In Colossians 3, the Apostle Paul gives us a great image of sanctification (the process of slowly but surely, by the power of the Holy Spirit, being grown in holiness and maturity).
In VS. 5-11, he challenges the Colossian believers to “put to death” (or “put off”) old, sinful, earthly ways of thinking, acting, and speaking from before they knew Jesus. “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away…” (VS. 7-8A).
In VS. 12-17, he challenges the Colossian believers to “put on” holiness. They are to love each other, be humble and patient, forgive each other, be guided by Christ, and do everything in his name with thanksgiving. In short, they are to do the opposite of what they would have done before they met Jesus.
I love the imagery of “putting off” and “putting on” because it’s so simple and relatable. As you get ready to leave for some special occasion, you do everything you can to look presentable. You clip your nails, trim your nose hairs, shine your shoes, and double-check to make sure you put on deodorant. You’ve been graciously invited to this event, and you don’t want to insult your host’s generosity and hospitality. One way of showing the host that you’re grateful for the invitation, care about the event, and respect them is through the way you look and act while you’re there. You don’t dress up in hopes that you’ll be invited; you dress up because you’re already invited.
In the same way, sanctification springs from our justification (the one-time, already-accomplished, declaration from God that a sinner is righteous by faith in Jesus’s broken body and shed blood on the cross). We don’t pursue holiness in hopes that God will forgive us of our sins; we pursue holiness because he already has.
Paul makes this point clear in VS. 1-4. The two words that start the paragraph are crucial. “IF THEN you have been raised with Christ…”. As Paul writes those two words (and everything else that follows them), he is assuming that his listeners HAVE BEEN raised with Christ. We also see this point made in VS. 5, with the presence of another word: “therefore”. Paul promises that those who have been raised with Christ (VS. 1) will “appear with him in glory” (VS. 4). The “therefore” of VS. 5 tells us that everything he’s about to say relates back to VS. 1-4.
All the “putting off” and “putting on” of VS. 5-17 follows the reality of VS. 1-4. BECAUSE we have been raised with Christ, BECAUSE we will appear with him in glory – BECAUSE we HAVE BEEN justified – we put off sin and put on holiness right now. Again, we don’t dress up so that we can go to the event; we dress up because we’ve already been invited.
In Biblical interpretation, this is sometimes referred to as the “indicative and the imperative”. An indicative is a statement of fact. An imperative is a command.When it comes to a Christian, here’s the indicative (God’s statement of fact): you are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. And here’s the imperative (God’s command): “put off” sin, and “put on” holiness.
If you get the indicative and the imperative mixed up, you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble. You may be tempted to pursue holiness IN HOPES of earning God’s forgiveness (which is misguided moralism, and is ultimately impossible), rather than pursuing holiness BECAUSE God has forgiven you (which is the healthy, natural outcome of the Gospel, and is glorious).
Again, the takeaways are simple:
Always remember that the indicative comes before the imperative. We do not “put off” sin and “put on” holiness IN HOPES that we will be forgiven and accepted by God; we do it BECAUSE we already are. Sanctification follows and springs from justification; sanctification does not lead to justification. You dress up because you’ve been invited; not the other way around.
What sin do you need to “put off”, and what holiness do you need to “put on”? The Bible is one of the good gifts God has given us for our sanctification; so what blind spots or weaknesses does this passage expose in you? What old, sinful, earthly habits and practices do we need to give up? What new, holy, Spirit-driven habits and practices do we need to pursue? Unlike the one-time event of justification, sanctification is an ongoing process. There’s always room for the Holy Spirit to grow us in godliness.
If you believe in Jesus, you have been raised with Jesus. And one day – when he appears again – you will appear with him in glory. But until that day comes:
“seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (VS. 1B-3)
The Father has declared you righteous through faith in the Son (that’s justification). So now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, act like it (that’s sanctification). “Put off” sin, and “put on” holiness – because you’ve been invited into the family of God.