Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: in the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.
Occasionally public outrage erupts about a big-game hunter who kills an endangered species. Obeying regulations, hunting or otherwise, is certainly important. But for many in the history of the world, predatorial animals have had little to do with licenses and expensive sport. Instead, they have presented a very dangerous dilemma. An encounter with a lion, for instance, left a person with only two choices: kill it, or it will kill you.
Did you realize that this is exactly the challenge we face in our spiritual lives? “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you” is a famous statement made by 17th-century Puritan and Oxford vice-chancellor John Owen. It jars our modern sensibilities. We usually want to think of our Christianity in much cheerier ways. But Owen knew sin is no small matter. Neutrality and passivity will not work. Sin is a predator. It cannot be coddled. It must be attacked.
One of the questions Paul answers in his letter to the Colossians is, “How can a believer overcome sin in his life?” He needed to address this issue because the aberrant message of the false teachers focused on keeping rules, denying legitimate bodily appetites, and gaining an inside track through angelic mediators. Their approach was external and legal. Paul, however, strongly emphasized the internal and spiritual, rooted in Christ’s work on the cross.
This question is crucial for at least two reasons. First of all, overcoming sin is crucial to the spiritual maturity of the church. Growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ requires the commitment to put away the sins of one’s thoughts, attitudes, actions and relationships. Sinful habits that linger stunt our personal growth. Most of Paul’s letters were written to address some form of sin that was disrupting the unity, harmony and maturity of the church. God’s power and presence in the church are conditional based on the church’s purity (1 Cor. 5:7–8; 1 John 1:5–7). A failure to overcome sin will eventually devastate the spiritual life of the church.
Second, overcoming sin is always relevant to our own Christian lives. All believers intensely struggle with the presence of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:14–25). Even the most mature believers keep coming back to the basics of how to overcome sin in their lives (Phil. 3:15). Preaching on sin is never out of date!
Overcoming sin is a lesson for all believers. Paul explains that the Colossian church was being taught to overcome sin in a wrong way. Therefore, in Colossians 3:5–9, he presents three foundational steps for overcoming sin. We studied the first step in the last chapter. Overcoming sin begins with understanding and admitting what sin truly is. In this chapter, we will consider the other two steps — accept what is true, and act on what is true. Or to use Pauline language — believe and mortify.
Accept What Is True
Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.
wrath — anger exhibited in punishment; righteous indignation (3:6)
walked — conducted one’s self; made use of one’s opportunities
put off — to put away; cast off; lay apart
put on — to clothe one’s self; to sink into clothing
renewed — invigorated; strengthened
knowledge — comprehensive knowledge; full discernment or acknowledgment
image — moral likeness of Jesus Christ, the Son
Overcoming sin begins with accepting what God the Father has done in our lives through Jesus Christ. God has wrought a dramatic change in the life of every believer! The old man (our pre-conversion state) has been completely “put off” (3:9) at the moment of salvation. A miraculous transformation has taken place, and we are new men and women in Christ. Paul provides motivation to trust God and, therefore, overcome sin by explaining three powerful truths.
Deliverance from Divine Wrath
Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.
First of all, we must accept that we have been delivered from God’s wrath. Prior to their conversion, these Colossian believers practiced the kinds of immoral sins that provoke God’s righteous wrath (3:7). However, through a sinner’s faith in Christ God changes everything! Believers have been delivered from the domain of darkness (1:13). Jesus Christ has suffered God’s wrath against sin by His death on the cross (1:21–22). Paul is now commanding believers to stop the very actions that were the cause of God’s wrath by having confidence that Jesus Christ suffered that wrath in our place.
Severance from Our Old Self
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
We must also believe that we have been severed from the power of the old life of sin. In this letter, Paul describes this experience of freedom in three symbols: circumcision, baptism and changing clothes. First, he declares that believers are spiritually circumcised (2:11). Circumcision was the ceremonial sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. It later symbolized a Jew’s dedication to God and separation from sin. In the New Testament, circumcision is spiritual in nature and speaks of the cutting off of the enslaving power of the old life and the dominion of sin. We are now able to overcome the lustful desires of our sin nature (flesh) because of the circumcision of Christ. Second, Paul announces that believers were buried with Christ in baptism (2:12). Baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. To be baptized is to be initiated or immersed into Christ. Therefore, through baptism, we are united or connected to Christ, and our old sinful life is buried with Him. It’s dead and gone! Third, Paul states that the old life is put off like the changing of one’s clothes (3:9). The old, worn-out, tattered sinful life has been set aside and exchanged for a whole new life in Christ symbolized in new clothes.
All three images illustrate God’s severing us from our old life of sin. Have you ever watched someone apply a chainsaw to the trunk of a tree? Once he is finished, there is no vital connection between the tree and the stump. The tree removal professional could plop the trunk back on its former base, but their former relationship has been forever destroyed, never to be restored. Praise God, that is what all who are in Christ have experienced through His death and resurrection!
Identity As a New Creation in Christ
And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
Finally, Paul provides motivation to overcome sin on the basis of our relationship to the church. We must believe that both we individually and the church corporately are God’s new creations. We must forsake sin because it disrupts the harmony and maturity of the church. Overcoming sin is not just for the sake of one’s own personal sanctification, but for the sake of the church, whom Christ purchased with His blood.
All believers have been recreated into a new image (3:10). Man’s original creation in the likeness of God was lost by Adam through sin but was regained through Christ. As we studied in an earlier chapter, Paul describes Christ as the creator of the physical world and the spiritual church (1:15–20). The church is called the new creation made in the likeness or image of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, this new life has no cultural or class distinctions (3:11). Regardless of race or socioeconomic status or former religion, Christ indwells and transforms all who believe!
Everyone who is in Christ has been delivered from God’s wrath, severed from the old life, and renovated into the new image of Christ. Therefore, we must accept who we are in Christ and live out that identity to overcome indwelling sin.
Act on What Is True
The foundation of the Christian life is accepting the truth about who Christ is and what He has accomplished. But is that our only obligation? Actually, Paul states two commands in this section that compel us to action flowing from our faith. In other words, this is an active faith. Paul exhorts us to put sin to death (Col. 3:5) and to put sin away (3:8).
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Mortification is actually where Paul’s instruction concerning overcoming sin begins. The first word of Colossians 3:5 is mortify, which means “put to death.” Paul also uses this image (though a different Greek verb) in Romans 8:13, saying, “but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (In fact, this is the passage that served as the basis of John Owen’s classic Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.)
The implication is obvious. It is great if the fans in the stands are chanting, “I believe that we will win!” But if their team does not control the ball and play defense, that belief becomes empty. We must wage an all-out war against our flesh. Passivity and tolerance on our part will result in spiritual defeat every time because God requires that we not only accept what is true but act on it too.
Impurity characterizes the old way of life (3:7) and should have no part of our new position in Christ. Immorality and pornography and lust and greed are completely antithetical to the Gospel. Therefore, every thought or act of immorality that was permitted in one’s old life must receive a death sentence and be executed. Jesus uses the same language when He commands radical surgery with regards to sin: “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off: … and if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” (Mark 9:43, 47).
But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.
In addition to the image of putting sin to death, Paul commands us to put sin away. He compares this act of faith to one who changes a set of old, worn-out clothes for a new wardrobe. The attire of the old life includes anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk and lying. The power to change is found in the new life in the Spirit. Praise, prayer and thanksgiving become the new responses to the situations and circumstances of life.
Again, Paul’s exhortation is rooted in existing realities. We the people of God have “put off the old man” (3:9) and “put on the new man” (3:10). In other words, this wardrobe transformation has already occurred. A righteous Savior took the place of unrighteous sinners. As the modern hymn states, “His robes for mine, O wonderful exchange.” Unlike in Mark Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper where two boys swap clothes and understandably spark confusion, salvation results in more than an external apparel trade. Our identity truly is transformed. It is as if Tom actually became and lived forever as Edward VI, king of England.
So why does Paul say in Colossians 3:8, “But now ye also put off all these?” If we have stripped off the old man already, why would we need to remove sin anymore? The answer is that even after the old man dies, sin continues to dog us. It is a defeated foe, but not an obliterated one. In fact, Paul himself confessed, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:19). Until we are glorified with Christ, our flesh continues to fight against God’s indwelling Spirit to draw us back into the sins that characterize the unsaved world (see Gal. 5:16–25). We must walk in the Spirit and continually shed the sins of our flesh.
Ever since Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and pitted themselves against God, humanity has wrestled with sin. It seems like an untamed beast. But the good news is that in Christ we can overcome sin, dealing it blow after blow by acknowledging its true nature, accepting God’s saving work, and actively living out our faith.
John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 24 vols. (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850–1855; reprint by Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, 1991), 6:9.
Chris Anderson, “His Robes for Mine” Church Works Media, http://churchworksmedia.com/his-robes-for-mine, 2008. Used with permission.
This post is from Seeking Things Above: A Study in Colossians by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2016 by Bob Jones University.
This post is part of the study designed to correspond with the 2021 Spring Chapel Series. Watch the chapel message below:
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