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The apostle Paul was one whom God used to bring out many truths related to salvation. There are details we find in his writings which we do not see elsewhere. One of them is about ‘our old man’ and ‘our new man’. The old man refers to the sinful nature we were born in and which we lived according to before we came to the Lord. The new man is what we have received from the Lord when we were born again. Some new English translations refer to the old man as our old ‘self’.
Paul sometimes refers to another entity called the ‘flesh’ (There are other times where the word ‘flesh’ is used in its natural meaning to refer to the fleshly part of our body, as in ‘flesh and blood’. We can see from the context which meaning is meant there.). The flesh is seen as the source of sinful desires (lusts are strong desires) (Gal.5:24) from which we are tempted to do sinful things (Jas.1:13-15). A victorious Christian is one who keeps the flesh crucified, refusing to yield to its desires (Gal.5:24). The Greek word used in the New Testament for flesh is sarx whereas that for the physical body is soma. Possibly with a desire to make the translations more readable and understood, some English translations have used ‘body’ to translate sarx which unfortunately changes the actual meaning.
We can understand things better if we realise that within our old nature, if our flesh is the place of all the sinful desires, our old man was the one who made the decisions to yield to the flesh. That was what made our nature itself sinful. But when we were born again, God, through the Holy Spirit, gave us a new heart that does not want to sin but hates sin. This is the new man.
From a human point of view we would wish that after we were born again we would never want to sin and never sin again! We also wish that our flesh (with its passions and desires) would be completely eradicated so that we would never even feel any desire for anything sinful. But God has not done it that way! However, based on a few verses that seemingly describe a total end to the old life and the beginning of a new life of total victory, some people teach such doctrines. For example, “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom.6:6,7), “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom.8:2), “and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (vv.8,9), and “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal.5:24), among other verses, seem to indicate a finality in being freed from a sinful life and being endowed with a ‘sinless’ life. This is because of an incomplete understanding of the full picture we see in the Bible. Also, there has been no single person since the death of Jesus who has enjoyed that kind of life in reality. (When some people make such claims, getting close to them will show us that every one of us children of God is still a fragile, imperfect person who can stand only as they depend on the sustaining grace of God. On the other hand, those who are truly acknowledged by others as godly people will be the first ones to admit their own frailty.)
In order to understand the overall situation properly, we must see that there are things God has planned and prepared for His people, and also that each of us comes to actually experience them differently depending on several factors.
Now we can see that the verses quoted just above refer to God’s provisions and not to actual experience to the full in our lives. There are gaps between God’s provisions and our experience which we need to strive to bridge! Here are some verses that talk about what we ought to do in order to come to experience what God has prepared for us. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom.6:12,13). “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom.8:13). “In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph.4:22-24).
The Bible talks about our old man having been crucified with Christ (Rom.6:6) and us having died to sin (Rom.6:2,7-9). ‘Died to sin’ does not mean that there cannot be any more sin in us, but that our inclination to sin has died. In other words, we no longer want to sin. This is the new man God has given us. God asks us to recognise this new attitude and take the position that we are dead to sin (Rom.6:11), because it is from this position of the new man that we have to fight our battles.
What has happened to our flesh, in the meantime, with all its passions and desires? It has not been annihilated yet! (It will happen when we are ‘glorified’ in eternity.) That is seen from the fact that as children God we are being tempted through the desires which are of the flesh even now (Jas.1:14). Our old man wanted to sin and he enjoyed it, and so he yielded easily to the desires of the flesh that enticed him. Now our new man who has been created in us by the Holy Spirit does not want to sin even though we are being tempted (Gal.5:17). If we yield to the Holy Spirit we will be able to overcome these lusts (v.16).
Earlier we saw that our old man was crucified with Christ (Rom.6:6) and that we have crucified our flesh (Gal.5:24). Yet we are asked to put off the old man and put on the new man (Eph.4:22-24) and instead of yielding to the flesh to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom.8:13). This is what appears to be a paradox between what God has provided and how we are to appropriate it. But the simple explanation is this. We shall be carrying with us the flesh with its lusts from which we are going to be tempted till we die. But we have to choose whether we will align ourselves with the new man and fight against our flesh or allow our old man to yield to the flesh. This is the inner battle that a Christian faces every day.
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