How important is what you wear? The answers may range from “it makes no difference at all” to “you are what you wear.” Wherever you stand in the scale of opinion, what you wear does make a statement of what you think, at least about clothing.
Our Scripture passage is concerned about dress. Indeed, it is rather insistent about what inappropriate wear is and what we must put on. Let’s take a look.
But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
There are three clear points in this text. We are to one, put off the old self; two, be renewed in the spirit of our minds; and three, put on the new self. Before we go on, a word of caution: Whatever we will be learning from the three-point instruction about dress code, it is not being given to us as a self-improvement program. These are not the “Three Keys to Becoming a Better You” or “How to Dress for Success.”
Then what are they about? Look at the opening two verses and note each reference to Christ. “But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.” Note the connection. This new dress for us has to do with knowing Jesus Christ; it has to do with who he is and what he has done. We will see how he is involved as we go along.
Put Off the Old Self
First, we are told to “put off your old self.” Paul already spoke about this in verse 17: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do.” In each case, he is saying that once we become new creations in Christ, we cannot continue on living the way we did before we knew him. That is not the way we “learned Christ.”
How did we learn Christ? For starters, we learned how deceptive the desires of our former manner of life were. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of reading the full testimonies of those joining the church, and this theme of the deceitfulness of desires is common for those who became Christians as adults. Here are some samples:
“I lived a self-centered, pleasure-seeking/hedonistic, and immoral lifestyle. I traveled to many states looking for the right place, the right people, the right lifestyle, whatever it was that I was missing. As the song says, I was looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in so many faces. My life was like the Peggy Lee song, ‘Is That All There Is?’ ”
“In some sense I was content to live my life independently and at a distance from God but deep down there was a void in my life. Life was empty and meaningless; it was just easier not to think about it.”
“At this point in my life, for all intents and purposes, I was godless. I engaged in all manner of sensuality in the form of ‘sex, drugs and rock-n-roll’, and thought nothing of it. The concept of hell or eternal damnation for unrepentant sin was not even in my mind. However, as time went on, my life became more and more of a shambles.”
These individuals learned the lesson of their first parents – Adam and Eve – that what may seem pleasurable – if it is in violation of God’s command or separated from him – becomes in truth a deceitful pleasure. However good it feels for the moment, in the end it leads to emptiness and to a downward path morally.
How else did we learn Christ? We learned that there has to be a putting off of the old self. Jesus is not an add-on, a clothing accessory. We don’t fit him into our lives. There may be some of you trying to do that now. You know there is something missing in your life, that there is a spiritual void that needs filling, and you think maybe having a relationship with Jesus will make a difference. And so you add this dimension to your life in the same way that you might add an exercise or diet program or take up a new interest.
But if you are to really learn Christ, you will learn that he will not be added on to your life. He moves in to take it over. And the first thing he does it to go into your wardrobe and demand that all the clothing be thrown out. And so the old self with which you clothed yourself, which felt rather comfortable, has to go.
Be Renewed in the Spirit of Our Minds
But putting off is not all that we are to do. We are “to be renewed…” Putting off the old self ought to be a one-time action (although in reality we find ourselves trying put back on our rags and have to make a conscious decision more than once to discard them.) Yet, renewal is an ongoing process.
What is to be renewed? The spirit of our minds. That is an interesting phrase. It indicates that, as critical as it may be to renew the intellect, renewal must impact our inmost being. Then why not speak of renewal of the heart? Because renewal of the heart cannot take place without renewal of the mind.
This is an important principle, especially for our present time in which the emotional life is raised to a higher status than the mind. Too many churches and Christians have bought into the spirit of the age. As one such pastor contends: “People are on a search for the spiritual, and what they are looking for is far more experiential than cerebral. Instead of thinking their way into feeling, they often feel their way into thinking.” What really happens, though, is not mind renewal but mind dulling. When the emotions take over the heart before the mind gives it instruction, our ability to think clearly lessens, so that when the emotions have ebbed there is no knowledge to fill the gap.
We talked about this before. You are able to weather the storms of life, why? Not because you can recount great emotional experiences, but because of what you know, because of doctrine that your mind learned, processed, and then used to inform your heart. And if you do truly come to know God by these truths with your mind, you get with it good experiential feelings that will truly strengthen you.
But such renewal of the mind must go beyond attending Sunday worship. We should daily be renewing the mind. James Boice spoke often on this subject. Here is one helpful quote:
Have you ever considered that what you do with your mind will determine a great deal of what you will become as a Christian? If you fill your mind only with the products of our secular culture, you will remain secular and sinful. If you fill your head with trashy novels, you will begin to live like the characters you read about. If you do nothing but watch television, you will begin to act like the scoundrels on television. On the other hand, if you feed your mind on the Bible and Christian books, train it by godly conversation, and discipline it to critique what you see and hear by applying biblical truths to the world’s ideas, you will grow in godliness and become increasingly useful to God.
Understand that every day we are being shaped by what we experience. We can be shaped unconsciously by the bombardment of the world’s values (and your thinking about social issues are more impacted than you realize by the entertainment and marketing industry), or we can be shaped consciously through the renewal of our minds in biblical instruction. We will be shaped. Making the conscious decision to put off the old self does little good if we continue to immerse our minds in the old life.
Put On the New Self
So, we are to put off the old self. We are to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. There is one more step to take. We are to get dressed. We are “to put on the new self.” The Christian life has never been reduced to what we put off. We speak in terms of being set free, of losing our shackles, of being pulled out of the old life. But getting out of a scrape is merely the precursor to entering into something greater, to becoming something greater. We are to put on the new self that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Do you catch the wondrous thought in this statement? It takes us back to the creation story where we are told that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). That image was marred in the Garden of Eden when Adam fell. Adam had the opportunity as the representative head of mankind to do the right thing when the test to sin came. He failed, and through his failure, sin “came into the world… and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The image became marred, so that now – if we are honest with ourselves – we struggle everyday with thought, speech, and action that are petty, immoral, self-centered, and resentful, to name a few. Our greatest achievements and highest virtues are tainted with fear and jealousy and pride. It is not merely the weight of guilt and the judgment attached to it that oppresses us, it is the sin itself, the burden of being such persons who do the marring of a world intended to be beautiful.
But there is a new self to put on. We are not left with our rags or with nakedness. We have beautiful clothing to put on, robes of true righteousness and holiness. You who know Christ are thinking of the robe of his righteousness which covers you. That is true, but understand that his clothing is intended to makes its imprint upon you, so that you are growing in righteousness and holiness. You are living lives that glorify your God.
You are not merely pulled out of the depths of sin’s slavery, not merely allowed into God’s family and accepted as though righteous. You are given clothes of true righteousness and holiness to wear now. You have the privilege to do what is right before God. You have the joy to live for his glory.
Romans 8:29 says: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
Or listen to this wonderful expression in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
So when we read that we are to put on the new self of righteousness and holiness, we are not to take it as the child bemoaning that he has to dress up for church, but with the excitement of the child who is told you can be just like your big brother or your dad or whoever it is that you most admire and aspire to be like.
Let’s recap. We are to put off the rags of the old self, with its deceitful desires. We are to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. And then, we are to put on the new self, created in the image of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Now, many of you, because you are good Reformed Christians, may be scratching your heads over these verses because they seem to telling us to do precisely what we cannot do. Is it not God who makes us new creations in Christ? Is it not the Holy Spirit who renews our minds? This is true, and we need only to look to 2:4-10 for an affirmation of that fact.
But God…5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved….8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Only God can do the work of inner transformation. But note that he transforms us to do what is good. He transforms us to consciously act in the right way. And so, though he has in truth removed the old self, dressed us with the new self, and is renewing our minds, the very evidence of that work is that we will now consciously choose him, consciously align ourselves with him in opposition to Satan and the world.
But perhaps the best way to understand how we are to accomplish these three tasks is to go back to the opening phrase about learning Christ. As I mentioned at the beginning, these three commands are not self-improvement steps. They are about a new transformation that takes place in Christ Jesus. They come about because the believer has had an experience with the Lord Jesus Christ. And the real putting off and putting on is not so much about our determination to make improvements but about giving ourselves over to our Lord to do the real work in our lives.
I referred last week to a story by C. S. Lewis to illustrate a truth. Let me do so again, this time from the children’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In the story there is a particularly bad boy named Eustace. Through his misbehavior and greed he is turned into a dragon, which might be pretty cool for a boy except that there is a gold band around his leg causing excruciating pain and that he finds nobody wants to be around him. He wants desperately to be transformed back to a boy. While he is bemoaning his troubles, a lion appears and leads him to a well. Eustace explains what happened next.
“The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe, it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first….
“I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.
“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and go off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
“Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off….
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again….
“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – …in new clothes – the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”
“No. It wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund.
“Well, there are the clothes, for one thing. And you have been – well, un-dragoned, for another.”
“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.
“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.
That is the type of conclusion that anyone who has experienced a spiritual transformation will say. “I’ve seen Jesus.” It is what must happen for you if you really do want to get rid of the old self that is clinging to you and making you miserable. It is what must happen for you to put on the new self, not an improved self, not a makeover, but to be a new creation made in the image of God in true righteousness and holiness. You must look to Jesus. You must give yourself over to him and let him remove your dress. Let him toss you into the cleansing water and give you new dress.
 Romans: The New Humanity, Volume 4, p 1502.
 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “How the Adventure Ended”
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