Introduction: Two dangerous distortions
Over the years, the church has been threatened by two dangerous distortions to the gospel.
The first distorts the gospel by teaching that, while our sins may be fully forgiven because Jesus died for us, and so in that sense it is by God’s grace, but how we grow as a Christian … in fact, whether we can stand firm to the end, we need something more. This is called “gospel +”. In Colossians 2 we saw a version of “gospel+”.
Another distortion of the gospel goes the other direction and say, “if we are saved purely by grace in Christ, then whatever we do now, it no longer matters!” This is “cheap grace”, and it is just as damaging as “gospel+”. Mahatma Gandhi once told a missionary, “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.” Cheap grace breeds hypocrisy in the church, and makes the gospel very unattractive to a watching world!
In Colossians 3, Paul wants the church to understand that the gospel is not “cheap grace”. But how can he demand godly living without suggesting “gospel+”? Let’s take a closer look.
Why change is to be expected (3:1-4)
Notice how Paul begins the chapter: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is.” (Col 3:1) Before saying anything about behaviour, Paul reminds the church why change is expected: because “[they] have been raised with Christ”!
In case we miss this, he immediately repeats in verse 2: “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” (3:2). Why? “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (3:3)
Gospel-driven transformed behaviour begins with a clear mindset: “Remember who you are in Christ!” It is because of who they now are in Christ that they are expected to behave differently. “Are you not a Christian? Then act like one! Be who you already are in Christ!”
Why does Paul begin with this emphasis? Because we are all so prone to a gospel+ mindset. It is easy even for Christians to revert to the thinking that our status before God, what others think of me, is based on my performance and my behaviour. And we end up worrying and working hard to impress God and others.
But that’s not authentic Christianity. The good news of Jesus Christ declares that if anyone is in Christ, he or she has died with Christ and has been raised with Christ. And it is because the old has gone, and the new has come, that we are called to act differently.
What must no longer be tolerated (3:5-11)
Having clarified why change is expected, Paul homes in on a few specific areas where the gospel demands obvious transformation, beginning with the issue of sexual purity: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry.” (3:5)
Sex is a good gift from God. “... a man leaves his father and mother is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. [They] were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:24-25) There is no shame because it is God’s idea that a man and a woman should get married, enjoy sex and bear children through their sexual union.
But sex becomes a sin when it is taken outside of its God-given context, i.e. the marriage bed. And in a world when more sex is happening outside of marriage than within, we know that sexual sin has become pandemic –a global epidemic!
When does sexual activity become a sin? Many adopt a “crossing the line” mentality when dealing with sexual purity: we’re ok as long as we don’t cross the line! For instance, when dating, we have rules like holding hands ok, but hands off other places; or a kiss on the cheeks is ok, but not on the lips. Some try to minimise the seriousness of internet pornography: “It’s just window shopping! On-line window shopping! No lines crossed!”
But friends, do you think drawing lines like this can really help us maintain sexual purity? The Lord Jesus once said, “… anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) As far as he is concerned, the moment you start entertaining sinful thoughts in your heart, you have already crossed the line!
When Paul tackles sexual purity, do you notice that he mentions not just sexual activities, but also lust, evil desires – what’s going on in the head and the heart! And he ends his list with “greed [or covetousness], which is idolatry.” They correspond to commandments number 10 & 1 in the Ten Commandments. What’s covetousness? Craving for something that doesn’t belong to us. Idolatry? That’s putting something else in first place in our hearts instead of our Creator God. Like the Lord Jesus, Paul wants the church see sexual sin first and foremost as sinning in the head and heart, first and foremost as sinning against the Lord. They are offensive to God, and deserving of God’s wrath (3:6). This is why the church must never tolerate any hint of sexual immortality.
Verse 7 makes clear that Paul is not condemning believers for their past sexual sins. For the gospel declares that no matter how deeply you were caught in sexual impurity, you have died and have been raised with Christ. The old has gone, the new has come!
Rather, Paul is talking about how Christians are to live now: we cannot claim to have Christ in us and yet still say OK to sexual immortality. The two cannot co-exist!
But sexual purity is not the only area that change is expected. In verse 8, Paul adds also “anger, rage, malice, slander, … filthy language”. And verse 9, “Do not lie to each another …”. “Your tendencies to violence and sinful speech”, Paul says, “they are part and parcel of the old self with its practices that you have already put off”. Paul compares them to old worn-out clothes that had to be “taken off” to make way for new ones that reflect the renewal process that has already begun for all Christians – whatever their background (3:11)!
Can you imagine anyone coming to church in a shirt that says: “God sucks”? Paul wants us to realise it’s just as unimaginable to see a believer continuing in violence and sinful speech – they must no longer be tolerated!!
What must now take shape (3:12-17)
In verses 12 and following, Paul describes what the Christian’s new clothes ought to look like. Let me highlight three observations:
Firstly, verse 12, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Compare these to what we saw earlier about sexual sins, violence, destructive speech. Those are all about serving me, getting what I want at the expense of others. Because to the old self, my need is number #1! But “compassion, kindness, humility, … ” and so on – these are not about me, but readiness to serve others, or desiring what’s good for others! They reflect a massive change that has taken place in head and heart as a result of absolute security in Christ.
I’m reminded of a young lady boss I heard about. She’s smart, young but very able, very hardworking, very promising, and very highly regarded by her senior management. But this young lady has a problem: she is very insecure. When she sits in a meeting, she has to be proven right all the time, all the time having the last word. When her staff do well, she becomes jealous and sees them as threats. She had all the makings of a high achiever, but sadly, her insecurity has alienated her from her entire department, and often lead her to very poor judgment.
But friends, the gospel of Jesus sets us free from such insecurity, because we know we are already “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (3:12). And because we are fully secured before God, we are free to serve others instead. The results will be very obvious, and very attractive!
Secondly, while the gospel demands and will bring about change, Paul remains very realistic with what he expects from the church: we are still very much works in progress! For look at what’s also included in Paul’s list in verse 13: the church will need to learn to “bear with one another”, because there will be many times when your patience will be tested. It seems that Paul assumes that there will also be times when others will sin against us, times when we will have genuine grounds to lodge a complaint against another. During such times, we will be forced to really dig deep, to remind ourselves of the gospel: “as the Lord has forgiven [us], so [we] also must forgive” (3:13). Our modus operandi is not to “get even”, but “forgive”. Indeed, it will require a deep commitment to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14)!
Paul is a wise pastor who knows people. He knows very well that change will take time, and changes will involve sacrifices. In the words of Kungfu Panda: “there is no secret ingredient”! Friends, we too must guard against unreal expectations of overnight transformation!
Thirdly, in 3:15-17, Paul brings the church back to the only thing that can keep them rightly motivated on the right path: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (3:15). We have to be very careful with this verse, because it is often misquoted. When Paul mentions “the peace of Christ”, he is not talking about feeling calm, or inner peace, or anything like that. Rather, he is referring to the peace with God that Jesus has accomplished for all things in heaven and on earth by paying the ultimate price of dying on the cross – what he explained back in 1:20. Letting “the peace of Christ rule in our hearts” means submitting and devoting ourselves to maintain and promote the peace and well-being of the body of Christ – that’s what this verse is about!
This is complemented by what Paul says next in verse 16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly …”. Here, Paul draws attention not just to God’s Word, but to the fullness of God’s Word that is revealed in Christ, what we saw back in chapter 1. As we fill and continuously nurture one another with the fullness of God’s Word in Christ, when we teach and admonish one another, when we sing, indeed, in whatever word and deed, it produces a very obvious fruit: thankfulness (repeated three times in verses 15-17)! A loving community, firmly rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and overflowing with thankfulness in worship – friends, this is a picture of an authentic, thriving spiritual community in Christ.
Conclusion: Getting the right picture
Around where we live, a new mosque was built not long ago. I can still remember the very first Friday it was open, the mosque was already full. Same goes with a nearby Catholic church: packed every weekend. When I drive pass these places, I sometimes wonder, “why aren’t all Presbyterian churches like that?”
But when I’m thinking like this, my mind is set on earthly thing, not on things above, isn’t it?
For a packed building looks impressive, but it’s not necessarily a picture of true spirituality, especially if they are packed with people who are spiritually without hope. For those who pray 5 times a day, attend mass and confess their sins every week, in the hope that their religious performance is bringing them closer to God, they are actually moving further and further away from the One and only God who alone can bring them peace with God!
For a true picture of authentic spirituality, let us look instead to Colossians 3. A people who is deeply secured in Christ and yet totally realistic about present struggles. A people who is deeply motivated for transformed living. A people who desires deeply the good of others, and deeply committed to promote Christ in everything they do. Now, this is a vision worth striving for.
May God impress this vision deeply upon each and every one of our hearts. And help all of us here in St Andrew’s to grow to be more and more authentic in our daily walk in Christ.