Most of us desire to be more productive. We want to know the best way to get everything done. The biblical phrase often used in this regard is “redeeming the time” (Eph. 5:16). Following Paul’s advice is indeed the proper way to think about our daily lives. But what does he mean when he uses this phrase? Though Paul’s words do apply to being more productive, his vision is more all-encompassing than just checking items off a to-do list.

Yet too often books on productivity and time management, in spite of many helpful insights, lack the all-encompassing vision of the apostle Paul. To be most effective doing the right things, we need to understand what it really means to redeem the time.

To that end, let’s consider four things redeeming the time does not mean, in order to bring clarity to what it does mean.

1. We Don’t Redeem the Time by Neglecting Christ Himself

We start at the top. Redeeming the time isn’t at root about better calendar management, but about living faithfully in light of the coming of Christ our Savior. It’s important to recognize that the discussion about redeeming the time happens close to the end of Ephesians. It must be understood in light of what has come before.

Ephesians presents one of the most extensive discussions of the exalted Christ in the New Testament. Jesus has come to reconcile sinners to God and to one another (Eph. 2:11–21; 3:6–10). He has come to reverse the effects of sin, for in Christ all things hold together (1:10). The disharmony and damaging effects of sin are overcome in the new creation of Christ, in whom believers are being built up (4:13–16). Not everyone has the same role, but together the church is to be built up in practice toward the unity that’s already true in principle (cf. 4:7).

Redeeming the time isn’t at root about better calendar management, but about living faithfully in light of the coming of Christ our Savior.

Paul’s statement about redeeming the time must first of all be understood in light of the supremacy of Christ as the focus of the universe, and our task in growing in spiritual maturity in community.

Redeeming the time requires faith in Christ as the King of kings.

2. We Don’t Redeem the Time by Trusting in Our Own Abilities

Unfortunately, many well-meaning Christians have imbibed the mentality of Norman Vincent Peale’s wildly popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale’s starting point, though, is our own ability. He urges readers to trust in themselves and release their inner powers.

Redeeming the time relativizes our own ambition.

Paul’s starting point is quite different. He explains we are naturally incapable of any good and are in need of spiritual rebirth (2:1–10). We don’t redeem the time on our own, but by the power of the Holy Spirit poured out on the church (4:6–8). Redeeming the time requires being led by the Spirit (cf. 5:18), not working from our own strength or according to our own priorities.

Redeeming the time requires new birth in Christ and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

3. We Don’t Redeem the Time while Living in Sin

To redeem the time means we must understand the danger of sin and resist it. Redeeming the time requires walking wisely in all areas of life, which means holy living according to the new creation inaugurated by Christ and his resurrection (4:22­–24).

Sin is characteristic of the present, evil age, in which the Devil remains active. This means our actions are much more significant than only whether we got enough done for the day; we must live according to the new person as we follow Christ in a sinful world. This requires the holistic vision of biblical wisdom (5:15).

Redeeming the time means that advancement and productivity are subordinate to practical holiness.

Paul’s life offers a warning here. Before his conversion, he was ambitious and outworked many of his contemporaries (Gal. 1:14). Yet when he met Christ, he found that his zeal, though sincere, was misguided. He was working against Christ, and his life had to be changed.

Redeeming the time means that advancement and productivity are subordinate to practical holiness.

4. We Don’t Redeem the Time by Fixating on Worldly Goals

Living wisely in light of Christ’s supremacy reminds us of our need to align our priorities with those of Scripture. Do our plans cohere to the call to live under his authority in Ephesians 4–6? Do we seek to understand the will of the Lord?

This helps us remember that the ultimate goal isn’t building the next project or maximizing our influence in this age. Redeeming the time relativizes our own ambitions. Likewise, Ecclesiastes reminds us that no matter how great we are, all our works will be forgotten by future generations (e.g., Eccl. 1:11; 2:15–16). Instead, the most important thing is to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13).

Even so, the resurrection of Christ encourages us that our labors aren’t in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Our works really do matter, and we should work at them diligently with all our strength (Col. 3:23). It is, however, necessary that we do so while redeeming the time—living wisely in light of the universal supremacy of the risen King.

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