What is God’s full armor, according to Ephesians?

Q. What is God’s full armor, according to Ephesians?

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the “full armor of God” as follows.

The “belt of truth.” In biblical times, soldiers would gather up their robes and fasten them with a belt so that they could move freely in battle. So we can think of speaking the truth and proclaiming the true message of God as something that allows us to work unencumbered for God, without having to think about whether we are “sticking to the story” that we have made up and without having to defend positions that have no grounds in the word of God. One translation says, “Let the truth be like a belt around your waist.”

The “breastplate of righteousness.” The breastplate was the piece of armor that protected a soldier’s chest and abdomen and the vital organs inside. One translation says, “On your chest wear the protection of right living.” The best protection against accusations of doing wrong is to have done right! Don’t give the opponents of God’s work any grounds to thwart that work based on your conduct.

“Your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” This is a reference to footwear that would allow a soldier “to face the enemy with firm-footed stability,” as one translation puts it. The “gospel of peace” is the good news that God wants peace with people, based on the reconciliation that Jesus achieved on the cross, and that God wants people to be at peace with each other on that same basis. Someone who ultimately wants peace and has good intentions can deal with conflict with a confident assurance that a hostile and hateful person cannot experience.

“The shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Soldiers would carry shields to fend off sword blows and attacks from flying weapons such as spears and arrows. As Paul observes, sometimes arrows were even set on fire before being shot at soldiers. This is a reference to the way the attacks of the devil, the evil one, have a special sting or burn to them, because the devil tries to make us believe wrong things about the character of God. But if we respond in faith, that is, implicit trust in who God is and what God wants, then those flames are extinguished.

“The helmet of salvation.” Soldiers wore helmets to protect their heads, perhaps the most vital part of their bodies. They certainly could not fight if they could not see or hear or think. The word “salvation” can be understood in the sense of “deliverance,” meaning that we must ultimately count on God to deliver us, and when we do, we will see his power working to do that. But “salvation” could also be understood in the sense of being saved from sin and being forgiven by God. One translation says, “The covering for your head is that you have been saved from the punishment of sin.”

“The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This means the Bible. It has often been noted that this is the only offensive piece of the “full armor of God.” All the others are defensive. They protect us so that we can carry on our mission of advancing God’s purposes in the world. And we see here that we advance those purposes by knowing and applying God’s word to our situations and by proclaiming its truth and promises to those who need to hear its good news.

I hope this answers your question and gives you a better idea of what the “full armor of God” is. So now, as Paul says at the beginning of the passage in which he describes it, “Put on the full armor of God.”

Did Jesus say that Christians needed to keep the law?

Q. How should we understand this statement of Jesus: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven”? How would you respond to someone who claimed that this statement meant that Christians were required keep the Mosaic Law (including circumcision, the Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.)?

I would respond, respectfully I hope, to someone who made that claim by saying that I believed they were taking the statement out of context and thus interpreting it to mean something other than it actually meant.

Jesus came teaching an inward righteousness that was based on becoming inwardly disposed to doing what God wants. Some people misunderstood him to be saying that it therefore didn’t matter what they did on the outside. So Jesus clarified his teaching. In the same passage where the statement you quote is found, he also said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

What he meant was that if a person really were motivated by an inward desire to please God, then they would actually exceed the standards specified in the law. He goes on to give examples. Such a person would not only refrain from murder, they would not hate. They would not only refrain from adultery, they would not lust. And so forth. So the main point Jesus is making in the statement you quote is that the commandments in the law pointed how people could live with one another in the way that God intended, and that he had come not to set aside those commandments and the course they set, but to help people live in that way even more authentically.

We should also observe that Jesus was speaking to his fellow Jews when he made that statement. The Jews were required to observe certain insignia (such as the ones you list, the Sabbath, the dietary laws, etc.) to show that they belonged to the people of God. When the people of God expanded, through the work of Jesus, to include non-Jews, the question arose as to whether they had to keep the law. Large parts of the New Testament are devoted to this question, and the answer is a very clear “no.” So once again, anyone who claims that this one statement by Jesus means that all Christians must obey the specific requirements of the Jewish law is taking the statement out of context and failing to appreciate its meaning within the overall message of the New Testament.

I discuss this question in greater detail in a three-part series of posts that deals specifically with the case of Sabbath observance. That series begins here:

Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 1)

Do believers in Jesus still have a sinful nature?

Q. What kind of sinful nature do you think we have that needs to be changed?

From indications that accompanied the submission of this question, I understand the word “we” to apply to followers of Jesus. Here is what I say about the subject of the “sinful nature” in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters. (You can read the guide online or download it at this link.) As you will see, I do not believe that followers of Jesus still have two natures, one sinful and one redeemed. Rather, they have one redeemed nature, but they must still learn to live as people who have been transferred out of one realm into another.

Let me quote first from p. 100, where I discuss Paul’s comments about the “sinful nature” in the book of Galatians.

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To explain how people who aren’t governed by the law can still live as God intends, Paul uses the Greek term sarx (“flesh”) in a specialized sense, to refer the characteristic patterns of this “present evil age.” (The NIV
formerly translated sarx as “sinful nature” when Paul uses it in this sense. But in the 2011 update to the NIV, this was changed to “flesh” in most places.) We’ve seen Paul use the term this way earlier: In 2 Corinthians he writes, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view” and that he doesn’t “live by the standards of this world ” (in both cases, “according to sarx”).

Here in Galatians, Paul uses the term to reframe the problem he’s been addressing. All the behaviors the agitators want to control through law-keeping are actually evidence that people are still living “according to sarx,” that is, in the way characteristic of this “present evil age.” Paul says that those who commit the “acts of the flesh [sarx] . . . will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

He means that these acts aren’t characteristic of those who will inherit the kingdom of God and are already experiencing its realities. The law can’t help people overcome these behaviors, because it can’t take them out of this age. The law itself belongs to this age. The true question isn’t whether a person is depending on faith or law; it’s whether they’re living in this age or the next.

When a person trusts in Jesus, this makes them part of the coming age. Paul says at the beginning of Galatians that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from [take us out of ] the present evil age.” However, believers won’t automatically follow the characteristic pattern of the coming age. Paul explains that the two ways of life “are in conflict with each other,” and that believers are living in the crossfire, “so . . . you are not to do whatever you want.” Paul doesn’t want the Galatians to misunderstand the way the Corinthians did and think that because they’re “spiritual,” they “have the right to do anything.” Instead, they must depend on the Spirit to guide them into the way of life characteristic of the coming age that they’re already a part of.

As we’ve seen, Paul considers the Spirit a “down payment” on everything believers will receive and experience when the coming age fully arrives. As the advance agent of that age, the Spirit can show them how to live according to its patterns. When believers do that, taking on the character qualities that Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit,” they’ll also truly fulfill the law, because “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

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And here is what I say similarly about the “sinful nature” on p. 120, as I am discussing Paul’s main argument in the book of Romans.

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Paul now steps back from his argument again, to address more anticipated objections. If people aren’t expected to keep the law, but are simply told they’re forgiven because of what Jesus has done, doesn’t this give them an incentive to sin? The more sin, the more forgiveness, right?

Paul addresses this concern from several different angles, correcting four potential misunderstandings of his message. Essentially he explains that people who put their faith in Jesus aren’t simply forgiven; they’re transferred entirely out of one realm, where they sinned by compulsion, into a new realm, where it’s natural for them to obey God.

Paul describes the difference between these realms in several ways. He portrays those under the control of sin as living in this present age and those who’ve been freed from sin as experiencing the coming age, “living a new life” and serving “in the new way of the Spirit.” He also describes the difference between these realms by contrasting life according to sarx (this is often translated as “the sinful nature”) with life in the Spirit, as he did in Galatians. He contrasts the “mind” or “inner being” that “delights in God’s law” with the “body of death” that’s a “prisoner of sin.” More generally, he speaks of being brought from “death” to “life,” or from “slavery to sin” to “slavery to righteousness.”

But no matter which image he uses, Paul’s point is the same: Believers in Jesus have been taken out of one realm and placed in another. They don’t have any more incentive to sin, and they also shouldn’t have any desire or compulsion to sin, because they’re new kinds of people, dead to the past, alive to the future, animated by the power of God’s Spirit.

All of this leads Paul to the conclusion of this first part of his main argument in Romans. His language reaches heights of eloquence as he marvels at the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer and at the love of God, which has called us and saved us and from which nothing in all creation can ever separate us.

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Thank you for your question. I hope these reflections are helpful to you.

Can a Catholic lay person extend or give “grace” to others?

Q. My question is about “grace.” Can we, as lay people in the Catholic faith, extend or give “grace” to others?

In the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge first that I am Protestant. But let me then say that as I understand the Catholic expression of our shared Christian faith, while only a priest may do things such as administer the sacraments and absolve people after confession, every believer may be a channel of grace to others in many ways. Some of these are described in the Bible.

For example, Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Let no harmful word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for building others up according to the need, so that it gives grace to those who hear it.” As another version of the Bible translates this, “When you talk, don’t say anything bad. Say the good things that people need—whatever will help them grow stronger. Then what you say will be a blessing to those who hear you.” So simply in the way we speak, in the things we say and the things we realize we shouldn’t say, we can be a channel of God’s grace to other people.

For his part, Peter wrote in his first epistle, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” In other words, God has given each person part of his grace to take care of, for the sake of others, in the form of a gift that we can use to serve them. When we do that, we similarly become a channel of God’s grace to them. As another version of the Bible expresses this, “Each of you has been blessed with one of God’s many wonderful gifts to be used in the service of others. So use your gift well.”

These are just two of the ways in which we can all extend God’s grace to other people. Basically, anything we do as faithful followers of Jesus that enables another person to realize more of God’s love for them makes us a channel of grace. There is probably no limit to the number of things that might involve.

Can a deceased spouse hear and see when we cry and speak?

Q. Can a deceased spouse hear and see when we cry and speak?

If you are asking out of your own personal experience, please accept my sincere sympathies for your loss. I would say that the answer to your question is yes. I share some thoughts about a question that is closely related to yours in this post:

Where does the Bible say we can ask departed loved ones to pray for us?

Can a pastor whose wife does not support his calling divorce her and remarry?

Q. Is it right for a pastor to leave his unsupportive wife for another woman?

I do not see anything in Scripture that would endorse a pastor divorcing his wife because she did not support his calling.

If a man feels a calling to become a pastor and his wife does not support that, then he needs to wait until the two of them agree before he becomes a pastor. He can pray and talk things out with her, and hope and trust that if his calling is genuine, God will lead his wife to support it. God may very well be using the wife’s concerns to get the man to address important and necessary issues in his life. Once those issues are addressed, his wife may come to support his calling enthusiastically.

If a man has already become a pastor, and his wife does not support that, God may be using her concerns similarly to get him to address issues in his life or in his ministry. Pastors need to listen to all the ways in which God may be speaking to them.

Even if a pastor’s wife did not support him because she had turned away from the Lord, then as a good shepherd, he should leave the 99 sheep and go after the one that had gone astray. That is, he should set aside his pastoral duties for a time and give all of his attention to his wife’s spiritual condition. If she chooses definitively to leave his ministry and their marriage, then Scripture would say that he is “not bound in such circumstances.” He can let her leave, and conceivably he could remarry. But this should only happen after he has made every genuine effort to win her back to the Lord and to himself and their ministry.

But unfortunately, as you say, all too often pastors fail to hear how God is speaking to them, and they fail to give attention to the most important sheep in their flock. A wife may be unsupportive of a pastor’s ministry because he is not properly balancing work and family life. He may be neglecting his responsibilities and obligations to his family. In that case, the wife is not the problem. The pastor needs to hear what God is saying to him through her protests.

May God lead all married pastors to honor their marriages as the foundations of their ministries.

How can we know that God’s presence is with us?

Q. How can we know that God’s presence is with us?

I think we essentially know that God is present with us by sensing God’s presence. It is the presence of an actual person, although that person is invisible and spiritual, not visible and physical. But I realize that this only changes the question to, “How can we learn to sense God’s presence?”

I believe this is indeed something that needs to be learned. The Bible tells us that when the future prophet and judge Samuel was a young boy, God called him at night, but he thought that the high priest Eli, who was raising him, was calling him instead. The Bible explains, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” And so he could not recognize his voice. I think this is a good analogy for sensing God’s presence. We may need to come to know God better in order to recognize his presence when it is with us. Or we may simply need to understand that we can sense God’s presence, just as young Samuel needed to be told that God might be calling him with his voice.

I would suggest that if we diligently practice the things that attract God’s presence, we will notice a difference from what things were like before we started to do that, and also a difference when (unfortunately) we fail in some of those ways and grieve God’s Spirit and drive away his presence.

Here are the disciplines I have in mind. For one thing, holiness attracts God’s presence. If we willingly forsake anything that we know is displeasing to God, particularly things that God has convicted our hearts about, that should attract God’s presence, and we should sense it. For another thing, if we genuinely and sincerely promise God that we will unconditionally obey whatever he asks us to do, that should also attract God’s presence, and we should sense it. Further things we can and should do are to forgive freely anyone we have been holding a grudge against, and resolve to seek reconciliation with anyone we have become estranged from, to the extent that that is safe and will not simply give them the opportunity to wrong us again. If we choose not to worry but instead trust God for the future, that will bring peace to our hearts and attract God’s presence as well. And so forth.

In short, we should put into practice all of the things that the Bible already encourages us to do that will bring love, peace, and joy into our hearts, and that will make those hearts a welcoming place for God’s presence. As I said, we should then notice a difference from the way things were before, and we should discern that that difference is the presence of God. Particularly if, unfortunately, we disobey, or sin, or break a relationship, we should then notice another kind of difference—the absence of a presence we had grown accustomed to and come to cherish. We will then be eager to do what is necessary to welcome God’s presence back into our lives.

I have told many people that one of the scariest statements in the Bible for me is the one that is made about Samson after he breaks his vow of dedication to God: “He did not know that the Lord had left him.” The results were disastrous. May we all cultivate the disciplines that attract God’s presence, and may we all learn to sense God’s presence, so that something like that never happens to us.

Should I be doing more by way of actions to prove my heart to God and display my faith to others?

Q. I’m currently struggling with quantifying my salvation in light of faith versus deeds. Work, study, and parenting leave me with little time to physically serve in the manner exampled by the apostles. I have not attended church for a couple of years, since my family members are not Christians and due to split working hours this is a period where Sundays are shared with them. I do however meet regularly with Christian friends. I remain constantly insecure about the authenticity of my salvation, despite experiencing some of the smallest and most tender answers to prayer, which surely show God is at work in my life and therefore not completely displeased with me. I know it is by faith and not works we are saved, but I am afraid that I don’t perform like a Christian and that my light doesn’t shine brightly enough. Is this just a season of my life where circumstances prevail and my private efforts/time with the Lord will suffice? Or am I potentially making excuses and should be doing more by way of actions to prove my heart to God and display my faith to others? With thanks.

First, let me say that I sense that God is stirring up within you a desire for your actions to be more patently congruent with your faith. The fact that you are concerned about this and asking about this shows that you are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and responsive to his leading. This, like the precious answers you continue to receive to your prayers, ought to encourage you that you are walking genuinely with the Lord.

But second, I need to tell you that as a pastor, I have unfortunately seen too many cases where “just for now” became a permanent situation. People who justified stepping back from Christian activity under one set of circumstances continued to justify this under later circumstances. Eventually these people lost the desire to be involved in Christian activities at all. Some of them ultimately even lost the desire to follow Jesus, and they made very regrettable choices once it no longer mattered to them to please Jesus. So while God is encouraging you in a positive new direction, I think God is also warning you about the dangers of your present direction. (We are never in a static “situation.” We are always heading in one direction or another.)

So ultimately I would encourage you to take initiative to make your way of life more openly congruent with your faith. I have a friend who says, “When you don’t buy something, don’t say, ‘I can’t afford it.’ Admit, ‘I choose not to make it a priority.’ When you don’t do something, don’t say, ‘I don’t have the time.’ Admit, ‘I choose not to make it a priority.'”

The fact is that at present you are not choosing to make church participation, for example, a priority over spending time with family. But it seems to me that you are accommodating their preferred use of time every weekend, and that it would only be fair for them to accommodate your preferred use of time on at least some weekends. For all you know, if you say that you would like to make it a priority to attend church on at least some Sundays, some of your family members might even go with you, if only so that they could spend time with you. The same thing could be said about other Christian activities, such as serving those in need in the name of Jesus.

This is not a matter of you “doing more” to prove your faith to God or to other people. The Christian life is not a matter of “doing.” It is a matter of being. Doing must flow from being. But what I hear in your story is that the doing that should be flowing from your genuine being is being blocked, not by your circumstances, but by your response to your circumstances. I would invite you to see your circumstances as something that you can control, at least to a sufficient degree, not as something that necessarily controls you and dictates your choices. When we allow something to block the doing that should be flowing from our genuine being, that is a threat to our being itself.

But I feel I should close with some words from the book of Hebrews: “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, in your case we are convinced of better things—the things that accompany salvation.” I believe you are showing that you are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and eager to obey his promptings. And so I trust that you will be able to speak with your family members and explain to them how you would like to have time for some of your priorities within the shared family schedule, and I trust that they will respond in an understanding and supportive way. God bless you as you pursue this.

Why do people use flashing lights in their Christmas decorations?

Q. I am at a loss to understand the introduction of flashing lights in people’s Christmas decorations. I understand the use of some light: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord”; “I am the way, the truth and the light.” But nowhere do I see, “And let the lights flash manically!” What think you?

I would say that the most brilliant display of light happened on the very first Christmas, right after Jesus was born and laid in a manger. Luke tells us in his gospel, “That night, in a field near Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching over their flocks. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared in radiant splendor before them, lighting up the field with the blazing glory of God.”

I don’t think any contemporary display of Christmas lights could approach that. But we may hope that those who seem to want achieve a comparable effect in their displays are doing so with the same great reverence with which the shepherds responded to the angelic proclamation.

Why is it so difficult to reconcile the mind and heart regarding faith in Jesus Christ?

Q. Why is it so difficult to reconcile the mind and heart regarding faith in Jesus Christ?

I believe you are observing that there are things we know in our heads to be true about faith in Jesus that we don’t always feel to be true in our hearts, and you are asking why that is so.

I think the answer is that there is a difference between the way our minds and hearts work. Unless we have some motive for rationalizing things away, our minds work pretty straightforwardly to understand and accept things that are true, particularly when we are committed believers learning in community under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Our feelings, on the other hand, are influenced by countless factors, and as a result they do not always correspond to the objective reality of our situation.

So we may very well be walking in fellowship with God and in obedience to God, with no known sin or willful disobedience between us and him, and yet God may still feel distant for some reason, even though we know in our heads that he isn’t. Or we may know Jesus’ promise perfectly well, “Whoever comes to me, I will never turn away,” and yet we may still feel doubts about whether God has accepted us.

But the Bible itself addresses this very issue. The apostle John wrote in his first letter, “When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God. But even if we don’t feel at ease, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.” This statement addresses the issue of a possible disconnect between what we know and what we feel. It tells us to rely on a third faculty, our capacity for faith and trust, to mediate between our heads and our hearts. We are to rest assured that whatever we might be feeling at any given moment, God knows that we truly love and trust and believe in him, and we can rely on that.

And I am convinced, from what I have seen in many years as a pastor, that if we continue to live out our faith, not relying on what we feel, but on what we know, our feelings will come around eventually. The steady influence of a committed way of life will come to outweigh the scattered momentary influences of all those different factors that go into determining how we feel.