Overcoming Sin Together (Colossians 3:9-12a)

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It is an inescapable fact that the Lord never intended for us to live the Christian life in isolation. That is why any teaching on sanctification must take into account the corporate pursuit of such loners. With reference to church discipline and the curse of individualism, pastor and author Mark Dever writes, “Biblical church discipline is simple obedience to God and simple confession that we need help. We cannot live the Christian life alone.” Well said.

Over and over in this little epistle the apostle Paul makes reference to the soma or “body,” and usually with reference to the body of Christ. This is significant, for it highlights that the church is called to a corporate devotion to the all-supremely-sufficient Christ. And with such a corporate devotion we are to corporately progress in Christlikeness.

The issue of overcoming sin is one of transformation. This is probably a more helpful word than “victory.” There is much talk in the church today about living “victorious” Christian lives, and this is not necessarily wrong. After all, the New Testament does use the Greek word nikao, which speaks of victory or conquest, in relation to the Christian life. However, “victory” in our day has taken on triumphalistic baggage which we can well do without. Transformation, however, is something we must seek, and it is something we can attain, because nothing is impossible with the all-sufficient Christ.

Thus far in our consideration of Colossians 3 we have learned that, in order to overcome sin, we must have a devotion to seek Christ, a determination to stop sin, and a determination to strip off those things which are displeasing to God.

From a technical perspective, we have noted the prevalence of the aorist tense in Paul’s writing to the Colossians. The aorist tense points to a decisive, once-for-all act. In other words, we have been freed from sin. It has happened. We have been buried into Christ’s death and raised to walk in newness of life.

But Paul is not happy to leave it at a historic, theoretical level, and so he urges us to put off experientially what occurred historically. He places personal responsibility upon the believer to overcome sin. What has happened (i.e. we have been freed from bondage to sin) must determin what now happens (i.e. practical sanctification).

This can never be stressed too much. That is why we must live gospel-saturated, cross-centred lives. We must daily preach Christ, His person and work, to ourselves. Believers never outgrow the gospel. The gospel was powerful to deliver us from the penalty of our sins and it is powerful to deliver us from the power of our sins. It is powerful to remake us. Tonight, we will focus on this matter of putting on the new man.

We Must Suit Up

Paul told us specifically what we were to stop and strip; that is, what we were to “put off.” Now, he offers the positive flip side: “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (vv. 9-10). He gives several graces that we must put on.

We Have Been Reclothed

Paul tells us that we “have put on the new man” (v. 10). Again, this is written in the aorist tense. It has happened, but there is an attendant responsibility to live like it. Our only hope of transformation lies in the fact that, in Christ, we have put on the new man. Apart from the new man transformation is impossible. As R. C. H. Lenski put it, “The old man is not converted, he cannot be; he is not renewed, he cannot be. He can only be replaced by the new man.”

This section introduces us afresh to the put off / put on dynamic, which is frequently highlighted in the New Testament. The exhortation is not simply to remove some things from our lives and then to leave it at that. Instead, we must replace the vices we remove with certain virtues. Nature does not tolerate a vacuum, and neither does the bent of our lives. That which is empty will be filled with something, and we must take personal responsibility to ensure that the vacuum is filled with positive graces.

We are to practically put on what historically has been done. We have been given a new set of clothes—the righteousness of Christ—and we must now suit up! “For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Again, “And that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

We Are Being Renewed

The new man, says Paul, “is renewed in knowledge.” The word translated “renewed” is the Greek word anakainoo, and it means “to renovate.” The particular tense here refers to continual renovation: “is being renewed in knowledge.”

“The believer’s new nature resembles a growing plant,” writes William Hendriksen. “It is being constantly renewed by the Holy Spirit and increases in vigor with a definite goal in mind.” A. T. Robertson offers the following insight into anakainoo: “It is a continual refreshment (kainos) of the new (neos, young) man in Christ Jesus.”

If we are to starve the cravings of the old man (we are no longer under its compulsion) then we must also positively feed the new man.

We recently completed some renovations to our house, and it was a learning experience all the way through. Whilst the renovations were in progress, the house was in complete chaos. It was not always pleasant whilst the renovations were underway. Indeed, there were times when we wondered if we had made the correct choice! But now that is finished it gives us great satisfaction.

Again, Paul uses a present tense to indicate that our lives are under continual renovation. As with any renovation, this means that things are sometimes messy—and necessarily so. But the ultimate outcome is more than worth the present difficulties. And again, the concept of renovation is not exclusive to this particular New Testament text.

  • 2 Corinthians 4:16—“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”
  • Titus 3:5—“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Romans 12:2—“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

This last verse is of particular importance because it highlights the fact that, if we will be renewed in life, we must first be renewed in mind. Transformation requires effort, and we will only exert the necessary effort to transform our lives if our minds are first being changed by the gospel.

According to this text, our growth depends on “knowledge.” This is a translation of the Greek word epignosis, which is an important word in Colossians. You will remember that the Gnostic heretics claimed special insight into the deep things of God, which ordinary believers could not enjoy. Paul counters this claim by saying that believers have all the knowledge necessary for transformation. In fact, knowledge of Christ is the very foundation of our transformation. John MacArthur is correct when he writes,

Unlike the ever-decaying depraved nature, the new self is continually being renewed by God. . . . There is no growth in the Christian life apart from knowledge. . . . From mature knowledge flows holy living. How fast believers grow depends on how much knowledge they put into practice in their lives.

Of course, knowledge in itself is not enough. We must not be satisfied with mere head knowledge. But it must begin with knowledge. We must increasingly grow in our knowledge of Christ if we will change as we should. To the degree that we are increasing in our knowledge of God and of ourselves, to that degree will we overcome sin.

John Calvin believed that the key to knowing God was to know yourself. He did not mean that in the same sense that psychobabblers today tell us to “know ourselves.” What he meant was that, as you see your own sinfulness, you will no doubt be driven to know God in a deeper way.

I have read the Bible every day for the past thirty years, and almost every day before reading I pray, “Open my eyes, that I might behold wonderful things out of Your law.” You see, I don’t read the Bible just so I can put a check mark next to another day on a Bible reading schedule. I read the Bible because I want my mind to be transformed so I can change. I will admit that the hunger is not always as strong as at other times, but that is my overriding desire, and it is the overriding desire of every true believer in Christ. Transformation towards the perfect man is the pursuit of every believer. With Paul we cry,

That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 3:10-14)

Practically, what does such a renovation look like?

It will give us a new appetite: for truth, for righteousness, for God Himself. It alarms me when people claim to be saved and yet they have no appetite for instruction in God’s Word. When a professing believer refuses to gather with the church for teaching, there is a problem. When a professing believer has no appetite to spend time privately in God’s Word, there is a problem. Believers have an appetite for God and His truth.

This renovation will bring about new affections. One of the Puritan writers spoke of “the expulsive power of a new affection.” When we are clothed with the new man we have a new affection for fellowship with believers, for singing (cf. v. 16), for holiness, for godly friendships and for Christian harmony.

We Have Been Recreated

Paul tells us that all of the above is “according to the image of Him who created him” (v. 10). The reference to creation, of course, is not to the creation of the cosmos as recorded in Genesis 1, but to the new creation that takes place when Christ clothes us with the new man. And we have been recreated according to the “image” (ikon) of Christ.

William Barclay put his finger on the basic nature of Christianity when he wrote, “Christianity is not really Christianity unless it recreates a man into what he was meant to be.” And as N. T. Wright correctly says, “At last, in Christ, human beings can be what God intended them to be.”

Christlikeness is the end of our reclothing. Since we have put on the new man—who is continually being refreshed in the knowledge of Christ, and subsequently is being more and more conformed to the image of Christ—certain behaviour is now expected. And the behaviour expected, in short, is Christlike behaviour. Is the cry of your heart, “O, that Christ would be formed in me!” (Galatians 4:19)? This must be our passion!

If we have been reclothed and are being renewed because we have been recreated, then this reality will be revealed in a most practical way. And that is what Paul deals with beginning in v. 11 through the end of the letter. Obviously, we do not have the time to consider this entire section in one go, but let us at least begin in this study to take it apart.

We Must Show It

As noted above, v. 11 begins the most practical part of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Having dealt with the doctrine of Christ’s sufficiency, and with some of the preliminary implications thereof, he now begins detailing in a most practical manner what it looks like to live in conscious awareness of that supremacy. And he begins by showing us that believers who live under the supremacy of Christ show it in their relationships.

It is interesting that Paul should begin with this particular issue. After all, in his lists of sins that we must put off, he included in particular sexual sins and sins of anger, and we might therefore expect him to immediately contrast these with sins of moral purity and calmness. But Paul was inspired, and we are not. And the primary way, according to him, that renewal manifests itself is in relationships.

By How We Regard Others

Wright observes that Paul’s emphasis here on relationships is important because

the ancient world, just like the modern, was an elaborate network of prejudice, suspicion and arrogance, so ingrained as to be thought natural and normal. Nobody must allow prejudices from their pre-Christian days to distort the new humanity which God has created in and through the New Man. Though it may not always feel like it, those who have joined the family of Christ have become a different people.

The apostle mentions several different cultural backgrounds here. As a general rule, the “Greek” believed that his was the epitome of cultural advancement, whilst the “Jew” believed that he was the epitome of religious virtue. According to Jewish religion “circumcised” or “uncircumcised” was the litmus test of religious virtue. The word “barbarian” literally means “one who babbles,” and is used here in the context of a savage, or an unsophisticated or uncivilised individual. The “Scythian” was from what is today southern Russia, and was widely considered to be the savage of savages.

In short, we have before us a list of great diversity. “But Christ,” argues Paul, “who is supreme above all, is now in all [of these] diverse peoples.” John told of a day when people from every people group and cultural background will one day stand before God offering Him praise (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). Curtis Vaughan writes, “‘Christ is all, and is in all’ suggests that Christ is the great principle of unity. In him all differences merge, all distinctions are done away. . . . Loyalty to him must therefore take precedence over all earthly ties.” The new man is multi-ethnic, and yet unified in Christ.

Those with a renewed mind have a radically different view of man; especially of man as he is in Christ. The new man flies everybody’s flag. As I write these words, South Africans are preparing for perhaps the biggest sporting event ever to have taken place on our soil: the 2010 soccer World Cup. Everywhere you drive you see flags of the various countries represented at the Cup. I was recently at the airport and all along the highway leading to it you could find various national flags.

Of course, by virtue of the fact that only 32 nations are represented at the Cup, not every national flag was flown. As I drove I could not help thinking of this passage. The new man has no limits on those who are represented before Christ. No people group or culture is excluded. Christ is all, and in all! And we prove that we have put on the new man by how we regard our fellow man.

J. B. Lightfoot wrote a long time ago, “Christ has placed ‘brother’ in the place of ‘barbarian.’” We no longer consider others uncultured; if they are in Christ, we consider them brothers. The new man is multi-ethnic, but uni-cultural.

This text should give us hope that Christ is the hope of any and every culture. As Hendriksen wrote, “Christ, as the all-sufficient Lord and Savior, is all that matters. His Spirit-mediated indwelling in all believers, of whatever racial-religious, cultural, or social background they be, guarantees the creation and gradual perfection in each and in all of ‘the new man, who is being renewed.’”

When others are properly regarded, our sins of the flesh will be restrained (v. 5). When others are properly regarded our sins of the “spirit” will be restrained (vv. 8-9). When others are properly regarded racism is dealt a death blow. When you put on the new man you have an entirely new regard for people, and you do not mistreat them in any way.

By How We Respond to Others

Not only does the new man show in our regard for others, but also in the way in which we respond to others. Paul writes, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (v. 12).

This passage challenges the “renovated” man with the renewed mind to relate righteously with all, whether Greek or Jew; whether free or slave; whether spouse, parent, or child; whether employer, employee or church member. In other words, in light of Christ being all and in all kinds of men (transforming such), and in light of the fact that He has chosen you—meaning that you are immeasurably privileged—treat each other with the same regard.

“The Christian has already put on the new self,” writes Vaughan. “Now he must clothe himself with the garments that befit the new self.”

We must notice that how we respond to others derives from how we are related to God. And according to Paul we are related to God in that we are “elect,” “holy” and “beloved.”

The word “elect” means “chosen” or “selected.” It speaks of being handpicked or selected for a specific purpose. God chose us as His own, and thank God for that! Where would we be if He had not chosen us? The New Testament is replete with references to God’s sovereign election.

  • Romans 8:33—“Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”
  • Ephesians 1:3-4—“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love.”
  • 2 Timothy 2:10—“Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”
  • 1 Peter 1:2—“Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.”
  • 1 Peter 2:4, 6, 9—“Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious. . . . Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, “’Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.’ . . . But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.”

We have been chosen by God’s sovereign grace, and we must therefore relate properly to one another. We will share heaven; isn’t it a shame that we can’t (won’t!) get along on earth? If we were more faithful to the task—the Great Commission—perhaps we’d have less time for the nonsense of bickering!

Not only have we been selected, but we have been separated. We are “holy.” The word “holy” means “set apart for a special purpose,” as was Israel of old. God has a specific purpose for His church, and each of the sheep is part of that purpose. We can only fulfil this purpose as we get alone with one another.

We are also special. Paul calls us “beloved,” which means that we are loved by God. Commenting on the term “beloved” MacArthur notes, “Election is not a cold, fatalistic doctrine. On the contrary, it is based on God’s incomprehensible love for His elect.” If God loves His sheep, ought we not to do the same? Ought we not to treat the sheep as God treats them?

Those who have been blessed with this special relationship are to wear it well. The King’s kids are to dress like it; they are to have such a disposition matching their position. This is what is expected of those who have Christ who “is all and in all.”

Notice also that how we respond to others is determined by God. Having noted that we are elect, holy and beloved, Paul writes,

Put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.

(Colossians 3:12-13)

We are not left to guess how God would have us treat one another. Paul tells us precisely what such a disposition looks like. He gives us the design of our new dress. Alexander Maclaren calls these things “the garments of the renewed soul.” We will begin a close examination of these in our next study, but note for now the words of Vaughan, who says that these are “qualities of life which, if present in the community of believers, will eliminate, or at least reduce, frictions.” They detail “the self-restraint that enables one to bear injury and insult without resorting to hasty retaliation.”

I read about an old, grizzled truck driver who was at a truck stop when three Hell’s Angels bikers walked in, and begin provoking him. He quietly ignored them as they tugged his clothes, spat in his milk and finally overturned his meal. Without a word, the truck driver stood and walked out of the diner.

One of the bikers commented to the waitress, “Not much of a man, is he?” To which the waitress replied, “No, and not much of a driver either. He just drove over three motorcycles!”

I would suggest that neither response is the biblical one to which Paul exhorts us here! The graces that Paul list will help us to avoid both of those unbiblical treatment of others.

It is a wonderful truth that God selected you before the foundation of the world to salvation. He separated you to make you different, and considers you special—beloved. What a powerful witness will be the church that lives the reality of these privileges in daily life. May God grant us the grace to do so, for His glory and honour!