The Gospel Foundations of Paul’s Instruction on the Family (Eph. 1:1-5:21)

In this and the following three messages, I want to deliver a short series of messages on the Christian family, from Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, found in Eph. 5:22-6:4.  I do so because it is clear that the very foundations of the Biblical view of family are being questioned and rejected by our society, especially here in the West.  As a result, the church just can’t assume what used to be assumed.  The culture is preaching a radically different message about the family, and if we don’t counteract that with Biblical teaching, it will just be a few short generations and the church will also end up adopting values and attitudes about the family that are directly contrary to the teaching of God’s word.

Much of what our culture says about the family is just antibiblical.  For example, we are told that men shouldn’t lead in the home, that even the youngest children should make their own decisions and that parents should simply facilitate their own discovery of themselves (and that to do otherwise is “ageism”), that marriage shouldn’t be just between one man and one woman for life, that homemaking is stupid and that women who give themselves to the task of child-bearing and child-rearing and put this over a career outside the home are second-class citizens, and many other things.  Again, we can’t be silent about any of this, because if the pulpit is silent about it, eventually the people in the pews will end up believing this stuff and living it out.

Now I don’t want to give you my opinions about any of this.  This is the problem; this is what got us here to begin with.  We began to think we’re smarter than God.  Indeed, this is the fundamental problem with not only our own 21st century culture but of all human cultures going back to Adam and Eve: we want to gods.  We want to decide what is right and wrong for ourselves.  We want to be autonomous, not realizing that we have forsaken the fountain of living waters to hew out for ourselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13).  So I don’t want to give you my words: I want to know what God says about it all.  The prophet Jeremiah was right: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the [false] prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord. They say still unto them that despise me, The Lord hath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you. For who hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it?” (Jer. 23:16-18).  And then: 

Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord. I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart; Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal. The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?  (Jer. 23:23-29)

Let’s stand in God’s counsel and perceive and hear his word, not the chaff which comes from the mealy mouths of our modern false prophets.  To do that I would like us to consider together the words of God in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.

How do we begin?  Well, it might seem to be a silly observation at first, but it’s an important one: the information on the Christian family comes to us in the last two chapters of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.  I don’t think that was just a coincidence or a haphazard outcome of Paul’s random thoughts for his letter to the believers in Ephesus.  That ought to tell us a couple a things.  First of all, it tells us that the apostle thought that there were four chapters of stuff that was in some sense of primary importance, that needed to come first.  Second, it tells us that what Paul says about the family probably depends in some way, on the stuff that came before.

For these reasons at least, I think that any consideration of Paul’s instruction on the family in his letter to the Ephesians needs to consider the preceding chapters.  And in particular, what do these chapters have to say and what bearing might they have on what Paul says specifically about wives and husbands, children and parents?  That’s what we want to look at today as we begin this series.

I think a good way to go about this is to see that the union that exists in the Christian family is predicated upon two previous realities, that of our union with Christ and with his church.  It is these two realities that Paul is so intent upon developing before he comes to the family.  So I want to see what Paul says about our union with Christ and our union with the church, and as we do so we want to consider what this implies about the union that is the Christian family.

United to Christ

In the first two chapters, the apostle Paul unpacks for us what it means to be “in Christ,” to be united to him in all the benefits of his redemption for sinful men and women.  In 1:3-14, one long sentence in Greek, Paul breaks out in praise to the Triune God: praising the Father (4-6), the Son (7-12), and the Holy Spirit (13-14), as he enumerates all the blessings those who are the saints and faithful in Christ (1:2) have.  Each “stanza” ends with a common chorus: it is all to the praise of God’s glory (6, 12, 14).  These blessings are summarized in 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.”  Then he goes on to show what these spiritual blessings are that we have in Christ.  They are election to holiness and blamelessness (4), predestination to the adoption of children (5), acceptance with God through Christ and the forgiveness of sins (6-7), an inheritance in the fulness of times when everything will be brought under the total dominion of Jesus (9-11), an inheritance that is guaranteed by the God who is able to bring about all things according to the counsel of his own will (11).  We are given the Holy Spirit who acts as the guarantee and foretaste of our future inheritance in glory (12-14).  

Paul then goes on to pray that we would know about the blessings and live in light of them (15-21), before he then reminds us of what we were before God saved us.  We were dead in trespasses and in sins, slaves to Satan, to the world, and to our own sinful desires (2:1-3).  In this spiritual death we would have stayed had it not been for the next two words: “But God” (4).  God gives life, he “who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved) and hath raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ, that in the age to come he might show the riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (4-7).  The point is that all this shows if we are saved it is not because we were smarter or better in any way from those who are not saved; it is owing entirely to the grace of God (8-10).

Now it is important that we get this before we get anything else.  All this is a reminder of our utter and complete dependence upon the grace of God through Christ for our salvation.  But more than this, all the good works that we do that are pleasing to God are the fruit of our salvation: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (2:10).  

Another way to put this is that it is always wrong to put the imperative before the indicative, to put duty before doctrine.  Or, to put it more accurately, it is always wrong to divorce duty from doctrine.  If you do that, you are going to end up thinking that living the Christian life is all about you and your strength and your intelligence and your perseverance and so on.  Rather, we need to see just how radical our need is of Christ.  When we see that, we aren’t going to think that once we’ve been converted, well then the rest is up to us.  Instead, we will see that apart from the ongoing grace of God in our life, apart from union and communion with Christ which is not just a doctrine but a daily reality, we have no chance to do what God commands us to do and to be.

By the way, it’s not just Paul that says this. Our Lord himself said it, didn’t he?  “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4-5).  Here we see our Lord reminding his disciples of the centrality of this spiritual reality of union with Christ.  How successful can we be in bringing forth fruit for his honor and glory apart from him?  According to our Lord, there is no success apart from being a branch connected to the vine, a tree planted by the rivers of water supplied by the Spirit of Christ.  Even so, we cannot expect to be the people our Lord calls us to be if we are always trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and aren’t going again and again to resources we have in Christ – all spiritual blessings!

Another reason why this is so important is that if we are able to pull off a show (although that is all it would be!) of looking good as Christian parents apart from drawing daily from the wells of grace in Christ, we are going to end up as hard and unforgiving spouses and parents.  Legalists are hard to live with.  Pharisees are hard to live with.  People who say, as Paul said of his pre-Christian days as a Pharisee, “As touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6), are people who throw stones, not people who heal wounds.  If you are unaware of your own desperate need of God’s grace in your life, you are not going to be willing to extend grace and kindness to others, not even to your own husband or wife or children.  Brothers and sisters, let Christ dwell in your hearts by faith!  Daily live out the reality of union with Christ.

However, for others, forgetting the reality of union with Christ doesn’t lead to legalism; rather, it leads to anything from low-grade depression to outright despair.  The Pharisee doesn’t see the full demands of the law upon the heart, and that is why they are so confident in themselves.  They are, as our Lord put it, beautifully painted tombs with dead men’s bones on the inside.  But there is another type of person who can only see the dead men’s bones, who only see the corruption of their hearts.   But instead of looking to Christ, they just keep looking inwardly, at themselves.  And that is a recipe for great discouragement.  

Brother and sister, if that is where you are, remember to look to Christ.  You have died with him, been buried with him, and are risen with him (cf. Rom. 6:1-14).  You need not give into the flesh; indeed, sin can no longer have dominion over you for you are not under the law but under grace (Rom. 6:14).  Do you need to fight the sin in your life?  Yes!  But you must not do it on your own.  We are put to death the deeds of the sinful flesh through the power of the Holy Spirit who mediates to us the presence and power of the risen Christ (Rom. 8:13).  Work out your own salvation, yes; but do so knowing that you can only do this because God is already at work in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).

So before we even come to what Scripture has to say to us as husbands and wives, as fathers and mothers, as children, we must first hear what it has to say about our need of Christ and our sufficiency in Christ.  We need to know about our need, so that we don’t become loveless Pharisees.  And we need to know about Christ’s sufficiency, so that we don’t become spiritual paralytics.  All this is given to us in the doctrine of our union with Christ, and it is the great theme especially of Paul’s first two chapters in his letter to the Ephesians.  And it is all assumed when Paul begins to speak to the family in chapter 5.

Connected to the Church

Paul also talks a lot about the church before he talks about the family.  I find that interesting.  It shows us that the context for healthy families are healthy churches.

Now, we must not think that this is disconnected from what we have just been looking at: union with Christ.  For when we are united with Christ, we are automatically united with his body.  This is the point Paul makes in Eph. 2:12-22.  Paul is speaking to Gentile Christians who, because they are united to Christ in his death, are now also united to his body, which now includes both Jew and Gentile, Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free.  He writes: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).  Note the repeated phrases “in whom” – that’s union with Christ.  But now the result of this is not just an individualistic thing; it is a reality that has created a new temple, the one people of God.

In chapter 3, the apostle is talking about his ministry for the church and his prayer for the church.  Then, in chapter 4, the beginning of the more “practical” section of Ephesians, he continues with the implications for the church of what it means to be united to Christ.  Indeed, chapters 4-6 are just the practical applications of the doctrine he had been writing about in the first three chapters.  So he reminds us, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (4:4-6).  The members of the church are one in Christ through mutual union with him.  

And the church receives its gifts from the risen Christ (8-16), by which it is able to grow and be healthy.  By the way, I think it is important that Paul does not envisage merely an invisible church, but a visible one, a church which is organized under the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers (11).  This is no recipe for a privatized Christianity, but one in which “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (16, ESV).

This church is to be radically different from the surrounding Gentile society (17-24).  We have not so learned Christ (20).  As a result, we are called to walk worthy of the vocation with which we have been called, “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (2-3).  We are to put away lying, anger, stealing, and corrupt communication (25-30).  It is all summed up in the last two verses of the fourth chapter: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you” (31-32).

Paul continues with this theme in chapter 5, showing us how the church is to be radically different from pagan society that surrounds it.  We are to be characterized but love, not lust; by thanksgiving, not filthy speech; by light, not darkness; by wisdom, not folly; by the Holy Spirit, not excess (1-18).

This last exhortation (“And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit”) shows us what the Spirit-filled Christian it to be like, and it again reminds us that the Christian is a person who is a part of the church.  Here is what being filled with the Spirit (the fruit of union with Christ) looks like: it means that we are singing to each other, giving thanks to God and the Father in the name of Christ, and that we are submitting to the authorities in our lives in the fear of God (19-21).

We are now at the doorstep of Paul’s exhortations to the family.

But the point we need to make is that a lot has already been said, and a lot of this is about the Christian in relation, first of all to Christ, and then to the church.  We are united to Christ and connected to the church.  We’ve seen how much we need union with Christ, but we also need to see how much we need the church.  The church is the context of the one-anothering of the epistles.  You see four in this epistle: we are to forebear with each other in love (4:2); we are members of one another (25); we are to be kind to one another and to forgive one another (32); we are to submit to one another in the fear of Christ (5:21).  It is the divinely ordained context in which we grow in grace.  It is significant, I think, that this epistle was not written to individual Christians, but to the church in Ephesus.  

Now I know that churches can have problems.  And sometimes those problems can seem insurmountable.  But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to get rid of churches.  That would be like saying that divorce is proof that there is a problem with the institution of marriage.  No, the problem is that people are stupid and sin against each other.  The reason why churches have problems is not that the church is a bad idea.  The reason is because the church is full of people – like me and like you – who sometimes do stupid things and sin against people.  The solution is not to get rid of the institution of the church, but to repent of the sin!

By the way, you won’t be able to get rid of the church, since Jesus our Lord said he was building it, and the gates of hell would never be able to prevail against it (Mt. 16:18).  Also, this is what God is doing – in other words, if you want to be a part of something that God is doing in the world, you will want to be a part of the church.  Why in the world would we want to distance ourselves from the church which Christ is building?

The soil in which strong families grow

So what is the soil in which strong families grow?  They grow in the rich soil of faith in Christ (by which we are united to him) and commitment to his church.  Another way to put this is to look at the way the recipients of this letter are address: “the saints which are at Ephesus” (1:1).  The “saints” here are not a reference to super-saints.  I mentioned St. Francis of Assisi last week, and someone asked why I called him Saint Francis.  Well, he was a saint, and if you are in Christ, so are you!  All who are in Christ, who participate in the spiritual blessings in Christ, are sanctified – not in the sense that they are holier than others or have performed some great miracles, but in the sense that through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for their sins, they have been forgiven and justified and set apart by grace for inclusion in the people of God.  In the NT, often sanctification is not something we do, but something done to us by the saving work of God for us.  

How do you become a saint?  You become so because of what God has done for you in Christ.  And you receive this as a gift by faith, not by working for it, or becoming worthy of it.  It is because Jesus died for our sins so that our sins could be forgiven, and it is because he is doing a work in us through the Holy Spirit that we are sanctified.  It is all of grace.  It is because we are united to Christ in the fulness and richness of his mercy and kindness.

But note, it is not just “saints” but “saints which are at Ephesus.”  The city is mentioned here because this is where the church was.  They are visible saints situated in a visible church.  They are not Lone Rangers; they are church members.  They are growing in grace because they are participating in the means of grace given by Christ to his church.  They are sitting under the preaching of the word, they are being discipled, they are singing to one another, and they are taking the Lord’s Supper together.  They are fellowshipping with one another, and they are encouraging and exhorting one another in the things of God.

It is saints in a church who are also “the faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1, there you see union with Christ again!).  We who have been sanctified and set apart in Christ are now ready to be faithful.  We are now ready to put into practice the things God commands of us.  Not in our own strength, but in the strength God provides.

Where do we go from here?

What are the implications for our familial responsibility?  How does all this affect the way we should approach the family code that we find here in Ephesians 5-6?  Let me put it to you in four words: God, gospel, grace, and the gathering.


Everything Paul says here along with the rest of the Bible assumes the ultimate authority and sovereignty of God over all things.  Paul is an apostle, not because he made himself one, but “by the will of God” (1:1).  Everything he says in this epistle is meant to communicate, not his will, but the will of God for us.  We need to remember that.  Paul’s instructions to wives and husbands, children and fathers, are not his opinions but the word and will of God.  We take this seriously because God is God, and we are not.  The essence of sin is “any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God” (Shorter Catechism).  Here we have God’s law and will for the family.  To reject it, to ignore it, to compromise on it, or to water it down to make it fit the will of the wider culture is sin.  On the other hand, to hear this and believe it, to be convinced of the wisdom and goodness of what Paul says here, and to obey what he says is right and good for us.  This is important because if we don’t really believe that we won’t obey it when the going gets hard.  And trust me, it will get hard.  


Ephesians is all about the gospel.  The gospel is the good news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus to save us from our sins.  That is what the “in Christ” is all about.  All the spiritual blessings from God that bring us to heaven and eternal fellowship with him come to us in Christ and only in Christ.  And if we believe that, and we understand that God is kind to us, not because we deserved it, not because we did what was right – we were his enemies! – then our whole lives will be flavored by the gospel.  Not merely in terms of what we say we believe, but in terms of how we look at others and act toward others, especially the others in our own homes.  You simply cannot live out what Paul says here: wives submitting to their own husbands, husbands lovingly leading their wives, children obeying their parents and fathers bringing up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, if you are harsh and unkind and ungracious, if you are unforgiving and unloving.  The gospel, truly believed, disarms us of highbrowed legalistic pride and harshness.  It is a contradiction to believe that you are justified by faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of grace alone and then to be unforgiving toward your spouse or child or parent.  We need to believe the gospel and we need to live out the gospel.  If we don’t do that, nothing of what Paul says is really going to get us very far.


The gospel is a gospel of grace.  Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God to us in Christ, received by trusting in Christ rather than in ourselves and our good works.  But there is another sense in which grace is used in the NT.  It is also used of the enabling of God in us by which we live for his glory in this world.  Paul is using it this way in Eph. 4:7, when he says about spiritual gifts: “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”  It is called grace because this enabling itself is a free gift and dependent upon the work of Christ for us.   

What we need to understand is that the grace of God which comes to those who are united to Christ by faith strengthens them and enables them to do God’s will, to fulfill the tasks he has given us to do.  So Paul writing about himself, says, “I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:7-8).  Paul could do what he did because God not only called him to do it, but also gave him the strength and the enabling for it.

You need to believe that if you are a Christian, because there will be times when life is so chaotic and stressful and when we have sinned against each other, that Paul’s vision for the family just seems impossible.  But you must never believe that.  If God calls us to do it, he will strengthen us for the task.  “Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).


By the gathering, I mean the called-out community of believers which we call the church.  We’ve seen how important Paul understands the church to be in the life of a believer.  The point is this: we need to be a part of a church if we want our families to be strong.  I realize that there can be exceptions to the rule, but they are exceptions that prove the rule, and it would be foolish of us to gamble on the off-chance that we can separate from the church and still be okay.  We need to be plugged in to the church and we need to stay plugged in to the church.  

So as we come in the next few weeks to see Paul’s instructions to the family, let’s remember these things.  Let’s embrace the centrality of being united to Christ and the importance of being connected to the church so that we can truly implement and put into practice the exhortations we come to here and in this way bring honor to Christ and his gospel.


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