Grace for Service
The more we have explored the theme of grace as it unfolds in different ways throughout Scripture, the more we have discovered its variegated beauty and its far-reaching implications for our lives as Christians. It is more pervasive than we often imagine and, as we have noted in an earlier post, this is because grace is not a commodity, but is embodied in the incarnate Christ and is ours through our union and communion with him. There is therefore nothing static about grace, it is as living and vibrant and dynamic as is Christ himself. So, its outworking in our lives as his people – not just individually, but corporately – will display these qualities to the watching world.
Again, as we have seen already, even though the theme of grace has often been handled in a way that emphasises our passivity as we receive it in Christ, too often this leads us to overlook the fact it must be actively expressed in how we live. If, as J.I. Packer points out, ‘the evidence of conversion is covertedness’ – grace received salvation must be lived out in the new life of those who are saved – then the ‘newness of life’ that is ours in Christ is nothing less than the outworking of grace in all that we are and in the way we now live to serve him.
Paul draws attention to this in what he says in Ephesians. Having expounded the grace of salvation as experienced by God’s people collectively as the church in the first half of the letter, he goes on to show how this is worked out practically in its second half. The fact he begins this applicatory section with the exhortation to ‘live a life worthy of the calling you have received’ (4.1) is simply another way of saying, ‘live out the grace that is yours in Christ.’
The grace we have in him not only brings us into a new standing before God in Christ; it also enables us to reorient our lives to serve him and not ourselves, serve one another for his sake and also serve the world through the gospel to see his kingdom come. Paul puts this in a nutshell when he declares, ‘But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it’ (2.7).
Some have queried what the apostle means by this rather unusual statement – unusual because he speaks of this grace being ‘apportioned’ in a way that varies in degree from Christian to Christian. How does this tally with the Bible’s teaching elsewhere that God’s grace in salvation is enjoyed in equal measure by every believer? John Stott answers this helpfully by pointing out that it is not saving grace in view here; but, rather, ‘serving grace’. That is, the particular gift or gifts Christ has given us and the differing degrees to which they exist in us. The huge variation in this provision within the church is yet another reflection of that variegated beauty in the way God displays his grace to and through his people. But Paul’s main concern here is to call all Christians – regardless of their particular God-given ability, or measure in which it is theirs – to use their gifts intentionally and tirelessly for his glory and for the good of the church at large.
As he works out the principle embedded in his statement about ‘serving grace’, Paul spells out the different spheres in which this is seen among God’s people and how God uses very different kinds of people as they play their part.
He speaks immediately about the ascension of Christ as the God’s final seal of approval on his finished work (4.8-10). But in doing so he points to what the exalted Christ then did: ‘he gave gifts to men’. And what did this mean in practice? He gave ‘people gifts’ – apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers (4.11). At least two of these categories of men with a specific calling were once-for-all. The apostles and prophets – that is, the New Testament prophets – were given to be the foundation of the church through the ages (Eph 2.20). The role of evangelist has been debated; but there is wide agreement that pastors and teachers are given to every generation of the church. What is striking, however, is the purpose for which Christ gives them: ‘…to prepare God’s people for works of service’ (4.12). The blessings and benefits of serving grace cascade from the exalted Christ through the apostles he called and commissioned for service, to those who are specifically gifted and appointed to serve as pastors and teachers, but also to every believer in the household of faith.
Christ’s purpose, through those who are gifted and called for particular office in the church, is that the entire church would be so nurtured, mentored and mobilised in the faith that each member would realise their God-given potential as they serve him.
What is even more remarkable is that, as each of us uses our talent or talents in God’s service, Christ himself is at work building his church. Hence, ‘speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’ (4.15-16). He is at work through the works we render in his service and the net effect is that the whole body grows towards full-orbed maturity and usefulness through him.
The grace of Christian service in all its many forms becomes a mirror of Christ himself – the Servant King who came, ‘not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mt 20.28). He is the incarnation of serving grace.