In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, New York Times writer David Brooks wrote an article entitled, “Let’s All Feel Superior.”  Brooks commented on our tendency to ignore our own sins but notice the sins of others. Brooks writes that many commentators have contemptuously asked of the Penn State scandal: “How could they have let this happen?” “How could officials have just stood by when this abuse was going on?” We assume that we would have done better than Penn State officials. But Brooks notes that history shows that ordinary people often don’t get involved in correcting an injustice. This happens so often that psychologists have a term for it—”the Bystander Effect.” Brooks writes, “In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves.” Unfortunately, according to Brooks, today when something terrible happens, we try to blame it on someone else. Brooks warns that it’s easy to vilify others from “the island of our own innocence.” It’s easy to ask, “How could they have let this happen?” But Brooks writes: “The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive? …. [Sadly], it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”
We are quick to see the dark underside of others. But there is something within us that denies the dark underside of ourselves. We are quick to ask, “How could they let this happen?” but very slow to ask “Why did I let this happen?”
This may be especially true for Christians. Rebecca Pippert once attended two very different events: a graduate-level psychology class at Harvard University and a Christian Bible study adjacent to Harvard. Pippert offered the following observations on how the two groups addressed their own faults: First, the students [in the graduate-level psychology class] were extraordinarily open and candid about their problems. It wasn’t uncommon to hear them say, “I’m angry,” “I’m afraid,” “I’m jealous” …. Their admission of their problems was the opposite of denial. Second, their openness about their problems was matched only by their uncertainty about where to find resources to overcome them. Having confessed, for example, their inability to forgive someone who had hurt them, [they had no idea how to] resolve the problem by forgiving and being kind and generous instead of petty and vindictive. [But the contrast with the Bible Study group] was striking. No one spoke openly about his or her problems. There was a lot of talk about God’s answers and promises, but very little about the participants and the problems they faced. The closest thing to an admission [of sin or a personal problem] was a reference to someone who was “struggling and needs prayer.” “The first group [the psychology class] seemed to have all the problems and no answers; the second group [the Bible Study] had all the answers and no problems.”
Too often that’s how we Christians come across. We have all the answers to all the sin that’s out there in the world. But we don’t seem to have any personal problem with sin in our own lives. We’re quick to see the dark underside of others, but not of ourselves. And as we’ll see this morning, overcoming this is critical to experiencing renewal.
This is our third Sunday in Col. 3:1-17. I’ve chosen this text because it focuses on something which is close to the heart of many of us this time of year: renewal. Near the center of this text, in vs. 10, Paul writes of how we are being “renewed.” This text summarizes what God does to bring renewal into our lives and how we can join God in that work.
On the first Sunday of the year, we looked at the first of four steps Paul urges us to take to experience renewal. The first step is “rethink.” Renewal begins with our thinking. You change living by first changing thinking. I called you to adopt some habits by which you could fill your mind with Christ and the things of Christ. Last Sunday, the focus was on vs. 17 and its call to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Renewal happens when we realize that we don’t have to pack our bags and become a missionary to serve Jesus. We can serve and honor Jesus with every single word and every single deed. The second step is “redo.”
This morning we move to Col. 3:5-11: 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3:5-11 ESV)
Paul begins by literally urging us to put to death our “earthly members” or our “earthly parts.” He states in vs. 7 that these parts used to characterize the way we once lived. And they are still influencing the way we live today. In other words, even though we are Christians, there are still parts or sections of ourselves which are still earthly or sinful. This is very significant. Paul is saying that even though we’ve been cleansed by the blood of Jesus and made into heavenly people, there are still parts of us that are very earthly. The transformation from sinner to saint does not happen quickly. Though we are Christians, we still have sinful elements in our lives. The very first thing Paul wants us to do is to acknowledge that we still struggle with these sinful parts. We must acknowledge our sinful sections. If we want to experience renewal, we must confess that we are in need of it. We must admit to ourselves, to one another, and to our God that there are still sections of our hearts, pieces of our mind, slices of our soul which are still oriented toward earthly things and not heavenly things. We can’t be quick to see the underside of others and ignore our own. One of the keys to renewal is to admit that we too have sinful aspects to ourselves.
In fact, the Christians Paul writes to here were still wrestling with very significant sins. First, Paul lists their five sinful sections of intimacy: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness. These words all have to do with sexually intimate sins and they move from the most egregious outward expression to the most private inward expression. At the end of the list we find covetousness—desiring something which cannot be ours. This was the tenth of the Ten Commandments. This morphs into evil desire—the longing for something which is evil or contrary to God’s wishes. This in turn transforms into passion, a sexual hunger and longing. This becomes impurity and then sexual immorality. “Sexual immorality” refers to any sexual act outside of marriage. And Paul knows the Christians in Colossae used to let these sins run rampant and that there are still sections of their lives struggling with them.
Second, Paul lists their six sinful sections of irritability: anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, and lying. These words all have to do with sins of irritability. Anger—smoldering hatred of someone. Wrath—what happens when that hatred turns to action. Malice—a desire to cause harm. Slander—words that do cause harm. Obscene talk and lying—speech intended to abuse and confuse others. Paul knows the Christians in Colossae used major in these sins of irritability and there are still sections of their lives which wrestle even now with them.
A first step to renewal is to admit that we too have sections of our hearts, pieces of our minds, and slices of our souls that wrestle with sins of intimacy and sins of irritability. We are not perfect. We do fail. We do have problems. That’s the first step toward renewal in this text.
In just a moment Paul’s going to call us to deal aggressively with these sins. But first let’s look at the motive Paul supplies. In vs. 6 Paul writes, On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In other words Paul says that God reprimands us for this sin. Simply put, God hates this type of behavior. And if we allow it to rule our life, he will direct his wrath toward us. He will reprimand us severely. He sees these actions and attitudes as idolatry, as Paul writes in vs. 5. When we let these sins into our lives, we remove God from the throne of our hearts and place either the object or our lust or the object of our hatred on that throne there. And God simply will not put up with it. We should make no mistake. God will hold us accountable for these things.
But Paul writes not only of this negative motivation. He writes also of a positive motivation. In vs. 10 Paul urges us to take action because we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” In other words God renews us from this sin. God not only reprimands us for this sin. He also renews us from this sin. God is working to make us into brand new people. And we should therefore take action against these sinful sections of our lives because we want to partner with God in that renewal. I think what Paul is saying here is this: “Be who you are.” To continue to live in these sinful ways is inconsistent with who God has made you and is making you. Be the renewed person you are. Be the dead now alive person you are. Participate and partner with God in his work to bring transformation into your heart and mind.
And the way we partner with God in this renewal is by practicing the two strong commands in this text: 5Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…8But now you must put them all away. Paul is saying that if you want to experience real renewal in your life this year, it’s going to take aggressive action. You can’t play around. You can’t be half-hearted about it. Not only must you admit the sinful sections of your life. You must also become ruthless and intense about them.
The words translated “put them all away” literally mean “take off” or “lay aside.” Paul imagines these sinful parts of ourselves as clothes. And the only way to truly deal with them is to take them off—all the way off. In other words we must fully shed this sin. Whatever is standing in between you and the person God is renewing you to be, you must fully shed it.
Too often, when it comes to sin in our lives, we treat it like we treat our summer clothes. When it’s winter, some of us put away our summer clothes. They go in the back of the closet, or in a box in the attic, or in a drawer. But when summer comes again, we pull them back out. We never really get rid of them. We just put them aside for a season. The same is true with so many of the sins we struggle with. We enter a season in which we get really serious about holiness. So we take off that sin, fold it up, and put it away. But we don’t throw it away. We don’t toss it out. We put it someplace where, when the time is right and we’re no longer so focused on holiness, we can pull it back out. We can wear that sin once more.
But Paul’s saying that if you want to experience real renewal, you’ve got to fully shed that sin. You’ve got to take it off and throw it away never to be worn again. You’ve got to rip it off and remove it so far from you that you could never find it even if you wanted to.
And this morning, that’s exactly what some of us need to do. You’ve been playing around with some sin. You’ve been toying with stopping it. But you’ve not really gotten serious about it. Your short temper. Your filthy language. Your pornography. Your selfishness. Your verbal abuse. Your gossiping. Your backbiting. And this morning Paul is calling you to shed that sin like a pair of clothes you never want to see again. He’s calling you to get serious about this and get rid once and for all.
But Paul uses even stronger language in vs. 5: 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you… There is no uncertainty in this language. Paul’s saying “Don’t play with sin. Don’t just fight sin. Kill it. Murder it. Beat the life out of it.” In other words Paul calls us to to fully slay this sin.
But the problem is that we too often are unwilling to slay the sin in our lives. In his book The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis writes about this. He describes a human who finds himself in heaven. The man was called a Ghost. On his shoulder sat a red lizard, symbolizing the sin in his life. Lewis writes: “What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains. “Off so soon?” said a voice. The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day. “Yes. I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came—which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.” ‘Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood. “Of course I would,” said the Ghost. “Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward. “Oh-ah-look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating. “Don’t you want him killed?” “You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.” “It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?” “Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so…embarrassing.” “May I kill it?” “Well, there’s time to discuss that later.” “There is no time. May I kill it?” “Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.” “May I kill it?” “Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.” “The gradual process is of no use at all.” “Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.” “There is no other day. All days are present now.” “Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.” “It is not so.” “Why, you’re hurting me now.” “I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.” “Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.”
Can’t we hear ourselves in this man? We try to keep our sin quiet so it won’t disturb the people around us. We punish the sin by taking him home because he’s not behaving. But when it comes to killing it, well, that’s too drastic. We’ll think about that later. We’re sure we can keep it in check. No need for violence. And we just can’t bring ourselves to do whatever it takes to deal a death blow to our red lizard of sin.
But Paul is telling you this morning that if you truly wish to experience renewal, there’s only one thing that works: death. You’ve got to do whatever it’s going to take to kill your sin. If it means quitting your job, do it. If it means changing schools, do it. If it means ending a relationship, do it. If it means losing sleep or losing money, do it. If it means never getting on the Internet again, do it. If it means never watching TV again, do it. If it means cutting yourself completely and totally off from the wrong crowd, do it. Nothing is too drastic. Nothing is too radical. Nothing is too costly. Paul is asking you to identify a sin that is getting in between you and God. And he’s telling you to kill it. Murder it. Slay it. Don’t just hurt it. Don’t just punish it. Don’t just battle it. Kill it. Slay it. Fully and completely.
So ask yourself, What sin is keeping you from God, keeping you from being the person God is renewing you to be? And what would it take to kill that sin? Not maim it. But kill it. What do you need to do to deal with this sin in a deadly way?
What I want to urge you to do today is to make a decision to kill that sin. Make a decision this morning that you are going to put that sin to death. As this year begins, decide this morning that you’re going to do whatever it takes to slay that sin. [Life Center - And as a way of helping you visualize that commitment, I want to encourage you to do something this morning. Grab one of the blank sheets from the back of the chair in front of you. Write on it some sin you are struggling with. And while we are singing, come up and drop that paper into this casket as a way of demonstrating your desire to kill that sin.]
Each Sunday our elders are available for prayer and counsel at the Shepherd’s Corner. If you’re struggling to put a sin to death, I urge you to visit with some of our shepherds after this service is over.
 David Brooks, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” The New York Times (11-14-11).
 Rebecca Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 31-32.
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (HarperOne, 1946), 106-111.