The new man. 4:17-24


In the passage that runs from chapter 4 verse 1 to chapter 6 verse 9, Paul deals with the subject of Christian conduct. In 4:17-24, our passage for study, he illustrates the subject with the image of believers putting off the old man and putting on of the new.

The passage

v17. In the opening verse of this chapter, Paul urges his readers to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received." Having discussed the notion of the church as one body with diverse parts, Paul again returns to the issue of Christian behavior. His Ephesian readers have come from a pagan background and need to cast off their former life.

v18. In describing the pagans, Paul says, "they are darkened in their understanding." Not knowing God ("separated from the life of God", cf. Col.1:21) only corrupts an understanding of the truth, of ethics, and so naturally prompts evil living. This "ignorance" of the truth increases with the "hardening of their hearts". As the conscience is slowly desensitized, so it is increasingly unable to convict. The idea here is that even a person who does not know God personally, still has an awareness of right and wrong. It is part of being "God breathed", of being in the "image of God."

v19. Continuing with the idea of the "hardening of their hearts", Paul restates the phrase in different words: "having lost all sensitivity". As the skin can become callous and less sensitive, so can the conscience. The result is that pagan Gentiles hand themselves over to evil; they have given themselves to "sensuality", often called "debauchery". This is the flaunting of sexuality without shame. Also to "impurity", which is again some form of sexual misconduct. And also to "lust", or more rightly "covetousness".

v20. Paul now turns his focus on the Ephesian Christians. He makes the point that the life-style of a Gentile, which is a product of their darkened understanding, is not that of a believer. "You, however, did not come to know Christ that way". That is, you didn't learn this type of behavior in your schooling as a Christian.

v21. Paul reminds his readers of the Christian ethic they received from those who had instructed them in the "way". The phrase "Surely you heard of him....." or "I take it that you heard of Christ.....", is a facetious comment. He knows only too well that they were properly instructed.

v22. They were taught, says Paul, to put off their old corrupted self. The idea of putting off the old man and putting on the new, is central to a right understanding of Christian ethics. In our identification with Christ, the old sinful self is buried with him and is replaced by his perfect righteousness, thus creating a new self. Paul's encouragement is that we be what we are, casting off the old and putting on the new in our day to day ethical decisions, cf.Rom.6:11.

v23. Having put on the new man (having put on Christ, put on his righteousness, his resurrection power and his ascended glory) we find ourselves being made new in the attitude of our minds. This is the present state for a believer.



v24. The new man is righteous as Christ is righteous, holy as Christ is holy. Having put on this new man, having put on Christ, we will find our lives gently shaped toward Christ-likeness.

The new man

Living a life worthy of our calling, worthy of our relationship with Jesus, is no easy business. Our tendency is to adopt the behavior of a humanity still "darkened in (its) understanding". We can move from this path by putting off the old self and putting on the new.

I know it is far from helpful to use the example of someone who's life is beyond the norm. Francis of Assisi was just such a person. The key to his life lay in his total dependence on the grace of God. It is this example we must follow. Here was a man who courted a lover known to few of us. His mistress was poverty. His simple life and dedication to charity was not the action of a Christian trying to confirm his standing before God, or trying to please God, or advance his holiness. Francis actually enacted the mystery of Christ's incarnation, of his becoming one with us. Francis didn't just become poor for the sake of being poor. He became poor to identify with the poor. He became one with them in their poverty. The doing of this was wholly of grace.

His strange affinity with animals is probably the best example of this incarnational way of life. It is said he had an affinity with the animal kingdom, and this because his life was like their's. He lived a precarious life, feeding on the scraps and refuse of humanity, along with the natural provisions of nature. He lived like the birds who "do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet (our) heavenly father feeds them." In living like them, he became one with them, and communed with them.

Renewal is achieved when we "put off the old self" and "put on the new self." In simple terms, this involves identifying with Christ's death and resurrection. By means of this identification with Christ, we find ourselves caught up in God's gracious plan for humanity. We find ourselves "created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."


1. Why is the thinking of the pagan futile, "darkened", and why have they "lost all sensitivity"?

2. Discuss the idea that corrupted sensuality has affected evangelism and worship. What practical steps would you take to reduce this influence?

3. It is commonly said that to put on "the new self" is to put on righteous and holy living, in the sense of doing it. Discuss the notion that putting on "the new self" entails putting on what Christ did on our behalf, and thus that "righteousness and holiness" is something given rather than done.

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