COLOSSIANS 3:12.—“Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.”
IT appears singular to the reader of St. Paul’s Epistles, that the apostle in one passage speaks of Christians as perfect, and in another as imperfect. At one time, he describes them in terms that would lead us to infer that they are holy as God is holy; and at another, he speaks of them as full of sin and corruption. In the text, he denominates them “the elect of God holy and beloved,” and yet immediately proceeds to exhort them to the possession and practice of the most common Christian graces—such as humility and forgiveness. In a preceding paragraph, he tells the Colossians that they “are dead to sin, and their life is hid with Christ in God,” and then goes on to urge them to overcome some of the most gross sins in the whole catalogue—“mortify, therefore, your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness which is idolatry.” (Coloss. 3:3–5.)
This characteristic is very strikingly exhibited in St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians. We know from both of the letters which he wrote to this church, that there was much corruption within it. Planted in the midst of one of the most vicious cities of the pagan world, the converts to Christianity had been drawn forth from a very unclean paganism, and after their conversion they were exposed to the strongest temptations. Some of their number yielded to them. The apostle calls upon the Corinthian church to discipline one of its members for incest; he rebukes them for their shameful abuse of the Lord’s Supper; for their party spirit, and jealousies, that led them to take sides with men—with Paul, and Apollos, and Cephas; and for the bickerings and litigations that arrayed Christian against Christian, even in the courts of the idolatrous pagan. And yet, in the opening of his first Epistle, St. Paul addresses such a church as this, in the following terms:
“I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you; so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:4–8.)
How are we to explain such opposite representations? Is the Christian “holy and beloved,” and yet at the same time vile and polluted? Is he “dead to sin and his life hid with Christ in God,” and also a wretched man “tied to the body of this death,” and crying out, “Who shall deliver me?” Can he say with the Psalmist, “Preserve me, O my God, for I am holy,” and with Isaiah, “I am undone, I am a man of unclean lips?” Does St. Paul correctly describe the experience of a renewed man, both when he utters himself in the confident phrase: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me;” and when he expresses his anxieties in the affirmation, that he struggles daily with indwelling corruption, and “keeps his body under, lest he should be a cast-away from God?” It is even so.
This is one of the paradoxes of Christianity, as Lord Bacon calls them.
“A Christian,” he says, “is one that believes things his reason cannot comprehend, and hopes for things which neither he nor any man alive ever saw; he believes three to be one, and one to be three, a father not to be older than his son, and a son to be equal with his father; he believes himself to be precious in God’s sight, and yet loathes himself in his own; he dares not justify himself even in those things wherein he can find no fault with himself, and yet believes that God accepts him in those services wherein he is able to find many faults; he is so ashamed as that he dares not open his mouth before God, and yet he comes with boldness to God, and asks him anything he needs; he hath within him both flesh and spirit, yet he is not a double-minded man; he is often led captive by the law of sin, yet, it never gets dominion over him; he cannot sin, yet can do nothing without sin; he is so humble as to acknowledge himself to deserve nothing but evil; and yet he believes that God means him all good.”
These are contradictions to the carnal mind. These things are foolishness to the Greek. Richard Porson, one of the most learned classical scholars that England ever saw, and a profound admirer of Lord Bacon, tells his reader that he knows not what to make of this list of paradoxes, and actually raises the query, whether Lord Bacon might not have had a fit of skepticism, at the time he penned them. This “specification of the characteristics of a believing Christian,” by the most sober and sagacious of English philosophers and statesmen, which the believing Christian cannot peruse without profound admiration at the depth of its evangelical insight, and tender emotion for the comfort it gives him—this delineation of the inmost heart of the gospel, and of the Christian experience, actually raised doubts in the mind of a learned man of this world, whether Bacon of Verulam was not the subject of a lurking skepticism! “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23.)
These paradoxes are not self-contradictions. The declaration: “When I am weak, then I am strong,” does not affirm and deny the same thing. It affirms that when the sinful and helpless man feels and confesses his utter impotence, then the holy and almighty God comes to his rescue and salvation. The affirmation that the Christian “believes himself to be precious in God’s sight, yet loathes himself in his own; that he is often led captive by sin, yet it does not get dominion over him;” is self-consistent and true, because one side of the proposition does not conflict with the other side. Verbally contradictory it is logically harmonious.
In the light of these remarks, let us proceed to explain how it is, that the apostle Paul can address a very imperfect church like the Colossian, with the title of “holy and beloved;” and why the Word of God calls an imperfectly sanctified believer a “saint?”
The reason why a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, although struggling with sin here on earth, is designated by the very same term employed to describe the pure and perfect spirits in heaven, lies in the fact that he is a new creature. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” If a man’s moral nature has undergone a radical change, it is proper to speak of him with reference to such a transformation, and to employ language that in another connection and reference would be both strange and untrue.
Suppose, for illustration, that the genius of John Milton, by the miraculous power of God, should have been converted in the fourth year of his age into the genius of Isaac Newton. Suppose that the poetical nature of the author of the Paradise Lost, should have been transformed into the scientific nature of the author of the Principia, at an early period in life, before the maturity of the mental powers had arrived. In this case, would it not be correct and proper to employ concerning this “new man” within the man Milton, this new basis for thought and investigation, all the phraseology which we now apply to Sir Isaac Newton? Though only four years old, and though the relics of the old poetical nature might be still lingering in him, like fragments of rich crimson tapestry in an old royal palace, still we could say of this youthful convert from poetry to science, that he was a perfect mathematician; that the law of gravitation was within his ken; that the theorems of the Principia were all scored in his young brain.
That which is inlaid in man by the power of God is destined to a development; and the unfolding cannot be thwarted. And therefore it is, that we may describe a morally renewed man, in the very opening of his career, by terms and phraseology derived from the close of it. We may call him a “perfect” man, because he is destined to become such. We may call him a “saint,” because God has elected him to be one, and will carry out his purpose. We may call him a citizen of the kingdom of heaven on high, because a principle of holiness has been implanted within him that will bring him there.
Such application of language is spontaneous and natural to us, in daily life. Whenever we discover an inward basis for a particular result, we do not hesitate to speak of the result as if it had already occurred. You see, for illustration, a man lying upon a bed in a hospital, and are told that he is sick with pulmonary consumption. The hollow cheek, the hectic flush, the emaciated flesh, the gasping inspiration, all show that the man is in the last stages of that terrible disease concerning which Machiavelli remarks, that “in the beginning it is easy to cure but difficult to understand, but in the end, is easy to understand and difficult to cure.” As you look upon him, you say to yourself: “He is a dead man.” You spontaneously anticipate the natural result. The breath of life is still in him. He looks into your eyes with the glance of human intelligence. He is not cold and silent in death. He speaks to you, and you to him. Yet you say: “He is a dead man.” There is a basis for death in him. The principle of mortality, the power of death, is within him, and you merely ante-date, by a few days, weeks or months, its inevitable consequences and results.
The Scriptures reason in the same manner, concerning the state and condition of the unrenewed man. They call him dead, long before his body actually dies, and long before his soul feels the pangs of the second death. Though the sinner is apparently happy and well, engaged in the business and pleasures of earth, the blood coursing vividly in his veins, and his spirits bounding and free, yet the solemn and truthful Word of God describes him in terms that are borrowed from the dust and crumble of the tomb. They never regard him, or call him, a living man. “Awake, O sleeper, and Christ shall give thee life,” is the startling tone in which they speak to the impenitent man of business, and man of pleasure. Christ everywhere represents it as his mission, to impart life. The Son of man is lifted up upon the atoning cross, “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. He that believeth not the Son shall not see life. Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. If one died for all, then were all dead.”
This is the view which the Scriptures take of every unregenerate man, because they perceive in him a principle of sin, and spiritual disease, that will just as surely develop into the death and woe of hell, as the principle of physical disease will expand and unfold into the pangs and dissolution of the body. As in the instance of the renewed man, the Scriptures ante-date the natural and certain consequences of the new birth, and anticipate the natural and certain results of the new principle of spiritual life, and denominate the Christian a saint, holy and beloved, long before he reaches the heavenly world, and long before he attains to sinless perfection, so upon the same principle, they ante-date the sure and unfailing development of sin in the natural man, and, long before he actually enters the sad world of woe, speak of him as dead and lost. On the side of sin, as well as on the side of holiness, it is natural and proper to see the fruit in the seed, and to attribute to the little seed, all the properties and qualities of the ripe and perfected fruit. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that also shall he reap.”
Let us now consider some of the lessons, that are taught by the fact that God denominates his imperfectly sanctified people, “holy and beloved,” the “saints of the Most High God.”
I. The first lesson to be derived from this subject is, that the child of God should not be discouraged because he discovers indwelling sin, and imperfection, within himself.
A believer in the Lord Jesus Christ ought never to be discouraged. He ought to be humble, watchful, nay, sometimes fearful, but never despondent, or despairing. David, Paul, and the Colossian church were imperfect. But they were new men in Christ Jesus, and they are now perfectly holy and happy in heaven.
The duty of the Christian is, to assure himself upon scriptural grounds of his regeneration, and then to “work out his salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God that worketh in him to will and to do.” The fact that he is a new creature, if established, is a proof that God is helping him in the struggle with indwelling sin; and when God helps, victory is sure in the end. Believers are commanded to “examine themselves,” not for the purpose of seeing whether they are perfectly sanctified, but “whether they be in the faith.” We may make our self-examination minister to our discouragement, and hindrance in the Christian race, if, instead of instituting it for the purpose of discovering whether we have a penitent spirit, and do cordially accept Christ as our righteousness, we enter upon it for the purpose of discovering if we are entirely free from corruption. Remainders of the old fallen nature may exist in connection with true faith in Christ, and a new heart.
Paul bemoans himself, saying: “The good which I would I do not; but the evil which I would not that I do.” But Paul was certain that he trusted in the blood of Christ for the remission of sin; that he was a new man in Christ Jesus, and influenced by totally different motives from those that actuated him when he persecuted the Church of Christ; that he loved Christ more than the whole universe, and “counted all things but dung that he might win Christ,” and become a perfect creature in him.
The first and chief thing, therefore, which the Christian should have in his eye, in all his self-examination, is, to determine upon scriptural grounds whether he is a renewed man.
The evidences of regeneration are plain, and plainly stated. We have already hinted at them. A sense of guilt and cordial acceptance of Christ’s atonement, a desire to be justified by his precious blood, a peaceful confidence in God’s righteousness and method of justifying a sinner—this is the first and infallible token of a new heart, and a right spirit.
Then, secondly, a weariness of sin, “a groaning, being burdened” under its lingering presence and remaining power, a growing desire to be entirely delivered from it, and a purer simpler hungering after holiness—these are the other evidences of regeneration.
Search yourselves to see whether these things be in you, and if you find them really, though it may be faintly and feebly, in your experience, do not be discouraged because along with them you discover remaining corruption. Remember that as a man struck with death is a dead man, so a soul that has been quickened into life is a living soul, even though the remnants of disease still hang about it and upon it. The “new man” in Christ Jesus will eventually slay stone-dead the “old man” of sin. The “strong man” has entered into the house, and bound the occupant hand and foot, and he will in time “spoil his house.”
The truth that God will carry forward his work in the renewed soul, and that the principle of piety implanted by Divine grace will develop to perfection, may indeed be abused by the false Christian; but this is no reason why the genuine child of God should not use it for his encouragement, and progress in this divine life.
One of the evidences of regeneration, however, if considered, will prevent all misuse of the doctrine of the saint’s perseverance. A “groaning, being burdened” by the remaining presence of sin, is a sign of being a new creature. How can a man have this grief and sadness of heart at the sight of his indwelling corruption, and at the same time roll sin as a sweet morsel under the tongue? How shall one, whose great burden it is, that he is tied to the body of sin and death, proceed to make that burden heavier and heavier, by a life of ease, indifference and worldliness? “How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?” No, my brother, if you really groan, being burdened because you are still so worldly, so proud, so selfish, so sinful, you are a new creature.
You never did this in the days of your impenitency. You were “alive without the law,” then. You did not feel the heavy, weary, weight pressing down upon you. You did not say with the Psalmist, as you now do: “My sin is ever before me.” This very imperfection which you now painfully feel, is the very evidence that you are on the way to perfection; it is the sign that there is a new principle of holiness implanted in your soul, one of whose effects is this very consciousness of remaining corruption, and one of whose glorious results will be the final and eternal eradication of it, when the soul leaves the body and enters paradise.
II. The second lesson taught by the subject, is the duty of the Christian to cultivate the new nature, and develop the new principle of holiness.
“Put on,” says St. Paul, “as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.” By this, it is not to be understood, that mercifulness, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, are graces that are to be originated by the Christian, and added to his character by his own agency. These are traits that belong intrinsically to the “new man” in Christ Jesus. These are qualities that issue from the “new heart,” and the “right spirit,” which the regenerating power of God has originated. To “put them on,” therefore, is to put them forth; to elicit them; to draw them out from within, and exhibit them in daily life. They are all contained germinally in the regenerate mind; and the particular duty which is devolved upon the believer is that of training them.
Do you ask, How? We answer: By taking every occasion to exercise them. One of the graces is “kindness”—a gentle, affectionate, benevolent feeling towards every fellow-creature. Every opportunity that you seize to give expression to such a sentiment, elicits what is within you; it draws upon the reserve and strength of your religious character in that particular direction, and trains it. Why is it that these “bowels of mercies,” as St. Paul phrases it; this yearning compassion for the human soul; is so striking a characteristic of devoted teachers in church schools and mission schools, in home and foreign missionaries, and in all that class of Christians who are engaged in personal efforts for the salvation of men? It is because they “put on” this particular grace, by exerting it in daily life. Strain day after day upon a particular muscle, and it will begin to swell and rise above the flesh. You do not create the muscle by this effort, but you stimulate and strengthen it.
There is too much Christian character lying dormant, and latent, because there is so much neglect of self-culture in the Church. We have no confidence in the attempt to cultivate an unrenewed man into piety. He must be born again, in order that there may be something to cultivate—something to educate, to elicit, in St. Paul’s phrase, to “put on.” But we have great confidence in the endeavor to cultivate a really renewed man. When a new heart has been formed, a new character has been produced, a new principle of religious life has been implanted by the Holy Spirit, then no process is more successful and beautiful than the process of cultivation. It is like cultivating a garden full of living things. Every prudent use of the pruning-knife; every ministry of earth, air, water, and nourishment; contributes to elicit the vital powers and principles. Just so it is in the garden of the Lord.
If Christians were only as diligent in self-cultivation as many an ambitious student is, nay, as many an ascetic papist or pagan devotee is, their growth would surprise even themselves. The secular scholar shuts himself from business and pleasure; he “scorns delights, and lives laborious days;” in order that he may gain renown, and “leave something so written to after-times as men will not willingly let die.” Suppose that every professing Christian should devote himself with an equal assiduity, to the training of his own soul in divine knowledge and piety. Suppose that, like the scholar, he should make business and pleasure second and subservient to the one ruling principle of his mind and heart. Would not that principle—and he has professed before angels and men, that it is the principle of faith in Christ’s blood—be as powerfully stimulated, and as vigorously elicited, as is the principle of literary ambition in the ardent and toiling student?
Suppose, again, that every member of the Christian Church should spend as many hours in prayer, as many a Papist or Mohammedan does in his daily devotions, would not the religious character of the Church be stronger, deeper, and purer than it now is? Suppose that all the myriads and millions in the visible Church were as self-sacrificing as the Hindoo ascetic who walks, perhaps creeps, hundreds of miles, to pay his devotions at a pagan shrine; who swings himself round and round upon the sharp hooks, or mortifies his body even to mutilation—suppose that there were the same readiness to make an effort to be highly religious, in the average of professing Christians, that there is in these select few of the Papal Church, or the Mohammedan world, would not the results and fruits be remarkable?
For you will bear in mind, that a given amount of power applied from a sanctified motive, and principle, will accomplish vastly more than when applied from an unsanctified motive and principle. If at heart you are a moralist, or a worldling, your attempt to be holy and obedient to God will accomplish nothing in the long run, because your heart is not right with God. All your effort to be good, and to do good, from an unregenerate position, is a dead lift. But if you are renewed in the spirit of your mind, then all your endeavors to cultivate yourself in holiness; all your self-denial, mortification of the body, and devotion to duty; is like the application of mechanical power at the end of a long lever, and over a firm fulcrum. The renewed man possesses what the mechanic terms a “purchase.” His lift is not a dead lift, like that of the Pagan or Mohammedan devotee; like that of the Roman Catholic ascetic; like that of the Protestant moralist.
“Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.”
As those who have been renewed by Divine grace, and who possess a different spirit and character from that which belonged to you in the days of your impenitence, educate and elicit every Christian grace. Cultivate your Christianity. It is worth cultivating. It is worth protecting from the cold blasts, and rude assaults of earth. Fence in the vineyard of the Lord. Put a hedge around it. Then the wild-boar of the wood shall not ravage it; then the soil shall not be trodden down to hardness and barrenness, by the feet of the passers-by.
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 302–314.