Living Out the Grace of Christ – Ephesians 4:31-32

If you are a New Testament Christian, you believe that you are saved by grace and not by works (Eph. 2:8-9).  You believe that you are justified before God not on the basis of merit but solely on the basis of what Christ has done for you (Rom. 4:5).  We must believe this, for Scripture teaches us that we have no ground of boasting before God.  There is nothing that we can point to in ourselves or that we have done that made us worthy of God’s good and saving favor.  Moreover, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that this is true.  We know that they are sinners and worthy of God’s eternal judgment.  We know that left to ourselves we would have never come to God.  The only way we can have any assurance that we are saved is if the ground of our salvation lies outside of ourselves.  If salvation were based on what we are or do, we could never be sure that we were pure enough or had done enough.  We would forever be suspended in painful doubt, wondering if death would bring us before God’s blessing or God’s judgment.  The grace of God is the foundation of all the joy we have in our religion.

The grace of God is certainly central to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.  In this letter, we are told that the praise of the glory of God’s grace is the very reason we are saved (1:6).  He tells us that redemption from sin flows from the riches of God’s grace to us (1:7).  Twice he tells us that we are saved by grace (2:5, 8) and that in eternity God looks forward to lavishing upon his people the boundless riches of his grace (2:7).  The apostle owes his ministry to the grace of God (3:7-8).  God’s grace furthermore equips all the saints with spiritual gifts for the building up of the body of Christ (4:7).  God’s grace saves us and equips us for ministry.

Grace is unmerited favor.  It is glory bestowed upon the shameful, riches given to helpless debtors, strength and power given to spiritual corpses. 

Now when Paul exhorts us to behave in the manner depicted in verse 32, the reason he gives is: “even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”  Now this verb “hath forgiven” is the verb charizomai, which is clearly related to the word charis, the NT word for “grace.”  The same word is used in Rom. 8:32, where it is translated freely give: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”  The basic meaning of the verb is to be gracious to, to show grace to someone.  Certainly, this idea includes showing forgiveness, but this is an idea that is included in the larger concept of showing grace.  So yes, Paul is telling us to forgive others as God has forgiven us, but this is an implication of the exhortation to show grace to others as God has shown grace to us.  Being gracious is set in verse 32 in contrast to all the ugly and wicked attitudes and actions of verse 31.  We are to be gracious people because God has been gracious to us.  It is the obvious application in a book which is so centered around the grace of God.

The implication of the apostle’s teaching here is that those who have experienced the grace of God and who have embraced the gospel of the grace of God ought to be gracious people.  By nature, we are all like people with the attitudes depicted in verse 31, bitter and wrathful and angry and loud and abusive.  Then the grace of God comes and changes us.  We become or start becoming people who are kind and tenderhearted and gracious and forgiving. 

And yet, we are not yet perfect, and we need to be reminded of these things.  It is so easy to slide back into these things.  We also need to be reminded of how clear a break with such sins we need to make.  It is not only easy to slide back into sins, it is also easy to be give ourselves excuses with respect to such attitudes and dispositions and behaviors.  We need to be told again to “put away” such things.  We are not to trifle with our sins.  We are radically separate ourselves from them.  How radical does such a break need to be?  I think this can be illustrated by the word the apostle uses.  It is the same word used in Mt. 24:39, where our Lord is describing the extent of the destruction of Noah’s flood: “And [they] knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”  The verb “took . . . away” is the same verb Paul uses, “put away.”  As one commentator on Eph. 4:31 put it, “As a flood swept away the inhabitants of the earth . . . so should all these negative characteristics be swept away ‘from you’.”[1]  The destruction of the flood was complete; even so, let our warfare against the sins and wicked dispositions of our hearts be total.  Let there be no quarter taken and none given.  Put away your sins!

You see this also in the word “all” at the beginning and at the end of verse 31.  We are to put away everything associated with these sinful dispositions and acts.  We are not to fight against these some of the time, but all of the time.  We are not to fight with some of these things, but with all of them.  We are not to attack these sins when it is convenient, but when it is not convenient.  Put them all away.

Well then, what are we told to put away here?  The controlling word in verse 31 is “malice.”  The thing is, as we have seen, is that anger is not necessarily sinful.  We are to be angry and sin not.  Moreover, God’s wrath against sin is a holy wrath.  The word “clamour” doesn’t necessarily always involve something sinful.  It sometimes, in fact, describes a cry of joy, such as Elizabeth’s shout of joy when Mary the mother of our Lord came to see her (Lk. 1:42).  This is where the word “malice” comes in.  This word is just a general word for wickedness and badness.  By it the apostle is letting us know that all the things he is describing in verse 31 are bad things.  Yes, there are occasions when it is right to be angry.  But there is also such a thing as sinful anger and wrath.  There is a time when loudness is a megaphone for our frustrations and impatience and at that moment it is wicked and sinful.  We are to put all such things away.

First of all, the apostle tells us to put away “all bitterness.”  In its most basic sense, this word conveyed the idea of something sharp, like arrows.  It came to be applied to smells which were pungent, pains which were penetrating, and sounds which were piercing.  With reference to a person’s temperament, it came to mean bitter and resentful.[2]  John Stott, quoting Armitage Robinson, describes it as “an embittered and resentful spirit which refuses to be reconciled.”[3] 

Sharpness is an apt description of a bitter person, because their words tend to be arrows which sink painfully into those against whom they are bitter.  Paul, in his letter to the Romans, in describing man in sin, says that his “mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom. 3:14).  We come across the phrase “the gall of bitterness” in Acts 8:23, which seems to refer to the fact that bitterness not only makes a person unpleasant but also bitterness becomes poison in their very heart and soul.  In Hebrews 12:15 we are told to beware “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.”

There are people in and out of the church who have settled into an attitude of bitterness.  They are sour and they make life sour for everyone who is around them. 

Does this describe you?  Are you resentful and bitter, for any reason?  Do you refuse to be reconciled?  Have you become one of these unpleasant people who, because they feel wronged, want to take it out on everyone around them?  If so, you need to beware of justifying this and attitudes like it by saying, “Well, but that’s just who I am.”  Very well, it may be so, but then it needs to stop immediately!  Christ changes who you are.  That’s what grace does.  So put it away, all of it!  You cannot be bitter and obedient at the same time.  You must choose one or the other.  Of course, if we are serious about our walk with Christ, the choice is obvious.  We will put bitterness away.

I think I hear someone saying at this moment, “Well, this may be good advice for some people, but I can’t forgive and forget; I can’t help but be resentful, because of all the very bad things I have had to go through.”  If that is your excuse, fine; but it means then that you are not a Christian.  Christians are not bitter people; they are people who are able to put all things into the hands of their sovereign Lord, knowing he has forgiven all their sins and is committed to justice for all who have been sinned against.

The next terms we come across are “wrath and anger.”  As we have already considered the problem of sinful anger in 4:26-27, we will only comment on this in passing.  Let us remember that though there is such a thing as righteous anger and wrath, it is much more likely that when we are angry we are doing so from a selfish point of view.  And in that instance we have sinned.  Remember that “charity suffereth long” (1 Cor. 13:4) and when we become prickly with anger and wrath it is often because we are not longsuffering and therefore not loving.

Next, Paul mentions “clamour.”  This word refers to those who, in anger, cry and scream and shout and in other ways loudly vent their frustrations upon all who are their unfortunate victims.  In contrast, our Lord is described from an OT prophesy as one who “shall not strive, nor cry [the verb here is kraugazo; the noun Paul uses is krauge]; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets” (Mt. 12:19).  What is interesting is that right after this description, the prophesy goes on say, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory” (Mt. 12:20).  In these two verses, there seems to be a connection between our Lord’s gentleness with hurting people (expressed in verse 20) and our Lord’s quietness (expressed in verse 19).  You see this also in Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, in dealing with difficult people: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).  If you truly want to help people and if you truly care about them, you are not going to try to foist your will and way upon them by being louder than they are.  We all know that you don’t convince people by shouting them down; you may cause them to cower, but you will not change their hearts.  If anything, you may cause them to double down and harden in their opposition.

Again, this clamoring is just an expression of a selfish and sinful attitude.  It is an example of the malice which the apostle forbids.  It is an expression of a lack of self-control and of a desire to play God with the people around me.  We must repent of it.

Finally, Paul says that we should put away “evil speaking.” The word here is the same word that is elsewhere rendered “blasphemy” (cf. Mt. 12:31).  Other translations put this as “slander” (cf. ESV).  Hoehner defines it as “profane or abusive speech.”[4]  What began as bitterness becomes anger and wrath and is expressed through shouting and slander.  It is part of the “corrupt communication” that the apostle forbids in verse 29, and which grieves the Holy Spirit (ver. 30).  There are many ways to do this today, unfortunately.  In our day, social media has become a hotbed for this kind of “evil speaking.”  It is easier to type abuses on a computer screen as an anonymous person than it is to confront someone to their face.  And so Facebook and Twitter and a thousand other places on the internet have bred this kind of sinful speech.  As Christians we must repent of it.  Nor must we justify abusive language by arguing that we are just “speaking against sin.”  Yes, we must do that, but we must do so in a way that expresses a concern for the souls of men, and not just to score a victory for our side of the argument.

That is what we must put away.  But as we have seen, sanctification is not just putting away (4:22) but also putting on (4:24).  We don’t just die to sin but live to righteousness.  We don’t just empty the house but fill it with good things.  And so the apostle goes on to address the situation positively in verse 32: “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”  As we have already noted, the verb translated “to forgive” is probably better rendered as “to be gracious to” which of course includes the idea of forgiveness.  We are to be gracious to others as God has been gracious to us for Christ’s sake.

How are we to show grace?  The apostle begins by saying that we are to “be . . . kind.”  Stott notes that the “word is chrestos, and because of the obvious assonance with the name of Christ (Christos), Christians from the beginning saw its peculiar appropriateness.”[5]  To be kind is to be like Christ, who like his Father, is kind even to unthankful and unholy (cf. Lk. 6:35).  The basic meaning of the word is to be good and to do good to others.  The Christian is not a great person but a good person.

Someone who is bitter and angry and loud and abusive is a person who is turned in upon themselves.  As a result their words and attitudes are poisonous and hurtful to others.  In contrast, a Christian looks outside of themselves to others.  They overflow in grace to show kindness to others.  They are aware of the needs of those around them and they move to meet those needs as they are able. 

The next word is one I think we ought all to think about with the aim of becoming more like this: we are to be “tenderhearted.”  I think this is a marvelous word.  This describes people who are sensitive to the needs of others.  That is the “tender” part of the word.  But they are not only sensitive to the needs of others, their heart is moved toward the need rather than away from the need.  That is the “hearted” part of the word.  Of course, we are talking about compassion here. 

We need Christians who are tenderhearted, compassionate people.  They are like our Lord, who when he saw the people around him “scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” was “moved with compassion on them, because they fainted” (Mt. 9:36).  There are some people who are only aware of their own need.  Their world extends no further than their own frustrations.  But as we become more and more like Christ, we become less and less concerned about our own needs and more and more concerned with the needs of others.  Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we can’t not help those who are in need.  We are moved by the hurt of others. 

This is of course in contrast to those who are hardhearted.  They are not moved by the pain others are experiencing.  As long as they are comfortable, that is the most important thing to them.

This is an essential component to any healthy relationship.  Do we want to have unity in the church?  We need to be tenderhearted toward each other.  Do we want to have healthy marriages?  Then we need to have husbands and wives who are tenderhearted toward each other.  I have seen marriages on the rocks precisely because either the husband or the wife was hardhearted instead of tenderhearted toward the needs of their spouse.  So many problems would disappear if we would stop obsessing over our own “concerns” and start being moved by the needs and hurts of others.  We need tenderhearted Christians.

Such people are gracious, forgiving people.  They forgive, as Christ has forgiven them.  How has Christ forgiven you?  He has forgiven you graciously and completely and forever.  There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1).  We did not earn his favor, but moved with love he conquered our rebellious and hateful hearts (cf. Tit. 3:3-9).  Though I agree that we are to hold people accountable for their sins in order to help them repent, that does not mean that we are allowed to have a bitter, unforgiving spirit toward them.  We are to immediately and graciously forgive all who have sinned against us.  We are to forgive completely and forever.  There is no way you can justify holding a grudge against someone if you take verse 32 seriously and apply it honestly.  We are to show grace as Christ has shown grace to us, and grace is by its very nature unconditional.

Now how can a Christian do this?  We can do this for two reasons.  First of all, we have received the grace of God and God’s grace changes a person.  Yes, by nature we are foolish and disobedient and deceived, serving lusts and sinful pleasure and living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another (Tit. 3:3), but God does not leave us in that condition.  Grace doesn’t just change our status, it changes our nature, makes us new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  Grace severs the root of sin in our hearts and lives. 

Now if you feel still in the grip of these sins it could be for several reasons.  One reason could be that you are not claiming the truth that in Christ you are dead to sin.  The apostle exhorts you then to “reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof, neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.  For sins shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:11-14).  Note the fact that being under grace is not an argument that it’s okay to continue in sin but an argument to kill sin.

On other hand, it could be that you are actually in the grip of sins.  If this is the case, you need to be saved.  You need the grace of God to change your heart and save you from your spiritual deadness.  You need to cry out to God to show mercy upon you through Christ. 

How can a Christian do this?  Not only because God’s grace makes it possible, but because God’s grace also makes it plausible and desirable.  We can be kind because Christ has been kind and good to us.  And God’s goodness so fills up the heart of the Christian that it cannot help but overflow in kindness to others.  Moreover, the Christian can be tenderhearted to others because he or she sees how God was moved with compassion towards him/her in their spiritual need.  They look at the humiliation of Christ for them, the incarnation and the cross, and then at their own unworthiness and wonder how God would have ever been moved to save them.  There was never anything in us.  And yet, Christ gave up his glory in order to enter in upon our miserable existence to save us.  How can we believe that and not have compassion for the lost?  How can we believe the gospel and not show grace and extend forgiveness to others?

Grace causes us to die to ourselves and to live for others, as Christ died for us so that we might live in him.  As the hymn puts it:

What grace is mine that he who dwells in endless light

Called through the night to find my distant soul

And from his scars poured mercy that would plead for me

That I might live and in his name be known.

So I will go wherever he is calling me

I lose my life to find my life in him

I give my all to gain the hope that never dies

I bow my heart, take up my cross, and follow him.[6]

[1] H. W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002), p. 637.
[2] Ibid, p. 634.
[3] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (IVP, 1979), p. 190.  Robinson, in turn, was quoting Aristotle!
[4] P. 636.
[5] Stott, p. 190.
[6] Kristyn Getty


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