Articles

Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

This Meditation is the text of the pre-synodical sermon preached by Rev. VanOverloop on June 11, 2007.

"I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are 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."

Ephesians 4:1-3

The Ephesian Christians experienced tremendous changes in their lives. They had been without God, without Christ, and without hope. They had been dead in their sins. Spiritually they were under the influence of the spirit that works in the children of disobedience. Each individual was only selfishly fulfilling the desires of his own flesh and mind. They were all children of wrath (Eph. 2:2, 3).

Then God miraculously, out of the richness of His mercy and the greatness of His love, gave them spiritual life in Christ. Through the gift of faith they experienced what it is to be saved by grace. They also experienced a unity and peace with Jewish Christians that was unprecedented. For the first time it was made known that Gentile Christians were (and are) of the same body as Jewish Christians and equally partakers of the promises in Christ (Eph. 2:8-22).

Now Paul wants them to see that they ought no longer walk as the unbelieving Gentiles walk, but they are to walk worthy of the divine call that brought them out of darkness and into God's marvelous light.


The inspired apostle is concerned to show the saints in Ephesus that they ought first adorn the doctrines of sovereign, particular, gracious salvation with an urgent concern for the unity of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:1-16). They are to "keep" the unity of the Spirit, i.e., to guard or preserve it. They are not told to make the unity, but only to guard something that already exists. They are urged to preserve this unity at all personal costs and to be diligent to manifest it.

What is this "unity of the Spirit"? It is a unity that has its origin in the Spirit. It is produced by the Holy Spirit, not by man, nor by the efforts of the human spirit of friendliness. Second, this unity is a living, organic unity that arises from within—in the spirit of man. This unity is not first external and imposed from without. The Holy Spirit creates a unity by giving to all of the elect the same spiritual life. Instead of a mechanical unity, it is a spiritual and internal unity. Third, this unity is experienced only by those in whom the Spirit dwells and whom He enlightens. When Peter saw the evidence of the Spirit within Cornelius, then he could not deny the existence of the unity—and that in spite of the fact that they were of different nationalities—one ceremonially clean and the other ceremonially unclean. The presence of the Spirit in two people enables them to have true fellowship with each other, for He and His work are the only basis of real fellowship.

The Spirit-given unity consists of "the bond of peace." The unity that the Spirit gives to all the members of Christ's body means that they have an essential peace with each other. A relationship of harmony joins every member most closely with all the other members. The bond or tie that binds believers together is peace (just as love is the bond in Colossians 3:14). While strife brings disunity, peace promotes and perpetuates unity.

Concerning this unity, the Ephesian Christians are told they must "endeavor" to keep or guard it. They are asked to put forth every effort and to do so with diligence. Interestingly, the root of the word that is translated "endeavor" has the idea of haste. The Ephesian believers were to hurry about the task of preserving the unity of the Spirit. They were to show great concern that this unity be manifested and preserved.


How is the unity of the Spirit to be kept?

Some would say that churches and denominations should forsake all differences in order to be joined ecumenically with other churches and denominations. Others would say that the truth is to be maintained at all costs, even if the manner in which it is maintained causes unnecessary hurts, and divisions result.

What the apostle is inspired to say about how the unity of the Spirit is kept may surprise us. We are to develop and maintain an inner disposition concerning, not others, but ourselves. "Lowliness" is humility of one's mind (it is not external or visible), which is the opposite of a desire to assert oneself. Humility is true greatness. It is one of the chief marks of godliness and of Christianity. It is a deep awareness of God's great glory and of our own littleness because of our sin and sinfulness. It is self-effacing and unselfish. Paul exhibited lowliness when he declared himself to be "less than the least of all saints" (Eph. 3:8). Along with lowliness, every sincere Christian is to develop "meekness." The Spirit gives the fruit of meekness (Gal. 5:22, 23), and this inner gentleness must be developed. As the Savior was meek (Matt. 11:29), so all of His disciples are to have the willingness to suffer wrongs done to them. It is the inner strength that accommodates another's weakness.

The apostle adds the important word "all." That it is to be with "all" lowliness and meekness indicates that this inner disposition that is so necessary for guarding and preserving the unity of the Spirit must be exercised at all times and in every situation without exception. We are not to exercise ourselves in humility sometimes, but always.

This essential, inner disposition of humility is to manifest itself in the activity of suffering long and forbearing one another in love. "Longsuffering" is to hold oneself in control, over against a giving in to passions and desires. Only with sincere humility and meekness can we endure those in the body of Christ who irritate us. We are to be ever mindful of how our God suffers long with us. The virtue of "forbearing" calls us to exercise self-restraint while we bear with others who have been bought with Christ's precious blood. When we forget the unity of Christ's body and its importance, then we criticize insensitively and we retaliate selfishly. Instead we are to bear with each other because we have a greater concern for the Spirit's unity. We are to bear with them instead of dismissing them or being contemptuous toward them. We may criticize and correct one another, but the manner in which this is done is always to be in obvious humility and love.

Positively, God calls us to develop and exercise "love" for those in whom the Spirit is working the life of Jesus Christ. We are to know the other members of the body as God knows them (not as we see them). Loving one another we delight in the bond Jesus' blood created in us. Thus we are to be very interested in and concerned about each other's spiritual well-being.


Why are we to put forth so much effort in guarding and preserving the unity of the Spirit?

First, because this is a part of the "vocation wherewith ye are called." The Christian is a Christian, not because it is something he decided to take up or to do, but because he has been called ("vocation") into it. Each and every Christian has been called graciously, irresistibly, and efficaciously by God's Spirit, translating him out of spiritual darkness into God's marvelous light. This call separates the elect from the world, and moves them into the position of being saved (Rom. 8:29). The Ephesian Christians consciously experienced this call, for they knew what it was to be saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). They had been brought from being without Christ and without God in the world into a beautiful and enjoyable relationship with Him (Eph. 2:12, 13). They knew themselves to be of the household of God, heirs and partakers of the promises in Christ (Eph. 2:19, 3:6).

Having been so called, they are now asked to "walk worthy" of the calling. All who have been called of God unto salvation in Christ are to live their lives in a way which is worthy of, suitable to, their salvation. God called them to be holy and without blame (Eph. 1:4), to be children of God (Eph. 1:5), and of the household of faith (Eph. 2:19). Those who are so called are so to walk. Christians are to adorn the teachings of the Christian faith with a life that will cause observers to admire and desire those teachings (Titus 2:1, 5, 8, 10, 14).

A worthy walk is greatly concerned about the unity of the body of Christ. That is the intent of the inspired "therefore" with which this verse, this chapter, and this half of the epistle begins. The teachings of the first three chapters have a logical conclusion in the life of the believer. And the first conclusion is the unity of Christ's body and the need to maintain and manifest this unity (Eph. 4:2-16). The truth of the unity of Christ's body received emphasis in the teachings presented in the first three chapters. Election unites the saints at Ephesus to Christ and to each other (Eph. 1:4, 5). Redemption unto adoption puts each in the one family of God (Eph. 1:5, 6). We are all members of Christ's body, filling Him (Eph. 1:23). We are quickened together, raised together, and we sit together (Eph. 2:5, 6). We are saved by the same grace (Eph. 2:8). Christ is the peace of believing Jew and Gentile, making both one (Eph. 2:13-22). They are fellow-heirs and of the same body (Eph. 3:6). It is God's glorious purpose to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). The grand design of God in saving unto Himself a people in Christ is that "we all come in the unity of the faith, . . . unto a perfect (complete) man"; "the whole body fitly joined together" (Eph. 4:13-16).

The importance and urgency of the worthy walk of keeping the unity of the Spirit is found in the fact that Paul "beseeches." Later he will exhort and command, but now he entreats and urgently implores us to see the necessity of this worthy walk. To add to his plea, Paul declares himself a "prisoner of the Lord." This was Paul's lot because he was a willing slave of Christ, loyal to Him and to His body. Salvation by grace delivers us from enslavement to Satan, and makes us spiritual prisoners of Christ—not our own but His. In this we delight. We show this willingness to serve Him by desiring only that which would please Him.

Walk worthy then. Endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace!

Van Overloop, Ronald

Rev. Ronald Van Overloop (Wife: Sue)

Ordained: October 1972

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1972; Home Missionary (AL) - 1979; Bethel, Roselle, IL - 1989; Georgetown, Hudsonville, MI - 1994; Byron Center, MI - 2004; Grace, Standale, MI - 2008

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