Becoming a New Person (Ephesians 4.17-32)
The spiritually resurrected condition we now enjoy in Christ (Eph 2.5-6) is not meant simply to be some kind of symbolism for the hope of a better humanity. It is a description of our new spiritual state. God, by the power of His word, has made us alive again. This fact, however, has some serious practical implications, as Ephesians 4.17ff shows.
To put the matter succinctly, those who are now living as spiritually resurrected people need to reflect their inward, spiritual condition in the lives they live among others. As we are new people, we must be living new lives, different from the lives we used to live before we knew Christ. As Paul said to the Roman Christians, “consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (Rom 6.11-12). The spiritual inward condition and the outward behavior must correspond to each other; the inside and the outside ought to match (cf. Matt 23.25-26). This is the theme that occupies Ephesians 4.17-32.
Verses 17-19 present the matter negatively. The converted Gentiles in Asia Minor must no longer live the pagan lives they lived before they obeyed the gospel. In the light of the gospel their former lives could be seen for what they truly were: lives lived in moral and intellectual darkness, lives of spiritual death and hard-heartedness toward God, and lives of moral insensitivity that only encouraged them to indulge ever deeper into sin.
But this is not how Christ lived (v 20), and thus it is not how Christians live. The unconverted life is a life lived in accordance with a grand lie (v 22). It is a life lived with the expectation that selfishness and self-indulgence (in all its various forms) is good for us and that such a life will make us happy and fulfilled. But it will not. The truth is that life is meant to be lived as God directs it. Only by living according to the pattern of Jesus will we find happiness and fulfillment as human beings. That is the truth (v 21), which is revealed in the gospel.
Christians are changed, transformed people. Paul uses the imagery of changing one’s clothing (v 22). When you take off one garment and put on another one, how you appear in this world changes. Of course, the imagery can only express so much. Paul does not intend to suggest that we simply make outward changes while we remain the same old people on the inside. Not at all. Paul’s point with the image of a change of garments is that the change we have experienced must not simply be something that is within us, but that it must manifest itself in an outward lifestyle that others can see. The old habits and behaviors must be “put off,” discarded and not “worn” again. The new self cannot wear the old outward garment (lifestyle) of sinful behavior, just like new wine cannot successfully be put into old wineskins (Matt 9.17). That former life is only increasing in sin’s corruption until it culminates in death.
Verses 23 and 24 are the key to everything. First, v 23 establishes the core of the matter. There must be a change on the inside of me first. It is a change in my mind or, if you will, a change of spirits within me (the two are essentially the same thing; “the spirit of your mind” is basically “the spirit that is your mind” or “the spirit that exists amidst your thoughts and mental perception”). I will never renew my behavior successfully or meaningfully unless I first renew my mind, my spirit. Moral actions flow from the inside out (as Jesus made clear in Matt 15.17-19). Changing the mind is therefore crucial and essential. There is no genuine Christianity without it.
Verse 24 explains how this transformation happens. First, it is important to catch the echo of Genesis 1.27 in this verse. Paul is intentionally linking this subject to the creation of man because the physical creation in Genesis 1 is a corollary to the spiritual creation that we undergo in Christ. In Genesis 1 God created man in his own image, a spiritual being made by a spiritual God. And you will recall that God accomplished the creation by his word (“And God said” appears ten times in Genesis 1), and when God finished his creative work, he said “It is good” (seven times in Genesis 1). What God makes is good, or righteous. Just as God created the things of the flesh by his word, and they were good, so God has created us as new people in Christ by His word, the gospel, and the result is that we are good or righteous and holy. God’s creative power makes us new people in our minds and hearts as we join ourselves to Christ Jesus.
The fact that Paul uses creation imagery is significant. The kind of change Paul is talking about in this passage is not a mere “adjustment” of the kind of people we have always been. It is not a cosmetic touch-up of people who are basically good already. It is, instead, the creation of new people altogether. The old self is infected with corruption and is without remedy. God’s solution is to discard the old self and make completely new people out of us by his word, the gospel which teaches us the mind and behavior of Jesus.
When that happens, then the kind of life described in vv 25-32 appears. No longer do we lie, but our speech is characterized by the truth (v 25), because we have been made from truth (v 21). No longer do we live captive by anger at others generated by our own selfish ambitions and interests – an anger because they are interfering with our own self-absorption. Instead we learn to dispel anger – because we are no longer self-centered people – so that it does not master us (vv 26-27). We do not steal (another act of selfishness), but instead we work so that we can be generous and giving to others (v 28). We do not let unclean words come out of our mouths, because those are the products of unclean hearts. Instead we fill our minds and hearts with goodness and good will toward others, and our speech reflects this same wholesomeness (v 29). We do not cause the new Spirit of God within us to grieve because our outward actions do not fit our inner condition (v 30). Instead we are people who have “cleansed the inside” (see Matt 23.25f again) so that internal sinful passions such as bitterness, wrath, and hatred of others no longer reside within us (v 31). Instead of thinking, acting, or speaking evil of others, we relate to others in kindness and forgiveness (v 32). By doing so, we reflect the image of the one who made us.
Here is an article I wrote about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, if you wish to study further about the new mind and the new spirit that is to be within us: