Grace-Fueled Effort

"[Trying to be holy] from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a selfrighteous, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.” – John Owen

“God has made it possible for us to walk in holiness. But He has given us the responsibility to do the walking” – Jerry Bridges

Grace and Works

Sanctification, the act of being made holy, can be a difficult thing to understand for new believers and seasoned believers alike. How much work do we have to put in? Does God do it all? Do we just “let go and let God?” Can we walk in holiness? The discussion of grace and effort in the Christian life can be seen in the way that Paul addresses the churches. Paul addresses these questions in his own special way in his letter to the Ephesians. He starts by identifying who they are in Christ and the blessings that are included in their new identity. He shows the cause of the identity shift, and the purpose of this new life. After all of this is established, Paul gives instruction as to how these people with new identities are to live. He encourages believers to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, exercise their gifts properly, and live the new life based in their new identity in Christ.

Who We Are

Paul in Ephesians 1 begins his letter by addressing his recipients as saints. From the start, he knew that he was addressing those who had been changed, transformed, and renewed. They were no longer identified as sinners but rather they were transformed, holy, and newly identified saints. He goes on to describe who they had become. These saints are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens (v.3). They are chosen before the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before Him (v.4). They are adopted as sons and daughters (v.5), redeemed (v. 6), lavished with the riches of His grace (v. 8), and have received an inheritance (v. 11). All of these things were true of the Ephesian believers and are in turn, true of you.

The core of our identity is the truest thing about us. The truest thing is that we are children of God. We are united with Christ. 

Chapter 2 describes the process of our salvation. Paul describes our identity before we were identified with Him: dead. We were dead in our trespasses and sins (v. 1), walking according to the ways of this world (v. 2), we were disobedient, living in our fleshly desires, and carrying out the inclinations of our hearts (v. 2-3). This was who we were. But our great and merciful God, because of His great love that He had for us, came and changed our identity (v.4-5). He made us alive in Christ. The doctrine of our union with Christ is common in all of the New Testament writings. We are found in Christ (Phil. 3:9), saved and sanctified in Christ (2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Cor. 15:58), preserved in Christ (Rom. 8:39), and we walk in Christ (Col. 2:6). We obey in Christ (Eph 6:1) and labor in Christ (1 Cor. 15:58). We live in Christ (Gal. 2:20) and we die in Christ (Rev. 14:13). Our identity in Christ is the truest thing about us. Dave Lomas, in his book The Truest Thing About You, divides our identities into two levels: things that are true about us and the truest thing about us. We may be a dad, a mom, a Republican, a mechanic, or a banker and all of these things are quite true. Being identified as a mom is not a bad thing, in fact, it’s quite necessary for life to function. But the core of our identity does not come through those titles. The core of our identity is the truest thing about us. The truest thing is that we are children of God. We are united with Christ. This, in turn, affects how we live, and this is where Paul makes his turn in Ephesians. 

Our Response

In Chapters 4-6, Paul makes a dramatic shift. He goes from primarily making statements about who we are in Christ to telling us how we should walk. Ephesians chapters 4, 5, and 6 are peppered with exhortations to walk worthy of the calling you have received (4:1), to walk in humility and gentleness (v. 2), to be patient, accepting one another in love and diligently pursuing unity in the Spirit (v.2-3). He tells us to be imitators of God (5:1), to put away lying (4:25), and to quit stealing (4:28). Paul spends just as many chapters describing the conduct of the Christian as he did describing the implications of our new identity and life in Christ. Working hard to pursue holiness and right behavior is important to Paul. These exhortations are all rooted in the person and work of Christ. Paul says in Ephesians 5:8, “you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light.. “ He roots our behavior in an existing reality. The reality of our identity in Christ. 

Kevin DeYoung writes that Christians are to work. They are to work to kill sin and they work to live in the Spirit. They have rest in the gospel and their identity in Christ but they never rest in their battle against the flesh and the devil (Eph 6:10ff). It is consistent throughout the New Testament that our sanctification is full of effort. Romans 8:13 tells us that by the Spirit we are to put to death the deeds of the flesh. Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us to put off the old self and put on the new. Colossians 3:5 commands us to put to death our earthly desires. The New Testament writers exhort us to work hard with the power that is working within us (Col 1:29). Paul ends his letter by spurring us on to work hard to fight the enemy using the armor of God. 

Our truest identity defines how we act and what we value. We are children of God but we are hard working children of God. 

The Truest Thing About You

Dave Lomas again says this about our identity: 

“[As a believer], you are loved by God, accepted by God, and put in right relationships with God. It’s not by your own doing, or because you have the right family, or because you have the right education, or because you have the right desires or attractions, or because you have the right job. It’s because of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of that your life is hidden with Christ-and nothing can take you away. You belong to God. If you have placed your trust in Christ, that’s who you are. Our call, then, is to become who we are – to live out the truth of this truest thing about us. There are many true things about you – about what you do and have and desire – but only one thing is the truest. Whatever you believe is the truest will be your functioning identity.”

This is the essence of what Paul describes to us in Ephesians. Our truest identity defines how we act and what we value. We are children of God but we are hard working children of God. We are holy by His grace but we work to be holy as He is. J. C. Ryle notes that the child of God has two great marks about him: he is known for his inner warfare against sin and his inner peace of his identity in Christ. We must trust that we are blameless before Christ but also work hard to be even more conformed into the image of Him. He is faithful to empower us. We must be faithful in our good fight of the faith.