Grasping the Gospel (Ephesians 5:15-21)


One of the greatest mysteries to me has been how to change so that I become a holy person. Here’s how it looks in my life. There are certain temptations that I face on a regular basis. My track record of success with these temptations is dismally low. I’ve tried everything. When I fail, again, I usually feel guilty and resolve to try even harder next time so that it doesn’t happen again. The next time the temptation comes, I find myself falling again. Except this time I feel even worse because my resolution to try harder didn’t work.

Can anybody relate? I want to change, but my efforts to change myself don’t work. And the harder I try to change myself, the more discouraged I become, and the guiltier I feel before God.

I’ve discovered, actually, that a lot of us get the first half of the gospel more than we do the second half. One of my favorite hymns puts it this way: “Be of sin the double cure. Save me from its guilt and power.” I get that Jesus has saved me from the guilt of sin. If you have repented of (turned away from) your sins and trusted in what Christ has done for you at the cross, then you’ve been forgiven. He has taken all of your sins and given you all of his righteousness. I’m not saying this is easy to understand. There are riches here, and we’ll never get to the bottom of comprehending this great exchange. But it’s relatively easy to understand this half. As another hymn says, our sins, not in part but the whole, are nailed to the cross, and we bear them no more.

But I’ll tell you what really trips me up sometimes: the part that Jesus’ death and resurrection has not only saved me from the guilt of sin, but the power of sin. The Bible tells us that we have been set free from sin, and that sin no longer has dominion or power over us. I believe this, but is there anyone else who doesn’t always feel that way? When I’m tempted, it sometimes feels like sin has a ton of power over me. I feel powerless to resist, and it leads to this cycle of failure. I’m tempted; I fail; I feel guilty and resolve to do better; I’m tempted again and I fail again, and feel even worse than before.

So when Paul says in the second half of Ephesians, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1), I’m curious to hear what he’s got to say. How is it possible for our lives to match our callings? Paul has given us the gospel in all its richness, and he’s just told us to bring our lives into line with that gospel, so that there is no discrepancy between them. Our lives and the gospel match each other. How is that possible? I’m all over this, because sometimes it feels like I’ve tried everything, and no matter what I do, my life never matches the beauty of the gospel. The gospel is up here, and my life is down here. Sometimes it feels like my life can never be lived in a way that is worthy of the calling you have received.

In today’s passage, Paul tells us how our lives can change. To the extent that we do what Paul says we should do in this passage, we will see our lives transformed. We’ll see that our lives actually begin to resemble our calling. How can we change so that we are set free from the power of sin, and so that our lives actually match the gospel?

Paul actually gives three commands in this passage. They’re hard to spot at first, because there are a lot of supporting clauses. We’ll get to those too. Paul essentially gives us three sets of commands expressed as both positives and negatives. There are three things we need to do if we are going to stop the cycle of failure and live worthy of the calling we’ve received. Here’s the first:

1. Pay close attention to living wisely

Verses 15 and 16 say, “Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

The main command is “Be very careful, then how you live.” The command is that you take care to live as a wise rather than unwise person. Be accurate, precise, and pay close attention to the way you live. Be deliberate. This should get rid of the notion that all we have to do is “let go and let God.” We don’t change by being passive. There’s effort and intentionality involved. We have to pay attention.

And what are we supposed to pay attention to? Paul says we’re to pay careful attention to how we live. He says that we are to pay attention to choosing wisdom rather than foolishness in our lives. And I love how he practical he gets: he applies this to our time, saying that we’ve got to buy up the opportunities that we encounter, rather than squandering the opportunities that God gives us.

A few years ago we went tubing in the Elora Gorge. I don’t know if you’ve ever been tubing before. It sounds like a lot of fun, and it is, but I basically remember only two things from our tubing adventure: rocks, and relief when the tube ride was over. We got in these tubes, and from that point on we were at the mercy of the current. The current kept on taking us to where all kinds of rocks were. Sometimes I’d see them coming, and I would desperately try to change direction, and sometimes I would miss them. But I hit enough rocks that I started to get afraid, and those were only the rocks I could see. Then there were all the rocks underwater. I was afraid of hitting a rock and knocking myself out, and then being dragged down the river unconscious. It was not a fun experience!

To make it worse, my daughter, who was quite a bit younger then, was also on a tube. I think she did better than I did, but the whole time I was thinking, “If I’m having problems, how in the world is she doing?”

I was surprised to get to the end and discover that some people loved the experience and wanted to go again. I swore I would never repeat the experience in my life!

But as I think about it, there are some parallels between my tubing experience and what Paul says. The days, like the river, are evil. There are rocks that are above the surface, and there are rocks underneath the surface that can hurt or kill you. And there are two ways to live, just like there are two ways to go down the river. One is to be swept by the currents with little control over where you’re going. If you do this, you’re going to hit every rock going, and you’re going to endanger your life. The other is to live wisely, deliberately choosing your course so that you don’t hit all the rocks. Paul says to pay close attention so that you are deliberate in the course you take, so that you aren’t just swept along wherever the current takes you.

Can I ask how deliberate you are in your life? I find that so many of us live on automatic pilot. We are not deliberate in what goes into our minds. We absorb culture’s values because we read and watch all that our culture produces without much thought. We go with the flow and end up hitting all kinds of rocks that we could have missed if we had seen them coming, or if we hadn’t just drifted with the current.

Paul is telling us that it’s going to take careful, deliberate action on our part. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just drifted into temptation because I’m going with the flow. Paul says that we are going to have to be deliberate in choosing not to do certain things, because if we do them we will be setting ourselves up for trouble. We’ll have to avoid some situations.

The best example I can think of is John Piper, a preacher from Minnesota. He doesn’t watch TV, not because he thinks watching TV is wrong in itself, but because he doesn’t want to go with the flow. He wants to be deliberate about what influences him. He says:

It astonishes me how many Christians watch the same banal, empty, silly, trivial, titillating, suggestive, immodest TV shows that most unbelievers watch–and then wonder why their spiritual lives are weak and their worship experience is shallow with no intensity.

Is this fanatical? Maybe if we make a rule that nobody can ever watch TV. That’s fanatical. But it’s not at all fanatical to suggest that we pay close attention to how we live and what influences us. That’s not fanatical; that’s biblical. We need to take care in how we live in practical matters like how we spend our time, what media we consume. As Paul said to Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). Pay close attention to living wisely.

So that’s the first command. The second one needs a bit of explanation:

2. Grasp the gospel and what it requires

You’re going to ask where in the world I got that from. Verse 17 says, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” Paul says that we are to avoid being foolish. The alternative is to understand what the Lord’s will is.

The problem as we read this passage is that when we speak of God’s will, we normally think it means trying to figure out what God wants us to do when we’re making a decision. We think it’s about personal guidance about God’s immediate plans for our future: which person should I marry, which job I should take, which car I should buy, and so on. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here when he talks about God’s will.

What does Paul mean when he talks about God’s will? In Ephesians 1:9-10 he said, “He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment–to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” What is God’s will? To bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Paul also says it was God’s will to adopt us (1:5). So when Paul says that we need to understand what the Lord’s will is, he is saying that we need to understand the basic storyline of the gospel: that God is fixing what’s broken in this world, reconciling sinners to himself, and creating a new humanity out of people who previously had nothing in common. In other words, we need to understand the gospel, and where we fit in with what God is doing.

In this sense, God’s will is still the same today. God is still at adopting people. He still purposes to bring unity to all things in heaven and earth under Christ. He is still forming a new community of people. Understanding the gospel is crucial, because it leads to understanding what’s required of us and where we fit in.

This is the theme of the entire book of Ephesians. Ephesians is steeped in what Jesus accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection, and what it means for the world. Paul teaches that it’s the centerpiece of history, and that it has implications for all life. Paul commands us to understand it and to reorder our entire lives around what God has done through Christ.

Understanding, by the way, is about much more than knowing. You can know something without really getting it. New Testament scholar D.A. Carson talks about when he was a boy. He was sick and in the hospital. One day he woke up and his mother was crying beside him in the hospital room. He said, “You really do love me!” Of course, she burst into tears and ran from the room. Carson always understood that his mother loved him. He had no doubt. But when he woke up and saw his mother crying, he grasped it. He really got it. Paul is telling us here to not just understand what the gospel and what it requires from us. He’s telling us to get it, to really grasp it in the depths of our being.

Notice that the positive command is to understand this, and the negative command is to not be foolish. So the choice is basically this: either you know what God’s up to and where you fit in, or you’re a fool.

Say you’re watching a movie, and you can’t understand the plot at all. The movie is not making any sense. This has happened to me. Now imagine that it’s not because the plot is ridiculous, but the problem is with you. If the plot is sound, then either you’re a fool, or you understand the director’s will.

But the stakes are even higher for us, because we are not just watching God’s cosmic drama; we are participants. So Paul says we must really grasp the plot of the drama, so we can play our part well. We must learn the shape of the drama so that we can perform our parts in line with that plot. That’s why it’s so important for us to really grasp the gospel. That’s why Martin Luther said, “The truth of the gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” If we’re going to change, we need to grasp the gospel.

So how do we change? We change by being careful in how we live, and by grasping the gospel and what it requires.

There’s one more command:

3. Continually rely on the Spirit

It’s easy to miss the last command in verses 18-21. It’s all one long sentence as Paul originally wrote it. If you look carefully, though, here’s the command: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with [by] the Spirit.” The rest of this sentence – about singing, giving thanks, and submitting – are the results, what happens if we obey the command. Notice, by the way, that they can’t be faked. You can fake a lot of things, but you can’t fake being someone who sings, gives thanks for all things, and who submits to others. It’s too hard. But Paul says we will become people who do these things if we obey the command he gives us.

Here’s the command: to avoid getting drunk, which was common in that society. Instead, rely on the Spirit. Allow the Spirit to fill you so that you are controlled by him. Continually rely on the Spirit and his power. We will change, we will sing, we will even submit to others as the Holy Spirit changes us. There’s no way we can do it alone.

I love the balance here. Some people say that we don’t do anything to change. Just let go and let God. We’re completely passive. Paul says this isn’t true at all. We need to be very deliberate and careful in how we live, and we have to work hard at grasping the gospel and what it demands from us. But it’s not just our work, because we can’t do it alone. We must also rely continually on the Spirit. Salvation is God’s work alone. He saves us, and we contribute nothing. But we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

Notice, by the way, four things about the command to be filled by the Spirit:

  • It’s a command. We can choose to not be filled by the Spirit and instead rely on our own strength. It’s like the guy who threw a chainsaw down because it just wouldn’t work for him because he didn’t realize he had to turn it on. We can choose to live without power, but it will be frustrating. Paul commands us instead to rely on the Spirit’s power.
  • It’s plural. Paul is not commanding selected individuals to be filled by the Spirit. It’s not an elite level for really spiritual people. Paul commands all of us to rely on the Spirit’s power. It’s a command for all of us.
  • It’s passive. In a sense, Paul’s saying, “Let the Holy Spirit fill you.”
  • It’s continual. It’s a present imperative, which means “go on being filled.” It’s not a one-time thing. It’s supposed to be an ongoing experience.

So change, Paul tells us. And don’t just change by resolving to do better in your own strength, because then you’ll be caught in an endless cycle of frustration and failure. Instead;

  • Pay attention. Don’t just go with the flow.
  • Understand the gospel and how you fit into what God is doing. Really grasp it.
  • And rely on the Spirit’s power. Don’t try to live on your own.

And we will become people who are changed.

So Father, we pray for those who have been caught in a cycle of failure and frustration. We confess to you that we often get frustrated with ourselves because we haven’t changed. I pray that you would give us hope today that through the gospel, through what Christ has done, we can be changed.

May every person here pay close attention to the gospel. May every person here really grasp to the depths of their being what you’re up to. May they grasp the riches of the gospel, and how their lives fit into what you are doing. And may they then rely on the Spirit’s power, and experience change. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada