Now if you would please take a Bible in hand, turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3.
Before we read it a little, let me quickly say a word of thanks. Ed and Emily Hartman, I think, are taking a few days well deserved to recover from the busyness of Mission Conference but we do owe them a great debt, as well as Beth Archer and the Missions Conference Committee and all of you who were involved, some of you in unrecognized ways behind the scenes working away. You’ve been a host. You’ve provided meals. You’ve done countless small tasks that have gone unthanked and I do want to express my own deep gratitude. I found the Mission Conference this year to be an enormous blessing. If you have not, or you were unable, or you found yourself missing certain portions of the conference, I believe all the sessions are recorded. Please go to the website and do yourself a favor. You will find them to be enormously helpful and a great blessing. So thank you if you were a part of it. Thank you for attending and making it such a blessed time.
Now do turn your attention with me please to the letter of Paul to the Colossians. We have been slowly working our way through the letter to the Colossians on Sunday mornings. And as we began to see a few weeks ago before Mission Conference began, at the end of chapter 2 Paul transitions. So up till now, he has been correcting error and teaching true doctrine. But at the end of chapter 2, he sort of turns a corner. Now, his focus is on applying the truth he has been teaching in practical ways that will help the Colossians live out their Christian lives. If you’ve ever renovated an older home – some of you, I know, have done that – some of the worst news you can hear from your contractor is that all the wiring is faulty and it all needs to be stripped out and it all needs to be replaced. That’s really bad news. Of course, if you don’t do it, you’re risking disaster. Aren’t you?
You might consider Paul’s project in the letter to the Colossians to be stripping out the faulty wiring of false teaching. There were false teachers causing trouble in the church in Colossae, so he’s been stripping out the faulty wiring and he’s been laying new wiring of sound doctrine and faithful teaching. Now as often happens in a house with bad wiring, your appliances will blow you. You know, the Colossians, Paul says – chapter 2 verse 23 – that the tools they were deploying to try to live out their faith, like appliances in a house with faulty wiring that keep blowing out – he says, “These things you are using are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” It just doesn't work. Their Christian lives were malfunctioning. And so here in chapter 3 and in chapter 4, he wants to give us tools that will work at last to help us grow in Christian obedience.
The heart of Paul’s message is that a Christian is someone who has been united to Jesus Christ. So at the end of chapter 2, chapter 2 verse 20, he says, “You died with Christ.” And then in chapter 3 verse 1, “You were raised with Christ.” And now he says, “Since that’s true, since when you became a Christian you passed from death to life in union with Jesus, here’s how I want you to live.” In our passage, verses 5 through 11, he offers some negative counsel. He’s going to show us how to deal with the problem of sin. And then, God willing, as we will see next week, he begins to offer positive counsel. Here’s how positively to grow in the Christian life. So first of all, here in our passage, he’s answering the question, “How do we deal with our sin problem?” He calls it in verse 5, “what is earthly in you.” How do you deal with what is earthly in you – your sin, your remaining corruption as a Christian.
And we’re going to consider his answer under two headings. In verses 5 to 7, Paul says dealing with sin is like an execution. You have to put it to death. It’s like an execution. And then verses 8 through 11, dealing with sin is like changing clothes – taking off the filthy rags of your old life and dressing in a way that is consistent with your new identity in Jesus Christ. So dealing with sin, first, is like an execution, and dealing with sin, secondly, is like a change of clothes. That’s where we’re going. That’s our outline. Before we read the passage and consider its message, let’s bow our heads again as we pray. Let us pray.
Lord, You have appointed Your Word empowered by Your Spirit for our growth for the mortification, for the putting to death of sin and for the vivification, the coming to life and the ripening of spiritual graces and good fruit in our lives. Since that is the purpose for which You have given us Your Word as Your people, please will You follow the ministry of the Word – it’s reading and it’s exposition – with the blessing of Your Spirit that it may indeed bear much fruit in our lives to Your glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Colossians chapter 3 at the fifth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
"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 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all."
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
There’s a powerful scene in Shakespeare’s, Henry V. The English army have conquered the French city of Harfleur and they’ve lost no one in the action except for one, Bardolph, who has been Henry’s old friend. When he had been a prince, he and Bardolph were friends. And now Bardolph has been caught stealing from a church in the defeated town of Harfleur. And Henry had previously decreed that pillaging would be punished by hanging. And so when he discovers that Bardolph has been found guilty, despite his friendship, Henry unflinchingly declares, “We would have all such offenders so cut off and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused and disdainful language. For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”
In other words, Henry knows how much is at stake. He wants not only to win the war with France, he wants the good opinion of the French people whom he hopes to conquer and rule. He can’t allow even his friends, therefore, to plunder their churches or any soldiers to speak ill of the people. So he is stern and unwavering. He will not show preferential treatment, even to his old friend whom he loves, Bardolph, who now must hang for his crimes.
Dealing with Sin is Like an Execution
Look at verse 5 of Colossians chapter 3. “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you.” Paul is saying we must be like Henry confronted with Bardolph whom he loves – unflinching in putting to death our much-loved sin. Dealing with sin is like an execution. Dealing with sin is like an execution. Now if you’re like me, mostly you love your sin. Right? We love our sin. We hate that we love our sin but we love our sin nevertheless. It is, after all, easy and convenient. We fit our sin like our feet fit in a comfortable, old pair of slippers. Sin is just so convenient; it’s comfortable. It fits us.
But Paul says since you have died and been raised to new life in union with Christ, since you’ve been born again by the Spirit of Christ, you who are believers, therefore, now you cannot afford to let sin live. You must kill it dead. You probably know John Owen’s famous statement – “Be killing sin or” – what? Do you know? “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” Be killing sin or sin will be killing you. That’s precisely the message of the apostle Paul here. There’s a ruthlessness and a radicalism I suspect we are often mission, I certainly am. When it comes to making progress in our Christian lives, we want soft, gentle paths that do not require much effort from us. Don’t we? Look, I want dealing with my sin to be poetic. I want it to be like autumn leaves. You know, drying in the air, wafting gently in the breeze, never to be thought of again. That’s how I’d like my sin to go. I’d like it to be like the mist evaporating beautifully in the warm sunshine. I don’t want to be an executioner. I don’t want to wield the hammer that drives the nails into my flesh, into my sin, my much-loved and long-cherished sin.
So here’s how it often goes instead. See if you recognize this in your heart. We hear God’s Word, we read God’s Word and our conscience immediately stings with recognition. We see the sinfulness of our sin and we know we ought to act. We should deal with this. And then, another voice begins to speak trying to drown out the voice of conscience. “Please, let me live!” says your pornography addiction. “Please, don’t crucify me!” says your judgmentalism. “I’ll tell you what,” says your festering resentment, “if you’ll just let me live, you can turn over a new leaf. You can be more patient with your children, speak more kindly to your spouse. Listen, you could read your Bible every day. How about that? Or go to church every Sunday – never miss a worship service. When the doors are open, we’ll make sure you’re there. Just let me live! I won’t trouble you too often. You don’t really need to take such drastic action in my case. I mean, after all, look at that guy down the row. You see him down there sitting in the pew?” I’m not pointing at any of your guys! “Look at that guy down the row! Now that’s a sinner. That’s a sinner. That’s not so bad as all of that. I think you might be getting a little carried away with all this, ‘Kill your sin’ stuff! Everything in moderation, after all.” Well, Paul says no. You need to be Henry V with an old friend – without mercy, killing your much-loved sin, killing your much-loved sin.
But he doesn't leave it there at the level of abstraction. Does he? Look at verse 5 again. "Put to death what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry." He gets specific. This is the first of two lists of vices. There is another in verse 8, which we'll come to in a moment. But do notice here how he starts with the physical, outward expression of sin – sexual immorality – and then he sort of begins to peel the layers back. What's behind all of this – down and down and down into the deep motives of our hearts so we understand that sin is more than just a surface, behavior issue. Sin adheres to the very roots of our humanity, warping and distorting and biasing us against the Lord and His law. And so he says back of sexual immorality there's impurity – unclean patterns of thinking and speaking, desensitizing us to the filth. And back of that, there is passion – he means an inflamed, inordinate emotion that has been allowed to burst its banks, never called to account. And along with it, there's evil desire – a longing for that which God has forbidden. And back of all of it he says is covetousness, which is idolatry. Covetousness has to do with the set of the heart, the orientation of the inner self away from what God wants toward what God forbids. It terminates on myself and it comes to believe this thing, this experience, this feeling, this person even, this indulgence, this is the one thing I must have in order to be free, in order to be happy, in order to be satisfied, in order to be really me. And so we pursue it and we live for it and we serve it. We've got to have it. And slowly and by degrees, we have made for our self an idol giving to that thing, that person, that experience a devotion and a service that only God rightly deserves.
And just notice the way in which Paul is arguing there, not just the specific sins that he goes after but the way that he is arguing. One of the biggest lies that sin ever tells us is that deep motives in the heart really don’t matter all that much. That the hidden attitude festering away really doesn’t matter all that much. It’s only what you do on the surface that counts. As long as your behavior is in check, no harm no foul. Right? So what if your heart is seething away with all sorts of unruly desire and wicked emotion and sinful motivations. But Paul is showing us here in verse 5 as he traces the lengths step by step all the way back to the heart that dealing with sin requires more than the mere modification of surface behavior.
We do have to deal with the surface behavior, and so if sexual immorality is the issue as it was here, we need to take radical steps to break our patterns. We need to install Covenant Eyes software on all our devices. We may even need to get rid of our laptops altogether. We need to take decisive, radical action to break the pattern and change the cycle. Matthew 18 verse 8, Jesus said, “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” It takes decisive, immediate, practical action to break the pattern. And that’s the teaching of holy Scripture. We do need to do that, but we mustn’t stop there. We need to drill down, as Paul is showing us, to drill down to the core of the issue to examine our hearts and to root out the deep, festering poison lurking there also.
Festering Motives of the Heart
And to do that, you need four things, at least four things. Number one, there is no way to deal with the festering motives of the heart that inclines to sin, you can’t put sin to death unless first you have been raised to new life with Jesus Christ. Understand that Paul is not offering here a mere prescription for morality, as though following Jesus were about behavior and speaking right and thinking right and cleaning up your act. That’s not the message. The presupposition here is that you have been united to Christ, you are alive spiritually and alive spiritually now you must put sin to death. So before you can tackle your sin problem, you need to be sure you have fled with your sin to Christ and asked Him for mercy. That’s step one.
Use of Means of Grace
Step two has to do with the use of the means of grace, privately and publicly. The means of grace – the Word and the sacraments and prayer. We cannot expect to make progress in killing sin if we neglect the weapons God has given to us to help us advance in our combat with the enemy festering in our own hearts – our besetting sin. Neglect the Bible and you neglect your soul. Neglect prayer and you neglect your soul. But if you will stay in the Word for yourself privately and personally, seeking God, knowing your own weaknesses and liability, pleading with Him for grace to put sin to death, you will begin to make progress.
Public Means of Grace
Thirdly, you must not forsake the assembling of yourselves together – the public means of grace. You need to be in your own congregation as close to every single Sunday as providence permits so that preachers and elders and church members who know you can look you in the eye and speak truth into your life so that you can’t hide. You see? It’s easy to hide when you’re everywhere else but here.
Band of Brothers/Sisters
And fourthly, you need to get yourself a band of brothers or a band of sisters who will tell you the truth, who will be honest with you and with whom you can be honest. And you need to take the risk to come clean about what’s really going on – to acknowledge your sin and to say, “I need help. Will you help me? I need accountability. I need people praying with me. I need people praying for me. I need you to talk to me about this.” Sin, listen brothers and sisters, sin thrives in the shadows, in the dark. Bring it into the light where it will wither and die. Confess your sins to one another. We have lots of small groups of all shapes and sizes for every age and stage – for men and women, for teenagers, for young adults. Plug in. If you’re not plugged in, if you do not have a band of brothers, a band of sisters, a small group where you can get real, please come and talk to me. We want to help you with that.
This passage, listen, this passage is not a prescription for a long, lonely fight with your sin, all on your own struggling away. These are battle plans for the whole church to fight together in the great combat with your besetting sin. We need each other and we are to tackle it together.
And if you’ll look at verse 6, if you’re wondering if we really need to be that serious about our sin problem, look at verse 6 and see how seriously God takes it. If you’re wondering, “Do I need to get this radical, this practical, this concrete about my sin?” look how seriously God takes our sin. In verse 6, “because of these, the wrath of God is coming.” Don’t you think we ought, in our own attitudes, to take sin so seriously that in some measure it reflects the attitude of God towards sin? One day God is coming in Jesus Christ to judge the world in righteousness for its sin and rebellion. God takes sin very, very seriously and so should we.
And do notice before we move on how Paul addresses the Colossians in verse 7, because this really is so important if we're not to get crushed with discouragement. Verse 7 – how tempting it is in our daily struggle in our own heart, in our own sin, to become discouraged and ready to give up. But look at verse 7. Talking about our sin, Paul says, "In these too you once walked, and when you were living in them." Now, do you notice the apparent tension there between verse 5 and verse 7? Verse 7, "you once walked in these things;" you once lived in them. Verse 5 – kill sin right now. Verse 5 presupposes sin is a present trouble, a present reality afflicting our hearts. Verse 7 says sin is in the past tense. Which is it, Paul? How do you reconcile those two things? Actually, reconciling them provides us with enormous encouragement to stay in the fight. What Paul is saying is, when you became a Christian, when you passed from death to life, when you were united to Jesus in His death and resurrection, the mastery of sin was broken once and for all. Christians no longer walk in sin, they no longer live in sin. Yes, you fall into sin, yes, the remnants of your old life still will trouble you, but sin is not in charge anymore. It's not in charge anymore. You are no longer its slave. You can kill sin. You can make progress. And you must kill sin. So do not give up. Do not back off. Do not sign a truce with your sin. You can and you must kill sin or sin will be killing you. Dealing with sin, Paul says, is like an execution.
Dealing With Sin is Like Changing Clothes
But then secondly, notice Paul says dealing with sin is like changing clothes. You see that in verse 8. "But now you must put them all away." Or better, "Now you must put them all off: anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another." Here's the second list of vices that I mentioned. The first in verse 5, you remember, moved from the outward behavior back toward the heart. This one begins with the heart and then moves out towards behavior but the point is the same. Both the deep motives and the expression in our thinking, acting and doing all must be tackled and addressed. This time the issue isn't sexual immorality. This time the issue is interpersonal conflict, breakdown, beginning with the seedbed in the human heart and resulting in the way we speak to each other in daily life. It starts with anger, wrath and malice, deep festering attitudes hidden away inside us, perhaps unnoticed by others while we smile and say, "Bless your heart." Anger, wrath, and malice.
And then, even despite our best efforts to the contrary, they come bubbling to the surface from time to time, don’t they, in slander, obscene talk, and in lying to one another. And Paul is telling us behaviors like that have no place in the Christian life. We are to put them off. Luke actually uses the same vocabulary back in Acts chapter 7 verse 58 to describe a physical putting off of a garment. When the mob were stoning Stephen to death, they put off their cloaks and laid them at Saul’s feet. It’s the same vocabulary here used metaphorically. To put off, like a garment, our old sinful patterns and behaviors. We have to put them all. All of that has no place in the Christian life.
Now there is again, a possible misunderstanding. We tend to think of clothes as fundamentally about comfort or fashion. In the ancient world, though, clothes often reveal identity, status. You could tell a slave or a master, a merchant or a priest or a Roman official from their clothes. So Paul isn’t saying here put off sin as though it were something superficial like a sports coat that’s gone out of style and you’re fundamentally unchanged underneath. That’s not the point. No, he’s saying you are no longer a slave! It’s time to stop dressing like one – in the rags of your old life. It’s time to start dressing like the child of the great King that you really are. Be who you are, child of God.
That’s actually precisely how he reasons. Look at verse 9. You have put off the old self with its practices, in the past when you came to Christ once for all. And you have put on a new self, verse 10, “which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator.” This is who you are. You aren’t who you were. You have been changed by grace, given new life. You are being remade into the image of your Redeemer. Instead of idolatry, verse 5, instead of bearing the image of a counterfeit God of our own invention that is no god at all, if you are a child of God by grace through faith in Christ alone, you are being remade into the image of your Creator. He is at work renovating you and making you new. All the way along, so far, Paul has been pressing us to do our duty, to step up. Not to sign a truce with sin but to continue the fight, to get busy killing sin, to put off the rags of our old lives.
But here now is the other side of the same coin. Here is another note of rich, strong encouragement where Paul says, “You are being worked on. God is at work in you to renew you in knowledge after the image of your creator.” It’s not just that you are at work, but there is one at work within you, “to will and to work for His good pleasure.” God hasn’t left you alone in the struggle and He will finish what He started. Doesn’t that help you? If you’re like me, there are times when you find yourself in the dust again, stumbling and falling. “How did I get here, still doing that, still thinking that, still feeling that, still saying that? Here I am again. I’m so discouraged and I’m so weary because every time I try to make progress I stumble back and fall again.” And we’re tempted, aren’t we, just to give up, just to coast, just to sign a truce. Paul is saying, “You know, God will never quit on you. And the work He began, He will finish.” “He that began a good work in you, He will carry on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” He will finish the work. You may not see how you’ll get there from where you are right now, but His promise is sure, so do not quit, because the victory is certain.
One day, brothers and sisters, no matter how often you’ve stumbled and fallen along the way, one day you will shine with the radiance of the perfect moral likeness of Jesus Christ when the work is finished and you see your Savior face to face at last. It is His promise, His guarantee. He is making you new. So don’t quit, don’t back off, since the work in which you are engaged of putting sin to death, of putting sin off, is a work that cannot fail, not because you are strong, but because of the grace and the promise of God.
In the center of Glasgow, my hometown in Scotland, there is a bridge built over an eight-lane highway. The problem is, the bridge was never completed and the city has grown up around it. So now you have a bridge over a highway that is connected to nothing on either side. There is a road that goes nowhere. You can’t get up onto it. It’s just the bridge to nowhere. There are no unfinished buildings in the city of God. What God starts, He finishes. His work in your life is a work He will complete. He’s at work in you to will and to work for His good pleasure. You will gain the victory one day, not because you are strong but because He is.
Consequence of Sin
And do quickly notice verse 11 as we close. The consequence of the sin and the false teaching in Colossians, we’ve noticed before now, has been division and tension, a fracturing of their fellowship. What is the consequence of finally beginning to make progress in the Christian life? What happens in a church when the church’s members are putting sin to death, putting sin off, getting rid of the rags of their old life? What happens? Verse 11, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” The fractured fellowship that sin has produced is mended and natural enemies, that’s what this list is – a group of people who are natural enemies – are made one in Jesus Christ so that color and ethnicity and economics and education could not matter less, could not matter less to us than that we are one in Jesus Christ.
We have Christ in common, but we’ll only begin to really get there when we do the hard work of putting sin to death, when we realize that dealing with sin is like an execution and unflinchingly resolved to do what is necessary to turn a corner and to make a change. We will only get there when dealing with sin is like a change of clothes – put off the old filthy rags. Why are you still living in the filth of them, the grime of them? You’re not that person anymore. You’re not a slave. You are a son or daughter of the living God. Time to start living from that true, new identity that is yours in Jesus Christ. When we do that, when the church starts to live like that together, helping one another on toward love and good deeds, when we serve each other, when we become united as Christ is all and in all like that, the world begins to see that we are Christ’s disciples. Instead of slander and filthy talk and lying to one another, we speak the truth in love. Instead of lust and malice and rage and all these perversions and horrors festering in our hearts that Paul describes, we bear with each other, we forgive one another, we pursue each other, we serve each other. When the world sees that, what a mighty witness to redeeming grace. There is no community in the world that can compare, that has anything like the dynamics that animate and unite the church of Jesus Christ when we put sin to death and we put off the filthy rags of the old life. May the world look at us and see that we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another, that He may have all the glory and praise. Will you join me as we pray together?
Lord, we confess to You that we have often found it easy to play at being Christians, to be surface Christians, indulging the secret motives and secret desires and lusts and appetites of our hearts, so long as our surface behavior is socially acceptable. Thank You for the Scriptures and for the way they shine a light into the dark places in our hearts. Would You work by them now in all of us, first to be real with ourselves and real with You, and then real with each other, that together we may fight the good faith of faith. This warfare was never meant to be pursued alone. Help us to fight together, serving You for the glory of the name of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
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