The Christian’s Spiritual Wardrobe (2)
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments for Rev. McGeown, please post them in the comment section on the blog.
The Christian’s Activity
As I indicated earlier these items of spiritual clothing—compassion (two items), humility (two items), patience (one item), and love (one item)—are graces (or gifts to us) and virtues (for we are called to exercise them and become active in them). In a similar way Paul writes about the armor of God in Ephesians 6: God supplies the armor, but we are commanded to put it on. These virtues are the work of the Spirit, but we are commanded to wear them or put them on.
As Christians, who have been regenerated and renewed, we choose to wear certain things and we choose not to wear other things. The unbeliever, who is dead in sin and is not renewed after the image of God, cannot choose to put on these virtues, but we can—and we do.
We choose to put on bowels of mercies and kindness. We make a conscious daily effort to exercise compassion. We choose to put on humbleness of mind and meekness. We make a conscious daily effort to be humble in the sight of God and to avoid haughtiness with respect to others. We choose to put on longsuffering. We make a conscious daily effort not to be easily provoked to anger. We choose how we will react to others. We are not responsible for the reaction of others, but we are responsible for our own reaction. And above all we choose to put on charity (love). We make a conscious daily effort to seek the welfare of others, to show affection to others, and (where possible) to maintain a bond of fellowship with others. Every day, we pray, “Lord, give me grace to put on these spiritual virtues.”
But what—precisely—does it mean to “put on”? We know that Paul writes figuratively—but what does he mean?
First, this “putting on” is a spiritual renewal of the soul (heart) that has happened already, but only in principle. “Ye have,” says Paul, “put off the old man” (Col. 3:9). And he adds, “[ye] have put on the new man” (v. 10). That happened in principle when you were regenerated, when you received the life of Jesus Christ. But as with many things in the Christian life, the putting off/putting on in principle must develop and grow. One who has put off the old man continues to put off the vices associated with the sinful nature: he puts off anger, wrath, malice, etc. One who has put on the new man continues to put on the virtues (graces) associated with the new nature: he puts on bowels of mercies, kindness, etc.
Second, we put on these virtues because we are given power to live a new, holy life. Our putting them on is our activity in sanctification. Be careful. We do not sanctify ourselves. God does. But we are active and we become active in sanctification, and the fruit of our sanctification is to put on these virtues (graces).
Third, to put on this “spiritual wardrobe” is to put on Christ himself. It is to receive him not only for justification, but also for sanctification. It is to be adorned with his beauty, which is the beauty of holiness, so that we glorify him in our attitude and behavior.
Something else happens—and must happen—while we are putting on these virtues. Another activity of the Christian is intimately connected to these spiritual adornments. In fact, it is not possible to wear these “spiritual clothes” while refusing to do the activity described in verses 12–13. Notice the structure of the sentences: “Put on… forbearing.” “Put on… forgiving.” Do you see the connection? The verbs are synchronous or “in synch”; they happen at the same time.
Observe a Christian standing beside the wardrobe. He pulls out “bowels and mercies”: what is he doing while he slips it on? Forbearing and forgiving! He takes out “kindness”: what is he doing while he puts it on? Forbearing and forgiving! He adds “humbleness of mind”: what is he doing while he adds it to his outfit? Forbearing and forgiving! He brings out “meekness”: observe him as he puts it on—he is forbearing and forgiving! He adds “longsuffering”: what is he doing when he adds it to his ensemble? Forbearing and forgiving! One who is not forbearing and forgiving cannot wear these other virtues. He holds on to anger, resentment, and bitterness. Those things clash with the items in the Christian’s wardrobe. He must put anger, resentment, and bitterness away, while he puts on these graces (virtues).
In verse 13 we have two verbs used to describe the activity of the Christian. First, we forbear; second, we forgive.
To forbear is to put up with something or someone that we cannot change. To forbear is to restrain yourself so that you do not respond to others in anger, with irritation, or with another sinful passion. To forbear is to hold back from a sinful response. Forbearance, therefore, requires self-discipline and it presupposes something or someone unpleasant, annoying, irritating, or provocative about that thing or person that you forbear. Marriage requires a lot of forbearance: married people discover annoying habits and character traits in their spouse. Some things can be changed, but other things are ingrained in the spouse’s personality. We must for the sake of love and harmony in the marriage put up with such irritations. The same thing applies in the church:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1–3)
To forgive is greater than to forbear. Forgiveness concerns a quarrel, where the word “quarrel” is an “occasion of fault” in another person. Sometimes a quarrel is not serious, while at other times a quarrel happens because of a serious sin that one person has committed against another. Forgiveness requires several steps. First, the sin must be acknowledged and repentance must be sought. Both parties must see that the sin for which forgiveness is sought and given is worthy of the wrath of God, for sin is the transgression of God’s law. Forgiveness is never the minimizing of sin. Second, there must be a clear declaration: “I forgive you; I put your sin away.” If a sin requires confession and repentance, it is not enough to say, “It’s OK; it was nothing.” Third, forgiveness is a promise: “I will not think about this sin again. I will not bring this sin up again to use it against you in the future. I will not talk to others about this sin. And I will not allow this sin to stand between us or to hinder our relationship.” Fourth, forgiveness includes forgetting—in a sense, of course, such forgetting is impossible, because we cannot blot out such sins from our minds. Nevertheless, we must refuse to dwell upon another’s sin, to dredge it up, and to nurse anger, bitterness, and resentment in our hearts. Fifth, when we forgive someone, and he does the same thing again, we do not require him to apologize and repent repeatedly for the same sin. We require repentance for the new sin, but since we have forgiven the old sin (even if it resurfaces) we must not require repentance for the old sin. Let’s say you snap at your wife today: you ask her forgiveness and she forgives you. She must not say, “You did that last week, last month, and last year, and I have kept a list. I know I forgave you last week, last month, and last year, but since you did it again today, you must apologize for those sins again.” That is wrong. You do not have to keep on apologizing for past sins if they have been forgiven. You must apologize for your new sins! If there is a pattern of sin, recognize that too, but it is cruel to expect someone to keep on apologizing for sins for which they repented and for which they received forgiveness weeks, months, and even years ago. To do that is to imprison that person in their sins forever. You said that you forgave them but you continually bring up their past transgressions! Moreover, you imprison yourself in bitterness and resentment. You claim to have forgiven that person, but you have never really let the sin go.
To hold on to resentment or to imprison someone in his past sins is the opposite of the virtues enjoined in verse 12. It is cruelty, not bowels of mercies. It is harshness, not kindness. It is pride, not humbleness of mind or meekness. It is impatience, not longsuffering. It is bitterness and anger, not forbearance and forgiveness.
Worst of all, it is not what God has done: “even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (v. 13). Christ forgives us freely, graciously, abundantly, entirely, without hesitation, without reservation, and forever. When Christ forgave us, he did so at great cost. He bled on the cross in order to secure our forgiveness. When Christ forgives us, he sends our sins away (that’s the meaning of the word); he separates us from our sins as far as the east is from the west; he casts our sins into the depths of the sea; our sins and our iniquities he remembers no more; and he lets go of his anger. Christ does not say, “I forgive you, but I am going to keep a record of your sin so that one day I can hold it against you.” Christ does not say, “I forgive you, but our relationship has been permanently damaged because of your sin. I know that you have repented, but I will hold you at arm’s length. I won’t allow you into my fellowship because I cannot—and I will not—forget what you did.” Christ says, “Neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more.” And when we sin again, and when we repent again, Christ forgives again, and again, and again. And he taught us to forgive seventy times seven, which does not mean that on the 491st offence we stop forgiving. We always forgive because we do not keep a record of one another’s sins.
Where would we be if Christ kept quarrels against us? We would be in hell, that’s where!
The Christian’s Identity
Briefly, the admonition to put on the clothes in the Christian’s “spiritual wardrobe” is rooted in the Christian’s identity. Simply put, we wear these clothes, and not the clothes that pertain to the old man or old nature, because we are Christians. We do not become Christians because we put on these things. We put on these things because we are already Christians.
Four things are included in our identity.
First, we are the elect of God. God has chosen us in Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world. That choice of God was unconditional. God commands us to be adorned with a certain kind of life, that is, with the graces (virtues) provided for us. It is a beautiful life. Second, we are holy: a holy person or a saint is one set apart in consecration to God and separated from defilement. Only these graces (virtues) are suitable for a holy person. Third, we are beloved: God has set his love upon us not because we are holy, but in order to make us so. As God’s beloved children we have been granted clothing, namely, the items in this “spiritual wardrobe.” And finally, fourth, there is the “therefore” in verse 12: “Put on therefore.” We have the image of Christ, who is the image of God. We are “risen with Christ” (v. 1). We belong to Christ. These clothes are fitting for us.
Spend some time examining the beautiful garments that Christ has prepared for us: the garments of compassion (bowels of mercies and kindness), the garments of humility (humbleness of mind and meekness), the garment of patience (longsuffering), and the crown to top it all (charity/love). Admire them, rejoice in them, and be thankful for them—and above all wear them to the glory of God and for the benefit of your neighbor.