Laying Aside and Putting On

Consider these admonitions from the New Testament:

  • “Let us lay aside the deeds of darkness…and put on the armor of light.” (Rom 13:12)
  • “In reference to your former way of life, lay aside the old self…and put on the new self.” (Eph 4:22,24)
  • “Since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices; anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech, and lying…and have put on the new self.” (Col 3:8-10)
  • “Putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness…receive the word implanted which is able to deliver your souls.” (Jam 1:21)
  • “Putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander…long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to [your present] salvation.” (I Pet 2:1-2)
  • “Let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us…and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Heb 12:1)
  • “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ…and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Rom 13:14)
  • Walk by the Spirit…and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” (Gal 5:16)

The New Testament summarizes the Christian life this simply:  lay aside the old self with its evil practices and put on the new self with its holy practices.  Or put another way, stop doing the bad stuff and start doing the good stuff.  But is it that simple to just “lay aside” the sin that tugs at us?  Simple may not be the right word, but impossible is not the right word either or why would we be admonished to lay aside the old self and its evil practices?  It must be possible to do.  Or why would we be encouraged to put on the new self and live in Christ’s resurrection power if it were impossible or nearly impossible to do so?

If we view or experience the Christian life as some kind of civil war with equally powerful forces for sin and good waging war in our soul, then we are missing the power implied in the verses to “lay aside and put on”.  The victorious Christian life is not only possible, but should be the normal course for every believer.  But there is a key to its power and we will talk about it next time.

The Tug of Sin’s Power

We have all heard the story of how baby elephants are trained.  A chain is placed around the baby elephant’s foot and attached to an iron stake driven into the ground.  The young elephant pulls at the chain but does not have the strength to dislodge the stake.  Eventually, the elephant gives up.  As the story goes, when the elephant is fully grown, he can be easily contained by a chain and a stake – something he could now easily uproot – because he is conditioned by his past experience to believe the chain is a sufficient constraint.  I have been unable to determine if this is a true method of elephant training or a story used by life coaches to identify the chains in your life that limit your potential.  But I do like the picture it brings regarding the tug of sin’s power.

When you received Christ at your new birth, a thousand new things happened to you.  One of these was your infusion of a new nature.  The old nature, the flesh, died with Christ (Rom 6:6), and you were given a new nature filled with Christ’s resurrection power (Rom 6:4).  However, even our dead flesh still carries some influence in our lives based on both the teaching of Scripture and our own experience with sin.  So that even though we are controlled by the new nature, we still feel the tug of sin’s power.

But the sheer beauty of the exchanged life – Christ’s resurrection life now living inside – is that sin’s power is only a tug.  Satan would have us to think that it is an irresistible force.  But the tug of sin’s power, the chain you feel around your foot is attached TO NOTHING!  Satan would have us believe it is attached to an immovable stake in the ground, tied to our past failures.

Christ would have us believe that it is attached to nothing.  It is a chain without power, a chain without the power to constrain.  Our past sins are forgiven; our present lives defined by Christ’s power, not by our failures.  Just like the adult elephant, unaware of his power over the chain, so many Christians are unaware of the resurrection power dwelling inside them, yearning to break free.

Can I encourage you?  Throw off your chain!  It is not attached to anything.  You have the power to sling it aside.  Sin shall not be your master.  “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…” (Heb 12:1-2).  Would the author of the letter to the Hebrews suggest we “lay aside the sin that entangles us” if it were impossible to do so?  He is asking us to throw aside our chain, we have been set free.  “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).  Christ has set you free!

A Thick Wet Blanket

How many times have you heard something along these lines?  “He says things that are controversial.  He sometimes stretches the interpretation to make a point.  I don’t always agree with what he says.  But, at least, he is preaching from the Word!”  The words “at least” are our way of saying we value a message based on a text of Scripture rather than a motivational topic looking for a Bible verse.  And we should.  But is “at least” the best we can do?

There is no honor in “preaching the Word” if we are not getting it right.  In response to our view that modern preaching has gone soft, we are in danger of thinking any expository message will do.  And a common expository message of evangelical preaching today is an unfortunate distortion of the New Testament message.  A common response to the feel good message of motivational speakers has been to emphasize the negative and put a thick, wet blanket over the joy, promise, and power of New Covenant living.

And this negative emphasis plays right into Satan’s hand.  Why would the devil want believers to experience the joy, promise, and power of New Covenant living?  That kind of excitement might become contagious and draw in the lost.  No, let’s keep a heavy “woe is me” attitude of all that is wrong with me, with the church, and with the world.  Let’s promote that flavor of Christianity that puts a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

I believe Satan has used two influences to manipulate and promote this negative message.  First, our theological constructions regarding moral depravity do not adequately reflect all that changed at the new birth.  Without Christ, the lost are truly morally depraved; slaves of sin’s power without hope in this world.  But somehow, this system of theology requires believers to be labeled as sinners as well, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why since it is in opposition to all the New Testament teaches.  I constantly hear believers referred to as having a wicked and deceitful heart (Jer 17:9) despite the fact that our old heart, too dirty to be cleaned up, has been replaced (Ez 26:36).  I constantly hear believers described according to Paul’s lament of Romans 7 even though, in the context of his Romans message, it makes the most sense to understand his angst as his pre-conversion existence.  (See my earlier post Romans 7 and the Normal Christian Life.)  A system of theology that requires this dim of a view of the believer’s power over sin is not letting the Bible speak for itself.

A second influence Satan is using is our experience with sin.  We have all felt the tug of sin’s power.  And Satan comes to us with his deception and says, “You know that tug?  It is not really a tug.  It is an irresistible pull.  It is impossible to withstand.  You will never escape its power.  You are only human.  And the power and prison of sin just goes with the human condition.”

The message of the New Testament says just the opposite.  By the power of the exchanged life – Christ’s righteousness for my sin – I have been set free from sin and its power.  In fact, quite frankly, I am not merely “human”; I am “superhuman” by virtue of the God of the universe living inside.  Are we going to walk in the experience of Satan’s accusation or by faith in God’s promise of victory over sin?

Walking by faith says that no matter how many times I feel the tug of sin’s power, I am the victor through the power of the exchanged life.  So how should I respond to the tug of sin’s power?  Let’s talk about it next time.

The Exchanged Life

When our preaching wanders into the realm of motivational speaking, we play right into Satan’s hand by delivering a less than complete gospel message.  When our teaching takes the form of self-help pop psychology delivering ten steps to a better life, we have stripped the power from the gospel.  But when we let the Bible speak for itself, the message of Christ is a message of an exchanged life.  It is not a message of life improvement; it is a message of life transformation.

For the unbeliever, it is the exchange of my sin for Christ’s righteousness.  This is the basis of my justification, my being reconciled to God.  “God made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (II Cor 5:21).  When Christ died in our place, as our substitute, the penalty of sin was removed, and our “certificate of debt was cancelled being nailed to a cross” (Col 2:14).  “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).  Christ died on our behalf.

Satan would prefer to keep this message quiet and have us teach a message of life improvement because without a recognition of our sin and it’s penalty; without an understanding of Christ’s substitutionary death in our place; and without placing our faith in Christ for salvation, we will never “receive Christ”.  We will never become part of God’s family, a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Satan would like to keep us in the dark regarding our need for salvation and Christ’s finished work on the cross to satisfy the need.

But what happens after our initial salvation, our justification, our reconciliation with God?  All true ministers of the gospel agree with the concept of the exchanged life – Christ’s righteousness exchanged for our sin – regarding our justification.  But it is uncanny to me how many times we stop here and, leaving the exchanged life concept behind, we address living the Christian life as a ten step process of self-improvement.

Again this plays right into Satan’s hand.  He knows we cannot live an effective and growing Christian life in our own power and is happy for us to try.  What we need to preach and understand is that our ongoing sanctification, growth, and maturity is, just like our justification, totally dependent on the exchanged life.

The great exchange – Christ’s life for mine, His moral purity for my moral depravity, His supernatural man for my natural man, His new nature for my old nature, His new heart for my heart of wickedness, His humility for my selfish ambition, His Holy Spirit for my ambivalence – is the complete foundation for living the Christian life.  But too often, like the Galatians of old, we accept the concept of the exchanged life for our justification, but ignore its ramifications for our sanctification.  “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus was publicly portrayed as crucified?  This is the only thing I want to find out from you:  did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:1-3).

Rather than being perfected by the flesh, the New Testament teaches we are perfected by the Spirit of Christ who lives inside, who dwells in our new heart.  Look at this recurrent theme.   “Since Christ is in you (Rom 8:10)…Your life is hidden with Christ (Col 3:3)…Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27)…Christ who is your life (Col 3:4)…It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).  And finally, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom 5:10).

The saving death of Christ took away our sins and reconciled us to God.  The saving life of Christ now carries us forward.  When we appropriate by faith the saving life of Christ and believe all that God promised regarding His indwelling presence and power, we will begin to experience the true joy of the Christian life; the joy of the truly supernatural life in Christ.

A Message of Confusion

Both Jesus and the apostles stressed the central need for unity within the Christian community.  Satan, on the other hand – having lost the war already and still losing individual battles every time someone joins God’s kingdom – is focused on just the opposite:  disrupting the unity of our message through planting seeds of envy, strife, and disharmony.

It is imperative that we get a handle on what Satan is up to in this world.  We often relegate Satan to the make believe world of fairies and elves and in so doing have dropped our defenses against him.  Peter warns, “Be on the alert.  Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Pet 5:8).  And Paul writes, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12).  The New Testament makes clear; Satan is our number one sworn enemy.

Let me say it again, because in many ways we act like he doesn’t even exist.  Satan is our number one sworn enemy.  And one of his world wide operations is to disrupt the gospel message through disunity in the church.  If you ask the man-on-the-street, “What is the gospel or Christian message?”, I think he would be hard pressed to answer even if he has been exposed to it.  The various “Christian” labels we attach to all kinds of messages we send has left an incredible confusion and biblical illiteracy on believers and unbelievers alike.  And it starts with our preaching.  We are not letting the Bible speak for itself.

What do I mean by the Bible speaking for itself?  We have a brand of preaching today that looks more like motivational speaking.  It downplays aspects of the gospel message that some consider offensive or confusing to modern ears.  Doctrines like sin, atonement, moral depravity, and judgment are softened, and our preaching focuses on felt needs such as how Jesus helps us with life’s challenges, or helps us succeed in our jobs, finances, and relationships.  This presentation style appears to be a topic looking for a Bible verse rather than context-driven Bible exposition.  If we, in any way, “water down” the gospel message to make it, in our minds, more acceptable to a modern audience, we are not letting the Bible speak for itself.

In response to the perception that our preaching has “gone soft”, it is easy to go to an equally unbiblical approach in the other direction.  Beneath the veneer of expository preaching is often a rigid theological construction that fails to recognize all that changed with the coming of the New Testament; the coming of the New Covenant.  In my experience, there is a plethora of Bible teaching today that takes Old Testament concepts – the consequence model of sin, the wicked and deceitful heart, the lack of power to keep the law – and overlays them onto the New Testament.  This teaching is in opposition to what Paul instructed us to do in Romans 7:6.  “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”  Too much that passes as expository preaching today is in the “oldness of the letter”.

How both of these preaching styles play right into Satan’s hand will be the topic of our next post.