Q&A: Old Man Dead?

Old Man Dead?

Question

Is our old self really dead once we become a Christian, or is it still alive and kicking? Most historic Calvinist such as Calvin, Bavinck and others hold that the old self and new self are aspects of the believer. (Rom.6:6, Col.3:9, Eph.4:22,24 and elsewhere.) John Murray didn't hold this view but said that the old self was speaking about the unregenerate. What do you say about this?

Answer

I line up with the majority of Reformed thinkers in believing that the old self is still a part of us, co-existing in a less-than-peaceful relationship with the new self. That being said, many good men are on the other side of the issue. I would also add that despite our differences of opinion on this matter of interpretation, and on the biblical use of the vocabulary of "new man," "old man," etc., our theology is really very similar. We all believe that everyone still sins, and that we all need forgiveness and sanctification on an ongoing basis. We all know experientially that it is hard to avoid temptation, and that sometimes it seems irresistible. We all believe we won't be perfected until Jesus returns, and that until then we are corruptible and corrupted. We all agree that we are influenced by sin through the world, the flesh and the devil. In short, there is not a great deal of substantive difference between the two camps, although there are certainly some that are worth noting, such as the way we go about thinking about sin and forgiveness, and particularly about conquering "besetting sins."

In general, I would say that those who believe that the old self is dead and gone argue largely on theological grounds, whereas those who believe the old self is still an active force argue on largely exegetical grounds. I know that is a gross oversimplification, but it does seem to me that some of the language on this subject is rather direct, and that the only way to come to the minority view is to defer to one's theology over against what appears to me to be the fairly plain reading of the text. Let me give you a specific example: Romans 7:14-25. This is one of the greatest passages of debate in this issue. I have a rather extensive answer online dealing with this passage, if you are interested (Q&A).

In answer to some of the specific passages you have mentioned, Romans 6:6ff. does not appear to me to state that the old man is dead and gone. Paul was speaking here of three states of existence, not two.

First, our old self was crucified with Christ when we came to faith. We were crucified by virtue of our union with Christ in his death. The purpose of this was, in part, to free us from sin and its bondage. But the bondage Paul had in mind seems primarily to have been to the effects of sin, not to the present power of sin ("not under law but under grace," Rom. 6:14).

Second, we have been united to Christ in his resurrection, and we currently live in him. But we do not yet live in him in the way we will in the future -- we have yet to be glorified as he is. When that happens, we will be perfectly free from sin's influence.

Third, in the meantime, we have been crucified with Christ, and we have been raised with him spiritually but not physically. We are in process. In our current state, it is a struggle to keep sin from reigning in our "mortal body" (Rom. 6:12; cf. "weakness of your flesh," 6:19). Paul's point seems to be that we have died with Christ, but because our bodies have not been glorified, we have not yet begun to live with him fully.

So, our old man is counted or reckoned as dead (Rom. 6:11), even though he isn't yet gone. This is very similar to the way that believers are counted as perfectly righteous and sinless in Christ, even though we have not yet actually been made perfectly righteous and sinless. The difference between our past experience and our present experience is that whereas we had only the old man in us before, so that we could only sin, we now have the new man as well, so that we can struggle against sin and sometimes win.

Colossians 3:9 presents a similar case. We have "laid aside the old self" in some sense, but we have not entirely put it away from us. If we had entirely put it away, there would be no reason for Paul to exhort us to sinless behavior, for we would already be sinless. But that is not the case. We are not yet completely renewed; we are in the process of "being renewed" (Co. 3:10). If we are not yet completely renewed, then there are some things in us that have not yet been renewed. And if they have not yet been renewed, then they are "old."

Ephesians 4:22-24 seems to me to be a rather direct statement of what I have been arguing. In verse 22 Paul says that the old self "is being corrupted." That is, the old self is still alive and kicking, and it is still in the process of subjecting itself to sin.

Notice also that in this context (as in the other passages), Paul's exhortation to put on the new self is not directed toward regeneration or resurrection. Rather, even though it is based on the fact of regeneration, the action itself is ceasing from sin and beginning to do good works. But again, if we only had the new self, these activities would be natural and unavoidable, just as if we only had the old self, evil works would be natural and unavoidable. The fact that we have the potential for both indicates that we have a nature that is capable of both, or to put it another way, we have two natures, one which is subjected to sin and one which is subjected to righteousness (cf. Gal. 5:17).

A very common rebuttal from the minority camp is that sin is just a habit; it is not reflective of the continued existence of the old man. But this seems to me to cast our new selves in a very poor light. First, how does a new man have any habitual remnants of sin? A new man should have no past record of sin, and no sinful habits. Those habits belong to the old man. And how do new sinful habits form? How does one who is saved from near-infancy grow up to commit adultery? And if our new man is perfectly willing to sin, what kind of salvation from sin do we really have? What's so "new" about a self that, although being free from its prior corruption, is ready, willing and able to dive into new corruption? It seems to me that the "new self" of the minority position is not nearly as good as the new self of Scripture.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.