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Lesson 15: How to Win Against Sin (Colossians 3:1-4)

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February 28, 2016

Years ago, I saw a classic cartoon by Mary Chambers, where two couples are studying the Bible. One of the women says, “Well, I haven’t actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2004/april-online-only/i-havent-actually-died-to-sin.html) Whenever I read that we have died with Christ I think about that cartoon and chuckle. I know that the Bible says that I’m dead to sin, but I don’t feel dead to it. Once in a while I may feel kind of faint, but I never feel dead to it. So what does it mean and how is it practical in my battle against sin?

Last week we saw that keeping a bunch of manmade rules and denying yourself things that the Bible does not forbid is not the way to godliness. So the question is, how do I win against sin? Paul answers that question in Colossians 3:1-4. He mentions again that we died with Christ, and he adds the corresponding truth that we have been raised up with Him. He also gives what sounds like very impractical advice (Col. 3:1b-2): “Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things on earth.” We’ve all known people who are “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” But Paul is saying, “To be of more good on earth, you need to be more heavenly minded!”

To understand our text, we need to view it in the context. In the previous context (Col. 2:23), Paul attacks the rules-based, asceticism of the false teachers, which he says, is “of no value against fleshly indulgence.” In the verses immediately following our text (Col. 3:5-9), he tells us to put to death the members of our body with regard to a list of sins that characterized our old way of life. He then (Col. 3:12-17) talks about the qualities that those who have been chosen by God should practice. He applies these qualities to how Christian wives and husbands, children and parents, and workers and bosses should relate to one another (Col. 3:18-4:1). Finally, he exhorts the church to prayer and wise witness (Col. 4:2-6), before concluding the letter with a lengthy personal section (Col. 4:7-18). So our text is the key both to avoiding the sins of the flesh and to practicing godly relationships in the church, the home, the workplace, and the world. He’s saying:

To win against sin, live in light of your new identity in the risen Christ.

1. As Christians, we all battle the sins of the flesh.

Occasionally you’ll meet a dear saint who claims that he lives above all temptation and sin. He’s learned the secret of victory, where he “abides in Christ” and sin is never a problem. To disprove his claim, talk to those who live and work with him! You’ll no doubt hear a different story!

I hope we all admit that we fight a daily battle against the sins of the flesh. These sins are mainly what Paul has in mind when he directs us (Col. 3:2) not to think “on the things that are on earth.” That phrase is repeated verbatim (in the Greek text) in verse 5, where Paul tells us (literally) to put to death our members “that are on earth.” He goes on (Col. 3:5, 8-9) to list many sins that we all struggle against: “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed,” along with “anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech,” and lying. Paul wouldn’t tell us not to have our minds characterized by these sins and to put them to death if they were no longer a problem for us. While through the new birth, we are radically different than we were before, our old nature (or “flesh”) was not eradicated. As Christians, we have to fight against these sins. How?

2. To win the battle against sin, we must understand our new identity in Christ.

These verses are Christ-centered. Paul mentions “Christ” four times in four verses. There are two sides to our identity in Him:

A. We died with Christ.

In Colossians 2:12, Paul states that we were “buried with [Christ] in baptism.” In verse 20, he says that we “died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world,” which I believe refers to a rules-based approach to God. Now, again (Col. 3:3), he explains, “For you have died ….” So he wants us to understand that when we trusted in Jesus Christ, we became identified with Him in His death. (See, also, Rom. 6:3-11; 7:4, 6; Gal. 2:19-20; 6:14.)

The problem with this truth (as that cartoon showed) is, I don’t feel dead toward sin or the world. In fact, to be honest, when I am tempted to sin (which is often), my old nature feels very much alive and well! There is a strong inner desire to indulge in sin. So what does it mean that I am dead to sin in Christ? How can this help me to overcome sin?

It seems to me that the answer is to remember that death, in the Bible, never means cessation of existence, but rather, separation. When you die physically, your soul is separated from your body. To be identified with Christ in His death means that I am separated from the power of the flesh and from this evil world. I am now a citizen of a new “country,” of heaven, so that I do not have to obey the laws of the old country, this sinful world.

Last week I used the illustration of a man who was a citizen of a country that imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. But when he moves to the United States and becomes a citizen here, he is no longer under that old law. Because he lived under it so long, he still may feel like he’s under that law. But the truth is, he’s not. He “died” to that old law and its power so that he now can live under the new laws of freedom that characterize his new country.

To use a different analogy, if you’ve ever seen a car with the wheels off the ground, you can step on the gas pedal and the wheels spin like crazy, but the car doesn’t go anywhere, because the wheels are separated from the ground. When you’re tempted to sin, your old nature may get all revved up and make a lot of noise, but you can say, “My old nature died with Christ. I’m now separated from its power. It has been rendered inoperative, so that it doesn’t have to go anywhere.” As Paul says in Romans 6:11, “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

So it’s not a matter of feeling dead to sin, but rather a legal fact. If we’re joined to Christ by faith, we’re one with Him in His death. We’re divorced from the old life, which was a tyrant, keeping us in sin. Now, we’re married to a new husband who gives us new life and freedom from sin. The flip side is:

B. We have been raised up with Christ to the right hand of God.

Paul mentions this in Colossians 2:12-13:

… having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.

Now, again (Col. 3:1): “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” As I said last week, “if” does not (in the Greek text) imply uncertainty. It’s true, but Paul wants us to consider the implications of it. Like being united with Christ in His death, being raised up with Him is not a matter of feeling, but one of fact. When Jesus was raised from the dead, if by faith we’re in Him, we also were raised.

Being raised up with Christ teaches us that salvation is not a matter of human decision or will power, but rather of God’s mighty power imparting life to us when we were dead in our sins. Salvation is not making a resolution to kick our bad habits or to clean up our lives. Rather, it involves the life-giving power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. It means, as the Puritan, Henry Scougal, put it, “the life of God in the soul of man.” It means that we are so united with Christ that He is our life (Col. 3:4). Just as the branch draws its life from the vine (John 15:1-6), so we must live in dependence upon the supernatural power of the risen Christ, not in human strength with a little help from God tacked on now and then when we think we need it. It means living in union with the risen person of Jesus Christ.

Being raised up with Christ also means that all that is true of Christ is now true of us, because we’re “in Him.” If I put a piece of paper in my Bible, then whatever happens to my Bible happens to that piece of paper. If I take my Bible home, the piece of paper goes home. If I drop my Bible, the paper drops. The paper is in the Bible. And the believer is in Jesus Christ. We are totally identified with Him.

In Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). While it takes a lifetime to discover and mine out those treasures, they’re ours in Christ. In Christ we have the surpassing riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us (Eph. 2:7). In Christ, we have been made complete, so that He is now our “all in all” (Col. 2:10; 3:11). If we’re “in Christ,” we have everything we need for life and godliness through His precious and magnificent promises (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

Paul states here (Col. 3:1) the mind-boggling truth (which he also states in Eph. 2:6) that we have been raised up with Christ, who is now seated at the right hand of God. So we’re seated there in Him! When you look up all the places in the New Testament that refer to Christ’s being seated at the right hand of God (the phrase comes from Ps. 110:1), they generally fall into three categories:

First, it refers to Christ’s supreme power. In Ephesians 1:20-21, Paul prays that we might know …

… what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.

You can’t get any greater power than that! He is not yet fully exercising that power, but is awaiting the time when His enemies will be made a footstool for His feet (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:13; 10:13). But He is now “seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). And we are there in Him! Paul’s application of this in relation to our battle against sin is (Rom. 6:12-13):

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

Second, being seated at God’s right hand refers to Christ’s sufficient pardon. Hebrews 1:3 states,

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

The fact that Jesus Christ is now sitting at the right hand of the Father means that He obtained complete pardon for all our sins. Hebrews 10:12-14 states,

But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

If we’re in Him at the Father’s right hand, we can be assured that He has forgiven all our sins. The enemy has no basis to accuse us (Rev. 12:10). We’re accepted in Christ (Rom. 15:7).

Third, the fact that Jesus Christ is now sitting at the right hand of the Father means that we are the objects of Christ’s sympathetic prayers. In the context of our sufferings, Romans 8:33-34 assures us,

Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.

When you get discouraged and lose hope, it’s encouraging to know that your mother or father or a faithful friend is praying for you. But family and friends are only human; they can’t pray for you constantly. But the fullness of Deity dwells in the Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 2:9), and He is at the Father’s right hand interceding for you in your weakness (Heb. 7:25; 8:1). So when you battle temptation or you wrestle with discouragement, remember that you’re in Christ. You shared in His death and resurrection. You’re seated with Him at the right hand of God, where He has all power, you have all pardon, and you have His prayers. You win against sin by living in light of your identity in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

But, you still may wonder, how does this work? How do we implement it practically?

3. To win the battle against sin, constantly seek to understand and meditate on your identity in the risen Christ.

Here we need to understand three things:

A. Our new life is now hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:3b: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” What does Paul mean by this? First, he may be taking a swipe at the false teachers, who emphasized secret or hidden truths for those who would be initiated into their so-called “philosophy.” He’s saying that we Christians are the ones with real hidden truths that the world cannot know. Outwardly, we look like everyone else in the world. But our real life—eternal life—is hidden with Christ in God. The world can’t understand it, but it’s true.

This phrase may also point to the security of our new life in Christ. In Psalm 31:20 David says of those who take refuge in God, “You hide them in the secret place of Your presence from the conspiracies of man; You keep them secretly in a shelter from the strife of tongues.” (See, also, Ps. 27:5.) If our life is hidden with Christ in God, we’re safe there.

A third implication of the truth that our life is hidden with Christ in God is that it needs to be mined out as a buried treasure. These truths that God declares about us in Christ may not be immediately obvious, but if we’ll take the time and effort to dig them out of God’s Word, they will be like gold and silver to us (Ps. 19:7-11; Matt. 13:44-45). But, how do we find these treasures?

B. We seek the things above by making them the continual pursuit of our thinking.

There are two commands in our text: “Keep seeking the things above”; and, “Set your mind on the things above.” Both are present imperatives, suggesting a continual process. To keep seeking these things means to make the truths of Christ as revealed in God’s Word our constant pursuit, our focus, our aim. Just as worldly people get up early and are focused day after day on pursuing material things, so Christians should be devoted to pursuing the things of Christ.

This doesn’t mean that we should drop out of life and spend all our time meditating on spiritual truth. The Lord expects us to work and live in this world. But it does mean, as Jesus put it, that instead of working for the food which perishes, we should work for the food which endures to eternal life (John 6:27). We should seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33). We should begin each day thinking about God’s perspective: We’re separate from this evil world, dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ. We think about Christ as our life, who lives in and through us. Throughout the day, we keep bringing our thoughts back, again and again, to those things which are true of us in Christ.

To “set your mind on the things above” shows that this continual pursuit of the things above involves our thinking. The Greek word means, “Have your whole attitude characterized by those things.” The present tense implies that we must make repeated choices to focus our thoughts not on the flesh, but on the things which are true of us in Christ so that our whole outlook is determined by these truths. We will view ourselves, not as citizens of this world, but as having died and now being raised up with Christ, so completely identified with Him that He is our very life.

The truest thing about you is what God says is true, not what you may feel. How you think about yourself determines how you act. Your thought life also determines, to a large extent, your emotions. Here Paul is saying that we must constantly, by deliberate choice, focus our thoughts on the risen Christ and on the truth that we are totally identified with Him. In Christ, we have been separated from this evil world and from our old nature which seeks to pull us back into sin. Now, we should repeatedly think, “I am now in Christ.” As that truth shapes your identity, it becomes the key to a holy life! That’s how you win against sin. One final thought:

C. The motivation for seeking the things above is that when Christ is revealed, we also will be revealed with Him in glory.

Colossians 3:4: “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” What an amazing truth! When Christ, who right now is our life, returns, we will discover the full truth about ourselves in Him. We will be revealed with Him in glory! Then we will know fully, just as we have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). As 1 John 3:2-3 states,

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

Knowing that one day we will be revealed with Christ in glory motivates us to godly living right now. Seeing ourselves in Christ is the key to winning the battle against sin.

Conclusion

Years ago, a plastic surgeon noticed some interesting things about the people whose faces he operated on. For some, the operation resulted in immediate and lasting changes in their personalities. People who had been embarrassed about some disfigurement became confident and outgoing after the problem was fixed.

But in spite of successful surgeries, there were others who insisted that the surgery made no difference at all. The doctor would show them before and after photographs, but the people still insisted, sometimes angrily, that their faces were no different. They refused to believe the truth and went on living just as they had before, dominated by their previous disfigurement, which no longer existed (These stories are in Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-cybernetics [Prentice-Hall, 1960]. I do not recommend the book, which is full of spiritual falsehood.) Their lives were not changed because they didn’t believe the truth about the change that had taken place.

As Christians, we’ve been given much more than a face lift. We have died to our old lives and have been raised up to new life in Christ. All that is true of the risen Christ is now true of us. Now we must continually keep seeking and setting our minds on the things above, where our true life is hidden with Christ in God. As we live in light of our new identity in Christ, we will win the battle against sin.

Application Questions

  1. Discuss: Does a Christian ever reach a point where he is dead to sin in the sense that it no longer tempts him?
  2. How can we believe that we’re dead to sin when we feel so alive to it? Are we just playing mental games?
  3. Practically, how can we seek and set our minds on the things above? What daily habits can help the process?
  4. How would you help a Christian who said, “I feel so weak when I’m tempted; I just can’t resist”?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Hamartiology (Sin)