Who is the Old Man and What is He Doing?
There have been at least two problems with common teachings regarding the “old man” referenced in the Scriptures. One has been teachings that have been contradictory: teaching from Romans that the old man is dead, and teaching from Ephesians that we must continually and vigilantly put off the old man. Both cannot be true. The other problem has been a misunderstanding of who or what the “old man” is or was. A common teaching has been that the “old man” is your old sin nature, and the “new man” is your new spirit nature.
The Scriptures, however, don’t say that. The purpose of this article is to provide Biblical documentation as to what the story is with the “old man.”
The term “old man” is used only three times in the New Testament, all three in the Church Epistles. The first occurrence is in Romans. Let’s look at the context of this occurrence.
Romans 6:1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
Verse two begins to answer this question.
Romans 6:2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
What follows is an expansion of the answer given in verse 2, expounding on the premise that we are dead to sin.
Romans 6:3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is [was] crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
Who or what is the “old man”? First, this record doesn’t say “THE old man.” It says “OUR old man.” Your “old man” is specific to you. The above verses are personal. Verse 2 says WE are dead to sin. In the verses that follow: WE were baptized into his death; WE were buried with him by baptism into death; WE have been planted together in the likeness of his death; WE shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. These verses don’t say there was some nature in us that died. They say WE died. Your “old man” is you, not some part of you or some nature within you. It’s you. It is the person you were before being born again. That person died. You are now a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Compare also these records in Galatians:
Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
Galatians 6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
In these records Paul says HE was crucified with Christ. HE was crucified unto the world and the world unto HIM. The records do not say that some nature within him was crucified. They say HE was.
OK, so what does this mean? Obviously, Paul did not literally, physically die with Jesus Christ on the cross. To die to something (or be dead to it or for something to be dead to you) is an expression whose meaning departs from its literal sense. It qualifies therefore as a figure of speech; in this case an idiom, though that does not detract in any way from the solid reality of what the expression communicates. The meaning is shown in the context of its first occurrence above. Romans 6:7 states that he that is dead is freed from sin. You are dead to sin, freed from it. You are no longer bound by it, no longer under its power.
God’s Word also tells us that we are dead to the law. The meaning of this statement is described in the opening verses of Romans chapter 7.
Romans 7:1 Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?
2 For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.
3 So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.
4 Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.
5 For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.
6 But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.
Being dead to sin does not mean that a sin nature within you died any more than being dead to the law means that a law nature within you died. Being dead to the law is like a woman whose husband dies. She is no longer bound by that relationship. Indeed the relationship no longer exists. Being dead to the law means we have been delivered from it (verse 6). There is no more a connection of any kind between us and the law.
When God’s Word states that we (our old man) were crucified (died), it is talking about our having become dead to sin, i.e. no longer under its rule.
In Colossians 3 is the next use of “old man” we will consider. This record is consistent with the truths we have seen from Romans.
Colossians 3:1 If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
4 When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.
5 Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
6 For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience:
7 In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.
8 But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.
The book of Colossians is addressed to “the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse”. These people were born-again and verse 3 above states that they are dead. (They are dead to sin and dead to the law.) From the above record, however, it is apparent that at least some among them were quite impressively lacking in the category of changing their thoughts and actions.
Colossians 3:9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds;
10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:
11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
12 Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;
13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave [ f-o-r-g-a-v-e: This is past tense. We are dead to sin ] you, so also do ye.
14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.
The Colossian believers are not told here to put off the old man or put on the new man. They are told to change their behavior in a certain way because they have already done so. We see from this record that there are certain actions that are associated with the old man, and there are also certain actions associated with the new man. These actions, however, are not the old man or the new man himself. These believers had already put off the old man and put on the new man, but still needed to change their behavior accordingly. The fact that they were still capable of doing bad things did not change the truth that they were dead to sin. They just weren’t acting like it.
Compare also the following records from Galatians.
Galatians 3:27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 5:24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
We saw from Romans that our old man was crucified with Christ and from Colossians that even believers who don’t act like it have already put off the old man. Please note also that Colossians 3:10 above states that the new man was created by God. The new man is the new you, a new creation. It is not your behavior. The putting on above, like putting off, is past tense. It occurred when you got born again.
[Some of you reading this may be aware that a Bible researcher for whom I have a great deal of respect has recently written that the Aorist Participle forms of the Greek words for putting off and putting on in Colossians 3:9 and 10 should be translated as present tense verbs in these verses. Perhaps dealing with this argument in full should be the subject of another writing. For now, I'll just give a few comments. I have read these verses in 21 different English versions. They were unanimous. All 21 render these verbs from the Greek as past tense. Doing otherwise would contradict Romans 6. A Greek grammar will tell you that Aorist Participles are normally considered to indicate a point in time (NOT a continuing or repeated action) ANTECEDENT to the leading verb (in this case the present tense verb "lie"). Translating otherwise would require a compelling reason and no such reason exists in this context.]
The only remaining Biblical occurrence of the “old man” is in Ephesians 4. If Ephesians tells us we must battle against the old man, constantly putting him off, and that having or putting on the new man is a matter of our work rather than God’s, we will have a major Biblical dilemma. It doesn’t.
Ephesians 4:17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,
18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:
19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
20 But ye have not so learned Christ;
21 If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus:
22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation [behavior] the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;
Ephesians does not tell us to put off the old man. How could it? He was crucified with Christ. It simply tells us to put off the behavior associated with the old man. The fact that “old man” is the direct object of “put off” does not change the sense of the sentence that it is the behavior associated with the old man that is to be put off, not the old man himself. It is ONLY as concerning behavior that we are to put off the old man.
Let’s take another example of this grammatical construction. Suppose team A and team B are two soccer teams in a match. Team A achieves an unprecedented 50 shots on goal while team B registers only one shot on goal. A significant factor, however, is that team B’s one shot on goal scored, and team A was denied by the goalie all 50 times. Team B won the game. One could not honestly say team A annihilated team B. They didn’t. Team A lost. But AS CONCERNING SHOTS ON GOAL team A annihilated team B. The direct object of the verb “annihilated” is “team B,” but team A did not annihilate team B. The action is limited to the modifier. So it is with Ephesians 4:22. The action, putting off, is limited to the modifier, behavior. To say that Ephesians tells us to put off the old man would be as misleading as to claim that team A annihilated team B in our example.
Verse 24 must be understood in the same context with the figure of speech ellipsis employed in this verse.
Ephesians 4:24 And that ye put on [ellipsis--as concerning behavior] the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
The modifier is still in play. The Apostle Paul just didn’t repeat it. As concerning behavior put off the old man and put on the new. The new man is created in righteousness and true holiness. We cannot piece him together. He is God’s work, not ours; but we can change our behavior. The behavior of the ellipsis in verse 24 is stated specifically in verses 25 and following.
Ephesians 4:25 Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another.
26 Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath:
27 Neither give place to the devil.
28 Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.
29 Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.
30 And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.
31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:
32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven [This is past tense-- already forgiven] you.
Believers are certainly exhorted in God’s Word to put away behavior that is associated with the old man and put on behavior that is associated with the new man. We are not, however, still dealing with the old man himself. He was crucified with Christ. He is not still rearing his ugly head to make our lives miserable. He is not a sin nature still at work within us. Our old man is dead. We are dead to sin.