Every Christian knows that God has standards, whether they want to acknowledge this or fight to suppress it. In fact, according to Paul in Romans 1, every human being knows God and that God has standards, because God has revealed this truth to everyone.
The Bible clearly teaches us that we are saved by grace through the means of faith, and not by works. But how does grace and God’s standards of conduct work if salvation is a free gift? This has caused much discussion among Christians. Most would agree that justification is indeed by grace through faith. Salvation is a free gift. But there is a division over how one is sanctified to where their lives will become more like God’s standards. Some are afraid that the preaching of grace interferes with the necessity of being restored fully in the image of a holy God. Some of Paul’s opponents in Romans 6 put it this way: “Should we continue to sin in order that grace will abound?” Paul answers this with an emphatic No!
So then, are we saved by grace, and then sanctified by good works? Is it as though God by His grace erased the slate of sins against us and allows us to start over again, this time doing things right. Does this work? John Wesley tried this approach, yet after many years of constant preaching, he could only point to a few who were perfectly sanctified. And he wasn’t one of them! One could question whether any of Wesley’s followers actually achieved total sanctification despite their strenuous efforts to do so. Many, many others gave up in despair trying.
Is there a better way than the way of sanctification which Wesley tried? I think there is, and it is found in the Book of Colossians. Please turn your Bibles to Colossians 2:20 and follow along.
Exposition of the Text
We don’t know whether Paul actually visited the city of Colossae in person or not. No such visit is actually mentioned in the Book of Acts, but Ephesus was nearby. Paul spent three years there, and taking trips to nearby cities is certainly possible.
There were a lot of similarities between Ephesus and Colossae as can be seen in the similarities between the letters. Some would also say that Ephesians was a circular letter sent to all of the churches in the region. We know that Ephesus had a large Jewish population including those who had emigrated from Alexandria, Egypt, such as Apollos. The Judaism of Alexandria was a mixture of both Jewish and Greek ideas. A man named Philo tried to translate the meaning of the historic Jewish faith into Greek meanings by the use of allegory. This resulted in what was a form of Gnosticism, or was at least one of its roots. Allegory in a sense made the history of the events in the Bible of secondary importance. Adam, Eve, Moses, and other figures were reduced to symbols. Whether these people actually existed or not was not important. Scripture was reduced to useful moralistic and carefully crafted “myths”.
The church at Colossae had been infected by these views. The same allegory which reduced the historicity of the Old Testament could be used to make the historicity of the historical Jesus. Paul in the introduction does admit that Christ is bigger than history, but firmly grounds Jesus Christ within the historical realm. The Son who existed before time and history was a real man who died for us and our sins. It is this cosmic Christ who created the universe and actually holds it together. This must be balanced against the historical Jesus. Both needed to be affirmed.
A group of teachers in the church at Colossae who were interested in this mystical theology had troubled the church. They seemed to be Jewish also, as they apparently held to legalistic teaching of conduct. The Greek philosophers saw life in the body as evil. Their idea of eternal life was to escape the body and be reunited with the spirit of the cosmos. They expressed their understanding of this by either indulging the flesh because what they did in the body was irrelevant. The other way was to punish the body through manmade rules. The latter through Jewish influences seemed to be dominant in Colossae.
So starting in Colossians 2:20, we see a human attempt of sanctification based upon the contempt of the body. They had rules such as “Do not taste”, “Do not touch”, and “Do not handle”. This may have involved food restrictions, but it seems that what is being said here was abstinence from sexual relations. Paul lets them know that these commands were entirely of human origin. They were men’s rules for sanctification, and they were based upon a non-biblical understanding of the world. If they had understood the Bible as a historical document, they would have seen that God said “It is good” after every act of creation and twice after the creation of humans. God also ordained and blessed marriage. So any standard of human origin which conflicts with those of God is plainly wrong, no matter how sophisticated they seemed.
Paul treated the standards they had made as pure rubbish. Rather than curbing the indulgence of they flesh, they in fact promoted them. We see an example in all of the fad diets which are designed to lose weight. In the end, most of those who try them gain weight. Why did they pay millions to Jared who lost several hundred pounds and maintained the loss on a Subway diet if it was something easy to do? Instead of the worship of their own willpower over the flesh with a rise in self-esteem, these people end up with less self-esteem in the end. The very promise that these rules offered actually left them worse off than before they started.
We should learn then that human attempts at sanctification are doomed to fail. This is what the bible says. The argument of those who rail against free grace because it allegedly promotes indulgence, and try to make standards of conduct to improve Christian conduct are actually promoting the very thin they hate the most.
In 3:1, Paul shows that there is a different way. The Bible way of sanctification is based upon the will of God and not of man. Paul tells that because we were raised from the dead in Christ’s resurrection that we shout set our gaze into heaven where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. The fact that Jesus is seated and not standing is proof that His priestly work has been finished and perfected by His death and resurrection. There were no seats for the priests on the Old Testament as their work was never finished. And if we base our sanctification upon manmade rules, this is a denial of what Christ has done in our behalf. The Greek shows this as being a once and for all event. The “if” which appears in too many translations is very misleading and should be translated “since”. Using “if” could introduce doubt as to whether Christ was raised at all, or whether we were raised with Him, both of which are heretical. A Christian, by definition has been raised in Christ’s resurrection. This is an accomplished fact.
To set one’s mind upon the finished work of Christ of which we are reminded when we remember that Christ is seated at the right hand of God is to take ones gaze off that of the world. Rules and standards remind us of boundaries of separation. To look in the other direction is to look towards Christ. There is no boundary which separates us now from Christ. We can boldly come to God and the throne of grace to find help in time of need, as Paul reminds us in Hebrews.
Cows like lush green grass rather than hay. We too like the better things of life. When a cow sees a fence, she sees something else. The fence separates the field she is in from outside. In one sense, she feels the security of being protected from predators by the fence. But there is something else she notices. On the other side of the barbed wire is grass that is tall and lush because it hasn’t been grazed. This is an irresistible lure for her. She gets to the barbed wire and figures how she can turn her head through the strands of the barbwire to graze on the grass. Most of her is still on the safe of the fence, but her head is on the other side.
A problem occurs when she tries to get her head out. She tries to pull it straight out and forgets how to turn her head. Now the very danger she sought to avoid is all too apparent. By having her head stuck in the fence, she is immobile and a sitting duck to predators. Unless the farmer sees and comes to her aid, she could well perish there. She is then dependent upon the grace and care of the farmer to be saved.
So is the saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The promised green of money, influence and power lure us toward the boundary where we are kept as God’s cows to the wild world beyond. We are all too smart in finding ways into sin, but then we are stuck and unable to extricate ourselves. Were it not for the grace of God who comes to our rescue, we would perish there.
However, we are safe as long as we stop looking at the fence and keep out minds upon Christ who is seated at God’s right hand. Paul goes on to remind us that the resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand means, and that we are raided in Him is based upon the fact that there must be a death before there is a resurrection. Paul reminds us for the second time of the fact that when we became a Christian, we died; we died in Christ’s death. This juxtaposition between life and death is seen so far as thus:
2:20a – Since we died
2:20c –Why do we try to find life in the old ways?
3:1 – You were raised with Christ.
3:2 – We must set our affections on the new reality.
Verse 3 tells reminds us again of our death in Christ, an event which has happened once and for all in the past. The result of this death is that your old way of life is dead and was hidden and remains hidden in Christ. The emphasis of this verse, then, is upon the current state of affairs as seen in the eyes of God. We are seen in Christ’s righteousness which is a result of Christ’s death and our death in Him. This means that our old way of thinking is dead in Christ. We are no longer to be held captive to manmade rules which promise freedom and only result in a more degrading slavery. We cannot live this way any more. Instead, our life is based upon a new reality.
So now we can add:
3:3 -- We have died and our life has been hidden in Christ as a result
3:4 -- We are already living the life of Christ now while we await His return
3:5-9 -- Therefore put the old way of thinking to death
3:10-11 -- Put on the new reality which is based upon a new image and not the old based upon old distinctions.
We learned in verse two that our new life orientation is based upon setting our gaze away from the things of the world unto Christ who is above at the right hand of God. In verse four we learn another object of our gaze. It is based upon the future return of Jesus Christ. So the Bible way of sanctification is based upon and upward and onward orientation. We see another aspect of this second orientation in the writings of John, who tells us in 1 John 3 that we are His children. This is the statement of fact. It also says that the return of Jesus Christ is also a future fact. According to John the Apostle, we don’t know all of the ramifications of this event, but one thing is known. At that point we shall be like Him because we shall see Him fully as He is. Then comes the call for the Christian to live out the future reality in the present. John says that the one who has focused his reality upon the return of Christ and the fullness of the revelation will purify their life in accordance to the life of the future. This agrees pretty much with what Paul is saying here. The only difference is that Paul who is addressing a heresy which is legalistic in nature and therefore emphasizes grace and John is addressing a heresy where conduct was a matter of indifference. So when we put the ideas together, we see that the important thing to understand is that conduct is to increasingly become more like Christ and motivated by the coming kingdom. This is only possible be the grace of God that works in us to sanctification. But there must be a human response to God’s grace.
Paul reminds us elsewhere that He who has begun a good work in us will continue to do it until the day of Jesus Christ. This means the very process of sanctification is that of God through the Holy Spirit working in us. This means we can never boast in our own accomplishments, but rather in God who woks in us. It is God who molds us into the image of His Son and makes the commands to live a new life possible.
Paul tells us in verse five to make the death they died in Christ a reality in their life. This is similar to Johns command to purity one’s self. The Greek uses a different aspect of the imperative that the imperatives to set one’s affections upward and not downward which emphasizes a continuous process but rather a once and for all event. This imperative to mortify or make dead the old way of thinking and living emphasizes the same finality as death. It is not dying, a process, but death itself.
Paul then gives the new standards to the Colossian church which is not based upon manmade rules, or even God’s rules divorced from the reality upon which these rules were based. For example, the Ten Commandments do not begin with “Thou shalt not” but rather “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. The standards and commandments of God are meant to free us from bondage and not to lead us into bondage. The same could certainly be said here. What Paul begins here and continues through the rest of Colossians is based upon our freedom from our past life which is now dead. Therefore the old ways of life which held us in bondage are to be put aside so that we might stay free. To go back to covetousness which Paul calls “idolatry” is to go back to the chains of Egypt. It is to get one’s head stuck in the fence. Only the fence prevents the rest of the body from going over the fence entirely. Only the goodness and grace of God who cares for the flock can release us from the snare.
The old hymn states it well: “Prone to wander. Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love”. How often does this apply to our own lives? We are so prone to wander, like sheep wander. We can be thankful that the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety and nine who are safe when we stray into danger. When we understand this parable of Jesus in Luke rightly, it isn’t about the winning of converts to Jesus. The sheep is already part of His flock. So the sheep who wander off are the Christians who take their eyes off the shepherd and think that there is better grass over there than the field they are in. In other words, we act as if we know better than God what is good. We are like eve that sees the forbidden fruit and are waiting to hear the lure of Satan to sample it.
The life of faith is based upon the trustworthiness of the shepherd. This is why Jesus calls Himself “The Good Shepherd” who lays his life down for the sheep. These things we must constantly remind ourselves. Jerry Bridges reminds us in a book that we need to constantly preach the gospel to ourselves and not just to the lost.
There is some boundary which exist between the things of God and the things of the world. There is a fence waiting to snare our double-minded ways. But there is no boundaries to drawing closer to God. The book of Revelation reminds us that there is a throne room in heaven. It is true it is guarded by four cherubim who protect the holiness of this room to prevent anything unclean from entering. However, in front of the throne is an incense altar. This incense which is a sweet smelling savor to God is the prayer of the saints. Our prayers have access to God’s throne. In this we rejoice that we are not shut out. Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to enter in the presence of a holy God in which there is not even a speck of darkness. Because we are in Christ, we can enter there now in prayer through the Holy Spirit. Someday we will cast down our golden crowns there before Him. Let us always keep this in mind.
This to me seems to be the Bible way of sanctification. The manmade rules of holiness may be well intentioned, but they do not achieve the proper result. Instead, they increase guilt and shame from which we were freed by Christ’s death and resurrection in which we have participated. The real answer is to preach grace based upon what God has done for us in Christ. Keep your gaze upon Jesus Christ who came and is coming. Do not be led aside by the false philosophies of men which only get you caught in the fencerow. It is time for us to savor our new freedom which is already ours.