This past Sunday we spent our Family Bible Hour time in Colossians 3, which Paul opens with an exhortation to set our sights and affections on things above, not on things of the earth. He exhorts us to focus where Christ is. This stands in contrast to the closing verses of chapter 2, in which the apostle deals with the futility of legalistic approaches to God. He concludes that chapter, “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” (v. 23).
In chapter 3, he begins, as I have said, with an exhortation for the Christian to set his sights on heavenly things (vv. 1–4) before he launches into an urgent appeal for the Christian to put of the deeds of the flesh (vv. 5–10) and instead put on the deeds of righteousness (vv. 11–17ff).
It is interesting to note that Paul’s appeal for the Christian to put away the deeds of the flesh does not merely take the form of, “Don’t do it!” Commenting on the opening verses of Colossians 3, Sam Storms writes,
The church, to a large degree, has failed in its well-meant efforts to equip Christians to wage war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Typically today (and throughout history) the approach to getting people to do what is right is telling them in a very loud, angry, and threatening voice, “Don’t do what is wrong!” We’ve operated under the assumption that if we portray the horrid consequences of sin in sufficiently graphic and revolting terms, we will succeed in motivating the human will to turn from it.1
As Storms observes, however, that was not the approach that Paul took in Colossians. Reminding them that their best efforts to deal with sin in the flesh would prove futile (2:23), he then pointed them to Christ (3:1–4) before urging them to put to death the deeds of the flesh (3:5–10) and instead embrace the deeds of righteousness (3:11–17ff).
Sin does have consequences, and we ought to understand the reality of those consequences. Warnings about the consequences of sin may well be used by God to spur us to righteousness. As a church we have recently spend Sunday mornings studying the book of Leviticus, and we have seen in Leviticus 26 how God warned his covenant people of the terrible consequences of forsaking their covenant relationship with him. That warning, no doubt, was meant to serve as a motivation for Israel to remain faithful. An understanding of the consequences of sin may well do that.
But if fear of the temporal (or even eternal) consequences of sin is our only motivation, it will most likely produce joyless, mean-spirited legalism, which will ultimately prove unattractive to believers and unbelievers alike.
If we will effectively battle our sinful tendencies and put off the deeds of the flesh, it will prove helpful to us to understand why we sin. We must be honest as we answer this question. And the honest answer, as Storms puts it, is that “we sin because it feels good! Sin is hard to resist because it has a remarkable capacity to please.”2 If we are honest, we will admit that this is the case.
The Bible does not deny that sin feels good. Listen, for example, to the author of Hebrews’ commentary on the faith of Moses:
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
Observe that carefully: For Moses, sin held pleasure. It was “fleeting” pleasure, to be sure, but it was pleasure nonetheless. And if we are honest, we will admit that we too find (fleeting) pleasure in sin. Sadly, we often choose the fleeting pleasures of sin over mistreatment with the people of God.
A college student studying psychology once wrote to C. S. Lewis to ask whether sin can be avoided (or even “cured”) in a patient by proving to the patient the unreasonableness of the sin. Lewis replied with two examples and a conclusion:
A man’s reason sees perfectly clearly that the resulting discomfort and inconvenience will far outweigh the pleasure of the ten minutes in bed. Yet he stays in bed: not at all because his reason is deceived but because desire is stronger than reason.
A woman knows that the sharp “last word” in an argument will produce a serious quarrel which was the very thing she had intended to avoid when that argument began and which may permanently destroy her happiness. Yet she says it: not at all because her reason is deceived but because the desire to score a point is at the moment stronger than her reason.
People—you and I among them—constantly choose between two courses of action, the one which we know to be the worse: because, at the moment, we prefer the gratification of our anger, lust, sloth, greed, vanity, curiosity or cowardice, not only to the known will of God but even to what we know will make for our own real comfort and security. If you don’t recognize this, then I must solemnly assure you that either you are an angel, or else are still living in a fool’s paradise: a world of illusion.3
How, then, do we wage successful war against sin? An understanding of its terrible consequences is often ineffective, because we would rather choose immediate gratification over the long term consequences. The solution, then, is to find a higher pleasure than the immediate gratification of sin. Moses was able to resist the fleeting pleasures of sin because “he considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
It is imperative that we understand the fleeting nature of the pleasure that sin provides. As Spurgeon wrote, “Did you hear the tolling of a bell? It was a knell. It spoke of a new-made grave. This is the knell of earthly joy—‘For a season!’ Honoured for wrong doing—“For a season!’ Merry in evil company—‘For a season!’ Prosperous through a compromise—‘For a season!’ What after that season? Death and judgment.”4
Moses counted in a greater “reward” than earthly pleasure. That “reward” lay in heaven. It lay, says the author of Hebrews in Christ.
That brings us full circle. Paul certainly challenged the Colossians to put to death the deeds of the flesh, but they could only do so as they focused on Christ.
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.
As Storms says, “Holiness, in this case the ability to say no to ‘the indulgence of the flesh’ and the passionate desire to walk in the way of Christ (2:23b), comes not primarily from rigorous asceticism or self-restraint but from a mind captivated and controlled by the beauty and majesty of the risen Lord and all that we are in him in the heavenlies.”5 We have been “raised with Christ” (past), we are “hidden with Christ” (present) and we will one day “appear with [Christ] in glory” (future). If Christ is our all—our past, present and future—we will surely, with Moses, say no to the fleeting pleasures of sin.
Perhaps we should pause to identify those things below that hinder our focus on the things above. What earthly entanglements exert a downward drag on your soul? What worldly attractions have become distractions and keep your mind off Christ? What fleshly affections compete with passion for him? The power to disengage from and triumph over all such rival pleasures will come only as we see and savor him who is above.
Oh, Father, make known to us the glory of your Son! Oh, Spirit, shine the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ Jesus into our hearts! Blind us to all but him. Captivate us with his splendor that we, like Moses, might say no to the passing pleasures of sin (Heb. 11:25–26). Help us to rest in Christ alone as the treasure greater than all earthly rewards. Amen.6