Paul’s story is well documented. He was a killer of Christians and an adamant opponent of their faith (Acts 8:1-3). Later, as a man saved by God’s grace, he constantly urged believers to turn away from their old lives and to press into their new natures in Christ, just as he did. He didn’t harp on rules and regulations, but rather exhorted them to look to Christ for their reason for living. And as a hate-monger transformed into a humble servant, Paul knew the benefit of receiving and offering Christ’s compassion.
Few passages in the New Testament describe the character of Christ as a weapon against Satan’s work as clearly as Ephesians 4:25-32. In this passage, Paul makes a very clear assertion to believers: Christians are freed through the sacrifice of Christ, by the power of the Spirit, to reflect him and deflect Satan.
Speak Truth (v. 25)
Paul states, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” In short, he is telling his audience to be honest with one another. He does not issue this warning against lying in order to be seen as righteous to outsiders or to prevent themselves from consequences later on; rather, Paul says that Christians should speak the truth because they are one body.
The word for “members” in the Greek, mele, literally means “a bodily organ or limb,” giving the metaphor that Christians are plainly, not just figuratively, connected as flesh and bone members of a body. It is indispensable for believers to understand that, in a sense, they should treat each other how they themselves want to be treated. If a believer lies to a brother, he is simply sinning against every other Christian and, essentially, himself. Paul carries this thought from verse 24 in which he tells believers to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Although Christians will always struggle with Satan’s temptation to speak falsely until the moment of death, they become new creations in Christ with the ability to walk in a manner that reflects the likeness of God himself.
Control Anger (vv. 26-27)
The passage continues, expanding on the statements made in previous verses, saying, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” These two verses combine to explain that such characteristics belong to the devil and not to God. Anger in and of itself is not a sin when exercised appropriately. Even Christ, who did not sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15), was angry (without sinning) as he rebuked the “money-changers” in the temple (Matt. 21:12-13). When Christians act in such a way that they are representing Satan’s lies and not Christ’s model, they are in danger of, or already participating in, sin. Francis Foulkes clarifies, “The Christian must be sure that his anger is that of righteous indignation, and not just an expression of personal provocation or wounded pride. It must have no sinful motives, nor be allowed to lead to sin in any way.”
Christians are a new creation with a new attitude and a new power to overcome the traps of Satan. Given the opportunity to hold a grudge, the Christian must turn away from their anger and forgive immediately. If “the sun goes down” on a person’s anger, it will continually eat them alive, just as Satan has planned. Satan is a powerful trickster, looking for and providing any avenue for a person to give into temptation and give him a place to work. The gospel affords the opportunity to escape such traps.
Be Generous (v. 28)
For the Christian, there is a new outlook on the idea of giving and receiving: “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.” Once given this new life in Christ, a person is called to view their possessions differently. Once a thief himself, the new believer must now work honestly for their income and turn it into a gift.
One only needs to look at the life and ministry of Jesus to see that servanthood is the paramount trait of a holy person. Christ was and is God who stepped into human history and lived a perfect, sinless life. As an eternal king, he had no true reason to be humble or to serve anyone, but he did. He gave all of himself in order that Christians might have a life more than they ever imagined (Jn. 10:10-11). Though Satan makes selfishness appealing, the humble character of Christ cannot be overlooked by anyone seeking to model themselves after him. Dishonest gain may often be the easy route to travel, but believers are commissioned to take the road less traveled.
Show Grace (v. 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.” Here, believers are told not to speak in such a way that someone will be hurt or pushed away by their words. Satan will use biting words to attempt to destroy not only the body of Christ, but relationships they have with outsiders.
Society often judges Christians based upon their actions. The world is not merely looking for a show, but an authentic lifestyle that promotes goodness. While it is rather easy for the Christian to settle into moralistic behavior modification in order to attempt at pleasing Christ and appearing righteous to those around him, the new man cannot stop there; he must act in sincere concern for those looking to him for answers on Christ.
Any person can modify behavior, but a true disciple of Christ lives with a transformed heart that sees other human beings as lost souls in need of Christ’s redemption. Satan will try to distract believers from the Great Commission, but this must be fought against. There is no escaping the call to love others as Christ does.
Do Not Grieve the Spirit (v. 30)
Paul advises Christians: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” This is a simple caution with huge implications. When sinning, one must remember that their sin is not only damaging to others; it’s an affront to God.
The Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit may sometimes be under appreciated and overlooked by many Christians, but the he is the actual person of God dwelling within the Christian. As the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer, he is rightly and justly saddened and angered by the direct disregard for his holy standard. When the Christian sins, it is not to be forgotten that the holy and righteous God of the universe takes full notice. God is not a distant being, floating in the outskirts of creation; God is an active and living being dwelling in and standing beside each person every day of their existence with full knowledge of their transgressions against him. John Calvin once exhorted Christians to “endeavor that the Holy Spirit may dwell cheerfully within you, as in a pleasant and joyful dwelling, and give him no occasion for grief.”
Christians should give thanks for the seal of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14) given to them by God through Christ on the Roman cross. It is in him and him alone that the old man dies and the new man is raised to new life. This new life holds the promise of eternal liberation, while Satan only offers bondage and destruction.
Attitude Matters (v. 31)
Paul collects all wrong attitudes together in one verse, telling his audience to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Though surely a problem in the church that Paul is writing to, any and all Christians can attest to struggling with these very things. As a Christian, this desire does not simply disappear on the day of new life. There is still constant battle within the soul of a Christian to do what is right and holy when Satan’s temptation seems to be the correct—or at least easier— way to handle the negative situation.
The simple response for the Christian is to ignore a person who wrongs them by “turning the other cheek.” This is true and virtuous. However, with the power of the Holy Spirit within the believer, there is far more power over sin than merely walking away or pretending that an offense didn’t occur. A new creation in Christ has every resource imaginable to actively pursue radical forgiveness and grace. The act of loving an enemy is far and above the call of mere forgiveness. After all, even a non-believer with no supernatural power at all can turn away from a person who insults, attacks, or demeans them. God promises something better; he promises “a way of escape” for believers (1 Cor. 10:13).
Be Kind and Forgiving (v. 32)
Paul concludes the passage with this statement: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Believers are called to such a lifestyle because they are new creations with a new heart, first forgiven by God so that they may show grace to the world. The selfish Christian is a contradiction; no one set free from sin can simultaneously be a captive to it. Paul is entirely clear in verse 24 that there is no such thing as a Christian that lives as he once did.
A major facet of the gospel is that having the inclination to continue sinning does not grant a person the excuse to maintain the same pattern of living. In describing a new creation in Christ, Paul uses the adjectives “kind,” “tenderhearted,” and “forgiving.” These are not natural dispositions of the natural human being; these are supernatural reactions to the broken mess of creation.
Saved For a Purpose
Paul says in Romans 5:14 that Christianity is foundationally void and useless if Christ did not resurrect from the dead after his crucifixion. For the Christian, this has massive connotations. If Christ did not rise, he did not conquer death and in turn conquered death on behalf of anyone else. If Christ was not raised, his forgiveness would mean absolutely nothing. Believers cannot understate the grace that must be shown to others in response to the magnificent and unbelievable power exemplified in Jesus Christ. The final words of a risen Savior are not comforting promises of eternity, but an insistence on being light in the midst of darkness (Matt. 28:18-20).
God’s will is not aimed entirely at the Christian going to Heaven, but rather for his people to represent him well and live according to his immutable standard in the here and now. The gospel frees us from our own interests. Christians have an obligation to love God and love others well precisely because of the cross.
The character of Christ, this gospel-infused sword we wield, is at the forefront of the Christian witness to a lost world. And Satan cannot deflect its blows. As Jesus proclaims, not even the Gates of Hell can stop his Church (Matt. 16:18).
Brandon D. Smith serves in leadership and as an adjunct instructor in theology and church history at Criswell College, where he is also associate editor of the Criswell Theological Review. He recently edited the book Make, Mature, Multiply and is a contributor to Designed for Joy (forthcoming from Crossway, 2015). Follow him on Twitter.