Maintain the Unity of the Spirit

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

The Great Calling of a District Court Judge 

Four years ago one of our Hennepin District Court judges was censured for ten engagements with a 26-year-old prostitute. Last week another judge was removed from office for buying sex from fifteen male prostitutes. One of our State Supreme Court Justices had to stay out of the decision last week because he is under investigation by the board of standards for ethical violations. It was not a good week for the Minnesota judiciary. The events go a long way to encourage citizen suspicions of a lot of rottenness in our whole system. But what I want to illustrate from this is the meaning of the word worthy. We say, "The man proved to be unworthy of his judgeship." Or: "He was living unworthily of his high office." What I mean when I say this is that the office of Hennepin District Court Judge merits a higher level of integrity. The position is worthy of greater moral vigilance and higher character. The judgeship deserves a better man.

Note that even though I said, "The man proved unworthy of his office," what I am focusing on is the worth of the office not the man. I am saying that the value of the office should have kept the man from desecrating it. The Supreme Court decision last week said, "By disclosing his identity and his judicial position to the prostitutes, moreover, he made even greater the risk of discredit to himself and the judiciary." In other words, the honor and value of his position in the judiciary should have been worth so much to him that he would not dare bring it into disrepute. The greatness of his calling should have constrained him to lead a life worthy of his call. But it didn't, and now the public has much less regard not only for him, but worse, for the Hennepin County District Court.

The Far Greater Calling of Christians 

In Ephesians 4:1 Paul urges us Christians "to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called." This does not mean that we should try to deserve our place in God's favor. It means that we should recognize how much our place in God's favor deserves from us. The focus is not on our worth but on the worth of our calling. If we go back to chapters 1 through 3, we can catch a glimpse of the calling Paul means.

  • 1:4, God chose us for himself before the world was created.
  • 1:5, he predestined us to be his children—and that means heirs of all our Father owns!
  • 1:7, he sent Christ to atone for all our trespasses.
  • 1:13, he sealed us with his Holy Spirit to preserve us forever.
  • 2:7, he promises to spend an eternity increasing our joy in the immeasurable riches of his grace.
  • 3:10, he has given us the mission as a church to display his wisdom, even to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. Or as 1:12 says, we are "destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory."

In other words, the privilege and purpose of our Christian calling is greater than the privilege and purpose of a Hennepin County District Court Judgeship. The judgeship is a calling from man; our calling is from God. The judgeship attains status and (we would hope) a sense of worthy achievement; our calling attains divine sonship and we become beneficiaries of all that God owns. The judgeship will last a couple decades; our calling will last for ever. If, as the Supreme Court said last week, the honor and privilege of being a District Court Judge should give the judge a passion for integrity, then how much more should the honor and privilege of being made a Christian shape our lives!

Living a Life Worthy of Our Calling 

In Ephesians 4:3 the way to lead a life worthy of our calling is to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Verse 2 tells us how to maintain spiritual unity: "With all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love." But before we look at how to maintain the unity of the Spirit in verse 2, we need to make sure we know what it is. What is the kind of unity that will bring honor and credit to our high calling?

What Is the Unity of the Spirit? 

Part of the answer is found in verses 11–13. Here Paul says that Christ has given to the church "some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God."

A Reality to Be Maintained and a Goal to Be Attained

One difference between verse 3 and verse 13 is that in verse 3 we are told to maintain unity but in verse 13 we are told to attain unity. In verse 3 it is a reality to be maintained. In verse 13 it is a goal to be attained. The reason for this is not that there are two kinds of Christian unity but that Christian unity has in one sense already been accomplished and in another sense hasn't. Look at Ephesians 2:13–16:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself a new man in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. 

This text shows that, in a decisive act of atonement and reconciliation, Christ has already made us one. What he has accomplished at Calvary we should maintain by the Spirit. But in another sense the unity Christ purchased and guaranteed with his blood must now be lived out and brought to full expression in the life of the church. In this sense it is a goal to be attained.

Three Components of Christian Unity

So if the same basic unity is spoken of in 2:13–16 and 4:3 and 4:13, then we can now define it. Christian unity involves three things that we should have in common. Ephesians 4:13 speaks of a "unity of . . . the knowledge of the Son of God." That is our common convictions about Christ. That verse also speaks of a "unity of faith." That is our common confidence in Christ. And Ephesians 2:14 speaks of the end of hostility. When hostility is replaced with love, we have a common care for each other. So I would sum up Christian unity from Ephesians 2–4 as having common convictions about Christ, common confidence in Christ, and common care for each other.

Flowing from the Holy Spirit

Ephesians 4:3 calls this the unity of the Spirit. It's the Holy Spirit who frees our hearts from irrational, self-defensive prejudices so that we are willing to own up to true convictions about Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). It's the Holy Spirit who enables us to have faith in Christ and to cry out to God with confidence, "Abba, Father" (Romans 8:15–16). And it is the Holy Spirit who bears the fruit of love in our lives and gives us a common care for each other (Galatians 5:22). So our common convictions and confidence and care are all from the Holy Spirit. Therefore Paul calls it the "unity of the Spirit" (v. 3).

Two Stages of Love on the Way to This Unity 

Now when we go back to verse 2 to see how we maintain this unity, we see two stages of love. Neither of these stages is natural to human nature. Both are the result of the work of the Spirit in our lives. Let's look at each one briefly.

1. Lowliness and Meekness

The first stage of love that leads to unity is lowliness and meekness. "Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called in all lowliness and meekness." The knowledge of our high calling should make us feel very lowly. Christian lowliness is a disposition to think lowly of ourselves and highly of Christ. Christian meekness is the demeanor of a person with this disposition. Precisely because he has been granted to know God, the Christian man is a man of lowliness. He regards his knowledge as small and lowly because he has seen the omniscient God. He regards his strength as small and lowly because he has seen the omnipotent God. He regards his righteousness as small and lowly because he has seen the Holy One of Israel. And since the Christian is oriented on God and not man, he is not puffed up by any little superiority he may have over other humans. If an ant measures himself by the IDS tower, he will not boast over the flea.

Christian lowliness makes a person feel awkward receiving praise. It makes a person recoil from the contemporary counsel of self-assertiveness and self-esteem and self-confidence. The great delight of the lowly Christian is to enjoy the free, unmerited mercy of God. All his longings are satisfied in God. God is the one he esteems. God is his confidence. God is the one who will assert himself someday to vindicate the poor in spirit and to make the last first. In the meantime, the man of lowliness is the servant of all. This is the first stage of love, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to see the majesty of God's holiness and the minuteness of ourselves.

2. Patience and Forbearance

The second stage of love results from the first. It is called patience or long-suffering. "Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience." Lowliness is the prerequisite of patience. Haughty people are not patient. The more highly you think of yourself the more quickly you will think you should be served. "Who do they think they are to keep me waiting like this!" But if you have a disposition of lowliness, it won't feel so inappropriate when you are not treated like a dignitary and when the fruits of your labors are slow in coming. If you have seen the majesty of God's holiness, you know your own minuteness and sinfulness, and you don't presume to deserve special treatment. And if you have seen the magnificence of God's grace, you know he will give you the strength to wait and will turn all your delays into strategic maneuvers of victory.

Another way of describing the results of lowliness is with the term forbearance. "Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love." Another word for "forbearing" is "enduring." Just like meekness is the demeanor of lowliness, endurance is the demeanor of patience.

I am so glad Paul said we must endure one another. This frees me from the hypocritical need to think I, or anyone else in the church, am perfect. Perfect people don't need to be endured or forgiven (Colossians 3:13). But we do, often. Paul is not naïve. He knows that there are a few people at Bethlehem who are grumpy or critical or unreliable or finicky. He knows the pastor has gaping holes in the fabric of his sanctification. So his counsel here is not how perfect people can live together in unity, but how real, imperfect Conference Baptists can maintain the unity of the Spirit, namely, by enduring each other in love.

Preserving Common Care for Each Other 

The focus in verses 2 and 3 is not so much on how to maintain our common convictions or our common confidence. Those are assumed as a basis, and the focus is on how a group of imperfect people can preserve a common care for each other. How can you keep on caring about a person who doesn't like you? Or a person who likes music you don't like? Or a person who opposes you and wants to frustrate your dreams? How do you maintain the unity of the Spirit with them instead of becoming hostile and cold? Paul's answer: be lowly in spirit so that you can patiently endure their differences and their sins. A man of lowliness is keenly aware of the immensity of his debt toward God and how he has dishonored God through unbelief and disobedience. He is also keenly aware of God's amazing grace that saved a wretch like him.

Therefore, the man of lowliness cannot easily or quickly retaliate when he is wronged. He knows that before God he doesn't deserve anything better, and he knows that if he returns evil for evil, he would be saying to God, "You were a fool for being patient with me and enduring my sin and returning good for my evil." And that would bring far more disgrace and discredit upon our high calling than homosexual prostitution brought upon the Hennepin County District Court last week.

Therefore, let's not be puffed up but lowly and meek. And let's not be impatient or resentful, but long-suffering and forgiving. Then the unity that Christ died to create will become real in our church, and we will not bring any disrepute upon the great God who called us into his kingdom and glory.