Back in 1980, I read a book titled The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. While it was in some respects helpful, I found the book largely discouraging. Nee seemed to be describing the normal Christian life as a mystical, miraculous manner of living, in which the believer simply lets go and lets God, resulting in complete victory.1 Having read it, I felt myself feeling deeply defeated.
Some time later, a friend from university started discipling me, and encouraged me to read The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. Bridges argues that, while the believer is a passive recipient of Christ’s life (see 2:1–5), he must actively respond to it. This is normal. But it is amazingly different. Bridges nails the New Testament teaching. And this is what we see in Ephesians 4:1–6.
In the opening three chapters of Ephesians, Paul has revealed the church, God’s new society. Now, in chapters 4–6, he reveals God’s standards for that society. He moves in chapter 4 from doctrine to duty, from principles to practice, from explanation to expectation, from indicatives to imperatives. This is always the biblical approach: We move from understanding to undertaking. Truly Christian ethics are based on Christian teaching. Doctrine must precede duty. There are no shortcuts to the normal Christian life.
God wants us to experience the reality of vv. 1–6. And what does this reality look like? It looks quite ordinary.
Pretty much everything from 4:1 through the end of the letter is about relationships. Paul deals with how we walk in relationship with others (4:1, 17; 5:2, 8–15). He writes of how we walk in relation to the outside world (4:17–5:17). He deals with how we walk in relation to our family (5:18–6:4). He speaks of how we walk in relation to the marketplace (6:5–9). And he addresses how we walk in relation to evil powers (6:10ff).
But the starting point is how we walk in relation to the church. In chapter 4, Paul tells us what the normal Christian walk looks like. He says that it is a walk in unity (vv. 1–6), a walk in charity (vv. 7–16) and a walk in purity (vv. 17–32). In this study, we will consider vv. 1–6, where Paul shows that the normal Christian life—that normal church life—is relational unity, empowered by love. The result is that we will walk toward maturity (5:1). Therefore, at the end of the day, the normal Christian life is abnormal. The ordinary Christian life is quite extraordinary. As we consider our text together, let us do so in order to learn it and live it. Let’s learn to be normal!
Be Who You Are
In vv. 1–2, Paul shows us that, in order to live the normal Christian life, you must be who you are: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.” Paul tells us here that we should live out what we already are. “The Christian life is simply the process of becoming what you are.”2
As is so often the case, Paul begins his appeal to duty with the word “therefore.” The duty he appeals for here is grounded in the doctrine he has set forth in chapters 1–3. More immediately, the anticipation he has for the Ephesians flows from his exclamation in 3:20–21. He encourages them that they can live a normal Christian life.
Paul’s appeal is not for “supersaints.” It is for all saints—for every believer in the Lord Jesus. Every believer can live the reality of vv. 1–6—but we must do so grounded in the truths of chapters 1–3. Our obedience to the imperatives must be grounded in indicatives. We cannot mindlessly live the Christian life. The extraordinarily normal Christ life requires effort to engage the mind. Normal Christians think. We must therefore read, study and meditate on the truths of God’s Word if we will live as normal Christians live.
The word translated “beseech” means to urge or beg. The word literally means to stand beside to help. It is, in fact, used in the New Testament of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the believer. This is a passionate, pastoral appeal. We need those.
We need encouragements to run the race. One of my fondest memories from running the Boston Marathon in 2015 was people lining the streets and urging the runners on with, “You got this!” Sometimes we need similar encouragement in the Christian race. We need people to come alongside us and exhort us to keep running. We may at times need to be urged to get back into the race. We sometimes need to be rebuked so that we will actually persevere and finish the race. And we sometimes need to be willing to be those who deliver such encouragement, urging and rebuke. It is not always comfortable to do so, but it is necessary.
The normal Christian life is not necessarily an easy life. Bear in mind that Paul was in prison as he was writing these words. He had a good many problems, yet he was a living example that these believers could do it. The Ephesians would do well to listen to Paul, and we do well to listen to very ordinary fellow church members as they exhort, urge and rebuke us in our walk.
This is precisely why we need the church. This is why God has given shepherds to the church. We must listen to our shepherds as they encourage us that we can be extraordinarily normal. We all can.
We know from 3:1 that Paul was “the prisoner of the Lord” when he wrote this letter, but why does he draw attention again to this fact here? It may be difficult to accept exhortation from one experiencing incarceration—unless there is good and godly reason to do so. Paul, of course, was worthy of attention. They would do well to heed his exhortations. He was a prisoner, yes, but a prisoner “of the Lord.” He was incarcerated for his absolute commitment to Jesus Christ. He lived with spiritual integrity, and this enabled him to help others to live the normal Christian life. And it is significant that, even as he was incarcerated, the church was always on his mind—which is always a mark of godly leadership.
Paul’s appeal to the Ephesians is for a particular assignment. The assignment he gives is for them “to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.” He has already shown them in the opening three chapters what they are in Christ; now he urges them to be what they are. This requires two things.
First, the Ephesians must be balanced. There is much talk today about “balance,” and it is most often an appeal for moderation. Here, Paul appeals for a very different kind of balance.
His appeal is for a worthy “walk.” The New Testament uses “walk” as a description of the believer’s manner of life. The word is used to describe how one conducts oneself.
But Paul appeals specifically for a “worthy” walk. The word translated “worthy” was used to speak of the beam of a scale. It indicates equivalence. “Paul is insisting that there shall be a balance between profession and practice.”3 As Foulkes says, “Step by step they are to walk in a direction that corresponds to their call.”4
There is a specific “calling” of which we are to walk worthy. This is God’s salvific call—that irresistible call that He issues to those who are His own. God calls His elect by His sovereign grace to be His children, and He expects us to walk worthy of that call. Our walk must be in balance with our talk. The balanced Christian life is the obedient Christian life.
We should be encouraged that the normal Christian life is achievable. It is doable because of 3:20–21: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
The normal Christian life is also visible. As one pastor said, “My people watch me six days a week to see if they should listen to me on the seventh.” The life that we live is observable. Your Christian walk is lived out in the workplace, on social media, in the shops, in traffic and at government offices.
When I first came to BBC as a pastor, there was a church soccer ministry. There was a group of young men in the church who had formed a soccer team that competed every Saturday at a local venue. I went to watch the team play once, and the next day I had to inform the players that there would no longer be a soccer ministry. I felt strongly that we couldn’t have a “ministry” in which footballers were resorting to swearing and foul play!
The normal Christian life is nonnegotiable. Paul calls us to a properly balanced life here, and Solomon tells us elsewhere, “Dishonest scales are an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is His delight” (Proverbs 11:1).5 We do not get to decide whether or not we will live a balanced life; we are called by God to do so.
The normal Christian life is, then, the balanced life. It should not be unusual for a Christian’s walk to match his talk. The honour of Christ and the credibility of the gospel are at stake. Believers should care about this—a lot!
The question is, what does a balanced life look like? Biblically, what criteria are called for in the life of one who will live balanced? Verse 2 provides four broad behaviours that qualify as balanced. These four things are expected relational behaviour for all believers, and they are bound together by love.
First, Paul urges “lowliness” (or “humility,” ESV). Humility was a despised trait in the ancient world. The word here translated “lowliness” was used to speak of the crushing, servile, submissiveness of a slave. It literally speaks of humbleness of mind—the humble recognition of the worth and value of other people. C. S. Lewis once said that, if you met a truly humble person, you would be amazed at how interested they would be in you. We all know what it is to meet someone who appears interested only in themselves. Paul here calls us to precisely the opposite.
Such humility, of course, was exemplified in the Lord Jesus Christ: “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). And because He was humble, He could be trusted. Humble people are always trustworthy.
The normal Christian life is one that looks like Jesus. In fact, Paul elsewhere specifically urges us to Christlike humility:
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfil my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.
Paul himself followed Jesus in this regard (Acts 20:17–19ff). Solomon warned, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud” (Proverbs 16:18–19).
If you live the normal Christian life, you will think of others, engage others, show interest in others, and value others. You will not only be concerned about yourself and your own interests.
Second, Paul urges us to “gentleness” (or meekness). The Greek word here speaks of moderation, and describes the mean between being too angry and never angry at all. Meekness, says Stott, is “the absence of the disposition to assert personal rights, either in the presence of God or of men.”6 Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that to be meek is to be done with yourself altogether.
Moses was such a man (Matthew 12:1–3), as was the Lord Jesus (Matthew 11:29). We must be too. We must be willing to not always get our own way. We must be sensitive to others and have a proper self-assessment. The meek man thinks as little of his personal claims as the humble man thinks of his personal merits.
Third, Paul urges his readers to “longsuffering” (or “patience,” ESV). The word literally means “long-spirited.” It speaks of the ability to outlast pain or provocation, a skill learned best at the Saviour’s feet. Relationally speaking, it suggests the ability to show patience to aggravating people—to those with whom you have serious “personality clashes.” It is the disposition of putting up with being wrongs (cf. Romans 2:4) and therefore of not being easily irritated.
Fourth, Paul urges the attitude of “bearing with one another.” This literally means to hold oneself up or to endure. It speaks of willingness to side with others, even if it is against oneself. It suggests being hospitable and kind toward those that you don’t necessarily like being around.
Solomon wrote, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). He was not suggesting that we ignore sin, but that there are some (ultimately insignificant) wrongs that we can overlook. We need not get hyped up about every little thing in which someone wrongs us.
All of these behaviours are to be carried out “in love.” Love is the fuel for this normal Christian behaviour. Love fuels our humility, meekness, patience and forbearance. Love fuels healthy and helpful relationships.
As I have already said, we must be willing to not always get our own way. We must be team players. Those who live the normal Christian life are not easily offended. They are not always defensive. They are willing to give the benefit of the doubt. As Paul would write elsewhere,
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
(1 Corinthians 13:4–8)
Guard What You Have
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. And so Paul urges us in v. 3 that we must guard what we have: “endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We must be committed to guarding the normal Christian life. If the behaviour of v. 2 is essential for us to live the normal, Christ-honouring, balanced life, then we must do whatever we can to guard it. Two truths—two responsibilities—stand out in this verse.
The Bond to Be Protected
First, Paul draws our attention to the bond that is to be protected: “the unity of the Spirit.” Unity is a reality in the church, both universal and local. We know this because Jesus prayed for unity for His church (John 17:11), and we can be assured that the Father always answered the Son’s prayers. “The apostle views the unity as the gift of God. It was made possible by the cross of Christ, and it made effective by the working ‘of the Spirit’ of God.”7 If this is true, it must mean that this unity is visible and practical. It is normal.
When Jesus prayed for His church to be unified, He was speaking, of course, of the church universal. Paul is likewise speaking here in terms of universal reality. But what is true universally is certainly to be true locally. If we desire global unity, we must work on local unity. And v. 2 supplies the elements that form the glue of this unity.
The Boldness to Be Experienced
We must be “endeavouring to keep” this unity. “Endeavouring” means to make haste or to be diligent (see 2 Timothy 2:15). It speaks of being zealous, or sparing no effort, of continuous, diligent activity. This diligence is to be directed to “keep” or guard the normality of Christian unity. And this unity must be guarded both locally and universally.
As we have seen, unity exists; we are called, as it were, to do maintenance. There is to be no spiritual “load shedding” in this regard. Unity is, instead, to be the continuous, normal Christian life.
This requires boldness. It requires us to be confident in ourselves and confident toward and of others. Guarding unity often requires confident confrontation, and this is never easy. We are called to urge others to stop with their pride and harshness. We must confront gossip and other wrongdoing and urge our brothers and sisters to proper balance. And we must be willing to receive such exhortation. If you have never admitted that you were wrong and asked forgiveness, you are hurting the unity of the Spirit. You are abnormal!
Meekness is not the same as passivity. Meekness means that we at times are not worried about the personal cost to us as we confront sin. Moses certainly was not concerned about personal cost. Neither was Jesus! When it is obvious that love is absent in the life of a fellow believer, evidence by their persistence in sin, we must be loving enough to confront in order to correct and restore that person to normality.
At the same time, we must be zealous about not being jealous of others. Matthew 20:20–28 records the story of Zebedee’s wife asking Jesus if her two sons could have the positions of honour on His right and left hand in glory. When the other disciples heard of it, they were angry—not angry in a godly way, but angry that James and John had beaten them to the punch! When Jesus saw it, He
called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Remember to Whom You Belong
Finally, in vv. 4–6, Paul urges his readers to remember to whom they belonged: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” To paraphrase: “This unity is of God. You are of God. Live like it!”
The church is one body, sharing one belief as one brotherhood. We uniquely belong to the triune God. Paul speaks here very clearly of God as Trinity: the Holy Spirit (“one Spirit”), the Son (“one Lord”), and the Father (“one God and Father of all”).
We Are One Body
Paul speaks of the fact that “there is one body.” Wood notes, “What Paul envisages is not ‘a vague spiritual identity, but rather a profound oneness made possible by God’s Spirit.’”8
Since there is only “one Spirit” there can be only one body to which He connects us and which He indwells (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). In a real sense, there can never be any such thing as a church split. Local assemblies may split, but the “one body” can never be split. There is one body, and every member of this body shares in the same hope: glory (see 1:14).
The realisation that we are sovereignly chosen and connected to the body of Christ will motivate us to live the normal Christian life. Do you think about the effect your behaviour has on the church? You should! “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17).
We Share One Belief
Many interpreters have noted that the words of vv. 4–6 sound very creed-like. It is very likely that these words were an early creed or confession of faith known to Christian churches. This creed highlights basic truths and shows that we belong to the same Lord by virtue of the same means (faith) manifested by the same sign (baptism).
Normal Christians believe the gospel; nominal Christians do not. Normal Christians know that they are sinners and they believe in the Saviour. And they testify openly to this. Those who share this belief share the responsibility to behave accordingly. Our disposition is closely related to our doctrine, and if we share the same belief, we ought to manifest the same behaviour. All Christians should live the normal Christian life! None of us should be marching to the beat of another drum.
We Share in One Brotherhood
Christians worship “one God and Father of all.” This God is the Father of “all” who share in the same belief in the same body. We are brothers and sisters of the same Father. And our Father has the same standard for all His children. His standard is the normal Christian life, as revealed in and defined by His Word. He doesn’t have different rules for different children, for that would produce diversity, not unity.
Wherever God’s people are found—Johannesburg or Cape Town; South Africa or Australia—God’s standard is the same. “We are one people under one sovereign (‘over all’), omnipotent (‘through all’), and omnipresent (‘in all’) God.”9 We must therefore thank God for the unity that He has given and strive to guard what He has given to us.
We are blessed. So let’s live like it by doing the ordinary things God requires of us. May God deliver us from abnormal living as we commit to live the extraordinarily normal Christian life.
- A similar book, describing the normal Christian life as one high to another, is How to Live the Victorious Life, ironically by an anonymous author. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 116. ↩
- A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:55. ↩
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 115. ↩
- The KJV translates “dishonest scales” as “a false balance.” ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 149. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 117. ↩
- Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 11:55. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 131. ↩