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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:If you’re united to Christ, put to death and put away the earthly things
Text:Colossians 3:5-11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 66

Psalm 19:3,4 (after the law)

Hymn 37

Hymn 50

Psalm 133

Scripture reading:  Romans 8:1-17

Text:  Colossians 3:5-11 (but begin reading at 3:1)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus,

Who are you, really?  When you’re first getting to know someone, that’s an important question.  You want to get down to the essence of who that other person really is, what makes them who they are, what makes them tick.  For Christians, the answer must always include Christ.  If Christ has truly taken hold of our lives, if his Spirit lives in us, then our identity is in him.  As believers, who we are is bound up with who he is.  Like a branch grafted onto a vine, we’re grafted into Christ and united to him, one with him. 

The idea of union with Christ is central to Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  In the first chapter, he laid out how Christ is the all-sufficient Saviour.  If you are united to an all-sufficient Saviour, you have everything in him.  There’s no need to go to anyone else.  In chapter 2, that got worked out in relation to the pressing issue of the false teachers who were threatening the church at Colossae.  United to Christ, you should see the false teaching for what it is and reject it.  You should also see the truth and follow it.  Do you see how union with Christ works in both a negative and positive way in chapter 2?  Doctrinally, there are false things to throw out and true things to take on.    

The same thing happens in chapter 3.  Now it’s not false teaching that’s being addressed, but inconsistent living.  Not living consistent with your faith in Christ is being addressed here by means of union with Christ.  If you’re really united to Christ, there are things to be embraced and there are things to be rejected.  That idea was introduced already back in verses 1 to 4 of chapter 3.  There Paul urged the Colossians to focus themselves on the spiritual values and priorities of Christ in heaven.  They, and we with them, are urged to look away from the values and priorities of a sinful world.  Instead, if you’ve been raised with Christ, then let your life reflect that.  Let your life reflect your union with Christ. 

Now we get further into chapter 3 and that gets worked out in some concrete ways.  In verses 5 to 11, we’re looking at the negative side of things, things that are wrong, things that don’t fit with union with Christ.  The positive side of things is treated in verses 12 to 17.  But, for this morning, it’s worth our while to pay careful attention to things the Holy Spirit warns us don’t fit with being in Christ.

Before we begin with verse 5, I need to make something clear.  These verses say a lot about behaviours, desires, and attitudes.  In other words, this is about our sanctification.  Sanctification is the process of becoming who we are in Christ.  This is a response or consequence of the gospel and believing the gospel.  I don’t want anyone to hear this sermon and think that this is about learning better how to measure up for God, or how to do your part for salvation.  That’s not what this is about – not at all.  This text is addressed to people who believe.  The law says you’re a sinner through and through and there’s nothing you can do to save yourself.  You believe that.  The gospel says that Christ came to do what you cannot do for yourself.  You believe that too.  You believe he lived a perfect life of obedience in your place and he offered up the sacrifice to pay for your sins.  What’s in these verses isn’t a substitute for that.  It’s not like you can think, well some people have faith and I have my really moral life and that’s just as good.  No – this passage is addressed to people who say they have faith in Jesus Christ, people who claim to have believed the gospel.  It lays out what follows from that, the fruit of that.  We need to be clear on that, because we have a natural drift towards thinking our works are going to earn God’s favour.  We’re all naturally inclined to replace Christ with our obedience and trust in that, trust in what we do.  Listen, if we do that, we simply won’t be saved.  So let’s be clear:  you must believe in Christ alone as your Saviour.  As you look to him in faith, you’re united to him.  The Holy Spirit is in him and in you – thus you are vitally connected to Jesus.  Now, what does that look like? 

So I preach to you God’s Word from this text:

If you’re united to Christ, put to death and put away the earthly things

We’ll see how the Holy Spirit specifically mentions:

  1. Sins of a sexual nature
  2. Sins of a relational nature

Verse 5 begins with a general command:  since you have your life in Christ, put to death whatever is earthly or worldly in you.  Look closely at verse 5 and you’ll see a footnote in the ESV.  If we go to the bottom of the page, we find a more literal translation:  “Put to death therefore your members that are on earth.”  The word for “members” there often refers to body parts.  Paul is writing here about things relating to what our bodies do.  In verse 5, there is a list of vices or sins and these all have to do with our sexuality.  Later, in verse 8, we find vices or sins that have to do with the mouth and how we use it in relation to other people.  So our spiritual union with Christ has a bearing on what happens with our bodies.  That’s the point in the first part of verse 5.

Then Paul right away launches into the sorts of things he has in mind.  As I just mentioned, verse 5 gives a list of sins and these are all sexual in nature.  The world in which the Colossians lived was highly sexualized.  The Roman Empire wasn’t known for being prudish.  Sexual sins were rampant then just as they are today.  It’s not going to be difficult for us to take the teaching here and apply it to our lives.  I know it might be uncomfortable to hear some of these things, but if the world around us is so open about these things in an ungodly way, why can’t we speak about these things as believers in a godly way?  In fact, we have to.  Sin is like fungus – it grows best in the dark.  God’s Word shines light on these things so they can be put to death.

Let’s just first briefly survey each of these things the Holy Spirit mentions in the second part of verse 5.  Sexual immorality refers to unlawful sexual activity in general, sexual activity outside of marriage.  Impurity is filthiness – it refers to unnatural sexual activity.   Then the attention shifts from activity to the heart.  Passion is a heart-word, referring to what your heart wants.  Passion is like a drive or force that doesn’t stop until it gets what it wants.  You could also say “lust” and sometimes this word is used to refer to unnatural lusts.  That word overlaps in some ways with the next words, “evil desire.”  The difference is that there can be desires that are good and godly.  Desire for God is a good thing.  The desire of a married couple for one another is another good desire.  But here, the desires are for things that are not godly, not pleasing to God, and specifically ungodly sexual desires.  Then last of all, Paul mentions “covetousness.”  In the context here, this isn’t referring to coveting or wanting in general.  In general, covetousness doesn’t fit with union with Christ.  But that’s not the point here.  Here the reference is to covetousness as it expresses itself in the area of sexuality.  You need to think here of the exact wording of the Tenth Commandment:  after mentioning your neighbour’s house, it right away says, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” – at least in the version in Exodus 20.  But in Deuteronomy 5, coveting your neighbour’s wife gets put right up front.  That’s typically a sexual covetousness; you want your neighbour’s wife for your own sinful purposes.  Then Paul adds that this is idolatry – you have substituted the object of your desires for God.  Whoever it is you’re desiring is more important to you than God and that’s idolatry.  None of those things fit with being united to Christ.  They’re all things believers must put to death in their lives.

Like I said, it’s not difficult to connect this with our lives today.  We live in a world where sexual sin is all around us.  I’m going to mention three specific ways in which this verse applies.  Some of you might hear this and say, “Well, that’s obvious.  He didn’t have to mention that.”  I would say, if it’s so obvious then why do we see people falling into these things?  No, we need to address these things and clearly bring God’s Word to bear.  We shouldn’t take it for granted that what’s obvious to us is obvious to everyone else.  Who knows, perhaps this is the day that God’s Word connects with someone here and convicts them of their sin and drives them to repentance?

First of all, I’d like you to note the exact word used for “sexual immorality.”  The word in Greek is porneia.   Porneia is where we get the English word “pornography” from.  Pornography is literally the viewing of porneia, watching sexual immorality.  So many people are enslaved to this sin.  It’s quite likely some of you are enslaved to pornography right now.  It breaks my heart to say it, but the statistics are well-known.  You know what this sin involves.  It involves your evil desires, passions, impurity, and covetousness.  It’s all there.  Pornography makes you into an idolater.  God’s Word is pricking you right now and telling you to wake up and see this for what it is.  If you say you’re a Christian, if you say you believe in Christ, then this doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong as part of your identity.  You would never be able to imagine Jesus watching pornography.  So why are you?  If you’re united to Christ, pornography must be put to death.           

Then there’s the whole problem of sexual activity before marriage.  We have a number of young couples here in our congregation.   Some of you young people will soon be in relationships.  The world around us encourages you to get sexually busy whenever you feel like you’re ready.  The world says you don’t have to wait for marriage and you’ll be tempted to agree.  But here God’s Word says something completely different.  Any form of sexual activity outside of marriage is unbecoming of those who are one with Christ.  If you’re united to Christ, you must kill the sin of taking what belongs in marriage and enjoying it prematurely.

Last of all, you may have noticed how the word “unnatural” popped up a couple of times as we surveyed the vices listed in verse 5.  The list covers unnatural lusts and desires and also unnatural activities.  When we say “unnatural,” let’s be clear:  that’s referring to a homosexual lifestyle.  Scripture teaches that homosexual activities do not fit with those who are united to Christ.  And it also teaches that homosexual desires are unbecoming of those united to Christ.  There might be believers who struggle with those desires, but they can’t nurture those desires or give in to them, coddle them.  A believer tempted by those desires cannot accept them anymore than the person who is tempted by heterosexual desires.  All sinful desires must be battled and put to death.  Again, the world tells us something vastly different.  The world says that homosexual lusts and activities are to be celebrated.  God’s Word here says the complete opposite.  As believers united to Christ, we must listen to the Word of God and put to death these things too.

You have to put what is earthly in you to death.  Now I hope that when you hear that, you’re left asking the question:  how?  How can we do this?  The Holy Spirit doesn’t answer that question in our text.  For the answer, we should go to Romans 8.  Here I’m thinking particularly of Romans 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  There’s the key to how:  “by the Spirit.”  You will never put anything to death without the Holy Spirit.  You need him.  But that only changes the question:  how can the Spirit help us to put these things to death? 

First, we must pray earnestly for his help.  Remember what the Catechism says in Lord’s Day 45, “God will give his grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who constantly and with heartfelt longing ask him for these gifts…”  So be persistent in praying for the presence and help of the Holy Spirit.

Second, remember the Holy Spirit is like a craftsman.  Like any craftsman, he uses a tool or instrument for his work.  The Holy Spirit’s tool is the Word of God.  Loved ones, you are never more vulnerable to backsliding than when you neglect God’s Word.  I’ve never met someone strong in their faith who was failing to give careful attention to Scripture.  The Spirit simply never works apart from the Word of God.  Think here of the wisdom in Ecclesiastes 4:12, “…a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”  When it comes to God’s Word in our lives, we can think of three strands and if you take them together, you’re in a spiritually stronger position.  Strand one is your personal Bible study – you need to be regularly in the Word for yourself – daily.  Strand two is the preaching of God’s Word – you need to be hearing the Word of Christ speaking authoritatively to your life at the beginning of every week.  Strand three is Bible study with your brothers and sisters – studying Scripture together and learning from one another, holding each other accountable.  Take those three strands together – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.  For those with families, we could even add a fourth strand:  family worship – reading God’s Word as a family and learning from it together.  If you give diligent attention to Scripture, you’ll grow as a believer.  The Holy Spirit will work through the Word of God to strengthen you to be able to put to death the earthly things.  The Word is his instrument and he never works apart from it.

So that takes care of verse 5.  In verse 6, Paul tells the Colossians and us that these sins mentioned in verse 5 are partly the reason why the wrath of God is coming.  Once again, there’s a little note in our Bible translation.  The note says, “Some manuscripts add ‘upon the sons of disobedience.’”  Well, not just “some” manuscripts, but most manuscripts have these words, including some that many scholars regard as the earliest.  I think these words belong in the text.  The wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.  In other words, God’s wrath is coming upon those who are disobedient.  Note again that this is so entirely against the grain of our culture.  Our culture laughs at the wrath of God.  Even many Christians don’t take God’s wrath seriously.  But Scripture is so clear.  The wrath of God is coming because of sexual sins like those mentioned in verse 5.  Those who are united to Christ acknowledge this.  They realize the wrath they deserve was received by Christ on the cross.  As a result, they don’t want anything to do with things that’ll further provoke God’s wrath.   Believers united to Christ see that these things have to be put to death because of the fact that they arouse God’s wrath.

In verse 7, Paul reminds the Colossians that they were once among those “sons of disobedience.”  They were once living in sexual sins and other sins too.  There was a time when they just carried on like the world.  But then the gospel came, they believed the gospel, they were united to Christ, and now things must be different.  You can’t say you’re a Christian and just carry on like nothing has changed.  The evidence of union with Christ is in a life being transformed by Christ and his Spirit.  That was true for the Colossians and it’s equally true for us here today.  If there’s no putting to death, there’s no union with Christ.  If there’s no union with Christ, you’re not really a Christian, and you’re not saved. 

With verse 8, Paul says that he believes that the Colossians are united to Christ.  He starts with “But now…”  There’s been a change and there must be more changes.  This is where he addresses sins of a relational nature.  If you’re in Christ, there are all these vices involving our mouth and our neighbour that need to be put away. 

As we did with verse 5, let’s first briefly survey these sins mentioned in verse 8.  I first want you to note the words at the end of verse 8, “from your mouth.”  A strong case can be made that these words are related to everything in verse 8, not just the “obscene talk.”  So, put away anger from your mouth, put away wrath from your mouth, put away malice and slander from your mouth.  All of this has to do with how we relate to one another and how we express ourselves towards one another.

First, “anger” refers to a chronic state of bitter feelings.  I’m sure you’ve heard people who always have sour and bitter words on their lips – it doesn’t fit with union with Christ.  “Wrath” is different here.  “Wrath” is outbursts of rage, a burning anger which periodically flares up.  This comes to expression with people who lose their temper and really blow their top.  “Malice” speaks of being vicious and mean, intentionally wanting to hurt others around you with your words and actions.  “Slander” is about speaking in such a way that you bring someone’s reputation into disrepute.  Then there’s “obscene talk.”  The word in Greek can refer to filthy and crude language, making dirty jokes and so on.  But here the context leads us to another meaning.  This is referring to abusive language.  Of course, that language can often have an obscene character, but the point here is that it’s directed against someone.  There’s a target of this kind of speech.  All of these things mentioned are out of place in the life of a Christian united to Christ.  They don’t reflect him.  Christ wasn’t and isn’t an angry person.  He didn’t have outbursts of out-of-control rage.  He wasn’t malicious or slanderous and certainly never used abusive language. 

Now someone might be thinking:  but what about that time in the temple?  Jesus cleansed the temple with a whip of cords.  Clearly, he was angry.  Indeed, obviously he was.  He was filled with a holy and righteous anger at what happened in the house of his Father.  He reflected the holiness of God in what he was doing.  There is a place for that type of anger, for righteous anger.  But we should beware of the deceitfulness of sin.  It’s all too easy to be unrighteously angry about something and then rationalize it as a righteous anger – we can easily trick ourselves into thinking that our anger is righteous.  There’s that saying that “anger” is only one letter away from danger.  It’s true.  When we feel angry we need to stop and examine our hearts and ask whether this anger is an anger that reflects who Jesus Christ, that reflects our union with him.  And if it doesn’t, then it needs to be put away. 

Verse 9 adds one more element and it too has to do with how we live with one another, and how we address one another.  “Do not lie to one another…”  If you are united to the one who said that he is the Truth (John 14:6), then lying is obviously out of place too.  If you’re in Christ, then your old nature has been put off and so have all its practices.  That’s the way it is in principle and that’s the way that it has to be in practice.  In other words, be who you are.  You’re in Christ, let your life show it!

So there are these sins of a relational nature that need to be put away.  Again, someone might ask the very practical question:  how?  Well, the answer is the same as what we heard earlier when we looked at the sins of a sexual nature.  First, you must pray for the Holy Spirit to be present and to do his work of sanctifying you.  Second, you must use the tool the Holy Spirit uses to transform lives.  You need to be placing yourself under the Word of God.  It’s the only way that there will be real change and growth in your life.

In verse 10, Paul says that not only has the old self been put off, but a new self, a new nature has been put on.  The image here is of someone taking off old clothing and putting on new clothing.  The new clothing is a new nature in Jesus Christ, a nature which is united to him.  Note that the Holy Spirit says that this new self or new nature is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”  Being renewed – that tells us that this is a process.  Sanctification is a process.  The process has to do with knowledge, here that specifically refers to the knowledge of God’s will for our lives, how he wants us to live.   We are being renewed in knowledge after the image of our Creator.  That alludes back to Genesis.  When Adam was created, he was created in the image of God.  He was created to rightly know God, love him, and live for him.  Our renewal in Christ is along the same lines.  We are being renewed or renovated to look like him, like our God who came in the flesh.  Don’t we want that to be evident in our lives?

And for all those who have a new nature, those who are united to Christ, the ground is level.  That’s the point in the last verse of our text, verse 11.  Here again, we need to think of relationships and what’s said in the verses right before this.  All those sins mentioned in verse 8 have to do with conflict and brokenness in relationships.  But if we have a new nature in union with Christ, then what divides and causes conflict disappears, or at least it should.  Paul mentions several types of divisions here.  These were familiar divisions to the Colossian Christians.  People often thought in terms of Greeks versus Jews and the closely related division between the circumcised and uncircumcised.  Or they thought in terms of barbarians versus Scythians, or the closely related division between free people and slaves.  By the way, the Greeks regarded everyone else as barbarians.  The Scythians were a nomadic people found in present-day Ukraine.  They were often taken as slaves.  The key thing is that there were these divisions in Colossian society.  If you were on the other side, you were often dehumanized, treated as if you weren’t even a human being.  But when you are in Christ together with others, these divisions fall away.  Union with Christ means union with others who are united to Christ too and then all these social or ethnic divisions disappear.  All who believe have Christ in them and all who believe are in Christ.  Therefore, the ground is level – all are equal.  The Colossians were called to recognize that reality that also flows out of union with Christ.

For us today living in Australia all these years later, these words might seem a little more challenging to apply.  After all, we don’t have free people and slaves.  Our society isn’t nearly as organized according to social or ethnic divisions.  Yet there is a parallel with our text.  Our churches still do tend to be quite closed to people who don’t share our background.  It can be difficult to fit in and feel like you belong if you didn’t call your grandparents Opa and Oma.  This is changing and that’s good -- Scripture teaches us that this should continue to change.  If Paul were writing a letter to us today, he might very well say, “Here there is not Dutch and Australian, or Dutch immigrant and some other type of immigrant, but Christ is all and in all.”  We pray for God to bring more people to our church and as he does, we need to see that the ground is level for everyone united to Christ, no matter what their ethnic or social background.  What unites believers is Jesus Christ and that must always be kept front and center.  Once we see that, we need to speak and act accordingly – reflecting that we really are one in Jesus Christ.   

Brothers and sisters, understanding your union with Christ really is an important key to living as a Christian.  As we’ve seen this morning, it’s important when it comes to getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t fit.  The Holy Spirit wants us to see that there are behaviours, desires, and attitudes that belong to the world.  These evil things fit with those who aren’t regenerated -- those who aren’t Christians.  These behaviours fit with those united to the first Adam, but they just don’t belong in the lives of those united to the Second Adam, to Jesus.  May we all increasingly see this and reflect our true identity in Christ.  AMEN.


Heavenly Father,

We need the guidance of your Word and we’re thankful that you’ve provided it for us again this morning.  Father, please help us to take what we have heard into our lives.  We plead for the help of your Holy Spirit in putting to death every type of sexual sin, whether it has to do with our lusts or our actions.  We ask for your Spirit to help us in putting away all sorts of relational sins, our anger, our frustration and bitterness, our inclination to dehumanize and alienate others not like us.  Father, in all these things we want to reflect Christ and our union with him, but we can’t do that of ourselves or on our own.  We need your Spirit – please let him come and do his work with us and in us.  Please let your Word continue to shape our lives.  Help us to be diligent students of your Word so that it will help us to grow in the image of Christ, so that we can magnify your glory in this dark world.                                                                                               


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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