In his letter to the Colossians, Paul encourages his Christian readers to put to death the negative things (sin) that may have been a reality in their pre-conversion life and to put on—like a garment—the better things that should be a normal part of the Christian spiritual life. Just the fact that Paul is encouraging the Colossians to make this change suggests that this kind of transformation is not an automatic aspect of the impartation of the Holy Spirit upon regeneration as one might have hoped. And Paul has some experience in this aspect of Christian living as he confesses that even as a Christian he does the things he does not want to do and fails to do the things he desires to do.1 Yet this is no excuse. Paul still admonishes his readers, to include today’s Christians, and even myself, to make this wardrobe change daily.
Paul starts with the things that must go. He tells his readers that they must ‘put off’ the old self. This old self is the negative actions and attitudes of their earthly ways, which he lists as “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (which he calls idolatry).2
He continues by adding “anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk” and he includes lying to one another in the following sentence.3
Two words are used that liken the removal of these items to garments or coverings. The first is apotithēmi, which Stong indicates is to “put off, case off, laid down, lay apart, lay aside [or a] putting away.”4 The second word is very much like the first. It is apekdyomai, which means, “to put off, take off, [or to] divest wholly of.”5 Both of these words paint a picture of the old ways for old self being shed off like an article of clothing and the same picture is used when Paul discusses which articles should be put on. But Paul’s instruction is not simply to remove the rags of the old ways and drop them on the floor. He says to put them to death.6 And in fact, these old ways are not simply garments, they are the old self, that is, they are what the believer once was. Unfortunately, these rags still clothe the believer from time to time, which is why they must die, so they do not return, so they will never be worn again.
And when the believer takes off these items, metaphorically striped to nothing but nakedness, Paul encourages the believer to put on robes of another kind. Paul says, “put on the new self.”7 This self, it seems, presents the believer as in the image of the Creator. This image is much like that found in Genesis 1:26 before the fall; however, before sin there was no need for clothing, fig leaves, animal flesh, or the attribute robes of which Paul speaks. These clothes, and the image of the new self, are “holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” and above these garments like the belt that holds it all together in perfect harmony is love.8 The idea presented to the Colossians, which should also be applied to believers today, is to shed the old self (the sin nature) and replace it with the very image of God. And in doing so, Paul demonstrates what the practical results will look like—peace with one another, gratitude, teaching and admonishing one another for positive growth and worship through “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” all done with thankful hearts.
It is one thing to understand what the text means, and what Paul is really telling his readers to do—that is, to willing move toward sanctification—but it is another thing all together when one thinks of how this is done. Is it as easy as taking off a garment or putting a new one on? The truth of the biblical narrative is that this task is impossible for us to do. We fall short every time when we think in these terms because we often think of taking off and putting on in terms of our own work and our own doing.
Looking at the bigger picture of Paul’s teachings within the context of the Bible, the only way we are to truly mortify and kill these sins and then put on the new self, the very image of God, is through a total submission to God. It is only through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, be it through his conviction, his empowering, his gifting, and by the fruit of the Spirit that any of this is possible. Therefore, it would seem that Paul is actually telling his readers that one must be willing and prepared to be undressed and redressed. After all, the best Adam and Eve could come up with on their own was fig leaves. It was God who clothed them. And one day, God’s people will be clothed by God in robes of righteousness.9
The next question for this post then is this: Is there anything a person can do to be willing and prepared? The answer is yes. This is where spiritual formation is involved. Through a diligent effort to grow and develop in the area of our spiritual desires toward God, we can help prepare our hearts and minds for this continual transformation in our post conversation lives. We can strive for a diet of meat rather than remaining content on a milk like those the author of Hebrews addresses in Hebrews 6. We can engage in prayer and fasting, journaling and service. We can study and know the Word of God. We worship through singing, music, poetry, and many other art forms. Scripture memorization might also help shape the heart. Small groups that encourage open and honest discussion and support are yet another example of activities that help one grow in the spiritual life.
And I would like to conclude with a personal reflection upon my own efforts to grow and develop the spiritual life. I keep a regular habit of morning Scripture reading and prayer. This is not study, just reading as if to drink in the Word of God. I also keep a journal of prayer items and requests that I try to pray for regularly. This journal includes Scriptures that I like to pray through and meditate upon. It also contains a list of every lost person I know so that I may pray for them by name, usually about five a day. Later in the day I work on a Bible study to get much deeper into a specific passage. I teach a Sunday school class for adults and often the topic I teach tends to result in specific aspects of that lesson teaching me much that week. I meet with a group of men in an effort to seek help identifying the things that I need to put off and things I need to put on. Once we have identified them, we pray for God’s work to be done in our lives. This group of men also meets on Thursday evenings in a group that includes our wives where we pray and study together. And as a chaplain at the VA hospital, I often meet with other chaplains in much the same way as I meet with the men of the small group. This helps me serve better. I believe these are among some of the things I do to help me be willing to put off the old self and put on the new. I pray that I am always willing to mortify who I was in myself and put on the image of God as I am becoming the new self God has called me to become.
Strong, James, John R. Kohlenberger, and James A. Swanson. The Strongest Strong's Exhaustive
Concordance of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001.