This is an exerpt from By His Wounds You are Healed: How the Message of Ephesians Transforms a Woman’s Identity, coming in March.
17Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
To be honest, this has not been my favorite section of Scripture over the year. I heard many sermons on this section of Ephesians growing up and into my years at Bible college. Most left me feeling like the weight of responsibility for putting away my sins lay on my shoulders alone. It was a good day when I studied these verses in light of the connected, coherent teaching of the whole of Ephesians. Without recognizing the fullness of all we have in Christ and the power at work on our behalf through him according to Ephesians 1 and 2, trying to put off our old self and put on the new self is completely impossible. This passage taken out of context sets up believers for failure.
Paul is talking here specifically about our sanctification—that process by which God changes us from wretched orphans abandoned on the street to the beautiful bride of Christ adorned in righteousness. The Bible is the best commentary on itself, and Ephesians is not the only place it talks about our sanctification. It is helpful to look at other Scripture to give us clarity on how God sanctifies us. Consider 2 Corinthians 3:18.
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
The passive voice here indicates that we are not doing the transforming. Instead, we are being transformed by the Spirit. This is one of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. The Bible refers to it in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and 1 Peter 1:2 as the “sanctifying work of the Spirit.”
The term passive may raise concerns in some of you reading this. You may think this sounds like we just lay back motionless on the floor while the Spirit does all the work. The Scripture gives us better examples. Consider Moses’ actions when Amalek fought Israel in Exodus 20.
9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.
God fought the battle, but Moses participated. Moses’ job was to reach out to God, but God was solely responsible for defeating the enemy. While that is a helpful Biblical analogy of our participation with God in the work he does for us, the Bible refers specifically to this joint participation in Leviticus 20 and Philippians 2.
Leviticus 20:7-8 Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.
Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
In Leviticus 20, we are commanded to be holy (sanctified or set apart for God’s purposes) because God is making us holy. In Philippians 2, we’re told to work out what God is working in. God is working in and with me, so that I show outwardly what He is changing me to be. Any righteousness we exhibit outwardly is a result of our inner relationship with Christ. We cannot separate the two.
With this foundation in mind, let us go back to Paul’s words in this section of Ephesians 4.
22to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
While we are passively being transformed (2 Cor. 3:18), we are also proactively putting off our old self and putting on our new self. And that new self is entirely wrapped up in the image of God that he created us to be, characterized by the true, authentic, Biblical righteousness and holiness we have learned in Christ. Interestingly, Paul talks about this same concept in Colossians but uses wording that indicates that the putting off of the old nature and putting on of the new is already completed.
9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
This is becoming what you are. God has broken the chains that enslaved you to sin and given you a new nature. He has put off the old and put on the new at our birth in Christ. And now we are becoming in reality what God has already declared us to be in heaven—fully righteous according to Christ’s example. You may be frustrated by the dueling tenses of verbs in these instructions—the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The Bible definitely asserts both, but the tension fades if we remember Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 1. We have an unchanging spiritual reality in the heavenly places guaranteed for us by the deposit of the Holy Spirit. We are becoming on earth what God has already affirmed us to be in heaven. What we have now in Ephesians 4 is God’s design for closing the gap between the two, what Francis Schaeffer used to call “possessing our possessions.”
The renewing in Ephesians 4:23 once again reflects a passive voice. We are not doing the renewing. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to be renewed by someone else. This is consistent with all Paul has taught us up to this point. God is doing something new for us and to us through Christ. He is renewing our minds. And we are working in conjunction with him—for apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). It’s crucial to understand that our transformation in Christlikeness, putting off the old man and putting on the new, is a joint venture with God in which God does the heavy work. When we struggle with sin, we can cast ourselves fully upon Christ and expect him to meet us in our struggle and equip us to obey. Apart from such dependence on Christ, we are doomed to failure.
I have areas in my life that I hate—places that I repeatedly sin and yearn for long lasting change. One issue that I have struggled with a good bit is my weight. On one hand, I struggle with the sin of gluttony. My god is my belly, and I obey it anytime it speaks. On the other hand, I struggle with vanity. I want to be beautiful in the emptiest sense of the term. My old man seems alive and well. How do I battle it and put on a new way of living that reflects all I am in Christ?
For me, the answer is, simply put, the gospel. I have tried a long list of diet and exercise methods. There is always something new to try–some diet that worked like a miracle for someone I know, and, because it worked for them, it should also work for me. When someone tells me what worked for them, I usually feel pressure to do the same. Then, instead of feeling motivated, I feel condemned because it never works for me.
But God has called me to himself and is renewing my mind. He has given me an inheritance in Christ that transcends my ability to fully understand. He loves me with a love that surpasses knowledge. And he wants my god to be himself, not my belly. He wants me to live for eternity, not vain beauty. So I wrestle with him—“God, enlighten me to the hope of my calling. Show me how my inheritance in Christ equips me to deal with my sin. Renew my mind so that I may put off both gluttony and vanity and put on new ways of dealing with food, exercise, and body image that are like Christ.”
After years of gluttony and vanity, God renewed my mind on the issue of my weight. He changed my heart so that the lifestyle changes I made were not chores, but pleasures. I can only attribute this to His grace and mercy–to the gospel itself. Without God renewing my mind and enlightening me to my inheritance in Him, my attempts at putting off and putting on were powerless.
This is just one small example in my life of how God is transforming me. Where in your life is God moving you to put off the old and put on new ways of dealing with issues that reflect Christ’s example? How does your inheritance in him equip you to change? How is he renewing your mind, changing the way you think about things so that you think more like him?