Last Sunday evening, Peter & Anne Kroeker told us about their experiences in Mexico. I was interested in their description of the religious practice of some of the people they were working with. They described people who are very strict in certain elements of their religion. They had strict rules about the clothes they wore and also very specific rules about the avoidance of anything that was defined as “worldly” for them. Yet among those very same people, they described the problem which the young people were having with alcohol and also some of the problems of abuse that were happening.
We might be tempted to become critical of such people, but that is not my reason for reminding us of these stories. We are all susceptible to being strict about keeping outward rules of religion, but continuing to sin in other areas without giving it much thought.
The last verse in the passage which Don looked at last week helps us understand why this problem exists. It says, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” That is an amazing perception. Being religious looks good. All the external rules about what is good and what we impose on ourselves appears to be such a positive thing, but it does nothing to help us overcome the sin in our hearts. That is why legalism doesn’t work. Holy living cannot be achieved by the observance of outward rules.
Over the last several weeks, we have focused on the work of Christ. Two weeks ago, I spoke on the sufficiency of Christ. He is over all things and has done all that is necessary to give us forgiveness and life. Last week, Don reminded us not to lose our head. It is important to remember that salvation and all that is necessary for salvation is found in Christ. I have suggested that we need to understand this deeply. We need to know that the work of Christ in salvation is so full and complete that anything we do will not add anything to our salvation. Paul proclaimed just such a powerful salvation message that he raised a valid hypothetical question in Romans 6:1, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?” In other words, when we realize that we are totally saved by God’s grace, we need to understand that this is so true that it would be logical to suggest that the more we sin, the more God’s grace is shown.
So we should sin and let His grace be shown to be even greater. Can we live in sin so that God will have more to forgive? Of course, Paul’s own answer to his hypothetical question is a strong “may it never be!”
At this point, we find ourselves in a dilemma. If rules don’t keep us from sin but we are to walk in holiness, how can we do that? What kind of thinking and acting will help us walk in holiness without falling into the trap of legalism? Paul answers this question in Colossians 3:1-17 and I invite you to think about it together with me.
When we got our new kitten recently, we were concerned that he might scratch our furniture. The cat, of course, is just doing what comes naturally, but it doesn’t suit us. The solution recommended to us was to make a scratching post for the cat so he had a place to scratch and to put duct tape on those places where we didn’t want him to scratch. In other words, to force the cat to choose different behaviour. It would be so much easier if we could just sit him down and explain what he can and cannot do and if out of understanding he would do right.
The motivation for holy living, as we have seen, does not come from a set of rules or a preacher who enforces rules. It comes from the radical change which has taken place in us. It is such a radical change that living in sin just simply does not fit.
Need an illustration here.
Look at Colossians 3:1-4 where we are told about four far reaching changes which God has brought about in our life which motivate us to walk in holiness.
First of all we are reminded that we “have been raised with Christ.” In the second part of this verse we are reminded that Christ is seated at the right hand of God. If we have been raised with Christ, then that is where we belong, that is where we have a right to be. If we are people who through the resurrection and ascension of Christ belong to God and have a right to be in the holy presence of God, why would we ever want to live our life in the sin which is from below?
Secondly we are told that we have died. In our relationship to Jesus Christ through faith, we have participated in his death. He died for sin and because we have accepted his death for us through faith, we have died to sin.
On several occasions, I have visited people who were dying. Talking to them about what is going on in the world in the area of sports or business or entertainment seemed rather hollow. They just weren’t interested in these things any more because their focus was in their present reality and in what was soon to come. If we have died to sin, then the conversation of sin, quite naturally will be a rather uninteresting topic to us. We are no longer alive to sinful realities, but to heavenly realities.
Verse 3 goes on to say that “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Once again we are reminded about where we now belong and how far the sinful pleasures of the world are from our true being. Our true being is godly. We are called children of God, friends of God. If that is where we belong and that is where our true life is, why would we want to live it anywhere else?
In verse 4, we are furthermore reminded of the hope that is ours. One day, we “will appear with him in glory.” When World Cup soccer is being played, you soon learn the loyalties of people. Irish Canadians cheer for Ireland, Brazilian Canadians cheer for Brazil and so on. It is evident that their hearts are very much attached to their home country. Since our home country is heaven, it seems natural that we ought to cheer for heaven and to have a life that fits with our home.
So, since we have been raised up with Christ, have died with Christ, have a life that is hidden with Christ and are anticipating our appearance with him in glory, Paul says that our whole being should be naturally oriented to what we are.
Twice in these three verses, in parallel phrases, Paul encourages us to move our lives in line with what we are. In verse 1 he says, “set your hearts on things above” and then in verse 2 he says, “set your minds on things above.”
Although we belong to heaven, we are still on this earth and have very much of this earth in our lives. The way to live holy lives is to join in with who we are. It begins with a change of our heart and a change of our mind.
Paul uses the active word “set” which means that we participate in the changes that must happen in our lives. The changes happen, however, not by conforming to rules, but by placing our heart - our affections, the things we love; and our mind - how we think and reason in the place where it naturally belongs. This is not difficult in the sense that we are trying to set our affections where they don’t fit. They belong up there because of all that God has done and so we simply put them where they fit.
So the beginning step of holy living is to understand where we belong and begin within to set our heart and mind to the place where we belong.
Practically played out this means that when, for example, we are tempted to cheat, it should be very simple for us to think about what Christ has done and let our heart reach in affection towards what we are and so to give up what doesn’t fit and reach towards what does fit. Doing this is possible because it matches our inner being.
The second step is to practice holy living in all our actions.
When our “holy lifestyle” is lived by external rules such as illustrated earlier or described in Colossians 2 it is like caging the wild animals of our lust and hatred. The wild animals are still very much alive and snarling and still dangerous if ever let out of the cage. The door of the cage is only as strong as our ability to hold it closed. What Paul recommends in, 3:5, is not to cage the wild animals of lust and hatred, but to put them to death.
Let me try another illustration. The other day, I was mowing the dead corn stalks and potato and tomato vines in my garden. Several times, the engine stopped because there was just too much to cut through. You can stop an engine that way, but it is hard to do, not designed to be done that way and probably not good for the engine. The normal way to stop an engine is to cut off the supply - either of spark or gas. Trying to live a holy life by legalism is like trying to grab a flywheel with your hand and stop the engine by force. Instead, we need to participate with what God has already begun in us and cut off the supply by putting to death whatever leads us into sin.
In Colossians 3, Paul mentions two sets of sins.
1. Sexual Sins
In verse 5 he mentions sexual sins. The set of words is fairly comprehensive of all manner of sexual temptation - sex outside of marriage, adultery, sexual passions and desires, and the powerful desire for more. Sexual desire is a normal human desire, but these words describe all the ways in which this good thing can go wrong.
We live in a world in which sexual temptations surround us. Although sexual temptations have always been a powerful force, today there are two things that make them even worse. One is that we live in a world in which the attitude towards sexual temptation is pretty casual. For example, many people do not view sex before marriage as all that bad. This is contrary to what brings life. The world has fallen for Satan’s lie that sex outside of marriage is harmless. It is not. It is a part of what leads to destruction and death. Take, for example, the idea that living together before marriage is a good way to find out if you will be compatible. The reality is that the rate of divorce with those who have lived together before marriage is significantly higher than for those who make a commitment first. God’s design leads to life, but our world has rejected that design and embraces a way that leads to destruction. The other reason why it is difficult today is because sexual temptations surround us. The clothes that are worn, the front cover of magazines, the private access to pornography on TV, Internet and even the telephone increase our susceptibility.
Temptation in itself is not sin, but whenever we give a nod of interest or approval to these temptations, sin begins to enter in.
More than ever we need to put these things to death. What that means is that as we encounter a temptation, we immediately remember who we are and choose not to walk in that way.
Although sexual sins are often seen as horrible and destructive and we know that this is a fight that must be won, there is another sin which is pervasive, destructive, but often glossed over. The other group of sins mentioned in this passage is a group of sins around the concept of anger. In verses 8, 9 we read that we are to get rid of, “anger, rage, malice, slander,” filthy language and lying.
How frequently I have heard from Christian people the bitterness in their heart because of things that happened long ago. Words were spoken which were hurtful and the words are nursed and held on to. A wrong was done which has never been cleared up and the one wronged refuses to forgive and continues to hold it against the other person. We all have felt these feelings and the temptation itself is not sin, but when we give in to it and begin to feed our desire for revenge and become bitter, that is when sin appears and enters deep within our hearts. That is when the destruction of broken relationships begins. Sometimes, we justify these sins as a concern for justice, but they are not that. Even if they are, God has said that we are to leave that to him, which leaves us only one option if we are followers of God and that is to forgive. Anything else is sin.
Why Paul chooses only these two sins and not others I don’t know. Perhaps it is in these two general areas that we are the most susceptible. It concerns me deeply that we take these words about putting sexual sins and sins of anger to death very seriously.
Jesus once told the parable of the demon possessed man who was released from his demon. The demon went out and found no place to live and upon returning to the man found the room of his mind swept and clean, but otherwise empty. He went out and found other demons to join him and once again occupied the mind of the man.
It is not enough to put to death, or to put off the things of the sinful nature, it is also critical to fill our minds with those things that fit with who we truly are.
In verse 12, Paul reminds us again of who we are. What a glory to know our exalted position. We are people who have been chosen by God. We are people who are loved by God. We are people who are already holy. The other day there was a news article which talked about a person who was going to be made a saint. That is not a scriptural idea at all because the Bible tells us that if we are Christians, we are already saints.
Imagine that you have finished a day of hard work. You have been working hard and your shirt is wet and stained with salty sweat, pig manure has splashed on your pant legs, there is dirt under your fingers and black dust fills your socks and has made your toes black. You go inside, take off all the filthy clothes, have a long shower and when you are done, you are cool and clean. Would you at that point want to put on the dirty clothes again? Would you not be repulsed at such a thought? Christ has made us clean! Therefore, we are encouraged to put on the clean clothes of a life in Christ and live in that newness.
What is the clean new clothing that will identify us as Christians? It is not a particular pair of pants, a dress or a certain style of head covering. The clothing which identifies us as followers of Christ is the clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another and forgiveness.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on these things, even though they each deserve treatment. Let it be said of us - look at how they love, forgive, care for each other. This is the clothing that fits with who we are.
We have talked about holy living and I have tried to be very careful to make sure that we do not move holy living back into legalism. We live not by rules, but by the power of a transformed life. We live not by having a fence or a cage to define the boundaries, but by a renewal begun in our hearts by the work of God in Christ. What are the things that will help us live in this way?
Colossians 3:16 gives us clue number one when it says, “Let the Word of Christ live in you.”
Temptation, the urge to sin, the life of this world has its source in the lies of Satan. Satan says, if you have more you will be happy. Satan says, if you show this person that you are angry, you will help them realize that they are wrong. These are lies. All sin is built on the lies of Satan. The only way to counter the lies of Satan is to know the truth of God.
We gain victory in walking a holy life only as we know God’s truth.
It is not enough to simply know the truth, we must live in that truth. About once a year I borrow a tractor to till my garden. Each time, I have to remember how to start the tractor, which levers do which functions. I have been with some of you as you have driven your combines or other tractors. You see a situation and you don’t even think about which lever you have to push to adjust to the situation. Your fingers automatically do the right thing.
Who will have a greater success in recognizing the lies of Satan and applying God’s truth to the situation? Is it the person who reads their Bible every second Sunday, or the person who allows the word of Christ to live in them by reading and thinking about it daily?
So to live holy lives, we must let the Word of Christ live in us.
The verse goes on to say “as you teach and admonish one another.” In order to live holy lives, we need each other. The teaching and admonition of the church community is so important. It is so easy today to live very independent lives. When we do, we have forgotten a critical part of victorious living. I don’t recommend that we meddle in each others affairs because that kind of involvement will be resented, but I do strongly recommend that we invite each other to relationships of accountability. The internet is wonderful and very useful, but there is also a lot of garbage available in it. When we got internet at the church, we were aware of the danger. We had heard of pastors who were surfing in inappropriate places. Because of this, Amos and I made a commitment to each other to hold each other accountable for where we were surfing.
Wherever there is potential danger for you, I would encourage you to find someone who will hold you accountable. If you struggle with anger, find someone you trust and ask them to keep you accountable to love and forgive. If you struggle with lying, invite someone to ask you from time to time, “Have you been telling the truth.” If you struggle with covetousness, ask someone to challenge you in the area of your desires.
Remember Jesus’ words - “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” In order to compensate for our weak flesh, a good relationship with a trusted friend can help us a great deal. God has given us each other to help us gain victory in holy living. “God intends Christian behaviour to be reinforced and upheld by the friendship, company, teaching, counselling and loving criticism of other Christians.”
The last helpful principle is found in the last verse and it brings us back to the beginning. Since we have been raised with Christ, let us do whatever we do - whether that is in word or deed - in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Simply put, we need to learn to ask, “can I really do this, act this way, think this way, if I am representing the Lord Jesus?”
Almost unnoticed in the middle of this passage, in verse 10, is the line, “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” What a blessing! Now that is a promise. Yes, we need to set our heart on things above because of the change that has occurred in us. Yes, we need to put to death whatever leads to sin and put on what fits with who we are. But, God is also at work in our hearts and lives. We are being renewed by the one who created us and are being made into the image of the one who created us.
So the dilemma we began with is solved. We do not live in licence, doing as we please. We do not build large fences made of rules. I invite all of us, in fact, I would like to urge all of us to live in the newness that God is creating in us.