The Gospel of Self
Part 4: The Kingdom of Self
Another area where the gospel of self has risen to prominence is in the modern church’s drive for social acceptance and social action. This replaces the Gospel message of sanctification in the life of a believer. Sanctification means to be holy, pure, cleansed of sin. Jesus prayed to His Father before going to the cross, “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy Word is truth” (John 17: 17). The Word “washes” and “cleanses” our minds if we let it (Eph. 5:26).
When it comes to sanctification, several things go wrong in Christianity. Legalists will insist that that it is all about obeying laws, either Old Testament or New Testament laws. Non-legalists will insist that once a believer is saved he is “home free” and never has to worry about obedience. Humanists teach that we only need to fulfill our needs and become self-actualized. And Dominionists claim we are sanctified by our service as we build the kingdom of God here on earth; i.e. social action. In each of these extremes the focus ends up on the self. On the one hand the self loves to exult, like the Pharisees, about how many laws they are following. On the other hand the self loves to run free from all restraints, especially the moral law. And the self loves to brag with pride about accomplishments towards the “kingdom” building.
But sanctification isn’t about self. It is about dying to self. Sanctification happens after one is born again. Colossians 3 describes the new life of a believer as one in which we mortify our members (vs. 5a - "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth;..."). The word “mortify” means “to make dead, to put to death, to slay.” As Matthew Poole describes it, mortification is “a mortal wound… by the Spirit of God given to the old man, or to the habit of sin, which will in the end… be a total privation of its life.”
Here is an example: The first sin identified in a list in Colossians 3:5 as needing to be mortified is “fornication.” It is interesting that this sin is the one that is most easily tolerated in our modern era, even among those professing Christianity. It has become a common sin. “They love each other, so why not sleep together” or “if it feels good and no one is harmed” are the typical excuses. It is a pervasive sin found everywhere to the point of normalcy – in books, movies, every kind of media, next door to us, relatives, friends and church members. Interestingly, fornication was commonly practiced in the ancient pagan cultures in the early New Testament era. But God in His Word puts this outward practice, and inward matter of the heart, first on the list of things needing to be mortified! (See Eph. 5:3, 1 Cor. 6:9, Matt. 5:28). Whatever happened to shame about fornicating? In modern Christianity shame for this sin is virtually non-existent. But this is a sin that gratifies self at the expense of truly loving the other, fulfilling carnal lusts of the self while ignoring the other’s eternal destiny. And it is practiced in blatant disobedience to God’s Word.
Sanctification is heaven-centered and God-focused. The opposite of this is being earth-centered and man-focused – what the Scripture calls being “worldly.” Titus 2:12 speaks of the necessity of “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts.” James 4:4 puts it more bluntly: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”
In Colossians 3:5a God commands believers to “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth.” In the verses just before this the Lord tells us what is above (heavenly-centered) and what is below (earth-centered). “If ye then be risen with Christ,” i.e., born-again, then you should be heavenly-centered – “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.” In fact, not only “seek,” but “set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:1-2). “Set your affection” means to “mind,” to “think,” to be “understanding.” This implies reason and sobriety, something which is antithetical to modern Christianity’s infatuation with mind-numbing meditation. But a mind devoid of rational thought is more susceptible to filling the emptiness with carnal pleasures.
Why should we seek those things that are above? “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God,” explains the next verse (Col. 3:3). In other words, mortification. Other passages in Scripture confirm this. Gal 6:14: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world;” and Gal 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (See also: 2 Tim 2:11.) Mortification means dying to self, crucifying self, dying to the earth and its worldly pursuits and fleshly desires, and counting all things as loss to win Christ (Phil. 3:8).
The next verse in Colossians chapter 3 explains the reason why we need this heaven-centered outlook. It is because of His soon return: “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory” (vs. 4). Similarly, a passage in Titus about “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts” puts the focus heavenward: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:11-14). This purifying is none other than sanctification.
This brings us back to the list of sins needing to be mortified in Colossians 3:5: “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” 1 Thess. 4:3 speaks bluntly to the first item on this list: “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication.” It can’t get much clearer than this!
Dominionists, who are very earth-centered in their social justice and community-building activities, have a problem on their hands. They hope to perfect the kingdom of God on earth, thinking they can redeem everything and everybody through social engineering (or change). But Scripture tells us who can inherit the kingdom: it is those who have died (and continue to die) to the flesh and are alive to God. One passage states, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?” It continues by reiterating in stronger words: “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” This same passage concludes with a strong statement about sanctification: “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11)
Another one of these lists can be found in Ephesians 5, which puts fornication at the top of the list again: “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.” This passage also makes it clear that “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” It furthermore seriously warns: “Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” and calls the believer to practice separation: “Be not ye therefore partakers with them” (Eph. 5:3-7). (See also Rev. 21:8, 22:15.)
In case this isn’t clear enough, a similar passage can also be found in Galatians 5, which puts “adultery” ahead of “fornication” on the list. “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). This same passage explains how mortification is done – by the power of the Holy Spirit. “And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24-25).
While we have been focusing on adultery and fornication as useful examples of modern-day complacency about sanctification, the same principles apply to all the works of the flesh listed in these, and other, passages of Scripture.
Matthew Poole’s fine commentary concludes the discussion on mortification in Col. 3:5 with the astute observation, “Hence considering the odiousness of these vices, the apostle would have us not to content ourselves to cut off some branches of them, but to grub them up by the roots.”
To do this, we need to do more than battle with individual sins, we need to deal with, and put to death the self in which these are all rooted. It is only when self dies that Christ and His purity can come forth in us. It is “I” that needs to be crucified and it is Christ who needs to live. All else is self-reformation, legalism and is rooted in an exaltation of self. Notice what happens to the self in the following Scripture: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
“Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” (2 Peter 4:4)
1. Matthew Poole: A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol III: Matthew-Revelation (Hendrickson).
Note: All biblical reference emphases were added.
This post in this series was jointly authored by Sarah Leslie and Pastor Anton Bosch.