THE UNITY OF THE SPIRIT
Extracts from a sermon preached at Forest Fold, Crowborough on 29 September 1985.
‘Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4.3.
What are the characteristics of members of the true church? How should they live, and how should they react to each other?
The Apostle Paul introduces the subject by previously exhorting to lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, and forbearance.
John Calvin comments on this verse: “We have seen how God’s children ought to be joined together so that every man may help his fellow and encourage and strengthen him, and all of us endeavour with one accord to serve God. Now to do this we need to correct the voices that are in us. For on the one hand we see how men are almost totally inclined to self-exaltation, self-pleasing, and presumption, which soon breeds contempt. For he that loves to exalt himself has to abase his fellows to make himself their superior. It is impossible then that there should be agreement among us until we have rid ourselves of this pride and presumption, to which we are too much given. But if we are once joined together, then we shall be meek.” Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it like this, “There is nothing sadder about this present age than the appalling absence of humility, and when this same lack is found in the church of God it is the greatest tragedy of all. As Chrysostom said long ago. Nothing will so avail to divide the church as love of power.”
It is striking that Calvin, preaching so many sermons on this theme, should seize on that particular problem when he comes to expound these verses. You would think he would start immediately with lowliness and meekness but he starts on the opposite. He starts with the vices that are common to us all. He begins to expound these verses by looking at the negative side. That is because we are what we are, and because he was a very perceptive judge of men’s character, and certainly because he knew his own heart. If we know our own hearts we shall come to verses like this and immediately see our selves in the opposite camp. Lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, and we would not immediately jump to the conclusion that that is a description of
ourselves; we would rather say that is a description of what we ought to be. I hope we can say it is a description of what we want to be, but we could hardly say without confusion that that is exactly what we are, because we are not always lowly and meek, longsuffering and forbearing.
The Apostle is conscious of the things which can so easily separate and mar what he goes on to describe as the unity of the Spirit. Calvin also says, “. .we have to note first of all how Paul in speaking of lowliness, meekness, and patience, warns us that if we are not wary, and every man check himself the devil will always gain an easy access and entrance to us to trouble us. And why? Because, as I said, every one of us will find the disease of ambition rooted in him, so that there is none of us who would not wish to bear some appearance of superiority, at least, until God has laid his hand upon him and by his Spirit beaten down all pride in him and made him clean. But if we take all those who follow their natural bent, it is certain that they are so high-minded that they will not be content unless they are exalted and held in reputation. Paul therefore thought it good to warn us of this, in order that we should learn to hate that vice and endeavour to rid ourselves of it, which will not be done very easily, for it is a hard battle.”
He goes on to describe some of the things that are really the heart of this conflict and some of the ways in which we can fail in the conflict. “When a fire is once kindled, it is not soon quenched again. We imagine that when we throw ourselves into a fit of anger, we can come to ourselves very soon, and all will be calm and quiet again. But no! The devil so puts in his foot that the strife and contention turns to a deadly sting, so that men are envenomed with it more and more, and although they do not show it outwardly, nor give vent to their rage and fuming, yet nevertheless some heartburning and bitterness will still lurk within when there has been any contention. And therefore (as I said) let us not think that when any trouble is stirred up, it will be pacified as soon as we could wish. So then Paul tells us that the church shall perish in that fire, at the slightest provocation, if we do not continue in quietness and shun all strife and debate.”
The Unity of the Spirit
Some people have the idea that if you can have clear statements of church doctrine and every church member signs in agreement to those doctrines then in some way you ensure that the unity of the Spirit is being maintained; so their emphasis is altogether on the side of agreement in doctrine. At the other extreme nowadays you have people who say they do not emphasize doctrine very much, the important thing is experience. If they all have had the same wonderful experience they will be united. They are referring to the
experience of speaking in tongues and the charismatic experiences which are so much talked about today. The Roman Catholic has the experience, the Anglican has the experience, and the Baptist has the experience, and that is what really unites people.
Now the truth of the matter lies neither in one extreme nor the other. We shall not produce unity in any way, because unity is what God gives, and we shall not be able to keep the unity of the Spirit either by emphasis upon agreement in doctrine nor by an overemphasis upon similarity of experience. That is very obvious, because those who emphasize doctrine to the exclusion of everything else usually end by arguing about doctrine, and those who emphasize experience to the exclusion of doctrine usually end by arguing about their experiences.
What is it then that Paul is speaking about here as the unity of the Spirit? It cannot be divorced from doctrine or else you must divorce this chapter from the earlier parts of the epistle which are full of doctrine. This unity is to be expressed by people who are taught the same truth by the same Spirit, so doctrine is an essential and important aspect. But not doctrine alone or we might as well only have the first and second chapters in this epistle. So it cannot be divorced from doctrine, but it cannot be doctrine alone the Apostle is thinking of when he says we are to endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit. Conversely it cannot be experience alone, yet there is an experience which is absolutely vital. If we are not born again by the Spirit of God we have no spiritual life, so there will be no life in me to respond to the life that is in another person. Without true experience there is no point of spiritual contact when you come to spiritual matters, there is no experience of God’s grace. So experience is important. We shall never be able to keep the unity of the spirit unless we have had a real experience of God’s work in our lives. Paul is exhorting those people to endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit, who have all been taught by the Spirit, who have all received God’s gift of the Spirit.
The experience and the doctrine always go hand in hand, because the Spirit teaches, that is our experience; but the Spirit teaches truth, that is the doctrine. He speaks of the calling, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.” Now that is an experience, it is the work of the Spirit calling us to truth, calling us back to God, calling us to repentance, calling us to faith, calling us to obedience, calling us to follow the Lord, calling us to be disciples, calling us to live a holy life. So we must never divorce these two things. There is a work of God, a genuine experience of the power and work of the Spirit, and that is never divorced from the truth we receive, which we love and which we believe.
Keeping this Unity
Paul is not saying. Now you must produce something; by behaving properly you will produce the unity of the Spirit. He says we are to endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit. The word keep means to guard, to hold fast, to watch over, to preserve or to reasure. We are to treasure something which is given to us. How is the unity of the Spirit given to us? The unity of the Spirit is shown to us as the Spirit shows us our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ;
we are one in Christ; we are saved by the same Saviour, we are loved by the same God. It is at the same cross we find our salvation. It is the same life which God gives to each one of His children when He brings us to spiritual life, when we are born again. The day we are born again we are ushered into a completely new family relationship, and all who have the life of God in their souls are part of that family. That is the unity of the Spirit.
Endeavouring to Keep this Unity
Paul then says we are to endeavour to keep this unity, and there the word means we are to make haste. This word “endeavouring” may give the impression of a person trying to climb up a wall and falling down again and completely failing, but that is not really the sense of the word, it means to be diligent, to be speedy, to make haste, to be zealous. So he is calling on God’s children to be zealous, to treasure up and to guard what they already have, to be very sensitive and quick to recognize anything which threatens the blessing God has given to them. And how quick we are to fall into the devil’s trap. How quickly the enemy can overcome our best intentions. It happens because of what Calvin calls our vices. Because when we are brought into God’s family we are brought in as sinners, and we are still sinners, and we still have all those natural dispositions and those natural aspects of our sinfulness which threaten our relationship together.
Now there are two important directions in which we should look very carefully if we are to be quick or zealous to guard the unity of the Spirit. Firstly, we must realize that this is something very precious and so very important that it must be most carefully guarded. And then we must look in another direction and ask. What is it in me that is threatening the blessing described in this verse? Then we begin to look at our own failures and sins and our own natural disposition and we have to ask. What is wrong with me? Where am I wrong? Where do I need correction? Where are those things which Calvin calls my vices? Am I proud? Am I really seeking for some position? Am I really wanting to be above other people? Am I truly content to be less than the least of all saints? Am I so convinced that my opinion is so important that every one else has to agree with me? Is that the way I am going to react? Am I resentful if
someone expresses an opinion which I think is wrong? Do I immediately feel that I have got to rise up and resist that other opinion? Have I got to fight for my own ideas? This is the kind of thing that has been so harmful in the history of the church through the centuries. Whenever those who have been called by God with this holy calling, this vocation, fall out by the way, it can never be justified. If that happens it cannot be the work of the Holy Spirit. One is wrong or both are wrong, and that is not the work of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is always to gather together into one, into Christ Jesus. That is the theme of the earlier part of this epistle. Here Paul is showing us that what Jesus came to do was to unite Jew and Gentile. “For through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore we are no more strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God”. Jew and Gentile were brought together into one family, one church.
The Foundation of this Unity
In chapter two, the Apostle says that believers are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. What does he mean? They are built upon the foundation of truth. There is an intimate connection between the believer and what the apostles and prophets taught. They have received the truth, their souls rest upon the truth they have believed. But then he says, “Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” Not just the chief stone. The chief comer stone was the joining-stone. The cornerstone was the stone to which the walls were cemented. That is why Jesus is called a cornerstone because He is the joining-stone on to which both Jew and Gentile were both cemented, so that, “the building fitly framed together groweth into an holy temple in the Lord, in whom ye are also builded together.”
The Apostle says that you must not live as though you were all separate stones with no cement between them, all tumbled together. You must see that God in His wonderful mercy has put you into a building and has cemented you into the particular place appointed for you, and you are to learn to live in that relationship with every other part of the building. If we liken the cement to true Christian affection then as soon as you see anything which is eating away at this cement you need to be very careful. That is why buildings are repointed when the cement gets dusty and dry. You have to scrape out the old cement and put new in and then the building is stronger and it is protected against the weather.
Our endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit will make us focus closely on our inner responses to other people. Whether we really love them. We have to ask, do we really love people with whom we