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                        Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

 

All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Christian Unity.” The sermon was preached at Westminster Chapel, London, between 1954 and 1962 and first published in 1980 and reprinted in 1998.

 

`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 4:2-3)

 

In these two verses which are intimately connected with the first verse of the chapter, the Apostle, having described the general character and nature of the Christian life into which we have been called by God through His grace, now turns to the particular applications. The general character of the life is that it is to be `worthy of the calling to which we have been called'. That must ever be central and uppermost in our minds. We have been called to a particular kind of life. When we were dead in trespasses and sins we were called and quickened and brought into it. Or, as the Apostle has earlier expressed it, `We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them' (2:10).

The fact that the Christian life is described as a `walk' is significant. `Walk' suggests activity, movement, and progress. We are to `walk' worthy of our vocation. We do not stay where we were or as we are; we do not say 'Ah, now I am saved, my sins are forgiven, all is well', and spend the rest of our lives talking about our conversion, always looking back and remaining in that position. The Christian life is one of progress, of ever going forward; there are always fresh things to be discovered and fresh experiences to be enjoyed.

 

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The first particular matter which the Apostle mentions is that we are to `endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace'. Why did the Apostle choose this as the first particular? The answer is to be found in the first three chapters of this Epistle where Paul has been emphasizing this great principle of unity. He has said plainly and specifically in the tenth verse of the first chapter that this was the primary objective which God had in mind when He purposed, before the foundation of the world, and before time, to send His only begotten Son into this world. It was `that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one [or that He might re-unite in one] all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, even in him'. This is the primary objective in God's plan of salvation. Sin is a disruptive force. Sin always divides, it always separates, it splinters. It divides a man within and against himself. It has produced the constant fight and struggle which we are all aware of in our lives. There is the constant problem of good and bad, right and wrong; shall I? shall I not? Sin also produces division between man and man; it leads to enmity and war and strife. The world has been shattered by sin.

So the central object of salvation, in a sense, is to re-unite, to bring together again, to restore the unity that obtained before sin and the Fall produced this terrible havoc. The Apostle has worked this out, saying in chapter 1 verses 11-13, `In whom also we [the Jews] have obtained an inheritance', and then `In whom ye [Gentiles] also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation'. Then Paul works it out in greater detail in the second chapter, showing how `the middle wall of partition' has been broken down and how `of twain one new man', one new body, has been made. This unity in Christ of Jew and Gentile, he says in chapter 3, is the mystery which has now been revealed (vv. 5ff). So it is inevitable that when he comes to the particulars of the Christian walk and life, the preservation of this unity must be mentioned first. This is God's grand design; it is what displays God's glory above everything else. So the peculiar mark of the Christian calling is that it preserves this `unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace'. This is the first step in the working out of the ‘therefore' in the first verse of the fourth chapter. It is the first thing we must remember as we strive to `walk worthy of the calling wherewith we are called'.

The Apostle shows the importance which he attaches to this question of unity by the fact that he continues to deal with it until the end of the sixteenth verse in this chapter. In verse 17 he begins to deal with the conduct and behaviour of believers in detailed practice; but this matter of unity is the first thing.

 

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Let us now observe how he deals with it by analysing the statement. In verses 2 and 3 he makes a general appeal with respect to this unity. Then, in verses 4 to 16, he supplies them with reasons and arguments for keeping unity. First of all he makes an appeal to them; and then in order to help any who might be doubtful about this, or not clear in their minds as to why they should strive in this respect, he introduces the doctrine concerning the whole nature and being and character of the Church.

For the moment we are concerned with the general appeal---`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'. All who are abreast with modern trends in the Christian Church will agree that there is no subject which is being talked about so much, and written about so much, at this present time as this question of unity. It is the age of ecumenicity, with endless talk and writing about unity, union and re-union. How important it is therefore that we should consider what the Apostle has to say concerning this theme. There is much loose talk with regard to it; but our concern should always be scriptural; we must get to know exactly what the New Testament teaches about this matter.

The first thing, therefore, which we must look at is the character, or the nature, of the unity. We start by observing that the Apostle is not merely appealing for some general spirit of friendship, brotherliness, or camaraderie. Neither is he appealing only for some common aim or a series of common aims as against something which is a common enemy. These negatives are important because so much of the modern talk about unity is entirely in such terms. It is all very vague and nebulous. Frequently the call to unity is stated in terms of the fact that the world of today is sadly divided. As on the one hand there are atheistic powers, Communism and Humanism, so on the other hand, we are told, it is the business of all who in any way believe in God to come together and to act together. We must not be too particular in regard to what we believe, but we must have the spirit of fellowship and of friendship and of working together against the common enemy.

Clearly we must examine this attitude, and must keep this modern idea of unity in our minds as we follow the Apostle's teaching in this chapter. We must stress at once one thing which is of the utmost importance. Whatever be the unity of which the Apostle speaks, it is a unity that results directly from all he has been saying in the first three chapters of the Epistle. You must not start in chapter 4 of the Epistle to the Ephesians. To do so is to violate the context and to ignore the word `Therefore'. In other words you cannot have Christian unity unless it is based upon the great doctrines outlined in chapters 1 to 3. `Therefore' So if anyone comes to you and says, `It does not much matter what you believe; if we call ourselves Christians, or if we believe in God in any sense, come, let us all work together', you should say in reply, `But, my dear Sir, what about chapters I to 3 of the Epistle to the Ephesians? I know of no unity except that which is the outcome of, and the offspring of, all the great doctrines which the Apostle lays down in those chapters'. Whatever this unity may be, we are compelled to say that it must be theological, it must be doctrinal, it must be based upon an understanding of the truth.

Let us next observe that the word `Spirit' has a capital `S'---`Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit'. This refers to The Holy Spirit. Paul is not writing about the manifestation of some human spirit of friendship, he is not thinking in terms of the so-called public school spirit, or the cricket team spirit, or that of the football team. It is a capital S, it is The Holy Spirit. In verse 4 he repeats the same emphasis, `There is one body, and one Spirit', the Holy Spirit. Everywhere in this context the word `Spirit' must be interpreted as referring to the Holy Spirit Himself. It is because this fact is so constantly forgotten that most of the modern talk about unity seems to me to be entirely un-scriptural. It is entirely human, it is something that belongs to man; it is not the unity that is produced by the Spirit Himself. Let us proceed to look at this in the form of a number of statements.

The unity about which the Apostle is concerned here is produced and created by the Holy Spirit Himself. He alone can produce this unity; and it is He alone who does produce this unity. This is obviously a matter of fundamental importance. The Apostle makes it quite clear that this is a unity which you and I can never produce. He does not even ask us to do so, he does not call upon us to do so, he does not exhort us to do so. What he asks us to do is to be careful not to break the unity that is already there, and which has been produced and created by the Holy Spirit Himself. We are to maintain it, not create it. It is the unity of the Spirit. It is His work, it is something that He does in us.

Because that is true the following deductions are also true. The unity about which the Apostle is concerned is a living and a vital unity. It is not a mechanical unity. There is all the difference in the world between a coalition or amalgamation and a true unity. Amalgamations and coalitions consist of a number of disparate units coming together for a given purpose; but the unity of the Spirit starts within and works outwardly. It is comparable to the unity found in a flower, or a tree, or in animal bodies. It is something essentially organic and vital, not something artificially produced. It is something which is inevitable because of its very nature. It is not an external, but an internal unity.

Furthermore, this unity can only be understood as the work of the Holy Spirit is understood. If we lack a right understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit we cannot understand this unity. If we call the Holy Spirit `it', or regard Him as merely a power, and do not realize that He is the Third Person in the blessed Holy Trinity, we cannot understand this unity, and it will be nonexistent. Nor can this unity ever be felt and experienced or put into practice unless the Holy Spirit is in us and has done His gracious work within us. This explains why it is sometimes so difficult to discuss this subject with certain people. They do not agree about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, they do not agree about regeneration and re-birth. Their idea of Christianity is that it simply means doing good and being moral and religious, or taking an interest in a particular denomination and its activities. No profitable conversation or discussion is possible with such people as their whole conception of the Spirit is different. No unity is possible between such people and those who take the scriptural view of the work of the Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is not in us we cannot experience this unity; it can only be experienced by those in whom He dwells and whom He has enlightened. But if the Holy Spirit is in that other person and also in me, at once we are conscious of a bond of unity because the same Spirit is in us both, and we recognize it in one another. These surely are quite basic and fundamental considerations.

 

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A vivid illustration of the unity brought about by the Holy Spirit has, already been given in the second chapter. These Ephesian Gentiles who once were `far off', `aliens from the commonwealth of Israel', have now been brought into God's covenant with the Jews. He has acted in them, He has acted in the Jew, and so they are one. And therefore to talk glibly and lightly about forgetting our differences and getting together and finding a common basis or a common denominator is to talk about something which is entirely different from what Paul teaches here. The setting aside of differences may be accomplished in politics or in industry or in many other realms. But when you start with the Holy Spirit and His Person and His activity you cannot speak in that manner. If He is not in me I can have no spiritual fellowship with a man in whom He dwells. If He is not in him, but in me, there is no fellowship. If He is in both of us there is true fellowship; and this is the only basis of fellowship. It is where He reigns, and where the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is experienced, that this unity exists. Hence the benediction at the end of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians: `The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all' (13:14). Where the Spirit reigns there is unity.

We shall see when we come to consider verses 4-6 how the Apostle works all this out in detail. For the moment we can sum it up by saying that the unity produced by the Spirit is primarily spiritual, unseen and internal. Of course it expresses itself also visibly and externally, for as Christians we worship together, we belong to churches together and come into contact with one another constantly. But the thing itself is internal. Let us note again the importance of the order. We do not start with that which is external and then hope to arrive at the internal. We start with the internal and then proceed to express it externally. We must bear this in mind constantly as we read modern books about ecumenicity or listen to sermons and appeals. Their great argument and appeal is that as hitherto divided and separate people we must begin to act together, to work together, to pray together, and then we shall begin to feel the spirit of unity. But that is a denial of the Apostle's teaching. In every manifestation of life the internal principle comes first, and then the outward manifestation. It was so in creation; it is the same in reproduction. Two very small cells contain the life out of which a complete body will develop. A body does not consist of a collection of parts and portions loosely and haphazardly joined together. Every individual part or member develops out of the central life. And it is precisely the same in this great and vital matter of spiritual unity. The unity of the Spirit cannot primarily be seen; indeed it is something which can scarcely be defined. When it is present we recognize it, we feel it when we come into contact with another in whom the Spirit dwells. Our souls are invisible; and yet the soul is the most important thing in man. Furthermore, we do approach the soul and spirit through the body; it is the soul and spirit that manifest themselves through the body. So it is with this principle of unity.

 

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Having thus considered the nature, the character of the unity, let us now look at our duty with respect to it. The particular words which the Apostle uses explain it perfectly. The first word is `endeavour'. We tend to think of this word endeavour as `making an attempt at'; but that is not the root meaning of the word. It really means `to be diligent' and derives from a word which suggests speed. We are to hurry to do something, to show great concern about, expressing solicitude---`endeavouring to keep'. Above everything else, says the Apostle, as Christians in this calling to which you have been called, hasten to do this, be diligent with respect to it, never forget it, let this be the chief thing in your life; above all else show great concern and solicitude with respect to this unity that exists among you.

The next word is `to keep'---`endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit'. `To keep' means `to guard', `to hold fast', `to preserve'. The Apostle does not ask us to make a unity or to create a unity. It exists because we are Christians, he says, and we are to guard it. We cannot be Christians without the work of the Holy Spirit; we cannot be Christians unless the Spirit resides in us. And He is in all true Christians. The unity is there, and what we have to do is to guard it, to keep it, to preserve it. Our first and chief concern as Christians should be to guard and to preserve this precious, wondrous unity of the Spirit. God's grand design, the thing which God is doing through the Church, and by means of which, we have been told in chapter 3, verse 10, even the principalities and powers in the heavenly places are going to be astonished and amazed when they see it, is to produce and maintain this unity between the redeemed, whether Jew or Gentile. If we believe in God, we must ever feel that our first duty is to guard this unity, to preserve it at all costs, to strain every nerve and be diligent in endeavouring to keep it and manifest it.

The manner in which we are to do so is stated by the Apostle in plain words. They can be grouped together thus. The first two words describe us and our own internal disposition. The following words describe our relationship to others. The first expression is ‘with all lowliness'. `Lowliness' is humility, and especially humility of mind. This particular emphasis is found in all the lexicons. It means modesty. It is the opposite of self-esteem, self-assertion, and pride. Humility is one of the chief of all the Christian virtues; it is the hallmark of the child of God. Humility means having a poor opinion of yourself, and of your powers and faculties. To use the word of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, it means to be `poor in spirit'. It is the opposite of what is found in the so-called man of the world; it is the opposite of the worldly spirit which urges man to trust in himself, and to believe in himself. It is the opposite of all aggressiveness and self-advertisement and ambition and all the brazenness of life at this present time. There is nothing sadder about this present age than the appalling absence of humility; and when this same lack is found in the Church of God, it is the greatest tragedy of all. As Chrysostom said long ago, `Nothing will so avail to divide the Church as love of power'.

Next to `lowliness' the Apostle places `meekness', which invariably accompanies it. `Meekness' means an inner mildness and

gentleness. Yet it is compatible with great strength. Moses was the meekest of all men, and yet he was a strong man. In his inner being he was a very mild man, a gentle man. And our Lord Himself was meek. `Meekness' really means readiness to suffer wrong, if need be, the committing of everything to God. The Apostle Paul himself was a very meek man. At the same time he could say some very strong things; he could be firm and powerful; there is something magisterial about his statements. Yet as we read his epistles we find this element of humility and of meekness everywhere. He has already manifested this meekness in the third chapter where he writes, `Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints'---though he was the greatest of all---‘is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ'. Humility and meekness are the first essentials in guarding the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. These are the virtues found in our Lord himself. He says, `Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls' (Matthew

11:28-30). Matthew, in the twelfth chapter of his Gospel, quoting from Isaiah, describes our Lord thus: `He shall not strive, nor cry aloud, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory' (vv. 19-20).

Such was His character as we find it portrayed in the Gospel portraits of our blessed Lord. And we belong to Him, and are members of His body. So the Apostle in writing to the Corinthians makes use of this argument: `Now I, Paul, myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ . . .' (2 Cor 10:1). Writing in his Second Epistle to Timothy and giving him advice, Paul says, `But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. 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' (2:23-24). That is how you are to behave, says the Apostle to Timothy in effect; there will be people who will not agree with you; do not be annoyed by them and become angry. You must not strive with them; but rather try to get them to see the truth; put it before them in a way which will appeal to them, try to win them to it, wean them from error and win them to the truth.

 

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The Apostle Peter gives a similar exhortation in a very striking manner. In his first Epistle he says, `Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble' (v. 5). Note the interesting expression, `be clothed with humility'. The word that is translated 'clothed' means `putting on the apron of humility'. Surely when Peter wrote these words he had in his mind the scene of which we read in the thirteenth chapter of John's Gospel. We are shown the very Son of God here on earth; and this is what we are told about Him: He knew whence he had come and whither He was going. He knew that He had come from God and that He was going to God. But He took a towel and He put it on Himself as an apron, and He stooped down and washed the feet of His disciples. Then He said to them, If I who am your Lord and Master do that to you, do ye the same to one another. `If I have washed your feet, wash one another's feet'. `Be clothed with humility'. `Put on humility as an apron'. Gird yourself with the towel of humility; stoop right down, and wash the feet of others. This is the secret of preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

But Paul adds the word `all'---`with all humility and meekness'. Why does he add the word 'all'? It means `with every possible' humility and meekness, `with every kind of', `in all situations', ‘at all times'. We are not to put on this apron on Sundays only, and then forget it during the remainder of the week. Always keep it on, always be clothed with humility, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whoever the person is, whatever the time---`all humility and meekness'. Never be without it.

This is to be our fundamental disposition and character. Are we humble? `Let no man think of himself above that which he ought to think' says the Apostle. `Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed, lest he fall'. It is our wrong conceits of ourselves that cause division. One is proud of his birth, another of his family; one is proud of his money, another of his nationality, his status, his business acumen. Another is proud of his brains, his understanding---perhaps of doctrine---and he is so proud of it that he is causing division and thereby denying his doctrine! Humility! Humbleness of mind! Said Oliver Cromwell to certain Scottish presbyters, `I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider it possible you may be mistaken'. That is humility. And meekness goes with it; and we are to show it everywhere.

That being our fundamental disposition, we are to manifest it in our dealings with others. 'Longsuffering'---which simply means suffering long. It means holding yourself in control for a long time and not giving way to passion. You may be confronting a person who is irritating by his conduct - by what he says or by what he does. Well, says the Apostle, just hold out, do not give way to that desire to demolish him or to smash him or to humiliate him. Hold on, be 'longsuffering', do not give way to passion. In the Bible longsuffering is attributed to God Himself. If God were not longsuffering not one of us would be still alive, not one of us would be a Christian. If God were not longsuffering there would be no Christianity at all. Longsuffering is His attitude to us: so let it be our attitude towards one another. We have to suffer ourselves, and others have to suffer us. Let all suffer long!

Then we come to `forbearing'. All these words are related. To `forbear' means `to hold yourself up against'. A person tempts you to engage in a wrong attitude or action. Hold yourself up against the temptation. Put up with it; bear it; endure it; suffer it. All these things are difficult, are they not? Yes, but we are called to such a glorious life that it is of necessity difficult. Thank God it is! Others may not understand things as we do, or they may not be doing things in the way that we would like them to be done. Do not retaliate at once; as one who is concerned about the preservation of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, bear with them and try to understand them. A person may be irritable because he has been having a very trying time, or he may not be well physically. Perhaps he has not had advantages and opportunities in life, perhaps his brain power is not what it ought to be, perhaps he has not had your opportunity of hearing these particular truths expounded. Make every excuse you can for this other person, whether it applies to his conduct or his doctrine or anything else. Try above everything else to win him to your position if you are convinced that you are right. Do not merely try to score over him, do not strike him, do not dismiss him, do not be contemptuous of him, do not be impatient with him. We must he patient with one another, we must be forbearing, we must be longsuffering.

But notice the Apostle's further addition! `. . , with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love'. If you love people you will be longsuffering and forbearing toward them because you will have their interests at heart. You will not be so much concerned to show that you are right and they are wrong. You will be anxious that they should be right as well as yourself. You love them and are interested in them, and concerned about them; and because of that you are patient with them. If you love a child you will be patient with him. He may ask you the same question a thousand times but you will still go on answering patiently. You do something and the child says, `Do it again', and you do it again, and again; and you go on until you are almost exhausted. You even enjoy doing so, though you are almost collapsing physically. It is because you love the little child. He does not know, he does not understand; and it would be very wrong to expect him to understand at that age. You have to come down to his level, to put on the apron, to get on your knees, to be one with him. And if you love him you do so readily and gladly.

 

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What the Apostle is really saying is that, as we manifest these characteristics, we are preserving the unity. This is so because we are peaceable, we are peace-loving, and we are people who are easy to live with; we are peacemakers. This unity of the Spirit is kept together, is bound or banded together, by peace, 'by the bond [or the band] which is peace'. And as we are peaceable and peace-loving and peace-making we preserve peace and we preserve the unity.

In all this the Apostle Paul has been repeating the Beatitudes that our Lord Jesus Christ uttered at the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount. This is what He said concerning the people He had come into the world to produce: `Blessed are the poor in spirit', ‘blessed are they that mourn', `blessed are the meek', `blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness', `blessed are

the peacemakers'. These are the characteristics of the Christian. This is the calling to which we have been called. If we fail here, success anywhere else is useless. If my way of asserting that which is right means that I break the peace, I am not right, I have failed to keep the balance of truth, or there is something lacking in my character. The end of all doctrine is to preserve this unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The end of all conduct is to be the same. This is the teaching of the Beatitudes, and also of 1 Corinthians 13. Indeed it is `the fruit of the Spirit', which is `love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, faith, temperance' (Galatians 5:22-23). Indeed, the Apostle is really saying, Do not quench the Spirit, do not grieve the Spirit, but allow the Spirit to produce His own glorious fruit in you and

amongst you. And as you do so the unity of the Spirit Himself will be preserved among you by the wonderful bond and band of peace.

`With all humility and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love'. [34-46]

 

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