invited Spurgeon to his home, but Spurgeon told him that there probably would not be room for him, because the house would be so full of angels. After Spurgeon made a few more playful remarks, the man flew into a rage. When Spurgeon asked him if perfect men get angry, the man denied that he was angry, although Spurgeon says that he had a peculiar redness about his cheeks and a fiery flash in his eyes. Spurgeon says he thinks that he rather spoiled the man’s perfection!

Then Spurgeon writes, “My own experience is a daily struggle with the evil within. I wish I could find in myself something friendly to grace, but, hitherto, I have searched my nature through, and have found everything in rebellion against God.” He then mentions his struggles with sloth, anger, pride, and distrust in God (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:229).

It would be wonderful if we could reach a place in the Christian life where sin was no longer so tempting! It would be nice if the longer you were a Christian, the more immunity to sin you built up, so that it just glanced off you. But the fact is, a man after God’s heart such as David, after years of walking with God and writing many inspired Psalms, succumbed to the temptation of adultery, deception, and murder. The wisest man on the earth, Solomon, who had several personal encounters with God, fell into the sin of idolatry. If you think that you’ve arrived at a point where certain sins no longer tempt you, remember Paul’s warning (1 Cor. 10:12), “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”

Because sin appeals to us with such powerful force, we need a motivation for holy living that is stronger than our sin. Since sin often brings immediate pleasure and fulfillment, we need to think through the biblical answer to the question, “Why not sin?”

The Bible gives us many good reasons not to sin. For one thing, sin hurts you. God designed His commandments for our blessing and protection. There are built-in consequences when we violate His holy standards. It’s like the traffic laws. You can drive fast, run red lights, and drive on the wrong side of the road in order to get where you’re going faster. For a while, it may work. You may think, “This is great! I don’t have to obey those restrictive laws!” But, sooner or later you’re going to get hit by a semi-truck and it won’t be fun any more!

In the same way, God warns us that whatever we sow, we will reap. If we sow to the flesh, we will from the flesh reap corruption (Gal. 6:7-8). So even if sin gives us pleasure for a while, the Bible clearly warns that eventually it leads to death (Rom. 6:23).

Another reason not to sin is, sin hurts others. This is obvious with many sins, such as murder, rape, stealing, hatred, gossip, etc. But, it’s also true of sins that we may commit in the privacy of our own thoughts. As Paul said (4:25), we are members of one another. If my heart decides that it has a right to do as it pleases and it stops functioning, my entire body suffers. If, as a member of the body of Christ, I indulge in sin, even if they are secret sins that you cannot detect, I have damaged you because we are both members of the one body of Christ. My sin will hurt my wife and children, because it weakens me as their shepherd and example. So you should not sin because sin hurts you and it hurts others.

Another reason not to sin is, God will judge sinners that do not repent. It often looks as if sinners get away with their evil ways. Hugh Hefner, the founder of the evil Playboy empire, has lived in luxury and sensuality with the sexiest women that any man could desire. Recently on his eightieth birthday he said something to the effect that he had enjoyed a good life and had no regrets. But all of that will change soon, when he dies and stands before God and faces eternal punishment in hell! The Bible gives abundant warning that no unrepentant sinner will escape God’s judgment. So that is a good reason to repent and turn from sin!

We could probably come up with more reasons not to sin. But we still haven’t come to the best reason not to sin, which Paul gives us in Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” He is saying,

We should not sin because our sin grieves the Holy Spirit, who has sealed us for the day of redemption.

In the context, Paul has been showing what it means to live as a Christian in a pagan world. We are not to live as the rest of the world lives (4:17-19). Rather, as those now created anew in righteousness and holiness of the truth, we are to put off the old life, be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and put on the new life in Christ (4:20-24). Specifically, this means laying aside falsehood and speaking the truth (4:25); being righteously angry and yet avoiding unrighteous anger (4:26-27); not stealing, but rather working hard and giving to those in need (4:28); and, not using speech that tears down others, but using our words to build up others (4:29). Paul will go on to say (4:31-32) that as Christians, we must put off all bitterness and anger, and instead be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving towards one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven us.

But right in the middle of giving all these specific behavioral changes, Paul gives us the supreme motivation for why we should not sin, namely, that our sin grieves the Holy Spirit, who has sealed us for the day of redemption. It’s an astounding thought, because God is immutable (unchangeable) and He is in no way dependent on His creation for His happiness. He is the eternally blessed God (1 Tim. 6:15)! So there’s a mystery here that we cannot fully understand. In some sense, God’s being grieved at our sin is an anthropopathism, which means, attributing human emotions to God so that we can understand. It’s similar to an anthropomorphism, such as when the Bible speaks of God’s right hand or His mighty arm. We are not to understand it literally, but the Bible is stooping to our level, so that we can get a handle on the meaning. Let’s explore Paul’s thought:

1. Your sin grieves the Holy Spirit because He loves you.

This verse is one of many that clearly prove that the Holy Spirit is a person, not just an influence. Cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that deny the Trinity, say that the Spirit of God is simply His power or force at work in the world. But you can’t grieve a force or a power. You can only grieve a person.

You especially can grieve a person that loves you. You can tolerate unkind remarks from a stranger, because he doesn’t love you and you don’t love him. But when someone that loves you makes an unkind remark, it hurts. The deeper the love, the deeper the grief when sin hurts the relationship.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Darkness and Light [Baker], pp. 265-266) points out that this verse distinguishes Christian ethics from every other ethical system. Other religions have ethical standards, but none of them command their followers not to sin because their sin grieves God. And, Paul is not appealing to his readers to adhere to a certain moral standard simply because it is the right thing to do. He is not even appealing to them to obey these moral commands because it will benefit them, although it will, as we have seen.

Rather, he appeals to them on the basis of their personal relationship with a loving God. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit! Through faith in Christ, you enter into a personal relationship with the Triune God. His Spirit now dwells within you. Your body is His temple. On the basis of these facts, Paul exhorts you to glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Sin strains the personal relationship that you are now to enjoy with the loving, indwelling Spirit of God.

We may think about the love of God and the love of Jesus Christ, but most of us don’t think often of the love of the Holy Spirit. But we know that as a member of the Godhead, the Spirit is love because God is love (1 John 4:7; see also, Rom. 15:30). Also, we probably think about fellowship with God and with Jesus, but the Bible also talks about the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14). This may refer to the fellowship that the Spirit produces between believers or to our fellowship with the Holy Spirit. But the point I’m making is, the Holy Spirit is a divine person, not merely a divine force. Because He loves us and because He desires fellowship with us, our sin grieves Him.

To illustrate, suppose that a father warned his teenage son, “I love you very much and I want the best for you. I want us to have a close relationship. For these reasons, I don’t want you ever to use illicit drugs.”

But, the boy is out with the wrong crowd and everyone is using drugs. His friends say, “Come on, it feels really good. Try it just this once!” The boy yields and is high on drugs when the police raid the party. The boy’s parents are deeply grieved that their son would do such a thing. If all that the boy says to his parents is, “I’m sorry that I used drugs,” he has missed an important aspect of his sin. He should realize that while he was wrong to use the drugs, his greater wrong was grieving his father and mother who loved him so much. He has strained a close, loving relationship by his sin. Paul is saying, “Don’t sin, because your sin grieves the loving Holy Spirit of God, who dwells within you!”

2. Your sin grieves the Holy Spirit because He loves others.

Because (as we saw) our sin always hurts others and because the Spirit loves others, our sin grieves Him. In the context, Paul has especially been referring to sins that disrupt the unity of the body. Verse 30 (in the Greek text) begins with, “and,” connecting it to verse 29. In that verse, rotten speech implicitly tears down others, whereas gracious speech builds up others. The same may be said of lying (4:25), of sinful anger (4:26, 31), and of stealing (4:28). All of these sins hurt others. Since God loves these other people, your sin grieves Him.

It’s like a father who sees one of his children hurting one of his other children. He loves them both and he wants them to get along, so it grieves him to see the one hurting the other. Even so, the Spirit of God who produces unity in the body of Christ (Eph. 4:3) is grieved when we sin against one another.

3. Your sin grieves the Holy Spirit because He is holy.

The Greek construction of verse 30 is literally, “And do not grieve the Spirit, the Holy One of God….” It puts an emphasis on His holiness. God’s holiness means that He is absolutely apart from and opposed to all sin and evil. First John 1:5 says, “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” First Timothy 6:16 says that God “dwells in unapproachable light.” In Isaiah’s vision of God (Isa. 6:3), the holy angels cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.”

There is a popular misunderstanding that God’s grace means that He tolerates a certain amount of sin in His children, much as a doting father sees his toddler disobey and chuckles, “He’s just a chip off the old block!” But the Holy Spirit never chuckles at our sin. He is holy, which means that all sin, especially the sin of His redeemed children, grieves Him. It was God’s absolute holiness that sent His Son to the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. If He were not holy, He could have just dismissed our sins. But His holiness demands that the penalty be paid.

If our trust is in Christ, then we do not need to fear God’s future judgment for our sins. But, because He is holy and because He loves us, the Holy Spirit is grieved at all our sin. He knows that we will only share His eternal joy when we share His holiness. Thus (as we’ll see in a moment), He applies loving discipline to purify us from our sins (Heb. 12:10).

Thus, your sin grieves the Holy Spirit because He loves you and sin hurts you and strains your relationship with Him. Your sin grieves the Holy Spirit because He loves others and your sin hurts others. Your sin grieves the Holy Spirit because He is holy and hates all sin.

4. If you grieve the Holy Spirit by sinning, you will suffer certain consequences.

Again, it is vital to remember that these consequences always stem from the Spirit’s love, not because He is mean or He wants to take away your fun. Quite the contrary, true, lasting joy is only found in true, lasting holiness. Sin brings temporary pleasure (Heb. 11:25), but long-term pain. Holiness is often more difficult in the short-term, but it brings lasting peace, joy, and pleasure (Heb. 12:11; Ps. 16:11). First, we will consider some consequences that you will suffer if you grieve the Holy Spirit. Then we will look at some consequences that you will not suffer, contrary to what some teach. (For the following points, I am relying on Charles Spurgeon, “Grieve Not the Holy Spirit,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 13:129-130; and on Lloyd-Jones, pp. 274-275.)

A. Some consequences that you will suffer if you grieve the Holy Spirit:

(1). You will suffer the Spirit’s loving discipline.

All of the other consequences that I will mention are variations of the Spirit’s discipline. Hebrews 12:5-11 makes it clear that because God loves us as His children, He disciplines us so that we will share His holiness. There is not always a direct link between some known sin on our part and our trials, but sometimes there is. In other words, sometimes the trials that God sends into our lives are for the purpose of positive training in righteousness, to mature us in our faith. At other times, there is a direct link between some known sin and God’s discipline. When David sinned with Bathsheba, God took their child in death and He used ensuing family problems to chasten David (2 Sam. 12:10-14). But all of our trials are from God’s loving hand and we are exhorted not to regard them lightly or to faint under them. If we are aware of some sin that has led to the trial, we should confess it to the Lord and learn from it to avoid that sin in the future. I can only comment briefly on the rest of these consequences:

(2). You will lose the sense of the Spirit’s presence.

Since the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit permanently indwells believers (John 14:16-17). Under the old dispensation, David had to pray after his sin, “do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). But now the Spirit permanently indwells every believer (1 Cor. 6:19; 12:13). But, if we sin, we will lose the sense of His presence with us.

(3). You will lose the sense of God’s love.

God does not stop loving you, but you will not experience His love as long as you remain in your sin.

(4). You will lose the joy of your salvation.

After David repented of his sin, he prayed that God would restore the joy of his salvation (Ps. 51:12).

(5). You will lose the assurance of your salvation.

The Epistle of First John gives us many ways that we can be assured of our salvation. It is clear that if we are grieving the Spirit through our sin, we cannot enjoy that assurance.

(6). You will lose God’s comfort in your trials.

You cannot draw near to the throne of grace to receive mercy in your trials at the same time you are grieving the Holy Spirit.

(7). You will lose the assurance of answered prayer.

“If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Ps. 66:18). He will hear a prayer of repentance, but we cannot ask God to bless us with answers to prayer while we are in sin.

(8). You will lose the ability to bear fruit and gain rewards in your service for Christ.

If your heart is not in fellowship with the Spirit, you cannot rely on Him to produce lasting fruit for Christ.

(9). You will lose the joy of fellowship with other believers.

Sin not only creates distance between you and God, but also between you and other believers who are walking with God. If you are grieving the Spirit through sin, you will hate being around godly Christians because they will convict you of your sin. I could list more consequences, but briefly, let’s consider…

B. Some consequences that you will not suffer if you grieve the Holy Spirit:

(1). You will not lose the indwelling of the Spirit if you grieve Him.

I already commented on this, but emphasize it again. You will lose the sense of His presence, but He permanently indwells every true Christian.

(2). You will not lose your salvation if you grieve the Spirit.

I recently had an email from a woman I do not know, who was concerned that she had blasphemed against the Holy Spirit and lost her salvation because she had not followed His prompting years ago. But Paul’s point here and a major part of the motivation that he gives for why we should not grieve the Spirit is that He has sealed us for the day of redemption. (We saw this truth in 1:13-14, so I refer you to that message.) The Holy Spirit Himself is the seal, given to us at the moment of salvation. He keeps us until the day of redemption, which is the day of Christ’s second coming, when He will claim us completely as His own. The Holy Spirit is God’s pledge or down payment, given until the day when Christ takes us to be with Him and redeems us from not only the penalty of our sins, but also from the presence of all our sins.

A seal had three primary functions. First, it made something secure. When the guards put the Roman seal on the tomb of Jesus, it was secured from anyone tampering with it. A seal on a bottle of medicine tells you that it is secure from anyone contaminating it.

Second, a seal identified the owner. We still have this practice in branding cattle. The mark shows who owns it. The Spirit’s presence shows that we belong to God for eternity.

Third, a seal authenticated the object sealed as genuine. When a king took his signet ring and pressed it into the wax on a letter, the recipient knew that it was authentic. We follow the same practice when a notary public puts his seal on a document. The Spirit authenticates that we are God’s true children.

So, when you sin, God will discipline you, sometimes severely, because He loves you and He knows that sin will destroy you. But He promises never to leave you. If He has saved you by His grace, He will keep you by His grace. Don’t grieve His Holy Spirit, who is the seal that guarantees your salvation until the day of redemption.

Conclusion

I have used this personal story before, but it illustrates the point of our text. I was reared in the church and I had made several “decisions” for Christ and I was baptized at age 12. But when I was in high school, I was not walking closely with the Lord. He only knows whether or not I was truly saved then.

Often I was with friends who were drinking or scheming on how they could get into bed with girls. The thing that kept me from joining them in these sins was that I knew my parents loved me and that if I came home drunk or if I got a girl pregnant, they would be deeply grieved. Many times I turned away from these temptations because I thought, “If I do that, I will hurt Dad and Mom, and they love me so much.” Their love kept me from sin.

Paul is saying, “God loves you far more than any earthly parent could. He has sent His Holy Spirit to live in you as His temple. Don’t grieve Him by sinning!” That is the main reason not to sin.

Application Questions

  1. Do you think of the Holy Spirit as a person or more as a “force”? Why is the latter detrimental? How can you change your thinking on this?
  2. How can a Christian gain a greater sense of the Spirit’s presence? Is this a feeling or something we “take by faith”?
  3. Should we give assurance of salvation to a person who says that he is a Christian, but who isn’t repentant of his sin? Why/ why not? Cite biblical support.
  4. How can we know whether our trials are due to some sin in our lives or not? If we sin and repent, can we avert the discipline? How can we know what lessons the Lord is teaching us?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 37: Taming Your Temper (Ephesians 4:31-32)

A “Peanuts” cartoon shows Linus venting his hostility by throwing rocks into a vacant lot. As he hurls each rock, he shouts, “This is for all the nasty thing they said about George Washington! This is for people who hate little kids! And this is for people who kick dogs! This is for hot summer nights! And this is for cold winter mornings! And this is for lies and broken promises!” Then he turns and asks Charlie Brown, “Do you have any requests?”

If only it were that easy to tame your temper! But even Linus comes to realize, a couple of cartoons later, that throwing rocks is no solution for his anger. Neither is pounding a pillow as you think of the person you hate or letting out a primal scream.

Uncontrolled anger is a huge problem in our society. We frequently read about road rage, sometimes to the extreme where one angry motorist shoots and kills another motorist over some minor frustration. A Reader’s Digest article (Oct., 2007) gave numerous examples of parents who watch their children’s sports activities and erupt in anger to the point of attacking other parents and even the children competing against their children! One father beat another father to death after a youth hockey practice! Another dad clubbed his daughter’s high school softball coach repeatedly in the head and body with an aluminum bat because the coach had suspended the girl for missing a game to attend the prom. The article stated that three-fourths of parents who have attended a youth sporting event have witnessed other parents being verbally abusive. One in seven have witnessed an actual physical altercation involving a parent!

You may think, “Well, that’s the world for you!” But, you would be naïve to think that Christians are exempt from anger. Angry people often split churches, usually under the pretense of maintaining doctrinal purity. Christian homes are often torn apart by anger. I have shared with you before about the time that Marla and I attended a Pastors and Wives conference, where the couple in the room next to us were screaming at each other and calling each other terrible names. We thought that maybe they were practicing for a skit! But sad to say, there was no skit! This was a pastor of an evangelical church! How could he possibly pray for God’s blessing on his ministry when he treated his wife in that way? Christian parents yell angrily at their children, call them names, and even hit them in anger. Then they wonder why their children rebel!

The apostle Paul does not give us an inch of wiggle room when it comes to the sin of anger: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph. 4:31, emphasis added). He repeats the word all twice for emphasis. Getting rid of all except a little bit of anger isn’t good enough! You can’t justify it by saying, “Well, I’m only human! Everyone gets angry, but I’m on the top end of the curve!” We need to call it what the Bible calls it: Anger is sin and we cannot tolerate a little bit of sin in our lives. Paul says that we must put away all of it.

You may be thinking, “But what about verse 26? Didn’t Paul command us to be righteously angry?” You may be justifying much of your anger as righteous anger. But F. F. Bruce (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 364) is surely correct in observing, “This mention of anger as something that is bad without qualification, so soon after v. 26, suggests that to be angry without sinning is as rare as it is difficult.” I refer you to that message for a more complete treatment. But the distinguishing mark of sinful anger is selfishness: I didn’t get my way and I want my way! I didn’t get my rights and I demand my rights! We sinfully use anger to try to dominate and control others. If we justify it by thinking, “I’m the head of this household,” or, “I’m the boss around here,” we are only masking our selfish sinfulness.

By piling up all of these words for anger and by using the word all twice, Paul is slamming the door on all of the excuses that he knew we would try to use to justify our sinful anger. He is saying that as those who have been created anew in righteousness and holiness of the truth (4:24), we must get rid of all sinful anger.

To tame your temper, put off all bitterness and anger and replace it with kindness and forgiveness, just as God in Christ forgave you.

He makes three points, which we will follow: First, he uses six terms to describe the old, sinful behavior that we must put off. Then, he uses three terms to describe the new, godly behavior that we are to put on. Finally, he gives us the motive or reason why we should adopt this new behavior.

1. To tame your temper, put off all bitterness and anger (4:31).

We need to begin by observing that Paul does not psychologize the problem of anger by saying that you must understand your childhood or probe your “subconscious” to get at the root reasons that you are angry. Maybe your parents didn’t love you, or maybe you have “low self-esteem.” He doesn’t go there! He basically says, “Stop sinning!” Put away all anger as you would cast off dirty, smelly clothes!

But, lest you think that this is just a matter of human will power, remember that verses 25-32 are built on verses 20-24, where Paul describes the supernatural new birth that God imparts to us. Before salvation, we were darkened in our understanding, excluded from the life of God, and given over to all manner of sin (4:17-19). But now we are new creatures in Christ and as such we have been taught a new way of life. We are to put off the old man, be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and put on the new man in Christ (4:22-24).

Furthermore, we now have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and we are to live in a close relationship with Him so that we do not grieve Him (4:30). We are to be filled or controlled by the Spirit, who enables us not to fulfill the sinful desires of the flesh, but rather to produce His fruit of righteousness in us (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16-23). But the Spirit-filled life is not entirely passive, where we just “let go and let God.” We have an active role to play, where we fight daily against the sinful desires that tempt us and yield to the Holy Spirit in obedience to God’s Word.

Also, as I often emphasize, to overcome sin it is vital to recognize that all sin originates in the heart or mind. Sinful anger is a heart issue and so you must deal with it on the heart level (Mark 7:21-23). This means that it is not enough to force a smile and restrain yourself while you are seething inside. At the instant you begin to feel angry, you must deal with how you think. You must stop long enough to think, “God is sovereign and He has allowed this difficult situation for my training in righteousness. Any anger that I express towards the other person is really anger towards God, who has providentially allowed this. Also, I am a fellow sinner, as seen in my quickness towards anger. I must treat the other person with love, just as I would want to be treated.” And you send up a quick, “Help, Lord” prayer, that He would control your emotions, words, and actions in this situation.

Also, to point out the obvious, Paul’s commands here imply that you have been mistreated. You wouldn’t be bitter if everyone treated you rightly. You wouldn’t be harboring malice if others had been nice towards you. You wouldn’t need to forgive if others had not wronged you. So, Paul is showing us how to respond in a godly way in an ungodly world where people wrong us.

There may be a progression in Paul’s use of these terms (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 349). He moves from a resentful inner attitude (bitterness) through its outward expression in outbursts of rage and seething anger, to yelling abusively (clamor). Then he mentions spreading our anger by slander He concludes with a catch-all term that covers all forms of anger, namely, malice. Let’s look at each word.

A. Remove all bitterness from your heart.

Bitterness develops over time as we nurse our anger and tell ourselves that we have good cause to be angry. We play the situation where we got angry over and over in our minds, often blaming the other person and justifying ourselves. The bitter person refuses to forgive or be reconciled. He wants to make the other person pay. Bitter people keep score. I once counseled a woman who pulled out a notebook with 16 pages detailing every major wrong that her husband had committed against her over the years. She thought that she had an airtight case that justified her anger. I glanced at it and said, “The first thing you need to do is to burn this notebook!” She didn’t like that advice!

Hebrews 12:15 warns, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” Your bitterness will defile others who are close to you. But, even worse, if you continue in bitterness, you will come short of the grace of God! If you need anything from God, it is abundant grace! So you’ve got to put all bitterness away from you. Vengeance belongs to God alone. One way to root out bitterness from your heart is to pray for the offending person—not that he will get hit with God’s judgment—but rather that he will find mercy and repentance.

B. Remove all wrath from your heart.

The NIV translates it, rage. It is derived from a word meaning, to boil. It refers to outbursts of anger, when someone boils over. It is used to describe the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, whose rage at Jesus drove them to try to throw Him over the edge of a cliff (Luke 4:28). It is used of the rage of the mob in Ephesus that led to the riot against the Christians (Acts 19:28). Paul says that such hot anger has no place among believers.

C. Remove all anger from your heart.

This is the same word that Paul used to refer to righteous anger (4:26). It is used of Jesus’ righteous anger (Mark 3:5). It is used of God’s wrath (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18; 12:19), which is His settled hatred of and opposition to all sin. With reference to sinful human anger, wrath and anger are largely synonymous. If there is a nuance of difference, wrath is the sudden outburst of temper, whereas anger refers to a more settled attitude, often with the purpose of revenge.

D. Remove all clamor from your heart.

Clamor refers to loud, angry words, where people are screaming at each other. It includes cursing and calling someone abusive names. The only time you should yell at your mate or your children is to warn them of immediate danger. Sometimes you have to yell to be heard over the noise. But once things quiet down, you should talk, not yell.

F. Remove all slander from your heart.

The Greek word is also used for blasphemy against God, but here it refers to speaking evil about someone to someone else who has no need to hear it. Usually, we do this to build our case against the person, so that we look like the innocent victim. Often, slander is accompanied by falsehood, where we stretch the truth or only give enough information to tilt the verdict in our direction.

F. Remove all malice from your heart.

Malice is a general term for wickedness or ill will towards another person. It is the desire to harm the person, either emotionally or physically. When coupled with slander, the intent is to harm the person’s reputation or his relationships with others by smearing him. I think that Paul added it at the end to cover any other form of hatred or anger that we might try to justify as okay. Paul commands us to remove all six of these sinful attitudes and actions. They characterize unbelievers, but they have no place with those who are being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

2. To tame your temper, actively engage in the process of replacing bitterness and anger with kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness (4:32a).

As we have seen, Paul’s pattern here is not only to have us stop doing the evil behavior, but also to begin practicing godly behavior. We are to replace lying with telling the truth (4:25). We are to stop stealing and instead work hard and give to those in need (4:28). We are to stop using unwholesome words and instead use words that build up and give grace (4:29). So here, sinful anger is to be replaced with kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.

A. To tame your temper is a process that you must actively engage in.

The Greek word translated “be” (4:32) means to become. It is a present imperative verb, indicating an ongoing process. The process begins when you face up to your bitterness and anger as sin and confess it to God, asking for His forgiveness. You choose to accept responsibility for your sin, rather than to blame others. At that point you begin a lifelong battle. You will never arrive at a point where you can declare permanent victory and lay down your weapons. But as you fight the temptation to be angry, you (and others that know you) should see noticeable progress. If you lose a battle, don’t give up. Confess it to God, seek forgiveness from those you have wronged, and get back in the battle.

B. To tame your temper, replace bitterness and anger with kindness.

Paul says that love is kind (1 Cor. 13:4). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). A kind person is not harsh or sharp with others. He allows others room to offend or make mistakes without becoming offended and crawling all over them. A kind person takes an interest in others and tries to understand what they are feeling by asking sensitive questions. God Himself is “kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35). His kindness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Tasting His kindness motivates us to long for the pure milk of the word, so that we may grow in respect to salvation (1 Pet. 2:2-3). Dads, instead of being harsh and stern with your children, be kind. It will motivate them to obedience far more than anger ever will.

C. To tame your temper, replace bitterness and anger with tender-heartedness.

The NIV translates this as compassionate. It is used in 1 Peter 3:8-9a, “To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead.” It comes from the Greek word for “bowels,” which they saw as the seat of our emotions. To be tender-hearted means to have deep, “gut” feelings for one another. It means to have genuine concern for another person’s well-being. It is the opposite of being calloused, as we were before we met Christ (4:19).

D. To tame your temper, replace bitterness and anger with forgiveness.

Instead of holding a grudge that develops into bitterness, we are to forgive those that have wronged us. The word used here points to undeserved favor. It implies that the other person has truly wronged us. To forgive is to choose to absorb the pain and show grace to the other person. If he has to earn it, it’s not forgiveness. If you put it on file and bring it up every time there is a disagreement, it’s not forgiveness. If it doesn’t cost you anything to grant it, it’s not forgiveness. I plan to devote our next study to probe this important topic more in depth, so I move on for now.

Thus Paul says that to tame your temper, put off all bitterness and anger and replace it with kindness and forgiveness. Then he gives us the profound motive or reason we must do this:

3. To tame your temper, remember as foremost how God in Christ has forgiven you (4:32b).

Begin every day at the foot of the cross, marveling at the amazing grace of God that sent His own Son to bear the wrath that you deserved. As the psalmist puts it (Ps. 130:3-4), “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.” Briefly consider:

A. God forgave you by His grace, not because of any merit.

If you think that you somehow earned or deserved God’s forgiveness because of your good works, you do not understand the gospel. The fact is, each of us has wronged God tens of thousands of times from childhood up. Even if you were raised in the church and trusted Christ as a child, your sins are too numerous to count. God’s forgiveness is by grace alone. So we must grant forgiveness to others not because they deserve it, but rather because we have been shown grace.

B. God forgave you at great cost.

He forgave you “in Christ.” That means that He couldn’t just shrug off your sins as no big deal. To do that would have compromised His justice and holiness. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came and bore on the cross the penalty we deserved. While forgiving others is never that costly for us, it still costs. There may be a legitimate place for requiring restitution as a means of teaching responsibility. But even then, forgiveness is costly.

C. God forgave you far more than you can ever forgive anyone else.

Jesus graphically made this point in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35). He told the parable of the slave who owed a king 10,000 talents. A talent was worth more than 15 years’ wages for a laborer, so 10,000 talents represented 150,000 years’ wages, an unpayable debt. When the man begged for mercy, the king freely forgave the entire amount. But then the slave went out and grabbed a fellow slave who owed him 100 denarii, about 100 days’ wages. When he couldn’t pay, the forgiven slave had him thrown into prison. The king was moved with righteous anger towards the unforgiving slave. The point of the story is, no one could have wronged you as much as you have wronged God. Since He freely forgave you, so you must forgive others. I’ll deal further with forgiveness next time, as it raises a number of difficult questions.

Conclusion

I conclude with some practical steps to apply Paul’s words. First and foremost, make sure that you have received God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ alone. There are unsaved people who have gone to anger management courses and learned to control their anger, but they will go to hell unless they repent of their sins and trust in Christ alone. The new birth is the foundation for the radical change of behavior described in our text.

Second, allow your heart to be humbled by God’s grace every day. Think about the wrath that you justly deserve. Think about where you would be if God had not graciously drawn you to the cross. As you are filled to the brim with God’s grace, it will spill over onto those who wrong you. Where formerly you would have been angry, now you will be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving.

Third, structure your life for change. Turn off the TV (which will never make you godly) and read your Bible. Memorize verses such as our text, so that they immediately pop into your mind when you are tempted to be angry. Pray frequently for those you are prone to be angry with. If you live with them, pray often with them. It is really difficult to remain angry with your mate or kids when you get on your knees together before the throne of grace!

Finally, confess your anger quickly and ask the Holy Spirit to control your mind and emotions. Don’t let angry thoughts fester. Don’t let your anger go unconfessed. Ask God’s forgiveness and ask forgiveness of the one you sinned against. It’s a lifelong battle, but if you engage in the fight, by God’s grace you will tame your temper.

Application Questions

  1. Since anger is in large part a feeling, how can God command us not to be angry? At what point does the feeling become sin?
  2. Proverbs22:24-25 tells us not to associate with an angry person, lest we learn his ways. What do you do if you’re married to him or her?
  3. Is it hypocritical to be kind to someone when you’d rather punch him? Why/why not?
  4. God asks Cain, “Why are you angry?” (Gen. 4:6). Is that a helpful question to deal with your anger? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

 

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Lesson 38: How Can I Ever Forgive? (Ephesians 4:32)

The Spanish have a story about a father and son who had become estranged. The son left home and the father set out to find him. He searched for many months with no success. Finally, in desperation, the father took out a newspaper ad that read, “Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” On Saturday, 800 men named Paco showed up looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

In a fallen world, forgiveness is essential to maintain close relationships. We all need forgiveness and we all need to grant forgiveness, because we all sin and we all have been sinned against.

But asking for and granting forgiveness are not easy tasks! It’s not an easy subject to understand, as seen by the fact that different writers say conflicting things about forgiveness. It’s not an easy subject to practice, especially on the emotional level. The deeper you have been hurt, the more difficult it is truly to forgive. Some of you were abused emotionally, physically, or sexually as children by your parents or by trusted family members. Some of you have children who were abused by your mate or by a family member. Some have been betrayed by an unfaithful spouse whom you loved and cared for deeply. These kinds of wrongs are not easy to forgive.

But if you’re a Christian, seeking and granting forgiveness are not optional. Jesus said that if you do not forgive others, the heavenly Father will not forgive you (Matt. 6:15; Mark 11:25). Scholars are divided over whether that refers to being under God’s eternal judgment or to your relationship with the Father as His child. I favor the second option. But either way, you don’t want to miss out on the Father’s forgiveness! Jesus said that forgiving others is so important that if you are worshiping God when you remember that your brother has something against you, you should first go be reconciled to your brother and then come back to worship God (Matt. 5:23-24). So it is vital for you as a Christian to grapple with understanding and practicing forgiveness. Since many books have been written on this topic, I can only touch on some of the issues.

In the context, Paul is showing specific ways that we are to put on the new man, “which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (4:24). In our last study, we saw how we are to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander (4:31). We are to replace these sins with kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you (4:32). Now we want to focus on what it means to forgive and how we can practically apply it.

To forgive others, we must understand the nature of forgiveness and the perspective needed for it, and we must take action to demonstrate forgiveness.

1. To forgive others, we must understand the nature of forgiveness.

What does it mean to ask forgiveness or to forgive someone? There is a lot of misunderstanding here. Jay Adams (From Forgiven to Forgiving [Calvary Press], pp. 58-60) argues that apologizing is the world’s substitute for forgiving. He points out that there is not a single reference in the Bible to apologizing. It is an unbiblical concept. It allows the wrongdoer to tell you how he feels (“I’m sorry”) without acknowledging his sin and it does not ask the one sinned against to grant forgiveness.

Adams also points out (pp. 112, 135) that biblical forgiveness does not mean accepting the other person in his sin, which often amounts to condoning sin. Again, this is often the world’s way. The world brushes aside the concept of sin by saying, “Hey, no problem! Don’t worry about it, we all make mistakes!” But there is no acknowledgement or confession of sin.

In biblical forgiveness, the wrongdoer admits, “I sinned against you,” and asks, “Will you forgive me?” The one wronged must respond by promising, “I forgive you.” This is very different than just saying you’re sorry or saying to the one who wronged you, “Hey, don’t worry about it!”

Paul says that we are to forgive each other “just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” God didn’t say, “Hey, don’t worry about it, we all make mistakes!” He didn’t just brush our sin aside. Rather, our sin renders us truly guilty before God’s holy justice. We have violated His holy law. He requires that the penalty be paid. But in love, He sent His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserved. When the guilty sinner repents of his sin and lays hold of Christ by faith, God graciously and totally forgives the debt of sin. He releases the sinner from the guilt of his sin. He promises not to remember those sins against him, in the sense of not bringing them up again for judgment. And, He is reconciled to the sinner through the blood of Christ. Extrapolating from God’s forgiveness of us, we can say the following about our forgiveness of others:

A. Biblical forgiveness is the decision…

Before I tell you what this decision involves, let me underscore that it is a deliberate decision you must make. A friend of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, once reminded her of an especially cruel thing that someone had done to her years before. But Miss Barton did not seem to recall it. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked. “No,” said Miss Barton, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.” Forgiveness is the decision to drop the offense, to let it go. It involves at least five aspects:

         To release the offender from the guilt of his sin.

When God forgives us, He brings down the gavel in His courtroom and declares, “Not guilty! Case dismissed.” And the guilty sinner bears his guilt no longer! When you choose to forgive someone, you let the matter drop, releasing him from his guilt.

         To refuse to bring up the offense to use against the offender.

When God says that He will not remember our sins any more (Heb. 8:12; 10:17), He does not forget them in the sense of amnesia. Rather, He means that He will not bring up any of our offenses against us in the future. We do not have to fear standing before Him someday, because there is now no condemnation for us in Christ (Rom. 8:1). To forgive someone is to promise not to bring the matter up again to use against him. Sometimes it is necessary to bring up a forgiven sin for the purpose of teaching or restoration. Sometimes it is proper to impose consequences to teach the seriousness of sin, as God did with David after his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:9-14). It may be proper for a forgiven offender to be required to make restitution. If he committed a crime, he may need to be prosecuted and spend time in prison. But when we forgive him, we should not bring up his sin to accuse or condemn him or to win an argument.

         To refuse to think about the offense.

Thankfully, God is not in heaven rehearsing our forgiven sins every day! For us, this is one of the most difficult aspects of forgiveness, especially when the wrong was serious. But, like Clara Barton, we must distinctly remember to forget past wrongs that we have chosen to forgive. You must deliberately direct your thoughts to other things, such as how much God has forgiven you. To dwell on an offense that you have forgiven is to break your promise to forgive.

         To refuse to talk to others about the offense.

If you say that you forgive someone and then tell others about the offense, you are trying to make the offender pay, which is not forgiveness. Or, you’re trying to evoke sympathy or admiration from others at the offender’s expense. When you forgive, you choose to drop the matter. The only exception would be if you fear that the offender may be trying to repeat his sin toward another person, who needs to be warned of the danger. For example, if someone has molested your child and you see him hanging out with another family with young children, it is appropriate to warn them to be on guard.

         To be reconciled with the offender as far as is biblically possible.

God forgives us so that we may be reconciled to Him and enjoy a close relationship with Him. When we forgive others, we should also seek to restore the broken relationship. This does not always mean becoming best of friends, but it should at least mean that we are cordial and friendly towards the person. To say, “I forgive you, but I never want to see your ugly face again,” is not to forgive as God forgives! Of course, if the offender does not truly repent of his sin, we cannot be truly reconciled or in a close relationship. But even then, we are still commanded to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:27-28).

So, biblical forgiveness is a decision to release the offender from the guilt of his sin, to refuse to bring up the offense to use against him, to refuse to think about the offense, to refuse to talk to others about the offense, and to be reconciled to the offender if possible. Also, to understand forgiveness we must realize that…

B. Biblical forgiveness is costly.

It cost God the death of His beloved Son. It will not usually cost us that much, but it still may be very costly. I have read stories of parents who have forgiven the murderer or molester of their child. That is costly! At the very least, it costs us the time and effort to go to the offender and try to work on reconciliation. It does not happen automatically or when you are passive.

C. Biblical forgiveness is undeserved.

God forgives us by grace alone, which is undeserved favor. If someone has to earn it, it’s not forgiveness. If you make him pay or do penance, it’s not forgiveness.

D. Biblical forgiveness is total.

God doesn’t forgive just some of our sins, saving some others to bring up later when He needs some leverage against us! He forgives them all (1 John 1:9). So we can’t say, “I forgive you for this, but I’m not going to forgive you for that!” It must be total.

E. Biblical forgiveness is final.

God doesn’t say, “If you do that again, I’m revoking your previous forgiveness!” He says (Heb. 10:17), “Their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more.” To forgive someone is to dismiss the case against him. You can’t bring it up again.

Much more could be said, but that gives us some understanding of the nature of biblical forgiveness. But, how do we put it into practice? We need the right perspective or mindset:

2. To forgive others, we must understand the perspective needed for forgiveness.

Many Christian authors emphasize the benefits that forgiving others will bring to you. It’s true, you will benefit by forgiving others. You will get rid of your bitterness, which eats at your soul. You will enjoy restored relationships with others, along with many other blessings. But, the benefits for you are really the by-products of forgiveness. Your focus should not be on what’s in it for you, but rather on glorifying God and loving others.

A. The motive in forgiving others should be to glorify God, who has forgiven you.

As we saw in Ephesians 1:7, the forgiveness of our sins is according to the riches of His grace, so that we will be to the praise of His glory (1:12). If someone sees how much you have forgiven someone else and praises you for it, be quick to divert the praise to God, who has forgiven you so much.

B. Remember how and how much God has forgiven you in Christ.

As we have seen, He forgave you by grace alone. You didn’t deserve anything but His judgment, but He still forgave you out of His great love. And He has forgiven you far more than you can ever forgive anyone else. Jay Adams (pp. 5-6) illustrates how much God has forgiven us by imagining sitting in a movie theater. The theater is packed and the show is about to begin. Then you discover that this movie is the unedited, undeleted story of your entire life! The sound track will contain everything that you have ever said. In fact, the movie will project everything you have ever thought, including all of the things you would have liked to have done if you thought you could have gotten away with it.

Every one of us is relieved that such a movie of us does not exist! But, God has that movie! His forgiveness means that He tosses it in the depths of the sea. Having been forgiven that much, He commands us to forgive others for their lesser sins against us (Matt. 18:21-35).

C. Remember that God is the sovereign over all that happens and He is the righteous Judge of all.

When someone wrongs you, it helps to control your anger, root out bitterness, and make you ready to forgive if you remember that God has allowed this to happen for His purpose and your ultimate good (Rom. 8:28). When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, he could have become a very bitter young man. Instead, he chose to forgive his brothers. After their father died, they feared that now he would use his position of power to get revenge. But Joseph acknowledged God’s sovereignty and goodness when he said to them (Gen. 50:19-20), “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” By the way, it is blasphemous to say that we must sometimes forgive God. We only must forgive those who wrong us, and the Judge of the earth always does what is right!

Also, while we should not wish for or pray for God to judge our enemies, but rather to save them, we can take comfort in the fact that if they do not repent, they will face God’s justice someday (1 Pet. 4:17-19; Rev. 18:20; 19:1-3). Vengeance belongs to the Lord and He will repay; so we are free to forgive (Rom. 12:19).

D. Have compassion on the other person as a fellow sinner needing God’s grace.

Paul tells us to be kind and tenderhearted toward those who wrong us, rather than bitter and angry. One way to do that is to realize that you don’t know all that the other person has gone through in his life. Perhaps his parents abused him. That isn’t an excuse for his sin, but realizing that he may have had a difficult life may mitigate your anger and put you in the frame of mind to forgive. Also, it helps to realize that if I had been born in the ghetto to a drug-using mother who didn’t even know who my father was, I could be committing horrible sins today. In other words, the person who has wronged me is just like me, a sinner in need of God’s grace. So I need to be kind and forgiving towards him. That leads to the final step towards implementing forgiveness:

3. To forgive others, we must take action to demonstrate forgiveness.

Before I discuss this point, I need to make two distinctions, which are vital for understanding and implementing biblical forgiveness. Then I need to give a brief warning before we look at the action of forgiveness.

A. First distinction: There is a difference between granting forgiveness and re-establishing trust.

When someone sins against you, he destroys trust in the relationship. Forgiveness is granted freely and graciously, but trust is earned over time. If a husband is unfaithful to his wife, she may forgive him freely, but she doesn’t trust him. That is not a contradiction! He must demonstrate repentance and integrity to earn back her trust and it will take time.

B. Second distinction: There is a difference between forgiving someone in your heart and extending that forgiveness to him verbally.

We are to forgive others as God has forgiven us. Question: Does God forgive sinners apart from their repentance and confession of sin? Answer: No. God is ready to forgive sinners the instant they repent. He has made provision so that any sinner that repents is promised mercy and abundant forgiveness (Isa. 55:6-7). He shows kindness towards sinners to lead them to repentance. But God does not forgive sinners unless they repent.

Thus I conclude that as imitators of God (Eph. 5:1), we must forgive in our hearts those who have wronged us. We must be praying for their repentance and be ready to forgive the instant that they do repent. Like the father of the prodigal son, we should be looking for their repentant return and when we see them on the horizon, we run joyously to welcome them back. But, we should not extend forgiveness verbally until they actually do repent.

C. Warning: Be careful not to reflect pride in showing forgiveness.

If someone has wronged you but has not yet come and asked forgiveness and you go to him and say, “I forgive you for what you did to me,” it may come across as pride. It puts you in the high place of saying, “I am such a kindhearted, benevolent soul that I’m going to forgive you, you undeserving wretch!”

I have heard amazing stories of those who have gone to a killer in prison and forgiven him for murdering their loved one. In some cases, it has led to his repentance and conversion. But in those cases, there wasn’t any doubt about the man’s guilt and so it didn’t come across as self-righteous pride on the part of the ones extending forgiveness. So be careful in how you go about extending forgiveness to the offender, that you don’t reflect pride.

D. Action: Be kind, tenderhearted, and ready joyously to extend forgiveness the instant the offender repents.

If you’re thinking, “I hope that dirty rat gets what he has coming to him and that his life is ruined,” you haven’t forgiven him in your heart. If you’re seething with anger, you haven’t forgiven him. You have forgiven him when you pray for his repentance, when you cheerfully do kind deeds for  him, and when you well up with joy at the thought of his repentance and the restoration of the relationship.

You may be thinking, “But I don’t feel like doing something kind for him. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite to act against my feelings?” The answer is, no, you would be obeying God! Often we must act in obedience and pray for God to change our feelings. If you can’t treat the other person with kindness out of a desire to please him, then do it out of a desire to please God. If you wait for good feelings towards the offender, you may never show him kindness. Remember, it is God’s kindness towards evil and ungrateful men that leads them to repentance (Luke 6:35; Rom. 2:4). Your kindness toward the offender for Christ’s sake may be what God uses to bring him to repentance.

Josephine Ligon (“Your Daffodils are Pretty,” Christianity Today [3/2/1979], p. 18) related an incident from her childhood that she never forgot. There was a family named Parsons in her hometown that preached and practiced forgiveness. On one occasion, Josephine and some of her third-grade friends put a handful of pencil shavings into the Parsons girl’s sandwich, just to be mean and to make her mad. But she didn’t get mad. Instead, the next day, without any sign of repentance from her persecutors, the Parsons girl brought everyone in the class a large, beautiful, hand-decorated cookie that said, “Jesus loves you.” That little girl demonstrated the action of forgiveness and those third graders remembered it for the rest of their lives!

Conclusion

If God has used this message to put on your heart relationships where you need to ask forgiveness or grant forgiveness, I urge you not to procrastinate. Maybe you cannot grant forgiveness because the other person has not repented, but you can pray for his repentance. You can ask God for ways to show kindness to the offender. You can be ready to forgive and restore the relationship.

General Oglethorpe once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive and I never forget,” to which Wesley replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never sin.” Because we all sin, we all need forgiveness and we all need to forgive, just as God in Christ has forgiven us.

Application Questions

  1. Some argue that forgiveness should be unconditional. Do you agree? Give biblical support for your answer.
  2. If a family member molests your child, does forgiveness require seeking a reconciled relationship with him? Can trust ever be totally restored in such cases?
  3. Do you agree that apologizing is the world’s substitute for forgiveness? How does an apology differ from seeking forgiveness? How should we ask for forgiveness when we’ve sinned?
  4. Do you agree with the distinction between forgiving someone in your heart before he repents, but not extending forgiveness to him until after he repents? Give biblical support.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 39: Imitating the God of Love (Ephesians 5:1-2)

The late Dr. Albert Schweitzer, famous missionary, medical doctor, and musician, was asked, “What is the best way to raise children?” He replied, “There are three ways: 1) By example, 2) By example, and 3) By example” (cited by Doug Spangler, American Baby [August, 1979], p. 35). He was certainly right. By your actions, your words, and your attitudes in the home, your children learn to follow in your footsteps.

The apostle Paul knew the importance of example in teaching others. He told the Corinthians that he was their father in the gospel and then added (1 Cor. 4:16), “Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.” Later in the same letter, he repeated (11:1), “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” He also told the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:6), “you also became imitators of us and of the Lord….” Using the examples both of a tender, nursing mother and an affectionate father, he told them that he had imparted to them not only the gospel, but also his own life (1 Thess. 2:7-11). Jesus told us to imitate God when He said (Luke 6:36), “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” He went even further when He commanded (Matt. 5:48), “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

After showing us specifically how we are to put off the old way of life and put on the new man in Christ (4:22-32), Paul sums it up in one comprehensive command, calling us to be imitators of God and to walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave Himself for us. Our text also serves to introduce the next subject on moral purity, as it contrasts God’s way of love with the worldly way of lust. Martyn Lloyd Jones (Darkness and Light [Baker], p. 291) says that here “we come to what is perhaps Paul’s supreme argument, to the highest level of all in doctrine and in practice, to the ultimate ideal.” He points out that Paul is laying down here a principle that governs everything. The entire Christian life may be summed up as a life of imitating God as beloved children as we walk in love. As Paul points out elsewhere (Rom. 13:8-10), if we love one another we have fulfilled God’s law. So Paul is saying,

As God’s beloved children, we are to imitate Him in loving one another, just as Christ sacrificially loved us.

1. To imitate God, we must be His beloved children.

Note two things in the phrase, “as beloved children”:

A. We are God’s children through the new birth and through adoption.

Contrary to much popular thought, all people are not children of God. There is a general sense in which we all are God’s children by virtue of the fact that He created us (Acts 17:28). But the Bible is clear that we become children of God when we are born into His family through a spiritual new birth. In his classic, Knowing God [IVP, p. 181), J. I. Packer writes, “What is a Christian? The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God for his Father.”

John 1:12-13 states, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Or, 1 Peter 1:3 puts it, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Also, as we saw (Eph. 1:5), “In love, He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.”

These two analogies (the new birth and adoption) bring out different important aspects of our relationship with God. The new birth pictures the fact that God must impart new life to us if we are to be in a relationship with Him. Religion, even theologically correct religion, is not enough to get a person into heaven. Nicodemus, who came to talk with Jesus, was a Jewish leader. He knew the Old Testament scriptures and he practiced the Jewish religious rituals. But Jesus told him (John 3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” When the Spirit of God imparts new life to us, we enter into a relationship with God the Father through faith in His Son Jesus.

The adoption picture emphasizes God’s sovereign choice of us as His own children. Just as parents who adopt a child pick the child they wish to adopt, so God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. But the difference is, human parents often pick the child who is the most attractive or cute. But God chose us knowing that we would be sinful and rebellious towards Him. You will never understand God’s great love until you understand the terrible depths of sin from which He rescued you. From the gutters of sin, by grace alone He brought you into His house and gave you all of the privileges of being His beloved child.

If you wonder, “How can I know if I’m born again?” I would answer, “First, do you believe in Christ alone as your only hope for forgiveness of sins and eternal life? And, do you see evidence that God has changed your heart?” Faith in Christ is the main evidence that you have been born of God (John 1:12-13). And, if He has imparted new life to you, you will see evidence of it in your heart. You will have a new desire to love Christ, to obey Him, and to know Him more intimately. You will love His Word. You will love His people. (See First John for many such evidences.)

B. We are His beloved children.

Every father has a special love for his own children. As I’ve said before, I never realized how much my own father loved me until I held my firstborn in my arms. One father described his love for his baby girl this way (Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], # 1941):

When I go home from here, I expect to take my baby on my knee, look into her sweet eyes, listen to her charming prattle, and tired as I am, her presence will rest me; for I love that child with an unutterable tenderness. But she loves me little. If my heart were breaking, it would not disturb her sleep. If my body were racked with pain, it would not interrupt her play. If I were dead, she would forget me in a few days. Besides this, she has never brought me a penny, but instead is a constant expense to me. I am not rich, but there is not enough money in the world to buy my baby. How is it? Does she love me or do I love her? Do I withhold my love until I know she loves me? Am I waiting for her to do something worthy of my love before extending it?

No matter how much an earthly father loves his children, the heavenly Father loves His own beloved children much more. As John exclaimed (1 John 3:1), “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.” To imitate God, you must be one of His beloved children.

2. To imitate God, we must know Him and His ways.

You cannot imitate someone that you do not know. During the summer of 1970, I got paid to impersonate Charlie Chaplin at the Movieland Wax Museum in Southern California. To imitate Chaplin, I had to watch many of his movies and study how he acted. I had to learn to walk in the funny way that he walked. I studied his facial expressions. I had a blast, getting my picture taken with thousands of people from all over the world. But I had to know Chaplin and his ways.

A. To know God, we must understand who He is as revealed in His Word.

God has revealed Himself to us through His Word, the Bible. It is crucial that we come to know God as He has revealed Himself and not God as our culture portrays Him or God as we would like Him to be. For example, I have often heard people say, “My God is a God of love, not a God of judgment.” The implication of that statement is that this “God” tolerates our sin. The problem is, this is not the God of the Bible. Yes, He is love (1 John 4:7); but also He is holy and disciplines His children so that we may share His holiness (Heb. 12:10; see also, Exod. 34:6-7). So we must learn of God and His ways through God’s written revelation to us, the Bible. And we must submit to God as He is revealed in the Bible.

B. To know God and His ways, we must often spend time with Him in His Word and in prayer.

A child who spends very little time with his father will not be greatly influenced by him. Influence is directly proportional to time spent together. When a father spends time with his children, they will pick up his mannerisms, for good or for bad. They will see how he treats their mother and learn how to relate to others. They will see his moral standards and be influenced to follow the same standards. They will hear his language, whether it is kind or abusive, and repeat it in their speech.

Paul said (Phil. 3:8), “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” David prayed (Ps. 25:4-5), “Make me know Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day.”

That kind of ever-deepening knowledge of God and His ways only comes through time spent in His Word and in prayer. If you want God to change you, so that you imitate Him in the way that you think and how you respond emotionally and how you relate to others and how you deal with trials, you must be diligent to spend consistent time alone with Him. There are no shortcuts!

Thus to imitate God, we must be His beloved children and we must know Him and His ways through His Word.

3. To imitate God, we must walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave Himself up for us.

To imitate God is comprehensive. It includes speaking the truth, because He is the God of truth. It includes being faithful in our dealings with others, because He is a faithful God. It includes being holy in all our behavior, because He is holy. But the characteristic that Paul mentions to sum it all up is love (5:2): “and walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” To be like God, we must walk in love. Christ is the supreme example of love.

A. To walk in love, we must understand a biblical (not cultural) definition of love.

Our culture uses the word “love” for everything from, “I love pizza,” to “I love my dog,” to “I love my wife.” Hopefully, there is a difference in those references! But, also, we tend to view love as a nice, warm, fuzzy, feeling. It’s kind of magical when it hits, but when it goes away, alas, we can’t do anything to get it back! Thus I’ve had Christian spouses tell me, “I just don’t love my mate any more, so we’re getting a divorce.”

We cannot imitate God in loving one another unless we understand what God’s love is. The supreme demonstration of God’s love was when He gave His own Son to die for us on the cross. As John 3:16 proclaims, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….” Or, Paul tells husbands (Eph. 5:25), “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Jesus told the disciples (John 15:13), “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” And, He told us that we are to love one another, even as He has loved us (John 13:34). From these and other references, I have hammered out this definition of love:

Love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself by seeking the highest good of the one loved.

There are five elements of this definition:

         God’s love is a costly love.

He gave His own Son. Christ willingly laid down His life for His church. While we seldom have to go so far as actually to die for others, we often have to lay aside our selfishness, our pride, and our rights in order to practice God’s love towards others.

         God’s love is a caring love.

“Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:13). God cares for us more than any earthly father ever could (1 Pet. 5:7). If we think about someone, “I couldn’t care less what happens to him,” we do not love him. Love cares deeply.

         God’s love is a committed love.

Christ didn’t go to the cross because it felt good! Rather, He was committed to do the will of the Father and He was committed to save His people from their sins. Feelings come and go, but commitment is the glue that makes love endure. “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).

         God’s love is a conspicuous love.

It “shows itself.” In other words, it is not just nice thoughts, but also evident deeds (1 John 3:17).

         God’s love is a consecrating love.

It is committed to seek the highest good of the one loved. Because Christ loved the church, He also purposed to sanctify her, “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot of wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). This means that love must sometimes exhort and correct and impose consequences for sinful behavior. But I’ll warn you: if you confront a professing Christian who is in sin, you will very likely be accused of being unloving. But it is unloving to allow anyone to go on in his sin. To imitate God by walking in love, we must begin with this biblical definition.

B. To walk in love is a lifelong process.

This is the fifth time that Paul has used the word “walk” in Ephesians. In 2:2, he mentions how we used to walk in our sins. In 2:10, he says that we are now to walk in the good deeds which God prepared beforehand for us. In 4:1, he says that we should walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called. In 4:17, he says that we should not walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind. He will go on to say (5:8) that we must walk as children of Light and (5:15) that we must walk carefully, not as unwise men but as wise.

The word “walk” implies a step-by-step, slow but steady process. It refers to our entire manner of life. Paul has already said that we must walk “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love” (4:2). He has said that we must speak the truth in love (4:15), so that the body will build itself up in love (4:16). Love is the main responsibility of the Christian husband (5:25, 28, 33). Incorruptible love for Jesus Christ is the mark of all believers (6:24).

The point is, the longer you are a Christian, the more your life should be characterized by love. As Paul puts it (1 Thess. 4:9-10), “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more.” Or (Phil. 1:9), “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment….” It’s a lifelong process, but we must strive to grow in it.

C. To walk in love, we must look to Christ, who is both our atoning sacrifice and our supreme example.

To know Christ only as your example is not enough. He is our example, of course, but the foundation for following Christ’s example of love is to trust in His atoning sacrifice for your sins. The two terms, “offering and sacrifice,” “include all kinds of sacrifices, both grain and animal” (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 355). Christ offered Himself to God as our sacrifice. His death satisfied the justice and wrath of God against our sin, which is the meaning of the phrase, “a fragrant aroma.” You must come to the cross and trust in Christ as your atoning sacrifice in order to be reconciled to God. Then, with the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit, you can follow Christ as your example.

Study how Christ loved people. In a nutshell, He was kind and gentle with the broken, but He was forceful and direct with proud hypocrites. Sometimes He was forceful and blunt with His own disciples, as when He hit Peter hard: “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Mark 8:33). But, His loyal love brought Peter and the others through all of their failures to become the godly apostles of the early church. Look to Jesus Christ as your supreme example of love.

D. To walk in love, especially with those that are difficult to love, allow Christ’s sacrificial love to motivate you.

Christ took the initiative to give Himself on our behalf, even while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). There was nothing in us to motivate Him to love us, but He did it out of His own loving nature and to please the Father. In contrast to the Gentiles, who gave themselves over to immorality (4:19), Jesus gave Himself over (same Greek verb) to death on our behalf (5:2). Now, He calls on us sacrificially to love those who may not be very lovable. Since God is love, we imitate Him by walking in love, motivated by Christ’s sacrificial love that saved us from our sins (Gal. 2:20).

Conclusion

I conclude with three practical applications:

First, to love others commit yourself to the glory of God. Jesus went to the cross to glorify the Father in obedience to His will (John 17:1-5). Your main motivation in loving others should be to glorify God. The reason I say this is, I have seen people who love others for the response that they hope to get from those that they love. But sometimes people don’t reciprocate your love. Sometimes they betray you or slander you. If you love them for the potential response, you’ll burn out. You must love others in order to please and glorify God.

Second, to love others commit yourself to the Lord’s Supper. It is given so that we will remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. If we forget His supreme sacrifice for us, we will have difficulty sacrificially loving others. His love motivates us to love one another.

Finally, to love others commit yourself to the body of Christ, the church. It’s easy to love mankind in general, but it’s more difficult to love the specific individuals in a particular local church. But love is a commitment to seek one another’s highest good. This is one reason for church membership. It is the commitment that enables us to work through differences and misunderstandings. Without that commitment, it’s just too easy to move down the road to the next church. But, guess what? That church will have difficult people too, because every church is made up of fallen people. To walk in love, you must be committed to work through relational struggles.

A little boy was following his dad, who was walking in fresh snow. He called out, “Look, daddy, I’m walking in your footsteps!” Our heavenly Father in the person of His own dear Son, walked in love to the cross for us. Imitate Him by walking in His footsteps of sacrificial love!

Application Questions

  1. Why must we be careful to know God in all His attributes as revealed in His Word? What errors may result if we don’t?
  2. Why is it essential to have a biblical definition of love? What problems may ensue if we lack such a definition?
  3. Is it necessary to like everyone you love? How do these two qualities relate to one another?
  4. Why is commitment to a local body of believers foundational for loving relationships? When is it right to leave a church?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

 

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Lesson 40: Clean Up Your Act! (Ephesians 5:3-6)

The way that God designed our five senses so that they adjust to minimize harsh stimuli is amazing! Your eyes adjust to bright sunlight so that it doesn’t seem so bright or to a dark room so that it isn’t so dark. Your ears filter out certain noises so that you don’t even think about them. In Dallas, our apartment was on a busy freeway. We got so used to the noise that it seemed weird to wake up in the middle of the night when it was quiet. Then a car would go by and we’d realize that the usual freeway noise was missing.

Your sense of smell works the same way. When I used to paint houses, the customers would come home and complain about the terrible smell of the paint. I honestly couldn’t smell anything, because I had grown used to the smell. The same thing happens with your sense of taste. Not many people like the taste of coffee at first. It’s too bitter. But after you develop a taste for it, the bitter tastes good. And, your sense of touch develops calluses so that what at first felt rough no longer bothers you.

Our spiritual senses also work like our physical senses, but with a crucial difference. While it is to our advantage in most cases to adjust to harsh physical stimuli, it is to our disadvantage spiritually. When we first hear of some terrible sin, we shrink back in horror and disgust. But if we are exposed to this sin repeatedly, so that it becomes commonplace, we tend to accept it or at least shrug it off. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) saw this when he wrote (“Essay on Man,” in Familiar Quotations, by John Bartlett [Little, Brown, and Company], 13th ed., p. 317),

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien [appearance]
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

I fear that the American church is in grave danger of pitying or embracing the sexual immorality that has engulfed our nation. (From here on, this message is probably rated PG-13, although I’ll try to keep it to a PG rating!) Twenty years ago, Leadership journal did a survey on sex and the American clergy. Of the pastors responding to the survey, 20 percent said that they looked at sexually oriented media (print, video, or movies) at least once a month (Winter, 1988, p. 24). This was before the Internet made such material easily available in your own home or on your laptop computer when you travel! And 38 percent of these pastors said they find themselves fantasizing about sex with someone other than their spouse at least once a month.

The same survey asked these pastors, “Since you’ve been in local church ministry, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?” Twenty-three percent answered yes. The inappropriate behavior was left undefined and could have ranged from unguarded words to flirtation to adultery. When asked specifically about adultery, 12 percent of pastors answered yes (since entering local church ministry)! Leadership asked the same questions of readers of Christianity Today magazine who were not pastors. The incidences of immorality were nearly double, with 45 percent indicating that they had done something inappropriate, and 23 percent admitting to extramarital sex (p. 12)!

Again, this survey is now 20 years old. I’m sure that the increases in the availability of pornography, along with the increasingly degrading content of movies and television, have not improved those statistics! Several years ago, Al Mohler wrote (cited without reference by Ligon Duncan, June 4, 2006, accessed at: http://www.fpcjackson.org/resources/sermons/Ephesians/20b% proved those statistics! Several years ago, Al Mohler wrote (cited without reference by Ligon Duncan, June 4, 2006, accessed at: http://www.fpcjackson.org/resources/sermons/Ephesians/20b% 20ephesians_5.3_4.htm):

The statistics are truly frightening. According to industry studies, 70% percent of 18-24 year old men visit pornographic sites in a typical month. These young men represent something like one-fourth of all visitors to pornographic sites on the internet. The next largest group of users are young men in their 20’s and 30’s, 66% of whom report being regular users of pornography….

Today the average teenage boy is likely to have seen thousands of explicit sexual images, ranging across the spectrum of sexualities and perversions. Many of these boys and young men are driven by sexual fantasies that previous generations of young men would not have even known existed…. Today Americans rent more than 800 million pornographic videos and DVD’s every year. About 20% of all video rentals are pornographic. At least 11,000 pornographic videos are produced annually, amounting to revenue for the adult film industry estimated at between 5 and 10 billion dollars a year….

Mohler also cites a November, 2003, “60 Minutes” report that many of the largest hotel chains, including Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Sheraton, and Holiday Inn, make most of their in-room profits from the sale of pay-per-view porn—with half of all guests purchasing erotic video products (http://www.albertmohler.com/ chasing erotic video products (http://www.albertmohler.com/ commentary_read.php?cdate=2003-12-02).

Since we’re all swimming in this filthy cesspool, the apostle Paul’s commands in our text become even more urgent, that as God’s saints, we eliminate sexual impurity from our thoughts, words, and deeds. The reasons that he gives for his commands are not so that you will have a happy marriage (although eliminating this filth is an essential part of a happy marriage). Rather, he tells us that those who practice such things will not be in heaven, but will come under God’s wrath! Thus is it to your eternal advantage to understand and apply Paul’s words here. He is saying that…

The saints must not be immoral or greedy, but rather thankful, because the immoral and greedy will incur God’s wrath.

Verse 3 begins with “but,” drawing a contrast with the command to walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us. He wants to make it clear that the love to which Christ calls us stands in stark contrast with the lust of the pagan world. The Greco-Roman world of that day, including the city of Ephesus, was noted for moral corruption. The temple of Artemis offered ritual prostitution as part of its “worship.” Sexual promiscuity was commonplace. The Emperor Nero was openly homosexual and was known to have been sexually involved with his own mother. So it was imperative for the church to be distinct from this immoral culture that was facing God’s judgment.

So that we all are perfectly clear, let me point out that being a moral person will not get you into heaven. Of course, none of us has been perfectly moral, because Jesus raised the standard to mental purity when He said that if we even look on a woman to lust, we have committed adultery with her in our hearts (Matt. 5:27-28). But even if you can claim always to have been faithful to your spouse or to be chaste as a single person, it will not qualify you for heaven. As we saw (Eph. 2:8-9), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” So the task for the church is not to crusade to make our culture more moral, but rather to get people saved. God’s transforming our hearts is the basis for pleasing Him by a holy life. Paul makes three points:

1. The saints must not be immoral or greedy (5:3-4a).

Paul writes (5:3), “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” Saints is Paul’s common word for believers and means, holy ones. The Bible never uses the word to refer to a special class of believers who are a notch above the rest. It refers to the fact that as a believer, you are sanctified or set apart as holy unto the Lord. Now you are to live as a saint.

A. God’s standard for moral purity is absolute, not relative, and thus is not debatable.

We live in a day when even most professing Christians deny that God’s moral standards are absolutely true and binding on all people in all cultures. As far back as 1991 (and I’m sure the percentages have not improved since then!), only 23 percent of “born again” or “evangelical” Christians expressed a strong belief in absolute truth (from George Barna’s What Americans Believe, cited by James Dobson in a newsletter, Dec., 1991). In our culture at large, 47 percent now approve of homosexuality, although that breaks down into 83 percent of liberals versus 23 percent of conservatives. Among liberals, 89 percent approve of sex between an unmarried man and woman; 33 percent of conservatives agree. Having a baby out of wedlock is acceptable to 83 percent of liberals and 33 percent of conservatives (The Washington Times [6/5/2007], p. A6).

But God’s standards for moral purity are not up for popular vote! He designed the sexual relationship for a man and a woman in a lifelong committed marriage. When practiced within these boundaries, it is a good gift from God, not something dirty. He gave us His commandments for our good. When we violate His standards, it results in short term pleasure (that’s why we’re tempted to do it), but long term pain and problems. Keeping God’s commandments is often difficult in the short term, but deeply fulfilling in the long term.

B. God’s standard includes moral purity in thought, speech, and behavior.

Jesus said that immoral behavior comes out of the heart (Mark 7:21-23), and so we must deal with it on the heart level. Paul uses six terms here to refer to sins that the saints must not practice:

(1). Immorality

This is the Greek word porneia, which refers to any type of sexual immorality. It includes premarital sex, extramarital sex, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and the use of pornography. Any sex outside of the lifelong commitment of marriage is not rooted in love (as I defined it in our last study, “a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved”), but in lust. Outside of marriage, sex devolves into using the other person for your own gratification.

(2). Impurity

This word means “dirty” or “impure,” and was used to refer to the pus around an infected wound. In the moral realm, it refers to that which contaminates others and is repulsive and disgusting. Paul used it in 4:19 to refer to the ungodly behavior of the Gentiles, who had “given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.”

(3). Greed

As in 4:19, Paul lists greed right beside sexual sins and in 5:5 he equates it with idolatry (cf. Col. 3:5). The greedy man has a lust for more, whether it is money, material possession, or sexual conquests. Greed is motivated by selfish pleasure apart from God. It is idolatry because it seeks to find pleasure in something other than God, while rejecting God’s commandments. Sex outside of marriage is always based on greed, because its goal is to exploit the other person for your advantage, not to enrich her.

Paul says (5:3) that these three sins are “not even [to] be named among you, as is proper among saints.” He obviously does not mean that they should not be discussed, because he is discussing them here. The Bible also contains stories of sexual immorality, as well as a vivid fictional depiction of it (Proverbs 7). Rather, he means that these sins should be unknown among Christians. We should not be feeding our minds on these sins by watching movies or TV programs that depict them. We should not read juicy accounts of sexual sin in the press. Certainly, we should not view pornography in any form. As Paul says (Rom. 16:19b), “but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.”

(4). Filthiness

This refers to any indecency, obscenity, or shameful thing. It comes from the same word root as “disgraceful” (5:12).

(5). Silly talk

This word comes from two words that mean, “foolish speech.” We get our word moron from the word root. In the Bible, the fool is not someone who is mentally deficient, but rather someone who is morally deficient because he ignores God’s Word. In this context, Paul is referring to speech that disregards or makes light of God’s moral commandments.

(6). Coarse jesting

The word literally means, “to turn easily.” It has the idea of someone who can make a quick comeback, using clever words with a double meaning. So he can turn something into a dirty joke or ribald humor, as many stand-up comedians and TV sitcoms do. Christians should not joke about sex for the same reason that we should not joke about God—it is a sacred subject. The sexual relationship should be reverenced among God’s people, not degraded or made light of.

Thus God’s standard is absolute and it includes moral purity in thought, speech, and behavior.

C. God’s standard must be your standard as a saint.

Sexual purity is not an infrequent theme in Paul’s letters. He mentions purity or warns about immorality in Romans (1, 13); 1 Corinthians (5, 6, 7, 10); 2 Corinthians (6, 7, 12); Galatians (5); Ephesians (4, 5); Colossians (3); 1 Thessalonians (4); 1 Timothy (1, 3, 4, 5), 2 Timothy (3); and Titus (1, 2, 3). Since all of these letters are addressed to professing Christians in the church, God intends that you as a Christian be reminded of and be on guard against the sexual temptation that tempts us all.

To be morally pure, you’ve got to commit yourself to God’s standard and fight to maintain it. To fight for purity, you must guard your thought life and restrict the kinds of media that you expose yourself to. You must be accountable in your use of the computer. Guys, you must make a covenant with your eyes (Job 31:1), so that you stop checking out every attractive girl who walks by. It is a battle and it won’t happen automatically. You must actively fight against it. Cut off your hand! Pluck out your eye if you need to (Matt. 5:27-30)!

D. We must model and teach God’s standard to our children.

A 1996 survey revealed that 46 percent of Michigan fifth-graders and 55 percent of eighth-graders had engaged in sex! The study showed that sex is far more common among both age groups than alcohol or drug use. The leader of the study speculated that the high rates of intercourse could likely be attributed to television exposure (in World [6/8-15, 1996], p. 10). As far back as 1988, Josh McDowell did a survey that showed that 43 percent of 18-year-old church-attending youths had had sexual intercourse. When you broaden it to “acts of sexual intimacy,” the number went up to 65 percent among church high school seniors.

If these statistics alarm you (and they should, especially if you’re rearing children), you must model and teach your children the ways of the Lord. Don’t assume that the church will do the job, although we want to back you up. It’s your job, not just to tell your kids that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but also to explain the wholesomeness of sex as God designed it. You must have an open relationship where your kids can share their own struggles and temptations without fear of an angry tirade. You also must protect your family from harmful influences. Don’t watch R-rated (or most PG-13) movies. Don’t watch filthy TV shows. Don’t have trashy magazines that tell about all of the movie stars’ latest sexual escapades lying around the house.

Also, teach (and set the example for) your daughters to dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9), as young women who want to please the Lord. To speak directly to you young women, you are not helping your brothers to moral purity when you dress seductively. Tight fitting, low-cut tops or low-riding pants that show off your mid-section are designed by the world to turn guys on. Scripture is clear that you are not to set a stumbling-block before your brothers. Please, ignore the world’s sensuous fashions and dress in a manner that pleases the Lord. Paul’s first point is clear: Christians must not be immoral or greedy.

2. The alternative to immorality and greed is to give thanks (5:4a).

You would think that Paul would say that we are to replace sexual impurity with purity. That is true, of course, and he will state that (5:9-11). But here, he says that the alternative to sexual immorality and greed is to give thanks. Why does he say that? What does thankfulness have to do with moral purity? A lot!

To be thankful, you must be in submission to God’s sovereignty over every detail of your life. If you’re grumbling or complaining, you’re really saying that you know what’s best for you better than God does. If you’re grumbling about being single or about being married to the “wrong” person, you are not just complaining about your circumstances, but really about God’s goodness and wisdom in these aspects of your life. The same goes for discontent in the financial area.

Satan tempted Eve by getting her to doubt God’s goodness in withholding the forbidden fruit from her. When she bit into Satan’s lure that the fruit would really be good for her (contrary to what God had said), she yielded to sin. Satan will use the same ploy to tempt you to fulfill your sexual desires in disobedience to God. If you read Paul’s account of the degradation of the human race in Romans 1:18-32, at the root of it was (1:21), “they did not honor Him as God or give thanks.” So by faith, you must bow before God’s sovereignty over your circumstances and give Him thanks.

If you’re single and burning with sexual desire, pray for a mate (1 Cor. 7:1-9). If you’re married, thank God for the mate that He has given you and work on your relationship. By the way, sexual satisfaction in marriage is very closely tied with relational intimacy. God designed it that way. So to guard yourself against the temptation of adultery, guard your relationship with your mate. Work at it constantly. Develop a thankful heart for all of God’s blessings, including the sexual relationship in marriage.

3. The immoral and greedy will not be in God’s kingdom, but will incur His wrath (5:5-6).

Paul makes two points here:

A. You know for certain that no immoral or greedy person will have an inheritance in God’s kingdom (5:5).

It only makes sense: there will not be immoral or greedy people (who are idolaters) in heaven. It wouldn’t be heaven if they were there! While genuine Christians may fall into these sins, no genuine Christian can continue in such sins. As John states plainly (1 John 3:7-8), “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”

B. Don’t let anyone deceive you about such things, because the end result is God’s wrath (5:6).

Paul knew that many, including many Christian leaders, would say, “You’re under grace. God is a God of love who won’t condemn you. He understands your weaknesses.” By such enticing words, they lure unsuspecting people to eternal ruin (2 Pet. 2:13-22). The phrase, “sons of disobedience,” refers to those whose lives are characterized by disobedience, not to those who have fallen, but repented. If someone professes to be a Christian, but he lives in habitual disobedience to God’s moral standards, it is evidence that he has not been born again (1 John 3:9). Unless he truly repents, he faces God’s eternal wrath and judgment. Don’t be deceived by anyone who says anything else (Gal. 5:19-21)!

Conclusion

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul makes a similar point: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” But, don’t stop reading there, or you might despair if you have committed any of those sins! He continues (6:11), “And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Praise God! There is hope for every sinner at the cross! Don’t let your moral senses be dulled, so that you go along with our cultural drift into increasing immorality and greed. Let your senses be trained by God’s Word that shows us His paths of righteousness, which are for our eternal joy and good. Trust in Christ and repent of your sin and He will wash you from all your sins.

Application Questions

  1. There are professing Christians that argue that the Bible permits committed, loving homosexual relationships. How would you counter this with Scripture?
  2. Some Christians justify going to R-rated movies by saying, “I need to understand where our culture is at. Your response?
  3. Where is the balance between being in the world, but not of the world (John 17:15-16)? How can we keep a check on ourselves so that we don’t cross the line?
  4. Some argue that genuine Christians may fall into habitual immorality or greed and that the consequence is, they lose their rewards, not eternal life. How would you interact with this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 41: Children of Light in a Dark World (Ephesians 5:7-14)

In Dallas one summer I worked with the Mayflower Moving Company. On several occasions as I was riding three abreast in the cab of the truck on the way to a job, the man sitting next to me who was not driving would reach under the seat and pull out a magazine filled with pictures of gorgeous naked women in seductive poses. He would comment on each woman’s finer features and ask for my response. How should you as a Christian respond to such situations? Or, maybe you’re at work when the other workers share the latest dirty joke. Should you laugh? Should you rebuke them? Should you say nothing and just walk away?

These are the difficult, real-life situations that the apostle Paul addresses in our text. He is answering the question of how we, as children of light, should relate to a morally dark world. He doesn’t give us specific directions to follow when we face these difficult situations. But he gives us comprehensive guiding principles. By understanding these principles, each of us can think through how to respond when these situations arise, as surely they will.

Historically, there have been two wrong extremes in how Christians have responded to this difficult issue. Some, in attempting to relate to the lost, have become so much like the world in its attitudes and behavior that there is no appreciable difference between them and worldly people. These folks emphasize Paul’s comments about becoming all things to all men. Rightly, they try to minimize differences that are merely cultural. But they often err by playing down certain biblical truths that are offensive to worldly people, such as sin and judgment. In so doing, they compromise the gospel. And, they often dodge biblical standards of morality, becoming like the world in its sinful aspects. In my judgment, the emergent church movement often errs in this regard.

Other Christians have over-emphasized the need to be separate from this evil world by withdrawing from almost all contact with worldly people, worldly activities, and what they think is worldly appearance. One prominent example is the Amish. Not wanting to become assimilated into our godless culture, they withdrew and held to their own ways. Over time, they have become a cultural oddity. They are so distinct from the culture that they have no impact in terms of reaching the lost. Monasticism errs in the same way.

The Lord Jesus plainly stated the biblical balance in His prayer (John 17:15-18): “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” So we are to be in the world as Jesus was in the world, yet also not to be of the world, even as Jesus was not of the world. The way to keep this fine balance is to be sanctified (set apart) by God’s Word of truth.

In our text, the apostle Paul is dealing with this issue as it concerned a church in a very pagan environment. How do we relate to our godless culture without becoming tainted by it? His answer is:

We are to walk as children of light in this dark world, exposing the deeds of darkness.

The theme of light and darkness is prominent throughout the Bible. Darkness symbolizes Satan’s evil domain and the sinful deeds of those who do not obey God. It also represents the spiritual ignorance of those whose sin has blinded their eyes from the light of God’s truth (Eph. 4:18; 2 Cor. 4:4). Light pictures the knowledge of the truth that comes when God shines into our lives. As Paul wrote (2 Cor. 4:6), “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Light also pictures the holiness of God (1 John 1:5), who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). So as believers, we are called to walk in the light, just as He Himself is in the light (1 John 1:7), living with every area of our lives exposed to God.

1. We are to walk as children of light in this dark world (5:8-10).

Note two things:

A. To walk as children of light, we must be children of light (5:8a).

Paul does not say that we used to be in the darkness, whereas now we are in the light, although this is true (Col. 1:13; John 8:12; 1 Pet. 2:9; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:9). Rather, he says that we used to be darkness, but now we are light in the Lord. Being children of light implies that this profound change comes from God’s power in the new birth. It is an act of His creative power. Just as He at the first created light out of the darkness, so now He has changed us from being darkness itself into being light in the Lord.

Most of us have had the experience of visiting a cave where the guide turned off all of the lights for a few seconds (which always seem like minutes!). You can’t even see your hand in front of your face. For a few awful seconds, you realize what it would be like to be totally blind.

Paul says that we formerly were darkness. We were spiritually blind. We not only didn’t see God’s glory and truth, we didn’t have the ability or desire to see such things. We didn’t sense our need for the Savior, because we thought we were good enough to go to heaven and we didn’t understand the absolute holiness and justice of God. So we lived entirely for ourselves and our own pleasure, avoiding the thought of death and eternity.

But, when God saved us, He opened the eyes of our understanding so that we saw “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). We saw our true condition as guilty sinners, but we also saw the all sufficiency of Jesus and His death on the cross to cover all our sins. We had a new understanding of God’s Word and a new desire to know God and His truth more and more. We now hate the sin that we formerly lived in and we long to be like our Savior, holy in all our ways. We now walk in the light, rather than in darkness, because God has made us light in the Lord.

While some of us (and I am one) can’t say exactly when this change took place, you know that it took place, because you know that God changed your heart. “You were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord” (5:8). To walk as children of light, you must be a child of light by God’s saving power.

B. Being children of light, we must walk as such in the midst of this dark world (5:8b-10).

Just because we are children of light does not guarantee that we will live that way. So Paul says, in effect, “Be what you are!” You are light; now, walk that way! He describes it in four ways:

(1). If we walk as children of light, we will be good.

Paul says (5:9), “for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness….” (The KJV has, “the fruit of the Spirit,” but “Light” is more strongly supported.) Goodness is one of God’s attributes, so to be good is to be like God. Applied to us, goodness is a broad term for behavior that benefits others ahead of oneself. A good person is concerned for the well-being of others, both spiritually and in every other way. He walks in daily dependence on the Holy Spirit, since goodness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Since it is fruit, it takes time to develop. But over the years, children of light should be growing in all goodness.

(2). If we walk as children of light, we will be righteous.

This refers to conformity to God’s righteous standards, as set forth in His Word. A righteous person is upright before God and before others. He is just or fair in how he treats others.

(3). If we walk as children of light, we will be people of truth.

In the context, the truth stands in contrast to the life of unbelievers, who are deceived (4:22; 5:6). But we have been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (4:24). Thus we are to speak the truth in love (4:15, 25). We are to be people of our word, maintaining integrity in all things. We shouldn’t have anything to hide, because we walk in the light. We are people of all truth.

(4). If we walk as children of light, we will learn what is pleasing to the Lord.

Verse 9 is a parenthesis, so verse 10 goes back to verse 8 and summarizes what it means to walk as children of light, namely, that we prove by our experience what is pleasing to the Lord. “Trying to learn” translates a single Greek verb that is translated “prove” in Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” As our minds are renewed through God’s Word, we prove in our experience what pleases God.

We do not determine what pleases the Lord by our own feelings, which fluctuate, or by what the world or other Christians say or think. We don’t even determine it by our own conscience, in that our conscience may be improperly informed. Rather, we learn what pleases the Lord through growing to understand His Word.

Living to please the Lord is a fundamental difference between the believer and the unbeliever. An unbeliever may be a good man and even be somewhat righteous or upright, at least outwardly. He may be truthful. But, he does it all out of selfish motives, for his own self-respect, or so that others will think highly of him. But, only believers live to please the Savior. We have a new personal relationship with this One who snatched us out of a horrible pit. We now evaluate everything we do by the question, “Does this please the Lord, who loved me and gave Himself for me?”

So, the first requirement for living in this dark world is to be children of light and to walk as children of light, doing everything to please the Lord.

2. As children of light in this dark world, we are to expose the deeds of darkness (5:7, 11-14).

In 5:7, Paul says, “Therefore do not be partakers with them.” Them refers to the sons of disobedience, who are under God’s wrath (5:6). Not being partakers with them is the same thing that Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18:

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” says the Lord Almighty.

Then, in Ephesians 5:11-12, Paul adds, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.” We should not be interested in hearing gossip about the movie stars’ latest sexual sins. Such talk should repulse us. Instead, Paul says, we should expose such sins. What does he mean?

In the context, he seems to mean that by our lives (primarily) and our words (secondarily) we expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness for what they are: disgraceful sin in God’s holy presence. Jesus used this word (John 3:20) when He said, “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” He continues (3:21), “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

In other words, by the obvious difference in how we live, our lives expose the sin of those that are engaging in the unfruitful deeds of darkness. As Paul says (Eph. 5:13), “But all things become visible when they are exposed [same word] by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light.” That last phrase is difficult, but Paul seems to be arguing that light not only exposes, but also transforms (at least some of the time). J. B. Phillips (The New Testament in Modern English [Geoffrey Bles], p. p. 407) paraphrased it, “It is even possible (after all, it happened with you!) for light to turn the thing it shines upon into light also.”

To illustrate, living in Flagstaff, where it’s cold in the winter with lots of snow, our cars get caked with the salt and grime from the roads, so that after a few weeks of regular snowstorms, they look pretty bad. But, everyone else’s car looks as bad as mine, so I don’t think much about it. But, if I have to drive down to Phoenix, where it’s warm and sunny, I am suddenly surrounded by clean cars! Those clean cars expose the filthiness of my car and make me want to go straight to a car wash. Our clean lives expose the sin of unbelievers’ lives. As God works in their hearts, it often drives them to get their sins washed at the cross.

Let me set out the balance of how we expose the deeds of darkness this way:

A. We expose the deeds of darkness by our godly lives as we maintain proper separation from the world.

If we’re no different in our thinking, attitudes, words, and behavior than those that do not know Christ, we have no message to give them. If you profess to know Christ, but you’re not walking in the light, conforming your life to His Word, then please do not let unbelievers know that you claim to be a Christian! If you’re comfortable with your sinful lifestyle, you may not be a genuine Christian. But whether you are or not, don’t link the holy name of the Lord with your disobedient lifestyle (2 Sam. 12:14).

But, if you’re walking in the light, you can no longer join in the lifestyle of unbelievers. As 1 Peter 4:3-5 puts it,

For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

As you separate yourself from that kind of sinful lifestyle and live to please the Lord with all goodness, righteousness, and truth, your godly life exposes the dirty lives of those around you.

B. We expose the deeds of darkness by our godly lives and words as we maintain proper contact with the world.

Don’t go out of the world, or you lose any contact for witness. The Corinthian church was confused about this. They had mistaken Paul’s command not to associate with immoral people to mean that they cut off contact with unbelievers. And yet they were welcoming a sinning believer into their fellowship! Paul didn’t mean that they should break off contact with the world. Rather, they should cut off contact with any so-called brother who is immoral or sinning (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Here are four guidelines to follow as you seek to maintain proper contact with this dark world:

(1). Be on guard—bad company corrupts good morals!

You should not be best friends with an unbeliever once you have come to Christ. Your deepest friendships must be with those that share in common a love for Jesus Christ and the things of God. For a believer to enter into a close friendship, business partnership, or marriage with an unbeliever is to violate the clear command that we read earlier (2 Cor. 6:14-18). If you do not distance yourself from your former friendships, those godless friends will pull you back into your old way of life. But, what about witness?

(2). Be alert to your purpose—to win the lost to Christ.

Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, but He did not hang out with them to have a good time. He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). He said that He didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). He kept a fine balance that is difficult to imitate: He maintained His holiness and yet He put sinners enough at ease so that they listened to His message.

It is in this sense that we must interpret Ephesians 5:14 (a difficult verse). Most likely it cites an early Christian hymn based on Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Paul cites it as an example of the directives he has just given. It pictures the exposure of an unbeliever to the light with a view to his salvation. He is asleep and dead. God calls him to awake and arise, resulting in the light of Christ shining upon him. It does not imply that dead sinners are able in their own strength to arise from the dead, which would contradict the metaphor. Rather, with the command, God imparts the power to obey, just as when Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43). Light not only reveals sin; it also dispels the darkness. So we can call on sinners to awake and arise, knowing that God may impart the power to obey, resulting in them becoming children of light, with Christ shining on them.

(3). Be sensitive to show concern for the whole person.

Jesus said (Matt. 5:16), “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Often, of course, we must tell people the message of the gospel. But that message must be backed up with genuine concern for the whole person. If someone is hungry, feed him and tell him about Jesus. The fruit of the light consists in goodness, which means, good deeds that show love for people. In that context we are able to give verbal witness to the gospel.

(4). Be bold to identify verbally with Christ when you are pressured to compromise your convictions.

This gets back to how you respond to dirty jokes or to someone who wants you to view pornography. Here’s the principle: Be as bold in your witness for Christ as the other person is in his solicitation to evil. If they are bold for Satan, why shouldn’t you be just as bold for the Savior? Smile and say firmly, “That offends my Lord,” or, “I can’t do that.” If he presses the matter, say, “I used to love that sort of thing, but now I belong to Jesus Christ and I want to please Him.” And share your concern for him, that he is under God’s judgment, but that Jesus offers him a full and free pardon if he will repent and believe in Christ.

Conclusion

The church growth movement tells us pastors that we should make the church a place where unbelievers feel comfortable. So, we’re supposed to avoid subjects like sin, righteous living, and the coming judgment. Instead, we’re to focus on how to have a happy family, how to do well in business, how to overcome your addictions, and other upbeat topics. In other words, we’re not supposed to expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness, so that we don’t offend anyone. Just tell them how much God loves them!

But Jesus said that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to convict (same Greek word as “expose”) the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Without that conviction, unbelievers will not see their need and flee to the Savior. Forgiven little, they will love Jesus little. Paul’s strategy is better: Walk as a child of light, maintaining proper separation from the world and proper contact with the world. As you do, your godly life and words will expose the deeds of darkness. Some will awake from the dead and Christ will shine on them, as He has on you.

Application Questions

  1. If we openly rebuke someone for a dirty joke, it may cut off all future opportunity for witness. How can we be tactful and yet show disapproval?
  2. Do you agree that Christians should not have unbelievers as their closest friends? Why/why not? Cite Scripture.
  3. Since no one is perfect, how godly should we be before we tell others about Christ? What guidelines apply?
  4. Some argue that believers should frequent taverns and have a few beers to witness to those in the taverns. Agree/disagree?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 42: Walking Carefully in an Evil Day (Ephesians 5:15-17)

If you’ve ever done any boating, you know that it is essential to have a means of steering and a source of power. You need both. If you are cruising off the coast and lose your ability to steer, all the power in the world won’t do you any good. You’re at the mercy of the wind and the currents. Or, if you can steer, but you have no power, again you’re in big trouble. You may drift into rocks or hidden reefs.

These two necessities become even more essential if you are navigating through dangerous seas. You would also need an accurate navigational chart and a means of determining your own location, so that you know exactly where the obstacles are and can avoid them. Without these, disaster is almost certain.

The Christian life is much the same. The enemy has planted traps and mines to wipe you out. There are dangerous rocks and reefs that can cause you to shipwreck your faith. To navigate safely through, you must be very careful. You must have a means of direction, a source of power, and pay close attention to the chart.

That is Paul’s subject in our text: walking carefully as children of light in an evil day. “Therefore” points back to the preceding context, where we saw that as Christians, we are now children of light (5:8). Yet we are walking in a world that is morally and spiritually dark. We are not to cover our light and blend in with the darkness. Rather are to expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness as sin and dispel the darkness by leading sinners to Christ.

Therefore, because of these dangerous waters through which we are navigating, Paul now says, “Look carefully how you walk!” Look carefully means to consider with exactness and precision. It was an accounting term. If you’re keeping the books for an organization or just balancing your checkbook, it is vital to be exact. You can’t say, “Is that a 10 or 100? Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. Let’s call it 100.” You must be precise.

Or, if you’re a soldier on patrol in a minefield, you must know where the mines are placed and be careful to avoid them. Paul is saying that we must walk that way as believers. We must choose our steps carefully, because the enemy has strewn the path with dangerous obstacles that will cause us serious harm if we are careless. The days are evil!

And yet, many Christians just saunter through the minefield with no awareness of the grave danger that they face. They are flirting with serious danger, and yet they aren’t paying attention. Paul gives us three essentials if we want to walk carefully in this evil day, to avoid spiritual disaster. Today I am giving an overview of these verses, which open a section that runs through 6:9. Then in five subsequent messages, I plan to go back through them in more detail. If there is any repetition, hopefully it will serve to cement these vital truths in your thinking. Paul is saying,

To walk carefully in this evil day, you must use your time wisely, understand the will of the Lord, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.

1. To walk carefully in this evil day, you must use your time wisely (5:15-16).

Paul writes (5:15-16, literal translation), “Therefore, look carefully how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil.” Note three things:

A. To walk carefully, you must think carefully about how you will spend your life in this evil day.

This is Paul’s final use of the word “walk” in Ephesians (cf. 2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:1, 8). “Walk” pictures our way of life, worked out in a daily, step-by-step process. In Paul’s day, people didnt just walk for exercise. They walked to get to a destination. So to walk spiritually pictures steady progress toward a definite goal.

“Look carefully” implies that if you are careless about how you walk, how you spend your time each day, you will not get through life without serious mishap. You will step on a mine or be attacked by the enemy or wander around hopelessly lost. The Gentiles walk in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, giving themselves over to sensuality and greed (4:17-19). But Christians are not to walk in that manner. We must walk carefully, because the days are evil. Without deliberate carefulness, the evil that surrounds us will overwhelm us.

This is one reason that I urge you prayerfully to write out a one-sentence purpose statement for your life. It should describe what you think God wants you to be if you live to be 80. You should base it on biblically determined criteria. Then, underneath that purpose statement, write out some short-term goals that will move you toward your life purpose in each area (spiritual, relational, intellectual, moral, physical, financial, and vocational). Look at it often and readjust as necessary. If you just drift through life without thinking carefully about how to spend your time, you will not end up where God wants you to be.

B. To walk wisely, you must skillfully apply God’s Word to your life.

Paul draws the first of several contrasts, “not as unwise men, but as wise.” Wisdom is a huge theme in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, where Job, many of the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are called, “wisdom literature.” The basic meaning of the Hebrew word for “wisdom” was “skill.” The wise man had the skill to live properly. At the root of wise living is the fear of the Lord: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

Thus the wise person lives in a godly, skillful manner, thus producing a beautiful finished product that brings glory to the Lord. The only way to accomplish this is to follow the divine plan, given to us in Scripture. Just as God gave Moses the plan for the tabernacle, and skillful men crafted the beautiful final product, so we must follow God’s directions if we want our lives to be beautiful for Him. The Bible tells us the godly character qualities that we need to develop. It warns us about the many temptations to sin that will harm or destroy us. It tells us how to determine our life-priorities so that we will make the best use of the years the Lord gives us. As Moses prayed (Ps. 90:12), “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”

C. To use your time wisely, you must use every opportunity for the will of God.

“Making the most of your time” (5:16a) is literally, “redeeming the time.” To redeem means to buy back. The implication is that time is in bondage and that a price must be paid to buy it back. The Greek word here for “time” does not view time as extended, but rather time as opportunities. The idea is that God gives us choice moments to seize for His purposes. We must be alert to His purposes and ready to grab those opportunities, like a shrewd merchant sees an opportunity for a profit and grabs it. Redeeming the time has special reference (both here and in Col. 4:5) to Christian witness in the world (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], pp. 378-379).

For the unbeliever, life is in bondage to futility and meaninglessness (4:17-19). He goes through school, gets a job, starts a family, raises the family, retires from his job, and hopes that his health lasts long enough to cruise through all the national parks and take videos, or to catch a lot of fish. Then he dies. Throughout the process, he spends ten years of his life watching mindless TV shows. What’s the point? His time was in bondage to futility.

But the Christian can buy back those otherwise wasted hours and use the opportunities for eternal significance. He grabs every opportunity to grow to know Christ and be conformed to His image. He rears his children to know and follow Christ. He works to bring others to know Christ and grow in Him. He is a steward of his resources for God’s kingdom purposes, investing wisely in opportunities to further the gospel around the globe. By walking carefully in this evil world, he buys back opportunities for God’s kingdom purposes.

But, the word “redeem” implies that there is a cost. You must say no to certain secondary things in order to say yes to the crucial. You must say no to hours of TV or computer games in order to say yes to reading and studying God’s Word. You must say no to selfish activities that pull you away from God’s kingdom purposes. You must say no to certain ways of squandering your money on worldly pursuits in order to say yes to eternal riches. To walk carefully, you must use your time wisely.

2. To walk carefully, you must understand the will of the Lord (5:17).

Paul continues with another contrast, “So then [because the days are evil] do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” The will of the Lord is the navigation chart that tells us where we’re going and how to get there. Just as it would be foolish beyond imagination to put out to sea with no idea of where you’re going or how to get there, the same is true in life. When I was in the Coast Guard, there was one crucial question you asked when you took over the helm: “What course are you steering?” The captain determined the course. If he said, “Steer at 280, I wasn’t free to steer at 180!” My job was to keep the boat headed at 280, against the wind and currents that would have pulled us off course.

The Lord wants you to understand His will so that you can keep your life on course. Verse 17 isn’t talking primarily about whether you go to this or that school or take this or that job. Rather, in the context of Ephesians the will of the Lord refers to something much bigger.

A. You must understand the will of the Lord, which involves His ultimate purpose for creation.

To understand means to grasp with the mind, which implies some effort on your part. The Lord’s will is revealed in His Word and Paul has mentioned it several times in Ephesians. He began the book (1:1) by referring to himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” He goes on to say (1:5) that God “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” He said (1:9) that God “made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him.” And, he said (1:11) that “we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”

In short, God’s will relates to His eternal purpose to be glorified by summing up all things in Christ. He does this by saving His elect (Jews and Gentiles) and bringing both groups together as one in His dwelling place, the church, which manifests His wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (3:10). You must work to grasp that purpose with your mind so that you can live your life in line with it.

B. You must apply the will of the Lord to your life.

In other words, you must live daily in light of God’s purpose to be glorified in Christ through His church as that church grows in holiness to become His pure and spotless bride (5:27). This entails several things:

*You must submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ over all your life. You will not glorify Him if you reserve certain areas of your life to do as you please. Rather, you must learn what is pleasing to Him (5:10) and live accordingly, seeking to glorify Him in every thought, attitude, word, and deed.

*You must be committed to Christ’s church. If God is working out His eternal purpose through the church, then His people must be committed to the church. To be casual in your connection to the church is not to be committed to what God is committed to.

*You must be committed to harmony with other believers in the church and in your home. God’s will involves bringing these two formerly diverse, hostile groups, Jew and Gentile, together as one in the church under Christ’s headship (2:11-22). Through this means, He displays His glory to the angelic hosts (3:10). Therefore, we must labor to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (4:3). And, we must live in harmony as husbands and wives, because marriage ultimately concerns Christ and the church (5:32).

*You must be committed to God’s glory in the world. The will of the Lord through His church includes bringing the gospel to the lost so that they may be saved and incorporated into the church. In that way, His glory is manifested all over the earth, as former rebels are reconciled to God and to one another through the cross.

If you’re just living to get a good job, pay the bills, and enjoy selfish pursuits, with an occasional trip to church when it doesn’t interfere with your entertainment program, Paul calls you foolish. To walk carefully in this evil world, you must not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is and apply it to how you live each day.

Thus, to walk carefully in this evil day, you must use your time wisely and understand the will of the Lord. Thirdly,

3. To walk carefully, you must be filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18-21).

Paul gives another contrast (5:18), “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Grammatically, this is followed by five participles that show the results of being filled with the Spirit: speaking, singing, making melody, giving thanks, and being subject to one another. The first and the last relate to our behavior towards one another. The second, third, and fourth relate to our behavior towards the Lord. The last participle also serves to introduce and govern the section on relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and masters (5:22-6:9). I will go into more detail in future messages, but for now I can only skim over things.

A. To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by the Spirit (5:18).

Why does Paul somewhat abruptly interject the subject of drunkenness at this point? There are probably two main reasons (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit [Baker], p. 12): First, drunkenness and debauchery were characteristic of the futile, sensual lives from which the Ephesians had been saved and in which their contemporaries still lived. Paul is drawing a marked contrast between the old way of life and the new.

Second, he uses the analogy of wine and drunkenness to show that while there is a great contrast between being drunk with wine and being filled with the Spirit, there are also many similarities. Even as one filled with wine is under its influence, so the Christian should be under the control or influence of the Holy Spirit. Briefly, note two things about being filled with the Spirit:

(1). Being filled with the Spirit is ongoing and repeated.

The verb tense indicates, “Be continually filled.” As you study the examples in the New Testament, you learn that godly men were filled on more than one occasion (Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9, 52). The filling of the Spirit must be distinguished from the baptism of the Spirit. After the Day of Pentecost, the baptism of the Spirit is a one-time action that takes place at the moment you are saved, when you receive the Holy Spirit and are placed into the body of Christ (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:2, 5). Contrary to what many say, the baptism of the Spirit is not an experience subsequent to salvation that you are to seek. It is not an experience; it is a fact.

But the filling of the Spirit is a repeated experience that empowers us for godliness and service. It is essentially the same thing as walking by means of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), which gives us victory over the flesh and produces the fruit of the Spirit in us. It should be the normative daily experience of every Christian.

(2). Being filled with the Spirit is commanded.

We are never commanded to be baptized with the Spirit, but we are commanded to be filled. We should take the positive command to be filled with the Spirit just as seriously as we take the negative command not to be drunk. If you are not being filled with the Spirit as an ongoing experience, you are disobeying God!

You ask, “How do I get filled with the Spirit?” To be filled with wine, you give yourself over to the wine and keep drinking. To be filled with the Spirit, yield yourself completely to Him and keep doing it! If being filled means being controlled, you must continually yield the control of your life to the Holy Spirit. When you realize that you’ve taken control again, confess that sin to God and yield again to the Spirit. If the Spirit reveals an area where you’re not yielding to Him, yield it instantly and ask Him to fill you. And, keep walking that way.

You may wonder, “How do you know if you’re filled with the Spirit?” Are you aware of some sin that you’re harboring in your heart? No. Are you consciously yielding control of your life to the Holy Spirit? Yes. Are you seeking His fullness by drinking in His Word and asking Him to conform you to the image of Christ? Yes. Then you must trust that He is filling you. But, don’t be complacent about it. Keep seeking Him for a greater manifestation of His fullness in your life. Paul here gives three results of being filled:

B. To be filled with the Spirit results in singing, thankfulness, and proper submission in our relationships (5:19-21).

I only have time to list these now, so we will come back to them in future messages. The participles here indicate the results of being filled by the Spirit (O’Brien, pp. 387-388). These may not be what we would have expected. We might have expected bold witness or speaking in tongues or miracles or something more dramatic. But Paul lists singing, thankfulness, and mutual submission.

The singing is two-dimensional: we instruct one another (Col. 3:16) and we make melody in our hearts to the Lord. The three different terms for songs indicate variety. Singing with our hearts to the Lord infers at least a measure of exuberance and joy.

Thankfulness is the opposite of grumbling and complaining. A thankful heart bows before God’s sovereign goodness in all things, even when we may not be able to understand His immediate purpose (Rom. 8:28; Gen. 50:20).

Being subject to one another in the fear of Christ” raises all sorts of issues in this day of “evangelical feminism,” which maintains that this does away with all gender distinctions in the church and home. You’ll have to wait a few weeks until I can explain this in more detail. But for now I will say that it clearly does not mean that, since verse 24 instructs wives to be subject to their husbands, just as the church is to Christ (and Heb. 13:17 tells the church to obey its leaders and submit to them).

Rather, while not doing away with proper spheres of authority, “being subject to one another in the fear of Christ” means that we all must set aside our rights and serve one another in love. Christ had a right to remain in glory in heaven, but He willingly laid aside that right, took on the form of a servant, and was obedient even to death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-8). Even so, out of reverence for Him, we should have that same attitude, submitting ourselves to one another as we outdo one another in love.

Conclusion

Are you walking carefully in this evil world by using your time wisely for eternity, by understanding God’s will for the ages, and by being filled with the Holy Spirit? Do you see the results of the Spirit’s filling in joyous singing, a thankful heart, and in submitting yourself to serve others in love?

If you’re not walking carefully, you’re living dangerously! You’re adrift without rudder or power in dangerous waters! You’re wandering aimlessly in a minefield! Confess to the Lord your carelessness and coldness of heart. Ask Him to fill you with His Spirit. Commit to get into His Word regularly. Otherwise, you risk spiritual shipwreck!

Application Questions

  1. Does “redeeming the time” imply that every Christian must devote every spare minute to serving the Lord? How do we determine the balance between leisure and service?
  2. How can we learn to be alert for the opportunities that God brings our way?
  3. Practically, why is it important for every believer (not just theologians) to understand the big picture of God’s will for the ages?
  4. Some claim that the main sign of being filled with the Spirit is speaking in tongues. How would you respond to this biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 43: Walking Wisely (Ephesians 5:15-17)

Billy Graham was asked what he was most surprised by in life. He answered, “Its brevity.” (Christianity Today [Oct., 2006], p. 90.) Graham has lived a relatively long life, but he still feels the sting of life’s shortness.

The older you get, the more you think about using your time wisely in light of eternity. You try to evaluate what really matters. Moses must have been feeling this when he wrote Psalm 90. He had spent his first 40 years as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, living in the comfort of the palace. He spent his next 40 years as a fugitive shepherd, wandering around the Sinai Peninsula. He spent the last 40 years of his long life leading a rebellious bunch of Israelis out of slavery in Egypt, but not quite into the Promised Land.

As they were camped somewhere in the wilderness, shy of that goal, he wrote Psalm 90, reflecting on the brevity of life and the severity of God’s judgment. In verse 12 he prayed, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” He concluded the Psalm with the prayer (v. 17), “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, confirm the work of our hands.” The poignant repetition of his final plea shows that even Moses was afraid that his life’s work would amount to nothing, unless God confirmed it, or [NASB margin] gave permanence to it.

Our text tells us how to walk wisely, so that we make the precious years that God allots to us count for His purpose and glory. There is a paradox in that God is the sovereign over time. He has a divine will (5:17) and He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). And yet at the same time, He allots time to us to use responsibly to bring about His sovereign will. We must walk carefully and redeem the time that He gives us (5:15-16). To make your life count for eternity, you must give careful thought to how you spend your time.

When we think about being godly, we probably think about holiness in the moral realm. But do we think about being people of godly purpose? The fact that God is a God of purpose means that if we are to be like Him, we will be people of purpose in line with His purpose. Jesus lived to accomplish the Father’s purpose and knew that He had done so as His short life neared the end. He prayed (John 17:4), “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” Jesus knew the Father’s purpose and He lived according to it. To be like Jesus, we must follow His example by being people of godly purpose.

The apostle Paul was also a man of godly purpose. He lived to exalt Christ and to know Him (Phil. 1:20-21; 3:8-16). He purposed to preach the gospel to the lost and to disciple the saved (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Col. 1:27-28). He told Timothy to discipline himself for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7-8; see also, 2 Tim. 3:10). As he faced execution, Paul knew that he had fought the good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). In our text, he shows us how to walk wisely, so that we make the most of our lives in light of God’s will, His plan for the ages (5:17):

To walk wisely, you must know what God wants you to be, what dangers to avoid, and how to take advantage of the opportunities that God gives you.

1. To walk wisely, you must know what God wants you to be and how to get there.

Some popular TV preachers will tell you that God wants to help you fulfill your dreams. But that’s backwards, because it leaves you as the lord of your life and makes God your servant. The Bible is clear that God is the Sovereign and we are His servants. We exist to fulfill His will, not vice versa! So it is vital to know from Scripture, where does God want us to go with our lives? Much more could be said, but note these four things:

A. What God wants you to be:

(1). God wants you to please and glorify Him with your life.

As we saw in verse 10, we are “to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” Colossians 1:10 says that we are “to please Him in all respects.” Paul said (2 Cor. 5:9) that his ambition was “to be pleasing to Him.” He wrote (1 Cor. 10:31), “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” To glorify God, in simple terms, means to make Him look good, as He truly is. You extol, magnify, and exalt His person and attributes through praise, honor, thanksgiving, trust, and obedience. To do this requires a second goal:

(2). God wants you to know Him more deeply.

You can only extol, magnify, exalt, and glorify God to the extent that you truly know Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often lamented that our chief problem as believers today is that we do not know God as deeply as we ought. Paul said that he counted everything else in life as loss and rubbish in order that he might know Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). The only way that we can know Him is as He has revealed Himself in His Word. So as you read the Bible over and over, from cover to cover (not just your favorite verses!), ask God to open your eyes so that you come to know Him more deeply. With Moses (Exod. 33:18), pray, “show me Your glory.”

(3). God wants you to be a godly person.

You can only glorify God to the extent that you display His holiness through your obedient life. As 1 Peter 1:14-16 puts it, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Jesus said (Matt. 5:6), “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” To walk wisely, so that your life counts for eternity, ask God to give you that hunger and thirst after His righteousness. He promises that you will be blessed and satisfied when you pursue that course. Sin always brings pain and sorrow.

(4). God wants you to proclaim His excellencies by your life and words.

First Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Or, as Paul has told us (Eph. 5:8), “you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.”

Thus God wants you to be growing in the direction of pleasing and glorifying Him with your life. You will do this as you come to know Him more deeply and grow in godly character. He wants to use your transformed life (from darkness to light) to display His excellencies, both by your behavior and your words as you bear witness to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

B. How to get there:

Again, much more could be said, but note three things:

(1). You must discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.

You can sit around wishing that you were godly for the next ten years, but it won’t happen! You must discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). In all of my years of pastoral ministry, I would say that the presence or absence of self-discipline is one of the most determinative factors in whether a person will do well or have serious problems in his Christian life. Self-control or discipline is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. (I must be brief here, but I devoted an entire message to it [12/31/2006, “Learning to Control Yourself”] if you want more.)

Paul compares discipline for godliness with physical exercise and the analogy is helpful in thinking about how to do it. The athlete sets a goal and then works hard to reach that goal. By definition, self-discipline means going against your feelings for a higher goal. The athlete wants to win, so he works out every day and controls his diet even when he doesn’t feel like it, so that he might win the prize. Also, discipline is an ongoing process and not a quick fix. You must set aside all hindrances, keep your eye on the goal, and manage your time in line with your goal.

Many Christians will hear this and say, “That sounds like legalism!” But it is not legalism if your motive is right. Sure, if your motive is to take pride in how spiritual you are because you had your quiet time, you’re being legalistic. But if your motive is to love and know God so that you might please Him because He saved you by His grace, that is not legalism. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit who is working in your life to make you godly.

(2). Godly discipline includes the disciplined intake and application of God’s Word.

Paul says that we should walk as wise people, not as unwise. Proverbs 2:6 tells us where wisdom comes from: “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” He has given us His wisdom in the Bible and especially in the message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18-25). To be a godly person who glorifies Him through your life, you must be getting a steady intake of His Word. As Psalm 1 pictures it, the godly man meditates on God’s Word day and night, so that he is like a tree planted by a river. His deep roots sustain him in times of drought. You should have a plan to read constantly and consecutively from both the Old and New Testaments. I also try to read a daily portion from the Psalms or Proverbs.

But note that I said, “the disciplined intake and application of God’s Word.” The bottom line for every portion of Scripture (even the genealogies!) is, “How should I then live?” How does this Scripture affect the way I should think, feel, behave, and relate to God and to others?

(3). You must learn to think biblically about all of life.

Walking wisely requires that you be a thinking person. But, not just thinking logically, but also thinking biblically. You should develop a biblical worldview, so that you filter news, movies, literature, moral issues, and all of life through a biblical grid. Both Francis Schaeffer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones did this well, and I commend their writings and their biographies to you.

Thus, to walk wisely, you must know where God wants you to go and how to get there. But there is another side to this:

2. To walk wisely, you must know what dangers to avoid.

Paul says that we are not to walk as unwise people, but as wise. We are to redeem the time, “because the days are evil.” He warns us not to be foolish, but to understand what the will of the Lord is. As we saw last week, the Lord’s will involves His purpose for the ages to sum up all things in Jesus Christ. If we don’t live in light of that purpose, we are foolish. Again, more could be said, but note three things that characterize unwise people:

A. Unwise people are oblivious to the dangers that fill evil days.

Certainly, all times are evil because the world is under the dominion of the evil prince of darkness (Eph. 2:2; 1 John 5:19). But it seems that some times and places are more evil than others are. The world I grew up in was evil, but you could not see sex scenes or hear profanity on television or even at the movies. But now it’s hard to find movies or even TV shows that are not filled with filth and profanity. This very day, our city is featuring a celebration of homosexuality as if it were normal and wonderful! We live in especially evil times!

Psalm 1:1 says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.” Unwise people ignore such warnings and cavort with such people. Jesus said that we should pray that we not be led into temptation, but many believers play around with it as if it were a toy. In reality, it is a loaded gun.

B. Unwise people adopt the world’s relative system of morals and values.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, when you’re around a bad odor for a while, your nose adjusts and it no longer smells so bad. When you’re in an evil day, if you aren’t careful, after a while you don’t even notice how rotten things have become. After a while, even Christians absorb the world’s values. We think it’s okay to live together outside of marriage, especially if it saves money, because the world does so. We accept divorce for incompatibility, because after all, shouldn’t we be happy? We tolerate gambling as innocent fun, because there are casinos and state lottery tickets everywhere. We begin to look just like the world, except that we go to church occasionally. But Paul calls such behavior unwise and foolish.

C. Unwise people live for temporal fulfillment and pleasure.

In the Bible (especially in Proverbs), fools live for immediate gratification according to their feelings, impulses, and desires. Fools, like the rich man building bigger barns to store his goods, don’t think about the fact that today could be their last and then they face God and judgment. Fools don’t think about storing up treasures in heaven. They are focused completely on the here and now. In short, they do not understand the will of the Lord.

The Bible warns us about these and many other dangers that can sabotage our walking wisely with the Lord. To walk wisely, you must know what God wants you to be and how to get there. And, you must avoid the spiritual dangers of this evil day. Finally,

3. To walk wisely, you must take advantage of the opportunities that God gives you.

As we saw last time, “making the most of your time” is literally, “redeeming the opportunity.” The idea is, being alert to the spiritual opportunities that God brings your way, so that you grab them as a wise merchant grabs a bargain. The reason that you are alert to these opportunities is that you are living wisely, with a view to eternity and God’s kingdom. As Paul puts it (2 Cor. 4:18), “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Here are a few of the opportunities that God will bring your way. If you’re wise, you’ll grab them:

*Bible intake—Read through your Bible each year. Listen to the Bible on CD’s while you drive. Study the Word in a more in-depth fashion. Take advantage of the many fine Bible teachers on the internet. Plug into our adult Sunday school or come on Sunday nights and interact on the sermon. The opportunities are abundant!

*Prayer—Pray with your mate. Join a home fellowship. Join us on Sunday evenings for prayer. Form your own small group for prayer. Pray through our directory.

*Reading good Christian books—Set a reading goal. I put on the church web site a bibliography for various areas of reading, plus another one for Christian biographies. If you’re currently reading no books per year, set a goal of two or three. If you meet that goal, up it to five or six. If you aim at nothing, you’re sure to hit it every time. So, aim at growing through reading.

*Discipleship—Take a newer believer under wing and help him to grow to maturity. Get into a Forum of Four and after you’ve been through one or two cycles, lead your own group. It will stretch you to grow!

*Witnessing—If you’ve never been trained in how to share your faith, go through the Evangelism Explosion or Way of the Master training that is offered here from time to time. Be ready to give a defense for the hope that is in you (1 Pet. 3:15). The jail ministry or the international student ministry can always use more workers.

*Sharing material blessings—If you are not consistently, faithfully giving more than a tithe, you’re probably not being a good steward by laying up treasures in heaven. You should give enough that it crimps your lifestyle, where you have to ask God to provide the extras for you.

*Helping others in practical ways—Take a meal to a family when the mom is in the hospital. Help an elderly person with yard cleanup or a ride. Cook or help clean up for the college ministry.

*Victory over sin—You will face strong temptations to sin, which can either be a time of testing your faith, where you grow through victory; or a time of defeat. Be prepared, be armed, and grow through the testing.

*Suffering—Suffering is an opportunity for ministry. As you trust in Christ and show His sufficiency through your trials, other believers will be strengthened and those who don’t know the Savior will be drawn to Him.

Conclusion

Luis Palau tells a story from one of his evangelistic crusades in Paraguay many years ago (Heart After God [Multnomah Press], pp. 114-116). At each crusade they set up family counseling centers, where people could come for spiritual help. They trained local people to work in them, teaching them how to lead people to Christ and how to deal with common problems.

At this crusade, a man named Jose who took the training could not even read or write. But he loved the Lord and he had a fantastic memory. He passed the training exams because he had memorized all the answers. But because he was illiterate, the training director asked the receptionist not to assign Jose to anyone who looked like a professional person.

One day all the counselors were busy when a very sharp looking gentleman walked in. He was obviously upper middle class. The only one left with no one to counsel was Jose. The receptionist got flustered, but Jose was alert. He walked up to this gentleman and said, “I’ll help you.” The receptionist was too bashful and embarrassed to say no.

So, Jose took this gentleman into a room, talked with him, and led him to Jesus Christ. He turned out to be a medical doctor. Meanwhile, the receptionist had gotten through to the training director and explained the situation. When the doctor and Jose walked out of the session, the training director greeted the doctor warmly, but just got a quick, “Hello.” He thought, “Jose must have blown that session.” So he told the receptionist, “The next time a distinguished looking gentleman comes in, make sure he is assigned to another counselor. Don’t give him to Jose. Even if I’m busy, call me anyway and I’ll take care of it.”

The next day the same doctor returned, with two men with him. These men were well-dressed, impressive looking men also. The center was busy, so the secretary rushed off to get the training director. He came out, turned on the charm and offered to help the man and his friends. But the man insisted that his friends talk alone with Jose.

So, they went and found illiterate Jose, and he took the men into a private room. Jose led the doctor’s two friends, who were also doctors, to faith in Christ! And, the next day, the three doctors brought a fourth man who was having family problems and illiterate Jose led that man to Christ! The next week, the doctors had a party and the only one from the counseling staff that they invited was humble, uneducated Jose.

While all of our times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15), He wants us to walk wisely, redeeming the time, in accordance with His sovereign will. No matter who you are, if you walk with Christ and grow wise through His Word, He can use you greatly for His eternal purpose.

Application Questions

  1. Does your concept of being godly include being a person of godly purpose? Should it? What does this mean?
  2. How can a person inclined to living impulsively by his feelings develop self-discipline? What steps should he take?
  3. What is the difference between being self-disciplined and being legalistic? What warning signs should a person watch for?
  4. Of the opportunities listed (under Point 3), which one or two should be at the top of your priority list?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 44: The Spirit-filled Life (Ephesians 5:18)

We live in a day of increasing energy shortages. The world has ever-increasing energy demands in the face of ever-decreasing energy supplies. Power outages are becoming more frequent. The cost of heating or cooling our homes and driving our cars continues to escalate. And with all of the global warming talk, the search is on for some kind of clean, renewable energy source. Under these conditions, it would be utterly inconceivable if a great number of people had access to a free and readily available source of energy, but failed to use it.

And yet, many Christians seemingly do this very thing with regard to the Christian life. God has provided us an inexhaustible, free, readily available source of power to live the Christian life. And yet many Christians do not use the power that God has given to overcome temptation and sin. Christian families fall apart because the family members manifest the deeds of the flesh, instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in their daily relationships. Many Christian workers burn out serving the Lord because they do not avail themselves of the power that God offers through His indwelling Holy Spirit.

And so the subject of our text, the Spirit-filled life, is vital for every Christian to understand and practice. As often has been said, the Christian life is not difficult; it is absolutely impossible, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said (John 15:5b), “apart from Me you can do nothing.” But in the same context, He repeatedly promised to send the Holy Spirit to live in us as the divine Helper (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:13). So the Christian life must be the Spirit-filled life. To walk wisely, to redeem the time in these evil days, to understand the will of the Lord and live in light of it, we must be filled with the Spirit.

To live wisely in evil days, you must live continually under the control of the Holy Spirit.

Paul draws a rather startling contrast, which also has some points of comparison (Eph. 5:18): “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Some have argued that since the Greek text did not utilize capital letters, Paul meant, “be filled in [your human] spirit.” But, the same Greek phrase “in [or with] the Spirit,” occurs four other times in Ephesians, and each time it refers clearly to the Holy Spirit (2:18, 22; 3:5; 6:18). Paul was probably thinking of the accusation leveled against the believers who were filled with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, that they were drunk with wine (Acts 2:13). So Paul means that rather than be filled with wine, so as to be under its influence, Christians should be filled with the Holy Spirit, so as to be under His influence. The Spirit is the One who empowers and works in and through us, but we have to trust Him to work (Phil. 2:12-13).

Before we examine what it means to be filled with the Spirit, we should take a moment to note…

1. It is sin to deal with evil days by living under the influence of alcohol.

“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation….” The Bible does not forbid all use of alcoholic beverages, but it does strongly warn about the dangers of alcohol (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35) and it always condemns drunkenness. “Dissipation,” in modern slang, is to be wasted. It points to the wastefulness and destruction of property, relationships, and life that often go along with drunkenness. The adverb is used (Luke 15:13) of way that the prodigal son wastefully spent his inheritance on loose living. It means to be out of control, because alcohol now controls the person.

As you know, alcohol may become physically addictive and some are more prone to this addiction than others are. The Bible would not call this “addiction,” but rather, “being enslaved to sin.” To label alcoholism as only a disease is not scriptural. The Bible calls it “drunkenness,” a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:21). Some will say that it’s cruel to label alcoholism as sin, but actually, it’s merciful. If it’s a disease, you may be without hope. But, if it is sin for which you are responsible, the Bible offers a remedy for sin, which includes being born again and being filled with the Holy Spirit.

In the context, where Paul has been talking about the need to walk wisely in this evil day, he is surely making the point that it is foolish to cope with this evil day by turning to alcohol. Christians are not immune from this temptation. It is easy to fall into the trap of dealing with stress by having a drink. Pretty soon, it becomes your comforting routine. You get home from a stressful day and you have a drink to calm your nerves. Or, there is tension in your home, so you have a few beers and forget about the problems. Before you know it, you’re dependent on the alcohol for your inner peace. But, as believers in the living God, He is to be our peace in times of trouble (Ps. 94:19; John 16:33; 1 Pet. 5:7). To turn to alcohol, instead of Jesus Christ, for peace is to fall into sin.

2. The wise way to deal with evil days is to live continually under the control of the Holy Spirit.

I want to deal with the last half of verse 18 by answering three questions: (1) What is the filling of the Holy Spirit? (2) How can I experience the Spirit-filled life? (3) How can I know that I am filled with the Spirit?

Question 1: what is the filling of the Holy Spirit?

Because of much confusion in our day, I must first spell out what it is and then clarify what it is not:

A. What it is:

(1). To be filled with the Spirit is to live with every conscious area of your life yielded to the Spirit’s control.

Just as the person filled with wine is under the influence or control of the wine, so the person filled with the Spirit is under the Spirit’s control. Furthermore, Paul is talking here primarily about a condition of increasing spiritual maturity, not about a momentary experience. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states (Life in the Spirit [Baker], p. 49), “This is not a critical experience, this is a state or a condition in which we are to live always, permanently.” He goes on to point out that because Paul commands it, we are not to be passive as we wait for some experience. Rather, it is something that we must obey. The present tense of the verb indicates an ongoing condition, so that the person may be characterized as “full of the Holy Spirit.”

For example, Luke 4:1 describes Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 6:3, the apostles direct the early church to select “seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to help with the need of serving the widows. One of the men, Stephen, is described (6:5) as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Later (Acts 11:24), Barnabas is described as “a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”

So the phrase, “full of the Holy Spirit,” describes a person who habitually lives with every area of his life under the control of the Spirit. He is not a self-willed man, but a Spirit-controlled man. The fullness of the Spirit does not mean that he once had a dramatic experience, but rather that he has consistently walked with his life yielded to the Holy Spirit, so that the fruit of the Spirit characterizes his life.

(2). To be filled with the Spirit is to live with the Word of God permeating every area of your life.

Ephesians 5:18 is obviously parallel with Colossians 3:16. Both texts are followed by joyful singing, thankfulness to God, and instructions about wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. But in Colossians 3:16, rather than saying, “be filled with the Spirit,” Paul says, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” H. A. Ironside observes (In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 269),

There is an old rule in mathematics that “things equal to the same thing are equal to one another.” If to be filled with the Word is equal in result to being filled with the Spirit, then it should be clear that the Word-filled Christian is the Spirit-filled Christian. As the Word of Christ dwells in us richly, controls all our ways, as we walk in obedience to the Word, the Spirit of God fills, dominates, and controls us to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So to be a Spirit-filled Christian, you must be growing in your understanding and application of God’s Word.

(3). To be filled with the Spirit involves an ever-deepening relationship with God through the Spirit.

We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is a Person, not a force. To be filled with the Spirit is not a mechanical formula that you go through, where you “pull the Holy Spirit lever” and all the goodies come pouring out. Rather, it is a relationship with the Triune God through His indwelling Spirit.

This relationship is ever-deepening, which means that there is a difference between a newer Spirit-filled believer and a more mature Spirit-filled believer. Both are filled, but the mature saint is more filled than the young believer is. There are degrees of filling that correspond with degrees of spiritual understanding and surrender. As you grow in the Word, the Spirit reveals new areas that you need to surrender to His control. So your capacity for being filled with the Spirit expands over time.

(4). To be filled with the Spirit includes special times of God granting extraordinary power for service.

In Acts 2:4, we read that all that were gathered in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost were filled with the Spirit. Peter went on to preach to the crowd, resulting in over 3,000 conversions. But then Acts 4:8, without any indication that Peter has lost his previous filling with the Spirit, we read that he was filled again just before he spoke to another crowd. It was a special anointing for a special task. Later, when Peter and John gathered with the church to report about their arrest, after they all had prayed, they all were filled with the Spirit, so that they began to speak the word of God with boldness (4:31). You see the same thing with Paul: he was filled with the Spirit just after his conversion when Ananias spoke with him (Acts 9:17). Some years later, on the first missionary journey when he had to confront Elymas the magician, he was filled with the Holy Spirit for that event (13:9).

Andrew Murray (The Spirit of Christ [Nisbet & Co. Ltd.], pp. 303-305) has a helpful analogy. In the drought-stricken South Africa, where he lived, farmers built two types of reservoirs for catching water. Some were spring fed, so that a gentle, slow inflow of water filled the reservoir. But other farms lacked such a spring and built the reservoirs to catch the rainwater, often in a matter of a few hours when there was a downpour. The spring-fed reservoir was the more certain, because it ran steadily. Although it was not especially powerful, it supplied the need. The rain-fed reservoir was more impressive when it rained, with a powerful rush of water, but it could stand empty for months if there was no rain. The ideal reservoir included both: it was fed from a steady spring to keep it supplied for daily needs, but it also had a capacity to take in a gush of water when a thunderstorm hit.

Murray then applies this to these two aspects of the filling of the Holy Spirit. We need that steady, quiet flow of His power for our daily needs, to overcome sin and to live in a godly manner. But there are special occasions where we need the downpour, the gush of the Spirit’s power to enable us to preach or witness or counsel or whatever the need. The special filling only supplements the normal, habitual filling. It would be rare for a person who is not walking daily in the fullness of the Spirit to receive a special filling for some sudden need. The normal experience of the Spirit’s filling is to live with every conscious area of your life yielded to the Spirit’s control. Then He may grant the special filling to meet a special need.

Because there is a lot of confusion about the filling of the Spirit in Christian circles, I must say a brief word about…

B. What it is not:

(1). The filling of the Spirit is not the same as the baptism or sealing of the Spirit.

Often you will hear that you must receive the baptism of the Spirit subsequent to your salvation. This is supposedly based on certain passages in Acts, where the baptism of the Spirit and the filling of the Spirit are equated. Also, some argue that the sealing of the Spirit is an experience to be sought subsequent to salvation. Martyn Lloyd-Jones equated the baptism and the sealing as experiences to be sought.

My understanding is that while the initial outpouring or giving of the Holy Spirit in Acts is identified both as the baptism of the Spirit and the filling of the Spirit (Acts 1:5; 2:4; 11:15-16), after that transitional period, all believers are baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:13). All believers are indwelled by the Holy Spirit from the moment of conversion (Rom. 8:9; Gal. 3:1-5). And, all believers are sealed with the Spirit the moment they are saved (Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22). We are never commanded to be baptized in the Spirit or to be sealed with the Spirit, but we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. The baptism and sealing of the Spirit are facts to be believed. The filling of the Spirit is a habitual condition that we must seek.

(2). The filling of the Spirit is not a once and for all experience that elevates you to a higher plane.

Sometimes, in charismatic circles and in devotional literature, being filled with the Spirit is promoted as a one-time, dramatic experience that will transport you to a higher spiritual plane. Sometimes this is presented as arriving at a place where all temptation barely touches you for the rest of your life. Or, those who have this life-transforming experience see amazing results in their ministries from this point forward, while at the same time they exert less effort. I have read accounts of this in the lives of D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and Hudson Taylor, among others.

But I find this kind of teaching to be detrimental. I want to experience all of the Spirit’s fullness and power that He is pleased to give me. But it is not helpful or biblically sound to think that I should seek a dramatic experience that removes me from the daily battles against sin or the difficulties, setbacks, and frustrations that inevitably go along with ministry in a fallen world. Paul had these difficulties right up to his death. Being filled with the Spirit does not shortcut the need to discipline myself for the purpose of godliness. It will not advance me to instant maturity or deliver me from difficult situations that require steadfast perseverance.

(3). The filling of the Spirit is not an irrational, emotional experience.

Some of the claims to revival include accounts of people barking like dogs, laughing uncontrollably, or lying in a catatonic state for hours or days. Or, sometimes it is said that if you have not spoken in tongues or been slain in the Spirit, where you pass out and fall over backwards, you have not been filled with the Spirit.

But even if the gift of tongues is valid for today, Paul is clear that not all speak in tongues (1 Cor. 12:30), but all are to be filled with the Spirit. As for being slain in the Spirit or the other weird manifestations, there are no valid biblical examples or exhortations to these things. They do not lead to growth in godliness.

Question 2: How can I experience the Spirit-filled life?

I have already covered a lot of this in explaining what the filling of the Spirit is and is not. I must be very brief:

A. You need to understand certain facts.

As we’ve seen, if you have believed in Christ as your Savior and Lord, God has given you the Holy Spirit to indwell you. He commands you to be filled with the Spirit, which primarily means living with every conscious area of your life yielded moment-by-moment to the indwelling Holy Spirit.

B. You must recognize and acknowledge that you are empty.

You will not seek the Spirit’s control and power unless you recognize your own inadequacy and need. Often, it is a major failure or sin that drives you to your knees to cry out for the Spirit’s filling and power, so that you will not fall the next time.

C. You must confess and forsake all known sin and yield every area of your life to God.

The Holy Spirit will not fill a dirty vessel. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We must present ourselves to God as those alive from the dead and yield our minds and bodies to Him as instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:13).

D. You must walk by faith, not feelings.

Walking implies repeated, moment-by-moment reliance on the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:16). There will be battles between the flesh and the Spirit, even in a believer who is fully yielded to Him (Gal. 5:17-18). The Spirit-filled believer will still have strong desires of the flesh. Our enemy will entice us and wage war against us. In all of these situations, acknowledge your own weakness and cry out to God by faith, that He would control you and give you His strength. Faith is also coupled with obedience, so that you avoid and flee from tempting situations.

E. You must dwell in God’s Word.

We have already seen this, but especially it is important to saturate your mind with the Word, memorizing it or being so familiar with it that God can use it when you don’t have a Bible or concordance ready at hand (which is most of the time!).

As you walk this way, confessing and turning from sin, relying on the indwelling Spirit for His power, being obedient to His Word, you will develop a habit of holiness. At first, like a toddler learning to walk, you will fall a lot. Get up and keep walking. Pretty soon, walking becomes the norm. You’ll experience the Spirit’s fullness in an ever-expanding capacity. He will control or influence your thoughts, your emotions, your words, your attitudes, your schedule, your relationships, your finances, and all of life. He does not do this as a master controls a robot, but rather, using your unique personality and gifts, He fills you as the wind fills the sails of a ship, directing you in His paths of righteousness and joy.

Question 3: How can I know that I am filled with the Holy Spirit?

I can only mention two things in passing.

A. The Spirit-filled life produces ever-deepening Christlikeness.

You and those who know you best will be able to see steady, progressive growth. Like a child’s growth, it isn’t always discernible day by day, but as you look back, you should see definite change toward godliness. This includes Christlike character. The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—will be growing in your life.

You will also be growing in Christlike conduct. You will experience consistent victory over the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). These sins will be replaced by good deeds of Christlike service and love to others for Christ’s sake.

B. The Spirit-filled life results in heartfelt worship and thankfulness to God, along with godly relationships.

These are the results that Paul enumerates from Ephesians 5:19-6:9. We will look at them in detail in future messages.

Conclusion

I conclude by asking, Are you filled with the Holy Spirit? Would those closest to you agree? If the Holy Spirit pulled out of your life for a week, would you miss Him? Or, would life go on pretty much as usual? God has called us to a supernatural life of daily dependence on His Holy Spirit. You can begin right now!

Application Questions

  1. Some equate the baptism and the filling of the Spirit and say that once you receive it, you will be transported to a higher spiritual plane. How would you refute this biblically?
  2. If the Holy Spirit were controlling us, wouldn’t we be perfect, just like He is? How would you refute this biblically?
  3. A charismatic brother claims that if you’ve been filled with the Spirit, you will speak in tongues. What Scriptures would you use to reply?
  4. If the filling of the Spirit is not an emotional experience, how can you know that you are filled?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 45: Spirit-filled Singing (Ephesians 5:19)

As a little boy sat in church, his eyes were drawn to a large flag mounted on the wall, with a number of gold stars attached to it. He whispered to his father, “Daddy, why does that flag have all those stars on it?” His dad whispered back, “To remind us of all those who died in the service.” The boy thought about that for a moment and then whispered again, “Did they die in the morning service or the evening service?”

While humorous, that story hits painfully close to home. At some church services it seems like those sitting there either are dead or at a funeral! They listlessly stare at the screen where the words are projected or they stare out the window or read the bulletin or look at their watch to see how much longer they must endure this ordeal. They don’t sing with enthusiasm and evident joy in the Lord.

If a visitor not used to going to church came in, he would not conclude that anything significant was going on. He would certainly not deduce that our God is a God of great joy, whose Holy Spirit produces joy in His people. He might rightly wonder why such apathetic people even bother to go to church at all, since they seem bored by the whole thing.

Our text, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord,” gives us the first result of being filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18). Rather than being drunk with wine and singing bawdy, raucous songs, those that are filled with the Spirit should sing to the Lord from the heart, with great joy and thankfulness (5:20). In the parallel text (Col. 3:16), Paul commands, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Paul’s point is:

Spirit-filled people will manifest it by spiritual singing.

John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Ephesians [Moody Press], p. 256) writes, “The first consequence of the Spirit-filled life that Paul mentioned was not mountain-moving faith, an ecstatic spiritual experience, dynamic speaking ability, or any other such thing. It was simply a heart that sings.” Joyful, exuberant, heart-felt singing is one evidence that a church is Spirit-filled. Lifeless, listless, apathetic “worship” is not worship at all. It is a sinful disregard of the majesty and grace of our great God and it shows that we are not under the control of His Spirit, who produces overflowing joy in His people (Rom. 14:17; 15:13; Gal. 5:22). It reveals that we are not captured by God’s abundant grace and we are not thankful for His many blessings to us.

1. Spiritual singing stems from being filled with God’s Spirit and His Word.

As we saw in our last study, the close parallel between Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16 shows that to be filled with God’s Spirit is closely related to being filled with His Word. And a main result of being filled with the Spirit and the Word is to break forth in joyful singing. This is not a matter of having a bubbly personality; many of us don’t have and never will have bubbly personalities. But joy is promised to every believer who walks by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 22). As the Spirit of God reveals to you the unfathomable riches of Jesus Christ that have been poured out on you by grace alone, you cannot help but be filled with praise and thankfulness to God, and that praise overflows in singing.

Many years ago, I resisted the idea that worship necessarily involved our emotions. That struck me as being “charismatic” or anti-intellectual. But reading A. W. Tozer (“Worship: the Missing Jewel in the Evangelical Church” [Christian Publications]) and then Jonathan Edwards (“A Treatise on Religious Affections,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth]) showed me that I was wrong. Genuine worship stems from our hearts being overwhelmed by the majesty and greatness of God.

So if you recognize that you are not singing with your heart to the Lord, that you are apathetic about worshiping Him, confess your coldness of heart to Him. Ask Him to open your eyes to see more of His glory. Feed your mind on His Word and ask Him to reveal the riches of Christ to your soul. As He fills you with His Spirit, it will overflow into heartfelt praise and singing.

2. Spiritual singing must be both individual and corporate.

A. Spiritual singing must be individual.

Paul says, “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” It must begin in your heart or it is just hypocrisy or pumped up emotions. So begin by examining your heart.

The reason you need to begin by examining your heart is that we are commanded often in Scripture to praise God in song. This means that not to sing to the Lord from a heart that is overflowing with His goodness is sin. Although I have not personally confirmed it, I have heard that the most frequent command in the Bible is, “Sing!” And so I ask, “Do you sing?” You may say, “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” I can relate to that remark! I can’t hit the notes of many songs. I get frustrated when I try to sing, because it sounds so bad. But, I can’t dodge the repeated command, “Sing to the Lord!” Let’s look at a few:

Psalm 5:11: “But let all who take refuge in You be glad, let them ever sing for joy; and may You shelter them, that those who love Your name may exult in You.”

Psalm 33:1-3: “Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones; praise is becoming to the upright. Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy.”

Psalm 95:1: “O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.”

Psalm 96:1-2: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name; proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.”

Psalm 98:1: “O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.”

Psalm 100:1-2: “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful singing.”

Psalm 147:1: “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant and praise is becoming.”

Psalm 149:1: “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the congregation of the godly ones.”

You may think, “But I don’t feel like singing. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite if I sang when I didn’t feel like it?”

It’s at those times that we need to confess our coldness of heart to the Lord and ask Him to lift our eyes to all of His blessings that He has freely given us. I’ve found that often when I’m feeling down, if I put on a praise CD or just begin singing praises to the Lord, my spirit is lifted. That’s often what the psalmists did. At the beginning of the psalm, they were overwhelmed by trials. But by the end of the psalm, just from rehearsing God’s faithfulness and His attributes, the whole mood of the psalmist has shifted to joyful praise, even though his circumstances are exactly as they were at the beginning. So we need to sing to the Lord individually. Also,

B. Spiritual singing must be corporate.

Many of the psalms that we just read have a corporate context. Our text says, “speaking to one another in psalms….” The Colossians parallel shows that we are to teach and admonish one another through singing. I’ve heard it said that we should only sing songs that address the Lord. But this verse implies that there is a place for songs that do not directly address the Lord, but rather exhort one another to go on with the Lord: “O worship the King, all glorious above.” “Come, now is the time to worship!”

Down through history, God’s people have been characterized by spiritual singing. Whenever the Spirit of God is manifested and God is working in an obvious way, His people express themselves in joyful singing. Here are some examples:

*Songs celebrating God’s deliverance and salvation—The earliest recorded song in the Bible is the Song of Moses (Exod. 15:1-18). Verses 20-21 say that Miriam led the women with timbrels (small hand drums or tambourines) and dancing. It all sounds a bit exuberant! Another example is the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-31), which they sang after she led a great victory over Israel’s enemies.

*Songs celebrating God’s blessings—Many of the psalms reflect on God’s blessings, but especially Psalm 103, which is pure praise. It begins (103:1-2), “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits.” Then it proceeds to enumerate many of those benefits. Or, in Psalm 18, David sings God’s praise for 50 verses because the Lord had delivered him from the hand of Saul and from all his enemies. The Holy Spirit apparently didn’t want us to miss that psalm, because it is repeated in 1 Samuel 22!

*Songs celebrating anticipated victories by faith—In 2 Chronicles 20, Israel was facing an imminent invasion by some powerful enemies. King Jehoshaphat called for national prayer and fasting. When the Lord promised victory through one of the prophets in the assembly, the king did a daring thing. Rather than sending out his warriors at the front, he sent out singers before the army, who sang (20:21), “Give thanks to the Lord, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” Then we read that when they began singing, the Lord set ambushes against the enemy so that they began fighting against each other. All Israel had to do was to collect the spoils. Many of the psalms have the same theme. The psalmist is praising the Lord even though his outward circumstances have not changed in the slightest. He does it by faith that the Lord will give victory.

*Songs celebrating God’s sufficiency in our suffering—When Paul and Silas were falsely accused and then wrongly beaten and thrown into prison and put in the stocks, their response was to sing praises to God (Acts 16:25). The Lord sent an earthquake, leading to the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his family. Many of the great hymns of the faith have come down to us out of someone’s experience of God’s sufficiency during their time of suffering.

*Songs celebrating God’s glorious attributes and His mighty deeds. Again, many of the Psalms rehearse God’s righteousness, faithfulness, power, lovingkindness, and His tender care. They often go over how the Lord has been faithful to Israel in spite of their long history of rebellion and stubbornness.

If you don’t like to sing, you’re not going to like heaven, because it will be full of singing. Revelation 5:9 records, “And they sang a new song, saying ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation’” (see also, 14:3). The song of Moses is the first song in the Bible and it’s also the last (Rev. 15:3-4): “And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, ‘Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God Almighty; righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy; for all the nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.’”

Throughout church history, God’s people have sung His praises corporately, especially during times of trial and revival. In A.D. 112, Pliny wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan about the Christians, who were under persecution. Among other things, he reported that they sang an anthem to Christ as God (cited in Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. by Tim Dowley [Eerdmans], p. 124). During the Reformation, Luther revived congregational singing, which had languished during the Dark Ages. Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette states (A History of Christianity [Harper & Row], p. 721), “Congregational singing was one of his great joys and he took the initiative in encouraging it and giving it a large part in the liturgy and other services.” Luther himself played the lute (a ten-stringed, guitar-like instrument), wrote many hymns, and issued a hymnal.

One hundred and fifty years later, much of Lutheranism had lost its original zeal and had become a dead, ritualistic church. God raised up the Pietists to bring revival. Among other things, they wrote many new hymns. One of their disciples was a man named Count von Zinzendorf, who became the leader of the Moravians, who had a strong missionary emphasis. He used many of the Pietist hymns, plus wrote some of his own. Most modern hymnals still have his hymn, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness,” translated by John Wesley. In fact, it was through the Moravians that both John and Charles Wesley were converted out of a moralistic Anglican background. Charles wrote over 7,000 hymns, which God used in the 18th century revivals in England and other countries. We still sing many of Wesley’s great hymns, such as, “And Can it Be that I Should Gain?” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

About the time that the Wesley’s were born, Isaac Watts published the first of several hymnals. He was quite controversial because he promoted the use of man-made hymns (as opposed to using only the psalms). He wrote over 600 hymns, including, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Joy to the World.” Later in the 18th century, the converted slave-trader, John Newton, and his melancholic friend, William Cowper, produced the Olney Hymns. Newton wrote the still-popular “Amazing Grace,” plus, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” and many more. Cowper wrote “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and others.

Some churches no longer sing the great hymns of the past. Other churches have a traditional service that sings hymns and a contemporary service that sings only modern music. I think that both approaches are in error. To abandon the great hymns is to cut yourself off from the great heritage of the faith that has come down to us. Also, these hymns have solid doctrine that make you think about the great truths of the faith. You need this to grow strong and not be tossed around by every wind of doctrine.

To divide the church into traditional and contemporary factions is wrong because we all need to learn from one another. Some of the modern music is vacuous or theologically shallow and ought to be trashed. But, frankly, so are some of the traditional hymns. The test of all music should be, does it have sound doctrine? Does it exalt our glorious God and Savior? Does it humble us in His presence? Do the words and the tune fit together? You shouldn’t have an upbeat, happy song about Jesus on the cross. Is it good poetry?

I’m encouraged by some of the newer hymns being written, such as “Grace Unmeasured,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love.” Also, several of the great older hymns can be played to more modern accompaniment, such as “Before the Throne of God Above,” and, “Jesus, I my Cross Have Taken.” We would be impoverished to lose these!

Sometimes you have to work through outdated language or terms to understand the older hymns. Sometimes, the hymns expose our biblical ignorance or our modern errors. Many modern Christians have no clue when they sing the second verse of “Come Thou Fount.” It goes, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come.” Robert Robinson got that line from 1 Samuel 7:12. An Ebenezer was a “stone of help,” referring to the Lord’s help in delivering Israel from the Philistines.

Many hymnals have changed Isaac Watts’ line, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I.” “Worm” is a bit too strong for our inflated self-esteem, so it’s toned down to, “for sinners such as I.” But Watts took the word “worm” right out of Psalm 22:6, where Jesus on the cross in our place calls himself a worm. If He called Himself a worm as he bore our sin, who are we to think more highly of ourselves?

Sadly, we’ve lost many great hymns that sustained the saints in the past. Some of you don’t know the hymns that I’ve just referred to! I’m not suggesting that we sing only the old hymns, but I am saying that it is a tragedy not to sing any of them. We should strive to pass on to our children and grandchildren the great hymns that we still possess.

Paul’s three words to describe singing, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” mainly show that there should be variety in our worship. Psalms probably refers to the psalms of the Old Testament. Hymns refers to hymns of praise to God. There may be some examples of this in the New Testament, such as Ephesians 5:14. Songs was a generic word for any kind of song, but Paul qualifies them as spiritual. Since God is manifold in His grace and glory, our singing should reflect this variety.

3. Some practical suggestions for spiritual singing:

I conclude by giving some practical suggestions. Again, I remind you that I am not a good singer and because of that, it is difficult for me to practice this on a personal level. But praising God through singing is not optional. If we don’t work at it both personally and corporately, we are not obedient to Him.

(1) Ask God to put a song on your heart each day. Even if you can’t sing, you can hum it or think about the words, so you’ll be singing God’s praises throughout the day. If you commute by car (alone), turn off the radio and sing. Invest in and play good Christian music, including some of the great hymns of the faith.

(2) Use a songbook or hymnal along with your Bible in personal devotions sometimes. This will help you memorize some of the words. When you sing with the church on Sundays, if you know the words, close your eyes and think about what you are singing. Madison Avenue uses jingles to keep their products in your mind. Memorizing some good Christian songs and hymns can keep the things of God in your mind during the day.

(3) Prepare your heart before you arrive on Sunday mornings. The Jews began their Sabbath the evening before, and that’s not a bad idea. At the very least, get up early enough on Sunday to spend some time with the Lord, worshiping Him and preparing your heart to gather with the saints in worship. Arrive a few minutes early.

(4) Put your all into corporate worship. It is a sin to be apathetic in worship. I heard of a couple, married for 25 years, who went to a marriage counselor. The wife complained that her husband never told her that he loved her. He snapped, “I told you that 25 years ago and I haven’t changed my mind!” That’s not good enough! Love has to be expressed. Even a cold, “I love you” isn’t as good as a warm embrace. Let the Lord know that you love Him and forget about what others around you may think.

(5) Think about what you are singing. Wake up! Be alert! To mumble through words without thinking about their significance is to honor God with your lips, while your heart is far from Him (Mark 7:6). If you can’t sing the words honestly, confess it to the Lord. If you need to apply it, ask Him for grace. Engage your brain!

Conclusion

Our time of singing is not just something we do to fill the time before all the latecomers arrive. It is not a time to manipulate our emotions, to get everyone pumped up with moving music. It is a time to worship God in spirit and in truth. It should engage our minds, our emotions, and our bodies as we exalt our glorious God and His great salvation. Be filled with the Spirit and sing with all your heart to the Lord!

Application Questions

  1. Since musical taste is somewhat subjective, how can we decide which music is appropriate for worship? What criteria apply?
  2. Are there any examples of using music for evangelism in Scripture? Is this practice right or wrong or neutral? Why?
  3. There are extremes