So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:17-5:2)
Nobody likes conflict and warfare. When we hear news reports about the suffering of those who are caught in the middle of conflict in various parts of the world, or when we see images of the death and destruction brought about by war, we cringe. We desire peace - for ourselves, and for everyone else too.
But sometimes, conflict is the better of two options - the lesser of two evils. Sometimes in human history, wars of annihilation have been launched against a certain group - not just to achieve some kind of territorial advantage or political control, but with the goal of the total destruction of a whole tribe or nation.
At such times, for the people under attack, warfare and conflict, and fighting back for one’s very survival, was the only choice to be made. In such a context, ceasing to struggle and fight would mean ceasing to exist.
Are you involved in a struggle like that? You may not realize it, or think of it in this way, but you are. In this life, such a war is being waged inside every baptized and believing Christian.
I’m not talking now about the struggle that takes place between the church and the forces of evil that surround it in this world. I’m talking about something that is going on, on the inside of every Christian.
The “old self” or the “old sinful nature,” which has been with you since your natural conception and birth, is relentlessly attacking the “new self” or the “new righteous nature,” which God has placed within you through the new birth of water and the Spirit.
And this is a war of annihilation. There can be no truce, no negotiated cessation of hostilities. In the end, only one nature can survive.
In the next world, your identity will be either as a righteous and holy saint, who loves God and the things of God, and who enjoys fellowship with God forever; or it will be as an unrighteous and rebellious servant of darkness, hating God, and destined for eternal destruction.
Which will it be? Which nature will prevail in the struggle that is being waged within you, even now?
Will it be that aspect of your inner being than comes from our common ancestor Adam, through his fall into sin, by means of your natural generation? Or will it be that aspect of your inner being that comes from our common Savior Jesus Christ, the new Adam, through his work of redemption, by means of your supernatural regeneration?
In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we see descriptions of these two natures or “inner selfs,” as they compete with each other for dominance in your life.
First, Paul describes the life of the Gentiles - the unbelievers in this world. With them there is no inner struggle between the old nature and the new nature, because they have no new nature. They are as they have always been: without faith, without hope, without the life of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Paul writes:
“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.”
The fallen spiritual state of the Gentiles, and their corrupted moral condition, leads them to live in a way that is in harmony with their flawed inner character, but which is out of harmony with God’s loving will for his creatures.
Lust and debauchery. Greed and stealing. Laziness and exploitation of others. These are all attitudes and actions that isolate an individual from a community: from the human family, and from the larger human society; and from God, and from his fellowship.
That’s what sin does. It turns us in on ourselves, and away from others - away from our obligations toward others, and away from the fulfillment that comes through communion with others. Sin is a consuming and degrading power, not a giving and enriching power.
There’s nothing good or desirable about what Paul says here, concerning the old sinful nature that indwells all people in their original, natural state. We are, I am quite sure, repulsed by this description.
Even unbelievers themselves often don’t admit that on the inside, they are as bad as they actually are. They often try to cover up and “plaster over” their shameful thoughts and desires with outward works of civil righteousness.
But these sinful impulses and thoughts cannot be defeated through external human works. The roots of our sin run too deeply.
Those roots cannot be dug out and removed from us, even with the best of human moral effort. The “old self” is embedded very deeply in our human psyche.
But God, and the things that God has put into place and set in motion, do have the power to suppress these harmful thoughts and inclinations. The Spirit of God is able to push back and counteract the destructive influence of the sinful nature with which we are all born.
And if you are a Christian - if you cling to the promises of Christ and embrace his Word - the God who has this power is residing in you. His Spirit is working in you, specifically within the new nature that he brought into existence when he called you to faith.
In this new nature - this “new self” - your will has been set free from its original bondage to rebellion and destruction, by the liberating power of the Gospel. According to the “new self” - the new spiritual person that is now in you - you desire and want only what is good and pure and right.
These two natures - these two inner selfs - are locked in a constant struggle with each other. They are competing for your soul. They are fighting to see which one will exercise the predominant influence on how you think and act, and to see which one will carry you into eternity.
In words of admonition and encouragement, St. Paul impresses upon us how important this struggle is, for the sake of our life of faith, and for the sake of our identity as the children of God. After his description of the self-centered and self-consuming impulses and actions of the old nature, St. Paul makes the following contrast:
“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.”
By the power of Christ, through your faith in the truth of Jesus, the “old self” is to be “put off” and suppressed. And by the power of Christ, through your faith in the truth of Jesus, the “new self” is to be “put on” and exalted.
The spirit of your mind is to be renewed by the grace of the Spirit of Christ. The truth of Christ, and the godly desires that his truth engenders, are to “push back” against the deceitful and wicked desires of the old nature, which formerly governed your life, and which are still trying to make a comeback in influencing you.
St. Paul goes on to describe some practical effects of the influence of the new nature in the life of a Christian, when he writes:
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. 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.”
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.”
When you think and live according to the impulses of the “new self,” you will show respect to others by speaking truthfully to them. You will not try to deceive and manipulate others for your own selfish advantage.
When you think and live according to the impulses of the “new self,” you will control your anger, remembering that you are not God, who alone has the ultimate right to judge and to punish. You are, instead, under his mercy, and therefore will show mercy.
The new nature in the Christian instills a new sense of responsibility in us. We know that we have the duty to work to support ourselves, and not to be a burden on others, or to impose on others unnecessarily. The mutual help that Christian brothers and sisters do render to each other in times of genuine need, is not to be coerced, but is to be offered and received freely and in love.
Our general way of speaking, as it flows out of the thoughts and values of the new self, is a grace-filled way of speaking. When we don’t know exactly what to say, we should search for words that build others up, and that express kindness and compassion toward them - because in Christ, that’s how we actually do feel about other people.
The new nature - created within us by the Spirit of Christ - is a Christ-like nature. According to this nature, we love those whom Christ loves. We are patient with those with whom Christ is patient. We forgive those whom Christ forgives.
It cannot be any other way - at least not when the new nature is alive and well, and is prevailing over the old nature. But how often does the new nature actually have the upper hand in your life? My guess is: not as often as it should.
How consistent are any of us in thinking, speaking, and acting in accordance with the nature that the Holy Spirit has birthed within us, rather than in accordance with the rebellious and selfish nature that we inherited from Adam? If we are honest, we will all have to admit that we have been very inconsistent in this respect.
What people see in us, and hear from us, is not a pure and undiluted manifestation of the life of Christ in our inner being. Instead, what they get from us is a disappointing cocktail of mixed motives and half-hearted efforts.
Sometimes people do see some evidence of the love of Christ showing forth from us. Sometimes they do not.
Sometimes we are at peace in our conscience, resting in God’s grace and committed to his ways. Sometimes we are worn down and discouraged by guilt, and by feelings of inadequacy, because we know that we have not done as the children of light are to do, but have done instead what a child of darkness would naturally do.
Remember that the old nature within you is engaged, without rest, in a mortal struggle against the new nature. And it is a war of annihilation.
The old nature wants to destroy the new nature. And once God and his influence are out of the way, the old nature wants to lead you back, in the chains of a re-enslaved will, into a hopeless captivity to the devil.
The old nature knows that this is the only way it can survive. And so the old nature stops at nothing in trying to reassert itself, and in any and every attempt to scheme and lie itself back into a position of dominance in your life. Its attacks against God, and against the work and influence of God within you, are relentless.
It should not surprise you, therefore, that, in spite of the fact that you know better, you often stumble and fall back into the ways of that old nature. It should not surprise you. But it should alarm you.
Every time you sin - in thought, word, or deed - you are taking a step away from God, and away from the protection of his grace. Every time you sin - by the evil that you do, or by the good that you fail to do - you are threatening the continuation of your own spiritual life.
You are creating an environment within yourself that is inhospitable to God. You are, in effect, inviting him to leave, and to give up on you. There’s a lot at stake in this struggle - this struggle between the old self and the new self.
But as you experience that struggle, and endure that conflict, remember the words with which St. Paul concludes the section of his epistle from which we read today: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Christ’s love for us does indeed set an example for how we should love others. But that’s not all his love for us accomplished.
Christ’s love for fallen humanity - for weak and struggling humanity - carried him to the cross of Calvary. And there, on the cross, he gave himself up for us, and sacrificed himself in our place to the justice of God.
The many times you have stumbled and fallen, and the many times you have allowed the old nature to have its way in your life, are all covered and paid for by the blood of the Lamb. Because God’s Son did die, and because his death was accepted by his heavenly Father as a fragrant offering, God will never, ever stop forgiving the weaknesses and failures of those for whom Christ suffered. And that includes you.
In Christ, God will never, ever stop giving you a second chance. When you come to him in sorrow for your failures, and ask him for his help in the ongoing battle, he will always give it.
He will renew the spirit of your mind. He will advance and restore the “new self” that is still alive in you - the new nature which he created and preserves - to its proper place of prominence and influence.
He will be your Lord. On your behalf, and for your eternal good, he will prevail over the machinations and temptations of the devil, and of your own sinful flesh.
The Lord Jehovah is the only true God, not Satan. He is in charge of your life, not the devil, because with the purchase price of his Son’s blood he has redeemed you, and taken you back as his own precious possession. And so he will be God for you, and in you.
The struggle between old and new, between the power of sin and the power of righteousness, will continue. Yet the old sinful nature will not prevail, but will ultimately perish.
The work that God has begun in you will be sustained, and will be brought to a joyful and victorious completion in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who you are in Christ is the real you. That is what will survive, and live forever, by the grace of almighty God.
I would like to close with these words from a beautiful hymn by Thomas Kingo, about the struggle that is always taking place within us, and about the power of Christ to bring us through that struggle victoriously:
The power of sin no longer Within my heart shall reign;
Faith must grow ever stronger And fleshly lust be slain;
For when I was baptized, The bonds of sin were severed,
And I, by grace, delivered To live for Jesus Christ.
Lord Jesus, help me ever To drown my nature, so
That it shall not deliver Me to eternal woe;
But that I daily die To sin and all offenses,
And by the blood that cleanses, Attain my home on high. Amen.