“Sanctification: Seeing the Work Both Past & Present”

Colossians 3:1-17

June 19, 2022

Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service

Pastor Nicoletti

The Reading of the Word

We return this morning to the book of Colossians – our summer series, which we left off of last August.

We are right in the middle of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. At the end of chapter two, Paul had been addressing false forms of religion, and false forms of self-improvement. Now he addresses what true religion and true spiritual growth look like.

With that in mind, we turn now to Colossians 3:1-17.

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.

Paul writes:

3:1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Prayer of Illumination

Lord, our eyes long for your salvation

and for the fulfillment of your righteous promises.

Deal with us, your servants, according to your steadfast love,

and teach us your statutes.

We are your servants, and so we ask you to give us understanding,

that we may know your testimonies.

As we attend to your word now,

help us to love it more than gold, even much fine gold.

Make us to hold to your precepts as right,

and to hate every false way.

Grant this, we ask, in Jesus’s name. Amen

[Based on Psalm 119:123-125, 127-128]


As is often the case with the Apostle Paul, there is a lot going on in this text. And so we will spend two Lord’s Days on this passage. This morning we will look at the big-picture elements that form the foundation of this passage, and then in another sermon we will consider more of the details Paul lays out here.

So today I want to focus on three things that are part of the foundation of what Paul says here. And they are three things that, in various ways, we are tempted to deny.

Paul, in this passage, is talking about spiritual work that needs to be done in our hearts and lives – that, in very general terms, is what he lays out here. But before we can even get to the details, we need to acknowledge three ways that we are tempted to deny the foundational assumptions of what Paul has to say here.

And what we see is that first, we may be tempted to deny that work is needed. Second, we may be tempted to deny the past work. And third, we may be tempted to deny the present work.

But Paul pushes against each of those denials in this passage.

Denying that Work is Needed

So the first temptation we bring to a text like this – which has several lists of things we are told to do or not do – is that we are tempted to deny that spiritual work is needed in our hearts and lives. We are tempted to deny that something is really wrong with us that needs to be worked on.

And this denial can take different forms. Sometimes we dispute the details of what the Bible says needs to be worked on – we dispute whether what the Bible calls sin is really sin, and whether what the Bible calls virtue is really virtue.

Other times, we admit that we are not perfect, but we point out (whether out loud or just in our heads) that we are doing much better than a lot of other people, so while we need to make some adjustments along the edges of our lives, it’s really other people who are especially in need of self-improvement.

And still other times we question the whole concept of self-improvement as maybe dangerous, and call for an unqualified self-acceptance in its place.

But Paul pushes back against all of this in verse ten when he reminds us of the root problem we have. He says there that what we need is to be renewed after the image of our Creator. We need to be changed in order to better reflect the image of the One who made us. And that helps us rethink our various forms of denial of the fact that there is spiritual work to be done in our lives.

The Bible tells us that humanity was created in God’s image. It says that all people were made in the image of a God who is good, and loving, and holy, and just. And that is an incredible thing.

But then we sinned. We rebelled against God, we broke his law, and when we did, the image of God in us was not lost, but it was twisted – it was marred. It was vandalized by us. It was no longer the way it should be.

And so human beings continue to bear God’s image, but like a vandalized piece of art, it is damaged – it is not right. The piece of art remains art – but the graffiti scrawled across it is not easy to remove.

Every now and then there are attempts to deny the graffiti and the vandalism we have done to the image of God that we bear. But such claims are always short-lived. As G.K. Chesterton has said, the doctrine of original sin is, in some ways, “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” [Chesterton, 9]

We bear God’s image. But we have marred and vandalized it with our sin.

This helps, in some ways, explain the twin impulses of our age: the impulse towards self-affirmation on the one end, and towards self-improvement on the other. Both grow out of a truth – though they often distort it in the process.

First, human beings really do have value. We are made in God’s image, and that is something that we should rejoice in, and find meaning and worth in.

Second, human beings are not the way they are supposed to be in this world. We have marred the image of God. We do not live as we were made to. We often do not reflect the love and character of our Maker in what we say, or do, or think. We often do the opposite, in fact. Something is deeply wrong with us.

Some of us know this. And we have tried to work on it. But even while some have made much progress, Paul’s words remind us here that none of us are done with that work in this life.

As the Apostle Paul points out in verse ten, we are all still in need of renewal. We often try to sidestep this truth by comparing ourselves to others, rather than comparing ourselves with the image we are supposed to bear. Compared to others we may feel satisfied with our character. But compared to our Maker – to his love and his righteousness and his holiness … well if we do that then we are surely reminded that there is still much work to be done in us.

And as Paul reminds us of that work, he also reminds us of where we must look to be reminded of our goal – our aim. To restore an image, you need to know what the original looked like. You can’t trust your imagination or your intuitions of what it should be – you need some way to reference the original. And that is what God has given us in his word. He has told us – in stories, in doctrines, in commandments – what he is like and what we should be like. He’s given us an image to aim for. And if we want to be renewed in the image of our Creator, then the chief authority for what he is like must be his word to us – and not our own word to ourselves. Because even our moral intuitions are marred by our sin. And so we need his word to us to know what is right and what is wrong, and what sort of people we should be.

And so, in a number of ways we can be tempted to deny the need for work to be done in our hearts and lives, but Paul counteracts that denial throughout this passage. And he gets to the heart of it in verse ten when he reminds us that we need to be renewed in the image of our Creator.

And on some level, we all know this, don’t we? We know that we are not the way we are supposed to be. We know that we often want things that we should not want. We know that we are often sinfully selfish or angry towards others. We know that something is wrong with us – that work needs to be done in us.

And even our most strenuous denials of this fact can, in the end, seem to support the fact that something is wrong in us. I remember a sermon where a preacher pointed out that we don’t typically talk over and over again about parts of our bodies working well if they are healthy. We don’t just go around saying things like “Wow! My elbows are working really well. Can you see how good they are? Isn’t that something!” If we say something like that, then it usually means that we know that our elbows generally have problems – that they are not normally the way they should be. [From a Tim Keller sermon I remember hearing heard in person (no specific citation available)]

In a similar way, our sometimes-intense declarations and self-assurances that we are good, and the high levels of pride or self-praise we feel when we do something good – that feeling itself can often reveal a knowledge, deep down, that most of the time we are not so good.

So the first thing we see that Paul does in setting a foundation for this passage is he reminds us that work does, in fact, need to be done in each of our hearts and lives – that we are not the way we are supposed to be, that we do not bear the image of our Maker as clearly as we should.

Denying the Past Work

The second thing that Paul does is that he exposes our tendency to deny the past work that God has already done in us if we are believers.

The second tendency is to deny that God has done much already for our sanctification – for the process in our lives of dying to sin and selfishness and of living more and more to virtue and righteousness.

And there are different ways we can deny this.

One way, if you’re not a Christian, is to deny that you need such help in order to grow and improve.

Christians should know better. But Christians often fall into a way of thinking that is not so different. Because while Christians know that the forgiveness of their sins – their justification – is a free gift, many Christians, often without thinking much about it, approach their sanctification – their spiritual growth after their conversion – as if that is their responsibility on their own. God leaves them some tools, maybe. But they are the ones who need to get the work started.

But Paul stands against such a view in our text.

In verses nine and ten, Paul says “you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self.” In verses one and three he says to the Colossian Christians that in Christ “you have died” and “you have been raised with Christ.” [Note: The word “if” in verse one is probably better translated “since,” as it’s there to introduce a logical condition, not raise a question about that condition. See: Wright, 130; Moo, 233]

In verses nine and ten the work described seems to be done by them, but in verses one and three the work is clearly done by God … and in both cases the work has already occurred – it is a past, completed work. [Moo, 268; Wright, 135, 142]

So what is Paul getting at here?

Paul is describing what some theologians have called “definitive sanctification.”

“Definitive sanctification” refers to the Biblical teaching that when Christ calls someone to himself, and they place their trust in him, Christ, by the Holy Spirit, does a substantial work in changing their hearts right there, in that moment. Their death to sin and living to righteousness does not begin with their own gradual work, but it begins with his powerful and decisive work in their hearts at the time of their conversion.

Reformed theologian John Murray puts it like this – he writes that the Bible teaches us that “sin is dethroned in every person who is effectually called and regenerated.” [141] In other words, in every person who comes to true faith in Christ, sin has already been removed from the throne of their hearts.

That truth is summarized in Romans 6. There the Apostle Paul writes that the one who trusts in Christ has died to sin, and so is no longer enslaved to sin – and so sin shall have no dominion over them. Paul is not just giving an exhortation here – he is explaining something that has already happened in the believer. [Murray, 142] And that same truth is pointed to in verses one through three of our text, and again in verses nine and ten.

This “freedom from the dominion of sin, and victory over the power of sin” is not something gradual. And it’s not something we do. But it is “achieved once for all by union with Christ and the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit,” John Murray writes. [Murray, 142-143]

This is definitive sanctification – this is the one-time work that Christ does in a believer when they first come to faith in him, of dethroning sin from their hearts and making them new.

And as Paul anchors this text and many others in this reality, it is important that we acknowledge, and engage with, and receive this truth and this work of Christ rightly, if we want to see real change and real spiritual growth in our lives.

What does that mean for us practically?

Well, for the non-Christian, it means, that if you are trying to improve yourself – if you are trying to put your selfishness to death, to eliminate the things in your heart and life that should not be there, and to bring to life more love for others in your heart and more virtue in your life … and you are not seeing much success in your efforts, then this is one of your key problems.

The Bible says that all of us, when we rebelled against God, gave the throne of our hearts to sin. The very sin we wish to see expelled from our hearts and lives sits on the throne of our hearts and lives. And, the Bible tells us, we are not strong enough to overthrow it ourselves. But Jesus is. Jesus can dethrone sin in your heart.

But here’s the thing: He can only do that if you give the throne to him. Because only he can rightly rule your heart and life, and keep sin from ever taking that throne again. You may want to be your own king or queen … but human beings weren’t made to serve themselves – we weren’t meant to be our own kings and queens. We were made to serve our Maker and to bear his image. And Jesus Christ is our Maker. And he will rule your heart and life not only better than sin could, but also better than you yourself could.

And so, if you are sick and tired of sin reigning in your life – of selfishness, and anger, and evil desires, and spiritual ugliness reigning in your thoughts, and words, and actions – then you need to come to Christ, and ask him to take the throne of your heart. He will expel sin from the throne room, he will begin his reign in your life, and he will come alongside you and empower you as you seek to grow in love and in righteousness from this point on. So turn to Christ in faith.

If you already are a Christian, then you must begin by recognizing and reorienting yourself to what Christ has already done in you and for you. And that means that you need to approach the different means of grace and  aspects of the Christian life not first in terms of what it calls you to do, but first in terms of what Christ has done for you.

So, in verse sixteen, Paul writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” [Wright, 148] Are you doing that? And are you coming to the Word of God looking not only for what you are supposed to do, but for reminders of what Christ has already done in you and for you? That must be your starting point. If you are forgetting that, and neglecting its power, then no amount of exhortation or commanding will give you the basis you need to fight sin in your life. You must start by recognizing what Christ has already done in you, and placing your trust in him. And you must do that when you come to his Word.

Second, it means that you must come to the worship of God to receive what the Lord has to give you. Paul brings up worship in verse sixteen.

And the first step of all worship is not what we do for God, but what he does for us. It is he who calls us. It is he who cleanses us. It is he who converses and communes with us. It is he who commissions us. He is the initiator. And so the first thing we must do is come to worship to receive from him.

Do you come here, to worship, expecting to receive the benefits of what Christ has done for you? How might that truth – that your first calling in worship is to receive – how might that truth change your attitude when you are in worship? How might that truth change your willingness and your drive to be here in worship on Sunday mornings? Or Sunday evenings?

Third, if we want to rightly see and engage with the truth of what God has already done for us for our sanctification, then prayers of thanks for that past work should be a part of our prayer lives. In verses sixteen and seventeen Paul mentions those prayers of thanks.

Prayers of thanksgiving for what Christ has already done for us – to save us, and to set us free from sin – should be a regular part of our prayer life. Yes, of course we should give thanks for earthly blessings, and we should bring our needs before him, and we should pray for others, and confess our sins – that is all important. But we should also make sure that we are regularly thanking God for what he has already done for us in our salvation – including the fact that despite all our ongoing struggles with sin, Christ has, in fact, dethroned sin from our hearts. We should pray in that way because it is right, and we should pray in that way because it helps anchor our hearts in that truth.

Fourth, as we face the challenges of the Christian life, we need to be intentional and proactive in placing our faith in Christ’s power to overcome the temptations we will face.

In verse seventeen Paul writes “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” As one commentator notes, “Acting ‘in someone’s name’” means, for one thing, that you are empowered by them to do what you are doing. [Wright, 149]

As we face ongoing temptations, we must face them in Christ’s name – we must face them trusting in his power to overcome them, and not our own. And his power is displayed in what he has already done in dethroning sin from our hearts.

In all these ways we are called to see and to acknowledge the work Christ has already done in our hearts, for our sanctification and spiritual growth.

That’s the second thing we see here.

Denying the Present Work

So we must resist the temptation to deny that work is needed in our hearts and lives. We must resist the temptation to deny the past work that Christ has already done for our sanctification.

Third, and finally, we must resist the temptation to deny the present work that we are called to.

And we see that denial shows up in our lives in different ways. Sometimes it is rooted in hopelessness. We wonder why we should bother with the struggle because we don’t see how we can have real victory. Remembering Christ’s past work is key to that, as we have just seen.

But other times our denial of the present spiritual work we are called to do is rooted in complacency. We figure Christ has already accomplished our salvation. There’s nothing we need to do. We can set that aside, and just take it easy. There’s no need to strive for self-improvement because Jesus has already overcome our sin and guilt, right?

We may not say it that way out loud. But we often live that way. And it’s another way of thinking that Paul clearly refutes here.

We see that refutation in verse five, and verse eight, and verse twelve, and verse thirteen, and verse fourteen and really the rest of the passage. Because those verses are filled with commands – they are filled with things that Paul is telling the Colossian Christians they need to do in the present.

There is present work to do, Paul reminds them, and then Paul lays out a number of details about what that should look like.

This dynamic is what some theologians have referred to as “progressive sanctification.” It is the aspect of our sanctification that continues from our conversion until when we die and go to be with the Lord and are made new. It is the part of our sanctification in which we are to seek progress: we are to seek to see our sin and selfishness more and more put to death, and to seek to see love and righteousness more and more brought to life in our hearts and lives.

So Paul here pushes against our tendency to deny that there is, at present, spiritual work to be done for our sanctification.

But how do these two things fit together? If Jesus has already dethroned sin from our hearts, why do we need to fight against it and work to pursue sanctification now? Or, to put it the other way: If we are still working to overcome sin in our lives today, then how can we really say that Christ has already conquered sin in our hearts?

Here John Murray again is helpful.

As we heard earlier, Murray tells us that “freedom from the dominion of sin” and “victory over the power of sin” are “achieved once for all” for believers, “by union with Christ and the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit.” [142-143]

That is true. We see that in the Scripture.

But then also, Murray goes on, and writes: “This deliverance from the power of sin secured by union with Christ and from the defilement of sin secured by regeneration does not eliminate all sin from the heart and life of the believer.” [143]

In other words, though sin has been dethroned in our hearts, that doesn’t mean it’s gone from our hearts. [Moo, 268]

But if sin is still in our hearts and lives, then what is the difference now from our status before Christ dethroned it from our hearts?

Murray explains – he writes that in us “There must be a constant and increasing appreciation that though sin still remains it does not have the mastery.” He goes on: “There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin, […]. It is one thing for sin to live in us; it is another for us to live in sin. It is one thing for the enemy to occupy the capital; it is another for his defeated hosts to harass the garrisons of the kingdom.” [154]

And I think that last picture that Murray gives us is especially helpful.

Sin has been dethroned from our hearts. It has been thrown out of the throne room – thrown even out of the capital city of our hearts. And now Christ reigns there. But in the surrounding land, sin – now as an insurgent force rather than as a reigning force – sin has bunkered down in many strongholds in the land, and is prepared to continue to fight. And it’s our task to root and drive it out.

The central victory is won. And, in this case, with Christ on the throne of our hearts, the final victory is assured. But much fighting still remains in the countryside of our hearts.

And the fighting is real. And we are called to actively engage in that work here and now.

But our work must always be anchored in the fact that Christ has conquered the capital city of our hearts and he sits on the throne.

Paul’s grammar in this passage highlights that fact – that the commands he gives are dependent on truths he states about what Christ has already done. [Moo, 265; Wright, 138] And that is a truth we see repeatedly in the Scriptures about our sanctification: what Christ has already done in us and for us, is the basis by which we can strive to do what we are now called to do now. [Murray, 146]

Established on the throne of our hearts Christ also fights for the expulsion of sin from every town and village of our hearts. But we have a very real part in that work as well – and Christ calls us to take that work seriously, and to fight the good fight in the spiritual battles of our hearts, resisting sin and seeking to grow in love and righteousness. [Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 5]

And that work that we are called to should play out in how we approach all the means of grace and every aspect of the Christian life that we mentioned earlier – all the items that Paul lists in verses sixteen and seventeen.

It should play out in how we approach the Word of God, because while we first come to the Word of God to learn what Christ has already done for us, we must also come seeking to better know and understand what he now calls us to do in response.

Do you do that? Do you come to the Scripture seeking to learn what spiritual battles Christ is calling you to engage in not just out there in the world, but also in the often-perilous terrain of your heart? Paul here calls you to do that – because that is part of what it means to have the Word of God to dwell in you richly, as he puts it in verse sixteen.

And I’ll give you an opportunity to take that decisive step even tonight. Tonight, at 6:00 PM, in our evening service, we are talking about greed. You probably don’t think you’re greedy. You probably think that isn’t a real battlefield in your heart. But the Bible says it is. The Bible says you are. Jesus calls us in Luke 12:15 to “Watch out!” and to “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.” [NIV] But most of us aren’t.

It’s a battle we all are called to fight, and a battle most of us are neglecting. So come tonight, and hear from God’s word as we consider the present work in our hearts and lives that Christ is calling us to.

Earlier we said that the first step of all worship is not what we do for God, but what he does for us. And that is true. But the second step is our response to him. We must respond to the blessings God gives us in worship by giving ourselves to him just as he has given himself to us – by devoting ourselves to being faithful to him, just as he has been faithful to us. We must come to worship, therefore, expecting to be reengaged, every time, in the work of spiritual growth and sanctification that he calls us to.

Earlier we said that our prayers must include prayers of thanks for what Christ has done for us in the gospel, saving us and dethroning sin in our hearts. That is true. But our prayers must also include petitions and pleas that Christ would help us to fight the good fight now, against our sin, and for goodness and righteousness in our hearts and lives. You should pray for that on your own. You should pray for that with your family. You should join us on Wednesday nights, as we pray for that together. We must pray for God’s help in the spiritual work he has called us to do.

And finally, this dynamic should also play out as we seek to live our lives in all sorts of different areas.

As we pointed out earlier, in verse seventeen Paul writes “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” As I already mentioned, one commentator notes that “Acting ‘in someone’s name’” means, for one thing, that you are empowered by them to do what you are doing. But the same commentator also notes that that phrase also means that you are doing what you do as the other person’s representative. [Wright, 149]

It is not just that Jesus empowers us to overcome sin in our lives and live more like him. It’s also that Jesus calls on us to live in every area of life in a way that will rightly represent him. That is not an easy thing. That requires us to battle with our sin.

But it is a battle we engage in with Christ not only at our back, holding the capital of our hearts firmly. It is also a battle we engage in with Christ also by our side, on the battlefield, as he fights beside us and empowers our efforts.

And it is in that way that we must engage with the present work of sanctification and spiritual growth that Paul calls us to here.


In our struggle to resist sin and to grow in love and righteousness, we are called to humbly trust in Christ, and we are called to work, and to battle against sin, in full reliance on him.

The work may be hard at times. The battle may be fierce at times. But we can work, and we can fight with hope. Because our hope lies not in our strength, or in our short lifespan on this earth. Rather our hope lies in Christ’s strength, and in what he will do for us in eternity. Our hope rests in the promise that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” [Philippians 1:6] Our hope lies in the promise that when Jesus returns, our sanctification, body and soul, will be complete. Because the one who called us is faithful. And he will surely do it. [1 Thessalonians 5:23-24]

And therefore, in a holy impatience for the completion of our sanctification, trusting in Christ’s past work, and confident of his future work, let us seek to be renewed after the image of our Creator, doing all that we can, with Christ’s help, to put to death the sin that is still in us, and to put on the righteousness that Christ has called us to, that we might more and more reflect his beautiful image.


This sermon draws on material from:

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1908 (2001 Edition)

Hoekema, Anthony A. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979.

Hoekema, Anthony A. Saved by Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989.

Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955.

Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1986.

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