Bible Text: Colossians 1:3-14
3We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf 8 and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (emphasis mine)
I like being complimented, how about you? Affirmation and encouragement can feed our souls with joy and strength. At the same time, affirmation and encouragement can feed the idol in our heart that craves the approval of others. What is the best way to affirm and encourage a fellow believer? God’s method, as expressed through the heart and pen of Paul, is astounding.
Clearly, the apostle is affirming the faith of these Colossian believers when he states: “we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus” (vs. 4). It is very important that we make the distinction here between “justifying faith” and “sanctifying faith.” The former is described as an initial “receiving” of the gospel and involves turning from sin and turning toward Christ for one’s salvation. Sanctifying faith is an ongoing walk with Christ that is evidenced by visible fruit in the life of the believer. In these verses, Paul lists six particular evidences that confirm that a believer is walking in the truth of the gospel.
First, gospel faith produces love for God’s people: “we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (Colossians 1:4). The apostle John, in his first letter, puts this in the strongest possible terms:
20If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (I John 4:20-21)
The second evidence of the gospel in the life of the believer is “it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (1:6). The gospel is not merely a mental assent to an evangelical set of doctrines. It is life- changing and constantly “bearing fruit and growing.” These two verbs are present participles, which means they describe an ongoing action in the life of the Christian. Note also that the gospel is defined here as having “understood the grace of God in truth” (1:7).
The third evidence Paul cites is referred to as “your love in the Spirit” (1:8). It is no mystery that Paul teaches that love is the greatest of the trinity of virtues in the life of the believer (I Corinthians 13) and that he lists love as the first “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). Notice that this love is not the kind of shallow sentimentalism produced by the unaided human heart. Rather, it is the result of the powerful work of “the Spirit” (1:8). Carnal love is ultimately rooted in our heart’s commitment to self-interest. The love of the Spirit is counter-carnal and counter-cultural and gives for the sake of giving with no expectation or demand of return (Luke 6:32,35).
The fourth evidence of the power of the gospel at work in our lives is that we are “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9). We seek to intentionally and consistently “not lean on your own understanding” but “In all your ways acknowledge him,” knowing that as we do so “he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). We must grow to distrust and closely examine our spontaneous, natural response to people, circumstances, or adversity because our fleshly responses are so deeply ingrained in our hearts. This is why Paul reminds us that we must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that . . . you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:1-2).
Learning to Write With the Opposite Hand
Our flesh (sinfulness and selfishness), apart from the work of the Spirit, is our natural default setting. It is the “muscle memory” of our thoughts and feelings. Like picking up a pen every time we need to write, we always, without thinking, favor our writing hand. It would take great intentionality and involve a high level of insecurity to retrain ourselves to write with our opposite hand. Similarly, the gospel teaches us to “write with our opposite hand.” We identify and reject the natural impulses of our hearts (self-interest, self-protection, self-advancement, etc.) and yield to the Spirit, who moves us to do that which is both unnatural and supernatural (Philippians 2:12-13).
The fifth evidence of the power of the gospel at work in our lives is that we “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (vs. 10). Clearly, this describes a transformed life that is birthed by a transformed heart. Simply put, we long to be fully “pleasing in his [Christ’s] sight” (see Hebrews 13:20-21). Note also that this spiritual growth is referred to as “bearing fruit in every good work.” Jesus tells us that the secret to bearing such fruit doesn’t lie in trying harder but rather in abiding (believing) in him (John 15:1-5). Notice, too, that the gospel-empowered believer is never smugly satisfied with his/her level of spiritual knowledge and growth but rather is “increasing in the knowledge of God.”
Finally, Paul adds yet further evidences of the gospel-driven life: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father” (1:11-12). Power, endurance, patience, joy, and gratitude are further supernatural evidences of the work of the Spirit in the gospel-revived heart.
What if I don’t measure up to this high standard?
As you read these six evidences of a vibrant faith, do you read them as law to judge or as fruit to encourage you? Is there a gap between these fruits and your actual experience? Do you struggle with the chronic conviction that you “don’t measure up”? If so, then “Cheer up––you are worse than you think, and the gospel is better than you know” (Jack Miller). Gospel joy comes from the heart of the humble who is constantly seeing, naming, and repenting of his/her sin. Truly, we all fall short, but, by gospel grace, we are constantly being loved and crafted for his glory.
When we ask the question “Are you believing the gospel?,” we are not asking if you are a Christian. Rather, we are asking if, in your day-to-day life filled with challenges, failures, successes, and disappointments, you are really trusting in Christ?
For example, let us imagine that you have miserably failed someone you love. You go to the Lord in prayer and ask for his forgiveness. Then you go to the offended person acknowledging your sin and asking their forgiveness (which they freely grant). However, you have a nagging sense of shame that robs you of your joy and drains you of your energy. If so, are you really believing the gospel at that point? Do you believe that your guilt and shame are gone? To continue to carry it is to deny that Christ has forgiven you and that you are fully righteous in his sight.
In verses 3-8, then, we see clearly how the Lord brings encouragement and affirmation to these Colossian believers. Now, in verses 9-14, we discover how he spurs them on to further love and good works.
First, Paul reminds them that he is praying for them and that his prayer has a very specific content and objective:
9And so, for the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
When we read this text, the default setting of our hearts can easily (i.e., naturally) interpret these words as: “Paul prays for us that we would be better Christians and please God with our obedience.” Although there is a measure of truth in that interpretation, it misses the mark. Of course the Lord wants us to discern his will and walk in a manner that pleases him, “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” The question is not the goal of obedience but rather the motivation and power to live obediently. Where does that motivation and power come from? How can it be sustained? What should we do when it falters?
A typical evangelical response might suggest something like this: “God loved you and saved you. You owe him your life. You need to show God that you love him and are grateful to him, and you do this by your obedience. When you disobey or don’t live up to his standard, repent and try again––harder; eventually you may get to the point that you are “fully pleasing to Him.”
Again, we see a speck of truth but a log of a lie, and we must ask God to remove that log from the eye of our heart. In the gospel, you are already pleasing to God. That is your standing, your status, and your position in Christ. Notice that the phrase “pleasing to God” has a very significant context: “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him.” Paul here describes our lifestyle, not our identity. Of course we want to live in a way that pleases God. The question is this:
Do I live a life that pleases God and, thereby, become pleasing to God? OR
Am I already pleasing to God and, thereby, live a life that is pleasing to him?
The first answer is “writing with your natural hand.” It is the default setting of our hearts. In essence it states: “My performance is the basis of my acceptance.” In the gospel, the order is reversed: “My acceptance (in Christ) is the basis of my performance (for Christ).”
After encouraging the spiritual growth of the Colossian believers (verses 3-8) and reminding them to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him” (verse 10), Paul then reveals the source and strength to walk in this way:
11May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
What a wonderful summary of the gospel! If Paul is writing to mature and fruitful believers, why would he remind them of the gospel that they already know? Because the key to godly living is gospel believing. The foundation of a life of obedience is a life of believing. The essence of the Christian lifestyle is believing that we are already loved, already “qualified . . . to share in the inheritance of the saints in light,” already “delivered,” already “transferred,” already redeemed, and already forgiven. We do not perform to be accepted. We are already accepted in Christ, therefore we “perform” in a way that honors him.
Other Pauline epistles follow this same strategy of affirming that our standing in Christ is the basis of our living for Christ:
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:22)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called . . . . (Ephesians 4:1)
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. (Colossians 3:1-3)
Years ago Dr. Jack Miller asked the question: “What one thing do you need to do to become a better Christian?” The common answer typically sounded something like this: Study Scripture more, have a better quiet time, tithe, share the gospel with others, get past a sinful habit, love others better, etc.
What do all of those answers have in common? Are they not all related to the issue of performance? Again, they may have a grain of truth––but they miss the gospel truth. To be a “better Christian,” I need to believe more!
When asking the question, “Are you believing the gospel?,” we might express it by asking these three questions:
First, are you believing WHAT CHRIST HAS DONE FOR YOU? Do you believe that his death and resurrection (things that he has already done, often referred to as “the finished work of Christ”) have delivered you from your guilt and shame? When struggling with shame, are you believing Colossians 1:13-14; Romans 8:1; Hebrews 4:14-16; and a host of other texts like these?
Second, are you believing WHAT CHRIST SAYS ABOUT YOU? There are only four choices in life when it comes to defining our identity. We can define ourselves, we can let others define us, we can let the devil define us, or we can let the gospel define us. The first three options all end in tragic failure. If we, others, or the devil define us with praise for our successes, we fall prey to pride. If we, others, or the devil define us with judgment for our failures, we are driven to shame. Only the voice of Christ must be heard in this regard. He tells us that we are his beloved children (I John 3:1); that we are righteous (Philippians. 3:7-10); that I have been sealed by his Spirit (Ephesians 1:13); and many other identity-defining statements.
Third, are you believing WHAT CHRIST PROMISES TO YOU? Are you feeling anxious about your financial future? Are you believing his promise in Matthew 6:25-34? Are you feeling lonely and abandoned? Are you believing his promise in Hebrews 13:5? Are you feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by the pressures of life? Are you believing Romans 8:28? Examples abound in this regard. Jack Miller wisely taught: “The Christian lives by promises, not appearances.”
In summary, the gospel is rooted in the person and work of Christ, and that work on the cross (past) continues in our lives (present) and extends into our future. We can trust him. He loves us.
Discussion Questions and Action Points
- In what way, if any, is your understanding of “believing the gospel” expanding beyond your initial reception of Christ for salvation?
- Of the four options cited above in terms of whom we allow to define us, which one is most dominant in your life?
- PARENTS: How are you assisting your children to come to a Christ-based identity? Are you placing excessive demands upon them to perform academically, athletically, or socially which feed the idol of being defined by what others (including parents) think rather than by what Jesus says?
- TEENS: Studies on teenagers often site that the opinion of peers is the most powerful force in determining your self-identity. Is this true for you? If so, what does it produce in you? What voice could/should you be listening to in this regard? What difference would it make if you really allowed Christ to define you?
- ADULTS: What else do you look to for self-definition (job success, wealth, esteem of others, community recognition, church service, etc.)? What has this produced in you? How does the gospel offer you real freedom from this trap of being held hostage to the opinions of others?
- A lifestyle of believing the gospel involves trusting Christ in three specific ways cited above (what he has done for you, what he says about you, what he promises to you). In which of the three do you tend to trust consistently? With which of the three do you tend to struggle most frequently?
- Practical exercise: Choose a daily habit that you perform which favors either your left or right hand (writing, shaving, holding a phone, etc.). For a period of one week, perform that daily task using your opposite hand. After completing this assignment, write below what the Lord has taught you about daily believing the gospel of his great love for you.
- What do you think it would mean for Central Presbyterian Church to “write with the opposite hand”? That is, are there any chronic habits that we have as a congregation that the Lord desires to change in us? If so, what are they? If so, will you pray about your concern and then share your thoughts with an elder of our church?
Father of truth and light, before whom every thought is seen and every motive exposed, grant me greater faith to believe the gospel of your great love for me. When I am fearful, help me to believe that you are with me. When I am angry, help me to believe that you are working out your purposes in my life. When I am prideful, remind me that apart from you I am nothing and I have nothing. Lord, I trust you for eternal life in heaven. Help me to trust you for temporal life here on earth. May your word and Spirit so fill my heart and mind that I––daily––believe what you have done for me, what you say about me, and what you promise to me. In the name of Jesus I ask this. Amen