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Put to death sexual immorality. Avoid covetousness. Stop lying. Do this. Don’t do that. Taboos. Prohibitions. Commandments. Rules. Enough already!

At least, that’s how some feel when they read Colossians 3. The fact is, Paul does provide in quite some detail a list of proscribed activities. Later in the chapter he will insist on a display of compassion and kindness and humility and any number of other moral virtues to govern our relationships with one another, with our spouse, with our kids, with just about everyone.

So, here’s the rub. What’s the difference between what Paul commends in chapter three and what he condemns at the end of chapter two? You may recall that he spoke harshly of those in Colossae who insisted on strict behavior when it came to such matters as what you eat and drink, as well as your observance of certain religious festivals. The false teachers insisted on a rigorously ascetic life, always quick to say, “Don’t handle that! Don’t taste these! Don’t touch those!” (see Col. 2:21).

What makes Paul’s rules different? How is his perspective on the Christian life an improvement on theirs? He has commandments and taboos, as do they. So how does one avoid falling prey to the legalistic mentality that Paul so roundly denounced? How do we pursue holiness without reducing Christianity to simply being moral?

The answer is found in something Paul repeatedly emphasizes in chapter three that is noticeably absent from the man-made philosophy threatening the church in Colossae. Legalists, of whatever variety, typically argue “to” life. That is to say, they identify the good one must pursue and the bad one must avoid as a means to gain favor with God or as a condition on which he may be disposed to grant life.

Paul, on the other hand, together with other NT writers, argues “from” life. Holiness is portrayed as the fruit of acceptance with God, not the root. We already are the favored and beloved of God, made such by sovereign grace alone, and it is on the basis of this glorious truth that we are inwardly impelled (rather than outwardly compelled) to express life, not earn it.

We are not encouraged to do this or avoid that in order to gain Christ. Rather, it is because we have already died with Christ (Col. 2:20) and have already been raised with Christ (Col. 3:1) that we avidly seek after holiness. We pursue purity and eschew evil not in order to be hidden with him but because we already are (Col. 3:3).

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Colossians 3:9-10 where Paul explicitly mentions the basis on which he issues his ethical imperatives. Look closely: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that 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 was the case earlier in chapter three, so also here the ground for his exhortation is the accomplished truths of salvation. And it doesn’t stop here. It is also BECAUSE we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Col. 3:12), that we are to be compassionate and kind and humble, etc. And it is BECAUSE we have already been fully and freely forgiven by Christ that we “also must forgive” one another (Col. 3:13).

So, the reason for this choice to “put to death” and “put off” such practices is that you have already discarded the old man and his ways and have put on the new. We put off the old man in our baptism with Christ in his death and we put on the new man when we were raised with Christ in baptism to newness of life.

The contrast between “the old man” and “the new (man)” is not simply an individual one, as if the “old” referred to my personal bad behavior and the “new” to my good, Christian conduct. Yes, that is involved, but there’s more. There are corporate and historical-redemptive overtones in Paul’s language. Peter O’Brien explains it best: “Just as the ‘old man’ is what they once were ‘in Adam,’ the embodiment of unregenerate humanity, so the ‘new man’ is what they now are ‘in Christ,’ the embodiment of the new humanity” (190-91). In other words, “the renewal refers not simply to an individual change of character but also to a corporate recreation of humanity in the Creator’s image. Christ is the ‘new man’ whom the Colossians have put on. He is the second Adam, the head of a new creation” (191).

Interestingly, Paul has a different, but entirely compatible emphasis in the parallel passage in Ephesians. There he commands the believer “to put off your old self” and “to put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:22,24). Thus, whereas in Col. 3:9 and Rom. 6:6 the break with the old is portrayed as having already occurred in the past, most likely at the moment of conversion, in Ephesians Paul calls on his readers “to continue to live out its significance by giving up on that old person that they no longer are. They are new people who must become in practice what God has already made them, and that involves the resolve to put off the old way of life as it attempts to impinge” (Lincoln, 285-86). Here again we see the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” in Paul’s theology. We have “already” put off the old man but we have “not yet” grown into a life of consistency with that new identity.

The bottom line, then, is this: There is a world of difference, indeed it is the difference between heaven and hell (!), between working “to” or “for” life as if to put God in your debt, and working “from” and “because of” a life that God has already graciously and mercifully bestowed.

By grace becoming the new man I already am,