There is great freedom in recognizing your own brokenness. An awareness of our inability to impress God or earn his favor on our own terms leaves us utterly reliant on his undeserved, lavish, and extravagant grace.
As the outpouring of blessing comes to a crescendo through the first three chapters of Ephesians, you can almost hear Paul’s heart beat. Reveling in the remarkable truth of the gospel, he invites the Ephesians (as Russ Ramsey so beautifully put it) to “rejoice in the lyric and music of being redeemed in Christ.”
When we stand without pretense in the reality of grace, recognizing our unworthiness yet basking in the warmth of our acceptance in Christ, we begin to understand freedom. But that is not the end of the story. As important as it is to own the broken reality of life in a fallen world, there is a subtle danger that Paul is careful to bring into the light. While God meets us in our sin he does not intend that we camp out there. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul says, “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” When we catch a glimpse of the heart of God and the grace that he has poured upon us we cannot remain as we were. The presence of his Spirit within us will not allow it.
If the lives we live are not impacted by the reality of who we are in Christ, some questions must be asked. It is not enough to know and appreciate grace as an intellectual fact. The gospel must change us.
In chapter 4, Paul turns to the practical outworking of the gospel in the everyday lives of those who allow it to take root within them. He begins by urging believers to walk worthy of the remarkable Story they have been welcomed into. Together they are to grow to maturity in Christ, clinging doggedly to the oneness that is not only a gift from the Spirit but, according to Jesus in John 17:23, proof that the Story itself is true.
For the Ephesians, the love Paul called them to embody was forged in the fire of clashing tradition and cultural diversity.Heidi Johnston
Ephesians 5 opens with a plea to love each other well. Imitating God himself, Paul implores his readers to not only walk worthy of their calling but to walk in love. Love, in the sense that Paul uses it, is more than a mutual affinity with someone who shares your interests and opinions. It’s more than just a feeling in your chest. This is love that follows the example of Christ. It is an intentional, sacrificial, costly and often painful decision to put someone else’s interests ahead of your own. For the Ephesians, the love Paul called them to embody was forged in the fire of clashing tradition and cultural diversity.
From the beginning of the Story itself, the God who has our names inscribed on the palm of his hand has been calling his people to live lives that reflect his holiness—not because we face punishment or because he’s waiting to whip us into line when we fail, but because his grace has captivated us, his love compels us, and his Spirit within us is changing us to become like him. According to Paul, it’s impossible to love God wholeheartedly and willingly embrace a lifestyle that is contrary to his character. The letter to the Romans makes that pretty clear.
There is no denying the war being waged within us. The older I get, the more deeply I feel it. My “old self” is always present, lurking in the shadows, waiting for the nod it knows will come. I’m thankful that grace covers my failures and holds me fast despite my constant stumbling. However, when I read passages like Ephesians 5, some uncomfortable questions begin to surface. Do I really want to become more like Christ? Is it my desire to conduct my ordinary, everyday life in a way that reflects the heart of a holy God? Does it grieve me that my sin is an affront to his holiness?
In verse 6, Paul urges the believers not to be deceived by empty words. It’s easy to be seduced by the lie that grace means our behavior doesn’t matter. Rather than being free to follow every impulse, which isn’t freedom at all, the reality of the gospel gives us freedom to become who we were created to be. If we, who were once prisoners of the dark, have now become children of the light, then our ordinary, everyday lives ought to reflect our true citizenship.
In Phil Vischer’s fascinating Hutchmoot podcast, The Importance of Being Silly, he helpfully highlights the important distinction between not taking yourself too seriously (something I have a tendency to do) and not taking anything seriously. When we take nothing seriously we undermine our faith and ultimately rob life of meaning.
The transformation that is born of grace affects even our most intimate desires and relationships. In Ephesians 5, there are some things Paul urges the believers to take seriously. Verse 3 says, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” When it comes to the whole area of sexual immorality, Paul’s instructions are pretty clear:
Don’t get involved.
Don’t allow it to become part of your conversation.
Don’t joke about it.
Don’t minimize the seriousness of it.
Don’t take it lightly.
These are not gentle, vague, take-them-or-leave-them suggestions. Neither are they harsh, judgmental pronouncements from an out of touch scholar. This is an exhortation from the heart of pastor who cares deeply about his readers and understands the damage they will cause to themselves and others if they are not intentional about pursuing holiness.
If we place a high value on others, desiring their best, then we cannot celebrate or even be comfortable with anything that damages or belittles them as image bearers of Christ.
If grace shapes the way we treat others, prompting us to love like Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Him (v. 21), then our closest relationships will also be transformed. From verse 25 onwards Paul begins to apply these same principles within marriage. The sad reality is that, all too often, the people we love most get the worst parts of us. When everyday life has chewed up our grace and feasted on the bones, we offer our families the unfiltered ravages of our old self. I know this because I do it all the time. According to Paul, that’s not the work of the gospel. In a culture where women were often treated as little more than slaves and men had freedom to indulge themselves elsewhere with no apparent consequence, Paul’s instructions for marriage were revolutionary in their beauty. Today, in a world where my rights, my feelings, and my happiness trump everything else, they are no less startling.
If we place a high value on others, desiring their best, then we cannot celebrate or even be comfortable with anything that damages or belittles them as image bearers of Christ.Heidi Johnston
For a long time I found these verses difficult. Read in isolation, in a different time and culture, it’s so easy to get caught up in debate about the finer details. When we focus only on the specific practical outworking of this we miss the beauty of what Paul was saying. Expanding the two becoming one image we find in Genesis 2, Paul highlights the change of posture necessary from both partners if marriage is to become the shared adventure God always intended it to be. In God’s kingdom marriage is less about what you can do for me and more about how I can serve you. In some mysterious way, human love becomes a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church.
It’s not difficult to see how this intentional, voluntary giving of yourself for the good of the one you love would lead to a relationship of mutual respect and deep affection. When the calling and gifts of each spouse are encouraged and supported by the other, each desiring that the other grows more deeply in love with Christ, you end up with a picture of marriage worth fighting for.
In all their relationships, as the believers learn to live as part of a new Kingdom, Paul encourages them to address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your hearts” (v. 19). I’ve always found that to be a strange instruction. On this reading, in the context of the Rabbit Room, it took on a fresh beauty. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, I have learned what it means to tell the Story back to one another, reminding each other in so many rich and beautiful ways of the grace that covers our failures and compels us to live like we belong to God.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.