This is famously the text that led to St Augustine’s conversion. After struggling helplessly for years with slavery to the lusts of the flesh, the future bishop one day heard the voice of a child next-door saying over and over again, “Pick it up, and read it.” He took this as a commission from heaven to go to his Bible and read the first passage his eyes rested upon. It was Romans 13:13-14. He relates: “I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.’ I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” Augustine never looked back.
The story of Augustine’s conversion is very relevant for our day because the times in which he lived where in some ways much like our own. Christendom had not yet been established and paganism was still the dominant worldview for many. And sexual immorality was part of the warp and woof of daily life for many. Augustine, though he had a godly mother, had left the faith behind as a young man and had devoted himself for many years to pagan ideas and the desires of the flesh. But God rescued him from it in an instant, as his heart was opened to the truth of this passage from Paul.
Of course, as you read Augustine’s Confessions, from which the quote above is taken, it is clear that God had been working in Augustine for some time. Why then this text as that which catapulted him from living in slavery to the flesh to living in unfettered devotion to Christ? I think one reason is that it is because these verses spoke directly to the choice that daily confronted Augustine: you must either choose the flesh or Christ; you cannot have both. And at the same time, it held out for him the lifeline which rescued him from the bondage from which he could not free himself: Jesus Christ. For he is the only one who can truly deliver us from the chains of our slavery.
This is a text that we all need to hear as well. For our times are programming us to think that it is not only okay to give into the lusts of the flesh, but that it is also wrong to be told that you should not give expression to those fleshly impulses which the Bible forbids. We are told that it is oppressive for the church to tell people that they cannot live in a certain way. So it is important for us to know exactly what Christ expects of those who claim his name as well as the reasons given for why we should abandon the path modern society is forging for what is now, to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost, the road less taken.
It is especially appropriate to consider this verse today (Nov. 29, 2020) because this Sunday marks the first day of Advent, that season on the Christian calendar when we consider our Lord’s comings into the world, both the first and the second. Why is it appropriate to spend our time in this passage? It is fitting because our Lord’s first coming inaugurated the Last Days. And that reality explains why, though we live in what the apostle calls the night (12), yet we are to live in light of the Day – the day of our Lord’s return. It was our Lord’s first coming that, so to speak, started the countdown to the Second Coming, that promises the end of the night in which we currently live. And that is to affect the way we live. In particular, it means that we are to live as hopeful people and as holy people. So this text reminds us of both our Lord’s past coming to redeem his people and his future coming to complete our salvation. It reminds us of the hope in which we are to live, of the fact that our hope is certain and near and bright.
In this text, we have the kind of life we are called to live as Christians clearly laid out before us, contrasted with the kind of life we are called to abandon. The contrast could not be more stark: one is called light and the other darkness. But that is not all the apostle does here, for he also tells us why we are to live this way. In other words, we have the answers to two questions here: how we are to live, and then why we are to live that way.
How we are to live
The basic idea here is that we are to live at war with sin. If you are not at war with the sin in your life and the sin all around you, then you are not living the kind of life to which the gospel summons us. We see this in the language used in verse 12: We are to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” So I think it is entirely appropriate to form our thoughts around this passage in militaristic terms. The life of the believer is not about being a nice neighbor primarily or being thought of as a good person by your friends. The life of the believer is one of unrelenting warfare against the pervasive wickedness all around us and in us.
And this also points us to the fact that this is a deadly serious business. You don’t put armor on to go for a leisurely walk through the park. You put it on because there are foes arrayed against you who want to destroy you. That is the thought. This is serious. If you are not living this way, you are only endangering your soul. Think about how the apostle put it to the Ephesians: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:10-13). “That you may be able to stand.” That is the idea. If you don’t put on this armor, if you don’t have this battle-ground mindset, you are inevitably going to fall.
At the same time, we need to understand exactly what this means. It does not mean that we are to go around literally trying to cut down everyone we meet. It does not mean that we look at the lost as our enemies. The enemy is the devil, not our flesh and blood neighbors. We are fighting evil, not people. But what then does it mean?
First, it means that we are to march in rank. What do I mean by that? Well, I am trying to unpack the meaning of the word “properly” in verse 13. “Let us walk properly as in the daytime.” The word means “decently, orderly.” In ancient armies, it mattered that you kept in ranks. The victorious army depended upon its soldiers being very disciplined, especially in the face of the enemy. If you broke ranks and ran, you endangered not only yourself, but also your fellow soldiers. You kept in pace with the others, and you kept to your assigned place in the formation.
What does this look like for the Christian? Well, Paul spells it out for us: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy” (13). Think about the first pair. People would go to these parties and eat and eat to gluttony and drink wine to excess. The apostle says that we are not to do that. We are to live with self-control. I know that modern Western society is all about dieting, so it isn’t cool to eat to excess. But what about drunkenness? The culture tells us that it’s acceptable as long as you don’t harm anyone else. But that is not what the Bible says. The Bible tells us that your body is a temple of the Lord; it is not yours to do with whatever you want. Drunkenness isn’t cool; it’s sin (cf. Eph. 5:18-19). It is a soul-destroying sin. If you give yourself to it, you are breaking ranks, you are abandoning your post and you are truly endangering not only yourself but those with whom you ought to be fighting.
Drug abuse also falls into this list. Drug abuse is everywhere, because people are trying to grapple with the problems of life without the Lord. When a Christian does this, they are not only hurting themselves but also telling the world around them that Christ is not sufficient. I’m not saying of course that there are not times for drugs and medicines! But when we use drugs to give us the peace that we are only to seek in Christ, we are undermining our souls and the cause of the gospel among men. You cannot do it and be a faithful follower of Jesus.
Then look at the next pair: “not in sexual immorality and sensuality.” Look, the world will tell you that it’s normal to act out on your sexual urges in any way you want, as long as it doesn’t “hurt” anyone else. What God’s word tells us, however, is that you cannot be immoral – which means having sex in ways that God’s word forbids, and in particular having sex outside of marriage – without harming yourself. God has forbidden it, and you can be sure that you will harm yourself and others no matter how innocuous it seems. Here is how the apostle put it to the Ephesians: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6). The world will mock you and call you prudish if you conform to God’s word on this. But better to suffer the scorn of the world than the wrath of God.
In this regard let me point out that we should not only avoid the overt sin itself, but anything that would lead to that. Our Lord tells us that it’s not just the act of adultery that is wrong; it is the lustful eye and heart that is wrong as well (Mt. 5:27-28). Brethren, I have not warned against this the way I ought. Be careful, friend, whether you are a man or a woman, that you do not dabble in things that provide occasions for your heart to be drawn to sexual lust. Movies or books or magazines or websites that make provision for the flesh are to be cut off and fled from. Pornography is not an innocent pleasure – it is a God-dishonoring, soul-shrinking, heart-numbing sin that objectives people and cuts us off from fellowship with God. If we don’t repent of it, we can’t say that we are truly following Christ. Again, this is serious business. Don’t dally with this sin. Run from it, as Joseph ran from this temptation.
Then there is the last pair: “not in quarreling and jealousy.” I think the danger here is to demote these sins to something less serious. But you cannot follow Christ and be given to these sins, any more than you can follow Christ and be given to sexual immorality. Listen to the way the apostle James puts it: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (Jam. 3:14-16). We should not only beware of the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes, but also of the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16). These are the things we are not to do.
But positively, we are to wear the uniform of Christ into battle and to find our identity as belonging to Christ. “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (14). What does it mean to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”? The word “put on” refers to putting on a garment. Paul sheds light on his meaning here in the Galatian letter, where he writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). In other words, just as a uniform identifies a soldier, baptism identifies us as a follower of Jesus. However, clearly here Paul is not necessarily referring to baptism as such, since he is writing to Christians who have already been baptized, and this is a command that they are still to do. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: we are to find our identity in belonging to Christ, and to put him on in faith and obedience, in love and loyalty, taking him as our example and relying on him for strength (cf. Jn. 15:1-5).
I cannot think about what the apostle is telling us to do here without thinking about the last words of Spurgeon in the pulpit:
If you wear the harness of Christ, you will find Him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest for your souls. He is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was His like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold, He always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the Cross lies ever on His shoulders. If He bids us carry a burden, He carries it also. If there is anything gracious, generous, kind and tender, yea lavish and super-abundant in love, you always find it in Him. His service is life, peace, joy. Oh that you would enter on it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of JESUS CHRIST.
To put on Christ doesn’t mean merely to identify as a Christian in name only, but to truly give ourselves to him, as a soldier puts himself entirely at the disposal of his superior officers. This is no mere verbal commitment; this is a commitment of the heart and soul to Christ, and to find in him our Lord and our Savior, and to look to him and to trust in him and to obey him. It means that we aren’t trying to scrape out an identity for ourselves but find our identity completely in Christ. It means that we rest in him alone for our righteousness before God. It means that we see in him the fullness of God and find our completeness in him. It means that we believe his words and obey his voice.
That is what we are to do and how we are to do it. But then the next question is this: why are we to live this way?
Why we are to live this way
Note how the apostle begins the passage: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep” (Rom. 13:11). In other words, there are vast multitudes of people who are totally oblivious to certain eternal realities. They are like people who are asleep. They are completely unaware of something. That something is the Day of the Lord. But the Christian, unfortunately, can also fall asleep. We can become people who start living as if this life is all there is to it. This is especially dangerous in our time, because of the way modern society trains us to think. It trains us to think only in terms of the material world, in terms of the here-and-now, in terms of bricks and mortar and dollars and cents. The apostle is, as it were, grabbing us by the shoulders and shaking us to wake us from our sleep. It is “high time” to awake from such sleep (cf. Rom. 13:11, KJV).
This is the reason we are to live in the ways we described above. We are to live that way because we are “in the daytime” (13). We do not belong to the night when people sleep, but we belong to the day, and we are to “put on the armor of light” (12). People who belong to the day aren’t asleep; they aren’t unaware of these eternal realities.
How does Paul describe these things? First of all, he describes it as “our salvation” (11). Now that might seem strange to some because the apostle is ostensibly writing to Christians. Aren’t they already saved? Well, yes, in a real sense they are. By grace believers “have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). But there is also a sense in which we haven’t been saved yet. Why? Because our salvation will not be complete until we are glorified with Christ – which will happen when he returns at the Second Coming. Though it is true that there are certain aspects of our salvation that are complete – like our justification – there are other aspects that aren’t. Our sanctification is ongoing and our glorification (which we will experience when our purified souls are reunited with resurrected bodies) is completely in the future. This is what Paul is referring to here: “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believe” (11).
So many people are seeking salvation in the here and now. But it will never come. The only salvation we can hope for is the salvation that Jesus is bringing with him at his return.
But more importantly, he describes these eternal realities in terms of “the Day” (12). This day is the coming age, which is contrasted with the night, by which Paul clearly is referring to the present age. It also is tied to the OT term, “the Day of the Lord,” which was a reference to God coming to rescue his people and to judge the nations. Here it is the final, climatic Day when God will finally once for all put an end to all the enemies of his people and give them eternal rest. It is the day of judgment (1 Cor. 3:13), the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44), the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5), the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2), the day of God (2 Pet. 3:12), the day when the Son of man will be revealed (Luke 17:30), the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6). It is in light of this Day that we are to live.
Because of what the Day is
It is preeminently a day of judgment. And this does not just have reference to the ungodly, but to God’s people as well. We will have to give an account for our lives: “For we will all stand before judgment seat of God . . . . So then every one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10, 12). People do things at night because they don’t think anyone will catch them. But our Lord reminds us that there is coming a day when the secrets of our hearts will be made manifest to all (Lk 8:10; cf. Rom. 2:16). “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3, KJV). We cannot think that we can live in contradiction to God’s commandments and get away with it. As Paul would remind Timothy, “The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Tim. 5:24). In other words, sooner or later your sins will catch up with you. Our sins will find us out!
Someone may ask how this is consistent with the fact that at the Final Judgment, God’s people enter into their eternal rest. I think it is easy to miss what the apostle is getting at here. All stand before the Lord in Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46), both sheep and goats. But the reality is that there are many who now think they are okay with the Lord but who are speeding towards eternal judgment. The Day of Judgment will reveal who truly belong to the Lord and who are just fakers. When exhortations like this are addressed to the church, it is to arouse us to the fact that we cannot hide behind a profession of faith, that we will all appear before Almighty God who is not fooled by religious pretense. You can claim to be a Christian and live in the ungodliness the apostle mentions in verse 13, but your claim will wither before God’s prefect judgment. Don’t shrug off warnings like this, especially if you are living in these sins which God’s word forbids. If you claim to be of the day, don’t live like you belong to the night. Otherwise, the Day will expose your hopes as the flimsy spider’s webs that they are.
But it is not only a day of judgment; it is also preeminently – for God’s people – a day of reward. It is, after all, when our salvation will be complete. It is the day when we will enter into the joy of the Lord (Mt. 25:23). We therefore willingly deny ourselves now temporary pleasures which will only lead to eternal rottenness for a life of faith (however hard it may be) which will lead to ever increasing happiness and joy and peace. Our treasure is in heaven, where neither moth nor rust can corrupt nor thieves break in and steal (Mt. 6:19-20). It is very easy to lose sight of this because our culture trains us to think in terms only of this life. It is especially at this point that the Christian hope is very counter-cultural. Our hope awaits us, not in this life, but in the next. It is not on earth but in heaven, not in our present triumphs but in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is, finally, a day which is imminent. This is a day which is “at hand” (12). It is in light of this that we are to put off the works of darkness (13,ff).
But how is it imminent, in light of the fact that 20 centuries have come and gone since Christ? We can say that it is near, for three reasons.
First, it is imminent because Christ’s first coming inaugurated the “last days” in the sense that there are no other great historical redemptive events between the first and the second comings of our Lord to this earth. This is the reason we are in the last days (cf. 2 Tim. 3:1,ff), not because our Lord’s return is going to happen next week but because it is the next thing on God’s Redemptive Calendar. Second, it is imminent because each day brings us closer to The Day (cf. Heb. 10:25). I think, especially in light of eternity, our lives here will have seemed so fleeting. And when ten thousands of ages have marched by in the Eternal State, the Day will look like it had always been right around the corner. And third, it is imminent because this present life determines how we will stand on the Last Day (Heb. 9:27). Again, since our life is so short, in that sense the Day is near and getting nearer each day. In light of this, we ought to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world (Tit. 2:12).
How will you live? As we enter into Advent Season, let us not live as if Christmas were the only reality. For our Lord’s incarnation points to our Lord’s future return. For those of you who have read C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, you will remember the oft-repeated refrain that the Lion is not tame – he’s good, but not tame! When you are only willing to consider Jesus in a manger but no more, you have tamed the Lion. But he is not a Lion to be tamed. He is coming again the second time to complete the salvation and vindication of his people. We are to live in light of that reality, in light of the Day. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not make provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts!
Have you? Have you put on the Lord Jesus? Have you embraced him by faith, have you received him as the Lord and Savior that he is? May you do so today, for you will not find a better Captain, a better Savior, than Jesus Christ!