Put It to Death (Colossians 3:5a)
I. Even Harder
Every discipline is challenging in some way. If the things for which we discipline ourselves simply came easy to us, there would be no need for discipline. But while every discipline is challenging in some way, I think we all know that some are harder than others.
Think about brushing your teeth, for example. Hopefully you learned that habit an early age. If you remember your own experience, or, you've raised (or are raising) kids, then you know that (at least at first) this dental discipline can be very challenging. But most of us get into the habit fairly well. In fact, surveys show that 7 out of 10 Americans brush twice a day, as recommended.
But when it comes to... flossing, I think most of us would agree it's a good example of an even harder habit. And the numbers back this up: only 3 out of 10 Americans floss daily. That's flip-flopped from the earlier statistic about brushing, isn't it?! And... for still others, going regularly to the dentist is an even harder habit. Let's face it, we don't like the time and effort, and in many cases, the discomfort associated with flossing. And we don't like the time and effort, and in many cases, the discomfort (and maybe the cost) associated with going to the dentist.
Did you know that we find this same dynamic in the Christian life; that life of following Jesus Christ as Lord? Paul's words to Timothy in I Timothy 4:7 are also God's words to us: “train yourself for godliness” (or as the NASB puts it, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness”). But, again, that same dynamic is present: some of these habits are harder than others. For example, for some, meeting regularly with God's people has become a well-established habit. But maybe for some of these same people, praying regularly has been more challenging.
This month we are going to look at what I believe are some of the hardest habits when it comes to following Jesus. Yes, they are often hard habits; but they are also holy habits. Do you believe that a life of holiness is a good life? Well, that's not good enough, brothers and sisters. You must believe that a life of holiness is not just a good life, but the very best life. Why? Because when we do not believe that a life of holiness is the very best life, guess what, we do not believe that God is perfectly good; that his ways are perfectly right and righteous. That is the prize that we must keep our eyes fixed to. “Be holy as I am holy”. Therefore, it's so important we reflect on, strive for, and encourage one another to grow in all these areas. That's our focus for this month.
II. The Passage: “Put to Death...What is Earthly” (3:1-10)
Let's begin by looking together at the first of these hard, but holy habits. Let's stick with Paul and listen to how he challenges his readers in Colossians 3:5. Turn there & look at that first phrase...
[Paul exhorts them to] Put to death therefore what is earthly in you...
The command there is clear, isn't it? This hard, but holy habit is clear, isn't it? “Put to death”; or we could also translate that, “make dead”, or “slay completely”. That's strong language. Paul is not mincing words here or calling for a tepid response. As one commentator put it, “...the apostle teaches that the Christian's experience in Christ calls not simply for regulating the old earthbound life, but for digging out its roots and utterly destroying it.” (Curtis Vaughan)
Is that how you think about the Christian life; about your life in Christ?
It should be. Jesus called us to this very same habit. In Mark 8:34, Jesus revealed that the Christian life actually begins with this kind of 'death' or dying... “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” But Luke's Gospel records another version of this saying, one that reminds us that this call is more than just a one-time transaction:
And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
But what exactly does it mean to put to death what is earthly in us? How do we actually practice this hard, but holy habit? Let's use the context here in Colossians 3 to unpack what Paul is prescribing for disciples of Jesus in this passage. When it comes to something earthly in you, the first thing we must do is...
1. Name It (vs. 5b, 8-9a)
Paul is not content with vague generalities here. No. He provides the Colossian Christians with specifics in terms of that word “earthly”. What kinds of things in us does God label “earthly”? Look again at verse 5...
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. [Notice how his list continues if we drop down to verse 8]... But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. [And there's one more in verse 9] Do not lie to one another...
“Put... to... death”. A sniper cannot do his or her job unless they first identify the target. Only when the target is defined, can they put the enemy in their cross-hairs. In the same way, Paul wants his readers to be crystal clear about the corrupt and cancerous expressions of sin within them; expressions that then express themselves in sinful behavior; in unholy habits.
Look at that list again. Listen to that list again. As you can see from verse 5, that first list seems to focus on what we might call sinful appetites; from sexual cravings to materialistic cravings. To be clear, this is not a condemnation of sexual or material desire in general. This is a warning about unhealthy desire; about desire unchecked and untethered from God's good design.
We desperately need God to “name it”, don't we? For example, in a day and age of rampant, sexual confusion, God's people need to be absolutely clear about his good design in terms of sex and sexuality. If we are not anchored by what God's word tells us about gender and marriage, about faithfulness and selflessness, about fantasy and feelings, we will find ourselves rationalizing in light of the spirit of the age. But also consider what commentator N.T. Wright tells us about the fact that Paul provides two lists of what is “earthly” in this passage:
“By bluntly naming sins which are all too often excused or glossed over with euphemisms, Paul sets a clear standard for the church both ancient and modern. Many Christians tend to concentrate on one list or the other: one knows of Christian communities that would be appalled at the slightest sexual irregularity but which are nests of malicious intrigue, backbiting, gossip and bad temper, and, conversely, of others where people are so concerned to live in untroubled harmony with each other that they tolerate flagrant immorality. The gospel, however, leaves no room for behavior of either sort.”
If we are to put such things to death, then they must be named; that is, each one of us needs to be clear about the kinds of things God wants us to uproot and destroy. Some of us don't want to name these things, because we don't want to face them. But we must. Now, when it comes to something earthly in us, I think we also discover in this passage that God wants us to...
2. Judge It (vs. 6-7, 9b)
Did you notice how, right after that first list in verse 5, Paul adds this sobering statement: On account of these the wrath of God is coming. Now... please don't move past that too quickly. That is a statement about the true nature of “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is [in fact] idolatry” (i.e., elevating things over the Maker of all things). Our culture works overtime to tell us lots of wonderful things about sexual gratification and material acquisition. But it will never tell us that such things are wrath-provoking.
And by 'wrath-provoking', we shouldn't think in terms of 'bad things that make God mad'. That would be an over-simplification of what Scripture teaches us about sin and God's holiness. No. These are not simply 'bad things that make God mad”. These are wrong things that spur God to act justly. And when God brings justice, a great and glorious and eternal God, it is ultimate justice; justice that is perfectly full, final and forever.
You see, in a world of moral relativism and moral rationalizations, Paul's statement in verse 6 is an 'unmasking' in terms of the true ugliness of sin. But it's also a warning. Again N.T Wright...
[Idolatry]... places at the center of one's attention and devotion that which is not God. In turning from the source of life, those who follow other paths are actually pursuing death, as the next verse indicates. If these vices are not, eventually, to kill the one who practices them, they must themselves be put to death. (N.T. Wright)
But look at how the focus moves from the future to the past in v. 7: In these [earthly behaviors] you too once walked, when you were living in them. Yes, this is a hard habit. Once, that life was all we knew. But in one sense, Paul is asking them in verse 7, “Why are you going back to the kinds of earthly behaviors from which you asked Jesus to save you?” If you judged them before and confessed them as unrighteous, as wrong, as morally offensive, as transgressions of God's design, of God's law, of God's will, then judge them again; and keep judging them.
Now, it's that topic of their former lives that leads us to a final statement about what is earthly. If we are to put to death what is earthly, we must name it, we must judge it, and finally, we must...
3. Leave It (vs. 1-4, 10)
Did you notice how there's a “therefore” in our main verse? Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.. That word point us to what came before. Listen to verses 1-4...
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Notice how “Put to death...” in v.5 is preceded by Paul's statement, “For you have died...” (v.3).
Why is that important? Because Paul is reminding these followers of Christ to walk in the reality of this gospel-shaped reality. How do we do this? By regularly reminding yourself and embracing your death through Jesus' death, and your new life through Jesus' resurrection. Paul put it this way in Romans... 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. That's why a few verses later he encouraged them in this way ...consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:6, 11)
Here in Colossians 3, that same idea is presented in verses 9 and 10 as well... 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. As one commentator put it: “The old life is dead; they must let it die.” (George B. Caird) Why keep carving shivs after you've been released from prison? Why keep wearing a hospital gown if you've been discharged? Why work those fields if you've been emancipated from slavery? Why put on the uniform again if you renounced your time in the enemy's army? Paul asks, “If you died with Him, treat as dead that which is dead.”
What does that mean practically? I think Paul's instruction in Romans 13:14 is helpful: ...put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. When it comes to this hard, but holy habit of putting to death what is earthly in us, Paul's statement in Romans 13:14 is less about a spiritual firing squad and more about death by starvation: “make no provision for the flesh”.
If our planet was overrun by peace-hating, acid-blooded, mind-controlling, flesh-eating, blood-sucking, unreasoning, uncaring, and seemingly unstoppable aliens, and you happened to find a baby alien in the desert, cut off from its hive, struggling for life,... let... it... die. That's God's word to you this morning. That's the nature of sin. So... Name it (specify the sin). Judge it (confess it as sin). Then leave it. Forsake it. Yes, pray about what feeds that 'earthliness' in you; trace it back and cut it off. And lean on others as you do. All of this is part of the killing process (thus, a habit). But follower of Jesus, stop rationalizing your sexual immorality. Name it. Judge it. Leave it... and let it die. Stop rationalizing your anger. Name it. Judge it. Leave it... and let it die.
III. By the Spirit
But please hear me: this is not about moral reformation or self-improvement in your own strength. That's what Paul condemns in 2:23...“self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body” that are “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” As verses 1-4 of chapter 3 make clear, real change flows from the gospel. You can't hate what is earthly in you until you love God and long for what is above. The gospel is good news that by God's grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, we can die to what is earthly, what is fleshly, and live a new life for what is heavenly, what is eternal.
This is a hard habit, isn't it? Like Paul with the Colossians, putting 'earthliness' to death is an issue God needs to address with each of us. What is saying to you this morning? But this is also a holy habit. And I want that to remind you that God promises strength for all his children, strength to name it, judge it, and leave it. Listen to 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.
Praise God for the Holy Spirit who empower us for these holy habits! I hope you will talk to God this morning about what you've heard. Ask him to help you both desire and discipline yourself for godliness; that is, to grow in your reflection of Jesus, our Savior and King. Let's pray.