Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, (5:1–2a)
The walk of the believer is a key matter to Paul. He has introduced the fact that ours is to be a worthy walk (4:1) and a walk different from the world’s (4:17). He will also call for a walk in light (5:8) and a walk in wisdom (5:15). In this verse the apostle pleads with believers to walk in such a way that daily life is characterized by love. Growing in love is a continuing need for every believer, since love fulfills all of God’s law (Rom. 13:8–10). As we grow in love we also see the need to be even more loving. And since biblically defined love is so contrary to the flesh, we are always in need of reminders and encouragement to love.
Therefore refers back to the last part of chapter 4, especially verse 32. Kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness are characteristics of God, who is love. God Himself is infinitely kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving, and we achieve those virtues by imitating their Source.
Mimētēs (imitator) is the term from which we get mimic, someone who copies specific characteristics of another person. As imitators of God, Christians are to imitate God’s characteristics, and above all His love. The whole of the Christian life is the reproduction of godliness as seen in the person of Christ. God’s purpose in salvation is to redeem men from sin and to conform them “to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). To be conformed to Christ is to become perfect, just as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48). “As obedient children,” Peter tells us, “do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ ” (1 Pet. 1:14–16; cf. Lev. 11:44). The great hope of believers is, “We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Imitating His love is possible because “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
When Alexander the Great discovered a coward in his army who also was named Alexander, he told the soldier, “Renounce your cowardice or renounce your name.” Those who carry God’s name are to be imitator’s of His character. By His grace it is possible to reflect Him even in our present limitations.
To know what God is like we must study His Word, His revelation of Himself, His great Self-disclosure. Yet the more we learn of God’s character the more we learn how far above us He is and how impossible in ourselves it is fulfill the command to be like Him, to be absolutely perfect, just as He is. That is why we need “to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” in order to “be filled up to all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:16, 19). The only way we can become imitators of God is for the Lord Jesus Christ to live His perfect life through us. We are totally dependent on His Spirit to become like Him. If we are to obey Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, “let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14), we must submit to the controlling influence of the Spirit.
It is natural for children to be like their parents. They have their parents’ nature and they instinctively imitate their parents’ actions and behavior. Through Jesus Christ God has given us the right to become His children (John 1:12; Gal. 3:26). As Paul declared at the beginning of this letter, God “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Eph. 1:5). Because our heavenly Father is holy, we are to be holy. Because He is kind, we are to be kind. Because He is forgiving, we are to be forgiving. Because God in Christ humbled Himself, we are to humble ourselves. Because God is love, as His beloved children we are to walk in love. This ability is not natural, however, but supernatural—requiring a new nature and the continuous power of the Holy Spirit flowing through us by obedience to God’s Word.
The greatest evidence of love is undeserved forgiveness. The supreme act of God’s love was to give “His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s love brought man’s forgiveness. God loved the world with such a great love that He offered forgiveness to sinful, rebellious, wretched, vile mankind, by sending His own Son to give His life on the cross that they might not suffer death. He offered the world the free gift of eternal fellowship with Him.
Because forgiveness is the supreme evidence of God’s love, it will also be the most convincing proof of our love. Love will always lead us to forgive others just as love led God in Christ to forgive us (Eph. 4:32). Nothing more clearly discloses a hard, loveless heart than lack of forgiveness. Lack of forgiveness betrays lack of love (see 4:31). The presence of forgiveness always proves the presence of love, because only love has the motive and power to forgive. The extent of our love is the extent of our ability to forgive.
Whatever another believer may do against us, no matter how terrible or destructive or unjustified, Christ has paid the penalty for that sin. No matter how others may hurt, slander, persecute, or in any way harm us, Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to pay their penalty. When a Christian expresses, or even harbors, vengeance toward a brother, he not only sins by allowing selfish hatred to control him but he sins by profaning Christ’s sacrifice—by seeking to mete out punishment for a sin whose penalty has already been paid by his Lord.
Because Christ has paid the penalty for every sin, we have no right to hold any sin against any person, even a nonbeliever. Peter thought that forgiving someone “up to seven times” was generous. But Jesus said, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). In Christ all our “sins are forgiven for His name’s sake” (1 John 2:12); He has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (Col. 2:13, emphasis added). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7).
Just as the depth of God’s love is shown by how much He has forgiven, the depth of our love is shown by how much we forgive. “Above all,” Peter says, “keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). The Greek word behind “fervent” refers to a muscle stretched to the limit. Our love is to stretch to the limit in order to cover “a multitude of sins” The greater our love the greater the multitude of sins it will cover in forgiveness.
The depth of our love is also shown by how much we know we have been forgiven. When Jesus was eating dinner with Simon the Pharisee, a prostitute came into the house and anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and with expensive perfume. Simon was incensed at what she did and was disappointed in Jesus for allowing such a woman to touch Him. Jesus responded by telling a parable: “ ‘A certain moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘You have judged correctly.’ ” After comparing the ways that Simon and the woman had treated Him, Jesus said, “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:36–47).
Because Simon had no real sense of the enormity of the sin in his own life, and therefore sensed no need for forgiveness, he was unforgiving of others—especially those whom he considered moral and social outcasts. Unforgiveness is the measure of self-righteousness just as forgiveness is the measure of love. Our ability to love, and therefore to forgive, depends on our sense of how much God has forgiven us. Unforgiveness is also a measure of unbelief, because the person who feels no need for forgiveness feels no need for God.
Robert Falconer tells the story of his witnessing among destitute people in a certain city and of reading them the story of the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears. While he was reading he heard a loud sob and looked up at a young, thin girl whose face was disfigured by smallpox. After he spoke a few words of encouragement to her, she said, “Will He ever come again, the One who forgave the woman? I have heard that He will come again. Will it be soon?” “He could come any time. But why do you ask?” Falconer replied. After sobbing again uncontrollably, she said, “Sir, can’t He wait a little while? My hair ain’t long enough yet to wipe His feet.”
The person who sees the greatness of his own forgiveness by God’s love will himself in love be forgiving. He forgives in love because his heavenly Father has forgiven in love and he desires to be an imitator of His Father.
just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (5:2b)
A young child often learns to draw by tracing. The more carefully he traces, the truer the likeness of his copy is to the original.
The pattern for Christian living is Christ Himself, the one by whom every believer is to trace his life. The great difference between this tracing and that of a young child learning to draw is that we will never have a time when Christ will cease to be our pattern. And we will never be “on our own,” sufficiently skilled in ourselves to live as He lived. In fact, our part is not so much to pattern our lives ourselves as to allow God’s Spirit to pattern us after His Son. Second Corinthians 3:18 expresses this profound truth in magnificent terms: “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
The summum bonum of Christ that we are to imitate is His love. He loved us and gave Himself up for us. Giving of oneself to others is the epitome of agapēlove. Biblical love is not a pleasant emotion or good feeling about someone, but the giving of oneself for his welfare (cf. 1 John 3:16). Divine love is unconditional love, love that depends entirely on the one who loves and not on the merit, attractiveness, or response of the one loved. Christ did not simply have a deep feeling and emotional concern for mankind. Nor did He sacrifice Himself for us because we were deserving (cf. Rom. 5:8, 10). “While we were yet sinners,” He gave Himself us for us purely out of sovereign, gracious love, taking our sin upon Himself and paying its penalty in our behalf.
God’s love, and all love that is like His, loves for the sake of giving, not getting. With conditional love, if the conditions are not met there is no obligation to love. If we do not get, we do not give. But God’s makes no conditions for His love to us and commands that we love others without conditions. There is no way to earn God’s love or to deserve it by reason of human goodness.
Romantic, emotional love between husband and wife ebbs and flows, and sometimes disappears altogether. But loss of romantic love is never an appropriate excuse for dissolving a marriage, because the love that God specifically commands husbands to have for their wives is agapē love (Eph. 5:25; 3:19; cf. Titus 2:4; etc.)—love like His own undeserved love for us, love that is based on willful choice in behalf of the one loved, regardless of emotions, attraction, or deserving. Romantic love enhances and beautifies the relationship between husband and wife, but the binding force of a Christian marriage is God’s own kind of love, the love that loves because it is the divine nature to love. It is the love of giving, not of getting; and even when it ceases to get, it continues to give. Where there is the sacrificial love of willful choice, there is also likely to be the love of intimacy, feeling, and friendship (philia).
God loved us while we were still sinners and enemies, and He continues to love us as believers, even though we continue to sin and fall short of His perfection and His glory. He loves us when we forget Him, when we disobey Him, when we deny Him, when we fail to return His love, and when we grieve His Holy Spirit. When Jude said, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), he was indicating the responsibility to stay in the place where that divine love sheds its blessing.
Those who are given God’s nature through Jesus Christ are commanded to love as God loves. In Christ, it is now our nature to love just as it is God’s nature to love—because His nature is now our nature. For a Christian not to love is for him to live against his own nature as well as against God’s.
Lovelessness is therefore more than a failure or shortcoming. It is sin, willful disobedience of God’s command and disregard of His example. To love as God loves is to love because God loves, because we are to “be imitators of God, as beloved children” and because Christ also loved [us], and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.
God’s love not only is forgiving and unconditional but is also self-sacrificing. Therefore to love as God loves is to love sacrificially, to love by the giving of ourselves as He gave Himself.
The Christian’s walk in love is to extend to every person, believer and unbeliever. If God’s love can reach out even to His enemies, how can we refuse to love our enemies? If He loves His imperfect children with a perfect love, how can we not love fellow believers, whose imperfections we share? And if divine love led Christ to sacrifice Himself for unworthy and ungrateful sinners, how can we not give ourselves to fellow sinful people, unbelievers as well as believers, in His name?
Shortly before His betrayal and arrest, Jesus was having supper with His disciples. During the meal the disciples began arguing among themselves as to which was the greatest. Their Lord was facing His ultimate humiliation and affliction, and yet their only concern was for themselves, for their own prestige, rank, and glory. When the Lord most needed their comfort, encouragement, and support, they acted as if He were not with them. All their attention was focused selfishly on themselves (Luke 22:24).
It was then that Jesus picked up a basin of water and began washing their feet, a task usually reserved for the lowest of servants. Despite their callous lack of concern for His impending suffering and death, Jesus humbly, forgivingly, unconditionally, and self-sacrificially ministered to them. After He finished washing their feet and returned to the supper table, “He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:12–16). Later He commanded them to love in this same manner (John 13:34–35).
Christ’s giving Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God was a fragrant aroma to His heavenly Father because that sacrifice demonstrated in the fullest and most ultimate way God’s kind of love. The words for us indicate the personal expression of love directed at all who believe. (This does not limit the provision of the atonement only to believers, as other Scriptures make clear. See John 1:29; 3:15–16; Rom. 10:13; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Tim. 2:4, 6; 4:10; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:2; 4:14.)
The first five chapters of Leviticus describe five offerings commanded by God of the Israelites. The first three were the burnt offering, the meal offering, and the peace offering. The burnt offering (Lev. 1:1–17) depicted Christ’s total devotion to God in giving His very life to obey and please His Father; the meal (grain) offering (Lev. 2:1–16) depicted Christ’s perfection, and the peace offering (Lev. 3:1–17; 4:27–31) depicted His making peace between God and man. All of those offerings obviously spoke of what was pleasing to God. Of each, the Scripture says it provided a “soothing aroma to the Lord” (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 12; 3:5, 16). Philippians 4:18 explains that the fragrant aroma meant the sacrifice was “acceptable, … well-pleasing to God.” But the other two offerings—the sin (Lev. 4:1–26, 32–35) and the trespass (Lev. 5:1–19) offerings—were repulsive to God, because, though they depicted Christ, they depicted Him as bearing the sin of mankind. They depicted the Father’s turning His back on the Son when “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21), at which time Jesus exclaimed from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46).
While Christ was the sin-bearer, God could not look on Him or rejoice in Him or be pleased in Him. But when the Father raised Christ from the dead, the sacrifice that caused Him to become sin became the sacrifice that conquered sin. The sin that put Him to death was itself put to death, and that great act of love was to God as a fragrant aroma. That fragrant aroma spreads its fragrance to everyone on earth who will place himself under the grace of that sacrifice, and it will spread its fragrance throughout heaven for all eternity. In all aspects, our lives should please God (cf. 2 Cor. 2:14–16).
On the Imitation of God
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The fifth chapter of Ephesians begins with one of the most startling admonitions in the New Testament: “Be imitators of God.” It is the only place in the Bible where these words occur, and what makes them so startling is that they point to a standard beyond which there is no other. William Barclay calls this “the highest standard in the world.” Alexander Maclaren calls it “the sum of all duty.”2 To Martyn Lloyd-Jones it was “Paul’s supreme argument … the highest level of all in doctrine and in practice … the ultimate ideal.”
“Be imitators of God” reminds us of Thomas à Kempis’ classic, Of the Imitation of Christ. Thomas was born in 1380 at a time when Europe was in turmoil. The church was split by rival popes, one of whom still sat on the throne of St. Peter in Rome while the other exercised a rival rule in Avignon. The Hundred Years War was in progress. The Black Death had ravished city after city. Thomas grew up in the midst of corruption, unrest and disillusion, entered a monastery and, presumably in the 1420s, wrote what has since been called “the most influential book in Christian literature.” To be honest, Of the Imitation of Christ has never moved me as other books have, but it has been influential, and for more than five hundred years Christians have apparently found no difficulty with the concept of imitating the Jesus of history.
But the imitation of God the Father is quite another matter—or at least it seems so. How is it possible to imitate one who is infinitely above us, the sovereign God of the universe?
Part of our problem comes from the nature of God and from what theologians call his noncommunicable attributes. In theological textbooks a distinction is made between God’s communicable attributes, in which we share, and God’s noncommunicable attributes, in which we do not share. For example, when we talk about God we often begin with the fact that he is self-existent, self-sufficient, and eternal.
Self-existent means that God has no origins and consequently is answerable to no one. This sets God utterly apart, for everything else does have origin and is accountable. Human beings are accountable to people (parents and friends), organizations (the church, the state, the company for which one works), and ultimately God. Everyone will face a final judgment.
Self-sufficient means that God has no needs and therefore depends on no one. That is not at all true of us. We need countless things—food, warmth, clothing, homes, companionship, oxygen. If our supply of oxygen is cut off even for a few minutes, we die.
Eternal means that God has always existed and will always exist. That is not true of us either. We have a point before which we did not exist. Moreover, we change as time passes. God does not change. He is always the same in his eternal being.
To these initial attributes, without which God would not be God, we can add such things as omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, majesty, and holiness in its fullest sense. We cannot be like God in these characteristics.
Omnipotent means all-powerful. We are not nor will we ever be all-powerful. If we could be, we would be God.
Omnipresent means being everywhere at once. We will never possess this ability. We are finite creatures and will always be finite.
Omniscient means knowing all things. We will never know all things. We will spend all eternity learning.
Majesty and holiness also set God off from his creation. They are what make him “wholly other.” We are not that. Each of these incommunicable attributes sets God apart from us and delineates an area in which we cannot and never will be like him.
But we are also overwhelmed by God’s communicable attributes, that is, those attributes in which we share. They are things like justice, wrath, wisdom, faithfulness, goodness, love, mercy, compassion, tenderness, forgiveness. We can exercise these attributes and indeed we ought to. But when we think of them in reference to God the Father, who is perfect in them, we are necessarily overawed and wonder properly if there is any point in comparing our wisdom to God’s wisdom, our goodness to God’s goodness, our faithfulness to God’s faithfulness, and so on.
That is a healthy comparison, which should humble us, if nothing else. But it is nevertheless true that in our text Paul says that we are to imitate God. We are to imitate God “as dearly loved children.” In other words, just as a son should imitate a good father (though he is not a father and cannot imitate his father in many respects) and just as a daughter should imitate a good mother (though she is not a mother and cannot imitate her mother in many respects), so should the children of God imitate God. And they have this going for them: They have the enabling life of God within through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Consequently, just as physical genes should lead a child in the direction of a parent’s chief characteristics, so should a Christian’s spiritual genes lead in the direction of the moral character of God.
When we look at the passage in which the command to imitate God occurs we see at once that it is not just any attribute of God that Paul has in mind for our imitating, though it would be possible to imitate God in more ways than the one he mentions. What Paul chiefly has in mind is the imitation of God’s love. Indeed, this is what ties Ephesians 5:1 to the end of chapter 4 and links it also to the following verse. (Ephesians 5:1–2 are part of the preceding paragraph.)
The entire text says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” It is in loving that we are to imitate the Creator.
What kind of a love is this? The passage answers this question in several ways, and the first answer is that this love is to be forgiving. Since God the Father forgave us through the work of Christ, we are to forgive one another. This is love’s nature.
This link between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others is important, because it is only through knowing ourselves to be forgiven that we are set free to forgive others lovingly. People are in desperate need of forgiveness. Some years ago I was talking with a friend who is a psychiatrist, and he said, “As far as I am concerned, most of what a psychiatrist does is directly related to forgiveness. People come to him with problems; they feel guilty about their part in them; they are seeking forgiveness. In effect, they confess their sins to the counselor and find that he forgives them. Then a pattern is set up in which they can show their change of heart in tangible ways toward others.”
In his book on confession John R. W. Stott quotes the head of a large mental hospital in England as having said, “I could dismiss half my patients tomorrow if they could be assured of forgiveness.”
That is what we have in Jesus Christ—forgiveness—and because we find forgiveness there, we can in turn be forgiving. God’s forgiveness is not a mere overlooking of sin, as though he said, “Well, boys will be boys (or girls will be girls). We’ll overlook it for now; just don’t let it happen again.” God takes sin with such seriousness that he deals with it fully at the cross, and it is on that basis—the death of Jesus—that we can know we are forgiven.
Do you know that, really know it? So long as you think you are a pretty good person who does not really need to be forgiven, you will naturally have a very hard time loving and forgiving others. But if you know yourself to have been a sinner under God’s just wrath, all that is changed. God says that in his sight even the best of us is vile to the extreme:
It is written,
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
That is the way God sees us. If we see ourselves through his eyes, knowing our vile rebellion against his love and moral standards and yet finding ourselves forgiven on the basis of Christ’s death for us, then we will inevitably love and forgive others. For nobody can act as badly toward us as we have acted toward God, and yet he has forgiven us.
If we are not forgiving in our love, we really do not know the extent of God’s forgiveness of us. We still consider ourselves to be better than we are. But if we see ourselves as forgiven sinners, then we will be set free to love others in imitation of God.
The second thing these verses teach about the love of God, which we are to imitate, is that it is a giving love—not merely forgiving but also giving. Again, God is the model of such love, and the point at which it is most clearly demonstrated is the cross.
What is it that God chiefly gives us? He has given us all things, of course. Before Adam and Eve were even created God had prepared a wonderful environment to receive them. It was a place of beauty and interest, with meaningful work to do. Sin marred that environment, as we know. But even marred by sin, our experience of God’s gifts to us is not entirely unlike the experience of our first parents. God has given us life itself, and he has placed us within an imperfect but nevertheless beautiful and fascinating world. And the work we have to do in it is important. Having said this, however, we have to admit at once that it does not even come close to an expression of the full measure of God’s giving love. For that, like God’s forgiving love, is seen primarily at the cross:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10).
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
I am particularly interested in Philippians 2:5–8, for those verses tell us that even Jesus did not merely give up things to save us; he gave himself. He did not only give up things which were outward accompaniments of his divinity: his outward glory, the service of the angels, his position at the right hand of God the Father: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” The heart of the passage is that Jesus gave himself, to the point of even death: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” The greatest expression of love is not that it gives things or even that it gives up things, but that it gives itself.
In this too we are to be God’s imitators. Years ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse was counseling a couple who were having marital difficulties. The husband spoke in frustration at one point, saying, “But I don’t understand it. I have given you anything a woman could want. I’ve given you a nice house. I’ve given you a car. I’ve given you all the clothes you can wear. I’ve given you …” The list went on.
At last the man ended and his wife replied sadly, “Yes, John. That much is true. You have given me everything … but yourself.”
Why don’t we give ourselves to other people? It is because we are afraid to, and because we are selfish. We want ourselves for ourselves, and we are afraid that if we give ourselves to others, we will be hurt or disappointed. Only those who have God are set free from these fears and can give to others out of God’s own immensity.
The third thing our text teaches about the love of God which we are to imitate is that it is to be a living love: forgiving, giving, but also living. It occurs in verse 2, where Paul says, “and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
There are two things that a living love suggests. First, it suggests a practical or active love. This is what Paul’s whole section on practical Christianity involves. For if we ask, “What does it mean to ‘live a life of love’?” the answer is in the very thing Paul has been saying. To use the outline of the last chapter, it means: (1) to put off lying and speak truthfully, (2) to put off anger, (3) to put off stealing and work for a living instead, (4) to put off unwholesome talk and instead speak to help others, and (5) to put off bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice, and instead to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. That is what it means to live a life of love.
Second, living love suggests love that is made alive by the very life of God and is therefore an eternal love, as God is eternal. What a need we have for this today! Our loves are weak and faltering, variable and untrustworthy. What we need in our loves is something of the character of God’s love as Paul writes about it in Romans:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Can you be an imitator of God in such an eternal love as that? The answer, if we look only to ourselves, is no. No, we cannot. Nothing that is natural to us is eternal, or forgiving or giving either, for that matter. But the answer is yes, if we look to God. The very man who wrote Ephesians 4:1 said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).
But we must spend time with God if that is to happen. The word that our text translates “imitate” or “imitator” is mimētai, from which we get our English word “mimic.” Mimic means to copy closely, to repeat another person’s speech, actions, or behavior. That is what we are to do with God. We are to repeat his actions, echo his speech, duplicate his behavior. How can we do that if we do not spend time with him? We cannot, because we will not even know what his behavior is. Spend time with God! Spend time with God in prayer. Spend time with God in Bible study. Spend time with God in worship. It is only by spending time with God that we become like God. We need men and women who are like God today.
Live as the Child of God (5:2)
In savoring their new identity the Ephesians are reminded that they are to live not only as children of God, but also to live as the Child of God. Held before us and the Ephesians is the example of Jesus Christ. We are told to “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Imitating God means imitating his Son, and that means doing whatever is required to make our lives a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The smell of Jesus, the fragrance of the Savior that we are to have waft from our lives, also includes offering and sacrifice.
The image that the apostle is bringing to mind, of course, is that of the Old Testament sacrifices where the people brought an offering to God and sacrificed it upon the altar so that its fiery consumption would cause the odor of a sweet sacrifice to God. There is much in the image that is pleasant. But it also reminds us that the fragrance from an altar does not come without some giving of self (an offering) and some dying of another (a sacrifice). There is no life of love without a degree of giving and dying.
As intimidating as that sounds, it may also be a source of comfort to us. In a world where we are tempted to advertise the earthly benefits of the faith, the Scriptures remind us of the theology of the cross. All who would be like Jesus must offer and sacrifice themselves. Luther taught that if we are truly to imitate Christ, then we must also in some measure suffer for the sins of others. The Reformer did not mean that we can atone for others’ sin, but we do suffer for their sake as we endure suffering so that they might know him.
In a world full of people caught up in sinful practices and attitudes, living like Jesus for the sake of others will involve both the giving of ourselves and the dying of self. Why is this a comfort? Because it allows me to confess that there is nothing unusual or odd in me when the purity and integrity to which God calls me also hurt me. Christian young men and women are too often ill-prepared for battle and weakened in spirit by the sense that they should not have to struggle much with the temptations of physical lust and personal gain. Such persons are tempted to think that if they were really holy, mature, and Christian, then it would not be difficult or painful to please God. But what is fragrant to God involves a giving and a dying of self—there is going to be some pain. If there were no pain involved, there would be no sacrifice. The fact that your obedience involves pain and struggle does not necessarily mean that God is displeased with you or that you are less spiritual than others. In fact, without the pain of giving and sacrifice there could be no fragrant offering to God. What enables us to bear and offer this pain is savoring our identity as children of God, and remembering that we are called to live as the Child of God who offered and sacrificed himself for us.
2 Or imitating God may point to what Paul says next, for he says, “and walk in love” (present tense, imperative mood—i.e., “keep on conducting your lives in love”; NIV, “live a life of love”). Paul used the verb peripateō (“walk”) for the conduct of life in 2:2; 4:1, 17. “Love” represents the crucial divine trait to be imitated, and one that Paul has stressed for the community (recall 4:2, 15–16). Here Paul presents Christ’s self-giving love for his people as the pattern of love to emulate. With an active form of the verb, Paul insists that Christ “gave himself up” for his people (cf. v. 25; Gal 2:20). Employing language of the sacrificial system, Paul shows how love and giving are closely identified (cf. Jn 3:16). In Paul’s view, Christ’s death was a vicarious death—“for us”—and elsewhere Paul spelled out some of the benefits of Christ’s salvific work (e.g., 1:5, 7; 2:5–6). It was a sacrificial offering “to God” that was, literally, “for a smell of fragrance.” Paul paints the picture of the aroma of the sacrifice ascending to God and bringing God pleasure (cf. Ge 8:21; Ex 29:18; Lev 2:2, 9, 12). Paul clearly implies that God was pleased and accepted Christ’s offering. By implication, then, when believers love one another—i.e., when they sacrificially put others’ interests above their own—God is pleased with this offering to him. Paul employs this same language to capture what the Philippians demonstrated in giving Paul gifts (Php 4:18).
5:2 / Since forgiveness and love are bound together, believers are admonished to live a life of love. That love finds its example in Christ who gave himself up for us. By implication, the Christian’s love is to be expressed as a self-giving sacrifice (cf. 5:25). Love is the essence of God and is to be the main feature of the believer’s walk (peripateō). By mentioning Christ’s death, the apostle recalls words that were applicable to Jewish sacrifices—namely, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrificial life of love that believers live are pleasing to God.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 193–199). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 171–177). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.
 Chapell, B. (2009). Ephesians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 238–239). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 133). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Patzia, A. G. (2011). Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (p. 255). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.