Today, something from an awesome blog find that I think we’ll be visiting again! Dave Dunham is a Baptist pastor in Michigan who writes at Pastor Dave Online. This article is the first of three parts (so far) which are equally beneficial; the links to part two and three are at the bottom. This was originally titled: The Power of the Gospel for Real Change: Reflections on the Process of Sanctification from Colossians 2:20-3:5 (Part 1)
How do people change? There are a myriad of ideas about what change looks like, and lots of proposed solutions are offered to what ails us. But as a Christian any solution I offer to others, or any that I claim for myself, must be rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the real center of all true, lasting change for humanity. But what does this mean: gospel-centered change? Paul gives us a picture of this kind of change in Colossians 2:20-3:5. By studying this passage we can learn how the gospel applied to our struggles can affect real change.
In the letter to the Colossians Paul is writing to a church beleaguered by false teachers who are promoting a sort of mystical Jewish/Christian amalgamation over and against the gospel. So Paul urges them to remember the preeminence of Christ, resist the empty philosophies of others, and pursue the example of Jesus. The specific passage we are looking at discusses how to “put on the new self.” It states:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” referring to things that all perish as they are used—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
To understand how this passage instructs us on true, gospel-centered, change let’s break it down.
Paul begins by warning us that self-discipline, in and of itself, is not enough. The Colossians had lists of things not to avoid, regulations and rules that were designed to keep the world at a distance. “Don’t handle,” “don’t taste,” “don’t touch.” They would say. The developed their own form of legalism to make themselves pure. But legalism can never achieve real growth in godliness. Following a list of rules, apart from the gospel of grace, leads naturally either to arrogance or depression.
If you succeed in keeping all the rules you become an arrogant jerk. You’re proud of your accomplishments and you pat yourself on the back. You compare others to your own standard of “godliness” and condemn those who don’t match your level. After all, you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, why wouldn’t you expect everyone else to do the same. But, of course, we can never attain true purity this way.
As the reality of our imperfection manifests itself to us we become depressed. Legalism tends to produce depressed and ashamed Christians who are constantly frustrated and downcast because, after all, no one is perfect and they can’t keep the rules. So we are constantly aware of the slightest failing and sure that God must hate us for it. Rule keeping, and self-restraint alone, are not the pathway to our transformation.
That is not to say that self-discipline is not important. It is very important. And Jesus gives us rules to follow. But self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), not merely something we conjure up of our own will. Self-discipline apart from the gospel and apart from the Spirit of God leads to legalism, not to change. I like how J. Alasdair Groves summarizes Paul’s point:
Paul’s point is simple: you are not going to overcome your sin by beating yourself into shape and keeping the outside world at arm’s length. Trying harder and being your own drill sergeant has “no value in restraining sensual indulgences.” You’ll feel better for a while if you establish a list of rules, an exercise regimen, and a plan to do more school work so you won’t have much time to be tempted. But it will never be enough. Rules (in and of themselves) simply cannot stop the flesh, and the world (and the devil). Looking to rules or your own effort to change is insufficient and opposed to how God works to redeem us. (“Exposing the Lies of Pornography and Counseling the Men Who Believe Them” in The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 27.1. p. 20)
Paul says that such things have an “appearance of wisdom,” that’s why so many legalists still exist. But ultimately this approach to transformation is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” We want real change not merely an exchange of “indulgences.” Legalism tends to help us abandon one sin only to pick up another (like arrogance and pride, or judging others to name two examples). Real change must go deeper than our external behaviors. Real change must get at the heart, and that’s where the gospel takes us.
If you want real change you have to address more than our behaviors. That is why “solutions” that only ever address external behavior don’t affect lasting or real change. The gospel doesn’t ignore our external behavior, but it treats us as whole people (spiritual, physical, emotional, mental, relational, etc.). Next week we’ll unpack some more of what Paul says about real change to the Colossians, but spend some time this week reflecting on the failure of rule keeping, and ask God to help you address more than just your actions. Pray and ask him to expose your heart, in order that you might find real transformation.
Continue reading other parts of this series: