We live in a day when a person’s identity has come to be defined completely in terms of one’s own desires. This has become so important that we are told it is reprehensible to object to whatever a person identifies him/herself to be. In its current manifestation, this appears in the gender confusion that has washed over our culture here in the West. But this is of course the logical endpoint of the new definition of freedom that our culture has adopted: to be free is to be whatever one wants to be. Inevitably, however, this freedom comes at a terrible cost. By uncoupling the ties that bind personal identity to objective reality, we have erased identity of any real meaning. To say that I can identify as anything that I want to be is just to say that I have no real identity at all. My identity is as formless and shapeless as the sea of desires in which it supposedly rests.
Of course, one of the reasons we find ourselves awash in this confusion lies in our culture’s rejection of external authority. We want to be free in the sense that we don’t want to be accountable to anyone but ourselves. And this is incompatible with living under the authority of God and his word. So we have rejected it. The irony is, however, that in our attempt to abolish God’s sovereignty over us, we have in the process sped along the abolition of man. Rejecting the identity that God has given us, we have ended up with an illusion in the place of any real identity.
Now what has this to do with our text? Christians find their identity as sons and daughters of the Most High. They identify as his children, and as citizens of heaven. They are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. That is who they are. And this is what the apostle has been saying all along in Ephesians 1:3-14. However, could it be that this identity is just something that we have given to ourselves? If that were the case, then we would be no different from our non-Christian counterparts. But our text says differently. The identity of the Christian is not based upon his or her own desires but upon God’s identification of them as his children mediated to them through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In the text before us, the apostle calls this the sealing ministry of the Holy Spirit, which he further describes as “the earnest of our inheritance.”
So this morning, we want to look at the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Surely this is very important. Christianity is a Trinitarian religion; if you do not believe in the Trinity you are not a Christian whatever you may say about Jesus. But that means that we not only worship God the Father and God the Son, but also God the Holy Spirit. We should not neglect the Holy Spirit, and here in Paul’s hymn of praise to God, the Holy Spirit is rightly praised for his role in the salvation of the elect. We too need to be aware of the work of the Holy Spirit and to worship him as he is revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. And as we consider what God is doing in the lives of his people, it can greatly encourage us, which is what I want to happen this morning.
First of all, however, we need to consider some technical details relating to the text. In the KJV, it reads, “In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise” (13). Now the word “trusted” is supplied by the translators; it is not in the Greek text. The text literally reads, “In whom you also, having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in whom also having believed you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Now it is the word “also” that gives translators the problem here. What was Paul comparing the Ephesian believers to? Clearly the KJV translators supplied the word “trusted” from the previous verse (12) and understood Paul to mean that the Ephesian Christians trusted in Christ just as their Jewish brethren had previously done. That is one way to deal with the problem.
Others believe that what needs to be supplied in verse 13 is not “trusted” from verse 12 but “obtained an inheritance” from verse 11. Thus Paul is saying, “we have obtained an inheritance . . . you also have obtained an inheritance.” This is certainly possible, and may very well be how Paul intended his audience to read this. However, verse 11 is relatively far away from verse 13 and one wonders why Paul didn’t actually include the words if that is how he intended this to be read.
This is why still others believe that nothing need to be supplied, and that everything in verse 13 is related to the verb “were sealed.” This is the way the ESV translates the verse: “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.” This seems to me to be the best way to translate the text, and many modern commentators and translators agree with the ESV in its translation. The main point here is that the believers were sealed by the Spirit, and that this took place when they heard the gospel and believed it.
At the end of the day, however, it matters little which translational route you choose to take. It is certain that the Ephesians trusted in Christ just as their Jewish brethren had done. It is also certain that they had obtained an inheritance along with their Jewish brethren. And in each case, the work of the Holy Spirit that is highlighted is his ministry in sealing the saints and giving them an earnest of their inheritance. Which is what we want to consider now.
The first thing we want to do is to consider how the ministry of the Holy Spirit is described in these two verses. In verse 13, he is said to seal the saints; in verse 14, he is said to give them an earnest of their inheritance. Let’s consider these twin aspects of the Spirit’s work in the people of God.
What does Paul mean when he says that “ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise”? There are at least 3 ways people used seals in the ancient world. They were used to identify something as authentic, to identify ownership, or to render something secure. The work of the Holy Spirit in the believer encompasses each of these purposes. For the believer, all three uses of a seal – to authenticate something as genuine and to identify ownership and to render secure – go together. For when the saint is authenticated as a genuine child of God, this is the same thing as identifying them as belonging to him. And being the child of God is to be secure, forever.
The Holy Spirit authenticates a believer as genuinely belonging to God. The believer has the witness in himself (1 Jn. 5:10). How? Paul explains in his letter to the Romans: “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16). This is not just the believer talking to himself or herself. This is God communicating to the believer that they belong to him by giving them the assurance of their salvation. This is not something they are doing to themselves; it is something God does to them and for them. So he seals them in this way; he gives them the assurance of their salvation.
Now a lot of people have thought that the assurance of salvation undermines the urgency of holiness. If you know you are saved no matter what, what is going to keep you from living however you want? Well, short answer? Nothing. But the thing is that when God really gives the saint assurance of salvation, they are not going to want to live in an ungodly way. For assurance of salvation brings with it the overwhelming conviction that we belong to God and a corresponding detestation of sin. We must not forget that this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The assurance of salvation that the Spirit brings must be in accordance with his nature as holy; it would therefore be incongruous for him to communicate an assurance that became the foundation for an unholy life. True assurance is therefore inconsistent with sin; and in the same way, true assurance is the best motivator for a holy life. Saints are not pressed to be holy because they are constantly in fear of losing heaven; they are pressed to be holy because they want more of the heaven that they have already experienced through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in sealing them. This is certainly how the apostle John understood it: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3). In verse 2 we have the heights of assurance. John knew he was a child of God. He knew that one day he would see Jesus as he is. But he didn’t therefore think this gave him the license to live in sin; on the contrary, “every man that hath this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure.”
Perhaps the reason why people think that assurance gives a license to sin is because they think of assurance only in terms of going to heaven when they die. But that is not Biblical assurance. The object of the saint’s hope is not heaven itself; it is Christ. As Paul said in another place: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . . For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil. 1:21, 23). This was certainly John’s hope, to see Christ as he is. That kind of hope and assurance is altogether incompatible with living sin that alienates you from Christ.
Now Paul goes on to say that the Holy Spirit “is the earnest of our inheritance” (14). The word “earnest” means “initial installment.” The word that Paul uses here was a Hebrew word that passed into the Greek language. In modern Greek the word refers to an engagement ring. It’s not far off from Paul’s meaning here. What the apostle is saying is that the Spirit’s work in the hearts of believers is not just a promise of heaven; it is a part of heaven. The believer’s experience of God now is “the same in kind, though immeasurably less in degree,” with his experience of God in heaven. Charles Wesley expressed exactly what Paul was saying here when he wrote in the hymn, “When He shall more of heaven bestow.” Paul said the same thing in a different way in Romans 8:23, where he wrote, “And not only they [the creation], but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” The first fruits were not just an anticipation of the full harvest, it was a part of the harvest itself. Even so, the work of the Spirit in the heart of believers is not just a pledge of heaven, it is a part of heaven. It is a foretaste of the future blessedness.
But we have to be careful to recognize that such an earnest does not remove us from present grief and sorrow. We taste of heaven, but we are not in heaven yet. As Paul puts it in the passage above, we are still groaning, even as we have the first fruits. Or, as he put it in his letter to the Corinthians, “For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 5:4-5). Groaning for the blessedness of heaven is a fruit of the earnest of the Spirit. We groan for it precisely because we have tasted its happiness and that causes us to want it even more. It is artificial and superficial to paint a picture of the saint’s journey to heaven as if he or she were just passing through fields of dandelions and roses. I agree with John Stott who once remarked that some Christians grin too much and groan too little. Their grinning is not a mark of spirituality but of superficiality. It shows that they really know very little of what the apostle is talking about here. We are on a battlefield as we journey to heaven. We know we have the victory, but that does not mean that there are not a lot of battles to fight before we get there. And so we groan even as we have the earnest of our inheritance.
Yet the groaning is not the groaning of despair but of hope. And the hope of the Christian is not simply wishful desire, but one of confident expectation. What God has begun in us he will perform until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). Thus, Paul ends verse 14 by saying that this ministry of the Holy Spirit lasts “until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.” Paul is referring to the final act of redemption when death itself will be defeated and this present world will give way to a new heavens and new earth. This will take place at the final advent of our Lord when he comes a second time without sin unto salvation. This is what the Spirit is the earnest of. This is that for which we wait and hope and long.
Now how is this ministry of the Holy Spirit begun in us? And how is it continued? Paul makes it very clear: it happens when we hear the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation, and believe it (13). In other words, it comes to us through faith. Paul put it this way to the Galatians: “Christ hath redeemed us . . . that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14). Now I recognize that there has to be a work of the Holy Spirit in us that is prior to faith: those who believe are those who have been born of God (Jn. 1:12-13). Faith itself is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8), not simply a product of our own will. God begets faith in us. However, neither does the work of the Spirit in us proceed without faith. The work of God in the believer through the Spirit grows as we learn to live by faith in Christ.
However, it is not just any faith that sanctifies. It is faith in Christ. Note how Paul links faith with the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ the Son of God has come into the world and died for our sins. Believing that we are saved and sealed with the Holy Spirit. It is only those who come to Christ recognizing their helplessness to save themselves from the guilt of their sins and from the power of sin over them – it is only these who will be saved and sanctified. You are not saved and sealed by having confidence in yourself. You do not make progress in the life of godliness by self-actualization. You do it by clinging to Christ, by looking to him as he is revealed to us in the gospel.
And that is important: it is not just any Christ who will save. You can’t say that you have faith in Christ but then feel free to redefine him to be what you want him to be. You will not find him in your heart. You will find him in the pages of Scripture, in the “word of truth.” It is there that we must seek him. A life of faith is inseparable from a commitment to applying the truths of the Bible to our lives. That is why, later in this epistle, Paul will call the word of God the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).
That is why I want to encourage all of you to be consistently reading your Bibles and seeking to apply it to your lives. You cannot expect to flourish as a Christian and live apart from your Bible. And that goes for all of us. If you are a Christian, you need to be hearing God’s voice in his word on a regular basis. If you are young or old, if you are a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, if you are an officer in the church or not, you need to be reading and seeking to understand and put into practice the truths of Scripture in your life. The Christian who prospers is the Christian who knows and believes and practices the truths of God’s word: “His delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth froth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Ps. 1:2-3).
I was at a conference a week or so ago, where David Kinnaman, the president of Barna Group, was commenting on how our culture is changing and how the people of God need to respond to it. And one of the things he said was that our screens (think iPhone, computer, tablet, TV, etc.) are colonizing our minds. How true that is. But how unsettling, because in our day people always seem to be looking at a screen of some sort. How is your mind being colonized? What sorts of things are you looking at? What sorts of seeds are you planting in the garden of your heart and mind? What truths have a hold on your affections? Do the truths of Scripture have the upper hand or have the values of our godless culture planted its flag upon your soul? We desperately need to read, to believe, to love, and to apply the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation, to our souls.
With Paul, we should thank God for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. And we should be encouraged from his ministry in us and for us. It means that we are not alone and we are not on our own; God is not only for us, he is really with us. When Jesus promised that he would be with his church to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20), and when he promised the disciples that he would not leave them orphans (Jn. 14:18), he was referring to the ministry of the Holy Spirit who mediates the presence of the risen Christ. It is in this sense that he was promised. Christ promised to send him once he was risen from the dead and seated on the right hand of God. In his absence, the Holy Spirit testifies of Christ and advances his kingdom in this world.
Let me give an illustration. In 1587, an Englishman, John White, tried to start a colony with about 100 people in what is now North Carolina. He had to go back to England for more supplies, but because of a war between England and Spain he was delayed for almost 3 years. When he came back, there was no sign of the colony, just some letters on a post that spelled “Croatoan” (the name of a nearby island). But they never found the settlers. To this day, no one knows what happened, and they are known today as the “Lost Colony.” Some think that they just assimilated into the nearby Indian tribes. Others think they were killed by either the Indians or the Spanish. But no one really knows.
You see, the problem was that they had no enduring connection between them and civilization. When their leader sailed back across the ocean to bring back more supplies, they were really on their own. As a result of this lack of connection, the colony was lost whether through assimilation or death. In the same way, if we were really on our own, we too would be lost. We would either end up assimilating with a godless culture and give in to the pressures of temptation, or we would end up spiritually dead.
But our text tells us that we are not on our own. We have a real and permanent connection to our risen Lord. He is physically absent, that is true; but he is spiritually present. And according to our Lord, it is to the advantage, not the disadvantage, of the church, that this happen: “I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (Jn. 16:7). The risen Christ really is present with his people though the ministry of the Holy Spirit. They will never be lost because all the power of heaven is on their side. Yes, we have enemies. But “ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).
Do you ever feel alone? My friend, if you are in Christ, you are not alone and will never be alone. And though our circumstances may look very dark, and though at times we may be groaning very loudly, that does not take away the reality that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and guaranteed an entrance into the eternal kingdom. So let us therefore live lives that are to the praise of his glory. God’s glory and grace have come to us through Jesus Christ and nothing can change that. Praise God!