Discipleship-green

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Ephesians 5:1-2, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

The sins that Paul combats in this passage are formidable: lust and greed. Paul writes with some stridency about these because he wants to protect the Christian community, the building that is rising to the glory of God, from these corrupting influences that can rot the church from the inside. Paul knows how quickly God’s people can dismiss these sins. So he speaks of the holiness God desires in terms of a sense that will evoke vivid memories and compelling feelings for those raised in a world where religious sacrifices were common. Paul uses recollections of the permeating smell of those sacrifices to bring into the present consciousness of the Ephesians the entire ministry of Jesus as motivation for Christian purity.

God commands purity. That is nothing new. It is not even new in this epistle. Paul has dealt with the theme twice already in the preceding verses, cautioning us to honor God in what we say and think and do. But knowing the command does not always lead to honoring it. So Paul now comes after our heart through our nose.

Savor Your Identity (Ephesians 5:1–2)

Live as the Children of God (Ephesians 5:1)

The apostle tells the Ephesians to “be imitators of God.” The words flow from the preceding verses in which the Ephesians are reminded to forgive just as in Christ, God forgave them (Eph. 4:32). As God has treated you, so reflect Him in your relations with others, says the apostle. But simply reminding the Ephesians of what God has done is not the only motivation the apostle uses. He also reminds the Ephesians of the status that they have as a consequence of God’s forgiveness. Imitate God “as dearly loved children,” Paul says. This is the culminating reality of all that has preceded: “In Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.… For through him we both [Jew and Gentile] have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph. 2:13, 18). Now the apostle urges these people of God to live in accord with the status that they—and we—have as God’s children.

Paul’s emphasis on our identity in Christ as the motive for our obedience is as clearly stated in these verses as anywhere in Scripture. The indicative—who we are—is clearly stated here by Paul; that is, by Christ’s reconciliation we of all nations and backgrounds are reckoned as God’s dearly loved children. God’s imperatives and our obedience, rest on that loving relationship; they do not form the relationship. We obey because we are loved; we are not loved because we obey. The love of our Father precedes and stimulates the obedience of His children. We are to forgive and live and love as dearly loved children imitating the One who already is our Father, not performing to bribe God to become our Father.

The significance of obedience based on the Father’s love becomes more apparent when we consider where the apostle will soon head with his imperatives. He will soon address the sins of lust and greed. How would you turn others from such sin? Should you warn? Yes. Should you command to avoidance? Yes. Should you condemn participation? Yes. But what first? First, remind those who love God and are grieving for their failure that they are his dearly loved children. Say to a struggler, “You are a wonderful child, a precious child of God, dearly loved. You are precious to him. Live as one dearly loved. Be what you are in Christ.”

Seeing this pattern of Scripture helped me to think in gospel patterns. When ones dear to me have failed to live as God desires, I recognize it is easy to motivate them toward new obedience with shame and fear. But I have learned that for most, shame is a cycle and fear wanes. Weakened by their sense of failure and worthlessness, those who are primarily motivated by shame become only more vulnerable to sin. When time dissipates the sharpness of their guilty feelings, the allure of the sin becomes stronger for those who have been weakened by shame. Fear motivation (by this I mean pressuring people with threats that God will exact his pound of flesh when he has been crossed) ultimately makes us bitter toward God rather than loving of him and his will.

What is more productive and power-instilling than shame or fear is the approach of the apostle. He reminds God’s people that they are “dearly loved children.” In the knowledge of that love provided by Christ’s blood rather than their performance, power for obedience springs. Such power will be needed because of the nature of the command that immediately follows.

Live as the Child of God (Ephesians 5:2)

In savoring their new identity, the Ephesians are reminded that they are to live not only as children of God, but also to live as the Child of God. Held before us and the Ephesians is the example of Jesus Christ. We are told to “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Imitating God means imitating his Son, and that means doing whatever is required to make our lives a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The smell of Jesus, the fragrance of the Savior that we are to have waft from our lives, also includes offering and sacrifice.

The image that the apostle is bringing to mind is that of the Old Testament sacrifices where the people brought an offering to God and sacrificed it upon the altar so that its fiery consumption would cause the odor of a sweet sacrifice to God. There is much in the image that is pleasant. But it also reminds us that the fragrance from an altar does not come without some giving of self (an offering) and some dying of another (a sacrifice). There is no life of love without a degree of giving and dying.

As intimidating as that sounds, it may also be a source of comfort to us. In a world where we are tempted to advertise the earthly benefits of the faith, the Scriptures remind us of the theology of the cross. All who would be like Jesus must offer and sacrifice themselves. Luther taught that if we are truly to imitate Christ, then we must also in some measure suffer for the sins of others. The Reformer did not mean that we can atone for others’ sin, but we do suffer for their sake as we endure suffering so that they might know him.

In a world full of people caught up in sinful practices and attitudes, living like Jesus for the sake of others will involve both the giving of ourselves and the dying of self. Why is this a comfort? Because it allows me to confess that there is nothing unusual or odd in me when the purity and integrity to which God calls me also hurt me. Christian young men and women are too often ill-prepared for battle and weakened in spirit by the sense that they should not have to struggle much with the temptations of physical lust and personal gain. Such persons are tempted to think that if they were really holy, mature, and Christian, then it would not be difficult or painful to please God. But what is fragrant to God involves a giving and a dying of self—there is going to be some pain. If there were no pain involved, there would be no sacrifice. The fact that your obedience involves pain and struggle does not necessarily mean that God is displeased with you or that you are less spiritual than others. In fact, without the pain of giving and sacrifice there could be no fragrant offering to God. What enables us to bear and offer this pain is savoring our identity as children of God, and remembering that we are called to live as Jesus did who offered and sacrificed Himself for us.