A few years ago, a farmer in Australia cut off his own leg. While unloading corn, his ankle got trapped in the grain auger, which threatened to pull him into the machine. He was alone and couldn’t call for help. If he passed out, sooner or later the machine would pull his own body in. So he did what needed doing: he cut his lower leg off so that the rest of him could survive.
Why this gruesome story? Because sometimes a point must be made forcefully. And that is certainly what the apostle Paul does in Col. 3:5. “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” Literally, “kill your members that are on earth.” That language is not very different from the farmer severing his leg. It also echoes what the Lord Jesus taught: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” (Mat. 18:8)
Just as that Australian farmer needed an extreme measure to prevent worse, so the Bible teaches us we, in order to prevent much worse, must get rid of parts of ourselves. This belongs to the life of every Christian. And not just once, say at the moment we become a Christian. It is an ongoing thing, a “more and more” (as the catechism says in q&a 89).
In Lord’s Day 33, the Heidelberg Catechism asks what true conversion really means. What does it mean to turn toward God, to leave behind unbelief and live a life of faith? The answer consists of two parts, a negative and a positive. Both are taken from Col. 3:5-10. There must be a dying of the old nature, the old self; and there must be a coming to life of the new nature, the new self.
In this lesson we consider the first half, the dying of the old self, as Paul teaches it in Col. 3, and as the Heidelberg Catechism presents it in q&a 89.
Getting rid of the old self.
1. What the old self is
2. Why we should hate it
3. How we get rid of it
What the old self is
What exactly is that, our “old nature” or “old self”? The passage in Col. 3:5-10 is very helpful. First of all, before talking about “taking off your old self” (v. 9), Paul uses that stronger expression of “putting to death your members that are on earth.” (v. 5) The word “member” means body part; sometimes Paul uses it for the various people that make up the church, but here he is literally talking about what we do with our bodies. It is through our bodies that we live our lives, that we do things that are right as well as things that are wrong. Our feet carry us to good and bad places; our hands can help or hurt people; our tongues bless or curse. Those are our members.
According to Paul, we must get rid of those members that are “on earth”, or as the NIV says, “whatever belongs to your earthly nature”. That may surprise you a bit: isn’t all of our body “on earth”? Didn’t God create us as earthly creatures, made to live in this physical world? But Paul uses the word “earth” in a special sense; it is this world insofar it is in the clutches of evil, insofar it opposes God. Elsewhere, the apostle speaks of “this current evil age”. Any part of us that is stuck in that world, must go, before the rest of us is sucked into it.
For this “earthly” part, for this “old self”, the Bible often uses yet another word: “the flesh.” Just one chapter back, in Col. 2:11, Paul writes: “Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ.” That doesn’t mean that our physical bodies are bad; they are bad insofar they are in service of the evil one, instruments for a life apart from God. That is the flesh, that is the old self that we must get rid of.
In another letter, Galatians 5, Paul explains this in much more detail. In v. 13 he says: You have a freedom to choose how you live, but make sure not to live as a slave to the flesh. Because that flesh wants precisely the opposite of what God wants. It pulls in the exact opposite direction of the Spirit of God. Even if you have made a commitment to serve the Lord, the pull of that flesh isn’t suddenly gone. As long as you don’t get rid of it, it keeps making you do things you don’t really want to do, and shouldn’t do as God’s holy people.
“Put to death the members that are on earth”—Paul’s point is not to literally cut off an arm here and a leg there, but rather to cut out of our lives any activities that are driven by the flesh. In Col. 3:5 and 8, the apostle gives a list; not an exhaustive checklist of things that you are not supposed to do, but rather a generic list to give us an idea of the kind of thing to look out for.
First five things: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed.” The emphasis on sexual perversion is not strange, given the moral climate of the world where the Colossians lived, and in a church joined by people who, until recently, had the habit of visiting temple prostitutes and orgies. But it is no less important for our times. The Internet is a veritable factory of sexual perversion, accessible by a few clicks of the mouse, and in this area of life “the flesh” shows its ugly, addictive, deceptive, and destructive power. That must be cut out of your life, before it consumes you! But there are other “evil desires” of the flesh that are just as destructive: Paul mentions “greed”, the undue love of money and possessions, which is just another addictive tool of the flesh.
These things, Paul tells the Colossians, you have left behind you when you became Christian, right? (Right!) That part of the “old self” has been severed well and good, right? (Right!) But there is more; a second list in verse 8. Things that we may consider respectable sins, or just some sharp edges of personality that are relatively harmless. Paul disagrees; we must get rid of these things as well: “anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lies.” Lack of self-control, hurting others by our words, impurity in our speech are also situations where we give in to the flesh, and we should stop doing that. Get rid of it.
The Bible has more lists like this, and I don’t think they are our favorite things to read. But it may be instructive, so that we learn to see more carefully where “the flesh” still has a grip on us, where our “old nature” still comes through, where we need to do more surgery on our lifestyle. To mention just one more, in Galatians 5 we read: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.”
The message is clear: get rid of these things! All of them! Every last bit of the flesh must go! In the end, every drop of perversion, filth, deception, hatred, selfishness, and so on must be cut out of our lives. Only then are we free from the flesh, free from this world and its enslavement to evil.
Why we should hate it
You may have noticed that I haven’t really quoted the catechism yet. I could have read q&a 87, which has a similar list of the works of the flesh. “No unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, etc. shall inherit the kingdom of God.” When it comes to the discussion of q&a 89, the catechism is content with a single, 3-letter word. We must get rid of our sin.
And why? Because, says the catechism, we have offended God by our sin. The Lord hates sin, because it is evil, which is to say, it goes directly and deliberately against his good design of things and denies his lordship. In Lord’s Day 4 we already learned that “his justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.” Paul also mentions this briefly in Col. 3:6: “Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.” In fact, sometimes the sin in our life is already a form of judgment: Romans 1 explains that God sometimes gives people who disrespect him over to perverse patterns of thought and actions; Romans 1 famous mentions homosexual behavior as an example, but the chapter ends with a long list of other sins that can take over much of our life because the Lord allows it to do so.
So the Lord hates our old self, our old nature. The flesh is precisely opposite to his Holy Spirit. For us who love the Lord, this should be enough reason to loathe it and to want to get rid of it. But the coming judgment of the Lord is also an important reason. If you know that your sinful activities make you deserve eternal condemnation and hell, and take that seriously, you should realize that you should cut out the sin now. In that respect, our situation is very similar to the Australian farmer from the introduction: it was his realization that his trapped leg would eventually suck all of him to a certain death, that made him decide to grab his pocket knife and sever his leg, painful as it was. Eternal punishment for sin is much worse than feeling you’re missing out on things today—plus, the pleasures of sin aren’t really rewarding in the first place, so in the final analysis there is only gain and no loss at all when we cut sin from our lives.
I wonder if we always take this seriously. I meet very few people who seem to work deliberately on removing a sin pattern from their life, as if their lives depend on it. Maybe you say: but there is no need, because our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. This is very true, and we ought to be very grateful to the Lord for this forgiveness. But that forgiveness is not automatic. We can only expect forgiveness if we show real repentance.
Repentance of our sin is at the heart of conversion. It is not a one-time thing; we must do it often. The catechism describes it this way: to grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it. Repentance means, first and foremost, that you are really sorry. That your sin makes you deeply miserable, so that you wish with all your heart you hadn’t done it.
Repentance is only real and genuine if you mean it seriously. If someone tells you “sorry for what I did,” but does not try to make amends, does not try to avoid doing it again, you will not accept the apology, because it is clearly not heartfelt. So it is with repentance. The only way to show it, is to do whatever you can not to do it again. Really hate it, says the catechism, and flee from it as fast as you can.
The Bible uses two different words for “repenting” or “conversion”; the one means “to change your mind”; the other, “to turn around”. Indeed, true repentance is a turning around, away from our old life of the flesh and toward God and the new life of the Spirit. True repentance is driven by real hatred of sin and real love for the Lord.
How important is true repentance? Without repentance, there is no escape from the judgment. Back in q&a 87, the catechism said this in so many words: Those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and impenitent walk of life cannot be saved! This is perfectly Biblical. When the gospels summarize what Jesus’s preaching was all about, we read: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” And John the Baptist made yelled at people for trying to get baptized without really being sorry. “Don’t think that you escape the coming judgment of God if you’re not willing to change your life!”
The Lord will gladly forgive us, but only if we are truly repentant; and a truly repentant person will be eager to cut out the sin from his life, even if it costs a proverbial arm and leg.
How we get rid of it
What does it look like in practice, to put off your old self, to put to death your members that are on earth, to flee from sin?
In a way, the answer is very simple. “What should we do?” the tax collectors asked John the Baptist, and he said: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” Stop cheating people out of money, like you used to. “What should we do?” asked the soldiers. “Be content with your pay.” Maybe the crowd of respectable Jews thought they were fine the way they were, but John had instructions for them, too. “Share your clothing and food with the poor and hungry.” Because lack of charity and tightfistedness are also sins that deserve judgment; if you are truly sorry, you change the way you go about things. Put your actions where your words are.
Jesus had the same message. To the woman caught in adultery he said: “Go and sin no more!” And if she listened to that divine command and stopped sleeping around, she showed true repentance.
It is not complicated. If you are really sorry for your sin, stop doing it. Sometimes that is an easy decision. Sometimes it is a big struggle, because the flesh can have a firm grip on us and weaken our resolve. But what we should do is clear. Cut it out of your life.
An additional answer is: Use the resources the Lord provides you with. If you face temptation, James taught, and you lack wisdom, then you should ask God for it, and he will give you what you need. But make sure that you mean it; asking for wisdom to avoid sinning while secretly intending to do it again is a terrible sin, and it will not benefit you.
So prayer is one resource. Other things you can pray for are the spiritual gifts and qualities of self-control and endurance. The Bible teaches that these are the fruit of the Spirit and an essential part of the growth in our Christian life. As we become more mature in our faith, our ability to say no to sin and stay the course will also increase.
Another answer comes from Ephesians 6. “Put on the armor of God.” Be alert and keep close to hand the truth of God’s word, the sword of his Spirit, the shield of faith, “with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Armed this way we are strong in the Lord and in his mighty power, and the flesh holds no more sway over us.
And a final answer: To put to death the old self, let us focus our lives on the new self. As any recovering addict and any counselor knows, you only get rid of bad habits by replacing them by good habits. Thankfully, believers may be sure that the Holy Spirit creates in them new life, the life of Jesus’ resurrection. That new life is glorious and lovely, and the joy and fulfillment it gives our new self will make us forget all about the old life of the flesh. Then we can honestly say: “Putting to death my old self? Good riddance! I am now a new creation in Jesus Christ!”