“What to Put Off & What to Put On”
Colossians 3:1-17 Pt 2
July 3, 2022
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
We return this morning to Colossians 3:1-17. We first looked at this passage a couple of weeks ago, and our focus then was on the big-picture elements that form the foundation of this passage. We considered our need for spiritual growth, the past work of definitive sanctification that Christ has already done in us, and the ongoing work of progressive sanctification that we are called on now to pursue.
And so, two weeks ago we looked at those big-picture elements, but we did not get into the detailed specifics of the application that Paul lays out in this passage. That will be our focus this morning.
And so, with that in mind, we turn again to Colossians 3:1-17.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
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. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 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, your testimonies are wonderful;
therefore our souls cling to them.
The unfolding of your word gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.
Therefore we long for your word
and your commandments.
Turn to us now and be gracious to us,
as is your way with those who love your name.
Keep our steps steady according to your promise,
and let no iniquity have dominion over us.
Redeem us from the oppression of the world,
that we may keep your precepts.
Make your face to shine upon us, your servants,
and teach us your statutes.
Grant all of this, we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:129-135]
At the center of our text this morning we’re going to see five things that Paul tells us to put off, and five things he tells us to put on. That will be the heart of our focus this morning.
But before we can get to that, we need to consider first the nature of the problem Paul is addressing, and then second, the importance of the pattern that Paul is setting before us.
So first, we need to make sure we rightly identify the nature of the problem that Paul is addressing.
Paul says in verse five that what we need to put to death in us are things that are earthly. And he says in verse one that what we need to seek are things that are above – where Christ is – namely, in heaven.
It can be tempting to read this as if Paul is making a statement about the relative value of the material versus the immaterial. But when we look at the text as a whole, we see that Paul’s point is actually about the moral versus the immoral.
We know this, in part, because it becomes clear throughout this passage that Paul cares a great deal about how we interact with the material world: whether it be our physical bodies, our physical possessions, or our concrete relationships with other people. Paul’s exhortation is not to ignore the things of this world, but actually to be more intentional about how we interact with the things of the world.
And the way he wants us to interact with the things of this world is in a way that is more after the pattern of heaven.
The idea is that, rather than interacting with the things of this world after the patterns of this world, we should interact with the things of this world after the pattern of heaven – and most especially after the pattern of Christ.
The concept is similar to what Jesus instructed us to pray in the Lord’s prayer. There we pray to God, saying: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains, in that phrase “we pray that God, by his grace, would make us able and willing to know, obey and submit to his will in all things, as the angels do in heaven.” [WSC 103]
This world has rebelled against God, our Maker. We all, in our fallen nature, have rebelled against God, our Maker. But Christ, who reigns in heaven, and the angels who serve in heaven, do all that they do without sin. They do all that they do in perfect obedience to God. And when we pray “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying that, more and more, we, and all people, would live lives of love and faithfulness towards God, just as Christ does and just as the angels do, in heaven.
In a similar way, in this passage, when Paul calls us to set our minds on things above, and not on things that are on earth – when he calls us to put to death what is earthly in us and seek what is heavenly, this is what he is calling us to: to reject the rebellious and sinful ways of this fallen world, and instead to follow the pattern of Christ and the angels in obedience to God.
So what Paul is calling us to put off, and what he is calling us to put on here is moral in nature – it has to do with how we live our lives in this world.
The problem Paul is addressing is sin and the solution he calls us to is holiness.
That’s the first thing we need to see about this text: the nature of the problem.
The second thing we need to see here is the pattern Paul sets before us.
It is the pattern of both putting off and putting on.
And actually, as I’ll argue in a few minutes, it seems to me that for every sin Paul calls us to put off in this passage, he calls us also to put on a corresponding virtue.
Now, why is that? Why is this the pattern Paul calls us to?
I think there are a couple reasons for it.
For one thing, when it comes to putting off sin and putting on virtue, if we try to do one without the other, we usually fail.
Many of us have tried this before – we try to just stop doing something that we should not be doing. But it’s usually pretty short-lived. It usually leaves a vacuum in our hearts or lives. And usually, before we know it, we have returned to our old ways, and we have once again filled that vacuum with our sin.
Or, on the other hand, if we try to simply add virtue to our lives without at the same time uprooting its corresponding sins, then our sins, already growing in our hearts like weeds, will tend to choke out the virtues we are trying to cultivate, before they ever really become fruitful.
So one reason for the pattern that Paul lays out is that this is, in fact, how our hearts work. We cannot really uproot a sin successfully if we do not cultivate its counter-virtue, and we cannot really cultivate a virtue if we do not uproot its counter-sin.
That’s one reason for the pattern Paul lays out here.
Another, I think, is to keep us from using one sin to fight off another sin.
This is a pattern I’ve talked about before as we considered Colossians, but it’s one that is worth keeping in mind.
Saint Augustine, in his City of God warned about those who learned to suppress one vice by devoting themselves even more to another vice. [Augustine, City of God, V.12, p. 159; V.13, p.163].
And it’s a pattern we often see among non-Christians, but also among Christians. And so, one person might put off the vice of sloth, but they do it by devoting themselves all the more to the vice of greed. One person might put off the vice of anger and antagonism, but they do it by devoting themselves more to the vices of flattery and manipulation. One person might put off the vice of sexual immorality, but they do it by devoting themselves more to the vice of self-righteousness, and we can go on.
That is the way of the world, as Augustine points out, but it is not supposed to be the way of God’s people. We are not to put off one vice by devoting ourselves to another vice that is simply more respectable in the world’s eyes or more profitable in our own eyes. Rather, we are to put our sins to death, and cultivate in their place the virtues of Jesus Christ.
And that is the pattern that Paul calls us to here: to put off our sins, and to put on, in their place, the virtues of Christ.
So, with that said, we can see that the problem Paul identifies is moral, and the pattern he calls us to is one of simultaneously putting off sin and putting on the virtues of Christ.
Five Things to Put Off & Five Things to Put On
Now, with that in mind, we can get more concrete, which we must do, because in our text itself, Paul quickly gets concrete. Paul gives us at least five specific earthly things to put off – to “put to death” he says – and five heavenly things to “put on.”
The rest of the sermon this morning might feel like it’s jumping between a lot of different things, but that’s because our text itself jumps between a lot of different things, and as we dig into the details, we want to consider the range of categories Paul himself brings up.
Let’s consider them in the order they show up in our text.
1. Put Off Using People’s Bodies, Put On Caring for People’s Souls
The first thing that Paul addresses is sex.
We read in verse five: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire.”
It’s important to recognize that the words Paul uses here are not meant to describe human sexuality in general, but rather human sexuality when it is misused.
The first word translated as “sexual immorality” refers to any kind of sexual sin. “Impurity” refers to the moral corruption that affects our character when we engage in such sexual sins. The word translated as “passion” can also be translated as “lust” and focuses on the sinful passion that leads to sexual sin. And “evil desire” seems to refer to the unchecked sinful desires that lead to lust, which leads to sexual immorality, which leads to impurity. [Moo, 256-257; Wright, 138-139]
And what these sexual sins have in common is that they seek to use other people’s bodies. They reduce other people to their bodies and they treat them like mere objects to satisfy their sexual desires.
C.S. Lewis gets at this as well in his book The Four Loves. He writes: “We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus.” [Lewis, The Four Loves, 263]
All sexual sin has this in common. Lust through our eyes or through our minds – engaged in through things like pornography or through our own imaginations – reduces the other people to objects – to mere devices to be used in our minds.
And sexual acts outside of marriage follow the same pattern. Whenever we seek another person sexually, we seek for them to give themselves to us. But any sexual union outside of marriage necessarily seeks to divide the person we seek. What we say to someone that we seek sexually outside of marriage, is, in effect: “I want your body to be given to me fully right now, but I don’t want to deal with the fullness of your heart. I don’t want to also take responsibility for the fullness of your soul. I don’t want to receive the full realities of your family life, or your financial life, or your social life, or your spiritual life, or your future … the only thing I want fully is your body, and I want it now.”
C.S. Lewis, again, is helpful. He writes: “The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union.” [Lewis, Mere Christianity, 96-97]
Sexual union is not a bad thing – it is a good thing. It was invented by God. But it was always meant to be rooted in a total union – a total union that can only come with the life-long commitment of marriage.
But sexual sin always tries to divide people, and in the process, it reduces them. It objectifies them.
Our culture’s answer to that is that such division – such objectification – is okay as long as it is consensual, and as long as it is mutual.
But the Bible sets a higher bar for human dignity than that. The Bible tells us that we must never reduce another person to a mere object, even if they consent to it … but we must treat them as a whole person, made in God’s image. That means that we will not reduce even strangers to mere objects of our gratification through lust, or pornography, or our imaginations. It means that we will not reduce the people we meet or have relationships with to mere objects, through forms of sexual union that are disconnected from the total union of marriage. It means that within marriage, we will not separate sexual union from the other ways we must be pursuing and caring for and being united with our spouse.
In all these ways, we are to put off – to put to death – sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires.
But even in saying that, we must recognize that such an act cannot merely be a negative one – it cannot only be a putting off.
Instead, in order to truly put off such sins, we must also put on their opposite. We must not only resist the temptation to use people’s bodies, but we must also actively seek to care for their souls. And that is what we see Paul point us to in this text.
Paul makes this corresponding point in verse sixteen. He says: “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.”
This is an exhortation about how we relate to other people. As one commentator points out, the phrase that is translated here, “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” could arguably be translated, “let the word of Christ ‘dwell richly among you” – as in, among them in their community. The “you” there is plural, and the rest of the verse focuses on relationships within the community. [Moo, 286]
And in what follows, Paul urges them to care for one another’s souls. They are to teach one another the word of Christ. They are to admonish one another according to the Word of Christ. And part of what doing that looks like is singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs not only to God but to one another, just as Paul also urged in Ephesians 5:19.
This verse is a call on the Colossian Christians to care for one another’s souls. It is such spiritual care that they were to put on, just as they put off any selfish and objectifying use of one another’s bodies.
The antidote to objectifying and dehumanizing others is to focus on them as people – as spiritual beings, made in God’s image – and not just to see them that way, but to serve them in that way, concerned for their hearts, concerned for their minds, concerned for their relationship to the Lord.
This means that within marriage, sexual union is never severed from pursuing unity and love in all areas of life. And it means that outside of marriage, our call to care for the souls of the people around us should also prevent us from reducing those people to mere objects, or severing their sexual nature from every other aspect of who the Lord has made them to be.
That, then, is the first pair of putting off and putting on that we see here: we are to put off using other people’s bodies, and put on caring for other people’s souls.
2. Put Off Coveting, Put On Thankfulness
Second, we are to put off coveting and put on thankfulness.
We see the first part of that in the last portion of verse five. There, in the list of what we should put to death, Paul includes “covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Now, commentators wonder how much Paul here meant to imply a sort of sexual covetousness, in keeping with the theme of the list that came before it. But at the same time, they also explain that the word usually means greed. [Moo, 257]
In any case, Paul tells us that covetousness is idolatry here and he urges us to put covetousness to death.
We are to put off our tendency to inordinately desire what the Lord has not given to us, whether it is someone else’s wealth, or their power, or their popularity, or their gifting, or their specific possessions, or their family, or their spouse, or anything that is theirs.
What do you tend to covet?
What do you find yourself daydreaming about that is not yours, and the more your mind lingers on it, the more you are consumed with desire for it? Maybe it’s a nicer house. Maybe it’s a more successful career. Maybe it’s a better looking or more successful or more appreciative spouse. Maybe it’s just a fatter bank account. What do you covet?
Paul tells us that such coveting is idolatry. It is trusting in a false god that can never really deliver what it promises. It is seeking after something that can never actually satisfy you. Such coveting is, therefore, a path to eternal discontentedness. It is a road to unhappiness. It is a good way to be miserable.
We talked about this two Sunday evenings ago when we considered the theme of greed in the Book of Micah, so I won’t linger on it too long. Needless to say, such covetousness (which is idolatry), is both rebellion against God and a road that will only lead us to further discontentedness.
But have you ever tried to just stop coveting? Have you ever tried to just stop wanting something?
It’s pretty difficult. We usually don’t have great success.
Which is, I suspect, why Paul does not just urge us to put off covetousness, but he also urges us to put on thankfulness.
“Be thankful” he says at the end of verse fifteen. Have “thankfulness in your hearts to God” he says in verse sixteen. If we want to successfully uproot our own covetousness, then we must also seek to cultivate thankfulness.
Do you do that? Do you stop and consider what you have? Do you put aside the list that often plays in your mind of all the things you don’t have and instead just stop and behold what the Lord has given you? And then, do you thank him?
Do you ever stop and consider the simple fact that you exist? God was never obligated to make you. But here you are, and your existence is a gift. Do you ever thank God for that?
How often do you consider all the ways that the Lord has preserved you in this life – the days and months and years he has provided for you, and protected you, and spared your life in this world? Do you thank him for that?
How often do you review, in your mind, the blessings you have in this life – the things, the people, the various good things that the Lord has given you here, and how often have you given him thanks for them?
How often do you stop and truly consider what the Lord has given you in the gospel – in your salvation – both now and for eternity? How often do you stop and thank him for that?
If we want to be faithful to our Lord, if we want to be true realists in this life, if we want to put off the misery of lives consumed by covetousness, then we must put on, and cultivate such thankfulness.
The second thing we see is that Paul calls on us to put off covetousness and put on thankfulness.
3. Put Off Attacking People for Their Failures, Put On Loving Others in Their Sins and Shortcomings
The third thing Paul calls us to put off is attacking people for their failures. We see this in verse eight. Paul writes: “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
Anger, wrath, and malice are typically responses we have to people whom we feel have in some way failed us. When we experience anger and wrath, we usually feel justified in it, because of what someone else has done, or failed to do.
“Slander” refers to our attempts to defame other people – to damage their reputation with others. And in this context Paul’s reference to “filthy language” is probably not about coarse language in general, but about “the use of coarse language when defaming another person.” [Moo, 263]
In contrast to this, Paul urges us to put on love for others in the midst of their sins and their shortcomings. He says in verses twelve and thirteen: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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.”
Paul calls them to compassion and kindness, rather than to malice. He calls them to meekness and patience rather than to anger and wrath. He calls them to words of forgiveness rather than to words of slander.
Remember, forgiveness and patience are, by definition, things that are called for in the context of people’s sins and shortcomings. We do not need to forgive people unless they sin against us. We do not need to patiently bear with people unless they have shortcomings that must be endured.
And that is an important reminder that there is no real neutrality in the face of people’s sins and shortcomings. We can’t be neutral. When we are sinned against in meaningful ways, we will either respond with forgiveness or we will respond with anger and wrath. When people fail us, we will either respond with patience or we will respond with slander. When people frustrate us, we will either show humility and meekness, or we will show malice.
So, how do you respond when people sin against you … or fail you … or frustrate you?
In such moments, we often want to focus on the people who have upset us. But Paul here draws our attention to our response, and he reminds us that trying to curb our sinful anger is not enough. We must also cultivate its opposite.
And so, towards whom do you need to act in forgiveness? Towards whom do you need to seek to put on more patience? Towards whom do you need to cultivate a more compassionate heart, along with more kindness, and humility and meekness?
Compassion, kindness, humility, and meekness are highly undervalued virtues in our culture right now. They are virtues that more and more people scoff at. They are virtues that often receive scorn. But they are virtues of Christ. And we must seek to put them on in our own hearts and lives.
The third thing Paul tells us here is that we must put off attacking people in their failures, and we must put on love for others in the midst of their sins and shortcomings.
4. Put Off Treating Others as Adversaries, Put on Seeking Peace
Fourth, Paul tells us that we must put off our tendency to treat others as adversaries. Paul alludes to this in verse nine, when he says to us, “Do not lie to one another.”
To lie is to treat another person as an adversary. It is to try to deceive and outmaneuver them for your own advantage.
But Paul calls us to put that off and to put on its opposite. In verse fifteen, he says to us instead: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.”
And Pauls’ focus here, again, is not individualistic but relational among the people of God.
That is obvious in the second half of verse fifteen. Paul’s emphasis – what he is leading to – is how the Colossian Christians live together “in one body”: as the community of the Church. From what he says about how this should affect our relationships as “one body” we know that Paul’s focus is not on the individual internal peace of Christ, but on the relational and corporate peace of Christ. [Wright, 147]
Paul does say that the peace should “rule in your hearts,” but the point Paul is making is not to limit that peace to the individual’s heart, but rather he is saying that the peace which extends between them and others should rule in their hearts – in other words, their peace with others should be heartfelt … it should be sincere and not merely a superficial show. [Moo, 283-284]
Paul is here calling us to put off activities like lying, which treat others as adversaries, and instead to actively seek to be at peace with one another, in a way that is heartfelt and sincere.
Whom do you need to do this with? Whom do you tend to treat as an adversary? And what would it look like not just to try to back off of that adversarial posture with them, but to instead try to pursue them positively, with the peace of Christ, sincerely, from the heart.
The fourth thing Paul calls us to is to put off our adversarial and combative ways of relating to one another, and to put on the peace of Christ in how we relate to one another.
5. Put off Worldly Divisions, Put on Love in Christ
Fifth and finally, Paul calls us to put off worldly divisions, and put on unity through love, in Christ.
We see this first in verse eleven. First, Paul identifies the tendencies to be put off. He says to the Christians in the Colossian church: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
In Pauls’ world, people were constantly being divided, and dividing themselves, by race or ethnicity or culture or socioeconomic status. And while those things are all real parts of life, Paul urged them that in Christ they should not be sources of division.
And yet, even in the Church, they often are. Churches in our day, so often self-sort and self-select along these lines. And within congregations, people can often fall into the same sorts of divisions and factions that are seen in the world around us.
What is the solution? How do we put off these worldly divisions?
Paul tells us in verse fourteen – he says: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Love, rooted in Christ (as Paul says in verse eleven) is the only way to bind Christ’s Church together – the only way for God’s people to live in true harmony.
Who do you tend to feel divided from here? What kind of people do you tend to feel at odds with in the broader Church? And what would it look like for you to put on love towards those brothers or sisters who feel so different from you? What would it look like to seek first and foremost to love them in Christ?
The fifth thing Paul calls us to do here is to put off our worldly divisions and to put on, instead, unity, through love, in Christ.
Three Things to Acknowledge
Paul in this text calls us to put off the sins of the world and to put on the virtues of Christ.
And as we seek to do that, we need to be sure to remember a few things.
The first thing for us to remember is that the goals Paul has put before us here are not primarily burdens, but forms of beauty.
Caring for the souls of others, cultivating a heart of thankfulness, loving others in their sins and shortcomings, seeking peace with others, seeking unity in love … a life lived in this way is a life of beauty.
On the other hand, using other people, responding to the failures of others in anger, treating the people around us as adversaries, and retreating to our worldly tribes in animosity towards those who are different … this is an ugly and broken way to live.
And so rather than hearing Paul’s words as a weight pressing us down, we need to see them for the beautiful alternative pattern of life that they are – a pattern of life we should be drawn to for its beauty.
Second, we need to remember that the task Paul sets before us is real. It will take work in our own lives, and in our life together. The problem we face is not “out there”, but it is in us and among us. We must seek to put our sins off. We must seek to put the virtues of Christ on ourselves. Paul here is calling us to such a task.
But third and finally, we need to remember that the victory in all this belongs to the Lord. As we said two weeks ago, Paul roots this text not in the work that we will do, but in the work that Christ has already done. And it is only if we are confident in Christ’s work, and if we act in reliance on his power, that we can pursue what Paul calls us to here.
And because of that, we can pursue it knowing that even if our progress in this life seems slow or small … the completion of this work is assured. We will one day look like the picture of virtue that Paul puts before us here. We will one day look like Christ.
And we know this because Paul, speaking of the day when Christ will return and make all things new, writes in verse four – he says: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Christ our King already embodies the beautiful picture of virtue that Paul describes in this passage, and if we cling to Christ by faith, if we strive by faith to put off our sin and put on Christ’s virtues, then Christ, who began a good work in us, will bring that work to completion in us. He will bring us to glory. He will make us like him.
That is the promise we have in the gospel.
And that is something to be thankful for.
This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine. The City of God. Introduction and Translation by William Babcock. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1943 (1996 Edition)
Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves in a collection of four works titled The Inspirational Works of C. S. Lewis (New York, NY: Inspirational Press, copyright 1960, collection printed 1994)
Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.
Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1986.
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