I wonder if this morning you are feeling the way that I sometimes do? - that you are a sorry excuse for a Christian. Imagine with me for a moment what an ideal Christian looks like. Maybe it was one of your parents. Maybe it is a friend at school or work, who always says the right things, does nothing to dishonor God or the church, and who is an all around good guy. Maybe it is a figure in Church history, whether it is Spurgeon, Edwards, Bunyan, Calvin, Augustine, or Paul. Now that you have that person in your mind, ask yourself - why doesn’t your life resemble that person’s? Why do you continue to fall short of being holy? Why do you say things, do things, think things that you know are out of the scope of Christian living, and instead look more like pre-flood mankind just before the rain started pouring.
I am guessing I’m not the only one who has done this mental exercise. Surely a Christian should not live, talk, or think this way? So what do we do when we notice this disconnect? We see what’s wrong - whether it be lack of kind words, too much love for the world, too much time spent on things of little eternal worth - and we set about fixing them. And for a day or two, our outlook changes. Maybe we can be “good Christians.” Maybe we can live like we think we should. But then we wake up one morning, we forget to focus on our one or two pet self-help projects, and we’re back into the same situation as before - bearing no credible witness to the new heart that we claim has been implanted into us.
This is the context of the Ephesian church as we pick up in Ch. 5. Paul has just exhorted them, “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do...that is not the way you learned Christ!” (Eph. 4:17-20). And you will note that Paul is having to tell them this because at this point they are struggling with living like the Gentiles! Thus he reminds them of the truth they were taught in Jesus - “to put off their old self...be renewed...put on the new self...” (Eph. 4:22-24). Paul then tells them how they are to live this model of the Christian life: put away falsehood, speak truth, for we are members of one another; be angry, don’t let the sun go down on your anger, for we don’t want to give the devil opportunity; don’t steal, but work, for we need to give to those in need. Don’t use corrosive speech, but only that which builds up, for we are to give grace and not grieve the HS; don’t be quarrelsome, but forgive, for you have been forgiven.
The Ephesians needed to hear this. We need to hear this. They, as have all believers since them, struggle with living a life that testifies of the God who has redeemed them. So Paul, in our passage today, will give us the means by which we can bridge that disconnect between our lives as they are, and the life that the HS through him has been urging us to live. He does this by giving us 1. the summary of the Christian life - Be Imitators of God, and 2. the manner of living the Christian life - Walk in Love as Christ Loved Us.
Paul links our passage with what he wrote previously by giving us the conclusion to his reasoning. We are to put off the old self, be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and put on the new self, and what is the resulting conclusion? We are to be imitators of God. We are to not lie, not be sinfully angry, not steal what is not ours, not speak ungraciously - why? Because God does not do these things, therefore we should not do them. We even saw in vs. 32 that this reasoning applies directly to how we are to think about the quarreling pattern of vs. 31 - instead of holding anger in and becoming bitter, and then out exploding out into wrath, you instead are to forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you. So this pattern emerges as the summary of the Christian life - Be Imitators of God.
What does it mean to imitate? The Greek word is mimhtai, from which we get our word mimic. To imitate is to mimic someone else’s life, behaviors, and words. This concept of imitation is not foreign to Paul. He tells the Corinthians to mimic him (1 Cor. 11:1). He tells the Thessalonians to imitate him and Silvanus and Timothy (2 Thes 3:7). In all, there are 8 occurrences in the NT of our need to imitate other believers. But this is the only one where we are exhorted to imitate God. That doesn’t mean that we have less reason to do it - on the contrary, we should pay more attention to it. In fact, Lloyd-Jones says that this command to Be Imitators of God is the “supreme argument... the highest level of all in doctrine and in practice, to the ultimate ideal.”
That we would be told to be like God is magnificent. Especially when you take into account what Paul has already told us about ourselves in the earlier parts of this epistle. We were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked.” We followed Satan, and we “lived in the passions of our flesh” - all in all we “were by nature children of wrath” (2:1-3). We were “at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (2:12). We were tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human craftiness in deceitful schemes” (4:14). We were “callous and had given ourselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (4:19). Yet we, who were wicked and despised, are told to imitate God!
This command is more staggering when we consider what God is like. Consider our Catechism question for this month - What is God? God is spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Now there are things about God we cannot imitate. They are incommunicable. We cannot be infinite, eternal, unchangeable, or omnipresent in our very being. Only God can do that. If we experience eternity from here forward, it is only because we are united to Christ and experience what He experiences as God. So we can’t imitate those kinds of characteristics of God.
But God has so many other attributes to mimic! These are His communicable attributes - those characteristics that can be transmitted to us! You can be wise as God is wise! You can be holy as God is holy (in fact this is the basis of the holiness code in the OT). You can practice justice, goodness, and truthfulness! And what’s more, we can imitate His love (which is the basis of what we will see in the next verse).
So given my introduction this morning, how can you bridge the disconnect between the life you see you should be living from the Scriptures, and that which you actually do live? It isn’t by trying really hard to overcome your faults. It is found here and only here. We can only live the Christian life to the extent that we know God. Know God! You cannot will the power to be holy. But you can know a holy God. You cannot try hard enough to be wise. But you can know an all-wise God. And as you get to know this God through His Son Jesus the Christ, as His Spirit infiltrates the crevasses and dungeons in your life, you will more and more be like Him! You will begin to mimic Him!
And we do this because we have been adopted as His sons. Remember from Ch. 1? “In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace which He has bestowed on us in the Beloved” (1:5-6). We are sons of God because we have been united to His only begotten Son, Jesus. And since Jesus is “the Beloved,” we are also beloved children.
And this is how we are to imitate God - as His beloved children. We are to “reproduce the family likeness” (O’Brien, 352). Notice Paul doesn’t say, “You are beloved children if you imitate God;” rather, “Be imitators of God as beloved children.” You cannot earn your status as beloved child, nor can you keep it. It is given to you by a sovereign God, and He will keep it for you because He is unchanging. All of you legalists out there (all of us) need to hear this - you cannot bribe God with your filthy-rags-righteousness into being His child. If you are joined to Christ through faith, then you have been freed from your attempts at earning God’s favor. You cannot be good enough to earn it. It is a gift, and it’s always been that way.
Parents, ask yourself: why do your children imitate you? I love my boys, and I love to see them imitate the not-as-sinful-aspects of my life. They know daddy reads a lot, and so they grab books and stare at them. They know daddy likes to build things, so they strap on tool belts and hammer anything they can find. They’ve seen daddy start to run in the past couple of months, so now they want to go running with daddy - even making a ‘running lane’ in our back yard. Why do they do this? Because they think they can earn my love by endearing themselves to me? If this were the case, then I would be the poorest example of a father that there is, where my child feels that he has to bribe me to love him. No, they do this because they love me! They learn something about me, and they want to be involved in it, not because I will like them more, but because I am there and they want to be like me!
So, we too, are to imitate God. The way our children copy how we act, we are to put off the old self and imitate how God acts. The way they copy how we speak, we are to put away corrosive speech and imitate how God speaks. The way our children copy the ways we think, we are to be renewed in the spirit of our minds and imitate the way God thinks.
What a wonderful picture of the Christian life! Not straining after rules and procedures, but instead it is a relationship - we and our Father, seeking to be like Him because we love Him.
And in case you want a more simplified version of the Christian life, Paul gives us further explanation of what imitating God as beloved children looks like. How do we imitate God as a child? Well, look at His Son! “Walk in love as Christ loved us.” Paul here explains what he means in vs. 1 by vs. 2 (epexegetical conjunction ‘and’). To imitate God is equal to walking in love.
Walking in love is that for which he has prayed in 3:14-19. Paul loves love! He prays that the church would be rooted and grounded in love. He urges us to bear with one another in love (4:2), to speak the truth in love (4:15), to build up the body in love (4:16). He urges husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (5:25) and as they love their own bodies (5:28), as he loves himself (5:33). And he bestows a blessing on those who love Jesus with love incorruptible (6:24).
So we are to walk in love, and we are specifically to do it as Christ has modeled for us. So, Christian, you are called to conform to Christ’s pattern of life. We are to imitate God, and we are to imitate Christ, God the Son. When we read the gospels, we are not merely reading stories of a good man, or a great prophet, but we are seeing the story before us of God’s great story of redemption, by His being born in the likeness of men, and being found in human form, humbling Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:7-8).
This is very practical for us this morning. We are all being called to conform to something. Businessmen and women, you are told what you should wear and what you should drive. Parents, you’re told how you are to discipline your children and how you are to teach them. Teenagers, you are told what kinds of music to listen to and how to act. We see it on TV and in the movies, we read it in magazines and blogs. Down to the advertisements we are peddled and the friends we observe - we are all called to conform to a pattern of life.
But these callings, if they are the leash by which we are led through our world, are insufficient to conform us to anything, let alone lead us to joy and fulfillment. You, friends, have been made to conform to the image of God. All the way back at the beginning, this is how we were formed. His is the pattern of thinking with which we were made to reason. His is the emotion of heart with which we were made to have affections. His is the record of deeds after which we were to model our lives. We are to be conformed to the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29). Christ is our model.
But how are we to love as Christ loved us? How is this a model? Paul tells us specifically how we are to imitate God in Christ by walking in love - Christ “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Christ became our substitute so that we might have life. This is the very essence of the Gospel!
This doctrine of substitution was very important to Paul’s life, as it is to ours. In Gal. 2:20, he says “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Here in Eph. 5:2, Christ “loved us and gave himself for us.” And in 5:25, Christ “loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Christ was our substitute. He gave His life for me, us, the Church.
But what does it mean that He was a “pleasing aroma,” and what’s more, how are we to walk that way? This whole idea of sacrifice and offering is found in the OT. Beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, we catch small glimpses of the need for sacrifice and the appeasement of God’s wrath. We see it more clearly with the sacrifices that Israel was commanded to make in order to expiate their sins. But all of these dead animals, whether they were sacrificed in the garden of Eden, or east of Eden, or on Mt. Moriah, or in the temple, all of them pointed to this final, greatest, and only worthy sacrifice and offering to God. And Christ’s giving Himself for our sins on the cross was a pleasing aroma to God. This was language used in the OT to show the acceptable nature of the sacrifice. God accepted Christ as our substitute.
And so, with this kind of life giving love that our savior has shown us, Paul now tells us to go and do likewise. Now, you will say, “we cannot be a substitute for someone like Christ was! He was sufficient to propitiate all of the sins for those whom He purchased!” And that is true. There need be no more sacrifice to procure our salvation from the wrath of God toward our sin.
But, Paul still tells us to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us.” While we do not need nor are we able to be the substitute for another with regard to securing their pardon, we are called to give our lives for others.
So, how can you walk in love, giving yourself for others? It begins by recognizing how much you don’t sacrifice and offer! Let us consider a few areas.
1. Your Time - I know, you feel pulled in so many directions. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Between work, family, school, and sleep, where are you going to fit in more time to give for the sake of those who need you to live like Christ with them? But we must begin considering how we can fit in walking in love as Christ loved us. Maybe a little less TV? Maybe a little less web surfing? Walking in love as Christ loved us may not be convenient, but it is what we are called to do!
2. Your Money - And if time was tight, how about our money! But consider how much you’ve been given! And even that that is not yours! You do not work to earn money! You are provided money by God, and you work because it is what we do in showing forth God’s image. So, with God’s resources that you are given, how could you provide more to those in need of it that they may see Christ and hear His good news? How can you die to your selves to show love to others? Walking in love as Christ loved us may not be convenient, but it is what we are called to do!
3. Your Life - We don’t like to talk about this one. But we must examine and ask ourselves, how much of our lives are spent procuring wealth and comfort and security to the exclusion of extravagantly showing love to the world? We are being called by the world to conform to an image of humanity that has no view to the God who has made us! Consider His commission, that we are to be making disciples of all peoples! Those here in Memphis and north Mississippi, and those in our state, our region, our country, not to mention those places around the world that have NO gospel witness! How are you walking in love and giving up your life for them that they may know Him? Consider Jesus’s words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25). Do you see the “walk in love as Christ loves us and gave Himself up for us” in that? Walking in love as Christ loved us is not convenient, but it is what we are called to do!
What of your life have you offered to God so that the world might have Him? Are you giving your time? Your money? Your very lives?
If not, why? It may be because you have been ignorant of these commands or the need. If so, then be taught by this passage to know God and imitate Him by walking in love through giving yourself for others. This is the Christian life!
Or it may be that you have never learned Christ. You have not put off the old self. You have never been renewed in the Spirit of your mind. You are not acquainted with the new self. You are alienated from the life of God due to your hardness of heart. You do not, nor can you, imitate God because you are not His beloved child. If this describes you, then I urge you this morning, look to Christ who did give His life for us, who was an offering and sacrifice that was accepted by God. See the salvation that He has fully completed by bearing the wrath for those whom He died to save. And after seeing this, love Him. Trust Him. Follow Him. Imitate Him. And in doing so, you also will begin to be used by Him to bring about this kind of sacrifice that we have read about today.
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