Text: Colossians 3:12-13
Colossians sets before us a pointed reminder of the preeminence of Christ when it comes to all Christian doctrine and practice. The Christian faith, unlike any other religion, does not focus on laws, not even divine precepts, and certainly not human ordinances. It rejects all forms of legalism. The Christian faith focuses very intently on Christ himself as the revelation of the amazing grace of God in saving a fallen people, chosen by him from eternity. The Christian faith and the divine revelation of the gospel focuses on Christ as the one in whom is revealed God’s everlasting covenant of grace and therefore the joy of the Christian life. Everything serves to reveal Christ to us who are his. That is a gospel desperately needed in our day. It is also a gospel that alone has powerful effects in the lives of those who come under its power. You young adults will not live in holiness without that Christ-centered focus.
The apostle in Colossians 3 begins to unfold the positive fruits of living with a Christ-centered focus and therefore a knowledge of being one with him in his life of victory and exaltation. The life of Christ in us comes to expression by putting on Christian virtues, clothing ourselves with those spiritual virtues which crowd out those sins that otherwise would rise and consume us. Paul points us in verses 12 and 13 to:
OUR PROPER CHRISTIAN ATTIRE
What It Is
With the figurative language of the text we are taken to the closet and shown the spiritual wardrobe of the saints, the attire of those who are beautiful in God’s sight.
When we belong to Christ, we wear a uniform that marks us clearly as belonging to him. The way we live and how we appear must be in harmony with what we claim to be. The failure to do so exposes as imposters, those who claim to belong to Christ.
Now let’s look at this wardrobe, and each of the pieces of that spiritual attire that we are to wear to the glory of God.
The first article of spiritual clothing that we are to put on is bowels of mercies. The bowels refer to the seat of all emotion and affection (Lam. 2:11). The apostle tells us here that if we are new creatures in Christ, then we must be compassionate. One of the most powerful examples of such compassion is given us in Jude, verses 22–23: “And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Talk about reaching outside your comfort zone! That is the compassion, the true Christian sympathy, that is to gird us, as the apostle expresses by this calling to put on bowels of mercies. Such compassion that would reach out to seek another’s spiritual welfare might even be considered foundational to the other virtues set before us in Colossians 3:12. One must truly know by experience the mercies of Christ before he himself will be characterized by kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and longsuffering.
Kindness is the second article of our Christ-like clothing. Our nature, our old man of sin, is full of harshness. There is a tendency to look for the worst in others, to speak evil of others, to exalt ourselves above those around us, even if only in our own minds. But kindness overpowers what is harsh. To put on kindness is to clothe yourself with a grace that pervades and penetrates your whole nature, so that your disposition toward as well as your treatment of others is charitable. You readily understand how important is this article of the Christian’s spiritual clothing. To see in the midst of God’s church those who lack kindness, to see in myself any lack of kindness, is to see the ugliness of Satan himself on display. God knows how often this kindness among us is lacking. He calls us to repentance, which repentance includes a turning from our sin and a putting on bowels of mercies, kindness. It is his kindness, after all, that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
The third piece of that spiritual wardrobe we are to put on is humbleness of mind. There must be not only an expression of humility in our lives, but we are required to put on humbleness of mind, to realize how small we are, that is, to replace that wretched pride of our old natures. We sometimes like to think that the world revolves around self, around my opinions. That pride is inherent in the legalism that the apostle exposed and condemned as the heresy that it is. But have we confronted that pride of our own natures? Have you confronted the pride of your own nature? Looking to Christ we are reminded of the call of Philippians 2:5, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” To put on humbleness of mind is to grow in our knowledge of God and his Christ and to see ourselves in the presence of that brilliant holiness. Only by understanding the exceeding greatness of our sinfulness and the glory of God our redeemer in Christ Jesus as the one in whom we have new life, do we also have a proper perspective of ourselves in relationship to our fellow church members and neighbors. Who am I to think myself higher than my brother?
Then follows that next piece of clothing, meekness. Meekness, or what might also be translated gentleness, marks a person as having a steel-like strength. The supreme characteristic of meekness is that of being under control. One who is meek is not easily provoked with the infirmities and even foolishness of others, but continues to seek their spiritual good. We who live in an imperfect world and an imperfect church with imperfect brothers and sisters in Christ need to clothe ourselves with meekness. Being moderate, restraining our passions, and seeking the peace of Zion is required of us as those who are risen with Christ.
The final article of spiritual clothing mentioned is longsuffering. Longsuffering belongs to the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). This virtue involves not only patience, but also endurance. It is to live in the consciousness of God’s longsuffering toward us, knowing “that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation” (2 Pet. 3:15). Longsuffering expresses itself in the willingness even to bear reproach and persecution for the sake of the gospel.
Let’s not overlook the fact that this beautiful heavenly garment that we are called to put on as those whose life is in Christ Jesus is a wardrobe that can be worn only in fellowship with others. Notice also that we have here an imperative: “Put on.” Such are the fitting garments of the bride of Christ that must be seen in our relationships within our own congregations and families.
Putting On Those Spiritual Garments
These are spiritual virtues. How are we to put on what is essentially spiritual and therefore inward?
You understand that these spiritual garments are the gift of God, who alone adorns us by his Spirit through the word. These virtues are possessed spiritually and inwardly before ever coming to outward manifestation. We put them on by making use of the means the Spirit uses so to clothe us and to make us more and more beautiful—the means of grace.
To put this in the context of this epistle with its focus on the preeminent Christ, this means that we put on these garments by realizing who we are in Christ Jesus. Only when we are standing in the consciousness of our relationship with Christ and therefore with our focus on him who bought us will we put on the virtues of Christ’s life. God has formed us after the image of his own dear Son. What an astounding privilege we have in serving him in thankfulness of heart also in our relationships with other members of Christ’s body.
The exhortation to put on speaks of continual action. It isn’t merely to think about it, let alone excuse our failure to dress in the garments Christ calls us to wear. It is to put them on and to keep putting them on. The work of the Holy Spirit, in the application of the word preached, makes us more and more beautiful by working in us both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure. That is the Christian life.
We must see yet one other critically important truth. As the elect of God, holy and beloved, there are foundational garments that we must put on, without which all the spiritual garments we have considered from verse 12 do not fit and in fact expose us as ugly before God.
The Essential Garments
Verse 13 calls our attention to those essential garments without which we cannot clothe ourselves in a way that is pleasing to God: “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any.” As if we might readily deceive ourselves as to the importance of this, which is foundational, and redefine forgiveness to such a low standard even an unbeliever could do better, the apostle continues: “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”
This is where our lives are really put to the test. Once again the apostle addresses the reality of our daily existence in an imperfect world. In the midst of our own families and in the midst of the church, we not only have our own sinful natures to deal with, but we also have to live with other sinful people. Offenses arise, sometimes even when there is no legitimate reason for one to find offense. How then are we to live in this imperfect, sinful world?
To behave as Christians is to forbear one another. That isn’t simply to overlook or ignore every iniquity. But it is to have an attitude governed by a Christ-centered focus, seeing how he has dealt with us in the face of our offenses. We sing with the psalmist in Psalm 130, “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” We confess his forbearance toward us, wretched as we are, and as offensive as are our sins toward him. He forbears, not immediately rising up to inflict revenge, but rather endeavoring to bring us back to our senses, to lead us to repentance. That’s the attitude and approach we are to take toward each other.
Along with forbearance is the garment of forgiveness.
Certainly the one whom Christ has forgiven must be ready and willing to forgive those who have sinned against him. Whosoever refuses to forgive is left unquestionably under condemnation (Matt. 6:15). It is easy to guard the offense in our memory like a treasure. Our old man of sin would keep malice raging in our hearts. But when that is the case, let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking we have forgiven.
Some would defend their refusal to forgive by saying, “But they haven’t confessed their sin against me.” It is true that meaningful forgiveness will not be the act of one alone. The offended must be willing to forgive, and the one who causes offense in the way of sin against God must confess his sin and seek forgiveness.
But don’t point the finger at the one whom you say has caused offense and excuse yourself for your unwillingness to forgive, when you have not even attempted to seek his spiritual welfare by going to him in humbleness of mind with the desire to lead him to the cross. To forgive is to seek a person’s spiritual good, not to persist in hatred. But “as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”
You see, when the preeminent Christ is the focus of our thoughts, of our spiritual mind, then and only then, will we be seen as Christians. It is not enough in the midst of Christ’s church to put up with each other, barely to tolerate each other, to refuse to retaliate and figure that is good enough. To know Christ is to see his love overcoming our hatred, to see his suffering bearing our iniquities, to see his forgiveness for all our offenses. It is therefore to live in this imperfect world with a spiritual wardrobe that reflects the greatness of his grace and glorious majesty as the one with whom our life is hid in God.
“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”
May God bless you in that walk of life.
This article is an abridged version of a speech given on April 9, 2015 at the young adults retreat hosted by Loveland Protestant Reformed Church. The theme of the retreat was “Our Calling to be Holy” from Colossians 3.