Incentives for Acting the Miracle: Fear, Rewards, and the Multiplicity of Biblical Motivations

Desiring God 2012 National Conference

Act the Miracle: God's Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification

My aim in this chapter is to correct a problem, and the problem is this: believing, preaching, praying, counseling, and self-diagnosing as if there was only one proper motivation for holiness. My concern is that as we try to help people on the journey of sanctification, we not unnecessarily limit ourselves. I fear we too quickly remove some of the tools from our sanctification tool belt. We set aside some of the weapons of our warfare. We flatten the promises and commands and warnings of Scripture, so we no longer allow ourselves to say all that the Bible would have us say.

Jesus is our great physician. Like any good doctor, he knows how to write different prescriptions for different illnesses. He has many doses at his disposal. He understands unique personalities and sins and situations. He is gracious to come at us in his Word — with all sorts of truth, for all sorts of people, from all sorts of angles — to keep us striving after holiness. Jesus has many medicines for our motivation.

Different Injuries, Different Applications

When I’m away from home, my wife usually calls at night to fill me in on the day. One night not long ago, my wife called me to talk about bees. She said there were all sorts of bees outside chasing the children. She tried to get them out, but one bee had disappeared into our three-year-old son’s shirt. Suddenly he started screaming, “The bee! The bee! It’s in my shirt!”

So, like a good mom, she ripped off his little shirt, threw it down, and started stomping it with all her might. “Stupid bee!” my wife cried defiantly. “Stupid bee!” But the damage was done. Our youngest son, the one with lots of allergies, had been stung in the back. “I gave him as much Benadryl as the law allows,” she related on the phone. That’s what you do when your three-year-old gets a bee sting. You pump him full of allergy medicine.

I fear that, by flattening the promises, commands, and warnings of Scripture, we set aside weapons in the warfare of sanctification.

That’s not what you would do on all occasions (though parents will tell you there are worse ideas than loading your kids up with Benadryl). When your child is stung by a bee, you give him some drugs, hold him on your knee as long as he likes, and whisper in his ear, “It’ll be okay, love. It’ll be okay.” But when the same son storms in the house, apoplectic from a tiny scrape on his knee, you tell him to buck up and go back outside. Good parents, like good doctors, understand that different injuries call for different application.

I think back to the days when I ran track and cross country in high school. Whenever I had an injury, the student trainers would tell me the same thing. Whether I had a hip flexor or shin splints or a sprained ankle or a lacerated spleen, they always told me to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” That was that. I wanted an X-ray or a CT scan or a replacement foot or something. But they didn’t wander far from home. If you could be fixed with ice and ibuprofen, they had the prescription for you. If not, you were out of luck.

Good doctors know how to give different prescriptions to different patients. That’s my point. My fear, however, is that when it comes to the care of souls, we get locked into a solitary prescription and stick with it no matter what. We tend to find one true, good, helpful biblical motivation for holiness and make that the equivalent of ice and ibuprofen.

Let me give you a few examples.

Duty Is Not Enough

Duty is one of the motivations that’s true but often unhelpful all by itself. It’s a biblical word, so we should not be afraid to use it. Jesus tells us in Luke 17:10, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” And Ecclesiastes 12:13 concludes: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” We have an obligation to keep God’s commandments because he is God and we are not. That’s duty, and it’s not a bad word. But it’s usually not all God says. Normally, when God comes at us with commands, he says more than, “Listen up. I am the Lord your God. So start obeying.” He comes with a multiplicity of motivations.

Think of the Ten Commandments. God doesn’t simply give us a list of commands. He motivates with promises, threats, and theology.

  • He starts by saying “I’m the Lord your God. Your God. I brought you out of Egypt. Do not worship anything or anyone else. I’m the God who saved you.”
  • He says, “Don’t bow down to graven images.” Why? “Because I’m a jealous God. I will visit your sins to the third and fourth generation if you disobey, but show steadfast love to thousands of generations if you love me and keep my commandments.”
  • He says, “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for he will not hold you guiltless.” In other words, you’ll have trouble on your hands if you ignore this one.
  • He says about the fourth commandment in Exodus, “Observe the Sabbath day because God rested on the seventh day.” And in Deuteronomy: “Take a break. Give your people a break because you were slaves once too. So don’t be treating your servants like they’re slaves.” Both iterations contain motivations for obedience.
  • He says, “Honor your father and mother, that it may go well with you.” Here too we see God promising blessing for those who obey.

Even with the Ten Commandments, God does not resort to duty alone. He offers many reasons and incentives for obeying his commands.

Gratitude Is Not Enough?

Gratitude is another one of the biblical motivations that should not be made the be-all and end-all of our sanctification. I belong to the Reformed tradition and embrace the Heidelberg Catechism, which is known for its three sections of guilt, grace, and gratitude. I believe that in Romans 12:1 where Paul says, “I appeal to you . . . by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” he’s harkening back to all of the promises in Romans 1–11 and inviting us to live a gratitude-informed life of faith.

We see in Ephesians 5:4 that there should be “no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Gratitude helps to squeeze out what is mean and bitter and nasty. So whatever problems you may have as an angry person, one of your problems is a gratitude problem. It’s entirely appropriate to connect gratitude with the struggle for sanctification.

But gratitude by itself is not enough. It can quickly turn into a debtor’s ethic where we think, “All that I have has been given to me by God, so now I must live the rest of my life trying to pay him back.” If we talk only about gratitude, we end up looking backward at God’s blessings and never forward in faith toward his promises. Duty is fine. Gratitude is good. But they aren’t enough all by themselves.

Justification Is Not Enough

Let me give you one final example, and this one may hit even closer to home. As important as justification is for the Christian, it’s not meant to be the only prescription in our pursuit of holiness. Without a doubt, it is gloriously true that we are accepted before God because of the work of Christ alone, the benefits of which we receive through faith alone, by grace alone. That ought to be our sweet song and confession at all times. Justification is enough to make us right with God forever, and it is certainly a major motivation for holiness. If we are accepted by God, we don’t have to live for the approval of others. If there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, then we don’t have to fear the disappointment of others.

There’s no doubt that justification is fuel for our sanctification. But it is not the only kind of fuel we can put in the tank. If we only remind people of our acceptance before God, we will flatten the contours of Scripture and wind up being poor physicians of souls.

Think of James 4:1: “What causes quarrels and . . . fights among you?” James does not say, “You’re fighting because you have not come to grips with your acceptance in the gospel.” He says, in effect, “You’re at each other’s throats because you’re covetous and you’re selfish. You want things that you don’t have. You’re demanding. You’re in love with the world. You’re envious. That’s what’s going on in your heart right now.” Now, we might try to connect all that with a failure to believe the gospel, but that’s not what James says. He blames their quarrels on their love of the world.

You have only to be a parent for a short time to see that people sin for all sorts of reasons. Lately we’ve been using the excellent book Long Story Short for our morning devotions with the kids. When we came to the story of Cain and Abel, the book suggested a little lesson where you hand a ten-dollar bill to one child but not to the others. Then you ask the kids, “What would your response be if I gave your sister ten dollars because she did something very pleasing to me, and I gave you nothing?”

The aim of the lesson is to relate to Cain’s envy toward Abel. So I just asked the question, and my son, in whom there is no guile, replied without hesitation, “Daddy, I’d punch you in the stomach.” Now what’s going on in his heart at that moment? Is his most pressing need to understand justification, or is there a simpler explanation? I think that my son at that moment, like the people James was addressing, was ready to fight because of covetousness. He saw ten dollars, thought of the Legos he could buy with it, and was willing to do whatever he had to, to get what he wanted.

The problem with much of our thinking on sanctification is that we assume people are motivated in only one way. It’s similar to the mistake some of those associated with Christian psychology fall into. They assume a universal-needs theory. They operate from the principle that everyone has a leaky love tank that needs to be patched up and filled up. If people could only be loved in the right way, they’d turn around and be loving people. Well, I don’t doubt there is some commonsense insight there. But does the theory explain everyone? Is this the problem with Al-Qaida or Hamas — they all have leaky love tanks? Or are some other issues at play?

I have no problem acknowledging that sin is always an expression of unbelief. But there are a lot of God’s promises I can disbelieve at any moment. Justification by grace alone through faith alone is not the only indicative I can doubt. I can disbelieve God’s promise to judge the wicked or his promise to come again or his promise to give me an inheritance or his promise to turn everything to my good. These are all precious promises, each one a possible remedy for indwelling sin. To remind each other of justification is never a wrong answer. It is a precious remedy, but it is not the only one.

Colossians from the Sky

I’ve tried to make the negative case that there is no single, solitary biblical motivation for holiness. Now let’s see the positive case for the multiplicity of motivations.

In Colossians 3 we see a staggering array of motivations for holiness. The first part of the chapter, verses 1–17, gives a macro-level view of how God motivates us. It deals with general commands, foundational principles. And in the last part of the chapter — the household code in verse 18 and following — we get the micro-level view that zeroes in on the family and day-to-day life. We’ll start with the big picture before moving into the nitty-gritty where God gives specific motivations for specific commands.

Full of Imperatives

The first thing to notice is that this passage is full of imperatives. Paul wants the Colossians to live a certain way. He doesn’t assume that by telling them the good news of the gospel, life transformation will automatically happen. He tells them what a Christian life should look like. Just look at the commands in chapter 3:

  • Verse 2: “Set your minds on things that are above.”
  • Verse 5: “Put to death . . . what is earthly.” That means immorality, impurity, evil desire, idolatry, and covetousness.
  • Verse 8: “Put them all away,” which includes anger and wrath and malice and slander and obscene talk.
  • Verse 9: “Do not lie.”
  • Verse 12: “Put on . . . compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
  • Verse 15: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”
  • Verse 16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you.”
  • Verse 17: “Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The whole passage is a long series of statements with imperatival force. God wants us to live a certain way. He wants us to grow progressively into the holiness we already have positionally in Christ. God wants us to move from here — less sanctified, less obedient — to there — more like Christ, more like God.

And notice what he does to spur on that movement. He doesn’t just give a long list of commands. He provides motivation. He offers incentives. In other words, God gives theology. If you don’t care about theology, you don’t care about holiness. Because what God does in chapter 3 is to give the Colossians lots of theology to stir them up to this new kind of life.

Do You Know Where You Are?

Paul says in verses 1 and 2, “If . . . you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Do you see the motivation? Set your mind on heavenly things. Why? Because you have been raised from the grave with Christ, and you have been raised in his ascension so that you now are seated in the heavenly places with Christ. Here’s the logic: if, in Christ, you now reside in heaven, why are you making choices as if you lived in hell? Our present placement with Christ is a motivation for our ongoing progress in Christlikeness.

“If you don’t care about theology, you don’t care about holiness.”

God wants to ask you a question: Do you know where you are right now? Yes, you are in your house or in front of your tablet or on a plane or wherever. But do you know where you are? You’re seated with Christ. You’re joined with him. You’ve been raised with him. You are where Christ is. Shouldn’t this make a difference in how you live?

I remember as a child never being able to enter the dining room of our house. One whole wing of the house was quarantined for holidays and special guests. The room had white carpet with vacuum tracks always showing. There were fancy chairs and fine china. It was a sacred room. It’s where we ate with missionaries or pastors, or where we had Thanksgiving dinner. There was something about being in that room. We knew as kids we were in a special place. When I sat in those tall chairs with the stiff high backs and stared at my salad and multiple forks, I knew I needed to be on my best behavior. Just because of where I was.

This is Paul’s point and the engine of our motivation. If we have been raised with Christ and are seated with Christ in a place of infinite holiness, what sort of people ought we to be? Why wouldn’t we live like where we live?

The You That Was and the You That Is Yet to Come

Then we see in verse 3 that we’ve not only been raised, but we first died. “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” To turn from your past of sin and your unrighteousness, you have to do more than just turn the page. People might tell you to turn over a new leaf, but that’s not nearly drastic enough.

You have to consider your “old self” dead and buried. You have to picture Christ on the cross and see him hanging there, not only for the penalty for your sin but also for the power of sin. You have to see that on the cross with Christ is the you that was into drugs, and the you that manipulated people, and the you that was angry all the time, and the you that was filled with bitterness, and the you that lived from sensuality to sensuality. That you is dead. That’s what Paul is getting at when he says, “You have died.”

If we keep going on to verse 4, we see the motivation working in the opposite direction. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.” Instead of considering what we once were in sin, now Paul directs our attention to what we will become when Christ appears and we appear with him in glory. God is reminding us, “Look, there’s a better you that you’d better get used to. I’m going to make you like Christ, and that work starts right now.”

Sanctification and glorification are cut from the same cloth. The latter is the heavenly completion of the former. The process of making us perfectly glorified, fit for heaven for all eternity, is underway now. God motivates us by having us think of what we will be when Christ, our life, appears. Think of who you will be without sin, without anger, without lust, without bitterness. Think of that you and live it out now.

When we want to meet a specific goal, we often visualize the completion of that goal. If you want to lose weight, for example, you get a picture of the skinny you in your mind. You hold up the picture of the muscular you you’ve always imagined. Whether it’s a real picture or one you’ve made up, it’s there and it’s motivating. God, in a manner of speaking, wants us to visualize those spiritual jeans we are going to fit into on the last day and start squeezing into them now. “We are God’s children now,” the Bible says elsewhere, “and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In other words, consider what you will be and start being that person.

The Grace of Fear

We see a different kind of motivation in Colossians 3:6. Paul tells the Colossians to put away earthly desires and then says, “On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Paul is motivating them by the grace of fear.

Some people have a very hard time understanding that threats and warnings are in the Bible for our sanctification. Of course, it’s wonderfully true that God will keep his elect and preserve them to the end. But how do you think he accomplishes this work of preservation? One way is by warning them of what will happen if they do not persevere. In God’s people, warnings like the one in verse 6 stir us up to love and good deeds. The Christian doesn’t despair at these threats of judgment. He pleads, “O Lord, keep me in the love of God as you have promised.” We ought to see the warnings in Hebrews and in passages like this as God’s means of preserving the saints.

Sometimes in an effort to be gospel centered, we shy away from the warnings in Scripture. I understand the impulse. We know that many tender souls need to hear how much God loves them. We need to hear about our new identity in Christ. We need to know God is for us and not against us.

But there are also hard hearts in the church — maybe some reading this book — who need to know that the way they are living right now and the stuff they are into right now is why the wrath of God is coming. Some people need to be shaken from their lethargy and realize that the wrath of God will be poured out on the earth for the things they consider light and trivial offenses. Some people need the literal hell scared out of them.

“God, in a manner of speaking, wants us to visualize those spiritual jeans we are going to fit into on the last day and start squeezing into them now.”

But you say, “Shouldn’t we be emphasizing God’s grace? Isn’t it all of grace? Shouldn’t our preaching and counseling be all about grace?” And, of course, it should be. But what makes us think that the warning of God’s wrath is not his grace to us? We are not giving to our friends, or to ourselves, or to our people, all the grace that God has for us if we do not make known that the wrath of God is coming. God is nothing but grace to his children, but this grace can come to us in brighter and darker hues.

Speaking the Truth into Us

Paul goes on in verses 9 and 10 to describe who we are as new creations in Christ. Then in verse 11 he explains that Christ is all and in all. That’s why, according to verse 12 and following, we ought to bear with one another, love one another, and maintain unity with one another. God wants us to know who we are and then live like it.

I love what these Colossian Christians are called: chosen ones, holy and beloved. Don’t pass over this deliberate language. God speaks to us in this way for a reason. When I was in junior high, I played one year of football, which was one too many for me. I had kind of a gruff coach who smoked a lot and encouraged very little. The only thing I was good at was the warm-up laps. I would be way out in front of the big guys. But it didn’t help all that much when we had to actually run into people during a game. Coach would sometimes say “helpful” things to me like, “Wow, DeYoung, where’d you get all them bruises?” Not quite inspirational. In high school, my cross country coach was known to say things like, “Hey, DeYoung, don’t let the girls beat you.” Also very encouraging.

But the best coaches know how to motivate their players, even when they need correction. He might pull you aside and say, “Look. I picked you for this team. You are as good as anyone out there. We need you in the game. Now listen, you gotta get your head in the game.” That’s what I picture God, through the apostle Paul, doing here in verse 12. He’s gently pulling us aside to point us in the right direction.

Good parents do the same thing. The way in which a father talks to his son, and the language he uses to address him, can make all the difference. You can bark out commands to your son, or you can say, “Listen, you are my son, and I love you with all my heart. You are my special boy. You are smart and bright, and I am so proud of you. You will always be my child, and I will always be your daddy. But we got to talk about some of the things you’re doing.” The language of naming and identification are sincere, but they are also instrumental in motivating the child to obey. In the same way, God reminds the Colossians that he chose them, set his affection upon then, and considers them holy in Christ.

We see the same approach in the next verses. We’ve been forgiven, so we ought to forgive (verse 13). We are beloved, so we ought to love (verse 14). We are one body, so we ought to be at peace with one another (verse 15). You don’t slap your own face. You don’t kick your own shins. You don’t slander the other members of the body of Christ. God speaks the truth into us that we might live according to our true God-given identity.

An Angular Gospel

Do you see the multiplicity of motivations coming from a dozen different angles? God doesn’t just say, “Here’s a list and do it.” He says, “Let me give you the reasons to obey.”

Now perhaps you hear that and think, Okay, that’s cool. I see a lot of motivations there. But, man, that’s so much theology. I could never do that. I’m not Paul. I’m not a scholar. I don’t think like that. When I get to talk to my children, or I got to preach a sermon, or I go to talk to my small group, I don’t think of any of this. I can tell them what God commands, but I’ll never come up with all these motivations.

Well, step back and think for a moment about what Paul is doing here in Colossians 3. There are basically three prescriptions: Paul tells them what was, he tells them what is, and he tells them what will be. You died. You were raised. You’re not your old self any more.

I heard an illustration one time of a pastor talking to a young man struggling with same-gender attraction. The young man called his pastor and said, “I’m feeling these things again. I’m going to go out tonight. I’m going to go to those places. I’m going to do the things I used to do.” The pastor’s response was extremely wise. “No, you’re not going to do those things,” he told him. “That’s not you. That’s not who you are anymore.” He reminded the young man of what was.

Then we remind people of what is. You’re in heaven. You’re a new creation. You’re in Christ. You’re one body.

And finally, we need to remind each other of what will be. The wrath of God is coming. Christ is coming. A glorious appearing is coming. An inheritance is coming. You have to think of what was, what is, what will be. God uses all of it to motivate his people unto holiness.

Colossians on the Ground

We’ve looked at the macro level; now let’s get in closer to the ground. How does God motivate us to the specific activity of holiness? In 3:18–4:1 Paul addresses six kinds of people: wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters. We can boil down the instruction into one foundational command for each group.

  • Wives, submit to your husbands.
  • Husbands, love your wives.
  • Children, obey your parents. *Fathers, do not provoke your children.
  • Slaves, be diligent.
  • Masters, be fair.

Again, notice what we don’t see. God doesn’t give the list of commands in the way I just gave it to you. He doesn’t tick off the commands like some kind of bookmark or bulletin insert. He gives reasons and provides motivation for these commands. Let’s look at each of the six in turn.

Wives, Submit to Your Husbands

There are dozens of reasons wives ought to obey this command, but Paul mentions only one of those reasons here. Wives should submit to their husbands because it “is fitting in the Lord” (verse 18). There’s an order in God’s design, a way rulers and citizens should relate to each other, a way for parents and children to relate, a way for elders and church members, and a way for wives and husbands. It is a beautiful design. Wives shouldn’t grit their teeth, swallow hard, and submit with a bitter heart because, well, “I guess it’s in the Bible.”

God wants us to see that his design for men and women is good. It’s fitting. Things work the way they should when wives are graciously, humbly, intelligently submissive to their husbands. Notice, the husband does not force submission; the wife freely gives it. God is not telling the husbands to be dictators. He’s telling the wives to embrace the way God made men and women. He wants wives to do what fits.

We bought a couch from IKEA last summer. IKEA is great because the furniture is so cheap, but one of the reasons it’s cheap is that it comes in big cardboard boxes. C.J. Mahaney was actually preaching at our church that weekend and was in town, so he went to IKEA with me to get the couch. Yes, it was quite a sight — the two of us walking through a maze of Swedish furniture and filling up my Suburban with cardboard boxes. Luckily for C.J., he left before I had to put the stuff together. What a pain.

I opened up the four couch boxes and realized the instruction manual contained not a single word. Zero. Not in any language. All they gave me was an Allen wrench and a lot of pictures. I can’t tell you how long it took me to put the couch together, but it was roughly equivalent to that of my seminary degree. I had legs pointing every which way and pieces upside down. Eventually, though, it all fit together. Just like the manual told me. Just as it was designed. Now it’s a great piece of furniture.

God gives us these commands for husbands and wives so we can have a marital couch to sit on. God wants wives to submit to their husbands because this is what’s right. This is his design. This is what’s proper and good and fitting.

Husbands, Love Your Wives

Unlike the other five groups, no motivating factor is explicitly mentioned for the husbands. But there is an implicit appeal when Paul says, “Do not be harsh with them” (verse 19). God wants husbands to do what is good for their wives. He wants husbands to love their wives as Jesus commanded, by treating them as they would want to be treated themselves. He wants husbands to consider their wife’s feelings, which was a countercultural thing to do in the first century.

Some people look at these household codes and write them off as nothing but Greco-Roman patriarchy. But God’s standard is actually different in important ways. A wife existed for the pleasure and the service of her husband. Considering the feelings of your wife was not the cultural norm. God says it should be. The husband must love the wife and love her in a caring, sensitive, considerate way. That’s God’s blueprint.

God understands the particular temptations of men and woman. In her fallenness, the wife is tempted to usurp her husband’s authority, just like Eve did. So she is told to submit. The husband, in his fallenness, is tempted to abdicate his God-given headship, like Adam did, by becoming either a doormat or a dictator. So husbands are told to love their wives and not be harsh with them.

Children, Obey Your Parents

In verse 20, Paul provides a very important motivation for children to obey their parents: it pleases the Lord. Sometimes Christians can give the impression that pleasing God is a sub-biblical motivation. “We’re totally justified,” someone might say. “We’re totally accepted. If we tell our kids to please God, we are just giving them more law. We are training them to be little moralists. We’re discipling them to think of God as a kind of Santa Claus keeping a naughty-and-nice list.”

Husbands, like Adam, are tempted to abdicate their headship by becoming doormats or dictators.

Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), that’s not how God wants us to parent, because that’s not what God is like with his children. But don’t let the potential abuse of this “pleasing God” language lead you to suppress what Scripture clearly says. One of the principal motivations for holiness is the pleasure of God.

  • Colossians 1:10: Those who bear fruit and every good work and increase in the knowledge of God are pleasing to God.
  • Romans 12:1: Presenting your body as a living sacrifice pleases God.
  • Romans 14:18: Looking out for your weaker brother pleases God.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:4: Teaching the Word in truth pleases God.
  • 1 Timothy 2:3: Praying for your governing authorities pleases God.
  • 1 Timothy 5:4: Supporting family members in need pleases God.
  • Hebrews 13:16: Sharing with others pleases God.
  • 1 John 3:22: Keeping the commandments pleases God.

Over and over, more than a dozen times in the New Testament, we have this motivation. We ought to be generous. We ought to be godly. We ought to love and live a certain way because it pleases God.

Some of us have taken justification to mean we no longer have a dynamic relationship with our heavenly Father, as if God is indifferent to our sin and our obedience. But Scripture says we can grieve the Holy Spirit, and in Hebrews 12 we see that a father disciplines those he loves. God is not pleased when we sin. Or, as John Calvin puts it, God can be “wondrously angry with his children.” This doesn’t mean God is ever against us as his justified people. He is always for us. But just as a parent can be upset with a child, so God can consider our actions grievous and discipline us accordingly.

If that kind of dynamism discourages you, consider the flip side. We can also please God with our efforts. Through the finished work of Christ, our good deeds are rendered delightful to God. When we hear the language of “pleasing God,” some of us panic because we only relate to God as a judge. But he is also our Father. If you think, “I have to please God with my obedience because he is my judge,” you will undermine the good news of justification by faith alone. But you ought to reason this way: “I’ve been acquitted. The Lord is my righteousness. I am justified fully and adopted into the family of God for all eternity. I am so eager to please my Father and live for him.”

“One of the principal motivations for holiness is the pleasure of God.”

It’s good to want to protect justification, but don’t do it at the expense of a dynamic relationship with your heavenly Father. There is a difference between saying to your child, “God is watching over you, and when you don’t share your toys, you make baby Jesus cry,” and saying, “God is our Father, and when you listen to what Mommy and Daddy say and you try to do what they want you to do, it makes God really happy. He gets a smile on his face when he sees you trying to do the right thing.” That’s what Paul is saying here to the children at Colossae. It’s how God means to motivate all of us.

Fathers, Do Not Provoke Your Children

In Colossians 3:21 Paul issues a single command for fathers, along with one reason. Do not exasperate or needlessly upset your children lest they become discouraged. Isn’t it interesting that the two commands related to the men in particular have the same sort of motivation: think of how your actions and attitude affect others.

It’s as if God said, “Would you think about your wives and what it’s like when you’re such a harsh, boorish person? Would you think about your children when you provoke them to anger and see their countenance fall?” Paul is appealing to the welfare of those under their charge. I think he’s also appealing to the natural love they have as husbands and fathers. They should want to make their wives and children happy.

I say with shame as a father that I have fallen on the wrong side of this command many times. I have been quick to anger. I have lost my temper and my patience. I’ve tried to break the will of my child and ended up crushing his spirit. God would not have us parent that way. He wants dads to think before they bark.

Servants, Be Diligent

Scripture is not promoting with these instructions the institution of chattel or race-based slavery, which we’re familiar with today. The apostle Paul was simply regulating a very different kind of slavery prevalent throughout the world at the time. His instructions do not defend or advocate for the kind of institution that the word slavery brings to our minds.

In fact, the updated version of the ESV translates doulos as “bondservant” instead of “slave” because the context suggests that these men and women were not treated as absolute and lifelong possessions of another. Whatever the exact situation, Paul is merely trying to address a cultural institution that showed no signs of going away.

Remarkably, the motivation is the same for both the servant and the master. In both instances, Paul says, in effect, “Remember, you have another master.” He wants all those working for some mean, nasty boss to remember that ultimately they are serving God, a God who can punish and reward, a God who sees our quality. Therefore, we ought to work hard “with sincerity of heart” (verse 22). We ought to work “as for the Lord and not for men” (verse 23).

“It’s good to want to protect justification, but don’t do it at the expense of a dynamic relationship with your heavenly Father.”

In other words, God expects us to transpose our work into a heavenly key. We are working for our heavenly Master, not simply our particular master. And the Master in heaven knows our hearts. He sees our efforts. He knows our trouble. It’s not the master or employer down here that we need to impress, no matter what he can do to us. It’s the Master up there who matters. We will stand before him on the last day and give account for our labors.

Masters, Be Fair

Paul reasons that same way for those in charge of others. He says in 4:1 that the master must treat his bondservants fairly and justly because he has his own Master in heaven. This is a good word for anyone with some degree of influence, some importance, some directional authority over others. God reminds us, “You may think you are a big shot down here, but remember there is a much bigger shot up there. And you’re answerable to him.

So treat your assistants and your employees and your junior colleagues and your interns justly and fairly.” God is fair to us, so we should be fair to others. He will not show favoritism because we are important in the world’s eyes. He oversees us as we oversee others. So let us exercise our authority on earth in such a way that we would be happy to be under the same kind of authority from heaven.

That’s how God motivates us in the nitty-gritty of life. Can you see how all of the specific nuanced commands of God come together from above and below and behind and in front to push and to pull and to prod us to holiness? God knows what we need to hear and how we need to hear it. He speaks to us in many ways that we may make progress in the one way of Jesus.

Three Final Thoughts

What’s the take-home from all this? How should this macro and micro look at Colossians 3 influence our daily walk with Christ? How should we think about the multiplicity of biblical motivations for holiness? Here are three final thoughts.

1) Don’t try to be smarter than Scripture.

You may be thinking at this point: “Yes, I see many different motivations. I see what you’re saying, and I affirm Scripture speaks in multiple ways. But if we look at the reason behind the reason, and the reasons behind that, we’ll see there’s really only one motivation: we don’t believe the gospel. We don’t know how much God loves us and how accepted we are.” You may be raising that objection in your mind. And yet, as I said at the beginning, I’m suspicious of reducing all our problems to one mega problem.

I’m suspicious not because the answers don’t work, but because many answers can work. I have no problem saying that at the root of every sin is some misfiring of the gospel. I think that’s true. But I also think it’s true that at the root of every sin is some failure to recognize the lordship of Christ, or to believe the promises of God, or to accept the goodness of God’s commands, or to trust the Word of God, or to recognize our union with Christ, or to celebrate the character of God, or to find satisfaction in Jesus, or to live by the Spirit. God gives us a variety of concrete motivations, and even if in a systematic-theology sort of way we could, by logical progression, show that behind every motivation is another motivation, that still wouldn’t erase the particularity of the language in Scripture itself.

Augustine was converted by reading Romans 13:12–14, where Paul says, “The day is at hand, so then let us cast off the works of darkness” (verse 12). This passage affected Augustine because it revealed to him his sin and that he could have relief from his wretched way of life. Yes, there is implicit good news in the text, but it hit Augustine with the force of warning and conviction of sin.

God counsels us in a hundred ways, and he exchanges a thousand truths for our lies. Let’s not be hesitant to employ the full arsenal of scriptural threats and promises and examples and commands. Let’s not be smarter than Scripture and say, “Well, I see a warning in the passage, but that doesn’t seem to be gospel centered.” Take Scripture; safeguard it with our theology; test it against one another. But let’s understand that there is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to sanctify one too.

2) You need to know your people and yourself.

Wise counselors know when a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and when something else is needed, like a strong tonic or a bitter pill. It takes maturity and discernment to know whether this brother or sister needs the warm hug of truth or the swift kick of truth, because truth does both.

Sometimes we need the swift kick that says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters . . . nor thieves . . . nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). And sometimes we need the warm hug that reassures us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

The Bible is always giving us reasons, always telling us why we should pursue holiness. We have to realize that by virtue of our upbringing and our church tradition and our personality and all we’re reacting against, we will gravitate toward certain kinds of motivations. When some Christians try to help people, they have only one model in mind — Jesus in the temple. So you talk to people with a curled lip and a pointed-out boney finger and feel justified in blasting them all the time.

Somebody may try to say, “Hey, brother, you’ve got to restore people gently” (see Galatians 6:1). But all you know is that Jesus had a whip and flipped tables. And then there are other people who only think of Jesus with the little children. They figure the only way to speak to people is with a gentle, tender whisper and a warm embrace. But the language of Scripture allows us (expects us!) to approach people in different ways.

Just think of the different images for the people of God. Sometimes the Bible refers to us as weak little lambs that need to be gently carried across the river. Sometimes we are a bruised reed or a smoldering wick. And sometimes we are cows of Bashan. If you think everyone you’re talking to is a cow of Bashan, you’re going to hurt a lot of people. If you think everybody is just a bruised reed and a smoldering wick, you’re not going to have some of the edges you need to have when helping people. You need to know yourself, and you need to know your people.

3) Let us celebrate the all-encompassing grace of God in our sanctification.

God has planned for your holiness. He’s providing for your holiness. And he helps you grow in holiness by pulling and pushing and prodding and provoking from one little degree of glory to the next. This is all of grace — grace to call you to a holy calling, grace to empower you for a holy calling, and grace that God would condescend to try to convince you to pursue this holy calling.

Have you considered the grace of God in condescending to persuade us to obey? It would have been well within his right to give us a list and make his demands: “Here are the commands. I’m God, and you’re not. I expect obedience. Now obey.” Have you ever considered what a grace it is that the Bible is so long and has so much theology? It’s God’s way of condescending to our weakness to help us toward holiness. Every promise, every reminder, every threat, every warning, every propositional gospel indicative is God’s grace to you. In one way, his grace has saved you, and by a thousand ways, his grace will lead you home.

(@RevKevDeYoung) is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, North Carolina and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). He is the author of more than twenty books and a popular columnist, blogger, and podcaster. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children. Browse all of Kevin’s articles, sermons, books, podcasts, and more at