Our problem with sanctification
If you are a Christian—that is, someone who puts your trust in Christ—you are now united to Christ. The Holy Spirit in you is changing you day by day, moment by moment, as you live out the new life you now have in Christ. This process that we are in right now, and that will continue until the day we die, is called sanctification. It is a journey—a long journey, in fact. How we wish we are changed instantaneously. But we are not. Along the way in this journey, there are several problems that we usually encounter as we go through this sanctification process.
The first is our attitude about sins. We know that every single sin is offensive to God—a disrespect for his word, an assault against his authority, and a mockery of his goodness. Yet we only usually take seriously those sins that are more grievous or more scandalous than others—like “sexual immorality” which Paul will talk about in Ephesians 5. But some sins we consider “acceptable” or more respectable compared to others sins—like lying through gossips, stealing through software piracy, laziness, gluttony, having a bitter and an unforgiving heart. Paul will talk about some of these sins in our text today in Ephesians 4:25-32. And we must take every single one of these sins seriously.
The second problem is our short-sighted goals in dealing with sin. Yes we fight sins. We put sin to death (Rom. 8:13). This aspect of sanctification is called “mortification.” The image Paul used here in Ephesians is that of changing clothes. The “old self”—the sinful self—is dirty and worn-out, so it must be “put off” (Eph. 4:22). But to put to death or to put off sins is not the end goal of sanctification. “We can’t just aim to get rid of all desires—rather, our filthy desires must be replaced with clean desires” (Richard Coekin). Paul told Christians not just to not lie, but “to speak the truth” (v. 25). Not just to not steal, but to work hard (v. 28). Not just to not be angry, but also to be kind. This is what he referred to as “putting on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 24). This aspect of sanctification is called “vivification”—a making alive of the character or virtues of Christ in us. So, it’s not enough that you quit porn, but you must begin to learn how to love your wife faithfully and look at other women with purity. It’s not enough that you not steal, but learn how to work hard in order to be generous in helping meet the needs of other people. That is sanctification.
Another problem is that we oftentimes have wrong or insufficient motivations in fighting sin and pursuing Christlikeness. Do we fight sins just because we don’t like the feeling of being guilty or dirty? Are we motivated to avoid certain sins because of fear of getting caught, and if that happened we can’t bear the shame of exposure and the negative consequences that sin will have on you, your family and your church? These motivations may keep us from sinning in the short term probably. But they cannot strengthen our resolve to say no when temptations become so strong. We need stronger motivations for real and lasting transformation to take place in our lives.
We should care about our own sanctification
All of us—from the newest convert to the most mature among us—have to deal with these problems every single day. If we’re just going to talk about “big” sins, some of you might feel that that doesn’t apply to you. Maybe, maybe not. But when we talk about all the sins listed in our passage today, they definitely apply to every single one of us. Listen to Paul, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you…” This applies to every one in the Ephesian church as well as to your church. Transformation is for all Christians. “We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15). All Christians need Christlike maturity, and none of us have arrived yet, none of us is perfectly like Christ in every way.
So we need not just information on what to do and what not to do. From childhood until now, we don’t lack information about those things. Of course, we also need that. The Word of God contains a lot of instructions for us on what sin to avoid and what commands to follow. But we often sin and disobey not because of ignorance, but because of motivations. Our will needs to be empowered with biblical, God-centered motivations for doing the will of God. That is why our passage starts with “therefore” (v. 25).
We should not isolate the following exhortations or imperatives from the context of the whole letter. The imperatives (telling us what to do) of chapters 4 to 6 are anchored in the indicatives (telling us of who God is, what he has done for us in Christ, and who we are now in Christ) of chapters 1-3. Why should we get envious (and say “sana all”) of what others have that we don’t have if God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3)? Why should we steal if we already have “the riches of his grace” (1:7)? Why should we get angry at other people and not forgive them if we already have “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:7)? We lie, we become greedy, we covet, we commit adultery because we easily forget the riches of the grace we have in Jesus.
Another motivation that undergirds not just the exhortation in v. 25 but actually all imperatives in this passage is this: “Therefore, having put away falsehood…” “Put away” here is from the same word as “put off” in v. 22. But this is not in the form of imperative. Paul is not telling them, “Do not speak what is false,” although that can be implied because he tells them immediately after this, “speak the truth.” But what he’s stating here is an accomplished fact. “Falsehood” has already been removed from you. You are no longer under the deceitfulness of sin. You now belong to Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. They have to leave their “former manner of life” which is “corrupt through deceitful desires” (v. 22) because of this: “That is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (vv. 20-21). As disciples of Jesus, we must learn how to follow him. We fail to follow him because we forget or fail to believe the truth of the gospel of Jesus.
We must be motivated to pursue holiness in light of the new identity we have because of the gospel. The imperatives here are a call for us to be true to ourselves. He’s talking to Christians here. If you are not a Christian, the world will tell you to be true to yourself. And that is not a good thing. Because you are outside of Christ, your heart is deceitful. If you follow your own desires, that will lead you to destroy your life. So, you need to repent, ask God for forgiveness, and believe the good news that Jesus alone—his perfect life, his substitutionary death on the cross, and his resurrection—can save you.
If you are a Christian, to be true to yourself is to forsake the old sinful self and live out the new life you already have in union with Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will be so pleased to work in your heart today as we walk thru the exhortations of Paul in this passage and reflect on the motivations that will empower our will “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (4:1). May the word of God help you forsake remaining sins and pursue Christlikeness with biblical motivations. As we walk thru these verses, we will observe a general pattern. First he will tell us what to put off, and then what to put on to replace that, and then the biblical motivation that is the basis of that exhortation.
#1: No more lying (v. 25)
What should we put off? Lying. “Therefore, having put away falsehood…” (v. 25). Like what I said earlier, he did not really say, “Do not lie.” It is implied. It is already in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not bear false witness.” He also said this in Colossians, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9-10). So, he is concerned not just for us not to speak lies, but for us to live in a way that is consistent with the gospel and our new identity in Christ. And we are not living according to that identity if we gossip, if we are dishonest with our spouse, if we fail to confess our sins to one another, if we speak in a way that serves only our own interest but damages the reputation of other people, if we plagiarize or take credit for the work of other people.
So we put lying away, and then replace that with what? With truthfulness in our speech and our actions. “…let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (v. 25). We speak “the truth in love” (v. 15). We do that when we hold each other accountable in the church. When people ask us, “How are you doing?”, we don’t just say, “I’m okay. I’m good.” But because of the gospel shaping the culture in our church, there is freedom to say, “I’m not really okay. I’m not doing good. I’m struggling with porn (or pride, or envy, or greed).” And it is not just about what we say, but also with how we conduct ourselves in a way that is consistent with what we profess to believe.
What is the motivation or reason for putting off lying and putting on truthful speech and living? “…for (this reason!) we are members one of another” (v. 25). This motivation is not merely personal (for your own good, of course! but not only that) but ecclesiological. It is founded on the reality that as Christians we do not just belong to Christ, we belong to one another. We are members of one body. Lying is detrimental to the health of the body, and you are part of that body. Your way of speaking and living in truthfulness is a “work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (v. 12).
#2: No more sinful anger (v. 26-27)
What should we put off next? Sinful anger. Verse 26, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” He is citing Psalm 4:4 here, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” Paul is not commanding us to be angry. He is just saying that there is a kind of anger that is not sinful. Like Jesus’ reaction to those who are selling in the temple courtyard (John 2:13-17). This anger is motivated by zeal for the worship of God (v. 17). This anger was also evident in his denouncing of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. So it is just right to be angry at sin, at injustices, at abuses, at disrespect for God. It is sinful not to.
But most often our anger are sinful and motivated not by zeal for the glory of God, but for our own interests and reputation. Yes, of course, there are times that we will get angry at our spouse or children or fellow church member, but Paul tells us, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” It does not mean that we stay in our anger before 6PM and not later than that. It is just a reminder for us that our tendency to do evil is so strong when we are angry. We are more prone to say unhelpful and hurtful words when we’re angry. We are not in control of our emotions and our hands when we are angry. So “we shall quickly suppress our anger, and not suffer it to gather strength by continuance…Before the poison of hatred has found its way into the heart, anger must be thoroughly dislodged” (John Calvin).
So, we put off anger as quickly as possible before it gets worse. What must we then put on to replace that? We are not told here, but later on Paul will answer that question in vv. 31-32. There is another imperative here, which I believe serves as a motivation for us to deal with our anger as soon as possible. Verse 27, “and give no opportunity to the devil.” An angry heart is a breeding ground for the devil’s murderous devices. He intends to disrupt relationships at home and in our church. If we will give in to anger, we will be ruled by anger. Like Cain who was very angry at his brother. The Lord has warned him, “sin is crouching at the door” (Gen. 4:7). Peter also warned us in 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” This is a very practical motivation. If we don’t want to be devoured by the devil, if we don’t want our family and our church to fall into the schemes of the enemy, don’t prolong your anger.
#3: No more stealing (v. 28)
Thirdly, what should we put off? Verse 28, “Let the thief no longer steal.” It’s probable that stealing is the former lifestyle of some the members in this church. Paul was reminding them to no longer live according to their former manner of life. We may not see ourselves as former thieves but we still violate the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” in a number of ways—when we don’t give our offerings, when employers don’t give enough wages for their employees, when we use pirated or unlicensed ebooks, softwares or movies. We steal every time we take for ourselves anything that does not rightfully or legally belong to us but to another.
It is not enough that we not steal. What we should put on then? “…but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands…” This applies to those who can work. If you can work, work with all your might. Don’t think of work as a punishment for sin. That when Monday is coming, you feel like it is just something that you need to do even when you don’t want to do it. Work is God’s good design for us. Whether you are a student, an employee, a businessman, or a pastor, work hard, work honestly, work unselfishly.
Why? What should motivate us? Others are motivated to work, to the point of being a workaholic, making idol out of their work, so that they can have the things they want. They are merely working for themselves. But we followers of Christ work for a different motivation, “so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Our work is valuable, not just in providing for our own needs and that of our family, but also in giving us an opportunity to reflect Christ as we serve and contribute to meet the needs of others, temporal need and especially their eternal need. Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
#4: No more corrupting talk (v. 29)
What should we put off next? It is not enough that we are speaking no lies. Verse 29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…” We may not be speaking lies, but some words coming out from our mouths are “corrupting,” meaning, “rotten” or “worthless.” We may be speaking the truth about someone to someone who does not need to hear it. We are gossiping. Or telling green jokes, or talking about stuffs that is not helpful to others.
Instead, what should we put on then? “…but only such is good for building up, as fits the occasion.” We have to learn not just what to say and how to say it, but also when to say it. Remember that our words are instruments of ministry in the church. “For building up,” not for destroying. So think before you say something, or post on Facebook, or make a comment on a post, or reply to a comment on your post, “Will these words build up my brother in Christ? Is this fitting?”
Ask yourself what motivates you in your responses. Is it to be proven right? Or to make yourself look good even if others may be hurt in the process? What should our motivation be according to Paul, “that it may give grace to those who hear.” We received grace, so we give grace. We treat others not according to what they deserve, but according to what will help them grow in their walk with Christ.
#5: No more grieving the Holy Spirit (v. 30)
The fifth exhortation in this passage is not really a reference to any particular sin but probably a way for us to see how serious sinning against fellow members of the church is. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, “they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit” (Isa. 63:10), we can also grieve the Spirit. The fact that we can grieve the Spirit proves that the Spirit is not merely a thing or a force or an influence, but a person. The third person in the Trinity is also God himself. We grieve the Spirit when we sin against the body of Christ, when we disrupt “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). When we lie or live hypocritical lives, we grieve the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). When we speak or behave in such a way that brings division to the body of Christ, we grieve the Spirit.
Instead of grieving the Spirit, we are to be “filled with the Spirit” (5:18). And this also relates to how we relate to one another in the church (“addressing one another…submitting to one another…,” vv. 20-21).
And what motivation does Paul give in us not grieving the Spirit? Verse 30, “…by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” This refers back to Ephesians 1:13-14, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” We are owned and possessed by the Spirit. We belong to him, he dwells within us. How could we grieve him and displease him and act in ways contrary to his will? The motivation here is forward looking, eschatological, “for the day of redemption,” our future redemption. If we keep in our mind these glorious realities of our salvation in Christ, all the petty relational issues we have today will pale in comparison.
#6: No more evil desires (vv. 31-32)
So, lastly, he lumps together several sinful desires that we should put off—and these have all to do with how we relate with others especially in the body of Christ. Verse 31, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” All these sinful desires have to do with having ill feelings toward other people. When you resent other people for the sins they have done to you, when you think negatively about them, speak negatively about them, act in ways that seeks revenge for their wrongdoing. We do not just sin against them, we sin against God himself. Notice the word “all”—reminding us that as long as we harbor in our hearts negative attitudes towards others, our fight against sin is not over. We must not be at peace with any remaining sinful desires in our hearts. We are called to put to death every remaining sin in our hearts.
Until they are replaced with what? With kindness, compassion and forgiveness. Verse 32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” If we are Christians, we act like little christs to others. Christ was ill-treated by many during his time on earth. He was rejected by his own family, he was left alone by his own disciples, the religious leaders accused him of blasphemy, he was mocked, slandered, and abused. He suffered injustice, yet he is still kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.
To be like Christ toward those who hurt us is not easy. In fact, it is impossible for us. But because we personally experienced God’s kindness and forgiveness in Christ, this is possible. This is gospel-motivated transformation. Notice how Paul anchored this exhortation to the gospel, “…as God in Christ forgave you.” This is how we can love others: “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (5:2). This is our strongest motivation in sanctification, the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We struggle in forgiving others and treating them with kindness because we forget the salvation we have received by grace.
God’s grace sufficient for our daily transformation
We know what sins to put away and put to death—lying, stealing, anger, corrupting talk. We know what Christ-like virtues to pursue and put on—truthful speech, honest work, kindness, compassion, forgiveness. We have a plethora of biblical motivations—theological and practical. Ian Hamilton said, “There is surely no more powerful incentive to pursue godliness than an ever-deepening awareness of the riches of God’s grace to us in the gospel.”
Not just the grace of the gospel, but the grace what we share as one body, as a church. You are not alone in this fight against sin and in pursuing Christlikeness. Sanctification is a corporate project. We are members of one body. Eph 4:15-16, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” We remind each other not just what to do and what not to do. We remind each other of what God has already done for us in Christ. We preach the gospel to ourselves and to one another. Transformation happens as we grow deeper into the gospel together as a church.
There are still lingering and habitual sins that we have to deal with. But take heart, the grace of God is sufficient for you. He has given us enough resources so that we will grow in our sanctification—the Spirit of God applying the Word of God through the people of God. And one day, this struggling, this fighting, this striving will be over. We will get to see the face of Jesus, and sin will be no more, and we shall be like him (1 John 3:2). Our transformation will be complete. But until the day, we keep fighting sin, we keep pursuing Christ, we keep trusting the one who gave his life for us.