Well if you would please take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3; Colossians chapter 3 – page 984 in the church Bibles. We’re going to be focused on the words of verses 12 through 14. Paul, really since the end of chapter 2, has begun explaining the practical implications for our Christian lives of the great truth of the believer’s union with Jesus Christ. And as we saw when last we were in Colossians in verses 5 through 11 of chapter 3, Paul has begun first with the negative implications. That is, he speaks about the sin we must put off and put away and put to death. And that’s what we looked at last time. This time, in verses 12 through 14, we’re going to think about the positive implications of our union with Christ – what it is we are to put on as we seek to live in new obedience to the Savior.
And so verse 12, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” – and so on – verse 14, “above all these put on love.” So here now is the positive, here are the positive implications of our union with Jesus in His death and resurrection. And then in verses 15 to 17 which, God willing we’ll come to next Lord’s Day, Paul gives us some concrete help. So we might say here is the task this week – 12 through 14 – the task of pursuing Christian holiness. And next week we have tools to help us pursue Christian holiness.
And so as we look at verses 12 through 14 today, I want us to think about three things in particular before we read the passage. First, Paul says the new life we all must put on, first of all is radical. That is, it pertains to the radics, that is, to the root. In other words, this is a new life that deals with the very core of who we are. It’s not merely behavioral, but it deals with the heart. It goes right to the roots of who we are. It’s radical. Secondly, it is relational. You’ll see all the “one another” language in these verses. It presupposes a community. We can’t do this on our own. We need to live together as a church. And thirdly, the new life we are to put on is deeply redemptive in its character. In other words, it arises as a fruit of the prior, redeeming work of the sovereign grace of God in our hearts and in our lives. So the new life we are to put on in obedience to Jesus is radical, it is relational, and it is redemptive.
Before we work through that outline and read the passage, let me invite you to turn with me to God and seek His help as we pray. Let us pray.
O Lord our God, we ask You now to open our eyes and ears and hearts as we sit under Your ministry by Word and Spirit that we may not be Sunday Christians only, word Christians, verbal Christians only, but that we may be transformed by the renewal of our minds that we may test and approve what is Your will, Your good, pleasing and perfect will, that we may live in obedience to Christ – not conformed to the pattern of this world but transformed. Do that by Your Word among us, even today, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
So two Sunday nights ago I was leaving church with my two teenage sons and their teenage friend after having preached here Sunday evening and I drove my wife’s car that Sunday so my church keys were on my key ring at home. So when the door of the office exit closed behind me and I found the, you know the wrought iron gates down here locked in front of me, I was stuck. And so the teenage friend immediately jumped the fence and went looking for a security guard. He couldn’t find one so I said, “Alright, move aside kids,” and I climbed the fence. And so it’s about six-and-a-half feet tall. There I am standing on top of the fence and I launch myself into the air.
Now you need to understand something about the male of the species at this point. We all have an inner-fourteen year old that, no matter how far we advance in years still continues to write checks that our bodies can't cash! And so my inner-fourteen year old was firmly in charge in those moments as I launch myself into the air. And then, my forty-five-year-old self took over as the ground came speeding toward me and said, "You know, Strain, this was probably not the best idea." I spent the next couple of days getting x-rays and CT scans to figure out if my heel had been broken, which, I even showed up at church with one of those scooter things which amused the church staff to no end. Karen Fairly, who is Bill Wymond's new administrative assistant, bought me a little bell that rings to warn people that I'm coming! Lots of you have prayed for me and asked after me very kindly. Thank you for that. Several of you have resisted the urge to mock me. Thank you. Those of you who did not resist that urge, just know that I'm keeping score!
I bring that up not simply to explain why I’m hobbling around as I am, but to make this simple point that I think is actually clear on the surface of our text. And that is, knowing what you ought to do and doing it are two very different things, as I learned the hard way. Knowing what you ought to do and doing it – look, standing on top of that fence I knew I probably shouldn’t do this, but knowing it and doing it, doing the right thing, are different things. Haven’t you found that to be true over and over again in your own life? It’s not like we don’t know what obedience to God should look like in most circumstances. It’s not like we don’t know what righteousness looks like. Our problem is not a lack of information most of the time. Our problem is there is a big gap between knowing what we ought to do and where our heart tells us we should go. Knowing what you ought to do and doing it are two very different things. Haven’t you found that to be true?
Well, that's a point I think our text makes with some force. If you'll look at verse 10 for a moment you'll see Paul has told the Colossians they have been changed, radically and permanently when they came to know Jesus. They have put on a new self that is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. So the old is gone and the new has come. They are new creations – a permanent, irrevocable change takes place when you become a Christian. You are no longer who you once were. And now Paul says in our text, verse 12, since that is true, here's how I want you to live – "Put on then," he says, "a lifestyle that reflects the truth about you. It's time to start dressing the part," he's saying. This is who you really are. Now you need to live in a way that shows who you really are – a new creation in union with Jesus Christ.
And he is going to spell out for us some of the ways that should show up in our lives, what new life should look like. Look with me again at verse 12. He says, "Put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. And above all," verse 14, "put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." Now that is a profoundly challenging list. Isn't it? He doesn't tell the Colossians to speak kindly to one another. He says they must have compassionate hearts that show kindness and practice humility and meekness and exercise patience. He doesn't simply tell them, "You know, young man, if you can't find something nice to say you should say nothing at all." He tells them, "Forgive one another."
Even more than that, verse 14, he commands them to love one another. Now that really flies in the face of the way our society understands love. Doesn’t it? Our society is like a Jackson pothole – you fall into it; it happens to you. You’re not in control. But that’s not Biblical love. Biblical love is a command. And we need it to be a command because the truth is, we much prefer to be selective with our love. We decide who to love and when to love them. We need it to be a command. We are to love each other indiscriminately and generously and freely and universally. If you are a Christian, you are to put on love, Paul says. And he says, love – look at the language of verse 14 – love is the sum of every other Christian grace and virtue. It binds all of these together. Love is shorthand for everything else, we might say, about how Christians are to live and behave – love for God and love for neighbor.
We might pick out any one of these graces and value it rightly as a beautiful thing. Like an instrument in an orchestra, you can pick out that instrument and it's beautiful. A violin alone is a beautiful thing. A cello on its own is a beautiful thing. Kindness – beautiful. Meekness – these are valuable, precious things. Love, Paul says, is like a composer who knows the properties of each and can combine them in such a way that they make harmony. Well, that's all well and good. Here's a description of the Christian life and we are called if we are Christians, if we have come to life through faith in Jesus, in union with Jesus, to live like this. Well, very good, Paul, but I can't just flick a switch. It's not that easy. How do I do this? I hear the command and it's radical, it's not just behavioral – is it? This is about the heart. Compassionate hearts, kindness, meekness, humility – that's a massive attitudinal shift you're calling for. That's a revolution in priorities and in outlook and in the way that I think about others and the way that I think about myself in relation to others. I can't just flick a switch and take control of my feelings so easily, Paul! How do I do this given how radical the call to Christian holiness really is?
Well, look with me at the second thing that Paul points out in the text. The new life of obedience is radical but notice it's also irreducibly relational. The graces that Paul mentions that we are to put on, do you see, they all presuppose community. They presuppose the church. They presuppose relationships with other Christians. They are a summary of the second table of the law. Here's what you need. Here's who you need to be to live out the Christian life in community and love your neighbor. They're all about "one another-ing." Aren't they? You see all the "one anothers"? We need meekness and humility and patience so that we can bear with one another that we may be enabled to forgive each other. Love must have an object. Paul says we are to love one another.
So the basic presupposition, the operating assumption is that Christians cannot grow in holiness on their own. If you are at home and you are at home because you elect to be at home, watching on TV or on a computer screen, not because you can’t be with God’s people in the life of the church but because you prefer to be alone, understand you cannot be a Christian alone. You are exposing yourself to danger. It takes the whole church to make a holy Christian. And that’s Paul’s presupposition.
I have a favorite metaphor. I’ve used it from the pulpit before. I use it in the Foundations Class, which if you haven’t attended I’d love to see you there; we have a good time together exploring who our church is and what we stand for and what our core commitments are. And you all would be most welcome. But a core metaphor I use often about the church to describe the church and its role in our sanctification, our growing in holiness – I think about a pebbly beach with nice round, smooth stones. How did those stones get round and smooth? They didn’t start that way. Did they? They were sharp and jagged and pointy, prickly and sore. And they got round and smooth by being slammed into one another over and over and over.
And that is God’s design for the local church. I dare say many of you are wonderfully smooth. But there may yet still be a few pointy, sharp edges here and there. And it can be difficult being in the church with people like that. Can’t it? When you are in close proximity to people like that, it’s awkward, sore, painful, abrasive. And that is precisely the point. Instead of backing off, instead of retreating into isolation, instead of opting simply to be a mere consumer to get in and out as fast as humanly possible with as little human contact as you can possibly manage, God intends for you to live in the community of the church, not to pull back but to press toward those people with the ragged edges because you have a few of your own. Me too.
And as we are, by the providence of God, forced against one another to live side by side, to bear with each other, to practice patience, to learn humility and meekness, to forgive each other, we become like Jesus. The abrasive edges begin to wear off. We are smoothed out. The likeness of Christ begins to appear. The church is one of God's primary means to make you like Christ. So please don't back off. Please don't stay on the edges. Don't be a superficial participant. Dive in.
Listen, we are going to disappoint you. The church is full of sinners; I am chief among them. We are going to fail you. We are going to wound you. But if you will learn patience, if we will learn patience with one another, forgiving one another, we will grow. That’s God’s design. Do you see it? God has given us a help to grow in the practice of these virtues. It’s called the local church.
And so the life we are to put on is first radical, challenging. We don't come by it easily. But it is, secondly, wonderfully relational. It requires a community. And then thirdly, it is deeply redemptive. That is its source; the fountain from which this new life of obedience springs is the Gospel of free, sovereign, redeeming grace. Paul connects his exhortation to holiness here to two doctrines in particular – the doctrine of election, predestination, and the doctrine of justification. Don't switch off when you hear words like that because Paul actually wants you to understand that these glorious, rich truths are the well-spring of life. They're simply descriptions of grace, of the love of God lavished on you, which, if you will come to understand them, the more you understand them the more they will melt your heart and enable you to live in new obedience as Paul describes them.
Let’s think about the first of them. Look at verse 12. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” and so on. Do you see Paul’s logic? Follow the logic. “Here’s the life I want you to live,” he says, “but I want to remind you as I exhort you to live this way, of God’s stance towards you.” In His sovereign purpose, before He hung the stars, He thought of you, weak and wretched in your sin, and purposed to choose and rescue and redeem you and make you His own by Jesus Christ. Before you had done anything, before He foresaw anything, He purposed to be your Rescuer and your Redeemer.
The doctrine of election is not that God looked down the long tunnel of history, saw that you would freely choose Him, and then lined up His purpose and design in conformity to what you would do. The doctrine of election is far more wonderful. God saw what you would do was only rebellion, only to reject Him. He saw you never would come to Him. He saw that you were dead in your trespasses and sins, helpless and totally unable to come; a hateful rebel against the rule of God. And then He said, "I will love this one and make her Mine. And this one. And this one. Despite their unloveliness, despite their sin and rebellion, I will choose them." And when Paul calls them "holy" here, he doesn't mean to say the Colossians already were intrinsically holy. Otherwise, the exhortation to holiness that he's giving them would be redundant. He's saying, "No, in eternity God set you apart for Himself. You were consecrated and designated His." That's what "holy" means – set apart. And now you need to be who He has purposed you to be. And when He chose you, it was not some cold, arbitrary thing. He fixed His love on you. "In love, He predestined us to conformity as His children," to adoption as His children. He loved you. He loved you before there were worlds.
And now, Paul says, “Can you be proud in the wake of such a truth? What can you take to your own credit now knowing that everything that you are and have you owe to His sovereign grace? Where is boasting before the electing love of God?” Sometimes the doctrine of predestination has been used by Presbyterians as a badge of their inherent superiority. We feel rather smug about our grasp of the doctrines of grace. If we understood the doctrines of grace, our pride would wither and die. The doctrines of grace, the doctrine of the sovereign, electing love of God puts us in the dust and leaves no room at all for pride. And so as Paul calls us to meekness and humility and patience, to take a servant’s posture, he points us to the electing counsels of a sovereign God and he says, “He loved you with an everlasting love and purposed to make you, unlovely in your sin though you are, His beloved child. And you owe all to Him. You are a debtor to mercy alone. Let boasting die and take the servant’s stance.”
And then the second great doctrine to which he points us is the doctrine of justification. The doctrine of justification. Look at verse 13. “Bearing with one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” We said it together a few moments ago, didn’t we, in the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” What is the evidence of a repentant heart, trustly resting on the grace of God, receiving forgiveness as a gift? The evidence of such a heart is their horror at the thought of any relationship of theirs in which there is unforgiveness. Being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ our Lord, we long for nothing so much as to be reconciled to one another.
Think about what has been done for you. “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for you that you might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The wrath and curse I deserve was laid on Him and His righteous record accounted to me as though I had obeyed who has not obeyed. I am a transgressor and guilty and yet I’m counted righteous in the sight of God and at the bar of heavenly justice so that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” And I have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the propitiation for my sins.” And I have been cleansed in conscience from dead works to serve the living and true God. Satan’s accusations cannot stick against me any longer. My record of sin and wickedness has been expunged forever. I am clean and forgiven and counted righteous in Jesus Christ. That is true of you if you are a Christian today. You are forgiven. That’s the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
Now, Paul says, “As you have been forgiven, forgive.” Are you really going to stand there, he says, and argue that your long-cherished grudge against that brother, that sister, is entirely justified because you don’t know what he said or you don’t know what she did? You who have been forgiven, who deserve only judgment and death and hell forever but who have been made children of God and heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, now understand if you have been counted righteous in Christ you must be quick to forgive. If God has washed you clean by sheer, extravagant grace, you need to learn to show grace and bear with one another with great Gospel patience.
There is another side to all of this. When you get home perhaps you would care to read Matthew 18:23 and following and the searching parable our Savior taught of the unforgiving servant who, though his debts were forgiven, would not forgive his own debtors and who faced the judgment of his master because his lack of forgiveness toward others revealed an unrepentant heart in himself. Those who have been forgiven must forgive. A lack of forgiveness reveals a lack of yourself being reconciled to God. This is practical Christianity. Isn't it? Paul really does expect us to do more than simply mouth the right words. He really believes that the Gospel, understood and embraced, changes the heart and transforms the life. Election shatters pride and lays us in the dust and leaves us in wonder and awe before God and His grace. Justification, that we are righteous and forgiven in the sight of God, melts our hearts and teaches us to bear with those who wound us and sin against us and transgress against us; the forgiving are forgivers.
You know you really can measure how far the Gospel of free, sovereign grace has penetrated to the heart of a congregation by the degree to which they serve one another and forgive one another and bear with one another. Paul is saying these great doctrines of grace should make us who embrace them, of all people, the most humble, the most meek, and the most servant-hearted. There is no place for boasting. How do you put on such a life? You see the wonder of what God has done for you in Jesus Christ and your heart melts and you will rise up in gratitude to serve your Master and love your neighbor. May God do precisely that in my heart and in yours for the glory of His name. Let’s pray together.
Lord, help us please to hold together always the commands of Your Word, the exhortations to obedience, and the promises of grace, the indicatives of mercy, the declarations of Your favor in Jesus Christ so that we never allow ourselves to think that Your law is merely aspirational but always out of reach. But instead, would You drive us back again and again and again to the wonder of Your love that began in eternity and flows forward through the cross in the center of history on to take hold of us and captivate our hearts and make us Your own. Keep us always fixed on Your redeeming love and then, grasping the wonder of it more and more, enable us by Your grace, the same grace, to live for Your glory, in Jesus’ name, amen.