If you were going to create a study of love, what would you call it? You could call it “loveology” or perhaps “Valentinianism” if you wanted to be fancy. But what if I told you that such a name already exists for the study of love? You may be surprised to find out that the study of love is named “Ethics.” Ethics isn’t ultimately a study of yes vs no, right vs wrong. That is the practice that comes out of a proper study of love. Now, I’m not just saying that because it is February and love is in the air. I’m not even saying this because it's a particularly original idea. This goes all the way back to Jesus. In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love me,” What? “Keep my commandments.” If you want to study how to love Jesus, then you need to study His commandments. If you want to comprehend how to love your neighbor, then you need to know God’s laws.
But why God’s laws? Don’t we all somewhat intuitively know how to love? Why not just say, “As long as you don’t hurt people, you’re good” and leave it at that? Well, we can’t just make this up as we go along, because moral commandments that we make up have no real authority to them. Who are you to say what is right and what is wrong? Who am I to say such things? Instead, we look to the only authority Who matters, God Himself. He is the one who defines love, and He is the one who sets how love is to be displayed. To study His commands, then, is the only way to know how to really love people and how to love God. Doctrine, as Herman Bavink once said, is God loving us, and ethics is us loving God.
As always, I’ve got our two points I want us to look at today: True ethics benefits the church and Lack of true ethics grieves the Holy Spirit
True ethics benefits the church
After explaining to us how much God has loved us by choosing us, raising us from the dead, and bringing us all together, Paul is now showing us how we practically love one another. Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There are other things we need to do other than don’t lie, steal, or speak wrongly, but if you look at what God commands us to do in place of those things, and especially why God commands us to do those things, you’ll see that you will be well on your way towards the ethical life. Note how much our speech matters in this list (Thielman, 310)
The first command that we see here is speaking truth to our neighbor. He tells us that since we have laid aside falsehood, we should speak truth to our neighbor. One commentator sees this as speaking in particular truths about God (Thielman, 311), but this can certainly be broadly applied as us speaking the truth in general. Note, though, the reason why Paul tells us to be truthful. He says that we are members of one another. Listen to this quote from a preacher going all the way back to the 400s, “Chrysostom aptly says, ‘If the eye sees a serpent, does it deceive the foot? if the tongue tastes what is bitter, does it deceive the stomach?’” (Chrysostom quoted in Bock). In other words, the members of your body don’t lie to each other because that is not in the best interest of the body as a whole. In the same way, when we lie, it doesn’t benefit anyone, in fact, it hurts the body as a whole. This is especially true when we say untrue things about God. We can mislead people very badly if we are not careful what we say about God, and that harms the church overall.
Now, considering what has just been said, the next verse is a little surprising. Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin. This is rather confusing, especially when we get to verse 31, Paul says to put away all anger from you! Which one is it, Paul? It isn’t a translator error, as this is the same word in both places. The word for anger here is also used of God’s anger 39 times in the Bible (Hoehner, 619), so obviously anger in and of itself doesn’t have to be sinful. There is such a thing as righteous indignation. This can be the case, “When wrong has been done against a person or against God himself. However, when God is angry, he is always in control of his anger. Unlike God, however, people have a tendency to allow anger to control them.… For example, when someone in the body of believers has been wronged, it is correct for one to be angry but not to be consumed by that anger” (Hoehner, 621). If you are not able to put down being angry, you are being controlled by that anger and thus in sin. One commentator went so far as to say, “If [our anger] is not free from injured pride, malice, or a spirit of revenge, it has degenerated into sin” (O’Brien, 340). That’s a rather high standard, isn’t it?
What are we supposed to do instead? Well, Paul continues and says that we shouldn’t let the sun go down on our anger. If we let our anger fester, it gives the opportunity to the devil to tempt you to more sin. “Anger is not called sin here, but there lies in the background the thought that when one is angry sin c[r]ouches at the door.” (Stählin, quoted in Bruce, 361, n. 139)” When we feel anger rise up within us, we should immediately ask the question of what should we do with it? If it is an issue that needs to be and can be confronted, then it needs to be worked out. But what if it can’t? FF Bruce is very helpful here: ““if that is not possible – if the person with whom one is angry is not accessible, or refuses to be reconciled – then at least the heart should be unburdened of its animosity by the committal of the matter to God… If retribution is called for, let God take care of it: his retribution will be just, and free from self-regarding motives.” (Bruce, 361). Let anger drive you to prayer not punching, supplication not strangulation. And by leaving the matter with God when it cannot be resolved, your heart is freed from anger to embrace love.
Next on the list is not stealing. Again, this isn’t particularly new information, but note the reasoning. It goes beyond, “Don’t steal as it is wrong.” He goes on to say, “Don’t steal, but instead work hard so that you may be generous.” That is a comprehensive turn around! All of a sudden someone goes from being so selfish that they will take from others to become someone who is so UNselfish they work extra hard just so that they can be generous! They don’t steal so that they can honor God and help others with their riches. That is ethics in action.
Next on the list is the way that we use words. Paul gives us the negative, don’t let corrupting talk come out of your mouth. Literally, the word here translated corrupting would be like the term “rancid fish,” and this would cover speech that is sexual or foolish in nature, or just untruths about God (Thielman, 316). Our culture has trained us not to react as strongly to these smelly words. When I was in college, I would get the opportunity every once in a while to get the chance to eat with the students. Sometimes they would bring their own food, and that would be very strange to my nose. I remember once I had the chance to eat authentic Indian curry chicken. It’s the only meal so spicy that I sweat through it. I couldn’t understand how anyone could eat like that all the time, but they couldn’t figure out how I could stand so much sugar in my diet! The answer of course to all of that is exposure. You get used to what you have. In the same way, it is easy for us to get used to the language that is around us. It begins by stopping being offended by it, then it’s funny, then one day you find it added to your vocabulary. Here, we are told that our words are important. In fact, Matthew 12:36 tells us that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Your words are a window into your hear; there is nothing that comes out of your mouth that wasn’t in your heart in the first place, as Paul Tripp once said. Christians need to take their words seriously.
Paul also tells us what we should be saying. He says that we should use our words to build up, edify. It isn’t just not swearing, but it is only using our words to build up. This doesn’t mean that criticism is bad, but the aim of all our speech should be to build up, even if we have to relate hard truths.
So what have we seen thus far? Ethics is the study of love, and look how each of these commands play into that theme. We are honest because we don’t want to cause harm to the body. We take control of our anger lest it be the starting point for greater sin and harm to the body. Finally, we see even down to the words that we say that all of it should be employed in the cause of love.
But what happens when we don’t? What happens when we choose not to go this way? What if we could find ourselves in a circumstance where no one finds out about our actions? In other words, do we only cause harm if someone else finds out about it?
Lack of true ethics grieves the Holy Spirit
Here is where we get to verse 31. We find out that using our words improperly (and I think this extends to all sins) grieves the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to grieve the Holy Spirit? Well, we shouldn’t think of it as if the Holy Spirit is this emotionally fragile person. Rather, this is the term of a person who loves deeply. Listen to this sermon clip from Spurgeon on this verse comparing and contrasting anger and grief:
…grief is a sweet combination of anger and of love….When I commit any offense, some friend who hath but little patience, suddenly snaps asunder his forbearance and is angry with me. The same offense is observed by a loving father, and he is grieved. There is anger in his bosom, but he is angry and he sins not, for he is angry against my sin; and yet there is love to neutralize and modify the anger towards me. Instead of wishing me ill as the punishment of my sin, he looks upon my sin itself as being the ill. He grieves to think that I am already injured, from the fact that I have sinned. I say this is a heavenly compound, more precious than all the ointment of the merchants. (you can read the whole sermon here)
In other words, when we grieve the Holy Spirit, it isn’t out of fragility but out of deep love that the Holy Spirit reacts. There is something of a mystery here because often our grief is due to not expecting what happens. God obviously knows all things that are to happen, so His grieving is different from ours but honestly impossible to really explain.
But what we can talk about is what that grief feels like on our end. I think Spurgeon is actually quite helpful in that analogy of a father who grieves the sin of a son (as he goes on later to explain in that sermon). If you have ever grieved your parents, you can feel that break in relationship. You can be in the same room yet seem to be miles away. They haven’t disowned you, you are still their child, but you don’t enjoy the peace of that relationship. Your relationship with God works in the same way. When you sin and persist in that sin for a season, God will withdraw that peace and security so that you will seek Him. It’s critical to say here that you don’t lose your salvation (that would imply that you could do something to gain it in the first place!), but you can lose the enjoyment of that salvation. If that happens, seek out the Lord, repent of that sin, and in time, you will find that enjoyment again.
Coming quickly to conclusion, we see Paul making some summary statements about all the anger that we put away. In contrast, we are to be kind and forgiving, but note what the motivation is for that: God has forgiven you. I was reading the other night the story of the woman who was a sinner who came in to wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. She stood in vivid contrast to the Pharisee who sat there and barely gave him the niceties of a guest. Jesus points out that those who have been forgiven much love much. Beloved, you have been forgiven much. If you spend some time honestly remembering how gracious God has been to you, it will empower you to extend that forgiveness to others.
This brings us to the final couple of verses in our time together that sum up all that has come before: walk in love. We are back to where we started: ethics is the study of love. Love isn’t a feeling but an action, and the greatest action that love ever performed was Christ on the cross. As my old professor put it: “The curious phrase “for a fragrant aroma” was an OT idiom for God's acceptance of a sacrifice because of the sincerity and wholeheartedness of the worshiper.” (Thielman, 322). Christ’s sacrifice for you was wholehearted and accepted by God. The Son gave a gift to the Father, and you were accepted! That love that we see there, is an example of how we should love one another (Thielman, 322)
So what is our takeaway: We have been profoundly loved, so we should love back with our obedience. The obedience is not the ground of love, you don’t earn love by obedience, but you show love by your obedience. We also show what Christ has done for us. We speak the truth because that’s what Christ did for us. We provide for others because Christ provided for us. We forgive because we have been forgiven. Rest and remember the love of Christ for you, and you will be empowered to go and love with your ethical life.
Frank Thielman, Ephesians, Baker
Harold Hoenher, Ephesians
FF Bruce, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon
Bock, Ephesians Tyndale
Image by Ylanite Koppens