Augustine of Hippo, North Africa, one of the great minds of the late Roman Empire, wrestled with the notion of God and the question of evil, before coming to believe that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God. He writes in his Confessions that as a young adult his prayer was, “God, give me chastity and self-control, but not yet”.

One day when he was reading in a garden, he heard a young child’s voice singing, Tolle lege; tolle lege – ‘Take up, read; take up, read.’ He had been reading Paul the Apostle’s Letter to the Romans. Going back to the place where he had left the text, his eyes fell on the words in chapter 13: Let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

As he read, he found the solution to his heart’s longing. “How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be free of the sweets of folly: things that I once feared to lose, it was now joy to put away. You (Lord) cast them forth from me, … and in their stead you entered in, sweeter than every pleasure…” (Confessions VIII)

Paul’s advice in Romans, chapter 13 is similar to what we find in the first section of Colossians, chapter 3. There Paul writes, Since you have been raised to a new life in Christ, set your hearts and minds on the things above…And in verse 5 he says: Put to death therefore what belongs to your earthly nature…

It is because of the new relationship that God’s people have with the risen Lord Jesus that Paul exhorts us to adopt a new lifestyle that reflects the goodness of God. Everything we think and say and do is to be framed by our new identity. Paul touches on three important areas of our behavior: sex, speech and relationships.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

Passions. If you know the Lord Jesus, Paul is saying, then sex is for marriage only. ‘You used to do what you wanted to do,’ he says, ‘but now having linked yourself with the Lord, put to death such behaviour.’ People often argue that they are ‘making love’, but with his reference to greed in this context, he is saying that it is really lust.

In recent years studies suggest that the internet is having a negative impact on marriages. People are so consumed by it, especially pornography, that they have less time and inclination for their marriage partner. What a strange paradox: ogling at pictures more than enjoying the precious gift of the personal, intimate sexual relationship in marriage.

As Augustine came to realize, God is not interested in spoiling our fun. Rather, we are reminded, that as our Maker, God has a good and wonderful purpose for us in marriage. Paul frames his exhortation here in the context that we have died and been raised with Christ. When we feel the impact of this, the desires of our hearts will change. We will see the rightness and true joy in living out the Lord’s good plan for us in a committed and faithful marriage – one where there is forgiveness and renewal.

Paul also speaks about the tongue: But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practicesand have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.

It seems strange that Paul writes about controlling the tongue in the same context as he writes about sex. What we forget is that the New Testament sees the tongue as our most sin prone organ. In his Letter, James says that the tongue is a restless evil.

You may think that to get on in life you need to express yourself with vehemence and an edgy vocabulary. But malice, obscenity and anger constantly damage and destroy relationships.

Sometimes people tell me that nobody likes a saint: they’re so self-righteous. But to say this is to forget what true humanity is. To be truly human is to be like Jesus. Let me ask, ‘Do you get the impression that he was a dull, anaemic personality?’ He was man as men and women are meant to be.

Which brings us to Paul’s further exhortation – about relationships:

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Here in Colossians, chapter 3, verse 11 Paul tells us that we need to recognize the unity we have in Christ and, in turn, provide a picture to the world of God’s new society. One of the significant features of New Testament Christianity was the breakdown of racial and cultural barriers – not least between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians.

Paul’s words set the agenda of unity across the social and racial divisions for God’s people. Yes, we’ll disappoint one another, we won’t always be as tolerant as we should be, we won’t always love one another, or forgive one another as we should. But we must try. That should be our goal.

Put to death therefore what belongs to your earthly nature… Paul writes.

You may find it helpful to remember Augustine’s words as he read the Scriptures: “How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be free of the sweets of folly: things that I once feared to lose, it was now joy to put away. Lord, you cast them forth from me, you the true and highest sweetness, … and in their stead you entered in, sweeter than every pleasure…”

Augustine could sum up, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Let’s pray. Lord if we are honest, we find our consciences pricked by the lofty standards you have set, of sexual purity, in our speaking, and in our relationships. We know that this failure in us affects the whole world, creating injustice and protest, conflict and war. Lord, please forgive us for our failings. But we also want to thank you for the new world you have made, to which we have title, and upon which you want us to fix our gaze. Turn our hearts to love you and to honor you. Help us to live for your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© John G. Mason