Gospel Imperatives

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus
Ephesians 4:17-21

In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul gives us a stunning vision of the Christian worldview. Quite apart from what we do or how well we live, we are very greatly loved, richly forgiven, and lavished with unimaginable grace. The church is, in fact, the display of the manifold wisdom of God, and the display or showcase of the glory of His greatest achievement: grace. There is not a single imperative statement anywhere to be found in these first three chapters. Instead, we are given God’s own sweeping view of eternity past, eternity future, and our present place in His grand design. Chapter 4 through 6 are an explanation about how the Christian is to live in light of the great truths of the first three chapters. Nothing in chapter 4 – 6 can be properly understood without reference to the grand sweep of God’s glorious gospel of grace.

Thus we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” (Ephesians 4:1). We are to walk in the knowledge and in the light of the fact that before the foundation of the cosmos, God chose us for adoption as sons and daughters into the family of the Most High. We are granted access to the great promises made to the nation of Israel, into the very temple of God and the holy of holies. We have been richly forgiven of all of our collective trespasses and lavished with grace beyond measure and beyond comprehension. Knowing this and believing this has a definite effect on how we walk. We are forgiven everything and given everything. We walk as these kinds of people.

The “Gentiles” – the nonreligious unbelievers – walk in a manner consistent with their calling (Ephesians 4:1). They do not believe that they are greatly loved, forgiven everything and given everything. They live under the low-lying animus of their guilt and shortcomings. They live trying to prove they are worthy of significance, not in light of an already established worth and significance. They live trying to prove they deserve forgiveness and acceptance. So they speak to prove their worth. They speak to hide their sin. They grasp at momentary pleasures because those are the only pleasures they can apprehend. They believe they are in control of their own blessing and good life, because by deserving good, they think to control fate and judgment.

These are issues, not primarily of discipline and will and self-control, but of belief. The idea that we must deserve things implies that from the outset we are condemned. It means that we cannot have things like blessings or honor or forgiveness or relationship unless we earn them. We must measure up, and those around us must measure up, but we start off with the assumption that we don’t measure up. So the unbeliever starts off with the underlying assumption that we are all condemned until we prove that we are worthy. The believer starts off with the assumption that everyone who believes is beloved and accepted and eternally forgiven. This is exactly what Jesus is saying in John 3:

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true [i.e. believe in Jesus – Jim McNeely] comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
John 3:16-21

The non-Christian person who believes in God but not in Christ is bound to read that non-grace dynamic onto God’s heart toward us. And so the unbeliever must snatch blessing and pleasure from the hands of fate, since God, if He exists, is against them, and because we all secretly know that we do not measure up. Everyone to some degree is a thief, but the actual thief is just a bit more honest and direct about it.

We can read all of these imperatives this way. If you actually believe the astonishing things from Ephesians 1-3, and the eyes of your hearts have been enlightened, the things spelled out in Ephesians 4-6 are fruits and outcomes of that belief. Right believing is the paramount issue. Let’s go through a few and see if that is true:

Ephesians 4:25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

If we believe that we and our brothers and sisters are forgiven and accepted all the way to eternity, and that the blood of Jesus has achieved a rich forgiveness for all of our trespasses, we have no reason to lie to one another. We are already eternally accepted, why bother puffing yourself up? There is no more up to go than to say that you are worthy of the Messiah’s death! Also, we have no reason to lie about our sins, because the underlying assumption is that we are utterly forgiven anyway. The threat is over with. Just as we can put off the old self and its ridiculous assumptions about how good we are and all of that, we can put away falsehood, because under the incredible justification and freedom of the gospel there is simply no need for it any more.

26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.
Ephesians 4:26-27

The imperative, to be clear, is that we should be angry. We’re supposed to be angry. Anger is there for a reason. However, the purpose of anger under the gospel is completely different than the purpose of anger under unbelief. If I am eternally and assuredly safe and beloved, I do not need to defend my own interests. Since my shame and guilt have been visited with fierce wrath on the cross, I have free access and favor with God. In other words, I am OK, and my anger is no longer animated by self-interest. My self-interest has been ultimately addressed in a final way in Christ. I am angered now by things that block access to that grace for others. If we hold onto anger it gives the devil opportunity, because obviously the devil wants us to believe that our sin defines us and not our savior’s blood. When that idea takes root it is a threat to living in light of the truth of our salvation.

28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Ephesians 4:28

Stealing clearly says that you are under a mindset of unbelief. It says you think that you have no favor with God, and that unless you take matters into your own hands, you cannot supply the things you want and need. It says that His grace is not sufficient. It also stands as a judgment, that your interests are greater than the person’s interests from whom you stole. The gospel mindset, the one who walks in light of the astonishing grace of the gospel, says that quiet honest work is sufficient, since no flamboyant possession is necessary to prove my worth. I can remain in humble yet adequate means, and give from that circumstance, because I am lavishly and richly forgiven and given everything anyway. Working honestly and giving affirms that the person I give to is worthy in Christ to receive blessings and deserves not to remain in need. When the body operates by honest work and sharing, stealing becomes unnecessary anyway.

Let’s suppose that you think I am wrongly reading this gospel mindset thing into the verse. I’m just trying to support my pet theory, that a gospel mindset leads naturally (with a bit of reminding) to sharing instead of stealing. I’m just supporting my weird idea that there is no such thing as the third use of the law. Perhaps you suspect I’m just reading this idea into it. So, I’m reading Paul’s general argument and general context (“walk in a manner worthy of the calling”) into this verse? Of course I am! That’s what you’re supposed to do. If you say, “this verse shows that we as Christians are still under the law”, it means you are plucking the verse OUT of context to prove your point. Paul goes out of his way to dispute that kind of idea at every turn. Simply because there are imperatives does not mean that we are under the law. It means we need to be reminded that we are believers and that belief is intrinsic to the way we live. That is Paul’s general point. Don’t behave like unbelievers because you have a new perspective on these things (Ephesians 4:17).

29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
Ephesians 4:29-31

Corrupting talk always arises, if you think about it, from the boastful pride of life. It is someone loudly declaring that they are hip, cool, free, and self-important. It doesn’t build up, it destroys others in order to self-justify. It specifically challenges and offends the dignity of others, that’s the point of such talk. It grieves the Holy Spirit because it not only eschews faith in Christ, but bids others to eschew their faith as well. Clearly bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander are born of unbelief – or rather the belief that we are better than others and so our hash judgment of them is perfectly justified. Of course it is justified; the scandal of belief is that grace is real when it is undeserved! Anyone can harbor bitterness and anger and clamor and slander – those things are always richly deserved and highly justified. Only belief in the sufficiency of Christ’s blood to achieve a rich lavish forgiveness for all of our real transgressions can transcend these things. They grieve the Holy Spirit because they count the blood which Jesus shed as having no real-life application.

Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

This reminds me of Jesus’ parable about the servant who owed 10,000 talents who then turned around and condemned the guy that owed him 100 denarii. That is about $7 Billion vs. $12 Thousand. All of these imperatives, every last one of them, is relational. All of the worldly unbelieving behaviors can be summed up, obviously, as stemming from unbelief in the grace and love of God for ourselves and for those around us. All of the positive behaviors can be summed up as stemming from belief. Paul could be summed up here as saying, live mindful of God’s lavish love and mercy for yourself and for other believers, and you will live like this. Reject such belief, and you will live another way. Just as we can be real believers and still need the eyes of our hearts to be enlightened as to the immense truth of it all (Ephesians 1:15-23), even so we can be real believers and still need to be reminded to live in the light of our belief. That’s how gospel imperatives work. They are saying- you’ve become incredibly spiritually wealthy. You’ve won the spiritual lottery, and no one deserved it less. But it is yours, so now live that way! Stop being so chintzy and miserly with your forgiveness and your acceptance and with all your stuff. Forgive, and share, and build up people with your words!

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