“If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” (Eph 4:21,22).
This text in Ephesians has caused many believers to think that they are simultaneously an old person and a new person. Is that what the really Bible teaches? How do you see yourself? This issue has major implications for your daily living.
In the other texts where the apostle Paul refers to the “old man,” its removal is clearly in the past tense:
“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life … knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him…” (Rom. 6:3,4,6).
“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:9,10 emphasis added).
Notice that the crucifixion of the “old man” is past tense; you have “put off” the old man at conversion and have “put on” the “new man.”
Then, what is the tug toward sin that we still deal with daily? Although this has been called “the old nature” or “the sinful nature”, I suggest that this terminology is inaccurate and misleading.
The old, sinful tendency is literally the flesh/world/devil influence that continues in this fallen world. As Reginald Wallace put it,
the flesh [the old conditioning] is our internal enemy;
the world [godless society] is our external enemy,
and the Devil [the demonic realm] is our infernal enemy.
Then, what is the precise meaning of Ephesians 4:22? Here we are admonished to put off –as the verse states–[beliefs, values and behaviors] “concerning your former conduct.” It is a present tense exhortation because this choice to walk in the Spirit is an hour-by-hour decision (Gal. 5:16). So in this verse “put off the old man” is a literary device known as metonymy: “a figure of speech that consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related.” That is, Paul is saying we are to put off the behaviors of the “old man”, but actually the old man is gone.
Examples of metonymy
This figure of speech is used frequently in Scripture.
“But He [Christ] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men'” (Matt. 16:23). Here Jesus did not mean that Peter was the Devil, but that the statement that the Cross should be avoided was a satanic idea.
A positive example of metonymy is found in Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” Literally, Jesus Christ is in heaven and spiritually He is in the believer by the indwelling Holy Spirit. So the exhortation, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” means to demonstrate the character, words and actions of Christ. (Notice that the impediment to this is not the “old man” but the flesh.)
So, as we interpret Ephesians 4:22 in a way that harmonizes with the other two occurrences of “old man” (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9), we discern that the verse is teaching us to put off the old patterns of who we used to be in Adam (1 Cor. 15:22).
One way to illustrate how “the old man” concept hinders us, is the function of a scarecrow. Consider the identity and purpose a literal scarecrow: “The common form of a scarecrow is a humanoid figure dressed in old clothes and placed in open fields to discourage birds such as crows or sparrows from disturbing and feeding on recently cast seed and growing crops.”
Notice some parallels for the Christian’s understanding of “the old man.”
- A scarecrow is not a real person; it is an imitation. Similarly, your “old man” is not real; it is imitating the old thought patterns of who you were before salvation.
- A scarecrow is usually assembled with old clothes. Likewise, the ungodly beliefs and behaviors are compared to old clothes that we are to “put off”
- A scarecrow is intended to scare off crows and other birds that would damage the crop. Similarly, the patterns of the “old man” tend to intimidate the believer, hindering the potential harvest of practical righteousness (James 3:18).
So, in light of this illustration, we should “say no to the scarecrow”!
“It [God’s grace] teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age…” (Titus 2:12 NIV).
This is not just semantics. Our friend, Mike Quarles, struggled for years with chronic alcohol abuse. After trying about twenty different treatment strategies, the Holy Spirit set him free as he heard a message on Romans 6:6: “The Death of the Old Man is Past Tense.” You need to know this (Rom. 6:6), so you can effectively “reckon it” true personally (Rom. 6:11).
The respected British expositor and author, Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, confirmed the clarification that the believer is no longer “the old man”. His sermon on Romans 6 is summarized this way:
“What does it mean when Christians say to ‘put off the old man’? Sometimes, Christians can get carried away with the notion of the ‘old self,’ saying we need the old self to die, to be crucified, to try to get rid of, etc. However, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that the old man is indeed gone and has died with Christ! Paul says that because we are united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, any old man that was under the reign of sin has also died. Although we were not physically with Christ during those acts, we were spiritually with Him. Even now, we are spiritually with Christ and growing. So are you living like that is true? Instead of saying that the old man needs to die, the Doctor explains that we need to be working to shed old characteristics of sin. We should no longer live like the old man, because he has already died! This is not something that will happen, or should happen, Paul guarantees that it has already been done and we are no longer slaves to sin!”
Watchman Nee also observed the need to recognize this distinction about the old man:
“When we have revelation, we will not think of our own experiences or our own feelings. We will believe that everything on God’s side is real. Many Christians consider that their old man is still living, that it is a reality. They dare not believe that they were crucified with Christ. But if they see the revelation, they will change. The revelation will show them that their old man is surely and undeniably dead.”
An issue of Identity
There is a big difference between a scarecrow and the farmer: one is fake and dead, but the other is real and alive! In Christ, you are real and alive! (2 Cor. 5:17).
So, I hope you’re convinced by Scripture that, in Christ, you are not simultaneously an old and a new person. God bases your essential identity on your spiritual union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:17-19), so you are a temple of God and a child of God. Therefore, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Peter 2:9,10).
So, say “no” to the old “scarecrow” and yes to your new identity in Christ Jesus!
 Reginald Wallace, The New Life (Grace Fellowship International)
 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, (cited in Wikipedia)
 Vol. 37, The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, pp.153-154. (Living Stream Ministry, Anaheim, CA.)
David C. Needham’s appendix on The Relationship Between the Old Man and the Flesh is online here.
Copyright 2019 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Please credit GraceNotebook.com. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Magdalena is a newer edition of the widely used “Jesus Film” that includes episodes from the Gospel of John. See and share this excellent outreach video at www.jesusfilm.org/watch.html