So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old man, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Ephesians 4:14-24)
In Ephesians 2 Paul said that Christ had created the Jews and the Gentiles into one new man. Here Paul tells his readers that the new man is created in the likeness of God. But wasn’t the first man created in God’s image and likeness? Does this passage imply that man lost the imago Dei in the Fall, and that now it’s being restored? Or is it possible that the original imago wasn’t complete? Genesis 1 focuses exclusively on God’s creational activity, implying that man is like God specifically in being able to create. At the end of Genesis 3 God says that man, in acquiring knowledge of good and evil, has become even more godlike. Here in Ephesians 4 Paul links the likeness of God specifically to His righteousness and holiness — yet another aspect of the imago.
Paul tells his readers that they’re acting like the Gentiles: ignorant, hard-hearted, impure and greedy. This sort of behavior Paul associates with the old man. Is Paul contradicting himself from two chapters earlier by now saying that the Gentiles are the old man and that the Jews, or perhaps the Christ-following Jews, are the new man? I don’t think so. Paul addresses his readers as “Gentiles in the flesh” (2:13) who through Christ have been joined together with the Jews into the one new man (2:15). Now, however, Paul sees evidence of his readers relapsing into their old ways, as if they were still defining themselves according to the old fleshly distinctions between peoples. The old Gentile way of life is characterized by enmity, ignorance, and immorality — in short, it’s a life that doesn’t manifest God’s holiness. Presumably Paul would levy the same criticisms against those “Jews in the flesh” who slipped back into their old Jewish ways.
Apparently it’s possible for a follower of Christ to slip back and forth between the old man and the new man. Though Christ has already created the new man, the old man persists, even among those who follow Christ. Paul enjoins his readers to “lay aside” the old man and to “put on” the new man, as if the transition were as easy as changing one’s clothes. If Paul was talking here about a distinctly new human nature having been implanted in believers, one would expect him to use different imagery. For example, if the old man is a fleshly, surface-level identity whereas the new man is deeper and truer, then Paul might exhort the backslider to lay aside the old man in order that the new, true man might shine forth. Alternatively, if the old man is deeply ingrained in human nature, then Paul might suggest that his readers put the new man over the top of the old man as a means of disguising or ritually purifying the old. Instead Paul seems to regard the old man and new man as interchangeable. He also assumes that the reader possesses an autonomy independent of the old man and the new man, a constant and continuous self that can take off the one and put on the other.
The old man and the new man are not static entities: the one is “being corrupted,” whereas the other is “being renewed” (Eph. 4:22f.). More precisely, Paul encourages the reader to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man.” It would seem that, in Pauline psychology, the mind has a spirit that can either be corrupted or be renewed. Here in Ephesians the old man and new man are envisioned as alternative life trajectories or mindsets, and the individual self can at any given time be guided by either the one or the other. A person who sets his life course by the new man must put aside the traditional intercultural enmities (2:15f) and the ignorance and callousness (in Greek it’s “analgesia,” the numbness to pain) that lead to impurity and greed. Instead the person participates in the ongoing life of God (4:18), a way that leads in the opposite direction, toward peace, knowledge, sensitivity, purity, generosity.
walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God… (Eph 4:17-18)
The old man is aimed toward corruption and death; the new man, toward renewal and life. Paul isn’t enjoining his readers to assume a new personality or nature. He’s asking them to respond appropriately to the singular twofold event of Christ’s death and resurrection, to “walk in a manner of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). It’s possible not to respond appropriately, to “put on the old man” even if you’re already a participant in the “new man” that Christ created in the cross. Those believers who put on the old man act just like those who never responded to Christ’s calling in the first place.
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I have a sense that many, perhaps most, at least occasionally consider living a life concerned less with inconsequential distinctions and more with truth, beauty, justice, love. I also think that, at best, people vacillate repeatedly and perpetually between the two. In this regard I’m not personally persuaded that those who proclaim themselves Christians are qualitatively different from those who do not. But this is idle speculation of one observer of the human condition and not a systematic treatment of Paul’s writings.