Reading Time: 10 minutes
Good teachers inspire us to change. They help us to see our potential, and they encourage us to reach it. In fact, the best teachers see who we are—and what we can be—more clearly than we see it ourselves. What they see in us motivates us to change. That’s why it’s so crushing when a teacher does the opposite. When a teacher tells a student that they’re nothing, that they are worthless or useless, it reinforces an identity that demotivates and discourages them from making any effort to change: If I am nothing, I’ll do nothing. If I am useless, I’ll be useless. If I’m stupid, I won’t learn. If I’m a thief, I’ll steal. If I’m a wild child, I won’t bother to control my anger. But good teachers refuse to take this path. Good teachers don’t simply reinforce a student’s identity based on their current behaviour and feelings. They acknowledge the behaviour and feelings, but they also look beyond these things, and help the student to look beyond them too. The student can say: I’m not fundamentally a useless or stupid person. It’s just that I find this particular area of behaviour or learning really hard. That’s a reality I can deal with. I need to work on steps x, y, and z. It’s liberating. I can work towards a goal: becoming who I am.
The apostle Paul is a good teacher. Of course, that’s because he’s learnt from the best: Jesus Christ himself. In these verses of Ephesians, Paul talks about what good teaching looks like. The particular teaching he has in mind is the teaching about Christ and how to live for him. It teaches us to become who we are:
I assume you were taught to take off the old humanity, according to the former way of life, which is being corrupted according to deceitful desires, and to be renewed by the Spirit of your minds and put on the new humanity, which has been created according to God in the righteousness and devotion that come from the truth.Ephesians 4:22–24
Who you are: a new humanity
Who are we? Believers in Christ are, in fact, a new humanity! Paul speaks here about “the new humanity which has been created according to God”. To understand what Paul means, we need to remember what he’s already said earlier in his letter about God making us a new creation through Jesus.
The first place to go is Ephesians 2:1–10. There, Paul describes how we were once dead because of our offenses and sins, and so were facing God’s wrath. But through God’s rich grace and mercy, we’ve been made alive with Christ: forgiven through his death, raised with him, and now facing the sure hope of everlasting life. We’ve been saved. And this is all from God’s grace, through faith. There’s nothing we have done or can do to achieve it. We haven’t been saved on the basis of our works; our good deeds don’t earn us anything before God. But still, good works really matter! They don’t contribute to our salvation; but they matter because they are the thing we’ve been saved for. Our salvation makes us a new creation. As Paul says:
For we are his product, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre-prepared for us to walk in.Ephesians 2:10
So our salvation means we’ve been created anew by God, raised from the dead to do good works for him. This is our life and purpose.
This new creation isn’t just an individual thing. It’s something we’re in together. A little later in chapter 2, Paul talks about the way that Christ’s death brings reconciliation and peace: reconciliation with God, and also reconciliation with one another. Christ died to:
form the two, in himself, into one new humanity, so making peace, and to reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility by it.Ephesians 2:15
Back in chapter 2, Paul was talking particularly about the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. But this truth about peace and reconciliation applies to all our relationships as believers. Christ’s death brings us together into a whole new humanity, where peace is possible.
However, even though we’re a new humanity, that doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. We’re still waiting for God to bring about his final purposes of summing up all things in Christ. In the meantime, we still live in this world, and our bodies haven’t yet been transformed into new creations. That means we’re still deeply affected by the life we had before we were saved and rescued by Christ. We’re still prone to hostility and selfishness, sin and weakness. Paul describes it here as “the old humanity, according to the former way of life, which is being corrupted according to deceitful desires”. The old humanity is something that’s still hanging around.
That’s why Paul describes our Christian lives in terms of getting dressed: “taking off” the old humanity and “putting on” the new. The old humanity is like a set of embarrassing and ridiculous old clothes from a bygone era of our lives that don’t fit us anymore and which we need to take off; the new humanity is a brand new set of clothes, a set of clothes that suit us perfectly. These clothes have been given to us by God for us to put on and wear with joy and confidence. Clothing is a great image to use, isn’t it? Because clothing is something we can change. It’s not as if you’re stuck with your current clothes forever. (Thank goodness, some of us might say!) If there is a new set of clothes, provided for you for free, why not change into them? It’s a great motivation for us to become who we are.
The shape of the new humanity
What do these new clothes look like? What is the shape of the new humanity and the new life that Paul tells us to put on?
Firstly, the new humanity is about godliness. It’s been “created according to God”. God himself provides the model and pattern for our new way of life. Being a Christian isn’t about grudgingly following a list of rules. It’s about being like God himself. It’s about loving what God loves, and acting according to God’s desires.
Secondly, the new humanity has a definite shape. It’s been created in “righteousness”. The word righteousness means “fitting a standard”. The standard in this case is the standard of God our creator and saviour: that is, the particular standards of right and wrong which God reveals to us in the Bible. These include standards concerning faithfulness, love of neighbour, truthfulness, sexuality, and many other things. Of course, none of us can meet God’s standard perfectly. That’s why we will never be saved by our own righteousness. God has saved us by grace, through faith. But since God has saved us, he’s given us good works to do, and those good works are works “in righteousness”. That means the shape of our Christian lives, and what we deem to be right and wrong, doesn’t simply come from inside our own heads, or from what the world arounds us decides is OK and not OK at any given place or time. The standard of righteousness comes from God himself, and we see those standards in his word, the Bible.
Thirdly, the new humanity is directed towards God. It’s been created in “devotion”. Being a Christian isn’t just about doing “the right thing” as if it’s some abstract concept. Being a Christian is about being devoted to God himself and remembering that everything we do is for his sake rather than our own selves.
Finally, all of this comes from “the truth”. When Paul talks about “the truth” in Ephesians, he’s talking about the gospel message of salvation through Christ (see Ephesians 1:13). And since “the truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21), we can only see this truth properly when we understand the real person, Jesus Christ, the one who came to us and lived and taught and died and rose from the dead and who will return to judge. It’s these truths about Jesus which provide us with the clearest picture of what godliness, righteousness and devotion look like.
So the new humanity we’re to put on involves being like God, fitting the standards he’s revealed to us, and being devoted to him. This is all based on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But living for Christ in our daily lives isn’t as simple as a once-off change of clothes, is it? That’s why Paul also says we are to be “renewed”. He’s talking here about an ongoing process. We are a new creation, but the renewal that happens in our lives doesn’t happen all at once. It’s hard. We all struggle, and we all experience failure. We need to bear with others as they struggle and fail too. So we can and should expect change to happen, but we shouldn’t expect it to happen magically all at once.
Notice that Paul doesn’t say we should “renew ourselves”. Ultimately, this renewal is not something that’s up to us. It’s something that God is doing in us. He’s doing it by his Holy Spirit: Paul says we are to be renewed “by the Spirit of your minds”. This is a strange-sounding phrase, but it fits with what Paul has already said about the Holy Spirit in his letter so far. The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation” (Ephesians 1:17). That means the Spirit is the one who reveals God and his purposes to us through the gospel. He helps us to know God and understand God’s world, so we can act rightly for God in God’s world. The Spirit is the one who strengthens us and equips us in our inner being, through faith in Christ (Ephesians 3:16). So when Paul talks here about the “Spirit of your minds”, he’s saying something important about the Holy Spirit’s work. He is at work to change our minds. That doesn’t mean he’s just giving us a few facts. It means he is changing our whole mindset so that we believe in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and see its implications more and more. It will affect our thoughts, our hearts, our inner being, our desires, and our actions.
Taught to change
So this is what the gospel teaches us: to put off the old humanity, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit, and to put on the new humanity. The gospel teaches us to change. This change doesn’t save us; it’s a change that’s already been secured by the salvation God has given us. But it matters. It’s a process in our lives, not simply a one-off event. And it’s something that God is doing in us by his Holy Spirit.
However, this change is something we need to be taught. We aren’t being told here just to sit back, relax and let God get on with the work while we do something else. We are being taught to take intentional steps to change—knowing all the time that God is at work in us. That means we should be intentional about it. We should identify areas in our lives that need to change. We should bring those areas before God, praying to him and asking him to help us to change. We should examine our lives to see how God is working, and thank him for acting in us in that way. And in all this, knowing that we’ll fail at times—many times—we should constantly come back to the forgiveness of sins that we have in Jesus. That deliberate discipline of change and growth and maturity isn’t an optional extra for Christians. It must happen, because it’s the very purpose God has saved us for.
In other words, we must become who we are.
Have you been taught to change? What steps might you need to take to be intentional and deliberate about putting off the old humanity and putting on the new?
How have you seen God’s Spirit at work in your life, renewing you and changing you? Give thanks to God.
Identify an area in your life that you know needs to change. Ask God to help you.
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.