Date: March 17, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 3:5–3:11
In January of this year, the NY Times ran an article entitled, “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.” The author, Julia Scheerers, recounts the time her 9-year old daughter asked her, “Mama, what is sin?” For Mrs. Scheerers, this was a moment of parenting success. Scheerers herself was raised in what she calls a fundamentalist home, but she is not raising her children in the faith. Instead, Scheerers seeks to teach her children right from wrong without any reference to Christianity. In her mind, the Bible, with its insistence on sin and judgment, is altogether unhelpful. In fact, according to Scheerers, this is the primary problem with Christianity – an obsession with sin that leads to nothing but fear and hypocrisy.
But this idea of a sin-free worldview is not confined to the NY Times. In 2005, sociologist Alan Wolfe made largely the same argument in his book The Transformation of American Religion. Wolfe says the following of American churches, “Talk of hell, damnation and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy.” For Mr. Wolfe, this change is good, even necessary. In Wolfe’s view, Christianity’s insistence on sin works against human flourishing. It leads to division and produces intolerance. So once again, what is the cause of society’s problems? Christianity’s alleged obsession with sin.
As Christians who live under the authority of God’s Word, how should we respond to these allegations? Is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ unhelpfully obsessed with sin? Does Scripture’s teaching on sin lead to fear, intolerance, and hypocrisy? Our passage this morning is good place to begin our answer. As you heard when we read the text, Paul is certainly concerned with the issue of sin. It’s actually unmistakable. Twice, Paul provides a detailed list of behaviors that can only be called sinful. What’s more, Paul clearly views these sinful practices are serious. “On account of these, the wrath of God is coming,” Paul says. There can be no denying that Scripture is, in fact, definitely concerned with sin. Colossians 3 is just one example among many.
But that’s not the end of this passage, is it? It might be easy to miss this, but what is the overall tone of vv5-11 here in Colossians 3? It’s that sin, while serious and sobering, is not the defining feature of the Christian life. By God’s grace, sinners can change. By God’s grace, sinners do not have to be defined by their sin any longer. Again, let’s not miss this. For all of the detailed talk about sin in these verses, what is Paul’s primary application? That God’s people can put those things away, that God’s people can change.
And so, as Christians, we say to the Mrs. Scheerers and the Mr. Wolfes of the world, “Yes, Christianity deals with the reality of sin. Yes, the Bible insists that we take sin seriously. But the good news is that sin does not have to be the final world. There is a Savior, Jesus Christ, and his gospel saves sinners like us, and then incredibly, that gospel changes us so that our lives begin to look more and more like his.” Are we concerned with sin? Yes. But we’re concerned because there’s good news in Jesus Christ.
The change Colossians 3 envisions is what theologians call sanctification, and that’s what this passage is about. It’s about sanctification. And just so we’re clear, sanctification is simply the fancy word for growing in holiness. And as you can hear even in that simple definition, sanctification has two parts. There is the negative side – the putting off of sinful practices, what the old Puritans used to call mortification. And then there is the positive side – the putting on of godly practices, what the Puritans called vivification. Our passage today focuses on that first part – the putting off of sinful practices. If it sounds to you this morning like Paul is stressing the negative – things we must not do – then good. That’s means you’re tracking with the text. Lord willing, we’ll get to the positive side – the putting on – next week.
But even in this negative aspect, Paul’s focus is on change. Please don’t lose sight of that. Sanctification acknowledges the truth about sin, but it does so for the purpose of growth, for the purpose of change. That is what I hope we take away from today – not that Christians are obsessed with sin, but that through the gospel of Christ, God gives his people grace that they might grow.
Specifically, I’d like us to see five aspects of sanctification this morning, five features that should mark the Christian’s labor to put off sin. Let me give them to you in advance – Sanctification must be ruthless. Sanctification must be specific. Sanctification must be hopeful. Sanctification must be ongoing. And sanctification must be unifying. With an eye on change, let’s consider each one together, beginning with Sanctification must be Ruthless.
Sanctification Must Be Ruthless
V5 begins with a striking command from the apostle Paul. Notice again what he writes, “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you.” You may remember from v2 that Paul called the Colossians to set their minds on things above, not on earthly things. Through Christ, Christians no longer belong to this world. By faith, the believer’s life is now hidden with Christ in God.
Here in v5, Paul gives the next step in the application of that gospel truth. Because believers are united to Christ, we must now put sin to death in our daily living. And the image here is ruthless. This is one of those instances where it helps to notice what Paul did not say. He did not say, “Put sin under management,” as though sin can be tolerated in small doses. He did not say, “Put sin in containment,” as though sin’s effects can be quarantined. And he did not say, “Put sin under watch,” as though sin can be merely monitored. No, Paul says, “Put to death what is earthly in you.” In other words, when it comes to fighting sin, there can be no surrender, and there must be no truce.
If you remember the Lord Jesus’ teaching on sin, you’ll find a similar emphasis. Again, we see that Paul’s instructions are really drawing on the ministry of Christ. Think of Matthew 5. If your eye causes you to sin, what does Jesus say to do? Tear your eye out. If you hand causes you to sin, how should we respond? Cut it off. That’s the kind of ruthlessness sanctification calls for. For the Christian, the only response to sin is spiritual execution. “Put to death,” Paul says, “what is earthly in you.”
Now, the question at this point is, “Why such ruthlessness?” Why does Paul use such striking, vivid language? Notice what Paul says in v6 – “On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Here, Paul reminds us that God hates sin. That’s what God’s wrath is – it is God’s righteous anger, his personal opposition to our rebellion against him. I know this is not a popular concept today, even in many churches. But there is no way to wiggle out from underneath v6. On account of such sin, God’s wrath is coming.
And as a Christian, the reality of God’s wrath should produce in me a renewed desire for holiness. This is important. When I read in v6 that God’s wrath is coming against sin, how should I respond? I should look to the cross, and recognize that it was my sin that caused this wrath to be poured out on the Lord Jesus Christ. I should recognize that were it not for Christ, I would face this wrath on my own. And that recognition should sober me with the reality that sin is not something to toy around with. All sin deserves the judgment of God, and all sin will be judged – either on the last day, or at the cross of Jesus Christ. And therefore, sin is not to be trifled with, but instead it must be put to death, just as Paul says here in v5.
And so, brothers and sisters, we’re faced with a question here. Are we ruthless in the fight against sin? We need to be honest at this point. Am I seeking to kill sin, or am I merely trying to manage it? Am I walking in God’s Word and praying for the Spirit’s help to put sin to death? Remember, our weapons in this fight are God’s Holy Word and God’s Holy Spirit. We take in God’s Holy Word, and we ask God’s Holy Spirit to kill sin and produce holiness in us. Those are our weapons, and so I ask you – Are you ruthless in the fight? Ask God, even this morning, to help you hate sin as he hates sin. Ask him to give you a greater desire to fight. “Put to death what is earthly in you,” Paul says, and from that, we see that sanctification must be ruthless.
Sanctification Must Be Specific
The second mark comes in vv5 and 8 – Sanctification must be Specific. You’ll notice that after the command in v5, Paul provides a list of specific sins. Look again at what he writes – “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Now, the first sin in this list gives us the theme, so to speak – sexual immorality. Paul is concerned that Christians be people of moral purity, that we resist sexual sin in all its various forms.
This is a good place to remember that there is nothing new under the sun. The first century was a hyper-sexualized world, just as ours is in the 21st century. The forms may have changed, but the temptation remains the same. And therefore, this is a call we need to hear, brothers and sisters. As God’s people, we must put all sin to death, but there is a particular need that we be a people of moral purity. In our thoughts, desires, and actions, we must show the world that our lives, including how we use our bodies, are submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ. We are not our own; we were bought with price. Therefore, we must glorify God in our bodies. I ask you – is that true of you, brothers and sisters? Are you striving to grow in the holiness of purity?
And I do want to stress that it is the lordship of Christ that prompts Paul to write this list. This is key. Paul is not throwing out a random list of sins in v5. No, he’s thinking primarily about the lordship of Christ. Notice the last sin in the list – covetousness. That might seem out of place at first, since we tend to think about covetousness in connection with material goods. But it’s more than materialism, isn’t it? Covetousness is actually an attempt to make myself God. Think about it. To covet is to say that I am the authority over my own life, that I have decided I do not have enough, and that therefore, I am taking what I believe belongs to me. And isn’t that where every sexual sin begins, with an ungodly desire for more than what God has said is good and right? This list isn’t random at all. These kinds of sin, perhaps more than any other, are a denial of the lordship of Christ. In fact, that’s why Paul calls covetousness idolatry – because by desiring more than what God says is good, we’re using our lives to worship something other than Christ.
But Paul is not finished. There’s another list later in the passage. Notice again v8 – “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Here, Paul’s focus is on what we might call community-destroying sins. These are sins that begin in the heart – anger, wrath, malice – but then spill out in words – slander and obscene talk. When these kinds of sin are present in a church, then you be sure that community is not thriving.
Now, what’s striking is that Paul would pair this second list with the first. Let’s be honest, we’re prepared to say that sexual immorality is a serious sin. Whether it is pornography or adultery, we’re quick to say those things are not good. But what about gossip? What about anger that leads to slander? In Paul’s mind, these are just as serious. These are just as deadly. He could have paired any number of things with the first list of sexual sins, but he chose sins of the heart that spill out in community-destroying words.
Brothers and sisters, we should takeaway from this that how we use our words is as important as what we do with our bodies. What about you? Are you harboring anger or malice? Are you spreading information that doesn’t concern you? Are you impugning people’s motives and actions, to the point that tears down their character? Those things might not seem as serious as sexual immorality, but Paul says they are. And therefore, we must put such things to death.
Overall, what I hope we notice here is how specific Paul is when it comes to sanctification. He does not speak of sin in generalities. He speaks specifically because that’s how sanctification works – it calls sin by name. And that’s the exhortation to us. We shouldn’t be satisfied with general confession or a general desire to grow. Instead, we need to be specific. Our confession of sin must be specific, our dependence on God’s Word must be specific, and our prayer for growth must be specific. Is that true of you, brothers and sisters? Are you specific when it comes to growing in holiness?
Sanctification Must Be Hopeful
That brings us to the third mark of sanctification from this text – Sanctification must be Hopeful. There is a case to be made that this is the central point of the paragraph – the one truth that keeps all the others in their proper place. Notice the past tense Paul uses in v7 – “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them.” Paul’s point is that the Colossians are no longer defined by sin. Their former way of life is just that – former! By God’s grace, they can now put those former things away. Indeed, that’s what Paul says in v8 – “But now you must put them all away.” Please don’t miss the note of change from v7 to v8. You once lived this way, Paul says, but now you can pursue growth. Now you can pursue holiness. Now you can change.
At the heart of sanctification is the same truth we’ve seen throughout the letter – union with Christ. In the gospel, believers have been united to Christ’s death, so that Christ’s victory over sin becomes the believer’s victory by faith. The believer can put sin to death because Christ was put to death for us and for our salvation. And therefore, our pursuit of holiness is not an attempt to gain union with Christ. No, our pursuit of holiness is the result of union with Christ. Already, we have died with Christ to sin, and therefore, we must now live out who we are in him.
But Paul makes this even clearer in v9. Notice what he says, and listen again for the past tense realities at work here. V9 and following – “Do not lie to another, seeing that you have put off the old with its practices and have put on the new self.” We’ll come back to the prohibition on lying in just a moment, but for now, notice the change that Paul envisions as having already taken place. What has happened in the life of the Christian? The old self has been put off, and the new self has been put on. The point here is about identity. Believers are no longer united to Adam in sin. Our old nature, which we received in union with Adam, has been put off. How, we ask? Through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. We are now united to the Lord Jesus, and therefore, our identity is in him. Our nature is defined by him. This is one of the grand realities of the gospel – that God would create for himself a new humanity that is defined by Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, if you belong to Christ this morning – if you are repenting of your sins and trusting in Christ alone – then this is who you are. You have put off the old self with its practices, and you have put on the new self in Christ. God has done this for you, by his grace, through the Lord Jesus Christ. And that means the end goal of your sanctification has already been accomplished in Christ. I want to be clear on this point. If you are a Christian, you must kill sin, but not in order to gain a new identity with Christ. You must kill sin because you have been made new in Christ. That’s what sanctification is, brothers and sisters – it is living out, by faith, who we are in Christ. In fact, one theologian has defined sanctification in precisely those terms – it is to become who you already are in Christ.
And therefore, sanctification must be hopeful. Do you see it? The fight against sin is serious. It must be ruthless and specific. And yet, in the midst of that fight, the believer can have hope. Sin will not win. Sin cannot win, for the Christian. The victory has already been won. The tomb is empty. The power of sin has been broken once and for all. And therefore, in all our fighting, our hearts are hopeful – not because we’re strong enough to keep going. No, we’re hopeful because we know that he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
And listen, brothers and sisters, this gospel hope is actually what keeps us going in the fight. There will be days, even seasons, when it seems like our sanctification has stalled. There will be times when it looks like we’re taking five steps back for every step forward. There will even be moments when there’s just nothing – no movement, seemingly no growth, perhaps even very little desire. Where do you go in those times? You can’t look inward – you’re worn out! Where do you go? You go to this gospel hope. You remind yourself, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.” You go to this gospel hope.
And then armed with that hope, what do you do? You fight for another day. You pick up the Word again, you go the Lord in prayer again, and you make war on sin one day at a time. Do you see it? The hope of the gospel – the hope that we have put on the new self in Christ – that hope is essential to the work of sanctification. Without this hope, we’d quit, but with this hope, we keep going. Indeed, we must keep going. We’re called to growth. We’re called to change. We’re called to strive for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord. But we’re called to do so because of what God has already done in us. Sanctification, then, must be hopeful.
Sanctification Is Ongoing
Ruthless, specific, hopeful – we’re ready now for the fourth mark. Sanctification is ongoing. We’re still looking at v10, but this time, we need to see the ongoing nature of God’s work. Notice again v10 – you “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Now, it might seem odd that Paul would describe the new self as being renewed. If it’s new, why is it being renewed? But the point is actually encouraging. Having made his people new in Christ, God continues to renew them through and through. God’s work is ongoing.
But notice also the direction of God’s ongoing work. The believer’s new self is being renewed how – in knowledge after the image of its creator. Now, the mention of image recalls the creation account in Genesis 1, where God made humanity in his image. But as you know, that image was tarnished in the fall. Sin has marred the image of God in humanity. But God will not be deterred. Through the gospel, God is restoring – re-creating even – his people after his image. But there’s a significant difference now. The image in which believers are being renewed is the image of Christ, who is himself the image of the invisible God.
Catch what this means for sanctification, brothers and sisters. Growing in holiness is not simply about kicking old habits and getting better ones. It’s not even about mere moral transformation. No, sanctification is about conformity to the image of Christ. Sanctification is about our lives bearing the marks of Christ’s own character. Even here, Paul’s focus is on the supremacy of Christ. Even here, in these practical instructions, Paul is elevating and proclaiming the Lord Jesus. It is Christ’s image in which believers are being renewed.
And this explains why Paul says this renewal happens through knowledge. Knowledge of what, we ask? It is the knowledge of Christ’s gospel, the faithful embrace of Christ’s person and work on our behalf. The gospel is the message saves us, and the gospel is the message that sanctifies us. I need the gospel as much today as I did the day God saved me by his grace. This is how God’s ongoing work continues, through an increased understanding of and trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do you want to grow in holiness? Then go to the gospel, and there you will find the strength you need to kill sin and grow in conformity to Christ. Sanctification must be ongoing, with our eyes fixed on Christ.
Sanctification Must Be Unifying
Final mark – sanctification must be unifying. Back in v9, Paul urged the Colossians not to lie to one another. This followed his list in v8 of heart sins that spill over in sins against other people. It’s actually a striking emphasis in this paragraph. We tend to think of sanctification mostly in individual terms, but Paul thinks corporately. Paul thinks of a community of people, growing together in conformity to Christ. In fact, that’s part of the point in v10. It’s not simply that I am being renewed in my new self. It’s much bigger than that. I’m being renewed together with God’s new humanity in Christ. God’s ongoing work in me is part of his larger ongoing work in all of his people together.
And this is why lying and gossip and slander are so devastating to a church – because it undermines that unity we share in Christ. When I lie to a brother or sister, I am, in essence, acting as though they did not belong to the body of Christ. I am living as though they do not have a right to the truth, even though as my brother or sister in Christ, they are actually members with me of the same body. The same is true for slander, for gossip – they tear at the unity of Christ’s body.
And so, throughout this paragraph, Paul is quietly making a case for unity. Do you see it? Sanctification is about my personal growth in holiness, but it’s also about the unity of Christ’s body in the church. I should hate sin because Jesus said they’d know us by our love for one another.
And to drive this point home, Paul reminds in v11 of the profound unity that exists in the body of Christ. It is telling that this is the final verse in the paragraph, the closing point, so to speak, of this section on killing sin. Notice what Paul says, v11 – “Here” – that is, in the new humanity God has created in Christ – “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbican, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.”
Here we have a clear declaration that God’s people must not draw distinctions based on ethnicity, class, or social condition. There is no place in the church for any teaching that elevates one group of people over another. The gospel unites all of God’s people together in Christ, so that each person, regardless of their background, shares in the glory of the gospel.
But notice, then, the application. If Christ is all and in all, then what must I pursue in the church? I must pursue unity. I must seek to kill my own sin so that the unity we have in Christ is strengthened for the world to see. It’s about more than just my walk with Jesus. It’s about each of us together, growing in holiness leading to unity that ultimately brings glory to Christ.
Let’s fight sin, brothers and sisters. Let’s fight for the sake of our souls. Let’s fight with ruthless intent that longs to grow in conformity to Christ. Let’s fight so that our communion with the Lord grows deeper. But let’s also fight for the sake of unity in Christ’s body. Jesus died to unite his people together in him, so may we strive to live out the unity he shed his blood to achieve.
Are Christians obsessed with sin? I don’t believe so, at least not if we listen to the Scriptures. Yes, Christianity deals with the reality of sin. And yes, the Bible insists that we take sin seriously. But even then, we do so because of the good news that God is in the business of changing sinners like us, and conforming us to the image of Christ. I can’t think of anything more hopeful than that. And so, armed with that hope, let’s labor for the growth God has promised to give, “for he who called you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Amen.