It’s been said that Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians serves as a template for the letter to the Ephesians. Whether or not that’s the case, the passage on the “new man” in Colossians 3 closely parallels that in Ephesians 4 (the subject of the prior post), with some notable augmentations:
Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old man with its evil practices, and have put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him — a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Col. 3:1-17)
The “therefore” that begins chapter 3 refers back to Paul’s reminder at the end of chapter 2 that following ascetic laws (“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”) and other forms of self-abasement have no value in eliminating fleshly indulgence. Stop paying attention to these worldly concerns, Paul tells his readers. Consider yourself dead to immorality and impurity. Instead, :keep seeking the things above,” “set your mind on the things above” (3:1-2).
Is Paul advocating a simplistic psychology here, along the lines of “ignore it and it will go away” combined with the power of positive thinking? Or is he envisioning a magical mystical transformation of the self, whereby the believer is able to draw directly on the power of God to overcome sin? These interpretations can’t be ruled out, but I think Paul’s main point is to emphasize that persistent immorality isn’t all that important in the long run. You are flesh: you will surely die, and when you do these fleshly shortcomings will die along with you. Paul suggests that, instead of obsessing about your continued failures — failures which will go away eventually anyway — pay attention to the things that will last. It’s the resurrection life that matters, a life characterized not by the absence of sin but by the presence of knowledge, compassion, patience, peace, and love. These are “the things above, where Christ is.”
…and have put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (3:10)
As in Ephesians 4, the new man isn’t a static entity but rather a source of continuing vitality. Again the believer is encouraged to “lay aside” the old man and to “put on” the new. Again there’s the idea of the new man being a new creation in which the old-creation distinctions — Greek versus Jew, slave versus freeman — no longer hold.
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The only remaining Biblical passage referring to the “old man,” though without the symmetrical reference to the “new man” we’ve seen in the other instances, appears in Romans:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Rom. 6:1-7)
In this passage the old/new symmetry remains unstated yet implicit. Each live man has a doppelgänger who is himself divided, being both dead and resurrected. The live man occupies a dead world that is divided against itself: Jew/Gentile, law/sin. In this dead world is a graveyard. By going into his grave, the live man enters a portal. The portal transports him from the dead world into the new creation, a living world where the old distinctions are dead. By passing through the portal of death the man is freed from these old distinctions by which he defined himself while alive in the dead world. Passing through the grave he arrives on the other side, dead but resurrected, a new man. But the portal is bidirectional: it’s possible to go back through the grave, to be reanimated inside the old creation, to re-emerge as a live man in the old world. But now the reanimated old man realizes that the whole world he left behind is a tomb, and that even while he was alive he was already a dead man walking. The resurrected new man, freed from the old distinctions of Jew/Greek and law/sin, cannot live inside the old dead creation. He has to turn around, go back down into the grave, come back out on the other side…
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For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry… But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old man with its evil practices, and have put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him. (Col. 3:5,9-10
What is the relationship between the new man and holiness? If we equate holiness with sinlessness, then holiness is reduced to a negative quality, an absence of sinfulness. It would seem that Paul envisioned something more, something positive about the resurrection life. Positive holiness is what Paul regards as the centerpiece of his message to the Colossians:
the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you (or among you), the hope of glory. (Col. 1:26-27)
Christ’s crucifixion brings Jews and Gentiles together collectively as the “new creation.” As Grenz and Franke say in Beyond Foundationalism,”Through the appropriated biblical text, the Spirit forms in us a communal interpretive framework that creates a new world” (p. 81). But participation in the new collective is also an individual affair, as evidenced in Ephesians 4 and in Colossians 3. The new creation is energized by resurrection life, as is each “new man” who participates in it.
A dual operation is underway here: a setting aside of the old man, as well as a taking on of the new man. The old man participates in the old dead world, in which all Gentiles were by Law excluded from even the possibility of holiness. That’s what the Law was for: to set a holy nation apart from all other unholy nations, and to divide holy from unholy within the holy nation and among its people. In the old creation the Gentiles are unholy by definition, regardless of what they do, whether they act in accord with the Law or in opposition to it.
But now Paul moves toward something universal underlying the Law, an outscoping and abstraction that seems more Greek than Jewish. Acts of sanctification are prescribed in the Jewish Law — washings, offerings, rituals, designations of particular places for performing particular actions, circumcision — that serve only to maintain a structural barrier between the holy and the unholy. But there is also an intrinsically holy sort of human life for which being Jewish or Gentile makes no difference, a holiness which can, to an extent, be encoded in law-like prohibitions: don’t be angry or wrathful toward one another, don’t slander or verbally abuse or lie to one another (Col. 3:8-9). These aren’t positive statements of holiness (do this good thing); they’re more like the negation of unholiness (don’t do this bad thing). Still, obeying the prohibitions won’t turn the unholy man holy — negating the negative doesn’t become a positive.
Paul employs a variety of metaphors to describe to the Colossians the relationship between the resurrected Christ and the believer: Christ in/among you (1:27), you in Christ (2:6-11), you with Christ (2:12-13, 3:1-4). So when Paul exhorts his readers to “put on the new man” (3:10), it’s in this all-pervasive context of death and resurrection where “Christ is all, and in all” (3:11). To put off the old man is to set aside the deadly obstacles to holiness: anger, wrath malice, etc. (3:8-9). To put on the new man is to live positively in the holiness of Christ that characterizes the new creation. These aspects of positive holiness include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, peace, and above all love (3:12-15). Ceasing to act from anger, wrath, and malice is one thing; acting with compassion, kindness, and love is something else altogether. The former is how the old man dies; the latter is how the new man lives.
To reiterate, then: Setting aside the old man means not doing unholy things; taking on the new man means doing holy things. To stop doing unholy things doesn’t make you holy; it only makes you dead to the old man. To do holy things means living inside the resurrection life of Christ, and letting that life live inside and among you. How this resurrection life “works” — whether it should be interpreted as a mystical force for goodness or a thoroughgoing change of heart and mind — goes beyond the scope of my observations here.