Put Off the Old and Put On the New
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I guess you could say that this is literally my day job. As I await a full-time call to a parish, I work overnights as a support manager at Wal-Mart. And as you might suspect, this past month has been a zoo. Extra customers on the floor making it even more challenging to get the freight out so it can be stocked. Longer lines at the checkout counters and service desks. Extra freight on extra trucks, some of them running late due to weather concerns. This isn’t surprising to any of you, I’m sure. But what might surprise you is content of the freight.
You see, most of the special Christmas items—the electronic equipment, household appliances, toys, all of that came in weeks ago. The extra freight that’s been coming in the last month is gearing up for the New Year—for people’s New Year’s resolutions to be more specific. Workout equipment, pallets full of Slimfast shakes and Nicorette gum and patches, all ready for people looking to quit old habits and to begin new healthy lifestyles—to put off the old and put on the new.
“Put Off the Old and Put On the New”: a fitting theme for today’s text, Colossians 3:12-17, where St. Paul urges us to put on Christian virtues: compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, and thankfulness.
We’ll look at those virtues in a few minutes. But first we need to back up so that we might properly understand the context. Any passage of Scripture can be taken out of context and misinterpreted, and this one is especially susceptible to abuse. Taken by itself, this list of virtues sounds like a compilation of New Year’s resolutions that anyone might make—Christian or non-Christian. Character traits or good habits that I, by my own strength and willpower, resolve to work on and improve to be a better person, to live a healthier, longer, more productive life.
But this approach ignores one important factor: I, like you, am, by nature, a poor, miserable sinner. I am dead and blind, an enemy of God, opposed to Him and His Word and His will. I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. I cannot pull myself up by my own theological or moral bootstraps, but I’m too obtuse to even realize my helplessness.
That’s where context comes into play. Notice how this passage begins: “Put on then…” or also translated, “Therefore, put on…” Anytime you see “then” or “therefore” you have to know what came before it to correctly understand the text. “Then” or “therefore” indicates cause and effect, or at least gives a sense of order: “This is true, therefore it follows that …” or “That happens first, then this happens…” To see what St. Paul really means, we need to back up a bit.
In the first two chapters of his Epistle, Paul deals quite directly and thoroughly with false teachings that are threatening the Church at Colossae. He confronts the various elements of that false doctrine with the all-sufficiency of Christ and reminds them of how through the water and Word, they have been made alive in Christ. In Baptism, their sinful flesh has been put to death in Christ and they were raised with Christ in His resurrection. They are now children of the Gospel, not slaves to the Law. So they should not return to the shadows of Old Testament rituals or the lies of those who claim special revelation, but remain centered in the substance that belongs to Christ and Him crucified.
Human traditions and rituals have the appearance of wisdom; but that is all they have. They lead not toward Christ and salvation; but away from Him and to destruction. Such human teachings have no value in overcoming sin. Those who follow them do nothing but indulge their own pride. The Christian faith is not something that can be reduced to a set of rules or principles for holy or successful living. The Christian faith is being in Christ; being rooted and built up in Him; being buried, made alive, and raised with Him; walking and living with Him.
To be sure, we Christians will use God’s moral law as a guide for our lives. Its perfection is the goal for which we constantly strive, but our striving to keep the Law has absolutely nothing to do with gaining salvation. Rather it is the result of our being saved, the thankful expression of faith that has found its sufficiency in Christ. We must not put the theological cart before the horse. We are not saved by good works or holy living, but saved for good works and holy living.
Having established the foundation for our salvation in the doctrinal portion, Paul follows with a practical section here, giving the Colossians encouragement and advice for their day-to-day Christian living. As he does, he shows us the vital importance of the connection between what we believe and how we live. Just as Christ is all-sufficient for our faith, Christ is also all-sufficient for our lives.
Having been saved through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, we daily drown the Old Adam through contrition and repentance. We put off all that is of our sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. Having been buried with Christ in His death and raised with Christ through the glory of the Father, we set our minds on heavenly things, rather than earthly things.
By God’s grace, we have been made a special people, a people who belong to God. We are His “chosen ones,” a name God had given to His people Israel, and a name that most applies to His Son, Jesus Christ—the Chosen One. From all eternity, God, out of pure grace, chose out of the mass of sinful humanity, all those whom He would call to be His children. This choice did not rest on any merit or worthiness of any of us, nor was it a matter of some of us being more inclined to believe than others. Since Adam’s fall, all human beings by nature are equally sinful and spiritually dead. We are all equally unable to save ourselves or to respond to the call of the Gospel. But in His undeserved and immeasurable love, God brings it to be that some believe the Gospel and are saved.
The fact that God has chosen us to be His saved people makes us “holy and beloved,” also designations applied to Israel and to Christ Himself in the Old Testament. Cleansed by the blood of Christ and delivered from the bondage of sin, we are God’s holy ones. We are set apart for Him to be the continuous recipients of His love and to be renewed daily in His image.
Compassion is the first virtue that Paul lists. This compassion is a deep feeling of affection rooted in the love of Christ. Clothed with Christ’s compassion, we extend compassion to others, especially to those who are suffering.
“Kindness” is related, but somewhat broader than compassion. Kindness is a cordial, loving disposition that knows no harshness. Kindness is shown by believers to anyone, including strangers, whom we can benefit in any way.
Compassion and kindness lead to humility, the virtue that guides us to strive to place ourselves below others and to put the welfare of others before our own. Genuine humility is recognition of our own sin and unworthiness and a true appreciation of what God has done for us in Christ. Humble Christians follow the example of Christ, seeking to serve God and neighbor in self-sacrificing love.
“Meekness” is also a Christian virtue. Meekness is not a spinelessness that refuses to take a stand on any principle; it is a quiet strength. We, who follow Jesus, will always stand firm in Him. At the same time, we will exhibit gentleness in our dealings with others, suffering injury rather than inflicting it.
Meekness is coupled with patience. Patient Christians do not bear a grudge and refuse to harbor thoughts of revenge when wronged. We must always remember that we are sinners living with other sinners. In spite of all our efforts, there will be sin evidenced. There will be occasions when we will hurt one another. But day after day, we bear with one another and help one another lovingly overlook slights and injuries and personality quirks. We will help one another grow, rather than cruelly tearing one another down.
And we will cheerfully “forgive each other” as complaints against one another arise, just as Christ has forgiven us. Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He forgave His enemies from the cross, and on the cross He endured injustice that makes any of the injuries we may suffer at one another’s hands seem minor indeed. Even now, though we often spurn His love and fail to share it with others, He daily restores and forgives us. If we understand this, there should never be any question about our willingness to forgive one another.
Over all these, Paul concludes, put on love, which binds all these virtues “together in perfect harmony.” Love is the crowning virtue in every Christian’s life, the one without which all the others cannot even exist. This finds its perfect example and source in Christ. It is a love of conscious, purposeful self-giving. It is love extended even to the unloving and unlovable, without discrimination. This love gives value to everything we do; and it enables us to move forward together as we strive for the goal of perfect maturity in our lives, a goal we will ultimately reach, by God’s grace, in the glory of eternal life.
“The peace of Christ” is the rest and contentment of those who know Jesus and His forgiving love. It is the confidence that our Savior, who loves us, will work all things for our good. This peace, which passes all understanding, is bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. As it fills our hearts, it enables us to be at peace, not only with God but also with ourselves and with one another.
Christians whose hearts are filled with Christ’s love and are ruled by His peace will naturally be thankful. As our knowledge of Christ and the spiritual blessings we have in Him grow and mature, so will our gratitude; and that gratitude will become evident in our whole manner of living. Love and peace result in gratitude, and gratitude, in turn, promotes love and peace.
But remember, this is not a “To Do” list; this is a “Put On” list. We are to put on these virtues. These virtues are not ours to accomplish but are gifts provided by God. They are Christ’s virtues, His robe of righteousness, His garment of salvation, exchanged on the Cross for our fig leaves of self-righteousness and filthy rags of works-righteousness. They were bestowed to us at Baptism. We simply need to put on them, wrap ourselves in them daily, and continue wearing them until the great and glorious Day He bids us to enter His eternal wedding feast.
This new nature and the virtues it produces are the products of the Holy Spirit’s work through the Gospel. In order to stand firm and grow in these virtues, we need to maintain continual contact with the Gospel of Christ. That is why Paul urges “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” The Scriptures should be more than something that we hear periodically or invite as an occasional guest into our homes. The Word of Christ should inhabit us continually, filling every corner of our lives with blessed spiritual wisdom, as we spend time in daily prayer and the study of God’s Word.
Obviously, the Scriptures should especially be the focal point of congregational worship and all of the church’s other activities. On the basis of the Word of Christ and the divine wisdom it imparts, we are to teach and admonish one another in public and in private. When the Word dwells in us, we will grow in faith and knowledge and Christian living, and we will be able to encourage one another. When we ignore the Scriptures or use them infrequently and carelessly, we deprive ourselves of blessings the Lord would gladly shower upon us.
So, put off the old, put on the new. Clothe yourself in Christ’s righteousness given to you in Holy Baptism. Daily put to death that sinful old man through contrition and repentance that the new man may arise to live in righteousness and blessedness forever. Let His peace rule your hearts as you receive Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Let Christ’s Word of wisdom dwell in you richly. Sing thankful songs of praise. 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. For Jesus’ sake you have salvation and eternal life and peace. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.