Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth. . . (Col. 3:5a)
When we reject subjective piety as a standard of righteousness in favor of obedience to God's Word, we must be careful that our concept of obedience is not a cold legalism. Obedience is demanded by Scripture as a humble submission to God's revealed Word. When our "obedience" becomes instead a technical compliance to satisfy mere rules, however, it becomes Phariseeism.
Our obedience to God must focus on our submission to Him as Creator and Lord. The moment we become more interested in the letter of the law than serving God with our whole being we become legalists. Now many would use the term legalist for anyone who pays the least bit of attention to God's law. But this is obviously antinomianism. I am referring, rather, to those who may feel that a technical obedience is the limit of our submission, rather than the first step. The blessings of God are not merely bestowed on men generally and collectively but also specifically and individually. Our eternal reward will also be ours individually. Likewise, our responsibilities to God must be viewed personally and individually. If we see only rules in Scripture and seek "technical obedience" alone we fail. We must begin with the technical or specific obedience by our actions and then submit ourselves to God's will in expanding our service to applications specific to ourselves, our family, our churches, and our communities. When Paul tells us to mortify our members, he is telling us that our responsibility to God includes a constant awareness of our own sinfulness. Contempt for sinful acts is not enough, but neither is obedience if its end is to do just enough to please God. To mortify our members is to seek the death of our sinful inclinations. We must view not just "the world" but ourselves as full of the iniquity we once lived in (v. 7). We must understand that our whole nature is affected by sin as long as we are on this earth. We know that we were not justified (declared righteous) by God because of what we were, are, did, or will do. We were and are accepted by God only because of Who Jesus Christ is and what He did.
Remembering that we are justified by grace alone reminds us that we need God's grace to sanctify us through the Word and His Spirit's work in our lives. For God's grace to sanctify us we must see ourselves realistically. If we understand our sinful nature, we will not think of our subjection to God as limited to the law so much as beginning with it.
The same tendency to view ourselves as better than we are leads both to antinomian piety ("My subjective view of holiness will please God") and Phariseeism ("I can be holier than God wants me to be"). Both fail to acknowledge one's own depravity. Paul adds that "ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have out on the new man. . ." (vs. 9-10). Calvin said that a definition of regeneration could be gathered from this verse. As the old man is known by his works so we must recognize the old man in us. We see him every time we think we are as good as we need to be. Paul tells us, moreover, that the new man "is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (v. 10). This is sanctification (learning to recognize sin and live righteously).
God did not create only part of us, and He does not renew only part of us. Legalistic obedience claims that externals are the essence of sanctification. Paul makes clear that it is not externals such as race (Greek or Jew), circumcision, or social status (bond or free), "but Christ is all, and in all" (v. 11). Paul then tells the new man to "put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies. . ." (v. 12). We put Christian virtues on the new man to make them part of ourselves, not as something external but internal ("bowels"). This is not a mere matter of obedience; it means mercy must become part of our new life. This involves, among other things, kindness; humbleness; meekness; longsuffering (v. 12); forgiveness (v. 13); love (v. 14); thankfulness (v. 15); and admonition (v. 16). We put on these virtues "as the elect of God," the set apart, the chosen of God. God's purpose for His chosen is to be regenerated into a new man, a new creature in Jesus Christ who can display God's mercy to others. In a sense the pietists are right; obedience is not enough. They are wrong in not recognizing obedience as the beginning of our sanctification. God's laws involve general principles (commandments) and case laws as specific applications of the principle. The commandment thus tells us not to steal and one case law forbids withholding the wages of a day laborer (Lev. 19:13). But neither this or all the other case laws can cover every possible means of larcenous activity.
Mortifying our members means recognizing that save for God's grace and Spirit in our lives our larcenous old man could get the better of us. We therefore actively seek how we can be honest and just in our dealings with employees and all others. We begin with obedience to the case laws and seek to apply them to our own experience. We know others are not easy to deal with, and we do not want to be simplistically understood. We are foolish to think of God's laws so simplistically as to reduce them to externals. We begin with obedience. This teaches us the difference between our natures and the holiness of God. When we see righteousness in the Law rather than rules, we begin to write those laws on the tables of our hearts. Obedience to Biblical law is not then the goal of Christian Reconstruction; it is the beginning thereof.