Here’s an excerpt of a sermon I did in the spring:
Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, [and] abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its [evil] practices, (Col 3:5-9)
Paul gives us two lists of bad behaviors that we ought not to do. Before we talk about a few specifics, let me draw your attention to our motivation Paul gives for not doing them.
I think one way to summarize that motivation is this: Make what is true of you in Christ true of you in your behavior . In other words, conform your behavior to who you already are in Christ. In Christ you have died to the things that are on the earth. (v 3) So now, make sure the members of your body are also dead to those things. This is an argument from identity.
Note that Paul doesn’t say don’t do these bad things or God’s wrath will come upon you. The wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience. But you aren’t a son of disobedience. You have a new identity. So don’t do the things that God hates. Don’t act in contradiction to your identity in Christ. Put positively, become who you already are in Christ.
Paul also tells us to put aside old practices. Let me illustrate. After I exercise, I feel like I have earned a long, warm shower. In the shower my mind occasionally runs to a sermon I’m preparing or ideas I’m mulling over. (On good days, I’m seeking Christ in my mind). And when I get out of the shower sometimes I’m still lost in thought. Once that I remember, while being in that state, I mixed up the filthy t-shirt I just took off with the clean one I was going to put on. I began putting on the filthy shirt I just took off, I get part way and realize what I’m doing and just throw it off. I threw it off with a sense of urgency, being disgusted with what I was doing. This shirt doesn’t belong on me anymore. I’m clean. This shirt used to belong on me. When I was dirty and sweaty, it made sense that I wear a dirty and sweaty shirt. But now I’m clean. I have a new nature, so to speak, so I need to put off the dirty clothes. Notice, the clean shirt does not make me clean. That would be pharisaical legalism, salvation by works. And—in keeping with the illustration—I’d still really stink. I’m clean first. Because of who I already am, I need to put on the kind of shirt that is in keeping with my new identity.
Likewise, if you are in Christ, you have a new nature. So put off all anger, wrath, malice, slander, [and] abusive speech from your mouth. Ask yourself, do I reflect my new nature in the words I speak to others? To others in the church? To others in my family? If not, put those words off. Put them on account of who you are in Christ.
With this in mind, let me say something about some of the first list of sins: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire. Bible scholars have noted that to the original recipients these things would bring to mind sexual sins. Particularly it would bring to mind the gross sexual practices of the surrounding culture, things the church knew were bad.
Not first that Paul is talking to believers telling them to put these things off, so he presumes that these are sins a believer could struggle with. And when believers fight these sins, it is so important that their starting point be their identity in Christ.
Why? God made us in such a way that what we do sexually—and what is done to us sexually—is a powerful force in shaping our identity. Now God made us that way on purpose, so in the context of marriage we can say with more confidence and conviction, “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.” But bad forms of sexual conduct also define us, and they do so in all negative ways.
I’ve talked to many men struggling with pornography. They’ll be worshiping God, one minute, singing a hymn with confidence and conviction, like, “Thou my great Father, I thy true son; Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one..” , when out of nowhere they think about what they have done, and they feel a sense of shame, that sin effects them at the core of their identity, and they think to themselves: I’m a fake. He’ll never be my father. I’ll never be a true son, we will never be one. There’s no way any of this hymn can be true of me, given who I am.
In that moment there’s a temptation to think, I need to try really hard to have a good week, so next week I can sing this song without feeling like a fake.
But that’s really the wrong way to think. Can you, no matter how hard you try, live good enough so that on the basis of your performance, you would earn the right to be God’s true son and him be your true father? Not in a million years.
Instead, our starting point needs to be who we are in Christ, and, on the basis of who we already are, we need strive to act like that. Only then can we have any hope of overcoming sin because then we have access to all the resources that God provides us in Christ.
When putting sin to death, do not settle for superficial change. Note here one of the things we are told to put to death is “evil desire.” Evil desire means wanting things that are bad. Think about this logically. Have you truly put your evil desires to death if you really want to do a particular sin, but you have cut yourself off from the means to do it? Most of how we control sin is by trying to manipulate our behavior. We count to 10 before we get angry, we get internet blocking software, we avoid temptation situations. All these maybe very good things to do. But they are not sufficient, because we have not yet put to death the desire. One of my favorite preachers, Keven De Young, said that he grew up in a very conservative Christian culture, so he thought a good Christian was one who didn’t drink or do drugs, or run around with girls. He was too young to by alcohol, and had no idea where to by drugs, and no girl would go out with him, so he felt sanctified. But then he goes on to say that he realized that his desires were anything but sanctified. His desires were evil.
Have you put to death evil desires? A better question is, “Is putting to death wrong desires even on your radar screen?”
God isn’t interested in socially refined selfishness or constraining sinful desires. He is interested in true heart change, where we desire what is good. And the only way that can happen is if we begin with our identity in Christ and live out that identity.
So we are identified with Christ, and that identity calls us to seek Christ in our behavior, and that includes our desires.