Putting Off, Being Renewed, Putting On

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 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. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24, ESV)

Scripture often describes our relationship with God as a “walk.” This term seems to encompass both our inner and outer responses to God—including our thought life, attitudes and affections, and our behaviors. This “walk” has an active, willful dynamic. God doesn’t drag us along in our relationship with Him, He invites us to follow Him voluntarily and to allow Him, over time, to transform our thinking, our attitudes, and our actions. This is not a one-time decision, but one renewed daily, as we make decisions that encourage or hinder our growth toward Christlikeness. Clearly for me, as I reflect on my own walk with God, this kind of growing relationship with God takes more than knowledge or understanding. Studying the Scriptures and knowing what I should do isn’t enough. I must learn how to “walk the talk,” and for this I need help. I have seen enough failure in my own response to what I know God desires of me to recognize that I cannot pull this off myself. I need both God’s help, and that of others, who are on the same journey.

Paul begins this passage with a sober warning that Christians are not to continue to walk as Gentiles do (here he uses this label to refer in general to non-believers), because their habitual pursuit of sin has hardened their hearts, and their understanding is darkened. They cannot appreciate the gospel message because they have set their hearts against God and His ways. Christians – those who have heard and responded in faith to the gospel – are to leave that “walk” behind because “that is not the way you learned Christ!” Using slang from a decade or so ago, “sinning is so yesterday.” As those who have responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s time to leave that behind. But how do we do this? How can I study and teach the Bible in ways that encourage this inner change?

I’m afraid much of our typical teaching in the church consists of learning what God wants us to know and do, praying together, and then assuming that knowledge will somehow miraculously lead to growth and maturity. In this passage, Paul describes an intentional, active process that has important implications for the way I should teach. It begins with both a desire to leave the old walk behind and a decision to “put off” that old way of life. The imagery Paul uses here is taking off a set of clothes, in this case our old “clothing”, being no longer suitable for a follower of Christ. As we teach, we need to model that desire and commitment, encouraging others to see that God wants to help them “put off” their old way of life. But, “putting off” is not enough. Real growth is not only a matter of leaving something behind, but gaining something new.

We are also to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. This is the heart of Bible study. We study the Scriptures together in ways that help renew our thinking, allowing our old ways of thinking and our old desires to be challenged and transformed by God (Romans 12:1-2). Lasting change of behavior will not happen without a change in our thinking and in our heart’s desires. We must become convinced of the truth, value, and goodness of this new walk with God, so that we are better able to set aside (“put off”) past life habits. This inner renewal is foundational to changes in the outer patterns of life, the daily decisions we make as we continue our walk with God.

Finally, Paul teaches that we are to “put on” the new self that God has created in the likeness of God, righteous and holy. Doing so takes intentionality, and we often need help in this process. Deciding to change is one thing, growing in our ability to live that out over time is quite another. This is where I have had to change my own teaching. I’ve learned that instead of ignoring what we studied last week and rushing on to a new lesson, I need to spend more time revisiting and reviewing things we’ve been learning—the “new clothes” God has called us to put on—and to share in the success stories and encourage those who struggle to do what they know they need to do. Follow-up and reinforcement are important for establishing new patterns of life, for cultivating this new “walk” with God. If we fail to take time for this, it’s as if we’ve said, “Good luck with that new set of clothes—have a great week!” Change is not automatic, and God uses the body of Christ to encourage, teach, admonish, exhort each other in our new life in Christ.

Do you see your Bible study leadership as an effort to strengthen your people in their new walk with God? How might your teaching (need to) change if you were to focus more on helping them put off the old self, renew their thinking and desires, and put on the new self that God has created in His likeness? How can you create space and time for reviewing and revisiting past learning to encourage persistence in living out what you are learning together? Ask God to help you reexamine your teaching approach, to see what may need to change in order to pursue this kind of supportive teaching.

Father, I’m thankful that you did not leave me in my ignorance and hardness of heart toward you, but you drew me to yourself, forgave my sin and made me your child. Please help me to put off my old self, renew my mind, and put on my new self, created in your character. As I teach your Word, help me to encourage and support others to do the same, so that our walk with you increasingly honors you as you transform us. Amen.

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