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The gospel for criminals (Ephesians 4:28)

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

I owe a huge debt to prison chaplains. My whole nation does. Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden were foundational figures in the history of Australia. Johnson came out on the First Fleet in 1788, and Marsden followed him. They were evangelical ministers, and they were prison chaplains. That’s because the whole colony of New South Wales was a prison. Apart from the original owners of the land which became known as New South Wales, everyone was involved in the correctional system in some way: either as a customer, or as a service provider. As the colony was being set up, mission-minded evangelicals in England knew that this new prison needed the gospel of Jesus Christ. So they made sure that the position of chaplain was included in the colony, and they provided gospel ministers to fill it. For the chaplains themselves, it was a hard, debilitating, and largely thankless task. They’re still routinely mocked by modern historians. But through these prison chaplains and others, the gospel was proclaimed to the early colony. It continues to be heard and believed today, and it changes lives now, as it did then. Prison ministry is still very important, because people in prisons still matter to God. I have ministry colleagues involved in prison ministry. We need more. A friend of mine who works for an organisation that helps to provide chaplains for prisons tells me that there are many positions open, especially for women, but also for men. So speaking as a teacher at a Sydney theological college, here’s a recruiting message for you: “Come to Moore College so we can send you to prison”. What do you think?

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Of course, there’s something you need to realise about prison ministry (in case you hadn’t worked it out already): it’s not about preaching a gospel of moralism. That is, prison ministry isn’t about telling people to be good, upstanding citizens so that God will be happy with them and let them into heaven. Now that’s a message you should never preach, but it’s a particularly ridiculous message to preach in a prison context. Rather, prison ministry (like any ministry) is about preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s about lovingly and prayerfully sharing God’s grace through Christ: a message of sins forgiven and hope assured for all those who believe in him. This gospel does make a real difference in people’s lives. Many current and ex-prisoners can testify to that truth. I know some of them; I’ve seen how God’s grace has gripped them, given them hope, and changed their lives, their families and their wider relationships.

In this verse in Ephesians, we see Paul (himself a prisoner at the time) preaching the gospel to criminals. To be precise, he’s preaching the gospel to thieves:

The one who steals should steal no longer; rather, he should labour, doing good work with his own hands, so that he might have something to share with those in need.

Ephesians 4:28

Clearly, from Paul’s words here, thieves were the kind of people who became Christians in the first century. Not all of these thieves had been caught by the authorities. But they had all, in some way or another, broken the eighth commandment: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). Paul obviously has this commandment in mind here. But he doesn’t just quote the commandment at them and tell them to pull up their socks and do the right thing. Instead, he applies the gospel of God’s grace to them. In fact, the closer we look at what Paul says here, the more we see that his instructions to thieves are infused with the gospel of grace, from beginning to end.

Transforming grace

Firstly, notice how Paul describes the thief. He doesn’t actually use the word “thief”. He could have done so; it was a common word, and Paul used it elsewhere. But here, Paul says, “the one who steals”. This is a subtle but profound difference. Paul is describing him (or her) in terms of what he does, not who he is. He isn’t, fundamentally, a “thief”, but somebody who steals. His identity isn’t defined entirely by his behaviour. That suggests that he can change his behaviour.

And secondly, notice that Paul doesn’t say “don’t steal”. He says, “steal no longer”. That’s what grace does to us: it changes us. A few verses earlier, Paul had spoken about the way the gospel teaches us to become more and more who we are in Christ: to “take off the old humanity” and “to be renewed by the Spirit of your minds and put on the new humanity” (Ephesians 4:22–24). Here, he’s applying that truth to those who steal. They can change, because as believers in Christ they have a whole new life to live.

Boy reaching for the sky. Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Graciously created for good works

Paul also gives a positive alternative to stealing: “he should labour, doing good work with his own hands”. Paul’s words here echo what he said earlier in his letter about the gospel of God’s grace. In chapter 2, Paul described the gospel this way:

For it is by grace that you are saved, through faith; and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not from works, so that no one may boast. For we are his product, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre-prepared for us to walk in.

Ephesians 2:8–10

These verses in Ephesians 2 are talking about the place of good works in salvation. Firstly (and this is important), good works don’t save us from death and judgment. But secondly (and this is also important), good works are what we have been saved for. Those who have been rescued from sin and death and judgment have a whole new life to live. We are a new creation in Christ, made by God for a purpose: to do “good works”. Yet these good works aren’t ultimately up to us. Rather, God has prepared them in advance for us to do. In much of the rest of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul spells out what many of these good works are. That includes his instructions here in Ephesians chapter 4. When Paul tells those who have been stealing that they have “good work” to do with their own hands, he’s reminding them of the gospel. God has rescued them and loves them and has given them good work to do. This is who they are, and this is their purpose.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

An instrument of grace

And in fact, there’s even more to God’s grace here. The “good works” that Paul mentions have a particular purpose: “to share with those in need.” The word “share” is a grace word. It means giving something of what is yours to others. The thieving hands that used to take are now transformed hands created to give. They have been saved by grace to be an instrument of God’s grace for others. This is how grace works. We come to God as sinners, with nothing in our hands to offer him. Yet through Jesus, God gives to us richly and abundantly: he forgives us, makes us his children and raises us to life. And the once-empty hands that receive this gift become hands full of grace to give to others.

Giving to those in need

Do you see, then, how everything Paul says here to thieves is soaked in the gospel of God’s grace? It’s the gospel for criminals. But of course, it’s not just convicted criminals who steal. This verse applies to any one of us who steals, doesn’t it? And when you think about it, that’s pretty much all of us. There are so many ways to steal. Breaking copyright is stealing from artists (and that’s true whether or not you personally think the system is unfair). Helping yourself to things from work that don’t belong to you is stealing from the business (and that’s true whether or not you personally think the business has too much money and nobody will miss it). Evading taxes is stealing from your fellow citizens (and that’s true whether or not you personally agree with the government’s taxation system). Why do we steal? We steal when we forget or ignore the riches of God’s grace and the blessings that we’ve been given so abundantly in Christ. If we feel hard done by, we feel we need to use our hands to grab and grasp things for ourselves. That’s stealing. So this verse has something to say to all of us, doesn’t it?

But what does this verse say to us? The alternative Paul offers to us here isn’t simply a negative rule about stealing. It’s an encouragement to use our work to be an instrument of grace to others. Grace, in other words, transforms the way we should all think about our own work. Work isn’t just something I do for myself, so I can gain more and more for myself. Work is something I do for others. Work enables me not only to support myself and my family, but to give to others, especially to those who are in need. I don’t work so I can take; I work so I can give. That applies to all kinds of work: not only the work that our society explicitly values by giving it a paid wage, but all the other highly valuable work that doesn’t have a dollar figure attached: the work of volunteers and carers, of mothers and fathers, of friends and encouragers, and more. The work we do is about giving and sharing: giving and sharing our time and energy, and giving and sharing our money, with charities and those who need it. And we can do that when we remember how much we have been given.

This is what the gospel of God’s grace through Christ does to all who believe in him. God’s grace gives us a new identity. We are God’s new people, with a whole new life to live. And that means we have work to do: not so we can take, but so we can give. The gospel for criminals isn’t just a gospel for criminals, is it? It the gospel for all of us.

For reflection

Are you stealing things? How does the gospel of God’s grace teach you to change?

Christians don’t work so we can take; we work so we can give. How does this affect the decisions you make when it comes to your own work situation (or potential work situation)?

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.