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Have you ever found yourself asking the question, “What is God doing in me, why is he doing it, and how?” Sadly, we often respond to that question with simplistic and unbiblical answers that cater to personal preferences and conform to what we want the Christian life to be.

There are, in fact, a number of different but compatible images, models, and metaphors in the New Testament that account for and explain the Christian life: it’s a war, it’s a walk, it’s a washing; it’s a romance, it’s a race, it’s a renovation. We are exhorted to fight against sin and be filled with the Spirit, to submit to our leaders and serve our Lord. The list could go on endlessly.

But there are certain common elements and themes that hold it all together and make sense of what we call “Sanctification”. Three of them are found in Colossians 3:10 and are deserving of our attention. Forgive the alliteration and observe how Paul speaks of the process, the purpose, and the pattern of every Christian’s life.

This “new self” (ESV) that we “put on” when we came to faith in Christ and were identified with him in water baptism “is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). All three elements are found in this passage.

(1) Let’s begin with the Process. It is, after all, a process and not a singular or momentary event. That is why we speak of “progressive” sanctification. Becoming what God desires of us is incremental, not instantaneous. I’d actually prefer it be the latter, but God knows better than I (surprise!). Divine wisdom dictates that we grow by fits and starts, by trial and error, by three steps forward and two back. This is suggested by Paul’s use of the present passive, “is being renewed” (Col. 3:10; the only other place where Paul uses this verb in the present passive is in 2 Corinthians 4:16 where he says that in spite of outer decay “our inner nature is being renewed day by day”).

Although we certainly have a responsibility to avail ourselves of the means of grace, God is always antecedent. Were he not first to work for us, there would be no work by us (cf. Phil. 2:12-13). The renewal is ultimately his doing (hence Paul’s use of the passive). He is the ultimate and efficient cause of all change from selfish to selfless, from rebellious to repentant, from bondage to our fleshly impulses to the freedom of being like Jesus.  

As Garland points out, “Paul does not urge the Colossians to amend their lives for the better, to reform their ways, or to make minor modifications in the direction of their lives. . . . [Rather] it is a matter of a new creation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), not just giving up a few vices and accepting a few virtues. One’s whole nature must be exchanged, not just revamped” (206). Paradoxically, this experience, says Moule, requires “a continual ‘mortification’ of what is, in fact, already dead, a continual actualization of an already existing new creation” (120).

(2) The Purpose or goal of this process of renewal is “knowledge” (3:10), or perhaps “ever-increasing knowledge” would be more accurate. But knowledge of what, of whom? Most likely it is either of God (Col. 1:10), his will (Col. 1:9), or even of Christ (Col. 2:2; cf. Eph. 1:17; 4:13).

This is virtually synonymous with what Paul wrote in Romans 12:2 – “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Christian growth is not the result of the crucifixion of the mind or the suspension of its exercise in deference to the spirit. Progressive renewal, that daily “putting to death” of fleshly behavior, only comes as the mind is renewed, not repressed or rejected. The mind, far from being the obstacle to Christian growth, is the object of the Spirit’s daily renovation, cleansing, informing, and illumining.

Ignorance is the mortal enemy of sanctification and a Christ-like life. There is certainly more to the Christian life than knowledge, but there is no Christian life without it. Knowledge may not be sufficient in itself, but it is absolutely necessary and apart from which all other expressions of alleged conformity to Christ ring hollow and useless.

(3) There is also a Pattern or standard or measure in accordance with which this process unfolds. It is “after the image of its creator” (3:10). We could as easily render this “according to the image of its creator” or “in conformity with the image of its creator” (cf. Eph. 4:24).

In the NT, “God” is typically the subject of the verb “create”. However, since Christ is consistently portrayed as the “image” of God (see Col. 1:15; also Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 4:4; Phil. 2:6), Paul probably means that our re-creation is “after the pattern of Christ” who is God’s perfect image. In other words, “God created ‘the new person/humanity’ and is now renewing it after the pattern of Christ, who is God’s image” (Murray Harris, 153). This ongoing process [of renewal, of re-creation] “continues until a full knowledge of God is acquired and Christians finally bear ‘the image of the heavenly man’ [cf. 1 Cor. 15:49] . . . as the result of a resurrection transformation” (153).

As I suggested in an earlier lesson, I don’t want to grow into the fullness of who I am, but into the fullness of who Christ is. All my aspirations are submissive to his in me. He is the paradigm for life. He is the model for living. He is the standard of my sanctification.

The image of the Creator himself, who is preeminently Jesus Christ, serves as the archetype for the renewal of the believer. Christ-likeness, comprehensively conceived, is the goal of renewal and our progressive transformation. God’s aim in us and our aim through him is to think like Jesus, to love like Jesus, to feel and act and speak like Jesus. This is the essence of Christian living. Whatever other image or metaphor or model we use to explain “what God is doing in me, why he is doing it, and how,” at its center and core is conformity to Christ.

To be like him,