Paul, in describing the spiritual activities of God’s people, uses the illustration of undressing and dressing. In the previous passage, he has listed several characteristics that they are to discard (he does not mean that they should be then stored in a spiritual wardrobe in order to be worn at a subsequent occasion; instead they are to be thrown out with the rubbish). Now he mentions several features that they are to put on.
These items are not clothes for our body, rather they are designed for our souls. We know that clothes for our bodies are often designed to hide our defects, so that others who observe us don’t see the real us. In contrast, the items mentioned by Paul are intended to reveal that we are new creatures, that our souls are in the process of being renewed by God.
Who can put on the new clothes? Paul tells who they are in verse 12 – they are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. So we should be able to see that divine election is a motive for living in a way that pleases God. We are to remind ourselves that God wanted us to be his and arranged for that to take place. This desire of God’s was eternal and he will never change his mind about his choice or reduce his affection for his choice. The thought of God’s everlasting love should cause us to want to do what he desires us to do.
Where can they get these items? We are familiar with sales that offer free items to the first hundred (or whatever figure) customers on a given day. I suppose we could describe the attitude of the owners as gracious and the fortunate recipients as privileged. Yet we know that such offers can only be made occasionally. Nevertheless we can use such an event to illustrate what Paul has in mind here when he tells us to obtain a spiritual wardrobe.
The Lord is the owner of the location where all the features mentioned by Paul can be obtained. Furthermore, the location is always open and all the features are free and can be obtained simultaneously. The owner delights to point out to his privileged customers the beautiful range of clothing he has for each of them to wear. The garments are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Paul continues his illustration of clothing when he introduces the feature of love. He says that Christians should put on the garment of love above the other garments of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. In this illustration, love is what is seen as the outer garment. I think he means that love will show itself in the five ways depicted by the garments worn below the outer garment.
So at times, love will be compassionate, or kind, or humble, or gentle or long-suffering. Paul is not indicating that love can only be marked by one of these features, but he is saying that love always has an accompanying grace(s). Christian love is not expressed in isolation from other Christlike attitudes.
Moreover, love ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’. Literally, Paul says that love is the bond of perfection. There are three possible meanings of what is bound by love. One is the five graces that he has mentioned (which means that love is the girdle that would have tied one’s clothes together), the second is the individuals who possess the five graces (which means that love ties the church members together), and the third is that love binds believers to God. All options are true, and it may be that Paul had each in mind. For what it is worth, I think he is referring to love as that which gives harmony to each Christian life.