A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 4:20-24. b). The Christian life (continued).
What had they been taught, then? They had been taught that becoming a Christian involves a radical change, namely ‘conversion’ (as the human side of the experience is usually called) and ‘re-creation’ (the divine side). It involves the repudiation of our former self, our fallen humanity, and the assumption of a new self or re-created humanity. Each of these two Paul calls (literally) a ‘man’, the ‘old man’ which is put off, and the ‘new man’ which is put on. Charles Hodge explains their language: ‘What is here called “The old man” Paul elsewhere calls himself, as in Rom.7:14 “I am carnal”…or “the flesh”…as in Gal.5:16,17…It is called “man” because it is ourselves.’ Further, our former self and our new self are vividly contrasted with each other: ‘As we are called to put off our corrupt nature as a ragged and filthy garment, so we are required to put on our new nature as a garment of light. And as the former was personified as an old man, decrepit, deformed, and tending to corruption, so the latter is personified as a new man, fresh, beautiful and vigorous, like God…’ i.e. created in his image.
The portraits Paul paints of both ‘men’ balance one another. The old was *corrupt*, in the process of degenerating, on its way to ruin or destruction; the new has been freshly *created after the likeness of God*. The old was dominated by *lusts*, uncontrolled passions; the new has been created in *righteousness and holiness*. The lusts of the old were *deceiptful*; the righteousness of the new is *true*. Thus, corruption and creation, passion and holiness, deceit and truth are set in opposition to one another, indicating the total incomparability of the old and the new, what we were in Adam and what we are in Christ.
In between these contrasting portraits of the kind of person we ‘put off’ and ‘put on’ comes verse 23: *and be renewed in the spirit of your minds*. The verb is a present infinitive, in distinction to those of verses 22 and 24 which are aorists. It indicates that, in addition to the decisive rejection of the old and assumption of the new, implicit in conversion, a daily – indeed a continuous – inward renewal of our outlook is involved in being a Christian. If heathen degradation is due to the futility of their minds, then Christian righteousness depends on the constant renewing of our minds.
In all this teaching the divine and the human are beautifully blended. In the command to exchange our old humanity for the new one, Paul is not implying that we can bring about our own new birth. Nobody has ever given birth to himself. The very concept is ludicrous. No, the new humanity we assume is God’s creation, not ours. Nevertheless, when God recreates us in Christ according to his own likeness, we entirely concur with what he has done. We ‘put off’ our old life, turning away from it in distaste, and we ‘put on’ the new life he has created, embracing it and welcoming it with joy. In a word, recreation (what God does) and repentance (what we do by his grace) belong together and cannot be separated.
All this the Ephesian and other Asian Christians had been taught. They had been thoroughly grounded in the nature and consequences of the new creation and the new life. It was part of the ‘truth in Jesus’ which they had learned. They had not only been taught to ‘put off’ the old and ‘put on’ the new; they had done it. The reality took place at their conversion. Then the symbolism may have followed at their baptism, for some early baptisms included a ceremonial investiture with a white robe (cf. Gal.3:27). Now Paul reminds them what they had learned and done.
Looking back over these verses, we can perhaps grasp more clearly the two solid doctrinal foundations for Christian holiness which Paul has laid. They are like two roots from which holiness sprouts and grows. First, we have experienced a new creation, and secondly, in consequence, we have received a new mind which is constantly being renewed. Moreover, the two are organically related to one another. It is our new creation which has given us a new mind; and it is our new mind which understands our new creation and its implications. Since it is a new creation in God’s holy image, it has involved for us the total putting away of our old fallenness and the thankful putting on of our new humanness.
*Therefore* Paul continues ‘each of you must put off…’ (verse 25, NIV). That is, because you did throw off your former self once and for all, you must now throw off all conduct which belonged to your old life. Your new behaviour must be completely consistent with the kind of person you have become. As we have already noted, the metaphor (‘putting off’ and ‘putting on’) is drawn from the way we dress. It can now be elaborated.
The kind of clothing we wear depends on the kind of role we are fulfilling. For example, when we go to a wedding we wear one kind of clothing; when we go to a funeral we wear another. I realize of course that some young people in the West wear blue jeans at all times. Nevertheless the custom of adapting our dress to suit the occasion still stands as a general principle. Many people’s dress is also determined by their job. Soldiers and sailors wear different uniforms. Lawyers have special clothing, at least when they appear in court. So do some clergy. So do prisoners and convicts. But when we change our role, we change our dress. When prisoners are released from custody and become free people again (putting off one role and assuming another), they change what they were wearing (putting off prison garb and putting on ordinary clothes). Similarly, when a soldier leaves the army and becomes a civilian, he gets out of uniform into ‘civvies ‘. Just so, since by a new creation we have put off the old humanity and put on the new, we must also put away the old standards and adopt new ones. Our new role will mean new clothing, our new life a new ethical lifestyle.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 4:25-5:4. 2). Six concrete examples.