Ruthless or Wreckless (3:5-11)
The Puritan theologian John Owen (d. 1683) once wrote, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you” (Works, VI:9)! Good advice, or melodramatic overreaction? Sadly, many professing Christians opt for the latter, at least in terms of how they live.
How radically different is Paul’s attitude toward sin from that of the world and, tragically, a great many in the church. In this age of seeker-sensitivity one does not often hear the word “sin” spoken in our pulpits (or if it is spoken it is followed by a quick apology to those “who may be offended” by such language). It comes as no surprise, then, that people feel free to toy with sin, tease it, pet it, and are careless and indifferent towards its devastating effects. They regard it as inconsequential and secondary, something to be tasted and tested in nothing short of moral bravado.
Paul’s attitude is of a different sort: Kill it! Put it to death! Execute it! Don’t let it live another second! Take whatever steps are necessary to eliminate it from your life. Tolerate no compromise. Take no prisoners. Deal ruthlessly and radically with it, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it may appear.
And this the advice of a man who only moments before (in Col. 3:1-4) insisted that we focus on “things above”! Our heavenly life that finds its source and strength in the risen and exalted Jesus must be expressed in the concrete rigors and responsibilities of life on earth. The former is never grounds to justify exemption from the latter. Throughout chapters three and four of Colossians Paul will explain how the "Christ is our life" reality works itself out not only in our war with the flesh but also in the church, home, marriage, at work, indeed in every conceivable human relationship.
There are only two options when it comes to dealing with sin: you are either reckless or ruthless. There is no middle ground. To opt for some third possibility is itself a reckless choice. Either we are ruthless in our commitment and efforts to kill sin (lest it be killing us) or we are reckless by default. One doesn’t have to make deliberate choices to commit specific sins to be reckless. All one need do is fail to take calculated and precise steps to avoid temptation, flee sin at first sight, and treat it as one’s mortal enemy. Not to do so is to be reckless (defined by Webster as lacking proper caution, careless of consequences, negligent), regardless of intent, regardless of stated hatred for sin.
There is no cease fire in our war with sin. There are no de-militarized zones to which we can flee. The flesh never takes a sabbatical. To live as if one might let down one’s guard for a second is to recklessly expose one’s soul to almost certain defeat.
If we are to grasp Paul’s perspective on this point we must take note of the word “therefore” with which v. 5 begins. This clearly links the urgent ethical injunctions of vv. 5ff. to the glorious truths concerning the identity of the believer and his/her union with Christ in vv. 1-4. Biblical scholars have often referred to this as the “indicative / imperative” dynamic in Christian living. Paul’s imperatives, that is to say, his ethical commands and admonitions, follow upon the assertion of certain theological indicatives. The exhortations which articulate what we are to do and not do flow out of and are based on the indicative truths, the accomplished facts if you will, of our salvation.
It is because we have died with Christ and are buried with him, even now raised together with him and are hidden in him in God, that we are to be ever so diligent to obey the commands that follow. The indicative does not undermine or eliminate the imperative. One cannot say, “Well, since I’m hidden in Christ in God I hardly need to be overly concerned with what happens when I’m confronted with temptation.” God forbid (cf. Romans 6:1-2)!
Others have been inclined to think that because “Christ is our life” (3:4) we need not exert ourselves or diligently fight or strive for holiness of life. Christ will do it for you, so we are told. He is your life now, so stop trying to live out of any other source or power. Well, yes he is our life. Yes, of course all our efforts are energized by his presence and power (see Col. 1:29). But that doesn’t call for passivity or carelessness or a reckless “let go and let God” approach to confronting sin.
Rather, the theology of the NT is that the indicative mandates the imperative, undergirds our efforts to fulfill it, and makes it reasonable to heed. “You have died with Christ; act and speak and think therefore so as to make it plain that this ‘death’ is no mere figure of speech but a real event which has severed all the links which bound you to the dominion of sin. In short, be (in actual practice) what you now are (by divine act)” (Bruce, 266).
In order to make this clear Paul builds his case around two vivid metaphors. First, in vv. 5-7, he portrays sin as if it were a living enemy that must be destroyed. Second, in vv. 8-11, he describes it as a filthy garment that must be discarded. Or again, when it comes to sin, put it to death and lay it aside. We must slay it. We must strip it.
The literal rendering of v. 5a would be, “Therefore, put to death the members which are upon the earth.” The ESV translates it, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you,” while the NASV has the following, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to . . .” David Garland comes right to the point: “This forceful image means that Christian renewal is not some cosmetic overhaul of our sinful propensities. We do not simply add on a veneer of Christian values that only laminates our old nature and its value system. Paul does not tell us to put on new clothes over the old; the old must be stripped off and thrown away. We need more than a few minor adjustments and cannot skip over the key element of dying with Christ” (224).
What are “the members which are on the earth”? Paul uses this language in Romans 6:13,19 to refer to the faculties of our earthly, physical existence. His warning is that our members can be offered up either to God for a life of righteousness or to sin as instruments of wickedness. Here in Colossians 3 Paul practically identifies certain sins with those bodily members through which they are committed. He is thus calling for the radical and ruthless termination of the immoral and disobedient use of our physical faculties.
Of course, he isn’t recommending literal mutilation, as if to suggest that the way to fight sin is by amputation of certain bodily parts! You can lop off an arm, gouge out an eye, and cut out your tongue, but the wickedness of the soul remains. Paul’s point, rather, is that we must take unequivocal steps to kill the sin that finds expression through our bodily members. As O’Brien reminds us, “true ‘mortification’ in the context of Colossians 3:5 has to do with a transformation of the will, a new attitude of the mind” (178).
And how does one deal ruthlessly with sin (cf. Matthew 5:29-30)? Maclaren likens it to a man working at a machine who gets his fingers caught between the rollers or in the belting: “Another minute and he will be flattened to a shapeless bloody mass. He catches up an axe lying by, and with his own arm hacks off his own hand at the wrist. . . . It is not easy or pleasant, but it is the only alternative to a horrible death.”
The point of the analogy is this: eliminate from your life, as much as is possible, anything that will cause you to stumble. If it’s a place, don’t go there. If it’s an image, turn away. If it’s a song, don’t listen. If it’s a book, don’t read it. If it’s a liquid, don’t drink it. If it’s a person, part company. The sacrifice may be uncomfortable, even painful. It will most certainly be unpopular, but “it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29).
And where do the energy and incentive come from for such a life? From meditating on the majesty of being raised with Christ (Col. 3:1)! From fixing our souls on the splendor of his exaltation (Col. 3:2)! From celebrating our “concealment” in Christ in God (Col. 3:3)! From the joyful expectation of experiencing his glory when he comes (Col. 3:4)! In sum: Enjoyment empowers effort! Pleasure in God is the power for purity!
Rejoicing in ruthlessness,