I have always found the lists in scripture difficult to apply. Our legalistic mind tends to interpret them as “things to start doing” and “things to stop doing”. If I simply manage a compilation of scriptural “do’s and don’ts”, it isn’t long until I’m spiritually shipwrecked. Here is some practical words of advice for how to use the lists of scripture.
1. Read the passage slowly – Begin by reading the passage of scripture to understand the context. Determine what is being attacked or championed by the writer. It is most helpful to study the Bible expositionally (verse by verse, book by book) so you do not have to perpetually rediscover the context. I will often study with the ESVbible.org application (legacy version) that allows you to highlight and make notes in the margin. I will jot down anything that I recognize in the text, commonalities, cross references, lists, contrasts, comparisons, etc.
2. Recognize the vivid contrast between good and bad – The language of contrast and comparison is easy for us to comprehend and distinguish. For example in Colossians 3:1-17 Paul give practical help to the church as they seek to develop the heart qualities that exhibit the nature of Christ. As is often the case with Paul, there are several qualities listed that we ought to foster and cultivate and there are several qualities listed that we ought to “put off” or remove from our character. For example, we are told to:
- Sexual immorality
- evil desire
- obsene talk
- compassionate hearts
- The Word
These lists are helpful in that they help us distinguish godly thoughts and actions from ungodly.
3. Look for the imperative “key” to the text – If we simply chase the list, we will often find ourselves defeated and discouraged. The key to obeying God in such passages is often found in the preceding or concluding imperative statements. For example, in verse one and two Paul tells us to “seek” and to “set our minds” on things above where Christ is rather than on things of the earth. This “setting of the mind” together with repentance (putting off) of the worldly qualities and believing Christ for (putting on) the heavenly qualities – results in a life that reflects our Lord in greater measure.
4. Create action items from the imperative statements – Typically, we are being called to think differently, believe differently or behave differently. In the Colossians 3 text, we know that as God is telling us to “seek things above” and to “set our minds on things above”, we much now understand how one does this seeking. A general knowledge of the scriptures, together with sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, is very important at this point. Biblical disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, and worship through singing are meant to aid us to focusing our minds on Christ.
We recognize over time that scripture consistently calls us to live out the lists by focusing on Christ, thinking on the Gospel, and meditating on the Kingdom. As we cultivate this practice, we discover that we are “abiding in Christ” rather than simply, keeping rules or laws. As we abide in Christ we are operating in His power rather than our own.