Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They 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. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:17-24)
The "old man" ("old self"- ESV) is in accordance with the pagan mindset. This is the pre-Christ reality of every person. This should not be thought of as a physical "putting off," for that would be to end one's life, or at the least, to skin oneself (ouch!). This is most certainly not an eradication of the sin nature, for that is to claim perfection while in this life, which is an impossibility. We must affirm the biblical fact of the two natures that war within the believer; that of the flesh, which is dead and presents a problem to the "living out" of our New Life in Christ, and the Spirit, which has sealed us (Eph 1:13) and which desires to live out the New Life in Christ. However, I must be crystal clear that this is not a "submission of the flesh" as many have determined, and to which such a movement as that of the "Lordship Salvation" clan has determined is the very evidence of one who is "truly saved." Such a route is one that always leads to legalism and will cause us to become the judge and jury of every believer that we encounter, making claims in regards to their eternal destiny as based upon their actions (which is something that even Paul did not do- 1 Cor 4:3-5). Rather, this is something that starts with the mind (we must not forget the context)! Remember, Paul is speaking with these believers regarding their thinking and that they must no longer walk like pagans. Such a walk is in the "futility of their minds" (Eph 4:17) and such thinking is "darkened," "ignorant," and "callous" (Eph 4:18). Believers are to understand what they have been taught regarding Christ (because this is a discipleship issue) and are to appropriate such teaching to where their lives are changed by it. If we are going to live as people who are pleasing to the Lord, we must make the volitional choice to embrace the truths of God's Word. This requires a disregard for the old ways (the "old man") and an acknowledgment of the truths that are now ours in Christ. Spurbeck writes, "By the act of the mind motivated by the will, the believer removes himself from his old condition in Adam and reflects on who and what he is in the new creation."2 This is the essence of positional truth.
The concept of positional truth is foundational and indispensable for the spiritual growth of every believer in Christ and is scarcely found in many pulpits around the world. Chafer explains:
The Christian, though perfected forever in Christ, has nevertheless a life to live in the world as long as he remains here. The real problem which confronts him, as stated before, is not one of how he should live to the end that he might be accepted and perfected before God, but rather how an accepted and perfected person should live after these stupendous realities are accomplished by the grace and power of God. Until these vital distinctions are comprehended and received as true, there will be no progress made in the extensive field of truth which directs Christian life and service. Until positional truth is recognized and received to the extent that the saved one acknowledges that he is saved and therefore perfected on no other ground than that, on his part, he has believed on Christ to the saving of his soul and, on God's part, he is perfected and justified forever, there will be no right motive in the believer's heart.3
All true Christian growth is derived from an understanding that the believer in Christ is perfectly and fully accepted by God because of Christ's perfect work. When one believes in Christ, His perfect work is now appropriated to that believer and God now sees this saint as perfect through Jesus Christ. This does not mean that the believer IS perfect, or that the believer IS righteous. However, it DOES mean that the believer has been "declared righteous" by God, which is what justification is all about. Anyone who seeks to progress in their walk with Christ apart from understanding positional truth is guilty of behavior modification. This, in essence, is also legalism because it seeks to gain God's favor, or places His favor in contingency, by what one does or does not do instead of operating from the position of total acceptance as made possible by Christ. We cannot grow by trying to earn God's favor; we are guaranteed to grow because we already have God's favor. It is the work of Christ alone that makes this possible. Failure comes when the focus of our Christian life is on our production rather than on our position. We must not run the risk of thinking that the flesh is holy in any way. We must "know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin" (Rom 6:6). Such is our glorious position in Christ and it is here where our constant focus needs to be. This simple truth cannot be said enough: If we focus on our practice, we will doubt our position; but if we focus on our position, we will find it overflowing into our practice. The question is "Where is your mind set?"
The "old man" belongs to the former (pagan) life. It has carnal desires, such as those that Paul mentioned in Ephesians 4:19. This is akin to the struggle that Paul reveals in Romans 7:15-20.
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (emphasis added).
I know that I italicized a great deal of the passage above, and probably, the whole passage needs to be in italics, but the importance of seeing what Paul is communicating is so important. It is estimated that Paul had been a believer for around 30 years when he penned the epistle of Romans, and yet he still struggled with his flesh. What was his conclusion? (You never hear sermons on this). He concluded that, "I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin" (Rom 7:25). Did you get that? I mean, did you REALLY read it? Paul knows that he is going to sin because that is what his flesh does and that's the only thing that it is good for... sin! However, it is his mind that seeks to serve God and to be in obedience with Him. Too often, Christians are looking for the Spirit to change them (and those around them) from the outside in. But this is not how the Spirit of God works. To think that the flesh is going to "act better" is to believe that a dead man can obey a traffic light. The flesh does nothing but sin! It doesn't get better and the Christian life should never be measured in regards to how much one is sinning or not sinning. This is to put faith in flesh, which is a futile pursuit that will always end in disappointment and insecurity. The believer is to focus on his position in Christ! This is what Paul is getting at. Only God can rescue Paul (and us) from this "wretched" flesh that is prone to sin repeatedly, and He only does so through the Lord Jesus Christ and the New Life that He provides. Again, you don't hear many sermons on this, however this is clearly what Paul is communicating.
With verse 23 we are told that the first step is to be "renewed in the spirit of your minds." Notice that the primary focus is on the thinking process of the believer. What do we believe to be true? We cannot go on living as if God is not real and as if Christ's saving work has no effect on our lives in the here and now (Eph 4:17-19). We must be "renewed" (ananeoō), meaning "to cause something to become new and different, with the implication of becoming superior."4 The renewed mind is superior to the pagan mind. It has new precepts that are pleasing unto God, which is something that was not possible in our lives previous to believing in Christ.
The idea of "renewing the mind" will raise thoughts of Romans 12:1-2 for the believer who is familiar with the Scriptures. The mind can only be renewed by truth, and the only source of truth is the Word of God. To attempt to renew the mind in any other vein is to renew upon a faulty foundation that will not last and will not suffice for the sake of eternal matters. The Word of God is crucial, indispensable, and without substitute in accomplishing godly living in our lives. Paul understands, and therefore we should understand, that until one is thinking differently, they will not respond or live differently. Understanding this, Frank Viola writes, "Paul said, 'That I may know Him . . .' Serving must flow from knowing. Following Jesus means learning to live by His indwelling life . . . which necessitates and involves knowing Him deeply."5 Knowing precedes doing every time, and living out the mentally-embraced truths of God's Word will serve in developing supernatural obedience in us because we are living out our lives in light of the Truth of the reality that God exists and His Christ has purchased us by His blood.
After renewing the mind (Eph 4:23- which should be understood as something that must be done continually and is not a one-time occurrence) we are to "put on the new self," or the "new man" (Eph 4:24). Stanley writes, "When Paul tells us to 'put on' the new man, he means that we have to make a conscious, moment-by-moment choice to depend upon the Spirit's power to transform us into the likeness of Christ."6 We can only trust God to the degree that we know Him, and this knowledge only comes through understanding the infallible, inerrant Word of God. This is a "new identity" that is superior to the "old man" and its carnal desires. This is a new way of thinking and living which pleases God. We know clearly from Romans 8:8 that those who are in the flesh cannot be pleasing to God. The "new man" makes pleasing God a possibility. This "new man" is "created after the likeness of God," but Paul is not speaking in the realm of physicality. Each man and woman is created in the image and likeness of God as Genesis 1:26-28 clearly communicates. Such a likeness as Paul speaks of in Ephesians 4:24 is a likeness that is "in true righteousness and holiness." Hoehner translates this section as "in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth,"7 which is a better rendering than that offered by the ESV translation. Such "righteousness and holiness" should not be understood as an earthly conformity to an expected creed or pattern as laid out in the local church, but rather as something that is the polar opposite of the calloused and self-serving sensuality that was mentioned in 4:19. This is righteousness according to the Word of God. Hoehner state that "the new person has been created in the sphere or element of righteousness and piety which denotes the quality of the new person."8 This sphere is the New Life of the believer as provided graciously by Christ our Lord. We can now operate in righteousness and holiness, something that was not possible before coming to Christ and something that remains impossible when, as believers, we operate according to the flesh. The pagan mindset is fruitless and frustrating. God is intimately involved in our lives and His desire is to give us the Kingdom (Luke 12:32). We now have access to Divinity through Christ. Thus we are to embrace this truth and cast off our former way of living because a "new man," a more superior man, has been provided by Christ.
Hoehner writes, "Although there is an emphasis on the individual as the new person, the corporate entity must not be ignored. Individual growth must contribute to body growth. This new creation, both individually and corporately, is characterized by righteousness and holiness based on truth."9 It is worth pondering what the result would be if a local Body of believers were to understand and embrace this truth daily. How the power of God would flow! How lives would be changed! How God would be glorified in every aspect of our lives! Now THAT is a life worth living!1 This article is an excerpt from the forth-coming commentary Ephesians: The Immeasurable Riches of God's Grace by Jeremy Edmondson.
2 Spurbeck, The Christian 'In Christ,' p. 147.
3 Lewis Sperry Chafer, "Populating the Third Heaven, Part 2," Bibliotheca Sacra 108, No. 431 (1951), p. 266-267. (263-269).
4 Louw and Nida, p. 593.
5 Frank Viola, "David Platt, Follow Me: A Review," accessed 21 May 2015, at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/davidplattfollowme/.
6 Charles F. Stanley, The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles, 2005), Eph 4:24.
7 Hoehner, Ephesians, p. 611.
8 Ibid., p. 612
9 Ibid., p. 614