In Colossians 3, the apostle Paul gives us two metaphors to help us grapple with our relationship to sin and righteousness in Christ. On the one hand, we are to kill the sin within our hearts: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (v. 5). Yet we also need to embrace a new identity—to “put on the new self” (v. 10) like a fresh set of clothing, fitting to our place in the King’s family.
In other words, the Christian life means not only purposefully rejecting what is ungodly—“sexual immorality, impurity, passion,” and so on (v. 5)—but also embracing the character of our Lord. As we look forward with confidence to His return, the Spirit leads us through a process of sanctification by which He is transforming us into Christ’s very image.
This transformation is a work of God’s grace in those who believe, and the power comes from outside of us. And yet it is a work in which the Lord has given us a part, so that we seek to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling even while God works in us (Phil. 2:12–13). If we are to actively “put on” this new identity, it will be helpful for us to meditate on the Christlike qualities that characterize it. Paul identifies several of them in Colossians 3:12–14:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
The first piece of the outfit Paul describes is “compassionate hearts.” The King James Version, in keeping with the Hebraic idiom that Paul uses, puts it in terms of the gut: “Put on … bowels of mercies.” In other words, we ought to feel for the suffering of others at a gut level. Christlike compassion is not merely cerebral or emotional. In fact, it ought to be so deeply felt as to be almost physical, gripping us right in the center of our bodies when we see others in need.
This is the very love of our God that we see illustrated in the story of the prodigal son. We read that as the son trudged home, “his father saw him and felt compassion,” which overflowed in action as he “ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Similarly, it ought to be that as people turn from the pigsties of their lives apart from Christ, they may be sure to find the “bowels of mercies” among us in the church, because it is part of the clothes we wear.
The second piece of the outfit is “kindness.” Here Paul is talking about a Spirit-imparted goodness of heart. This is not about pulling ourselves up by our shoelaces, saying, “I’m going to try and be a good person,” nor is it a façade of politeness hiding an inner malice (v. 8). No, it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit growing in Christian hearts so that we genuinely long for and seek out the good of others.
Godly kindness is the very overflow of the compassion of the Prodigal’s father. It is the demonstration of neighbor love that the Samaritan showed to the wounded man in the parable (Luke 10:30–37). And it’s the kindness shown to Saul of Tarsus, that great persecutor of Christians, when he made his way to Jerusalem—to a church understandably afraid to help him. There, Barnabas reached out to this man who had been so unkind and took him in. Barnabas was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). When you see somebody truly filled with the Holy Spirit like that, you will see them exercising compassion by showing sacrificial kindness.
The third piece of the outfit, “humility,” is not a cringing, self-abasing shyness; rather, true humility is the heart’s recognition that human weakness has been uplifted by God’s grace. It is the response of individuals who have come to terms with themselves, with their status in life, and with their place within the family of God. Paul helps us understand this mindset in 1 Corinthians 4 when he asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Whether it be in health, in material provision, in spiritual gifts, or our salvation itself, the answer is “Nothing.” God has given us all these things. So, “if then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
Pride in the life of a Christian is ludicrous. It is God who saves us, and not because of any good in us but to glorify His own mercies. And if God has given to us material provision or spiritual gifts, He has done so not for our glory but for His. And if the eternal Son “did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself” to serve us (Phil. 2:6–7), what right do we have not to serve ourselves? It would be incongruous for us to seek to use our gifts as a means of building ourselves up rather than by honoring God through serving others.
Fourth in Paul’s list comes “meekness.” The meek person doesn’t bow before every breeze. She is not spineless. No, the meek are those who are self-controlled because they are God-controlled. They will be direct, they will be assertive, and they will be firm in their convictions, but all in a godly way and at a fitting time.
The meek are those who are self-controlled because they are God-controlled.
Meekness is an overflow of a tender heart, which is soft before God and humble among His people. Christians with such a heart will treat others gently, showing them the graciousness that God has shown to us. Jesus even described Himself as “gentle” when He made His invitation for sinners to come and find their rest in Him (Matt. 11:29). He was prepared to confront and condemn the proud who would not repent, but He welcomed those sinners who were ready to turn to Him for forgiveness. We ought to receive others in the same manner as that in which Christ has received us.
The fifth piece of the outfit is “patience.” It is a longsuffering spirit that refuses to give up, that will not succumb to despair or to cowardice. It endures pain rather than dishing it out, choosing to withstand being wronged rather than seeking revenge. And like all of these garments, we depend on the Holy Spirit to clothe us in it. Indeed, in Colossians 1:11, Paul prays that the believers would be “strengthened” by God “with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience.”
This is the character that Jesus showed supremely in His suffering on the cross, as Peter describes: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). And in doing this, He was “leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (v. 21). Like Jesus—indeed, because of Jesus—we can endure suffering with patience, knowing that all will be made right in His presence.
Putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience makes the actions of verse 13 possible, so that when we’re threatened, persecuted, subjected to rumor or to slander, we can hold ourselves back. That’s what the phrase “bearing with one other” means: “Hold yourself back from each other. Don’t break loose and fly at each other.”
When love is at work, it is to be intelligent, purposeful, self-giving, and mutual. It can bring about perfect harmony among God’s people.
Yet we’re not merely to keep ourselves from retaliation and escalation. The Christlike clothes we put on allow us to actively forgive. Frankly, Christians give each other a lot of opportunity to practice forgiveness, and Paul assumes that there will be times when it’s necessary for Christians to forgive one another. As we feel for others at a gut level, seek their good, understand our own need for God’s mercy, practice a spirit of gentleness, and trust in God to make all things right, forgiveness and reconciliation will be possible.
Holding the whole outfit together is “love.” Love is not merely an additional garment; it is the key to the unity of it all. When this love is at work, it is to be intelligent, purposeful, self-giving, and mutual. It can bring about perfect harmony among God’s people.
The apostle John reminds the church that “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). Those who are indeed “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) will show the fruit of God’s love in their lives. Yet in the same context, John reminds us that “we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). Just as in our war on sin we cannot rely on our own ability to change our outward behavior, so we cannot expect to “put on the new self” by self-effort. It is the Holy Spirit in our hearts who transforms us as we set our minds on Him in the anticipation of knowing the fullness of righteousness in glory.
“Putting on the new self” is not an activity rooted primarily in moral effort. Moral effort will be necessary, but the power comes from the Lord, and the glory belongs to Him. If we will prayerfully depend on Him, looking to his Word and “teaching and admonishing” one another in His family, He will faithfully transform us into His own image as we look forward to the day when we finally become like Him because we see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).