Christians are often told, and rightly so, that they must live a holy life in Christ. They are to turn from sin to righteousness. This is certainly true. The Christian life is centered around conversion of one kind or another. But misunderstanding the nature of this conversion and our life in light of it is a source of a great deal of confusion. It can create fear that possibly we are not secure in our salvation because we can see that we have sinful tendencies. But the Christian life is not to be one of fear. It's a life of confident joy. Let's try to find that confidence.
2 Corinthians 5:17 will serve as a good starting point for our discussion. It says, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (ESV). This sentence well encapsulates Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again and become as a little child. There is a particular, non-physical, way that Nicodemus must change. It makes him new.
John chapter three does create some complexity in our inquiry. In verse five, Jesus emphasizes the need to be "born of water and spirit" but then he distinguishes in verse six between flesh and spirit. The entry into the kindom of heaven is through the spirit, not through the flesh. The complexity in the discussion consists of the fact that the concept of "water" suddenly disappears from the equation. However, we can readily arrive at a conclusion that being born again does not happen in an entirely physical manner, but is a spiritual issue.
My reference to John chapter three brings up a challenge, and it's a major point of contention in American Christianity. Being born again is a spiritual issue. How is it that so many Christians throughout history have tied the new birth to baptism? Baptism would seem to be an action we engage in, using the physical element of water. For the time being we will simply acknowledge that this is a challenge. Historic Christian thought, including that of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism has confessed that regeneration is somehow associated with the physical means of baptism in water, but that that baptism is not our act or confession of faith. Rather, it is a means by which God imparts his grace to us. We'll work on that one in detail at another time.
Being in Christ has put an end to the "old man," generally described as the person conceived in sin. What about the fact that we still sin? Not only that, but if push comes to shove we must admit, though grudgingly, that we sin because we like it. That doesn't sound like many descriptions of the Christian life in the New Testament. From 2 Corinthians 5:17 we can say we seem more like the old than the new. 1 John 3:4-9 repeatedly condemns sin. The person who sins must not be in Christ. Galatians 5:16-21 speaks forcefully against fulfilling the desires of the flesh, contrary to the desire of the Spirit of God.
Something I think we need to be particularly aware of is the audience of these New Testament writings. They were addressed to Christian audiences. In 1 John, the entirety of the argument is predicated on the work of God to forgive sin for those who are confessing their failings to him (1 John 1:6-10). 2 Corinthians is written to a church congregation which the apostle Paul had planted. Galatians seems to be written to the same kind of audience. Ephesians, which we will visit in a moment, is addressed to a congregation where Paul had been in residence for an extended period of time.
These directives, to put off the old and put on the new, are given to those who are already in Christ, those people whose lives have been transformed by Jesus' forgiving work. To hearken back a couple of paragraphs, they are people who have been baptized into Christ, whose sins have been washed away, but who still need to be reminded of their need for forgiveness.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul provides some important context. The Ephesian Christians have been rescued from futility, the wandering in the darkness of their misunderstanding, to walk in the light of Jesus. In chapter four, verses 17-19 he describes this wandering of the Gentiles, then in verse 20 he says that the Ephesians didn't learn to walk that way in Christ. Jesus, the light of the world, enables them to walk in this life knowing the truth. What reaction are they to have? In verses 22-24 they are to shed the old man, who is always trying to corrupt them. In place of that old garment of the sinful nature, they are to put on the new, righteous nature which comes from Christ.
The problem with being clothed in Christ's righteousness is that we aren't accustomed to it. It's almost like being draped in a coat that we aren't sure is going to stay on us, and that we don't know how to wear. We don't put our arms into, or button it up. It will fall off easily. But as Christ has given us his perfect righteousness in place of our sin, it's our duty to learn to wear what He has given us.
We need a lot of reminders. Yet, as long as we realize that our salvation is a gift from God in Christ, and is not a result of our own works of righteousness, we can also recognize that our failure, though it leads us to repentance and confession to our Lord, does not throw us out of the kingdom of God. We simply confess our sin before God, trust that he is cleansing us from unrighteousness, and ask him to help us wear his garments of salvation as a gift of his grace.
Is this difficult? Is it disappointing and frustrating when we fail? Most certainly. The apostle Paul's failure to live a consistently godly life led him to lament, in Romans chapter 7, verses 15-24, that although he knows what is good and right, he feels driven to choose what is wrong. He confesses that he is a wretched man (v. 24). Who will rescue him? In Romans 7:25 he concludes that only Jesus rescues him, and that he needs to be drawn to God in Christ.
Is there hope for the human who is confronted by his sinful nature? Most certainly. How great is Christ's salvation? This is the topic which Paul discusses in detail in Romans chapter eight. The trials we endure, all our failings, our sin and shame, have been taken care of by Jesus' perfect life, death, and resurrection on our behalf. There's nothing left for us to fear. Although all our senses tell us to fear, we don't need to have any fear. Jesus has taken all the condemnation there is. We have only his life.
While we need to keep putting off the old man and putting on the new man as long as we are alive, we can have confidence that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). He has forgiven us entirely. This conversion is the work of God. It is delivered to us not because of our merit, but only because of Christ's merit. It is not our decision, but his decision to love us and give himself for us. He is the one who is operative in all our salvation. It is entirely a matter of God's grace, delivered by faith in Christ alone. And it is the best news in the world.
Dave Spotts, 2023