“The Better Half of Salvation”

Ephesians 4:1

December 2, 2001

Text Comment

We are reading but one verse, but it is a very important verse.  It is a transitional verse.  Chapter 4, verse 1 unmistakably signals a major shift in Paul’s argument.  We move, at this point, from theology to ethics, from an account of what God has done for us, to the consideration of what we must do for him.

The NIV is a fine translation and we have profited from using it many years now.  But I am unhappy with the way in which the NIV has rendered 4:1 for two reasons, in particular.

First, the translation we have before us minimizes Paul’s “therefore.”  Paul’s Greek here literally reads, Therefore, I exhort you…  It is true that the word “therefore” is the second word in the sentence, but that is because that word is what grammarians call a “post-positive.”  That is, it is a word never found at the beginning of a sentence.  It is strictly a matter of Greek style.  But, though the word comes second in Paul’s sentence, its meaning comes first.  Therefore, I exhort you…  The NIV has brought forward from later in the sentence “As a prisoner for the Lord…” and, what is more, rendered the “therefore” with a weak “then.”  You are aware, no doubt, of the importance of that “therefore.”  It occurs in a similar place in other Pauline letters.  You find it, for example, at Romans 12:1, where the ethical section of that letter begins and at Colossians 3:1, where the ethical section of that letter begins.  In each case, the “therefore” indicates that our living as Christians is based upon, flows from, and, is a response to what God has done for us, a response to the salvation that Paul has so brilliantly described in Romans 1-11; in Colossians 1-2, and, here, in Ephesians 1-3.  In view of what God has done for you, in response to his great love and power exercised on your behalf, in return for the sacrifice of Christ in your place when you were his enemy, this is how you must live.

This is a fabulously important little word, this “therefore”, and so it deserves its rightful place in the sentence that begins this ethical section of Ephesians, this second half of the letter in which Paul will describe the life that Christians are to live.  In a way we might say that the entire difference between Christianity and all other views of man and his life is found in that one word “therefore.”  The other religions of the world, the other philosophies of human life, and all debased forms of Christianity as well – in effect reverse Paul’s organization of his letters.  They would have Ephesians 4-6 first, followed by a therefore, and then chapters 1-3.  That is, they all tell us, in one way or another, that if we are good and do what God requires, he will save us.  Live this way and then God will forgive your sins.  No, says Paul, salvation first, then ethics, not the other way round as most people have it.  Christians aspire to be kind, honest, loving people – as other people do – but here is the great difference.  They aspire to be good people not in order to be saved but because they have been saved!

Only Christianity says so forthrightly, so honestly that there is nothing you can do to earn the favor of God.  Your sins are too great and God is too holy.  If your hope of forgiveness and eternal life and peace with God rests on what you must do, you are doomed.  But God has intervened.  He did for men and women what they could not do for themselves.  He secured our forgiveness by the incarnation suffering and death of his beloved son.  How, therefore, ought someone to live who has been given such a gift by no one less than the living God himself?  How ought someone to live who was loved so by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, when he or she had not only not deserved such kindness from God, but when they had positively deserved his judgment and punishment?  He did not, she did not deserve the least of God’s favors, and now they find themselves his beloved children.  How ought they to respond to that?  Well he ought to live, she ought to live in that way that pleases God, honors him, and serves his cause in the world.  And that is what Paul means by his “therefore” and that is what Paul is going to explain in the chapters that follow his therefore, viz. how we can live to the glory of the one who loved us and gave himself for us; how we can make our lives a fit response to God’s grace to us.

My second objection to the NIV’s translation of 4:1 is its use of the word “live” to translate Paul’s “walk.”  The NIV reads “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  That is, without question, what Paul means.  But the word he uses is “walk.”  He exhorts us to walk worthy of the calling we have received.  Now, “walk” means “live.”  I don’t deny that.  The problem is that by this translation, we lose the continuity of Paul’s thought and the second way in which he makes this fundamentally important connection between God’s grace for us and in us on the one hand, and our living on the other.  In 2:2 we read that when these people were unbelievers, “they walked in transgressions and sins.”  In 2:10, we read that by grace they were transformed, they were God’s workmanship, his new creation, created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance that we might walk in them.”  They walked one way when they were unbelievers and unsaved.  They have been saved to walk another way. Chapters 4-6 of Ephesians are, therefore, an exhortation to us to be what we are!  To be what we have been saved to be!  It is only when the same word is used in all three instances that we get the connection of Paul’s thought.  Unbelievers walk one way, Christians must walk another, precisely because God has remade them to walk in a certain way.  Later in 4:17 he will remind them that they cannot any longer walk as the Gentiles do, but, in 5:2, they must walk in love, in 5:8, they must walk in light, and in 5:15, being careful how they walk.  Paul connects our daily living to God’s purpose in our salvation with this word “walk.”  And he distinguishes between a Christian’s life and a non-Christian’s life by this same word “walk.”

Years ago a commentary on Ephesians appeared in the most prestigious series of evangelical commentaries on the New Testament.  It was written by E.K. Simpson and it is like no other commentary on Ephesians that you will ever read.  E.K. Simpson was a gentleman in the old sense of the word, which is to say he was independently wealthy and, consequently, was able to spend his life in private pursuits.  He only held an actual job for a few years of his adult life.  He graduated from Oxford in 1896 with an honors degree in classics and spent his adult life in the pursuit of biblical scholarship though he was not an ordained minister or a professional scholar.  He had, as they used to say, a “love of learning.”  He was a man of letters, a man possessed of a highly literary command of the English language.  The result is that when one reads his commentary, one is not only likely to find himself looking up words in the dictionary but being carried along in flights of elegant prose, the very kind of prose one does not associate with commentaries on books of the Bible.

Well, here is E.K. Simpson’s opening paragraph on Ephesians 4:1-10.

“Hitherto, under Paul’s trusty guidance, his crusaders have been threading the loftiest passes of revelation, absorbed in the panorama of a massive mountain-chain of Christian doctrine, outspread around their line of march.  Now it is time for them to descend from these craggy altitudes, intersected by many a cross-track opening into regions yet unexplored and cloud-capped, to the lower levels of everyday duty and demeanour; from the credenda, in short, to the agenda; for all doctrine truly held prompts to corresponding practice.  If faith be the candle, works are the light; take away one and you cannot keep the other (Selden).  Our belief fixes the trend of our footsteps.  We are, in fact, what we believe (Hodge).” [p. 87]

Now, what I have learned through years of the ministry, is that Christian people face this transition, here at Ephesians 4:1 or anywhere else in the Bible, in very different ways.  There are Christians who relish coming down from the high mountains to the lower levels of duty and demeanor.  They do not love the grace of God any less, but they love to sink their teeth into Christian living and they thrill to the prospect of making something of their lives.  They love to hear sermons on Christian doing, on Christian unity – the subject with which Paul begins here – on Christian behavior in the world, on Christian marriage and family, and all the rest.  They are happy to be exhorted to walk worthy of the calling they have received.  When they hear Paul’s therefore, they lick their chops!

But there are other Christians whose hearts sink when Ephesians chapter 3 turns into chapter 4 and Paul’s therefore signals an end to theology and a beginning of ethics.  For various reasons, they are demoralized by this Pauline summons to walk “worthy” of the calling they have received?  How can anyone do that, they ask?  They wish to talk about God’s grace and any talk about our works is a burden to them. 

In our day, in our churches, these two attitudes have frequently collided.  Brethren accuse one another of theological error, even though, when pressed, it is clear that they confess the same doctrine of salvation and the same doctrine of the Christian life.  It is a very emotional issue for people.  Some will criticize their preachers because, they say, there isn’t enough grace in their sermons.  Others will criticize their preachers because they aren’t helpful enough and don’t tell them straightaway how to live for God.  It is entirely predictable that human beings, different from one another as they are, should prefer different parts of the Bible and find it easier to embrace certain of the Bible’s teachings.  But our task, surely we can all agree about this, our task is to embrace all of the Bible’s teachings, even those teachings we find less congenial.  Our loyalty to God is tested by our readiness to hear everything that he says to us in his Word and to believe it all and practice it all.  Our task is to love all the chapters of Ephesians equally!

And all the more are we tested in this at a point such as this, where the natural tendencies of our sinful hearts are exposed and where we so easily tumble into error.  Luther says that in his day, “if he taught in a sermon that salvation consisted not in our works or life, but in the gift of God, some men took occasion thence to be slow to good works, and to live a dishonest life.  And if he preached of a godly and honest life, others did by and by attempt to build ladders to heaven.”  Men and women are always falling to one side or the other, either to take God’s free grace as an excuse not to live holy lives or to take God’s summons to obedience as an invitation to think of our relationship to God in terms of our own obedience and our standing with God in terms of our own performance.

So let us this morning recommit ourselves, before the Lord who is speaking to us in his Word, to both these propositions.

  1. First, the Christian life is nothing other than our answer to what God has done for us and in us.

Here again is Paul’s “therefore,” linking what he is going to say about our living to what he has already said about God’s grace and salvation.  We live righteous lives because God has transformed us and recreated us to live righteous lives.  It is his doing more than ours; indeed, it is his doing not ours, for as our Savior went on to say, “Without me, you can do nothing.”

And Paul reemphasizes that fact here in v. 1 by speaking about our walking worthy of the calling we have received.  This notion of God’s “calling” us has already appeared in 1:18 where Paul spoke of God calling us to salvation.  In Paul “call” and “calling” are predestinarian words, election words.  They mean that God summoned us by an irresistible will to believe in Jesus Christ.  “Whom he predestined, those he also called, and those he called he justified.”   That is how Paul put it in Romans 8 and he means the same thing here.  We are believers at all because God called us, his command sounded in our hearts and we obeyed.  For many of us this was a sub-conscious event, but some of you can remember precisely how it was that you came to Christ in faith, hardly knowing what you were doing, but not being able to do anything else, for Almighty God was calling you.

This life that Paul is about to describe, with all its obligations of truth, love, purity, self-denial and steadfastness is not our doing, it is not something of which we are capable in ourselves, it is as much God’s gift to us and God’s work in us as is our forgiveness and our being seated in the heavenly realms with Christ Jesus.  That is why Paul has been praying in the previous verses that the Holy Spirit would strengthen us, and deepen our love and our faith.  Only he can do that!

And, what is more, so long as we are in this world, this life we are summoned to live and saved to live, is managed so imperfectly and poorly by us that we never once get past needing the forgiveness of sins.  Those good works that God saved us to perform we perform so half-heartedly and with such mixed motives that even they must be forgiven.

Rabbi Duncan, the great 19th century Scottish Presbyterian, a very devout and holy man, once said of himself:

“I have never done a sinless action during the seventy years [of my life].  I don’t say but by God’s grace there may have been some holy action done, but never a sinless action.”  [Just a Talker, 166]

Now, that is a solemn thing to admit about oneself.  But must not we admit the same?  Not one sinless thing in all the years we have been Christians.  Not one thought or word or deed not spoiled to some extent by some imperfection or by a mixture of motive or by lack of true sincerity.  And, to the extent that we did obey and did serve the Lord, it was all by his grace in us and working in us.  “…for it is God who is in you both to will and to work his good pleasure,” says Paul in another place.

So, as we begin speaking about living that life worthy of the calling we have received, as we begin to consider what Paul says about how we ought to live to the glory of God, let us be careful that we do not forget Ephesians chapters 1-3 and all that we have learned there about the free grace of God and out utter dependence upon it from first to last.

And let us not forget that all of this obedience that Paul will now summon us to is to be offered to God in thanksgiving for his great mercy and love toward us.  That must be its motive and its principle.  It is when we are living in Ephesians 1-3 that we will be living according to Ephesians 4-6.  As one old writer put it, “The most effectual inducement to obedience is a constant improvement [application] of the blood of Christ  by faith and a sense of forgiveness kept on the soul.”  [Halyburton, Memoir, 193]   Or, in Paul’s language here, it is only when saints grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ that they will bend all their powers to walk worthy of the calling they have received.

But, there is a second proposition for us to embrace from this transitional verse.  Not only the “therefore” but also the “walk worthy.”

  1. There is such a thing as walking worthy of God’s calling and grace, and we are duty bound as his children, as the objects of his love, to walk worthy of him.

This is hardly the only place Paul says such a thing, surprising as it is for us to hear him speak of our being worthy in some way of God’s grace.  We have been taught our guilt and God’s great grace so well, it does not seem possible to us that Paul would use such words.  But he does.  He tells us in Phil. 1 to live “worthy of the gospel.”  In Col. 1 he says that we are to lead a life worthy of the Lord and in 1 Thess. 2:12 a life worthy of the God who calls us.  And the rest of the Bible also uses this surprising language.  Listen to the Lord speak to the church in Sardis in Rev. 3.

“Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes.  They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.”  John there uses the same word Paul uses in Eph. 4:1.

Now there is a calling for you and for me:  to walk worthy of God, of Christ, of the gospel and the grace of God.  How can anyone be worthy of such things?  Well surely, we are not in any absolute sense.  We do not deserve to know God or to be righteous in Jesus Christ.  But, this is the way the Bible speaks.  God, you know, takes a very little for a lot.  And when Christians walk with him in obedience – even imperfect as their obedience is – when they keep his commandments and serve him and aspire to do his will, when they love holiness and hate sin, when they try hard to follow in the Lord Christ’s footsteps, when they mourn their failures and try to do better because they love the Lord, then they are walking worthy of the calling they have received.

You parents have some inkling of how this is.  You can be proud of your children for the good things they have done even knowing full well that they have also stumbled in many ways, have had to be corrected by you many times.  You can delight in their accomplishments even when you are painfully aware of their failures.

The Lord says, “You have heard of the patience of Job…”  He might just as well have said, “You have heard of the impatience of Job.”  But the Lord counts what is good in his children, not what is bad.

Well, then, surely he is not asking the impossible of us when he says, “Walk worthy of the calling you have received.”  There is a life for us to live, commandments to keep, service to render to God and man.  And we have not only been summoned to this life, but have been promised the help we will need to live it.

Remember, God never had any other purpose in rescuing us from sin and death than that our lives should be transformed, purified, and devoted to the love of God and man.

Robert Murray McCheyne, the saintly 19th century pastor once described a minister friend of his as “imputed righteousness to the backbone.”  Here, McCheyne meant, was a man who never got over and never got past thinking about and preaching “Christ for us.”  He was preoccupied with the love that sent Christ to the cross for us and the way in which through Christ our guilt has been swept away.  For him the great thing was always that our sins had been laid on Christ and punished in him and his righteousness was reckoned to us so that we might have peace with God.  Christ punished for our sins; we rewarded for Christ’s righteousness.  “Imputed righteousness to the backbone.”   McCheyne said that of his friend, of course, to compliment him.  And anyone who has read the sermons of Robert McCheyne knows that he too was a man who was “imputed righteousness to the backbone.”  You read his sermons and you sense immediately how much McCheyne loved Jesus Christ for suffering in our place the judgment of our sins.  You read McCheyne and it doesn’t take long to discover that the message of “Christ for us” makes its way powerfully into every sermon.  McCheyne was, without doubt, an Ephesians chapters 1-3 man!

But, that makes it only more interesting and important that in one of his sermons on Ephesians he calls sanctification, that is, the Christian life that springs from our faith in Christ, “the better half of salvation.”  His exact words are these:

“Christ’s work is not done with a soul when he has brought it to pardon – when he has washed it in his own blood.  Oh, no!  the better half of salvation remains – his great work of sanctification remains.  [Sermons, 41]

Do you feel that way?  Do you feel that great as God’s pardon is, the forgiveness he has granted you, as great as is the hope of heaven that he has placed in your heart, nevertheless the transformation of your life, becoming more and more what Christ would have you to be is the better half of your salvation?

It is, you know.  We have already heard Paul say that.  He said in chapter 1 that God chose us before the foundation of the world that we might be blameless and holy in his sight – those are words that in the Bible refer to our manner of life, our humility, our self-denial, our obedience, our love, our service of God and others.  That is what God was after.  Not just your rescue, but the transformation of your life.  In Romans he makes the same point even more powerfully.  We were predestined, Paul writes, to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  It is a greater thing to be made Christ-like than it is to be forgiven!  And that is what God saved you for and will save you for, if you are not a Christian yet.  He saves his people to make them like his son.  He saves us to make our lives beautiful.  He saves us to make our lives a source of goodness to others.  He saves us to demonstrate his own holiness and his own love in our lives.

Samuel Rutherford asked the question a little differently.  He asked:  should we love Christ more for our sanctification, the transformation of our living, or for our justification, the forgiveness of our sins.  And he answered, we should love Christ most for our sanctification.  Justification makes us happy, to be sure, but in sanctification Christ makes us like himself.  And, he says, it is better to be holy than to be happy, just as it is worse actually to serve sin and be a servant of the devil than simply to be condemned for guilt.  And then with characteristic Rutherford extravagance, he goes on:  “Let a sinner, if [it were] possible, lie in hell for ever, if [Christ] make him truly holy; and let him lie there burning in love to God, rejoicing in the Holy [Spirit], hanging upon Christ by faith and hope, — that [would be] heaven in the heart and bottom of hell!”  [Letters, CLXX]

And if that is so, then surely there ought to be nothing to which we aspire with more passion and determination, there ought to be nothing that is so important to us, nothing so much the great purpose of our lives, than that we strive with all we are and have to walk worthy of the calling we have received.