As people who have been made new and alive in Christ, Christians must intentionally and corporately live according to their election as God’s holy and beloved people by bringing their whole lives into accord with their new covenant identity and God’s example in Christ.
Introduction – A while back the local hospital called me in to visit a young man who had been in a car accident several days earlier. He wanted to speak to a Christian minister. It didn’t take long for me to figure out he was a believer and church attender. As we talked I learned the name of his church and pastor. But I was stumped by this man’s request for me, an unknown volunteer chaplain, instead of someone from his own church family. What came next cleared up the mystery. It turns out he “goes to church” most of the time by viewing the worship service’s simulcast on the internet! Why would someone trade the local church for the virtual church? What makes this seem like a good trade?
The local church is a demanding community in which to live. Who can be thankful in everything, giving each other forgiveness, love, and instruction in the name of Jesus—over and over again? Who has the forbearance, endurance, and abiding joy to stay in relationships inevitably marred by sin? Life is too short. Why can’t I be independent and maintain my relationship with God the way I choose?
Background – The concept of covenant saturates this passage. In the Bible, a covenant is a sacred and binding relationship. A covenant relationship is governed by commands and the blessings that flow from keeping them. In the new covenant God creates for us a “new self” corporate identity based on a restored relationship with him, it requires a “new self” obedience, and it promises “new self” blessings. All in all, new covenant life is a new way of living. It is life “in Christ”—Jesus in you and you in him.
I. “New Self” Identity (Who Is It?)
A. Chosen and called (vv. 12, 15)
The doctrines of election and calling are sometimes discussed in such a way that lead to protests about God’s fairness (Rom 9-11). But in this context there is no such debate. If you are elect in Christ for salvation, you are called to “be who you are”. When God’s elect put on their new self as they are called to do, they testify to their salvation and declare God’s glory by blessing others and demonstrating the truth, beauty, and goodness of the gospel.
B. Holy and beloved (v. 12)
God loves you and therefore sets you apart as different from the old self. God set us apart as his chosen bride. We are married to Christ. To put on the new self is to be faithful to him. To not put off the old self would be like the bride running off with the best man after the wedding. It is just as appalling and unnatural for Christians to keep on living for the world and the flesh.
C. Forgiven, redeemed, and adopted (vv. 13, 17)
There are three indicators pointing to our salvation from sin. “As the Lord has forgiven you” (v. 13); redeemed to call Jesus “Lord” (vv. 13, 17); and adopted to call God “Father” (v. 17). All of these were accomplished at the cross for the Church, and applied to you when you were saved.
II. “New Self” Commands (To What Does It Call You?)
A. Repair relationships (vv. 12-14)
1. Bearing with one another by putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. What does this look like? There are many heroic biblical examples of this. Remember Ananias forgiving Saul of Tarsus. Or David forgiving Saul’s family by showing kindness to Mephibosheth the son of his beloved friend Jonathan and grandson of his sworn enemy. Or Jesus forgiving Peter’s three denials. All are wonderful examples, but none is more poignant Joseph son of Israel. Consider how Joseph (as he pictures Christ) treated his brothers after their father Jacob died (Gen 50:15-21). Compassion (pity, tender mercy) is an emotional engagement with the hurting and broken (Mt 9:36; cf. Gen 43:30; 45:1-4). Kindness (goodness, generosity) is a readiness to do good even when it is undeserved (Mt 5:43-48; 1 Thess 2:7-12). Humility is taking a posture of servanthood and lowliness to curb the impulse to obtain honor and rise in the pecking order (Jn 13:14-17; Phil 2:1-11). Meekness (gentleness, courtesy, considerateness) is a soft touch in offering help so as not to coerce when encouraging positive change in others. It’s a submissiveness under provocation, a willingness to suffer injury rather than inflict injury, a power to offer criticism that is received as help and not condemnation (Mt 11:29; 2 Tim 2:25). Patience (steadfastness, endurance, forbearance, long-suffering) is a willingness to endure wrongs, to take the long view when confronted with human frailty, weakness, frustration (Rom 2:4; 1 Tim 1:16).
2. Forgiving one another to the same extent God forgave you. This is not optional. “So you must also forgive.” Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus: “Forgive us our debts and we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12). Remember the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-35). No one is indebted to you because of sin more than you are indebted to God. Forgiving your brother or sister in Christ is not something we promise to try to grant if we can only find the strength to say I forgive you and feel it with 100% sincerity. If that is the bar you set then you will never actually clear it. Forgiveness is harder the more heinous the sin (Jn 19:11; WLC 150-151; WSC 83). But it should become easier the more you realize how much God forgives you.
3. Putting on the new self clothing without securing it all with love is useless. Love binds all the other virtues together. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8). Love fulfills the commands (Rom 13:8-10). Love never fails (1 Cor 13:8). Once damaged, no relationship and no community can be repaired without a love that keeps these new self commands.
B. Build relationships (vv. 15-17)
Often when the Bible gives commands the corresponding blessings are so closely associated they are difficult to distinguish. God does this because keeping his law not only leads to blessing, but we actually experience blessing in keeping the commandments. That is why the Psalmist can say “Oh how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97). This is what we find in these commands to build relationships. The idea is that we allow, permit, or let God’s blessings permeate our relationships in the church. Letting the peace of Christ, the word of Christ, and a thankfulness to Christ all take hold in us builds us up as one body. There is a symbiotic connection between the quiet trusting of “let go and let God” (Prov 3:5-6; Phil 4:6) and the faithful striving of “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God” (Phil 4:13).
III. “New Self” Blessings (What Does It Make of You?)
A. Peace of Christ in your hearts (v. 15)
The peace of Christ contributes to the rest and contentment believers have in their living Redeemer. The knowledge that past sins have been forgiven in Christ, present sins are being overruled in Christ’s good work in us, and the future is hopeful because of our certain salvation resting on Christ’s perfect and finished work. This peace should rule and reign in the hearts of Christians (Phil 4:5-7).
Sometimes Christians mistake peace of heart for the peace of Christ. It is possible to feel a false peace that is still outside the will of God. Jonah was able to rest in peace at the bottom of the ship while a storm raged above—a storm that God sent specifically to disturb Jonah. Jonah was “at peace” when his sins created the storm!
One indication that the peace of Christ is not ruling in your heart is if your relationships in the church are not marked by harmony and peace. How can you say you are at peace with God when you are at war with your brothers in Christ? Imagine your heart, with all its conflicting emotions, desires, and loyalties, as ruled by an umpire whose name is The Peace of Christ. He decides what is right and what is wrong.
Kent Hughes tells a story from the Salvation Army of “Warrior Brown,” a woman with a fiery temper—until she was converted. A short time later at an open-air meeting she was sharing her testimony of God making her a new person. When a scoffer in the crowd hurled a potato that struck her hard, people waited for Warrior Brown explode in retaliation. But when she uneventfully picked up the potato, put it in her pocket, and continued her testimony, the incident was forgotten—until a few months later. At harvest time Ms. Brown brought a sack of potatoes as an offering to the Lord. She explained that instead of fighting, she had chosen peace. She had sliced up that “insulting potato,” planted it, and brought the increase as a peace offering. The woman who had formerly been Warrior Brown chose to let the peace of Christ rule in her heart.
In your heart, when anger flairs up in an instant, when your fears and hopes clash, when distrust and trust wage war with each other, when jealousy and love seek to tear your affections in opposite directions, let the rule of peace decide your choices. You cannot live authentically when your heart is in conflict with itself. You cannot choose to wear the old and new selves at the same time. Instead, choose what will promote the peace of Christ in your soul and your church. This is not the peace the world offers (lack of open conflict), for mutual silence may reveal a suppressed yet very real conflict. The peace of Christ is shalom—a wholeness and flourishing of relationships where loving harmony abounds. We are called as one body to this kind of peace in Christ’s Church. The peace of Christ is a new self blessing.
B. Word of Christ living in you (v. 16)
Christ living in you is not exactly the same thing as the word of Christ living in you. There is always a danger for churches to minimize the word of God. What are some of the ways churches do this today? Sermons deviate from a simple teaching of the Bible, substituting stories, movie clips, and tips for living a happy life. Worship services steer away from the public reading of whole sections of God’s word, instead reading a verse or two (if that) and occupying the majority of time with performances, entertainments, and announcements. Sunday Schools don’t train children and adults how to read, study, memorize, meditate on, and apply God’s Word. Many Christians cannot honestly say that God’s word dwells in them richly because they do not take the time (apart from the weekly worship gathering) to know the Bible.
Warren Wiersbe writes, “Someone has said that a successful Christian life involves attention to three books: God’s Book, the Bible; the pocketbook; and the hymn book…As a believer grows in his knowledge of the Word, he will want to grow in his expression of praise. He will learn to appreciate the great hymns of the church, the Gospel songs, and the spiritual songs that teach spiritual truths. To sing only the elementary songs of the faith is to rob himself of spiritual enrichment.”
C. Power and desire in you to live like Christ (vv. 14, 17)
1. If you are struggling to love and forgive, the key is to reflect and rejoice again in how much God has loved and forgiven you. It cannot remain impossible to forgive someone who has sinned against you when you remember God’s amazing grace demonstrated in the cross. Realizing God’s immeasurable love and forgiveness, which you did not deserve, will help you to love and forgive others. Only Christians have this amazing resource to draw on to gain the will and power to forgive. Why? Because only the Christian is forgiven by God on the basis of another’s worthiness. This is how “forgiveness” works for people who are not Christians: “I’ll forgive you if you are worthy of it.” Only the Christian comes to God as a sinner and finds free grace for himself that cost God the death of himself (in his Son Jesus Christ). Only that kind of love and forgiveness can empower and enrich a person to forgive when it easier to just end the relationship or more desirable to keep the person in your debt.
2. If you are struggling to build relationships with other Christians in the church, then be thankful God has given you the power and desire to build others up. Realize those issues that keep you apart are probably less important than you think. Strive for the peace of Christ, which means as a peacemaker you may need to enter into “peace talks.” We are all called to live at peace with our fellow believers. It is what you were saved for, as God’s chosen and called, holy and beloved, forgiven, redeemed, and adopted children. Teach and lovingly warn each other according to the wisdom God has given you from his Word. One way we teach and admonish is through congregational singing. Strive to make your singing a relational activity. Share a hymnal together. Stand close to one another. Look at and smile at each other while you sing. You know that look Christians give each other when they realize they’re sharing the joy of the Lord at the same time? It’s a goofy grin, coupled with an eye twinkle, and an ever-so-slight head-nod. Don’t be ashamed of these expressions of familial love. Embrace them as our peculiar ways to embrace other believers. Be thankful to God in everything you do.
Conclusion – Summary of exhortations: (1) Imitate Jesus’ compassionate, forgiving example; (2) let Christian love guide your life; (3) let the peace of Christ rule in your heart; (4) always be thankful; (5) keep God’s word in you at all times; and (6) live as Jesus’ representative. At first sight, all of these seem easier to do apart from relationship with other believers in the church. But once you think about it, none of these are possible without practicing them in relationship. Putting on the new self is something individual Christians do because together we belong to the whole body of Christ who is our head. Therefore let us together put off the old self which is dead to sin, and together put on the new self which is Christ.