Called to Conformity (Ephesians 4:13–16)

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Doug Van Meter - 18 September 2016

Called to Conformity (Ephesians 4:13–16)

Ephesians Exposition

It can be healthy to keep a large vision before you. If the vision is rooted in biblical truth, then a sanctified imagination is a good thing. The Bible stirs our imagination. It presents the ideal of the Christian life and this ideal is what we are to pursue. Such a pursuit will deliver us from mediocrity. The vision that Paul describes in Ephesians 4 is that of the church growing to such perfect maturity that it resembles the perfect and glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s imagination was “running wild,” yet it was an inspired imagination. In this study, we want to consider Paul’s inspired imagination with a goal to stirring our own imagination of what we as a local church can be—and what the global church one day will be.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

This series comprises the sermons preached at BBC during an exposition of the book of Ephesians.

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“Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty: we easily imagine conditions far higher than we have really reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there.”1 So wrote C. S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves.

How true. And yet it is good to, as they say, shoot for the stars. It can be healthy to keep a large vision before you. If the vision is rooted in biblical truth, then a sanctified imagination is a good thing.

I would argue that we should read the Bible in this way. Indeed, we must read the Bible this way. If you do not engage your imagination, aspiring for what God says is possible, I doubt that you will engage a life of obedience. The Bible stirs our imagination. It presents the ideal of the Christian life, and this ideal is what we are to pursue. Such a pursuit will deliver us from being satisfied with mediocrity. Let me illustrate.

I can remember watching the 1976 Olympics on TV. I was a fifteen-year-old aspiring athlete. I had only recently discovered that I had some ability as a long distance runner, and as I watched those Summer Olympics I was stirred by the accomplishments of the athletes. I was particularly motivated by the likes of 1,500 metre champion John Walker of New Zealand, and dual gold medallist in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre, Finland’s Lasse Viren. Along with all Americans, I was thrilled by the gold medal efforts of a man named Bruce Jenner. Recent gender confusion aside, I was amazed at his level of endurance.

I would watch the various events and then, having been motivated by the successes, I would put my running shoes on, sometimes as late as 11:00 PM, and go for a training run. (I did not live in Johannesburg at the time!) As I ran, I would imagine that I was breaking records as I crossed the finish line with the crowds going wild.

I never achieved that level of prowess, but the imagination served me well for my times did improve and those intense late night runs taught me something about perseverance and pushing physical limits. I fell way short of my imagination, but my aspiration was strengthened. The vision became a means towards progress, a means towards improvement. I would suggest that this is precisely how we should view Ephesians 4.

The vision that Paul describes here is that of the church growing to such perfect maturity that it resembles the perfect and glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s imagination was running wild, yet it was an inspired imagination.

I have chosen to return to this passage to more deliberately study it because I want to stir our imagination as to what we as a local church can be; and ultimately, to stir us to imagine what the one church one day will be.

So, how is your sanctified imagination? One way to answer this question is to ask another one: For what do you pray? What is the underlying focus? In his book, Speaking Truth in Love, David Powlison writes,

Over the years, I’ve listened carefully to prayers. I’ve heard and participated in pastoral prayers, prayer meetings, small prayer groups, individual prayer requests. People tend to pray for predictable things. Among the most common: Heal the sick. Comfort the bereaved. Provide jobs and money to those in financial straits. Bring family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to faith in Jesus. Help people to make major decisions wisely.  Protect those who are traveling. Solve troubles and conflicts in family, work, school, and church. Help us fulfil responsibilities on the job or in school. Make ministries fruitful locally and around the world. “Bless” and “be with” people, that good will happen. There’s nothing wrong with asking for any of these things. They are good gifts. But notice something. None of them involve the sanctification and transformation of the one making the request or the one for whom you are praying. Such prayer requests ask for good gifts, but they do not ask for the best gift, that our lives would be remade into the image of Jesus.2

In this passage Paul has this very best gift in mind. His concern, his burden of the Word of the Lord, was that the believers in the area of Ephesus would grow in Christlikeness.

He has highlighted that the Christian is called to community through the dual call: to Christ (vv. 1–6) and then to Christians (vv. 7–12). But what is the evidence of such a call? That is, what does a biblical response to this call result in? What does it look like? It looks like conformity to Christ. It looks like sinners becoming saints. It looks like those gifted by Christ using their gifts in such a way that the church experiences the best of gifts: being remade into the image of Jesus. This is the net effect of what we commonly speak of as “body life.” This is what true church growth looks like.

In this study, we will consider vv. 13–16, focusing on the theme “Called to Conformity.” May God the Holy Spirit apply His Word to us that we will happily answer this call.

The Call to Build

The call to conformity is a call to Christlikeness. It is a call to the entire community of faith to be Christlike—both locally and universally.

It is important to note that this call is not a call to some mystical experience in which we merely “let go and let God,” with the result that instant sanctification takes place. Rather, it is a call to each of us to so exercise our gifts within the body of Christ that we grow up in Christ together. In other words, we believe together and we belong together for the purpose of building together. In vv. 13–16 we find several building blocks to this end.

The Call to Conformity is a Call to Unity

God has given to the church a diversity of gifts, all of which are to be exercised “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13).

Though Paul highlights the goodness of diversity throughout this epistle (see 2:10ff and as recent as vv. 7–11), there is a particular uniformity that he also admonishes, a uniformity when it comes to our purpose and our pursuit. Gifted teachers are to use their gifting to equip every member of the church to believe the same things about the same person. Every member is to so connect to the church that we all know and love the same Lord. We are called to be one in doctrine, devotion, disposition (vv. 1–2), and determination. That is, we are share the aspiration to be like Jesus.

Our expression of each of these may be diverse, but the experience of this is to be shared by all. Conforming to Christ is our unifying and uniform purpose.

This Unity is Expositional

The unity envisioned here is “the unity of the faith.” Verses 4–6 highlights the nature of “the faith.” It is a biblical unity, a unity built around the faith once delivered to the saints. It is a unity grounded in believing the same Bible in the same way about the same things.

This is why, at BBC, our discipleship ministry and careful, deliberate membership process is so important. This is why gathering is so important. I personally long and work for the day when the Babel of denominationalism will be replaced with the Pentecost of glad unity.

This is why churches dare not be wrongly independent. “Pastor” Steve Anderson was recently banned from entering South Africa because of his hateful speech. It is no surprise to me that his church’s website boasts of being “independent.” It is precisely because they are (wrongfully) independent that they are so filled with hate. They will listen to and be held accountable by no one.

I am thankful for the Sola 5 association of churches to which our church is privileged to belong. Belonging to an association of likeminded churches is helpful as we seek to see the reality of these verses realised.

This Unity is Experiential

This unity is also unity in “the knowledge of the Son of God.” The word translated “knowledge” is a word that speaks of clear and precise experiential knowledge.

As we grow together in the faith and by the faith, we will increasingly glory in the Lord together. Our belief will be felt as well as learned. This unity will result in an increasing sense of the reality of His person, power and presence. Our prayer meetings reveal something of this: How seriously are we sensing Him?

The Call to Conformity is a Call to Maturity

Paul envisions a time when the church will grow “to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13). In a very real sense, this is the theme of this section. This matter of growing up is predominate. He identifies two aspects or stages of this.

Paul’s desire is that the church will grow “to a perfect man.” The term speaks of full, mature manhood, and it further defines v. 13a. This is the measure of maturity: the church believing and obeying Christ as one. Only then are we ready to reproduce; only then are we ready to duplicate. It matters that we—each and every one of us—grow up. It matters that all true churches grow up.

The goal is to grow up “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” “Measure” translates a word used of a measuring instrument, while “stature” once again speaks of maturity. The measure of our maturity if Christ. Christian maturity is, therefore, measurable. And while, too often, this may seem like an impossible dream, it is not impossible. It will occur.

Let me pause here to make a few observations.

First, until we reach full maturity, we need each other’s gifts to help us grow in Christ. Paul clearly says that God gave diverse gifts to the church “till” these dreams become a reality. Until then you cannot go it alone; therefore, don’t isolate yourself. Meaningful church membership matters. What are you contributing to the maturation of the church of which you are a part?

Second, let’s be aware that this is a long-term building plan. I was recently reading about some of the famous European cathedrals, most of which took anywhere from 100–600 years to complete. Those who laid the foundation did not see the completed project, but they built with a long-term view in mind.

According to one source, building a Cathedral was usually a community effort—and with good reason. It was too large a project for a small group and, further, it would benefit the community for generations to come. The fact that the project was not completed in their lifetime was not the issue; that fact that it would be completed was the issue.

Let’s make our contribution. To change the metaphor, let’s be aware others will stand on our shoulders. Our church has been through a fair number of doctrinal and practical reformations over the years. While there have been some who have left during those times, there has never been a church wide split. I contribute this, humanly speaking, to the ministry of the founding pastor of our church, who taught his people to weigh all things in the light of Scripture. In many ways, the church is, forty-something years later, building on the foundation that he laid.

Third, this kind of maturity will result in a unified worldview. The ethos of a church is the result of some kind of unity and uniformity. We just want to make sure that it is biblical ethos. Our church has a strong prolife ethos, and a strong love for children and families. There is a strong ethos in our church of gathering and accountability. This ethos exists because individual members get these issues.

The Call to Conformity is a Call to Stability

Paul’s call to conformity to the Ephesians was a call to stability. The goal was “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (v. 14).

It is clear that this church, and those in the region, were under assault by false teachers (see 1 Timothy 1). Paul explains that, as they properly stewarded the gifting, bestowed to them by the risen Lord, they would mature. As they did so, they would not be as vulnerable to deception. Rather, they would be doctrinally and devotionally and dispositionally stable—unlike “children” (literally, “infants”).

The word translated “children” speaks of children unable to speak; figuratively, it speaks of being simple-minded (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:11; Hebrews 5:13). “Tossed” translates a term that speaks of being tossed by waves. “Carried about” is a translation of a word that we might use of a tornado carrying debris about. “Trickery” and “plotting” speak of deception. The point is simply this: We are to be like Christ in all ways—including His ability to stand against the schemes of the evil one. The example that He showed in the wilderness temptation ought to be our goal at all times.

Practically, there are a few things we can say here.

First, we must grow in discernment. The author of Hebrews likewise understood the need for discernment. He wrote to his readers,

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

(Hebrews 5:12–14)

How do we grow to maturity? We do so through exercise of the exposition in the context of experience. What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you doing? Are you striving to grow in discernment, and helping others to do so? This is one of the functions of a small group ministry in the church. We must be growing here ourselves and helping others to do so.

Second, we must learn to stand against the tempting winds of unbiblical change. Like Jesus, all of us are to love God’s truth and to hate the lies. We face lies today in the form of issues of sexuality and the nature of marriage. We face lies in the form of the health, wealth prosperity gospel. We could name a host of other issues, but the point is that we must be discerning enough to recognise unbiblical change and to resist it.

We therefore need to know the truth in order to detect the lies. Beware of shifting your doctrine with every new book that you read! Reformation is good, but not everything needs to be reformed. One way to resist unbiblical reformation is to be equipped. And we are equipped by taking advantage of opportunities to be exposed to the truth—in preaching, in discussion, in reading, etc.

Third, the discerning do not despise the old paths (cf. Jeremiah 6:16; Proverbs 22:28; 23:10). They are not faddish and are not obsessed with being trendy. As we are built up, and as we grow up, we are stable in the midst of the cultural naysayers who try to convince us that we need to change or accommodate our message.

As has been well said, he who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower. Or, he who dines with the devil had better make sure that he has a long spoon. Be discerning! The stability of maturity will in the long run establish credibility in the crunch. That is, such a church will be immensely relevant—always!

Fourth, discernment is necessary for guarding the unity of the Spirit (v. 3). After all, discernment guards us from offending the Spirit to whose truth we are devoted. Discernment keeps us on the same page. Churches that are faithfully fed on God’s Word are going to be healthy. They are going to be holy and happy—blessed.

Fifth, as local churches mature, the unity among churches will be increasingly realised and “visualised.” We will have more and more in common. And a lot of this has to do with the leadership.

The Call to Conformity is a Call to Integrity

In v. 15, we see that the call here is a call to integrity. Paul wishes that the church will not be easily swayed, “but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ” (v. 15). Here, he contrasts the immaturity of following lies with the maturity that attends following and speaking the truth.

As we mature, we want others to mature as well. We want them to experience the best of the gifts as well: conformity to Christ. We will therefore engage one another with truth.

“Speaking the truth in love” could literally be translated “truthing in love,” and this results in growing “up in all things into Him who is the Head—Christ.”

We must speak words that are true as we engage one another. We cannot fudge on the truth; we must speak with integrity. True unity is rooted in truth and love. And true maturity is characterised by the integrity of truth and love. These are both held together; they are a whole. We call this integrity. As Stott says, “Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth.”3

If our community of faith will increasingly conform to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, we will need to continue (in some cases, increasingly) to be confronted with truth, to be counselled with truth. In fact, we should all becoming increasingly (to borrow from Jay Adams) competent to counsel4 (see Romans 15:14).

If we are being equipped, then we will be becoming wiser counsellors who will speak truth to each other, thereby contributing to the church’s stability (v. 14) resulting in more maturity (v. 13b) and greater unity (v. 13a). As Powlison says, “Wise counselling is essentially a way of loving another person well. It is a way of speaking what is true and constructive into this person’s life right now. Good counselling is essentially wise love in action…. Wise counselling embodies the human and humane impact of relevant truth.”5

I have a vision to strengthen our body at BBC in this area of biblical counselling; in this practical demonstration of integrity. It will help us to be built up, to grow up, to become more mature.

Such counsel is characterised by speaking in a way that is true, loving, personal, and appropriate. Maturity will be demonstrated by an integrity that will neither fudge on nor bludgeon with the truth.

Truthing in love is as important as walking in discernment. Affirmations are as important as denials. In other words, we are not called to be mere naysayers but also to be constructive. This is wholeness.

We must therefore work on knowing truth and helping one another to know the truth. In other words, those who are mature are studious. To help others is discipling, counselling—loving!

This kind of practical integrity will go a long way towards stabilising one another with the truth in the midst of an otherwise destabilised world inundated with lies. We tend to be more comfortable with lies because they take less effort to believe.

It’s easier to believe that the Reserve Bank is calling the shots than it is to believe that God is in control. But He is: “And you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.”

It is easy to believe the lie that marriage and children are essential for fulfilment, when the truth is that it is perfectly possible to be happy and fulfilled in singleness. It is easy to believe the lie that shouts that your situation is hopeless, when the God of hope is able to restore hope in any situation. It is easy to believe the lie that your identity is dependent on your wealth, education, home town, type of car, etc. when in fact believers find their identity in Christ. We need to be done with what Dave Furman calls the “if onlys” if we will grow as we can in Christ.6 Sometimes these lies are more difficult to demolish than others but be loving enough, have the integrity to tell the truth, to yourself and to others!

The Call to Conformity is a Call to Responsibility

Finally, the call to conformity is a call to responsibility. Paul’s desire is for the church to grow into Christ “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).

Paul brings this to a conclusion. In this rather (seemingly) disjointed verse about joints, he summarises and says that ultimately our conformity to Christ is the result of the sovereignty of Christ, who “causes growth of the body.” It is “from” Him that “the whole body, joined and knit together” results in the “edifying of itself in love.”

This is important: Church growth is supernatural and is therefore dependent on the sovereignty of God. It is Jesus Christ who enriches the church with gifts and who empowers her with divine energy, thereby making her grow. But like other aspects of the Christian life, God uses means towards His glorious ends. And when it comes to the church growing in maturity, God expects for us to exercise our responsibility. As Paul says here, God expects that “each part does its share.” And, as the ESV puts it, when each part is working properly then Christ makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Conformity to Christ will not happen without effort, and this will not happen apart from each of us fulfilling our responsibility within and to the body of Christ (see Philippians 2:11–13; 3:10–14; Romans 12:1ff; etc.).

Conformity to Christ is every member’s responsibility and it should be every member’s concern. This implies that membership matters—that it matters a lot! If you are a Christian but are not a member of a local church, there is no way that you are living purposefully. At least, you are not living out your primary calling—to community and to conformity.

This implies that we need to be careful about becoming a member of a church, and that the church is careful about who becomes a member (i.e. only believers). One reason so much energy is exerted by churches on getting people to get involved is because they are trying, literally, to raise the dead. But where there is regeneration there is an inherent motivation that simply needs to be tapped into.

This means that the church has the right to expect that its members are actively engaged in and with the Body. This should be so obvious! But this activity is to be a focused one—contributing to the church’s conformity to Christ.

In sum, maturation is inseparable from participation: How is yours? What is your part and are you doing it? May I suggest some parts?

Are you praying together? Are you gathering together in order to be equipped together? Are you encouraging others, affirming others, greeting others, teaching others, counselling others, and practically serving others? This is what it looks like to biblically love others.

I trust that we have been motivated to now go and run the race set before us, aspiring to achieve all that God in Christ has secured for us.

We have been called to the community of Christ for the purpose of conformity to Christ. Let us answer the call, making the best of gifts, being remade into the image of Jesus, the goal for which we strive together.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves: An Explanation of the Nature of Love (Boston: Mariner Books, 1971), Kindle edition.
  2. David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2005), 118.
  3. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 172.
  4. Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986).
  5. Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love, 5.
  6. Dave Furman, Being There: How to Love Those Who are Hurting (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), Kindle edition.