Key Verse: 4:24, “and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
What kind of “walk” does Paul warn against (17–19)? What causes people to live this way? Why are our minds and hearts so important? Why do we all need this warning?
What does it mean to “learn Christ” and be “taught in him” (20–21)? Based on this truth, how should we be living (22–24)? What does Paul mean by “put off your old self,” “put on the new self,” and “be renewed in the spirit of your minds”?
How does Paul describe “the new self,” what does it mean to us, and why do we need to know this (24)?
What is Paul’s first practical application of putting on “the new self,” and why is this first (25)? What is his second application, and why is this so important (26–27)? What is his third application, and how is this relevant for all believers (28)?
What else does Paul emphasize in putting on “the new self,” and how can we live this way (29)? What does he warn us not to do, and what does this mean (30–31)? In the end, how does Paul describe “the new self,” and what can we learn here about living in community (32)?
Do you ever worry about what you look like? We may pretend like we don’t care, but in fact we spend significant time checking ourselves out in the mirror. But often, we’re not aware of what we “look like” spiritually. In today’s passage Paul tells us that in Christ we all have a “new self,” and that our new self has a certain “look.” What is it? We’re “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Wow! Sounds impressive! This is what God hopes we look like after we receive Jesus. But do we really look like that? How can it happen? It’s not automatic. And it’s not easy. We’ve got to actively be putting off our old self and putting on our new self every day. Paul gives us some specifics about how to do that. We especially want to learn why having the likeness of God is so important in a church context. May God open our hearts and speak to us through his word.
In chapter 2 Paul proclaimed the grace of Jesus, which we could never earn or deserve, that saves us and makes us alive. It’s a grace that also breaks down dividing walls of hostility. But it’s a grace that also can easily be misunderstood. Jude 4 describes ungodly people “who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.” Then as now, many people take the grace of God as a license to sin. Paul was keenly aware of this abuse. He wanted these new Gentile believers in Ephesus to be integrated into the church as full brothers and sisters, using their God-given gifts to build each other up. But for that to happen, it was crucial that they learn to live a new life in the grace of Christ.
Look at verse 17a. “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do…” It’s the third time in this letter Paul describes the past spiritual condition of the Gentiles. The first time he described their condition in relation to God (2:1–3), the second time, their condition in relation to Israel (2:12–13), and this third time, in 4:17b–19, he’s describing their inner life. So we notice words here like “minds,” “understanding,” and “heart.” Usually we can’t perceive anybody’s inner life. So we tend to treat it as not important. If we just look and act a certain way, we assume everything’s fine. But our inner life comes out in our “walk,” our behavior. We end up walking in the futility of our minds (17b). This is why the gospel has to get into our minds and hearts and change us deep within. What’s the inner life of a sinner that needs to change?
Look at verse 18. “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” It’s almost like Paul is walking us backwards to our core problem: We’re darkened in our understanding because we’re alienated from the life of God. We’re alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that’s in us. The ignorance within us is due to our hardness of heart. So a hard heart is our root problem. For our inner life to be healed and changed, we have to ask God for the spirit of repentance to break up our hardened hearts. Ultimately, our hardened hearts are melted only as we take a good, long look at Jesus on the cross.
With futile thinking and a dark, hardened heart, human beings walk in a wicked way. Look at verse 19. “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Here, “callous” means, “Who cares?” It describes such a selfish lifestyle, using people for our own pleasure, never satisfied. It’s an inner life dominated by lust and greed, and it can take us into every kind of impurity. Outwardly moralistic behavior can’t cure this sinsick inner life. This was the problem of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who looked beautiful outwardly but were utterly corrupt inside (Mt23:27). It’s not okay for Christians to continue living in such a sinsick inner life.
Read verse 20. Notice the exclamation point. Why is Paul stressing this? He’s saying that learning Christ demands a real inner change. He doesn’t say learning “about” Christ, but learning Christ himself. It means experiencing a personal relationship with him. This happens only through real repentance and real faith. And such a personal relationship with Christ always produces a changed inner life. Christ didn’t come to leave us in our sin sickness, but to heal us, set us free, and enable us to change from the inside out. Paul wants to make sure that these new Gentile believers have encountered the real gospel message in Jesus.
Read verses 21–24. Here Paul summarizes the fundamental truth in Jesus. What is it? We all have got to put off our old self. And we all have got to put on our new self. It’s kind of like getting rid of rotten old clothing and putting on new clothing. Who wants to put on rotten, stained, worn out, smelly old clothes? Who doesn’t like to put on clean, fresh, brand new clothes? It gives us a totally new look. This is what putting on the new self is like. We feel refreshed, renewed, and encouraged that we can do what God wants us to do.
We notice something else here. We don’t make or buy these new clothes. The new clothes of our new self are given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. He gives them to us by his one-sided grace. All we have to do is receive them by faith and put them on! Paul is showing us through this imagery how we live out our gospel faith in Jesus every day. Sometimes when our old self rears its ugly head, we give in and go along with it, then get so disgusted with ourselves. We feel so hopeless and despair. But each new day, by faith in Jesus, we can put on our new self. When we do, we’re “renewed in the spirit of our minds.” It’s like pressing the reset button on our internet modem, only this time it’s for our inner life. We stop freezing and blinking and start working properly. And we start growing into our new self.
Read verse 24 again. In Jesus, we become precious children of God. As we put on this new identity each day, we start growing in the image of our Father God. Genesis tells us this was why God made human beings, that we all might grow in his own image, in his own likeness (1:26–27; 5:1–3). After we sinned against God, this likeness of God in us was ruined beyond recognition. But by the gospel of our Lord Jesus, anyone can be a brand new creation (2Co5:17)! Anyone can be healed and restored in the likeness of God, step by step, day by day.
It says, “...in true righteousness and holiness.” In light of Paul’s teaching, “true” especially means “inner.” We’re no longer plagued by futile thinking, a darkened understanding, ignorance, a hardened heart, sensuality and greed. Our inner life, our minds and hearts, becomes more holy and righteous like God. To God, we start looking really good inside. We start enjoying him more and getting closer to him. It’s the good news of the gospel. It’s amazing! But what does it mean to “put on the new self” in our daily life? Paul emphasizes several things here.
First, truthful speech. Look at verse 25a. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor…” Falsehood is not only blatant lies but also misrepresentations, evasions or exaggerations. People lie to cover up their sin or because they’re afraid. But in Christ we have nothing to fear. He forgives and accepts us when we turn to him. It’s his grace that gives us courage to speak the truth. Here, “the truth” can mean all kinds of truth, about ourselves or about our neighbor. Basically it means to be honest, not putting on a show. It also can mean speaking based on the word of truth in the Bible. Why is speaking the truth with our neighbor so important? Paul adds in verse 25b, “...for we are members of one another.” He’s again saying that we all belong to the body of Christ. This is a totally new way of thinking about all our brothers and sisters in our local church. Out of respect for one another as members of Christ’s body, as people who belong to one another, we need to be speaking the truth to each other.
Second, overcoming anger. Look at verses 26–27. “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity for the devil.” This is another problem of our old self: we let our anger get out of control. When we’re consumed by our anger, the devil can start to use us. We’d like to think that we’d never get angry with our fellow church members. But in fact, there can be so much anger and resentment. We suppress it and hide it, but it’s still there. Sometimes our anger might be the “righteous” kind; we might get angry because people seem to be dishonoring God or obstructing God’s purpose. But most of the time, our anger is self-centered. Our pride is hurt. Our feelings are hurt. Things aren't going “my way.” We harbor grudges based on our anger, for many days, or weeks, and for some people, for many years. It’s better to resolve our anger before sunset. Most of all, we need to ask God’s help to heal our bad habit of losing our temper.
Third, giving. Look at verse 28. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” This applies not only to literal stealing, but also to people who have a habit of taking. It’s part of our “old self.” In our new self, there’s a common attribute: giving. God is a Giver, and he wants us to be givers, too. To give, we’ve first got to earn some income. To earn income, we’ve got to work hard. It’s interesting: Doing honest work with our own hands is part of the new self. In the new self, we’re thinking about sharing what we have with those in need.
Fourth, graceful speech. Look at verse 29a. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…” What is “corrupting” talk? It’s abusive words that hurt others. It’s condescending words that put others down. It’s vulgar words that tempt people to take sin lightly. In verse 31 Paul also mentions “slander.” It’s similar to gossip. Gossip may seem innocuous; to some people, it’s their joy of life. But gossip is corrupting talk that’s toxic in the church community. What should we do instead? Look at verse 29b. “...but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Here again Paul uses the words “build up.” We’ve got to think carefully and self-edit. We should ask ourselves constantly, “Will what I’m about to say do any good to build anybody up? Is what I’m about to say fitting to this occasion? Will what I’m about to say give grace to those who hear?” To grow in our new self, we really need to discipline our speech. As the old adage goes, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything.”
Fifth, do not grieve the Holy Spirit. Look at verse 30. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” In Greek this sentence is connected with the previous one about our speech. Our reckless, undisciplined talk not only tears others down but also grieves the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is grieved because such talk especially tears down spiritual unity. As Paul taught us back in verse 3, we should be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit, especially in our speech.
Paul concludes with two alternatives. Read verses 31–32. The first is ugly, the second, beautiful. It describes our new self: kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, like God. It’s true godliness to show others the grace we ourselves received. It’s not through many activities but when we have such a godly character among our fellow members that we contribute practically to building up the body of Christ.
Read verse 24 again. May God help us put off our old self and put on our new self every day. May God help us grow in his likeness, in true righteousness and holiness. As we do, may God help us build each other up as fellow members of Christ’s body.