Paul wrote Ephesians from prison.
Seems fitting when you consider the overarching tone of the letter…
Chapters 1-3 read like chains falling off and prison doors swinging wide open by the power of scandalous, justifying grace. Chapters 4-6 read like they are describing how to enjoy your newfound freedom, glorifying the One who freed you by empowering, sanctifying grace.
This letter is about how we are rescued, renewed and reformed by the Father’s grace in Christ, by the Spirit.
The only way to understand the chapters and verses in this letter, is to read them in light of the gracious flow of the entire letter. If we pick this letter apart, forgetting its gracious context, we run the risk of making a grave error, thinking that the apostle is saying …“Yes, yes … Christ’s work justified you (Chapters 1-3) … now get to work because your work sanctifies you and makes you holy (Chapters 4-6).”
While there is an undeniable shift in the letter in Chapter 4 from the indicatives of scripture (what Christ did) to the imperatives of scripture (what we do), there is no abandonment of grace.
The grace that absolved us is the same grace that empowers us.
If I were to teach that justification is something God does and sanctification is something the church does, I would erase the gospel and send Redeemer running off in an exhausting Christian Moral Marathon that has no finish line.
Conversely, if I were to ignore chapters 4-6 because the remainder of the letter is loaded with calls to reform, then I would invite the people of Redeemer to walk back into their respective cells and shut the doors behind them, going back to the sin that was enslaving them in the first place.
Justification is done by Christ.
Sanctification is done and being done by the Spirit of Christ.
In chapter 4, Paul calls the church to do three things: Put off the old self, renew the mind and put on the new self.
If we read or teach chapters 4-6 isolated from the contextual tidal wave of grace that comes at the church in chapters 1-3, we will likely suffer from “worship whiplash.”
“Worship whiplash” is what happens if we extract the grace of Christ from the scriptural call to reform.
If grace is nothing more than a word we sprinkle throughout our sermons, our teaching on the scriptural call to reform will always sound like Sola Bootstrapsa – “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be holy, church.”
A graceless call to reform sends church into the fetal position because, like in Galatia, they will be burdened by a false gospel that says that Christ’s work was insufficient, and their work is needed to complete what he started. Rather than finding rest and renewal in Christ who is their holiness, they will live in unrest under the false pretense that they create their holiness.
We put off our old life by grace.
The renewal of our hearts and minds is by grace.
We put on our new life in Christ by grace.
As our grasp of God’s grace continually increases, our appetite for our sin continually decreases.
Again, context is our friend. If you sit down and read the letter to the Ephesians front to back, you will see that Paul never abstracted the grace of Christ from the call to reform.
A new relationship with the law
Christ’s perfect life, atoning death and divine resurrection give us a completely different relationship with God’s law and an entirely different motivation for obedience.
The law is no longer a means of salvation; therefore, we can delight in it with no condemnation because Christ fulfilled it for us. It now serves as the means by which we glorify God and love our neighbors.
Our obedience does not create our holiness, it reflects it because Christ is our holiness. The desire to obey God is what our heart, electrified by His scandalous saving grace, increasingly wants to do.
We don’t make ourselves more like Christ through a life of love and good works. The Spirit of Christ is making us more like Christ, thus we gladly live lives of love and good works.
Christ earned everything and assures everything; therefore, obedience has nothing to do with earning and everything to do with imaging. When we obey we are like a toddler putting on their fathers shoes in a joyful effort to emulate Him.
Obedience is a dance of celebration the church does because of what we have been given, not a dance audition whereby our good performance secures what we’ve been given. Any talk of obedience that isn’t free from earning is toxic slavery.
Christ is enough.
Paul prayed twice for the church before getting to his call for obedience in chapters 4-6. He prayed that their hearts would deeply grasp the grace they had in Christ. Both of his grace-laced prayers had to do with spiritual power toward and in the church. Why?
The limited power of our will might suppress sinful desire, but the expulsive power of the Spirit changes what we desire.
Our minds can concede that God’s law is truth, but the renewing power of the Spirit makes our hearts desire God’s truth.
In Ephesians 4:24, Paul wrote, “… put on the new self – created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Paul is not calling Christians to do something in order to become something. If he were, the grace we preach would be truly underwhelming.
Notice the word Paul uses to describe your new self. Your new self is already created – past tense.
The call to put off the old self, be renewed and put on the new self is not a divine guilt trip – it’s a divine invitation to be who you already are in Christ.
Christian faith is not about doing things, getting things and becoming something via your work. Christian faith is about believing the gospel, resting in the gospel and living life in light of the gospel because of Christ’s work.
The gospel is the scandalous announcement that everything God required from you, Christ did for you, and now everything Christ deserves is coming to you. You are now free to answer the call to live your life out of this new, liberating reality – by His grace.
“To see the law by Christ fulfilled and hear His pardoning voice, transforms a slave into a child and duty into choice.” – William Cowper (1731-1800)
Paul Dunk is a student at Knox Theological Seminary, a church planter, a performance driver and an actor.