"Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and… be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and… put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV)
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I’m not talking about our appearance. I’m sure most of us wish we could run faster, bench more, have more hair, or whatever. I’m thinking more about our inward character. What is one character flaw you wish you could change? Losing it with your wife? Your kids? Being lazy at work? Not doing enough ministry?
We all have character flaws we wish we could change. One of the most amazing features of the gospel is that it holds out the promise of true change in our lives. God promises that we can actually become generous, selfless, patient, loving, cross-bearing men, no matter how often we lack these vital traits at the present moment. In a word, we can become more Christ-like (Rom 8:29). So the question now becomes, “How does this happen?” Paul gives us an answer in the text above.
First, Paul tells us that change happens in union with Christ. Verse twenty one states that the “truth is in Jesus.” Once we have heard and believed the gospel, by God’s grace alone we are brought into union with Christ. The Holy Spirit begins working the resurrection life we looked at last week in our lives. We begin to love what God loves and hate what God hates. This process is messy. It happens in fits and starts instead of a smooth line. But it is real, it is all of grace, and it happens in the life of everyone who is truly united to Christ by faith alone.
Second, change happens because Jesus obeyed God perfectly in our place, as we have seen. Only because of his perfect life is the prospect of change held out to us. To be sure, we will never be sinlessly perfect in this life. But we will begin to change—to grow in holiness—because we belong to Christ, the Holy One.
Third, Paul tells us to do two things. We need to be careful here. Paul is not saying we do these things in order to make us acceptable to God. No, Paul has spent the previous three chapters in Ephesians telling us what God has done for us. It is only after we are accepted in Christ that he tells us what to do. He tells us, first of all, that we must put off the old man. What does that mean? It means we daily fight against the sin in our lives. We repent when we yell at our wives. We take measures, however extreme they may seem to ourselves or others, to stop looking at porn. We stop fudging on our taxes and tell the whole truth. Whatever it is that is sinful in us, we put off that “old man” aspect of our lives daily.
Next, Paul tells us to “put on the new self.” The two go hand in hand. Biblical change is a “put off/put on” dynamic worked out in daily life. We don’t just fight against sin; we replace sinful behaviors with Christ-honoring actions. If you’re angry, you need to put off anger and put on kindness. If you struggle with lust, you put off lust and put on being attracted to your wife alone.
It is absolutely critical to remember that whatever putting off or putting on happens in our lives is all by the grace of God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This is fantastic news! When we fail, Satan wants us to wallow in despair and give up the fight. But the gospel tells us that God is at work in us (Phil 1:6; 2:13). God does not start anything he does not finish. So the very fact that you fight, no matter how often you fail, is a sign that God is at work. Don’t give up because God never gives up on you.
Finally, we need to see the Scriptural balance here. As one theologian put it, growth in holiness is 100% God’s work and 100% our work. What did he mean? Simply that whatever obedience we render to God is all his work, yet we are all called to strive to obey God. In the mysterious gospel math, God works in us and calls us to strive after holiness.
So change is possible. In fact, change is guaranteed because God the Holy Spirit is the one who changes us. Whatever temptation you’ve given in to for the hundredth time this week, whatever failure is stealing your joy, whatever character flaw makes you depressed, fight back with the weapons of God’s word and prayer. You’re still in the game and God has promised you ultimate victory. The odds are definitely in our favor! Change is hard, change takes time, but change will happen because, though Jesus meets us right where we are, he never leaves us where we are.