As a campus minister, I don’t preach every week to the congregation I attend. I do preach every few weeks, though. When I preach from a manuscript, I like to publish my sermon’s manuscript as a blog post.
What follows is an edited version of the manuscript I used to preach the Easter Service at Auburn Church of Christ on March 27th, 2016. All Scripture quotations are from the NIV. You can listen to the audio of this sermon here.
As a minister, I get a front row seat in watching many people’s spiritual journeys. And I get to observe a lot of what happens at churches. So I see what we emphasize, and things we underemphasize. One thing I’ve noticed pretty frequently: we emphasize God’s forgiveness –– which is a good thing –– but often we emphasize it so much that we exclude other important parts of the Christian life. Almost two decades ago, a church in the city I grew up in had a bumper sticker campaign that said: “Just a Forgiven Sinner.” And this, or something like this, is something you hear often from Christians. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian isn’t behavior, but grace.
This might sound good, until you realize the implications. A few years ago, I was talking with a college student who was burdened by his struggles with sin. As I talked with him, I kept reminding him about the forgiveness and grace of God. Finally, he cut me off and said: “I know God has forgiven me. I don’t need to know I’m forgiven; I want to stop sinning.”
You see, the problem isn’t in saying that we are forgiven sinners. The problem is saying that we are just forgiven sinners. This student wanted forgiveness, but he also wanted power. And I get that. I don’t simply want God to forgive me for my lust, greed, selfish ambition, harsh words that wound others! I want the power to overcome those things. When you recognize sinfulness and destructiveness of those sins, you want to change. It is cruel if Christianity doesn’t help you with that! We want to triumph over the sins that plague us. We want the strength and power to overcome those things.
Only the worst of cultural Christianity is satisfied with God’s forgiveness without God’s power to change — what Dallas Willard called “vampire Christianity,” because it was Christianity that was only interested in the blood of Jesus, not the transforming power of God.
And so I want to talk about that this morning. And I know that might seem strange to you, since many of you might have expected a normal Easter sermon, one based on the Resurrection Accounts. But I instead want to talk about what results from the Resurrection: the power in the lives of believers.
And I want to do so from what is one of the most amazing statements of power in the lives of believers in the NT. Ephesians 3:14-21. And this is a particularly relevant section, because this follows a chapter and a half of Paul explaining the effects of the power of the Resurrection in the lives of believers. That’s easy to miss, but in Ephesians 1:15, Paul began to pray that the Ephesians see the power of God in their lives, the same power, he says, that raised Christ from the dead. And, then, in Chapter 2, he applies this Resurrection power to the conversion of Christians and to the Jew and Gentiles being united in the church
In Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul talks about this power again, the power of the Resurrection which we celebrate this morning.
A Prayer for the Power of the Spirit
Paul begins verse 14 by telling them that he is praying for them. He says:
14For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being….
Notice the parts of his request. First, he asks that the blessings come from God’s glorious riches. Or, the riches of his glory. In the context, this seems to refer to what God has done through the death and Resurrection of Jesus. The resources from God’s glorious riches resources are inexhaustible. If you are going to ask someone for money, you need to first make sure they have the money you need. So Paul tells you that God has the resources to give what He’s about to ask.
Second, the power will come through the Spirit. Because the presence of God in our lives is the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity, and notice that all three persons are mentioned in this passage – He is the conduit for God’s power in our lives.
Lastly, Paul prays the the Spirit, from these glorious riches strengthen the believers in their inner being. “Inner being” is not a common New Testament phrase. The Bible scholar Klyne Snodgrass describes it in his commentary on the passage, it is “the controlling center from which life is comprehended and choices made” (p. 180) So Paul has a very specific request for God’s power: that it be applied to your heart and mind –– that it affects your decision-making.
So Paul is praying that the endless power and spiritual resources of God get applied to the core of your personality through the Spirit.
And so Paul doesn’t think that forgiveness is all you need as a believer. Every believer needs the strength of the Spirit. The Bible never makes the Holy Spirit an optional teaching or something to be downplayed because He is mysterious. Sure, some churches talk about the Spirit in ways that go beyond and contradict what the Bible teaches; but surely ignoring or downplaying the Spirit is as wrong as talking about Him in the wrong. Sometimes I think we are tempted to treat the Holy Spirit like a store clerk at a department store: you hope he leaves you alone until you decide you need him. But the Holy Spirit isn’t just there for the days when you need Him; He’s constantly working in your life.
Another thing to notice is that, because your strength comes from the Spirit, – which in turn is a conduit for God’s glorious riches – the power available to you has no limit. God calls you to nothing in your life for which He doesn’t have the resources to overcome it. The Father called Jesus to die, but He had the resources to overcome death; likewise, out of that same power and resources, God gives you strength for whatever He calls you to.
But Paul sees this strength in your life as having a purpose.
The Spirit’s power will make you more like Christ. (v. 17a)
Before we can see what Paul’s implication is, you have to understand one thing about verses 14-19. Some of the translations obscure this, but Paul’s prayer is just one request with several results of that one request.
And so he prays that the believers are strengthened by the Spirit so that, in verse 17a:
“so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
So the immediate result of the request that we are strengthened is that “Christ dwells in your heart.” This might seem strange, since believers are already in Christ and Christ in them. So why does Christ need to dwell in believers? The word dwell is a strong word, meaning something like inhabit or take over. And we can miss it if we think it is primarily an emotional thing because it mentioned the heart. Instead, it is much more about Jesus transforming your life. As D. A. Carson explains in his book,A Call to Spiritual Reformation, “In short, Paul’s primary concern is to pray for a display of God’s mighty power in the domain of our being that controls our character…” (185). The purpose of the Spirit’s strengthening is so Christ may come to take over your life and shape it more and more like He wants your life to be.
Carson gives the illustration of a newly-wed couple who move into a fixer-upper. They move in, but over the years they update and renovate it so that it looks like they want it to. Though they live in it, they slowly make it their dwelling place. And that is what Paul wants the Spirit’s power to enact in your life. After all, Paul has already explained in Ephesians 1:4 and 2:10 that the purpose of your life is to be holy, to be blameless, to do good works. So he prays for the Spirit’s power to do that.
It’s important to see this connection, because Paul isn’t talking about God’s power in the way people talk about it on social media. People say that can win sports games or dominate business or become elected officials through the power of God. And this passage isn’t talking about that. In fact, it’s talking about the Spirit’s power making us more like Christ, the Christ who had no home to lay his head, whose career ended in failure by worldly standards, and who was killed as a criminal.
Paul’s prayer for power in our inner being shows that he believed that we need God’s power to live a godly life. It’s not in your power to live like Jesus.
Let me illustrate it this way, and I’m borrowing and modifying this from the British scholar William Temple. I think G. K. Chesterton was one of the most entertaining and insightful writers of all time. For example, he wrote, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.” On another occasion he wrote, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” But if you were to set this before me as samples, and then told me to write like this, I would be helpless. I don’t have it in me. It would be cruel, even if you forgave my mistakes.
Likewise, Christianity would be depressing if it held out a kind of life before us that we were unable to reach. Yet when we ignore this teaching –– that the power displayed in the Resurrection of Jesus is available to us through the Spirit –– we are in danger of making the Christian life seem this depressing. But through the Spirit’s power we are able to live up to the standard that Jesus showed us. Or, as John 15 describes it, we are fruitful because we are abiding in Christ and Christ in us.
But if God gives us this power, then the lives of Christian should be transformed. When you have the same power at work in your life that was demonstrated in raising Jesus from the dead, your life changes. The Bible doesn’t really have the category of a Christian who year in and year out doesn’t care about holiness and so isn’t transformed to be more like Jesus. If the glorious riches of God is available to you, then your life should change.
But this doesn’t just give us warning, but it provides encouragement and hope. Because you aren’t facing your struggles alone. No Christian leaves here this morning facing the temptations and struggles of the day on their own. You have the Spirit contending within you. That should give you hope this morning.
Empowered to Experience God More Fully
As I said, this is one prayer request with multiple consequences of that one request. Paul’s train of thought is that the Spirit empowers you, and as a result you become more like Jesus. But then, as a result, two more things occur, but I think these two results can be summarized as one:experiencing God more fully.
The result occurs in the second half of verse 17, through the first part of verse 19. Paul says:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love [of God], 18may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge”.
So what results from becoming more like Christ? You come to know the love of Christ. And this love is always – in the New Testament – most clearly displayed in the death of Christ for our sins. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son. As you press into the power and grace of God, you more deeply know this love. And Paul isn’t referring to intellectual knowledge –– as if you can write a thesis on the love of God. But Paul is talking about experiencing the love of God more deeply. He is, by the way, assuming that you, as a believer, can grow in your knowledge of the love of God, whether you are eighteen or eighty.
But Paul also highlights a second result of being strengthened by the Spirit: you are filled with the fulness of God. Paul writes in the last part of verse 19:
“that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
This is a phrase that Paul uses only here and in Colossians. It’s a phrase that hints at the depths of our fellowship with God. You come to commune so deeply with God, be so worked upon by His indwelling Spirit, with Jesus dwelling fully in your heart, that Paul can only describe it as being filled with all the fullness of God.
Both of these results are forms of experiencing God at a deeper level. Think about the blessings of this! You get to more fully experience life with the Creator. That’s the result of the Resurrection power transforming your life. J. A. Robinson rightly said, “No prayer that has ever been framed has uttered a bolder request.”
This isn’t just a side benefit: it’s the purpose of the Christian life! You were intended to experience God at a deep level. Or, as 2 Peter 1:4 says:
“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature….”
All this was done so that you might participate in the divine nature. How amazing is this?
If you aim for anything less than fully experiencing God in your life, then you are not aiming for the heart of what Christianity offers. Don’t accept substitutes: don’t settle for superficially exciting services instead of the deep worship of God; don’t settle for a dry legalism rather than full fellowship with God that shapes your life; don’t settle for a shallow social circle rather than a family with God in the midst!
And I think that superficial Christianity is shipwrecked on this realization –- that the Spirit gives us strength so that we can become more Christ-like and so draw us deeper into communion the Father. Superficial Christianity separates becoming Christ-like from experiencing God. It wants the amazing glory of experiencing God at a deep level without being formed into godly people. But this passage denies that! Love of God and fulness of God are experienced more and more through becoming more like Christ. This makes sense when we think about other contexts. I loved my wife tremendously when we were first married, but I love her more now. And I hope she loves me more now, too! And after nearly eleven years of marriage and being slowly and painfully formed more fully into one, I more deeply know and experience the love and joy of our relationship. There were no shortcuts. There was no option to be superficial and reach this point. And so it is with your relationship with God.
Pray for the Spirit! Pray that you get the power of God in your life to make you more like Christ! Pray that you can more fully experience God!
Let me close with the way Paul does:
“20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
What results from being empowered and becoming like Christ and experiencing God more deeply is that God is glorified. This makes God look great, because He is doing in us what we could never dream of doing on our own.
And notice that Paul sees the church as bringing glory to God. It has been fashionable for decades to hate the church and long for the purity of Jesus’s teachings: it’s as fashionable among your average Christian as it is among your disgruntled Christian who has left “institutional religion.” But Paul says that the church –– us! –– being glory to God. Why? Because in our midst the power of God is displayed. It’s displayed in our body becoming more loving, more generous, minder to each other, more racially and culturally diverse! This glory to God!
This morning, we worship God for the Resurrection of Jesus. In that instance, the God who does the unimaginable did the unimaginable! Jesus was dead. His movement over. His disciples scared. His enemies celebrating. But God did the unimaginable –– so unimaginable that the disciples didn’t expect it even after Jesus had told them –– and raised him from the dead. That God is still at work today –– in the church and in the lives of the disciples. I hope you see that greatness in your life. If you are a Christian, it’s yours! If you aren’t a Christian, it’s available to you if you’ll just follow Jesus.
And, so, I say to to all, pray for power from God, especially today, because as our minds are drawn back to the empty tomb and the Resurrection, we have a reason to pray for that power to strengthen us so that we are more like Our Lord and can experience Him more deeply.
Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.