What is it that unites the Christian church? Is it what verses 2 and 3 have already spoken of? Is it humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance? Is it love? Is it an eagerness about unity? That is scary if such were true. If unity were founded on our ability to be humble and to love with patience, it would be a precarious unity indeed.
To know the answer to this question is to know what matters to God, and it gives the foundation upon which “to do” church, and to carry out the exhortation of this chapter – to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. Our passage today speaks to us of seven elements of unity for any Christian church.
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Paul defines the church as Christ’s body in 1:23. In chapter 2, verse 16 he explains how, through the one literal body of Christ on the cross, God reconciled to himself both Jew and Gentile. Up until Christ there is a sense in which the two groups of mankind moved along separate paths, with the Gentiles on the low side. But now in Christ both have the same access to God. Are they still two groups, two bodies connected to the same head? No. They are now one body: “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body” (3:6). Chapter 2 uses other images: everyone in Christ are “fellow citizens,” “members of the same household of God,” “joined together, grow[ing] into a holy temple in the Lord.” If we are connected to Christ, then we are connected to one another. If we have the same head, we are members of the same body.
What does this mean? It means that the distinctions that we like to make as to whom we are connected with and who competes with us for access to God do not exist. Listen to these words about the oneness in Christ:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Based on the spiritual gifts we have received and the personal callings for ministry, we may have different functions in the body, just as the body has organs with different functions such as the eye and the nose and the foot. But no one is more part of Christ’s body than anyone else. We all have the same DNA of Christ. No one can disclaim another member or purport to be more necessary or have different access to God.
We are further told that there is one body and one Spirit. Similarly to the way we speak of having a spirit that gives life to each body, so there is the one Spirit who gives life to the one body of which we are made members. Indeed, it is through that same Spirit that we become members of the body. Think of it this way. Jesus Christ did the great work of atonement on the cross to save us from sin. It is the Holy Spirit, whom he said he would send, that applies the work of that atonement to us. Thus, it is the Spirit who breathes life into our dead spiritual bodies that we might hear the gospel and respond to it in faith. It is the Spirit who seals the benefits of Christ’s work (1:13). It is in the one Spirit that we have access to God the Father. “In [Christ] [we] are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:22). It is the Spirit who has revealed the great mystery that we are all members of the same body (3:6). It is the Spirit who strengthens us with God’s power (3:16). And as we saw in the previous verse, the very unity of the church is the unity of the Spirit (4:3).
This is the one Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the only Spirit of God. There may be many spirits. We do believe in a spiritual world, and Paul makes reference to an evil spirit in 2:2. But there is only one Holy Spirit of God, who indeed is God, the third person of the Trinity. And it is that Spirit which Christ has sent to his people to make them his, to bind us to him and to bind us to one another. If the Spirit is in you then you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons (Romans 8:15). You belong to Christ and to his body.
Paul then speaks of a hope to which we have been called. He had prayed earlier for the believers that “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, …you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (1:18). As individuals we have many hopes – hopes about relationships, about careers, about our children, and so on. Many of us became Christians with the hope that our lives would change for the better, and it is common to hear testimonies of how Christ saved marriages and reclaimed broken lives and turned around lives headed for disaster. Those are great blessings.
But there is one hope that is common to us all, and it is the great hope that surpasses our earthly hopes. It is for the fulfillment of this hope that Christ came and that all of Scripture looks to. Listen to how Scripture describes this hope.
It is the hope laid up for us in heaven. It is the hope of the gospel, the hope that is in Christ Jesus, the hope that is in God. It is the hope of glory, the hope of eternal life, a living hope to which we were born again, the hope in which we were saved. It is the hope that should be so evident in us that we are asked by others to give a reason for why it drives us.
Just what is this hope? Titus 2:13 explains: “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” It is the return of Christ and all that will take place when he returns – the resurrection of our bodies transformed into glorious bodies; the end of all evil and injustice; the dwelling of God with his people; the end of mourning and crying and pain. It is everlasting joy, everlasting peace.
This is our hope, the hope that unites us, whoever we may be and whatever our circumstances may be.
There is one body, one Spirit, and one hope to which we are called. We have one Lord, who is Jesus Christ. As Lord he is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (1:21). In Christ God the Father has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Through Jesus Christ we have been adopted as children of God. In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. God’s plan for redemption and for uniting all things together is carried out in Christ. He is the head of the body, his church. We have spiritually been raised from the dead and seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. God shows the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. It is in Christ Jesus that we were created for good works. It is Christ who has reconciled us to God through the cross. We have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ. Christ is our peace. Christ Jesus is the cornerstone in whom the household of God is joined together. It is in Christ that we know God’s power and love. Our goal is to attain to the unity of the knowledge of the Son of God. We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, from whom the whole body is joined and held together.
And there is no other Lord. Christ is not one in a long line of prophets or sons of God. He is not a man who through hard work achieved a state of divine status. He is the only begotten Son of God. And it is before him that every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10). There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
There is “one faith.” It seems evident that by “faith” is meant the contents of “the faith,” i. e. the gospel. Our world is big on the concept of faith. It says to “have faith” is what matters, regardless of what that faith is in, although faith in oneself is the highest form of faith. But for Scripture it is what one has faith in that matters, or what the faith consists of. Here, again, it is the gospel. And the gospel is spelled out in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The gospel entails all that was just said about Jesus Christ being Lord – that he is the Son of God and that through his shed blood we are redeemed.
And then the “one faith” entails exercising faith in the “one faith.” As Ephesians 2:8 states plainly: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” So then, it is by putting faith in these things, trusting in the work of Christ that his work on the cross is then made real in our lives.
To put it another way, and in a way that has most impacted me, it means believing God, taking him at his word. I believe in these articles of faith because I believe God. It is not natural for me to trust in what I cannot see and to give no credit to my efforts to be good, which is what the “one faith” teaches. But the “one faith” says that I am saved by grace through faith, not as a result of my works. To put faith in works is a different faith altogether, and as is made clear here, there is but “one faith.”
And then there is “one baptism.” This element is surprising, not because of what comes to our minds today – namely, that baptism is the one article of faith Christian clearly disagree about. There was not conflict over the mode and application of baptism when Paul was writing. The ancient church was Presbyterian! The odd part of baptism’s inclusion is that it is the only word that has not already appeared, or will appear, in the letter. Hopefully you noticed that in each discussion of an element I mostly used concepts already discussed in the letter. But this is baptism’s first and only appearance in the letter.
I think the “one baptism” includes the sacramental sign that believers would have received, but even then the baptism is that of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ. Consider Paul’s reference in Romans.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).
Note the emphasis on being united with Christ. And if we are united to Christ through baptism, we are also united to one another: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Paul puts these unions together in Galatians 3:27-28: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The result is that the “one Spirit” baptizes all believers of the “one faith” into the “one Lord” Jesus Christ, uniting them to the head and to his “one body.”
One God and Father
Finally, at the apex, is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. We have noted how the blessings we receive, we receive through Christ’s work. We have also seen how it is the one Spirit who applies these benefits to us, who, indeed, baptizes us into Christ. But both our Lord and the Spirit are acting as agents of God the Father. It is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3). It is God our Father who has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world. He is the one who predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace (1:4-6).
It is God the Father of glory who gives us a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, to know the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe (1:17-19).
It was God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, who made us alive in Christ (2:4-5). Our very faith is the gift of God (2:8); even the works we do for him were prepared by him (2:10). The work of Christ on the cross and the application of the Spirit were that we might have access to the Father (2:18). Indeed, the dilemma of man is being separated from God, and the great hope of man is in the work of Christ to reconcile us to God by the Spirit. It is God’s household that we become members of, and we are being built together into a dwelling place, of which Christ is the cornerstone, for God by the Spirit.
And so we see how the “one God and Father of all” is “over all and through all and in all.”
These are the seven elements of unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. These are the seven pillars of the church, the foundational bedrock upon which the church stands, the unifying forces holding the church together. Unity rests upon the three persons of the Trinity – God the Father who is over all and through all and in all; God the Son Jesus Christ who is Lord, and God the Spirit who unites us together under the lordship of Christ. Unity lies in the immoveable fact that all brought to the one faith through the one baptism of the Spirit are united to the one body of Christ, and are being led to the one hope founded in Christ’s return.
These seven elements unite us, whether we are walking confidently or tentatively. They unite us, and because they unite us, we are to be eager to maintain humble, patient, loving relationships. We are to demonstrate outwardly the inward unity.
It is the same principle as that in a family. There is the marriage of husband and wife that is a fact of law. It should be a marriage of love and mutual respect, but regardless of how well they are shown, the marriage certificate is as valid as ever. The children born to the parents are members of the family. Their birth certificate and their DNA unites the family together. The family should love one another, should be eager to bond together, but their attitude does not change the reality of their unity. And it is that very reality that intensifies the importance of getting along. Because of the elements that bind them, they can’t just go their own ways; they can’t just release their claims on one another. If they do love and they do support one another, it is a beautiful family. If they fail to love one another and to maintain unity, it is a broken family.
So it is in the church. How beautiful it is when brothers and sisters in Christ dwell in unity. How tragic when they do not. How uplifting it is when the church family is working together, serving each other, being there for one another. How deflating when the family members let each other down. I feel confident enough to say that most departures from church are not about theology but about failure in relationships. Though many are drawn into a church because of the truth proclaimed, many will leave when the one body fails to act as one body.
How then do we maintain the unity of the Spirit as verse 3 describes it? Just as we need to recall the blessings of our calling to motivate us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, so we need to recall the true elements of unity to motivate us to maintain unity in our relationships. We lose our eagerness for unity because we place unity on the wrong foundations – namely, the behavior of one another. If you love me, I love you; if you act with humility towards me, I act likewise towards you. If you like the same things I like, I will spend time with you. If you uphold me in front of others, I will uphold you. But if you don’t act in these ways, I will lose my zeal to maintain our unity.
Keep your eyes on the real elements of unity. Keep your eyes on your Lord Jesus Christ who is the head of us all, and of whose body we are all connected; keep your eyes on the Holy Spirit who has baptized us all, who has instilled in us a common faith in the gospel and a common hope of glory. Keep your eyes on the one God and Father of us all who is over all and through all and in all. If you keep your eyes on the ability of your brothers and sisters to live up to what you think they should be doing, unity will fail; but if you keep your eyes on God the Three in One and what the three persons of the Trinity have done and are doing for you, then you will find yourself living up to what you need to be doing to live in unity with your family in the Lord.
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