"Put to death therefore what is earthly in you..." Colossians 3:5
"Put to death what is earthly": Impossible?
"Put to death" in the Greek is "nekroo", to deaden or subdue. It is derived from "nekros", dead, from a word meaning a corpse. In English we describe the decay of living flesh as "necrosis".
The Hebrew equivalent is "balah", to fail, wear out or decay.
"Earthly" means soil, implying the surface, or world, on which we live.
Paul uses "put to death" to introduce a long list of specific sins that a Christian is to "put away", "put off", and "do not":
- sexual immorality
- evil desire
- covetousness (idolatry)
- obscene talk
Paul classifies these specific sins under the general category of "earthly", and he says that a Christian is to "put them to death": deaden them, subdue them, allow them to wear out and decay.
This seems impossible for me to do. It seems to ask me to ignore reality: my body's appetites and emotions still actively affect my thoughts, words and actions.
How can I put to death something that is very much alive?
First Things First: Our New Life in Christ
To begin to understand Paul's message, I'll first focus on the word "therefore", looking to see "why it is there for".
Paul has used the first two chapters of his letter to the Colossians to describe the wonderful new life in which God has placed those who belong to Jesus:
- given hope of heaven (1:5)
- placed in the kingdom of Jesus (1:13)
- redeemed and forgiven (1:14)
- reconciled with God (1:22)
- made holy, blameless and above reproach (1:22)
- buried, raised from death and made alive (2:12-13).
At the beginning of the third chapter, Paul groups all these aspects of our new life in Christ under the general term, "raised with Christ", and he urges his readers to keep their mind, will, and emotions centered only on this new life. He capsulizes our lives into three stages: our old, dead life, our new, living life in Christ, and our future, glorious life in heaven.
Upon this foundation, Paul then tells us to "put to death what is earthly", and he describes several specific sins.
Thus, "putting to death what is earthly" describes a mind that continually remembers the death of Christ (and our old life of sin), the resurrection of Christ (and our new life in Christ), and the future glory of Christ (and our hope of heaven).
"Putting to death what is earthly" is a constant, conscious conflict between the good of Christ and the bad of our old sin nature. Every attempt of our body to revive its sinful nature can be turned into a reminder to praise God for His work in Christ on our behalf.
Abraham and Sarah
Another way to start to understand the concept of viewing our old nature as being dead is to look at how Abraham responded to his encounter with God.
Abraham's given name was Abram, meaning "high father". When Abram was 75 years old, God gave him a specific promise that his family would grow to be a great nation. Abram and his wife had been married long enough to resign themselves to Sarai's barrenness, yet Abram trusted God to work a miracle despite their age and lack of fertility. Abram followed God's leading to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12)
Abram experienced a crisis in faith, unable to escape the reality of his age and lack of children. He honestly confronted God in prayer, and God responded with a clear repetition of his original promise: Abram would be the father of innumerable generations. And Abram believed God. (Genesis 15)
Sarai, Abram's wife, did not believe. Her old, weak, barren body was all she could see. Her doubt spread to Abram, and he agreed that perhaps God meant for him to have children through another woman. Sarai selected a surrogate mother who gave birth to Ishmael ("God will hear"), who would legally be Abram's son. (Genesis 16)
Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born. Thirteen years later God appeared to Abram and renamed him "Abraham", meaning "father of a multitude". God told Abraham that his promise of a great nation was not based upon Ishmael, but upon a child that would be born from Sarai ("She who rules"), renaming her "Sarah", ("She who is queen"). (Genesis 17)
Sarah's name change is significant. Both names are from the same root word, meaning "one who rules". But her new name implies that her authority, her position, is based upon her relationship to her husband, the king. Sarah's old life ("Sarai") was based upon her own earthly strength, demanding obedience even from her husband. She was controlled by her own desires, seeing herself as the one who must decide.
God confronts this old life directly. He determines that Sarah would assume a new position, based not upon her strength of character, but upon God's sovereign choice: she will bear a child, even in her old age and barrenness. God would work a miracle. (Genesis 18)
A year later, when Abraham was 100 years old, Sarah conceived and bore a son, Isaac, "laughing". Sarah's mocking laughter when first hearing God's promise of a son was now turned to laughter of joy in His miracle of grace.
Abraham and Sarah's experience is a good illustration of how we are to "put to death what is earthly" and "seek the things that are above". Both Abraham and Sarah experienced an up-and-down faith in God. They had doubt in His promise...they depended upon their own intelligence and ability...they saw their weakness as the ultimate reality.
But God led them to see that their earthly mindset was dead: it was incapable of providing the glorious reality of God's promise of life. God was giving Abraham and Sarah a 25-year-long lesson on WHY and HOW to "put to death what is earthly":
WHY: God is sovereign and we are not
HOW: Look past our weakness and see God's strength.
Paul uses Abraham's experience to support his message to the church in Rome:
"He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb." Romans 4:19
Abraham considered his body, and that of Sarah's, to be as good as dead, incapable of reproducing. He was convinced that God was able to work a miracle, despite their dead bodies.
Paul's message to the church in Rome contains an entire section devoted to the concept of death and life. Chapter six describes the following situations:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)
Paul uses the fact that we are identified with Christ's death to show that we are free from the domination of sin.
"Set free" means to be regarded as just or innocent. It's the same word used earlier by Paul, translated as "justified":
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)
Paul shows that the result of our death with Christ is a godly life in Christ:
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Roman 6:11)
"Consider" means to estimate, to think and say words that are based upon the truth that Christ's death has justified us as being without sin. And our behavior should reflect what we say.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Romans 6:12-13)
We are told to consider our earthly lives dead, incapable of any brightness, lacking any hope of producing righteousness, yet still there is to remain a trust in Christ, that His glory will be our glory. Continuing to restrain our earthly appetite for sin ("putting to death what is earthly") is our faithful expression of trust that our true life is hidden with Christ.
Paul is building upon the "good order and firmness of faith" seen in the Colossians:
"For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ." Colossians 2:5
It was important for the Colossian church, and us, to remember that a joyful life of order and faithfulness depends upon seeing ourselves as immersed and controlled by the life of Christ in us.
"Putting to death" means having the same attitude as Abraham: my body is failing, it's decaying, it's capable of no good thing. If this is your attitude towards your personal "dirty rags of goodness", you are left with only one Source for life: Jesus Christ. This is exactly the position in which Paul is urging us to assume.
Paul introduces a note of fear into his argument:
On account of these [earthly sins] the wrath of God is coming. (Colossians 3:6)
He echoes this thought later:
For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he had done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:25-4:1)
Some manuscripts add "upon the sons of disobedience" to the end of this verse. We know that Paul is not saying that Christians who sin will feel God's wrath:
"He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son..." Colossians 1:13
"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." John 3:36
"Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God." Romans 5:9
So, why does Paul imply that fear is a good motive for putting to death what is earthly?
I think the fear that Paul speaks of is the same fear I feel when I stand at the edge of a cliff, protected from falling only by a sign that says "Danger!" and a short board fence. I am completely safe, but only if I do not breach that narrow defense.
God's salvation is complete and eternal, yet when I consciously sin, I am standing at the very edge of the precipice of God's wrath, standing in the very position of those who do not belong to Christ. Nothing of my own strength or wisdom or righteousness is keeping me from destruction...only the mercy of God's salvation. That is a frightening position.
Perhaps Paul is referring to this motive when he says "do not lie to one another":
"In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator." Colossians 3:7-10
Sin in a Christian requires a lie: "I have not been forgiven, not been given a new life in Christ and Christ is not my Lord." In order to sin, a Christian has to temporarily reject all that has made him a Christian.
John Piper related R. C. Sproul's experience to the godly effect of fear:
R. C. Sproul's greatest spiritual battle was addiction to smoking. He was a heavy smoker before he was converted to Christ at age 18, and his new life in Christ did not remove the addiction. He quotes W. C. Fields as saying "Quitting smoking is easy...I've done it a thousand times." R. C. said that was literally true for him. He struggled with addiction to nicotine for many years, praying for release. It wasn't until eleven years ago, about 1999, that he quit for the last time. That was the year that a medical examination showed a dark spot on his lung. And then it was easy to quit. It was "quit or stop breathing". The spot was not malignant, but it was enough to get his attention.
"Our addictions are as strong as our fears are weak."
I do not "fall" into sin. My sin is that of presumption:
"Do you suppose, O man---you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself---that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Romans 2:3-4)
To "presume" means to think against, to regard with contempt, to slight (Middle English for level, smooth, flat). In the Greek, it is "kataphroneo", related to the same word used in Colossians 3:1 for "seek", but with a prefix, "kata", meaning against.
Imagine someone planning to travel from Hermiston to Portland during the winter. A careful, prudent person would carry traction devices, a blanket, water, and phone. He would expect delays, possibly even danger, and prepare for the worst.
A presumptive person would carelessly glance at a road map and say, "It's a straight shot on a major freeway, smooth sailing all the way!" He would hop in his car and take off, with no planning or preparation. He would the journey as slight and not worth thinking about.
How many times do I enter sin in the same presumptive way! I see the temptation as being without consequence, without cost. But the reality is that sin has a tremendous cost: the pain and shame and death of Jesus to purchase our justification...the kindness and forebearance and patience of God in not destroying my life before opening my heart to accept Jesus as Lord...the separation and estrangement from God's Holy Spirit as I willfully neglect His comfort and guidance. Sin is never without consequence.
So, when my fear of consequences is slight, my addiction to sin is terribly strong. I cannot carelessly walk near the edge of the precipice without realizing the tremendous power and patience of God as He maintains a fence between me and destruction, as He holds the crumbling cliff edge together, as He gives me the very breath and muscle to even walk.
God, keep me from presumptive sin.