Monday, July 12, 2010

Some thoughts on the mortification of sin: Grammar


Colossians 3:5-7

When I was in school grammar was out, which might explain a lot. Beyond the basics of commas, full stops and spelling, little effort was made to teach us the meaning of technical grammatical terms. It was only when I began to learn Greek and Hebrew at the London Theological Seminary that I had to get to grips with the finer points of grammar. Of course you don’t need to know grammatical jargon in order to make yourself understood, but it can help.

In grammatical terms living the gospel-driven life is all about understanding the relationship between the indicative and the imperative. The indicative is a statement of truth – it indicates or describes something, “The water in the swimming pool is clear and warm”. The imperative issues a command:, “Jump in the water and have a swim.”

"What has all this grammar this got to do with me?" You might say. It is vital that we get this point and have a clear understanding of the relationship between the indicative and the imperative in the Christian life. As the early 20th century New Testament scholar, Gresham Machen said, “Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative...[it] announces, first a gracious act of God.”

In this case the indicative is this: Colossians 3:1, 3:3. The believer has died with Christ to the old life of sin and has been raised with him to a new life of holiness. That is the “triumphant indicative” describing the reality of our position in Christ. But we can’t leave it there. The indicative gives rise to the commanding imperative: because you are dead to sin and alive to God – “Therefore…”, Colossians 3:5.

Notice that we are not told that we must die with Christ and be raised with him. That is not something we can do. God does that for us as he unites us to Christ by the Spirit. But as those who are dead to sin and alive to God, believers must put sin to death and bring holiness to life.

Our union with Christ in his death and resurrection gives rise to the essential pattern of the Christian life, which is that of mortification (putting to death) and vivification (bringing to life). “You died” (Colossians 3:3) “therefore put to death” (Colossians 3:5). “You were raised” (Colossians 3:1) therefore bring holiness to life (Romans 6:11-13, 22). Alternatively, Paul speaks in terms of "putting off" sin and "putting on" holiness, Colossians 3:8, 3:12.

The triumphant indicative, “You died and been raised with Christ” leads inevitably to the compelling imperative, “You must therefore put sin to death and live a new life of holiness”.

That fact that the imperative is issued at all tells us that while the believer has been united to Christ in his death and resurrection, he or she is not perfect yet. We must work out what God has worked in, Philippians 2:12-13. If we are going to live the gospel-driven life then we are going to have to mortify the sin that remains in our lives. We are still “on the earth”, living in a fallen world and our “members”, the members of our bodies must not be used for sinful purposes, Romans 6:13.

Understanding the grammar of mortification concerns grasping that union with Christ crucified and risen is the the dynamic that empowers us to obey the apostolic command to mortify sin and live holy lives for the glory of God.  

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