Teaching series from Colossians

The What of the Gospel (Part 1)

Colossians 2:13-14

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Paul wrote Colossians to re-focus its recipients on what he called “the gospel”—the message about who Jesus is and what he has done (which he explains in chapters 1 & 2).  Why did they need to be re-focused?  Because some pseudo-Christian teachers were saying that the gospel was merely a spiritual “starter kit”—and that they needed to graduate to other spiritual “secrets” in order to attain spiritual fullness. 

Paul rejects this, and argues that their spiritual development depends on continuing to grow in their understanding and appreciation of the gospel.  That’s what he says 2:6-8 (read).  That’s why he goes on to say 2:9,10a (read).  Because of who Jesus is (God-incarnate), his provision is complete.  If you have received Jesus as Lord, you already have spiritual fullness.  Christian spiritual development is not getting something more; it is applying what you have already been given through Jesus.  What has Jesus given us?  In 2:11-15, Paul describes three great provisions.  They are so important that we will spend a week on each of them, seeking to understand and apply them to our lives.  This morning, we will look at the provision described in 2:13,14—God’s forgiveness (read).

Explanation of 2:13,14

This passage is pretty straightforward.  Paul concisely explains why we need God’s forgiveness, how God provided his forgiveness, and the extent of his forgiveness.

WHY WE NEED IT:  We need God’s forgiveness because we are “dead because of our sins” (we’ll deal with “because your sinful nature was not yet cut away” next week).  God created us and we live in his universe.  He is the rightful Ruler of our lives, and we owe him perfect love and obedience to his moral law (Matt.22).  Our disobedience is cosmic treason, and results in an objective moral debt that renders us spiritually dead—separated from God, under his condemnation, and helpless to rescue ourselves.  “We are headed for judgment, guilty when we get there—and in bondage as we go.”

HOW GOD PROVIDED IT: But God loves us.  He cannot simply ignore his righteousness to let us off the hook—the debt must be paid, our sins must be judged.  So God sent his Son (who also volunteered) to pay our debt himself.  He took all of our moral IOU’s and “nailed them to the Cross.”  Jesus was separated from God for us; Jesus had the Father’s wrath poured out on him for us; Jesus suffered physical death for us.  That’s why he cried out “Tetelestai!” just before he gave up his spirit (explain).

ITS EXTENT: And since Jesus was God-incarnate, his payment had infinite value.  This is why God can forgive “all” of our sins, why he can “cancel” the record of charges against us, why he “takes it out of the way.”  The infinite value of Jesus’ payment procures a complete and permanent forgiveness for all who receive it. 

But there is more.  God’s forgiveness also makes us “alive with Christ”—it bestows God’s approval on us (3:12).  Because of Jesus’ payment, God not only says: “I forgive you of every sin;” he also says: “I am as pleased with you just as much as I am pleased with my own perfectly obedient Son.”  Imagine being a war-time traitor who is caught and awaiting execution. Then your commanding officer rescues you and loses his life in the rescue.  Then the Commander-in-Chief (who is your commanding officer’s father) not only grants you a full pardon—he also awards you his son’s Medal of Honor!  Do you think this sounds over-the-top?  What God did for us through Jesus is infinitely more over-the-top!

Applying God’s forgiveness: a cleansed conscience

One great benefit of God’s forgiveness is the assurance of eternal life (Jn.3:16).  Because Jesus has fully paid my sin debt, I can be certain that God will declare me innocent at his final judgment and invite me into his kingdom.  But God’s forgiveness also provides a wonderful benefit for this life.  As I keep applying it, I can live with a cleansed conscience.

This cleansed conscience seems contradictory—it is realistic about our sinfulness—yet washed clean by God’s forgiveness, and able to bask in his approval.  This is one of our greatest needs and one of God’s most precious gifts. 

Without it, we will be plagued by fear and guilt (not only acute and specific; also vague and chronic).  It can come from long-past or recent sins, from bad things we have done, or from good things we have failed to do.  It debilitates us through depression, anxiety, self-recrimination, self-deception, etc.  

With it, we can live free from chronic guilt and enjoy God’s approval—even though we have committed grievous sins, and even though we continue to sin daily.  Some object: “This will encourage sociopathology!”  But actually, the opposite is true.  It is a cleansed conscience that motivates us to relate to God in love and to serve him gladly (Heb. 9:14).

This cleansed conscience is available to everyone through Jesus’ death—yet few of us enjoy a cleansed conscience as an abiding reality.  Why is this?  The answer is both simple and complex.  I have learned that an uncleansed conscience is always due to depending on my righteousness instead of Jesus’ death to validate me.  It is complex because we can do this in a variety of very subtle ways.  If you lack a cleansed conscience, these questions (stated as prayers to God) may help you to identify how you are depending on your own righteousness—so you can shift your dependence on to Jesus’ death for you.

“Have I ever asked for Your gift of total forgiveness through Jesus?”  A cleansed conscience is simply God applying the total forgiveness he has already given you to your present situation.  But before he can do this, you must first receive that total forgiveness (BANK WITHDRAWAL).  Have you ever humbled yourself before God?  Have you ever agreed with him that you are guilty of violating his character, that you therefore deserve his condemnation, that you are helpless to rescue yourself—and asked him to forgive you completely through Jesus’ death?  This is what it means to be a Christian, and this is the foundation for experiencing a cleansed conscience.  What would hold you back from doing this?  Is it your pride saying: “It is offensive to be told that I need this undeserved mercy?”  Let it go—you’ll be so glad you did!

Many of you have made this decision, and have enjoyed a cleansed conscience in the past.  But it isn’t a present reality—what then?  Then in some way you are still relying on your own righteousness rather than on God’s forgiveness through Jesus.  This can be very subtle—so consider these questions:

“Am I evading Your correction of specific sinful behaviors or attitudes?”  Many times I lack a cleansed conscience because I fail to practice 1Jn.1:5-9 (read and explain).  Let’s say God corrects me concerning the resentment I am nursing toward my wife because of her disorganization.  He wants me to agree with him that this is wrong, thank him for forgiving me, and ask him to enable me to love my wife.  Instead, my almost sub-conscious reflex is to avoid his correction.  I may rationalize (“It’s not really resentment—it’s just understandable irritation”).  Or I may minimize (“It’s not as bad as the way George resents Bill &/or how I used to hate X”).  Or I may blame-shift (“But she is so insensitive to how this affects me”).  What are these reactions to God’s correction?  Aren’t they my prideful attempts to justify myself rather than rely wholly on Jesus’ forgiveness.  But the momentary pain of humbling myself under God’s correction is well worth the cleansed conscience that follows!

“It can be a struggle even to name your sin before God.  You flounder because the name you give your sin often expresses further evasion.  You pray: ‘Lord, forgive me for not lov­ing Mrs. X.’ ... Thenyou realize through the Holy Spirit that you have been trifling.  Now you pray differently, with a stricken conscience: ‘Father, I have not loved Mrs. X. But that's only part of my sin. In my heart I have despised her.’  So in your confession to God you fight to... give your sin its right name.  Then you hand it over to Christ by faith and taste the happiness of guilt forgiven and find the deliverance from hypocrisy which comes through honest con­fession.  What you now know is almost beyond words, but has the feel of clear shining after rain, sunshine after tears. Grace is for sinners, and you have felt grace make a clean sweep of your repentant heart.  God loves you where you are, not where you have been pretending to be.”

“Do I rely on my own moral/spiritual improvement more than on Your ongoing forgiveness?”  What does this look like?  The thought “I need to spend some time with God” comes into my mind—and there is an almost sub-conscious reflex to avoid.  When I think about the reasons for this, it has to do with feeling unworthy (e.g., haven’t prayed lately, have had a bad attitude, haven’t served much, etc.).  So I stay away from God until I feel more worthy.  But what am I saying?  “Your death on the Cross is inadequate to qualify me to relate to God—it’s my performance that really qualifies me.”  The truth is that I am never qualified to relate to God on the basis of my accomplishments.  But I am always qualified to relate to God on the basis of what Jesus accomplished for me. 

Or I am beset by stinging self-recriminations: “I should have overcome this sin habit by now!” or “I should be able to do this (ministry, marriage, job, etc.) by now!”  I am filled with self-loathing; I beat myself for not measuring up to this standard of progress.  This may feel like humility, but it is actually prideful self-righteousness: “I shouldn’t have to keep relying wholly on what Jesus’ did for me—that is personally demeaning.  I should be able to get to the place where I can stand on my own moral and spiritual accomplishments.”  The truth is that for the rest of my life, I will need Jesus’ death to qualify me—and for the rest of my life, God will gladly approve of me on this basis.

“Do I rely on certain people’s approval more than on Your approval?”  This is a form of prideful self-righteousness, because I’m saying: “It’s not nearly enough that I have Your undeserved approval—I must have their approval or admiration for who I am and for what I do.”  It may be your spouse, your children, your boss, your co-workers, your home group leaders, etc. 

How would you know if you’re forfeiting a cleansed conscience because of this?  I find that I cover up my sins and weaknesses toward the people on whose approval I actually rely.  I may even say to myself: “I’ve been honest with God—I don’t need to tell them.”  But this is usually just a prideful deception so that I don’t jeopardize the real source of my validation (their approval of me).  It also produces anxiety (because this approval has to be earned every day by pleasing and/or not disappointing these people) and/or resentment (when they don’t approve enough or criticize).  When instead I trust in God’s undeserved forgiveness and approval, I am free to please him—and give people what they need.

CONCLUSION: God’s forgiveness is the most wonderful gift you can ever receive!  He wants you to receive it as a permanent possession, and he wants you to apply it daily so you can live with a cleansed conscience.  I pray this teaching helps you to do this!

DISCUSSION: Which of these questions resonates most with you?  If you’re not sure, ask God to show you (Ps.139:23,24).  How might you help your spouse/child/friend to regain a cleansed conscience?

C. John Miller, Repentance & 20th Century Man (Fort Washington, Penn.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980), pp. 118,119.