The Unity of the Spirit

By Bobby L. Graham

In Ephesians 4:3 the apostle urged saints in Ephesus to be “giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The word keep, indicating the relationship of Christians toward this unity, argues that such unity (oneness) has already been fashioned or created by the Spirit in his work of divine revelation; this is equivalent to saying that his plan for unity has been made known. It never has been the prerogative of human beings to chart their own been the prerogative of human beings to chart their own religious course, but to maintain the course divinely charted for them. It thus becomes easy to see that the Holy Spirit’s work, being discussed in this special issue, includes his efforts in this realm.

The Spirit’s Harmonious Work

As in other areas, the Spirit has worked in harmony with the Father and the Son in the producing of this unity. For this same spiritual oneness, Jesus fervently prayed as he moved from petitions concerning the apostles to requests on behalf of all disciples on the night before his betrayal and arrest (Jn. 17:20-23).

In addition to such unity being requested by the Christ, it was also powerfully exemplified by him. In verse twenty-one of the prayer Jesus compared the unity of disciples being requested to that existing between the Father and himself. It is a unity of plan or purpose, heart, and attitude. When all disciples are genuinely committed to the will of God and develop faith that will accept unreservedly what the Bible says, they can be one, as the Father and the Son are one.

Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians also implies the Spirit’s endeavors in this area to be harmonious with others of the Godhead, in his centering the plan for unity revealed by the Spirit, around the one God, the one Lord, and the one Spirit. He made it obvious that their oneness in matters pertaining to God and to souls of men is the foundation of the unity that saints ought to keep. The Son’s voluntary subordination to the will of the Father and the Spirit’s revelation of that will demonstrate beyond doubt that the will of the Lord, expressed in divine revelation, is the standard around which all must gather in order to be one as God wills (Phil. 2:5-8; Jn. 6:38; 1 Cor. 2:6-10).

Attitudes Contributing to Unity

The section of Ephesians 4 cited above commences with Paul’s plea for unity, based on his selfless conduct even to the point of imprisonment. Such conduct on his part can easily encourage selfless behavior in present-day disciples – conduct worthy of the calling of the gospel. The specific point of such conduct is then identified by the writer: “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Every characteristic mentioned in this section is proof of the willingness to subordinate self to the will of God and to the good of others in a local-church setting. Apart from such an attitude, no spiritual oneness can ever exist, either in relation to God or to other Christians.

Even without the formal definitions of the Greek words used, it is easily seen that the attitude of arrogance, assertion of self, quickness of temper, and impatience toward others will either make attainment of this unity impossible or make its destruction sure. That sense of littleness involved in lowliness will preclude partiality based on wealth, education, power, or personal charisma. The role-or-ruin mentality will not exist, but humble submissiveness to God’s will and to other brethren will prevail. A mildness of disposition and gentleness of manner will replace harsh attitudes and abusive speech in dealings with others, even efforts to correct another. It also applies to the attitude in which one receives a correction. This is the way of meekness. Self-restraint in the face of provocation, the refusal to retaliate hastily or punish promptly is the result of being long-tempered, suggested by our word longsuffering. Forbearance in love connotes bearing with one, enduring one because of genuine regard/concern for that one.

These components of attitude will be demonstrated by one who has repented and daily takes up his cross in following Jesus. The self-denial demanded by the Lord includes all such evidences as the ones mentioned by Paul in the passage on the unity of the Spirit. Because one’s conversion to Christ is directed by the Spirit, the convert will show in life the transformed character produced by giving heed to the Spirit. Even the attitude contributing to such unity is the result of following the Spirit’s instructions.

The Spirit’s Basis for Unity

While union can be enjoyed with people differing in their attitudes, true oneness of mind and action can take place only when people are willing to submit themselves to one another. That oneness desired by the Father, prayed for by Christ, and provided for by the Spirit can exist on no other basis than that provided by Him.

The one body comprehends all the saved and is equal to the universal church (Eph. 1:23; 5:23). As such, it constitutes the limits of those with whom Christians are united spiritually. By entering into Christ and his body, those formerly divided in their affections, attitudes, and purposes become one.

Direction for their entering Christ and keeping the unity of the Spirit is given by the Holy Spirit, the one Spirit of verse four. That the divine person is here referred to, not some disposition on man’s part, can be seen in the inclusion of the Father and the Lord (Christ). Apart from the Spirit of God, there is no guidance for any of our efforts in entering into Christ or following him as disciples. Unity is thus produced as the Spirit is heeded.

The one hope of the Christian’s calling is the hope of the gospel, by which the call is sent and received (Col. 1:23; 2 Thess. 2:14). It is the stimulus in all of the Christian’s endeavors – keeping him saved to the very end if he keeps it in mind (Rom. 8:24-25; 1 Cor. 15:1-2).

Authority centers in the one Lord, for he dispatched from heaven the one Spirit, established the one body (church), and procured in his death and resurrection the one hope. Heaven’s testimony continues to exhort, “Hear ye him.” When the will of Christ controls the thinking and conduct of all saints, then oneness under the lordship of Jesus-Christ prevails.

One faith, whether objective or subjective, still points to the willingness to take Christ, the one Lord, at his word. It is this writer’s judgment that the body of faith or system of teaching delivered by Christ and revealed by the Spirit is being considered. If the Christian’s own faith is intended, it also would be circumscribed by the authority of Chris and the revelation of the Spirit.

One baptism is the consummating act of conversion to Christ, a part of the now birth of John 3. Its very inclusion in the Spirit’s provision of a basis for unity gives it the force of necessity. One who has not thus submitted his will to Christ cannot be one with other who have done so.

The one God, even the Father, is placed last; but his preeminence in the remedial dispensation is clearly demonstrated by the prepositional phrases. He is over all; that is, supremacy belongs to him. He is through all; that is, he operates effectively to promote the spiritual good through means of his own choosing, all working through the gospel. He is all in all; that is, he sustains a close relationship to all of his children. The absolutely pervasive rule of God in creating, preserving, and guiding his spiritual body, as well as the world, is here stated as an incentive to the maintenance of the unity of the Spirit.

The Manner of Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

So important is that unity of the Spirit being discussed that diligence is the only word sufficient to describe efforts expended to maintain it. Continuing efforts on the part of vigilant people of the Lord, who daily examine themselves respecting the qualities of attitude specified in the passage, are essential. The persons addressed in this matter are a vital part in such an endeavor. They are to be “giving diligence to keep” such unity.

They are furthermore urged to do so “in the bond of peace.” In this expression the Spirit refers to the composite attitude already studied, for it is the only one that approaches matters in a manner calculated to produce and maintain peaceful relations. No surrender or compromise of truth is here contemplated, but some of the shoddy practices sometimes defended as “upholding truth” are also eliminated from the weaponry of the Christian soldier. Just as all man-originated teachings and practices are causes of quarrelling and division, even so the selfish spirit, fleshly motives, and political tactics foment strife and displease God. Conspiracy, power grabs, gossip, whispering campaigns, giving the cold shoulder to people, firing at a suspected enemy before determination of his meaning in what he teaches, and like practices altogether too common among God’s people are unworthy of use in the promotion and defense of truth. In the kingdom of Christ, truth is the sole weapon; the glory of God our only purpose; the saving of souls our chief objective; and conduct befitting one wearing the name of Christ our only adornment.

Brethren, we can and must do better in keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Neither the matter nor the manner of such endeavor is subject to change by men. Let every member of each local church scrutinize his own behavior in this matter and never stop until he has thought and acted as Christ. Let every local church, the practical sphere in which unity is kept, work harder than ever in the service of the Lord, with one mind and one spirit seeking to obey God in all matters.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 8, pp. 244-245
April 18, 1991