If you’ve attended a church for any period of time, you’ve probably heard the phrase “the old man,” but what does this mean? And what, exactly, does it mean to “put…[him] off?”
“That ye put off concerning the former conversation [way of life] the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” (Ephesians 4:22, KJV)
God understands a basic principle of human behavior: that we gradually become, and eventually are, what we do. You might have heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” The truth is that we are what we do. We, however, sometimes don’t quite get this. We might reason, “I’ll just do this for a while, it’s not really a big deal.” It is a big deal, however, because the more we do something, the more it becomes a part of us and of who we are.
Consider your dentist. His name may be John Smith, but almost everyone thinks of him as the dentist. But he was not always a dentist—at some point in the past he made a conscious decision to study and practice dentistry. The same is true not only of career choices, but also of moral decisions.
If I choose to steal something, I become more likely to do it again, because my inhibitions against doing it have been diminished. If I continue, thieving will become a way of life for me, and I really will have become, in the fullest sense, a thief.
This is true of any behavior, good or bad. That is why God teaches us in Galatians 6:7-8, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh [feeds his sin nature—does the sins he feels like doing] will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit [obeys God] will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.”
The behavior you engage in really is a big deal, whether good or bad. Not only are you doing it, you are also gradually growing into it and becoming it. That is why good behavior—obeying the Spirit—results in eternal life: the more we do what is right, the more our “right-doing” muscles are strengthened and we get better at it. For the same reason, bad behavior typically results in more bad behavior and in decay and destruction—the more we indulge our sin nature, the easier it is to just keep going down the wrong path.
God also understands a second principle of human behavior: that whatever behavior we indulge intensifies, and whatever we starve, diminishes. All of us are tempted by something; this is a given of human existence. The trick to surviving as Christians is to starve wrong desires—refuse to indulge them, run away from them, ignore them, don’t hang around people, places, or things that intensify the temptation—while at the same time seeking to replace them with good ones.
So when you find yourself in a situation which you Biblically know—regardless of how it feels—is not God’s will for you, you have three choices.
The first choice, intentionally ignoring what God says and doing what you want, is not an option, because Hebrews 10:26-31 warns us:
“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We trust in Christ to forgive us our sins, yet sinning intentionally and willfully after knowing the truth is very dangerous, and we must avoid it at all costs.
The second choice of “trying” to not sin while continuing to be around that temptation is really passive disobedience—and it is setting ourselves up for failure. God tells us, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” (Romans 13:14) We are not to set ourselves up for spiritual and moral failure, creating or allowing circumstances that continue to feed the wrong desire. The Old Testament gives us the example of Joseph, who understood when to simply run, “…she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.” (Genesis 39:12) As a slave, Joseph did not have the choice to find other employment as he saw a difficult situation growing; most of us today have significantly more control over our circumstances and must not remain in constant contact with the temptation.
The last choice of completely removing ourselves from any contact with the source of temptation—even if it feels wrong, even if we don’t really want to do it—is the right decision. We act because we know it is right based on what God says in His Word, not because it always feels good. More than just depriving ourselves, this decision should be based on a conscious decision to trust that God loves us and has something so much better for us in the long run. It truly is “…walk[ing] by faith, not by sight,” (2 Corinthians 5:7) and it is “deny[ing]…[ourselves] and take[ing]…up…[our] cross, and follow[ing]” Jesus. (Matthew 16:24) Keep in mind that if this were easy, many would be doing it, yet Jesus said, “…difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14)
So what is “the old man,” and what does it mean to “put him off?” The “old man” is the sin nature we are born with, and “putting him off” is no longer giving in when it decides it wants something which we know is contrary to God’s will for His people. God does not say this is easy (“…difficult is the way which leads to life…”), and it requires a firm resolve on our part that regardless of how much we want what is wrong, we are consciously choosing–with the strength God gives–to obey Christ instead.
There is a decision to be made, and it is made each and every time we are faced with a dilemma like this, and choose to put off our “old man.” Painful as it might be at the moment, we are building our destiny each time we decide, one way or another. “For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.” Our eternity is ultimately at stake.
Help us see that we become what we do. Help us also understand that behavior we feed intensifies just as behavior we starve diminishes. Help us put off—starve—the old man which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts. Help us choose to follow You—always. In Jesus’ name, Amen.