Date: March 24, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 3:12–3:17
How many of you here this morning have or have had a garden? My dad and my grandfather keep a garden out at my dad’s place, and this past week, they began to turn the garden over, as dad says. What that means is they till up the hard soil, remove any rocks, and pull out any weeds that have grown up since last season. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s necessary for the garden to grow.
But imagine if, after doing all that hard work, my dad decided not to plant any seeds. What if his idea of gardening stopped with removing rocks and pulling weeds? That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? The entire reason you pull out all the bad stuff is so the good fruit will grow. In fact, until you plant the seeds and harvest the crops, you haven’t actually done any gardening. That’s why you put away the bad – so the good will put down roots and grow.
That two-fold work of gardening pictures something important about the apostle Paul’s teaching in our passage today. You may remember last week that Paul exhorted the Colossians to put sin to death. He urged them to put away whatever belonged to their former way of life – sexual immorality, impurity, anger, malice, slander. Put it all away, Paul said, which if you think about it, is a bit like removing rocks and pulling weeds from the garden. It’s necessary, but it’s not the end goal. The end goal, like with the garden, is actually growth. And that’s what we see in our text this morning. Here in vv12-17, Paul continues his focus on sanctification, but the emphasis now is not what needs to be put away, but what needs to be put on. The focus is on the positive aspect of growing in godliness.
My hope is that this morning’s sermon will give us the much-needed balance to last week’s message. By all means, let’s seek to kill sin, but let’s do so, as Paul will say today, in order that we might grow in godliness.
And it is that emphasis on godliness that will receive our attention today. Last week, we focused on five marks of sanctification – how we must put sin away. This morning, we’ll focus on three marks of godliness – how we should grow together in conformity to Christ. Three marks – let me give them to you at the start: Godliness grows in community – that’s vv12-14. Godliness prioritizes gospel peace – that’s v15. And godliness flows from the church’s life together – vv16-17. So, with an eye on positive growth, let’s consider these truths together, beginning with Godliness Grows in Community.
Godliness Grows in Community
Immediately, we see Paul’s emphasis on the positive side of sanctification. Notice the opening command of v12 – “Put on,” Paul says, and he then goes on to list not a series of vices, like last week, but a series of virtues. “Put on” is the command. The image is one of clothing. Paul pictures godliness as the wardrobe of the Christian. God’s people must clothe themselves in the garments of Christ-like character. This is fitting for the people of God.
And indeed, Paul’s command is rooted in the sovereign grace of God that has called his people to himself. Notice how Paul describes the Colossians, again v12 – “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” That is a powerful statement of God’s electing grace. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are the chosen people of God, Paul says. They belong to God – not by their own effort but by God’s grace. God has made believers his holy people – he chose them so that their lives would display his character. And God has set his love on believers – they are his beloved children.
Notice what Paul is doing from the outset. He is reminding the Colossians, again, of their union with Christ. They belong to God through Christ, and that is the reason they must pursue godliness. That’s what the pursuit of godliness is about. It’s about our daily lives matching up more and more with our identity in Christ. Believers are God’s chosen people, and therefore, we must put on the garments of godly character.
Paul then comes to the virtues God’s people must put on. Notice again the list Paul expounds, v12 – “Put on, then, as God’s chosen people, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Now, Paul often includes these virtue lists in his letters. We think of Galatians 5 or Philippians 4 or 1 Timothy 6. But what’s striking about the list here in v12 is the clear focus on other people. The virtues of v12 are community-oriented:
Compassionate hearts describes a concern for others, especially those experiencing hardship. Kindness is a disposition of being ready to help others and do them good. Humility is not insisting on my own way, not demanding that I receive the attention. Meekness is, quite simply, not being impressed with yourself, not taking yourself too seriously. And patience is a willingness to endure with others, to be that kind of steadfast friend that we all would want. Every virtue in this list is concerned not solely with me, but with my treatment of others.
I take this to be a much-needed correction for our sometimes individualistic Christianity. There is a sneaky kind of “me-centeredness” that can creep into the Christian life, and it can lead us to define even godliness in almost exclusively personal terms – how am I doing? what’s happening in my heart? how am I growing? And by all means, God’s Word calls believers to cultivate godliness at the heart level. But here in Colossians 3, Paul reminds us that such inward godliness must ultimately orient us outward, toward others. It’s a good rule of thumb – godliness should make me less self-oriented and increasingly others-oriented. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that if we’re not treating others in an increasingly Christ-like way, then we really do have to question whether or not we’re growing in godliness. This is why the local church is essential to the Christian life – you can’t do godliness on your own, just like you can’t do Christianity on your own! You need other people, whose lives then become the arena, so to speak, where godliness is displayed. Show me someone who is growing in meekness or patience toward others, and I’ll show you someone who is putting on the garments of godliness.
Even so, this does raise some questions, doesn’t it? How exactly should we go about this work, and where do we find the strength to do so? In v13, Paul answers the first question with some clear instruction. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is foundational. Notice what Paul writes, v13 – “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” How do we go about putting on these godly virtues? By forbearing with and forgiving one another.
Forbearance is a godly putting-up with someone. It means I am slow to be offended and quick to believe the best. A brother or sister might say something that sounds off, or they may mention something that could be insensitive. But instead of taking offense, I believe the best. I ask for clarification before I make conclusions. That’s forbearance.
In fact, think of the last conflict you had with someone. Now, imagine the difference forbearance would have made. What if one of you had been slow to take offense and quick to believe the best? It would have been different, would it not? That’s the value of forbearance in the church. It defuses what could be difficult and leads to peace with one another.
Ask yourselves, brothers and sisters, “Am I slow to take offense and quick to believe the best? Am I a forbearing person?”
Forgiveness, then, is the other foundational act of godliness. When I have been wronged and someone seeks forgiveness, I should be quick to grant to it. Now, just to be clear at this point, forgiveness is a two-way transaction. I can only grant forgiveness to someone who asks for it. If a person does not seek forgiveness, I can do a lot of things – I can relinquish bitterness, I can refuse to take vengeance, I can even be willing to forgive, like Jesus was on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” I can do a lot of things before someone seeks forgiveness, but until that person asks for it, I cannot grant forgiveness. It is a two-way transaction.
But when that person does seek forgiveness, godliness calls me to quickly grant it. That doesn’t mean I act like nothing happened, and that doesn’t eliminate all consequences down the road. But it does mean I am not holding things against my brother or sister. I do not count them as in my debt and, therefore, as having to earn back a good standing. No, I forgive them, and in doing so, I help move the relationship from fractured to reconciled.
I put the question before you, brothers and sisters – “When forgiveness is sought, are you quick to grant it?”
Again, Paul’s teaching in v13 is not exhaustive; there are other actions that help us grow in godliness. But the ones listed here are essential, even foundational. We grow in others-oriented godliness by being forbearing and forgiving. And therefore, each of us should ask, “Is this true of me?”
That still leaves the second question – where do we find the strength to live like this? Neither forbearance nor forgiveness is easy, so where does the strength come from? Notice the end of v13 through v14 – “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Put simply, the strength for this kind of godliness comes from the gospel of Christ. As I reflect on Christ’s forgiveness toward me, I am strengthened to extend forgiveness to others. As I understand Christ’s love toward me – that he would lay aside his preferences in order to serve me, a sinner – then I am strengthened to forbear and love others in a similar way. It’s not an overstatement to say that the gospel alone provides what we need to grow in this kind of godliness.
These opening verses show us the counter-intuitive way God’s people grow in godliness. We grow not by looking inward to our own resources and feelings. We grow by looking outward to what Christ has already accomplished at the cross. Godly Christians are gospel-saturated Christians. Godly churches are gospel-rich churches.
In terms of application, brothers and sisters, let’s be people who deeply embrace the gospel. Let’s remind ourselves and each other often of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf – how he loved us before we loved him, how he purchased our forgiveness even at great cost to himself. Let’s remind ourselves of that gospel, and then with that gospel firmly in view, let’s labor to love one another in the same way. Godliness grows in community, and it does so as that community is marked by the gospel.
Godliness Prioritizes Gospel Peace
This emphasis on the gospel actually leads into our second truth – Godliness prioritizes gospel peace. Notice Paul’s second command, this time in v15 – “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.” Now, you can hear Paul’s continued focus on how Christians should conduct their daily lives. The word rule in v15 means to be in control, to make decisions, to apply judgments. Paul is still concerned with practical godliness, with what marks the Christian’s daily life. But the key question of the verse concerns that phrase the peace of Christ. What, exactly, is the peace of Christ? Again, it’s clear that this peace should rule the Christian’s conduct, but what exactly is this peace?
First of all, we should be clear that the peace of Christ does not refer to an inner sense of calmness or tranquility. The peace here is not necessarily a state of mind. It’s actually much more significant than that, and the reason we can say that is because of how Paul speaks of peace in Ephesians 2. This is where is it helps to have Scripture interpret Scripture. We can look to Ephesians 2 to help us understand Colossians 3.
Now, Ephesians 2 is most well known for Paul’s glorious explanation of salvation by grace through faith. We think of Ephesians 2.8 in particular – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” But if you continue reading in Ephesians 2, you’ll find Paul discussing peace, specifically peace between fellow Christians. And Paul’s point is incredibly important. Through Christ, God breaks down the barriers of hostility that exist between people, and God brings those people together in Christ, so that there is now one new body in place of the two. In other words, peace for the apostle Paul is a shorthand way of summarizing what has happened through the gospel. Most importantly, Christ brings peace between believers and God, but significantly, that peace extends horizontally as well, in human relationships. For Paul, this applied primarily to Jews and Gentiles, but more broadly, it speaks to the unity that is central to the gospel’s work in the church. In Christ, God brings estranged people together, so that there is peace where there was hostility.
Look back now at v15 in Colossians 3. When Paul says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” his point is that we must allow the gospel, with all of its fruits, to shape how we interact with one another. This is a call to live out in the church what Christ brought together in himself. The church, then, should be the living illustration of this gospel peace. This is why Jesus himself emphasized unity as strongly as he did, especially in the Gospel of John. It’s because the peace of Christ – the unity of his people in him – is a primary mark of the gospel’s presence.
And if you notice the next phrase in v15, you’ll find confirmation of our interpretation. Notice again where Paul goes – “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” To what have we been called? To one body, that is, a unified body.
And so, brothers and sisters, Paul is urging us to live out in the church what Christ brought together in himself. When we make decisions, when we deal with conflict, when we approach one another, our overriding concern should be to display with our lives what we confess with our mouths. If Christ has reconciled us to God and to one another, then by all means, we must strive for peace in the day-to-day as well. Our governing principle should be to maintain and display the unity Christ has established through his blood.
Here are some diagnostic questions we can ask ourselves, that we should ask ourselves regularly. Am I quick to put other people’s preferences ahead of my own? Am I willing to be inconvenienced for the good of a fellow believer? Do I look for ways to outdo others in showing honor, to consciously elevate their concerns ahead of mine? Am I willing to not get my way in order that someone else might be blessed and encouraged? Those might sound like small things, perhaps even things that are easy to overlook. But I hope you’re hearing from v15 that such actions are anything but small. This is how the peace of Christ rules among us – as we consciously act for the sake of the body, as we deliberately take steps to display the glorious truth that Christ has brought his people together in him. Godliness prioritizes gospel peace, so may God help us to be ruled by the peace of Christ.
Godliness Flows From the Church’s Life Together
The third and final aspect of godliness comes in v16 – Godliness flows from the church’s life together. Again, Paul issues a command. Notice what he writes, beginning of v16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Now, the first point we should note here is that the word of Christ refers to the gospel message – the message that was proclaimed by the apostles and has now come down to us in the NT. If you think back to chapter 1, Paul reminded the Colossians that the Word was bearing fruit among them, just as it was bearing fruit throughout the world. What was that Word? Ch1, v5 – it was the word of truth, the gospel. When Paul speaks of the word of Christ here in v16, he’s thinking primarily of the gospel message – the good news that Jesus Christ laid aside his heavenly glory in order to take on our humanity; that Jesus lived a perfect life in obedience to the word of God, never once dishonoring his Father, in either thought, word, or deed; that having a lived a life of perfection, Jesus laid down his life at the cross as the atonement for sin; and that having been buried for three days, Jesus rose again to new life and ascended to the Father’s right hand. That good news, that gospel message, is the Word of Christ that Paul says must dwell in us richly.
Brothers and sisters, I hope you see why we have been coming back to the gospel again and again throughout the message. Without a deepening dependence on the gospel, we will not have the kind of forbearing, forgiving, and unified life we’re called to as a church. I know it’s a bit of a cliché nowadays to talk about being gospel-centered, but we’re not talking clichés here. We’re looking at the text of God’s Word, and here we have the Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, telling us, quite clearly, “We cannot move on from the gospel.” It must richly dwell among us.
Of course, that raises the question – how, exactly, does this happen? How does the word of Christ dwell among us richly? Note the kindness of God in the remainder of v16. He gives us further instruction on how this happens. Listen again – “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” That is a compelling picture of the church gathered together in worship. I know there are a number of pieces to v16, so let me read it again in a way that I hope amplifies the point Paul is making. V16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you by teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as you sing to God with thankful hearts.” I hope that draws out Paul’s point. Our corporate act of singing God’s Word is a means through which the gospel comes to dwell in and among us. It’s more than music. It’s discipleship happening in and among us as we worship together.
But there’s more. As we worship together in one body, we’re actually teaching each other the truths of the faith, and we’re admonishing one another to live in step with the gospel. Think about that. As we worship the Lord together, we’re actually discipling each other in the gathering of the church. Now, of course, there are other ways of discipleship as well. Paul is not saying this is the only way. But let’s not miss the point he is making – the corporate gathering of the church is a divinely-appointed means of gospel ministry – it is an act of discipleship. This is one of the primary ways that the word of Christ comes to dwell in us – as we gather together in the worship of God.
But there’s still more. Our worship then spills out into everyday life. Notice v17 – “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” We’ll have more to say about this next week, as Paul will repeat this point again. But what I want us to see today is that the worship of the gathered church should then spill out as believers scatter throughout the week. Do you see the connection between v16 and v17? We gather for worship, v16, and then we scatter out to do whatever the Lord has given us, v17. And we do so in Jesus’ name, giving thanks to the Father. That is the Christian life, in summary form. Jesus reigns over everything, so we gather to worship him, and then we scatter to do whatever he has appointed for us. All of life, then, becomes oriented around the lordship of Christ. It is truly a beautiful picture of the body ministering to one another and to the world.
But as we move toward the conclusion this morning, there is one more question I want to answer, and I hope it will be a specific encouragement to our church today. The question is this – Why does Paul single out singing? We see the emphasis on worship in v16, and we understand the outward focus in v17. But why single out singing? Why such an emphasis on psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs?
To give you an answer, I’d like you to think about Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. You might be thinking, “That seems strange,” but go with me for a moment. Exodus 14, God divided the Red Sea so that Israel walked through on dry ground, but when the Egyptians tried to follow, God brought the sea crashing down on their heads. Exodus 14.30 – “Thus, the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians.” And v31 – “Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the LORD.”
But do you remember what the people did next? Immediately following their deliverance, while the Sea was still foaming behind them, the people of Israel sang. Exodus 15, v1 – “Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD.” The song captured the reality of God’s redemption, and the song then allowed the people to remember. The song became a corporate memory, a community-defining declaration. There is something uniquely formative about singing together as the people of God. It takes the truth of who God is, and it plants that truth in the soil of our hearts so that we remember. And in remembering, we grow in faithfulness.
And the effect is often powerful even if unseen. I’ve told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again today. There was one Sunday in the early years of the church when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to deliver the sermon that morning. I was worn out, discouraged, run down, and weary of soul. I had very little left to give, and I had no idea how I would get up and preach.
But then during the fourth song, I heard the voice of a dear sister sitting directly behind me, and she was singing. I knew she was undergoing her own trials at that time, much more serious than mine, and here she was singing in faith. And in that moment, she admonished me, even if she didn’t know it. She reminded me of what was true, and the Lord used her voice raised in song to cause the word of Christ to dwell richly in my heart. And so, I preached. Her ministry to me was God’s means of enabling my ministry to her. And it happened with a song.
Brothers and sisters, that’s our ministry to one another. That’s what God has called us together to do – to glorify his name by reminding one another of who he is and what he has done in Christ. The application, I hope, is clear and compelling for you today. Gather with the people of God to worship. Make it a priority to be part of this ministry to one another. Gather for worship. And then sing. Sing with all your heart. Godliness flows from the church’s life together, and therefore, let’s gladly take up our ministry to one another.
You know, I am so encouraged that the Bible’s vision for the church does not include the expectation that we be perfect. A church does not have to be perfect to honor the Lord Jesus. In fact, it’s precisely in our imperfections that the power of the gospel shines most brightly. A Christ-centered church is not perfect; it is forbearing. It is forgiving. It runs hard after unity together. And it ministers to one another out of love for Christ.
Brothers and sisters, I am so thankful that Colossians 3 doesn’t simply say, “Stop wronging each other.” Instead, Paul gives us the only prescription that can deal with the life in this fallen world. Paul gives us the gospel, and through that gospel, we find the grace we need to grow in godliness. May that be true of us for the glory of Christ. Amen.