Last time we considered the opening four verses of chapter three, the introduction to the ethical section of Paul’s letter, his application of the theology of Christ and salvation he gave us in chapters 1 and 2 to the daily life and conduct of Christians. We pointed out that, as he often did, Paul connected his practical application to his theological exposition with a “therefore,” the “then” we find in verse 1, indicating that the Christian way of life is a response to and flows inevitably from God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. True holiness of life is the result of salvation, not its cause.
We also noted that Paul, again in a typical way, locates our Christian lives between the past — what Christ did for us long ago, and then some time ago in our own personal history, — and the future — what he will give us someday — and that Christ’s presence in our lives today by the Holy Spirit derives its meaning, nature and its importance from the accomplishment of salvation at the cross and empty tomb and the consummation of salvation on the day of his Second Coming. We can’t see the Lord Jesus Christ. None of you has ever seen him. He is in heaven where he sits at the Right Hand of God. He is present with us, we know, both from his promise and by the exposition of the work of the Holy Spirit as we have it in the New Testament, but we know what he did, what he does and what he will do from what he has revealed to us of his work in the past, what he has promised to do for us in the future, and of his work in the present. Summarizing all of this, our lives are hidden with Christ in God. We live in the present looking back and looking forward by looking up to Jesus Christ at the Right Hand of God.
Once again a “therefore,” as Paul descends a further step into the specifics of Christian living. The term “put to death,” famously “mortify” in Christian literature, is a radical term and implies a radical break with the attitudes and behaviors listed and that belong to an unbelieving life. Most all of these people who would have heard Colossians read out for the first time, of course, were people who had become Christians as adults. They had an unbelieving past and it was easy for them to remember what their lives were like before they met Jesus Christ. As the parallel in v. 9 will indicate, these are the behaviors associated with their former life, their life before Christ, as Paul says explicitly in v. 7.
Not only here does Paul remind us that we can be idolaters without ever bowing down to figures of wood or stone. We can make many things our gods and worship them by desiring them and longing for them as if they would fulfill our lives instead of the living God himself. It is interesting, by the way, and a magnificent demonstration of the Bible’s perpetual relevance that while specific vices might be listed today that were not in the Bible — think of drug use or pornography — the basic categories are perfectly familiar to us and make the Bible’s ethical teaching as timeless as its theology.
Lest we not take Paul’s exhortation with full seriousness, he reminds us that people are going to go to hell for the very things you have to eliminate from your life today.
It has become chic among some urban evangelicals to use obscene language. It has a greater shock value if the f-word or the s-word is uttered by a Christian and young urbanites, in particular, find it “hip.” Now that everyone drinks wine, bad language is the new taboo for Christians to violate. No! Purity may seem hopelessly out of date, purity of speech as well as purity of life may hardly appear in the modern pantheon of evangelical values, but it is immensely important in the teaching of the New Testament. Paul is even sterner in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:3-4: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place…”
We are finding out aren’t we as a people how precious truth is, how hard it is to find it and how easily people sacrifice it to other interests. So much of what we hear in the media is false; so much of what is taught at our colleges and universities is simply untrue. Often the people who teach it know it is untrue. So much of our political speak is manifestly a lie, however it may be clothed with a veneer of plausibility. Christians may find, will find that if they are careful of the truth, careful to protect, to speak it, to refrain from speaking what they cannot know to be true, they will stand out as a very different people in this society.
As always in the Bible we have here again the contrast between “old” and “new” and “objective” and “subjective.” Let me explain briefly. The contrast between “old” and “new” which you find in a number of respects in the Bible, the “old song” the “new song”, the “old man” the “new man”, the “old covenant” the “new covenant” and so on is not simply chronological. It has to do with the nature of salvation itself. The old man, for example, is not OT man, he is rather the unsaved man. The “old covenant” is not the OT understood either as a body of literature or as a religious revelation and economy in the history of salvation. The “old covenant” is the broken covenant, the covenant that has been betrayed by unbelief. “Old” in such usage is always a pejorative term in the Bible. The “new man” is the saved man; the man in Jesus Christ who is the new man, the second Adam. In this sense Abraham and David were new men and in this sense a professing Christian who is not actually living in the faith of Jesus Christ is still an “old man.”
And, as I said, we also have a tension between the objective and the subjective beautifully identified in vv. 9 and 10. We are told in v. 9 that we have put off the old man and in v. 10 that we have put on the new man. But that clearly does not mean that we will inevitably live the new life, otherwise what is the point of commanding us to put these various behaviors to death. There is a sense in which the old man is dead and we have nothing any longer to do with him — we are new creations in Christ — and a sense in which he is still very much alive — so you must still put him to death. Think of it his way. Can an adult become a child again? No. It is impossible. But can an adult act like a child? Of course he can. We see adults doing it all the time.
In the same way, we have this tension everywhere we look in the teaching of the Christian life in the New Testament. Paul accents it when he uses the word “flesh” which you find again in your ESV translation rather than sinful nature (the Greek word sarx) as the NIV translated the term. Paul uses “flesh” to describe the unrenewed, unsaved man, “the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, cannot and will not submit to God’s law.” So that is what the flesh is. Yet Paul also uses the same word “flesh” to describe what is in us that is constantly working against the interest of the Holy Spirit. The “flesh” wars against the spirit he says to the Galatian believers in Galatians chapter 5. We have put on the new man but then he goes on to say that the new man is being renewed. This has been characterized famously as Paul’s “now, but not yet” view of the Christian life. Something definitive has taken place, much still remains to be done. We are new creations and we are becoming new creations.
It is interesting and important that Paul says that the new self is being renewed in knowledge. When you stop and think about this you realize how practical that truth is and how practically important it is to you. Righteousness and holiness of life are impossible without knowledge: without the knowledge of God, of God’s will, of Christ and his salvation, without the knowledge of the “how to” of the Christian life to which the Bible devotes a great deal of its teaching. In any case notice also that true godliness, true righteousness of life is not some kind of alien, inhuman conduct. We are new men. We are human nature coming into its own. It is the life we were made to live, the life sin destroyed, and that God’s grace is recreating in us. To live a godly life is to live a truly human life. Everyone knows this at some level, but it ought to be something immensely satisfying and confirming to you and me. The more we live faithfully as the followers of Jesus Christ, the more human we become and the more our lives become what human life was always intended to be.
Paul obviously is mentioning many of the divisions in human society in that time. No matter a man’s background, his past, his social status; what matters is if he is a new creation in Christ. There really is but one division in the human race: “old men” or “new men.” Nothing else matters. Scythians was a kind of generic term for the lowest sort of barbarian, the bottom of the barrel barbarian, originally people from around the Black Sea. The point is obvious: there is and can be only one distinction that really matters: the absolute distinction between old man and new. Christ is all that matters, which is the point of the last phrase of v. 11. New men in Christ, whatever their circumstances in this world, will carry the future with them; old men without Christ, however exalted here, will face the wrath of God. Sin divided mankind into all these various groups and we care so much about them including national identity; Jesus Christ is unifying them again in his church.
All three terms (“elect” is the noun, “holy” and “beloved” are adjectives) so you are the holy and beloved elect of God – all of these terms were applied to Israel as the people of God in the OT. The apostolic church is the new Israel, the new manifestation of the chosen people of God in the world.
In contrast to the “put to death,” “put away,” and “put off” of the previous verses, we now have “put on.” There is always this double motion in the Bible’s teaching of the Christian life: off and on. Putting to death the behaviors of our old life and putting on the behaviors of our new life: mortification and vivification, putting to death and bringing to life, killing one thing, making alive another. In all the great works instructing us in how to grow in holiness you will have an emphasis placed on this double motion; never one without the other, always both together. And, as many wise Christians will tell us, perhaps the greater emphasis on the latter rather than, as is our wont, on the former. And our wont, and this is my own opinion, I think particularly with Christian men our wont is especially to concentrate on mortification, the putting to death, the killing of sin, rather than vivification, the putting on, of righteousness and godly behaviors. But as the wise will tell you the truest way to kill sinful sexual lust is truly to love one’s wife or husband; the most effective way to kill covetousness is to learn to find fulfillment and pleasure in the practice of generosity; the most effective way of removing anger from one’s heart and speech is to crowd it out with the enthusiastic practice of love and forgiveness. The best way to force sins out of your life is to crowd them out with behaviors that are their opposite.
The particular virtues here listed were perhaps those most in need in a church that has been divided by elitist teaching brought by visiting teachers.
It isn’t simply theology first and ethics second, as the “therefores” in vv. 1 and 5 might suggest. The two are connected with that intervening “therefore” to be sure. But theology and ethics, are always thoroughly woven together in the teaching of the Bible. We must forgive others because the Lord has forgiven us. We must forgive how? Well, you have to forgive in the same way Christ has forgiven you: willingly, heartily, and unqualifiedly. In other words our living is supposed to be a mirror of our faith.
Thinking of these virtues as articles of clothing, going on over them all is a coat or cloak of love.
The fundamental fact of Christian living as every Christian learns sooner than he or she wishes is that we have been delivered from sin and yet it remains a power against which we must struggle all our lives. The Bible never minimizes the power of sin and or the scourge it remains even in the most committed Christian life. We must live our lives with our hearts filled at one and the same time both with relief for God’s deliverance and shame for sin’s remaining power in our hearts and minds. Among other reasons, but perhaps this preeminently, this is why Christians can be described, as Paul once described them, as “sorrowful, but always rejoicing.” There is another fundamental fact that all Christians must embrace as the truth of their lives: their lives have been recreated by the grace and power of God. They are new creations, they are different people and all the virtues of godliness and Christlikeness are theirs implicitly. They are there in the seed in their heart and in their life already. Nevertheless without the exercise of the Christian’s will, without his attention and his intention, without his obedience those virtues will never be actualized. In sanctification, that is, in the living of a godly life and growing in a holy life, there is that which God has done, there is that which God must and will do, and there is that which we must do. “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” [Phil. 2:12-13]
It is absolutely true that the Lord accepts us as we are, wonderfully true. But it is also true that he accepts us as we are precisely to change us from what we are to what we ought to be and that he expects our enthusiastic participation in that transformation! [Lucas, 142] It is also true that our right conduct, our godly behavior, our attitudes, our words, our deeds, proceed from inside, from character, but that hardly means that we are not to concentrate on right conduct, on holy, pure, and loving living. Indeed, character is formed by constant attention to conduct, as the Bible’s whole presentation of the Christian life confirms.
Now, the great tendency for a preacher facing a text like this is to slow down and attend to detail: what was meant by each specific command? What is the specific requirement of sexual purity? What precisely is the sin of covetousness? How can we be properly ambitious but not covetous at the same time? And so on. But, as I said at the outset of this series of sermons, we want to take the letter paragraph by paragraph, that is, as it would have been heard by the Colossians when it was first read out to them in their Lord’s Day church services. After all, this is how it strikes us as well, does it not? We know what Paul means. We understand what lust is and what covetousness is and we know why we are not to give way to such sins. We know what is wrong with them. And we know what kindness, humility and patience are and why they are right and ought to be a characteristic of a Christian’s life. It is not the individual pieces that Paul is after supremely, but the larger thing, the total effect.
Paul has begun his exposition of the Christian life in a very typical way, in the way it is virtually always described in the Bible. He has urged us to put our sins to death and to practice the new life that Christ has created within us. He has reminded them that such a life proceeds logically and inevitably from the saving work of Jesus Christ being what that work is, it is an imitation of Christ in his sacrificial love for others, and it takes its seriousness from the threat of divine wrath. It takes its motivation from the fact that we have been loved with his great love and have been saved in defiance of our ill dessert. All of that is familiar to us and to any attentive reader of the Bible.
So is the presence of love in the description of Christian behavior, as we have it in vv. 14-15, the verses with which we concluded our reading. There is a sense in which “love” is a conventional virtue in Christian teaching. We expect to hear that we are to love others. We know how often it comes up in the teaching of the Bible. But there is something here that, I suspect, would have leapt off the page when the Colossians heard these verses read for the first time. I further suspect that among all the things that Paul said to them here, it would be this that they would most remember as they left church that day. And it’s this I want to stress in your hearing tonight.
Some of you may find that this is not immediately a problem for you at this particular moment in your life, but I guarantee it has been in the past, and it will be again in the future, and I want to teach you to measure your Christian life and your love for God and your obedience to him in this way supremely.
We would miss the force of Paul’s teaching almost entirely if we understood him, in what he says here about Christian love, to be simply adding another point to his list of things that Christians should and should not do. Paul’s exposition of the Christian life is not akin to beads on a string with love being one of the beads. Paul’s exposition of the Christian life is more like the building of a house, a structure. He begins with the laying of a foundation because a foundation is crucial. Nothing can be put on that foundation properly. The house will not be straight and it will not become the building we want to build if the foundation is not sound and straight. And so Paul lays the foundation in vv. 1-10, with his account of our life in Christ, how we are dead and risen with Christ, how we are soon to appear with him in glory, his explanation of our lives as new creations, our old selves having been put off and the new put on, how we are being renewed in the image of Christ, and how in this new life Christ is everything. It is upon this foundation that Paul now proceeds to build the house which is the Christian life. But his real interest is in this new life is the practice of love. Love gets pride of place as it always does when we are taught the life of faith in the Bible. Love is the controlling principle of biblical ethics and so of the Christian life. When our entire duty is summarized by the Lord Jesus he does so by saying that our obligation is to love God and to love our neighbor and to love both radically. Paul in Romans and Galatians tells us that love is the fulfillment of the law. Take a commandment, any commandment, do you want to know how to keep it, turn that particular commandment into love. It was not just rhetoric that led one Bible teacher to say that love, coming first in the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, is no accident. All the rest are simply forms of love. Joy is love singing, he said; peace is love resting; patience is love enduring; kindness is love’s self-forgetfulness; goodness is love’s character; faithfulness is love’s habit; gentleness is love’s true touch; and self-control is love holding the reins.
We might easily say the same thing about the list of virtues in vv. 12 and 13: each of them is a form of love. As Paul puts it in v. 14, love binds them all together into a single virtuous, godly, Christ-like life. But there is one thing that takes love out of the vague, out of the uncertain and brings it into the realm of crystal clarity teaching us exactly what the Bible means with this four letter word.
“…if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
I suspect for many Christians, for many of the Colossian believers who first heard the letter being read, it was this statement that cut through the fog and hit them the hardest. Forgive as Christ forgave you! Christ has forgiven our many sins, our constant and repeated sins, our thoughtless sins that we have so easily and willingly committed against his majesty, those sins that have so often revealed how little we have cared for Christ’s mighty gifts, how little we have hated the crimes that sent him to the cross for us, how little we have loved that life which he gave his life that we might live. Christ forgave us with a vengeance. He has cast our sins behind his back; has buried them in the deepest sea; has trampled them under his feet; has separated us from them as far as the east is from the west; he has removed them and has remembered them no more. Have we forgiven, do we forgive like that? Or, in the matter of forgiveness are we still just tyros, just beginning to learn what it means to live a Christian life of love?
Forgiveness is love surviving sin. That is what forgiveness is: love surmounting sin. And love that survives sin is a higher, deeper, more beautiful love than anything Adam and Eve ever knew or could have known before the Fall. There is a greater love to be practiced in the Christian life than any other love in the world: greater than the love of man and woman, the love of parents for their children; the love of patriot for his country. All of that is natural in a way. In some ways, wonderful and pure as those loves can be, they are forms of self-love. It is love for my spouse, love for my children; love for my country. I am identified. My own happiness is taken up with these other people and this country. But love that survives attack, that surmounts betrayal, that endures repeated disappointment, there is something supernatural, something genuinely God-like in such love. This is the only love that is distinctively, uniquely Christian love. It’s the only love the world doesn’t even aspire to because it is the same kind of love with which Christ loved us, unworthy as we were, ungrateful as he knew we would be, and it is the same love with which he continues to love us in defiance of our repeated betrayals.
Have you thought about this? Here is C.S. Lewis from his masterpiece, The Four Loves. 
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal…. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
The Bible is never sentimental about this Christian love to which we are called. Love is pain, love is heartbreak, love is sacrifice, at least true love, Christ-like love must be so in a world of sin and death, a world where everyone is a sinner and so everyone must disappoint the others in his or her life. In fact, it is law of this world that the one who loves most suffers the most. That is true only because love, true Christian love, cannot fail, cannot give up, cannot retire from the scene. It must be faithful as Christ’s love was; it must surmount and endure the sins of others, as his love did and does.
You might think, you might even be thinking at this moment, as a form of self-defense, “I love many in my life,” but I don’t have to love that person because of what he or she has done to me. No, says Paul, that person and only that person is the true index of your love. Your love is as Christ-like as the love you have for the one who has disappointed you most cruelly or betrayed you most inexcusably or failed you most painfully. Only that love is Christ’s sort of love, the love that survives sin, the love that is built on the foundation that Paul has laid down here. Unbelievers can love in all those other ways and sometimes quite nobly do so, But this is a different love, a love altogether unlike any other human love in the world and that’s why we Christians shouldn’t simply sag our shoulders and accept that, yes, I’m called to love my enemy whether my enemy happens to be my own spouse, or a Christian friend, or a person at work. No! I am to aspire to love that person with Christ’s kind of self-forgetting love.
That kind of love, you see, can only rest on one foundation: the work of the Son of God for us and in us, and our union with him. It is from him that comes the power to love so mightily, it is for him that we find the motivation to endure and to forgive, and it is his love for us that not only makes us want to imitate that love in our behavior towards others, but shows us what that kind of love would actually look like in our particular circumstance. Christ is everything here.
When Matthew Henry said that
“It is comfortable to reflect upon an affliction borne patiently, a Sabbath sanctified uprightly, and an enemy forgiven heartily,” [Memoir, 7]
he was admitting that these three things are very difficult to do. But when you do them you realize you have done something that is distinctively Christian. You have acted in a way that is distinctively and uniquely Christian.
As an aside, let me say that one reason I think even Christians do not take their sins nearly as seriously as they should, why they are not more humbled by them, is because they are not as furiously forgiven by other believers. An unforgiven sin lies in our lives as something entirely normal, ordinary, uninteresting. It is only when our sin is forgiven that we are set free to feel the full force of its shame, only when it is forgiven willingly and completely that we are forced to realize what it is we have done and how wrong it was. When sins are not forgiven, they are not repented of. We learned that from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Until sinners know of Christ’s love and his readiness to forgive even them, they never repent and turn away from their sins. It is the reality of his forgiveness that taught us the enormity of our sins. We need to be practicing forgiveness for one another’s sake. I think there are enormous numbers of people in the world who are locked up to the power of their sins because their sins are not being forgiven. There ought to be at least some Christian in his or her life against whom he or she has sinned who forgives that person heartily and willingly and kindly. And then does it again and does it again until that person realizes that there is such a thing as the forgiveness of sins and goes looking for it for himself or herself.
We are inclined to think, to say to ourselves, “He, she doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, or my compassion, or my love!” Deserve? How dare you use that word! What does deserving have to do with anything in the kingdom of Jesus Christ and the family of God? What if God had required you to deserve his salvation or his love?
Well, then, you say, “If I forgive him or her, if I continue to love him or her in defiance of the offenses committed against me, he will never learn his lesson, she will never face her sins.” The exact opposite is the case. It is forgiveness more than anything else that forces a reckoning with one’s sins. And, in any case, what if God had taken that tack with you? Where would you be? What if you had to learn your lessons first only to be forgiven later? What is God were to have withheld his love from you until you had put yourself right? You would have never known the love of God or life in Christ.
It is when we argue this way that it becomes clear why the Christian life understood as a set of behaviors is at one and the same time a life of devotion to Jesus Christ. Devotion to Christ produces the behaviors; devotion to Christ in some profound way is itself the behaviors; they depend upon our understanding of what he did for us, our conviction of our own undeserving, and our love for him in return. The behaviors are both an imitation of Christ and an expression of gratitude for him. That is what makes forgiveness and particularly the forgiveness of an enemy, even an enemy in your own home, your own family, it’s what makes forgiveness the supreme definition and example of love, the forgiveness of an enemy in the Bible.
This is the Christian life everywhere we look: foundation and superstructure uniquely joined together and perfectly fitted for one another. It is theological living and it is Christocentric living. And when you remember that everything becomes very clear: what we are to do, how we are to do it and why.