“In whom we have received an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of the one who works all things according to the counsel of his will, to the end that we should exist to the praise of his glory — those who first hoped in Christ; in whom you also, in hearing the word of Truth, the Gospel of our Salvation, in which you also believed and were sealed in the Holy Spirit who was promised.”
What then does it mean to say that believers are “sealed in the Holy Spirit”? The obvious use of the term “seal” has to do with the idea of closing something up with the aim of preserving it from decay or contamination. Thus, we might seal a bag of food for sale or a jar of produce so that we can enjoy it at a later date. We also seal our envelopes before mailing them so that no one may tamper with the contents therein. Jesus’ tomb was sealed with a large stone by the Romans in the hope that his body would not be taken from within (Matthew 27:66).
There is another aspect of the notion of sealing that had to do with identifying official documents. And so, when a document was complete, an official would drip wax on the seam of the document (sealing it closed) and then would place a stamp in the cooling wax to identify whose document it was. We still see some documents sealed in a similar fashion or at least stamped with an official “seal” to identify its authenticity. It is this second use of the idea of sealing that is most important to understanding Paul’s language here, though the first use is also of great importance.
After Jesus feeds the five thousand, people come to him seeking more. Jesus’ response is as follows:
“Jesus answered them and said, ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you. You seek me not because you saw signs, but because you ate from the bread and you were full. You should not work for food that perishes but for food that remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on this one the Father God has sealed.’”
There is much we could talk about from Jesus’ statement, especially in the contrast that Jesus makes between the benefits of our works, which we earn and perishes and the gift of God given through Jesus Christ that is eternal. Salvation, my friends, is a matter of grace and is the gift of God, not as a result of works, but then again, we will cover that a little later in this great book of Ephesians.
What is most important for our conversation here is the notion of God’s sealing. Who is the one who is sealed? In this case, it is Jesus. What is the sealing referring to? The idea of sealing seems to be a parallel to the idea of the signs which Jesus did — signs that identified him as the Son of God. Thus, the sealing in this case is that God’s hand was upon him not only for preservation, but as a sign to the world that he is who he said he is.
But how, then, does this apply to our passage here in Ephesians? Paul often speaks of seals in his writings. In Romans 4:11 he speaks of circumcision as the seal of righteousness given to the saints in the Old Testament era. It was an identifier that they were a member of the covenant of God — an identifier that would later be replaced by baptism (Colossians 2:11-12).
In 1 Corinthians 9:2, Paul also speaks about the seal of his Apostleship. Again, while Paul is certainly sealed in the hands of God, what is more important (in context) is the notion that this seal of his Apostleship is meant as an indicator to the People as to who he represents — who has called him as an Apostle.
Yet, it is not until we arrive at 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 2 Timothy 2:19 (along with Ephesians) that this terminology is applied to all believers. In each passage, there is the notion that the seal is a guarantee of our salvation — that the Lord knows who are His. Indeed, we are sealed for eternity, but the reason that the seal is good is because it is God’s seal that is upon us — the seal of men will break down and be corrupted, but God’s will not be so.
And so, we return to Ephesians 1:13 (and its parallel in Ephesians 4:30), which speaks of us being sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption. Again, while we are sealed from corruption, what is of greater significance is that of whose sign we bear — that of God the Father himself through God the Son, Jesus Christ. And thus, with those saints of the Old Testament who are spoken of as “sealed” by the Apostle John in Revelation (Revelation 7:3,4,5,8), we find ourselves joining them as those sealed for redemption and eternity as well. What wonderful assurance that the Christian can have, for our assurance does not come from within us or from that which we earn, but from God the Holy Spirit. It is his Word that we trust but it is also his Work that we trust when it comes to the promise of eternity.
One of the beauties of the Heidelberg Catechism is that much of its language is found in the first person — “I” believe this to be true or that applies to “me.” Unlike many of the other Reformed Catechisms and Confessions, this makes Heidelberg stand out as a very personal and intimate profession of belief with rich pastoral overtones (a testimony to the pastor’s heart of Ursinus and Olevianus, its principle drafters).
Question 21 illustrates the importance of this approach in first person as it asks about the nature of true faith. And here, one of the statements is that the person with true faith believes not only that forgiveness, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are possible and worked by Christ for others, but the person who confesses this answer of the Catechism professes that these things are worked for him or her personally. More simply, it affirms that with faith comes the assurance of salvation. And, pastorally speaking, assurance is one of those questions that people struggle with the most.
What is interesting is the question of how and where people seek to find their assurance. In pentecostal circles, assurance is rooted in experience and feelings, hence worship services are built around seeking to generate that experiential faith in the person. The problem with this, of course, is two-fold. First, experiences can be created and manipulated — lighting, hands in the air for prolonged periods, and music are all designed to artificially create in a person a sense of euphoria which is then equated with the work of the Holy Spirit. The second part of the problem is that when a person bases assurance on their experience of God’s presence (no matter how genuine that experience might be), that sets them up on a kind of spiritual roller-coaster because for every height of experience there will be lows as well. This leaves a person with no ongoing assurance of salvation.
In Arminian circles outside of pentecostalism (Methodists, Freewill Baptists, etc…), assurance tends to be rooted in the decision the person has made to be a follower of Jesus. Not only does this make salvation God’s response to man’s action (something not testified to in the Bible), but once again it establishes a theological context where people can lose their salvation. Indeed, what if one, due to a series of events, “chooses” wrongly and loses assurance. Hence, in churches such as these, much more emphasis is placed on the “Altar Call” and on constantly renewing their commitment to Christ. As one person who grew up in the Free Methodist movement recently shared with me, “I felt like I had to be re-converted every service.”
In Reformed circles, assurance is not seated within man, but it is found within God where it belongs. Assurance is based on God’s promises to those who come to him in faith. And, since God is unchanging and eternal, those promises are such that they can be relied upon. Truly, that does not neglect the place of experience — Paul writes that the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God — but our assurance is not based on that experience; it is based on the humble reliance upon God to fulfill his promises to us (personally and individually) as he has done so in others. Such is the nature of God’s assurance and such is the importance of this statement about faith. Faith is the assured knowledge that the things promised to believers in Christ belong to me personally just as they have been given to others — all through faith and because of the completed work of Christ. Thus, in Christ, all of the promises of the Old Testament are yes and amen.
Perhaps my experience is different than everyone else’s. Perhaps the thing that my heart longs for more deeply than anything else is utterly unique to me. Perhaps my need for a sense of belonging that transcends my ability to “stay in the club,” is an utterly singular desire. But, perhaps I’m not alone. And perhaps, while we express it in different ways and we seek it in different places, that sense of belonging is something that, deep down, we all desperately need.
Some people find that sense of belonging within their families, and my own family is no exception…the Groseclose’s are warm and loving and welcoming to all sorts of characters. Growing up, my parents’ home was always one of the places that friends congregated and whoever happened to be around at 6:00 was always welcome to stay for supper. My extended family is also a warm and happy bunch of folks who will go out of their way to make you feel like family…even if you are not nor ever will be. It’s a good place to find belonging, but I am the consummate loner in that sense and have spent much of my life looking for belonging outside of this body.
Some people find belonging amongst their friends. And, as far as friends go, I have had some of the best. The group of guys that I grew up with used to define friendship as someone with whom you could trust your car, your credit card, and your girlfriend. And with them, I could and did. And, during my awkward and downright strange years, they just rolled with the punches and pursued me even when I wasn’t pursuing them. But, in most of those cases, the heart of our relationship centered around things we did together and over time, most of us have drifted in different directions.
Others perhaps find their sense of belonging in a job or amongst co-workers. I have been blessed to taste a little of that, but I have also bounced between jobs so much over the years that I have never really been in one place long enough to grow roots that deep — though it certainly appeals to me. A story is told of the relationship that Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, and Doc Severinsen had not only while working together on the “Tonight Show” but off-stage and after they retired and moved on. They had worked together so long that their lives and families had become intertwined. A love had been built that transcended their common working relationship. I do think that sense of belonging would be wonderful, but so far, I have not stayed put long enough for that to develop (though perhaps, in God’s providence, I would like to see that change).
In the end, though, all of these connections that bring people a sense of belonging pass away with time. We live and we die and many of these connections do not and cannot transcend death. Perhaps that sense of belonging that I sought for so long can never be found in these temporal relationships. Perhaps that sense of belonging can only be found in one place: God himself.
In Biblical terms, that idea of belonging is typically referred to as an “Assurance of Salvation.” In other words, it is the assurance — the absolute conviction — that I find my belonging in Christ himself and, as it relies on Christ’s work and call, and not on me, that it can never be lost either on this side of eternity or on the other. It is truly a permanent and assured belonging in the courts of God that cannot be lost, stolen, or even given away.
The Heidelberg Catechism words this idea this way: “For that reason, he assures me of eternal life by His Holy Spirit.” The Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome:
“The Spirit himself confirms in our spirit that we are children of God. And if children, then also heirs — even heirs of God and sharing an inheritance with Christ, if it is true that we suffer together in order that we may be glorified together.”
The promise to believers is two-fold. First, if we are Christians we find our assurance coming from the Holy Spirit. This does not come from our works, our church membership, our genealogy, etc… it comes directly from God himself. Second, if we have this assurance, then we are not simply children of God, but as children we are heirs of the Kingdom. Yes, we will suffer together (think the way the church should engage alongside of one another) and we will face challenges, but there is a promise that we will be glorified together, in this case, at the second-coming of our Lord. And, as God is Truth and as God is unchanging, this testimony from God the Holy Spirit is one that cannot be lost or forfeited. To suggest otherwise would make God a liar and that is a dangerous accusation.
And so, we can be assured. That need for belonging can be found not merely in temporal things, but eternal things. And for me, perhaps much of my struggle with finding that sense of belonging in family, friends, and work was brought about by my desire to flee from God — something I did for many years, that is until God, like a master-fisherman, permanently set his hook in my lip, regenerated my sinful soul, and brought me to my knees in faith and repentance. And so, though my connection to earthly belonging has grown weaker over the years, the assurance that I have of my belonging in eternal things has grown deeper and more profound. And, this is the promise that God gives to every born-again believer in Jesus Christ.
Not only is the Christian not to worry, we are also called to be confident. Confident in what? Confident in our God. Confident in the promises of our God. Confident in the assurance that God will bring about, for us, that which he promised to bring about for us. And confident that no matter what woes and trials may assail me in this sad, fallen world, God’s plans are never foiled or frustrated. But His will is done for His glory. Thus, the Apostle Paul can confidently say:
“ For we know that for those who love God, all things collaborate for good — for those who are called for this purpose; because the ones whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son so that he might be firstborn amongst many brothers. And the ones he predestined, he also called; and the ones he called, he also justified; and the ones he justified, he also glorified. What then shall we say of this? If God is for us, who can be against us? Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us, how will he not also freely give us all things when associated with him? Who shall accuse God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who can pronounce a sentence? Christ Jesus, the one who died — but more, was lifted up — is at the right hand of God and also intercedes for us! Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or dire straits or nakedness or sword? Just as it has been written: “for the sake of you, we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep of the slaughter.” Rather, in all these things we are victorious through the one who has loved us. For I have been persuaded that neither death nor life, angels nor powers, neither that which has been nor that which will be, neither powers nor heights, neither depths nor any other creature is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What justifies this level of confidence? This confidence comes from nothing within us. This confidence comes from the fact that our salvation has nothing to do with us — not our works, not our will, not our decisions. It totally and utterly is a work of God in our lives for his glory. If we could lay any claim on our salvation, two great disasters would befall us. First, we would grow proud and boast in our works or in our decisions. Second, we would fall from salvation. For if some of our salvation fell into our hands and was our responsibility, none of us would be saved for what a wretched lot we are when it comes to resisting temptation and sin.
So, be confident that he who has called you will never allow you to slip from between his fingers. And live a life of gratitude toward God in that confidence. Will that make everything go smoothly and eliminate trials and temptations from your life? Certainly not! Did not our Lord go to heaven through the pathway of the cross? Did he not also call us to take up our crosses daily to follow him? Shall we expect that God would treat us any differently than was suitable for his only-begotten Son? No, Christian, suffering and trial is the means by which God chooses to refine and discipline those he loves. If we are to be conformed into the image of Christ, then such is the path we must confidently walk.
“Be self-controlled. Be Alert. Your enemy the devil goes about roaring, seeking one to devour. Oppose him firm in the faith, knowing that these things are being endured throughout the world by your brothers.”
(1 Peter 5:8-9)
“And the dragon became angry about the woman and departed to make war with her remaining offspring — those who keep the commands of God and who have the witness of Jesus.”
As a Christian in this fallen world, life can be hard. We know the promise that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33) and thus, in Him, we also have overcome the world by faith (1 John 5:4). We know that the world will hate us (1 John 3:13) and that we are engaged in a war with the powers and principalities of evil in the world around us (Ephesians 6:12). Yet, that does not lessen the reality that life can be really hard — choices of doing the right or the wrong thing, times of grieving in the presence of death, persecution and mocking for the faith that we have, life is not easy.
Perhaps that is why we most need to be reminded that, as Christians, not only has Jesus’ blood paid the penalty to satisfy the Law of God, but his blood has also broken us from the power of the Devil. Yes, the Devil is still a tyrant. And yes, the Devil is still an accuser. And yes, too, the Devil still seeks to prowl and destroy and can make our lives miserable. Yet, the Devil has no eternal power over us and can do nothing to us apart from the permission of God, which means the Devil is often God’s tool to refine the Christian in faith.
But why does the Heidelberg Catechism speak of Jesus’ blood as that which breaks the power and tyranny of the Devil? The author of Hebrews puts it this way:
“Therefore, because the children share in the blood and flesh, he also similarly partook of it in order that through death he should exhaust him who holds the power of death, that is the devil.”
Peter similarly writes:
“And if you call upon him as Father, who is an impartial judge over the deeds of all, live in fear during your time as an alien, knowing that not with the perishable silver or gold you were ransomed from your vain lifestyle inherited from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ — like a lamb without blemish and without defect.”
(1 Peter 1:17-19)
Do you see what these texts are saying? The power that the Accuser had over us was that we stood guilty before the Law of God. Yet, with the death of Christ on the cross, he removes our guilt, taking it upon himself — Jesus being the substitute to fully satisfy the Law of God for all of God’s elect. And if Jesus has done this, then the power the devil has over us is exhausted — completely and thoroughly. There is no nuance of the Law that Jesus did not satisfy and thus the Devil is without power.
And, for those who go through trials in this life where it seems as if the Devil is perpetually pouncing, this is good and encouraging news. Sadly, there are many who would rob the Christian of this assurance. They would argue that the death of Christ only creates a potentiality not an actuality. In other words, they say that Jesus’ death makes it possible for a person to be released from the Devil’s grasp, but there remains in the hands of the individual believer an action that must be taken to turn this potential into something that is realized. In most cases, that action is a choice that the person must make to ask for this release.
You might say, but what inmate in prison would not ask for release from their bondage? The reality is that many prisoners do not. They have become accustomed to their cells, they are afraid of what release might entail for them, the comfort of their wicked ways shines brighter to them than the moral obedience required in society. Further, in the kind of prison that unbelievers are in, from the point they enter the world, is such a kind as those in prison do not realize that they are in prison. They are bound and they know no different. And so, if they do not know they are enslaved, how is it possible to ask for release? Further, if they believe they are free agents, how will they believe those who will tell them otherwise? No, they must be given ears to hear that will register and understand their predicament and new ears, just like new life, must come from God, not man.
In addition, the presumption that man must ask for release implies that there is some small nuance of the Law that Jesus’ blood did not satisfy. And if one suggests that Jesus’ blood does not satisfy even the smallest bit of the Law, does that not contradict what Jesus said when he claimed to come to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17)? I do not think that even those who claim you must ask for Jesus’ fulfilled work would be so bold as to suggest that Jesus’ death is lacking, but that is the implication of their view.
Think of it in this way. If someone commits a crime and is sent to prison for a five-year sentence. At the end of his (or her) designated time, that person is set free. Not only does that person not have to ask to be set free, but were that person to ask to remain in prison for another 3-5 years, his request would be flatly denied — the demands of the law have been satisfied, it would be unjust to keep you in prison for a crime that is no longer held against you. And, if such is the case with earthly prisons, how much more so when it comes to eternity?
No, if one suggests that a small portion of the Law has not been satisfied (namely the request to make it your own), then the Devil still has leverage in your life. Perhaps you did not ask in the right way. Perhaps you need to ask more frequently than you have done so. Perhaps the asking did not “take,” could it be that since you still struggle with sins that you were mistaken in your asking? Do you see how easily the Devil can exploit this gap? If a weed gets its roots set in even the smallest crack in your concrete walkway, it will grow and expand that crack — it will even break the concrete to pieces if left unchecked long enough. And this idea of “decision theology” leaves open no mere crack, but a chasm large enough to bring doubt through.
No, loved ones, the Bible is quite clear that Jesus’ work is sufficient to save and there is nothing we can add to it and nothing we can take from it. That means the Law has been fully and absolutely fulfilled by Jesus for God’s elect. God then applies that salvation in His time by giving people spiritual rebirth and faith so that they might have ears to hear the call of the Gospel and that they might have lips to repent of their sins and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yes, the believer makes a confession, but the confession is not that which applies salvation to their soul, no, the confession is the response to God’s saving work in their lives.
And thus, believer, take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world and in faith, we too are overcomers.
“They will be made to remember me:
Rahab and Babel to know me;
Behold, Philistia and Tyre along with Cush.
‘This one was born there.’
And of Zion, it was said of him,
This man was born in her.
The Most High himself will establish her.”
As are many of the Psalms, this psalm is deeply evangelistic, anticipating the going out of the Gospel that is formally commissioned by Christ, though is found throughout the Old Testament as well. Even as far back as God’s covenant with Abraham there is a promise that all of the nations will find their blessing in him and in his seed (Genesis 12:2-3). Here we see much the same spirit, the psalmist looks out to the nations surrounding Israel and essentially says of them, though people from the nations will have a birthplace in Cush and Philistia, etc… they will be made to identify with Zion, the eternal city of God — a physical birth in the nations, but a spiritual rebirth by God, building his church.
Notice how these verses begin as well. The psalmist writes: “they will be made to remember me.” This is the Hiphil form of the verb rkz (zakar — “to remember” or “to speak of”). The Hiphil form makes it causative, thus we find God bringing about this remembering, this thinking of the things of God himself. How often we flirt with the idea that we choose God when the testimony of Scripture is consistently that He chooses us…and we do not deserve that choosing. Yet, I wonder whether we who are chosen make enough of God’s name…remembering Him and remembering His expectations for our life.
The last words of these verses are also of the utmost importance to us. Who establishes Zion and her people? God — the Most High himself. Were it any other, then one’s citizenship in the heavenly Zion would be untenable on a good day. Sin is such that it pervades the totality of our being and all of our actions. What a lot that we are, for we can only ever act righteously if God himself (through his Spirit) is directing our actions! Woe to us if we are apart from Christ! Yet, praise be to God that he does direct our actions and that he does hold us securely in his hand so that none may fall out! And in light of that great assurance, the Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are Sons (and Daughters) of God. How can we ever show our gratefulness adequately!
Friends, our problem is not that we are not grateful. Our problem (I believe) is twofold. First, we often do not meditate deeply enough on the horrific nature of our sins and thus do not appreciate grace as greatly as we ought. Second, we get so busy with the cares of this world that we neglect the care of our eternal souls and do not express our gratefulness as we ought. Sadly, many Christians are more like Cain, offering leftovers as our sacrifice to God, rather than being like Abel, offering the best. And thus, sin crouches at our door as well, seeking to take dominion over us. Let that not happen and let our song of joy be that we are established (eternally) in Zion.
“But you, beloved, yourselves being built up in the most holy faith, praying by the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, receiving the mercy of our Lord, Jesus Christ—eternal life.”
He begins the exhortations with guides for spiritual health within the congregation. We are to build ourselves up in the faith. This is different than the puffing up that the false teachers were doing. But building up is done through teaching, Bible study, fellowship, worship, and prayer. It is the laying of a sure foundation upon which our faith can be solidly built.
Secondly, we are to pray by the Holy Spirit. It is a reminder of what Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit is a guide to our prayers and it is a reminder the Holy Spirit is the third part of the Trinity and an integral part of our salvation, actively working in our lives through the process of sanctification.
Thirdly, we are to keep ourselves in God’s love. Jude is not trying to replace God’s grace, but is linking grace and love together as one goes hand in hand with the other. And he is not suggesting that those who are truly saved can lose their salvation, rather he is saying that when we walk in disobedience, we earn God’s rebuke; we are to walk faithfully, striving for a “well done, my good and faithful servant.”
And Fourthly, we are to rest in the final salvation that Jesus Christ has assured. The judgment of God against unrighteousness means salvation for those who have been saved. What does the mercy of God look like when it is applied to a person’s life? It fully manifests itself in eternal salvation—eternal life in the presence of God himself. What more could we hope to ask?