John Chrysostom, one of the preachers of the early church, used the following illustration to depict conversion and the Christian life. Consider, he said, “one who has scoured a statue that was filthy, recast it, and displayed it new and bright, explaining that the rust was eaten off and destroyed.” We are the statue in this analogy and the Holy Spirit is the sculptor. Because the Spirit has changed our hearts, the Father accepts us into His presence. Yet God does not remove us out of the environment in which He called us precisely because He has a purpose in calling us: we are in the world but not of the world (John 17:15–16), and our new vocations are to live, insofar as we are able, in light of the future kingdom — as if it is already here.
Chrysostom goes on to note that life in Christ is not a matter of recasting ourselves, for God has already done this work. Paul “recommends diligence in clearing away the future rust. . . . It is not the rust which he scoured off that he recommends should be cleared away but that which grew afterwards” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. 9, p. 47; hereafter ACCNT 9). Sanctification means recognizing that we have been recast and then scrubbing off the rust of sin that re-tarnishes us after our conversion, for such rust has no place in those who have been renewed.
Cleaning up the rust means turning from the sins listed in Colossians 3:5–8. This is not an exhaustive list, but note that most of the evils in verse 5 are perversions of the good, God-given desire for sexual intimacy. Sexual sins were particularly common among Gentiles in the first century, and they can be some of the most difficult transgressions to resist, not least today, as sex-crazed as our society is. This is why Paul refers to sexual sins so often in his letters (Rom. 1:18–32; 1 Cor. 6:9–10; 1 Tim. 1:8–11). Those who struggle in this area, however, should take heart, for Paul’s admonition to kill sexual sin indicates that we can, by the Spirit, squelch sexual temptation.
The sins in Colossians 3:7–8 powerfully and negatively impact community formation. Some of these — anger and wrath — are not inherently wrong, for our perfect, holy God can be angry and display wrath (Num. 16:46; 1 Kings 11:9). It is, however, exceedingly difficult for humans to be angry or wrathful without sin, so we must watch the motives of our hearts if we find feelings of anger welling up within ourselves.