This title is not an oxymoron, I promise!
I’m currently trying to wrap my mind around the concept of “dying in Christ”, and “being raised in Christ.” Colossians is full of powerful statements, often in the “if; then” variety: “If you have been raised up with Christ, [then] keep seeking the things above. (ch.3, v. 1).” Paul also says such statements as: “As you have received Christ, so walk in Him (2:6).”
The church of Colossae was formerly alienated and hostile to the things of Christ (a familiar story). They had been living a story punctuated with death. Now, they are reconciled through repentance and baptism, and they are established and identified as children of God. Paul’s emphasis here, however, is that the journey is not over with death to self and rebirth in the Spirit. The church’s conversion and baptism is only the beginning.
Paul establishes an identity for the people of Christ. We are not asked to simply change in order to be accepted by God. Acceptance, love, and forgiveness come first. God invites us, in His love and compassion, into relationship with Him. When behavior modification precedes forgiveness, acceptance, and love, we fall into a pharisaical, legalistic trap, where we must strive and strive to earn forgiveness. As a result, we live in constant shame and self-hate, or arrogance and self-aggrandizement. We also impose this legalism onto those around us. Paul is not placing unrealistic pressure on believers in his letter to the Colossians, and is not setting them up for shame or pride (which, coincidentally, are sides of the same coin).
Paul is helping the church to establish her identity as God’s beloved, redeemed, chosen, reborn, and forgiven community. They have died, and their life is now hidden with Christ in God. Christ is now their life, and they are no longer clothed in the darkness. They are illuminated and free. In their freedom, they are called to continue to walk in the light.
God does not put the wagon before the horse, in the sense that He calls us to get our act together before He welcomes us into His loving embrace. He loves us, without reservation, no matter what mess we find ourselves trapped in. He accepts us and welcomes us, and there is no one outside of the reach of His love. We are called to welcome and care for everyone. None of us is called to condemn: No one’s story is over until it’s over; there is always room for redemption.
We see this call from the bondage of condemnation demonstrated in Jesus’ loving response to the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8: The scribes and the pharisees use the woman as a trap for Jesus, as they plop her down in the center of the court, demanding a verdict from Christ. Will He tell them to stone her and sentence her to death based on the law? He does not. In fact, he stoops down, writes some notes in the sand, and tells her that He does not condemn her. She is free. She is forgiven. She calls Jesus “Lord”, which is more than the pharisees have done. He wipes her slate clean, and he sends her with a commission: “From now on, go and sin no more (John 8:11).”
God’s work doesn’t end with love and acceptance. He loves us too much for that. He wants to shine light into all of our hurt, dark places. This good news. He has abundance for us; He has heaven for us. He wants this for us because He loves us, not because He wants to heap shame and condemnation upon us.
So here are the Colossians and here we are in 2018: “Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (3:1).” We may be tempted to turn back to that self to which we died and start seeking those things that we sought in the darkness, but from our new position, in our new life, we are called to seek a new calling. Our hearts, which have died and been reborn, are being daily reprogrammed to crave and desire a different, holier set of passions, and we are called to nurture the new cravings of the spirit. We used to crave things that corrupted, things of this earth, things that ultimately would rot and render themselves useless, or even worse, result in our own destruction. Now, with our life hidden in Christ, we have a new identity, and with a new identity, we have a new set of passions and desires. Where there has been greed, now kindness and gentleness is growing. Keep tending those new plants. Where there has been anger, slander, and hatred, now humility and love is growing. Keep watering the new growth. Where there has been division and discord, peace and forgiveness is springing up. Don’t let the old, dead stuff start to spring up again. God has planted a new garden, and He has called us to tenderly care for a nurture the new growth that He has initiated in our hearts and minds. It needs tending and gardening. We are partners in this growth.
Spiritual growth is a journey; this is why we must nurture our growth through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual growth is also the result of death and rebirth in Christ. We cannot force it; we cannot will it. It is the result of the Spirit’s work in a surrendered heart. Spiritual growth is organic, and it is intentional. This seems paradoxical, but we recall that in Philippians 2:12-13, we are told: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and work for His good pleasure.”
Once again, this is good news! We are called to grow in our walk with Christ, to partner with the Spirit, who is already working in us to form within us the character of Christ. The weight of our spiritual growth is not all on our shoulders. We don’t have to force it, or somehow create something out of nothing within ourselves. We have died; our life is hidden in Christ, and then that life is hidden in God the Father. And because of the new life that we are born into, we have new life burning inside of our souls. Now our job is to allow God to grow and nurture what is already springing up within us.
Here are the facts based on Paul’s account to the Colossians: As believers, we:
Have received Christ;
Are rooted in Christ;
Have been made complete;
Have received spiritual circumcision through the Spirit;
Our old selves are buried in baptism;
We are raised up through faith;
We are made alive through Christ;
Our sins are forgiven;
Our debt is nailed to the cross;
We are chosen of God, holy and beloved.
(Friends, this is only from a few verses in Colossians 3! There is so much more to learn about our position in Christ from the rest of scripture!)
Based on our current position in Christ, we are called and empowered to live out the new life, the good and beautiful life of Jesus. It is not a burden. This calling would be a burden if it were imposed before we were given our new identity; but it is not. In our new, raised from the dead, life, we can live in the present freely and abundantly. We are no longer slaves, and our calling is no longer a burden. We have been called friends of God, and our calling is a delight and a pleasure.
As children of God, if we start with behavioral change without identity establishment, we will be incredibly unhealthy, legalistic individuals who impose rules without love onto others. Our identity is this: we have died in Christ, have been raised to life in Christ, and are hidden with Christ Jesus through God the Father. Because of this, we are not only called, but we are empowered to live in obedience to God and in faithfulness to His kingdom purposes. This is the good news of the organic, intentional nature of spiritual growth in the Christian life!