The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 2, 2016| Ephesians 4:22-28
Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Ephesians 4:22-28
Most people like books and movies in which the good guys beat the bad guys. It’s even better when bad guys become good guys. Moral redemption is a satisfying theme. God didn’t create us to be bad or to do bad things. God is good and he created a good world. After he made Adam and Eve in his own image he looked at everything he had made. It was very good.
To go from bad to good is good. But how does it happen? A leopard cannot choose to change his spots.
Two of the best books I have ever read are Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Both feature moral redemption. In Les Miserables, a man who in desperation robbed a priest spent years atoning for his sins by many good deeds. In Crime and Punishment, a self-absorbed and amoral young man committed murder and was later brought to repentance by the example of the selfless love of a reformed prostitute. Both books are worth reading. They are beautifully written, and it is deeply satisfying to see bad people become good.
But these and similar stories lack a crucial element. How? How did it happen? How could it happen? Moral redemption is always a moving theme, but the stories always evade the central question: how? Consider the obvious. If you do what is bad, you are bad. How can bad become good? That a bad person became a good person doesn’t explain how it happened. And one doesn’t need to be a cynic to point out that the appearance of a bad man becoming a good one may be just an act. Appearances can be deceiving.
How can a man who is bad become good? Perhaps there’s a little bit of goodness in us all. If so, then perhaps we can use that goodness to make ourselves good. And so the wish becomes the belief and the belief becomes the doctrine. Everyone has the spark of the divine within. We just need to tap into it.
This is a popular teaching. But is it true? Does everyone really have that spark of divine goodness within? We Christians base our doctrine on what the Bible says. The Bible says that God made Adam in his image and Adam fell into sin. It says that everyone born from Adam is born in sin. St. Paul writes in Romans 5,
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— . . . by the one man’s offense many died . . . the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation . . . by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one . . . as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation . . . by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.
As the hymnist puts it, “All mankind fell in Adam’s fall; one common sin infects us all.” Jesus Christ is the only person ever born who was born without sin. All others were born with the nature of Adam after his fall. Everyone from the fall of Adam has been born in sin, under judgment, condemned, and ruled by sin. Moses describes the fallen human nature in Genesis 6:5 where he writes,
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously.
Hear again the words of our text for today:
Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
The old man is the nature with which we were born. It is the child of Adam. The Bible says here that the old man grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts. He is deceived by his own desires. His nature is sinful, but he can’t see it. He’s blind to his own sin. He will call light darkness, darkness light, bitter sweet, and sweet bitter, and never know he’s doing it. He judges the world he sees by what he wants and his wants blind him to what is genuinely good, pure, and holy.
The old man cannot be reformed. He cannot be changed. There is no good in him. He is corrupt to the core. He must be put off and replaced by the new man. The new man was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
The old man and the new man do not combine to form one man. They are incompatible. You cannot make the old man new. You put him off. You toss him away from you and you put on the new man. The old man cannot be redeemed.
The old man is the sinful human nature we inherit from Adam. The new man is the new nature we receive from the Holy Spirit. We Christians are changed and we are changed on the inside. The change happens inside of us, but the power to bring the change about lies outside of us. Look inside yourself. What do you see? Examine your heart, your will, your motives, your love, your every desire. What do you see?
You see conflict and contradictions. You love God. That’s the new man. Yet you want what you want. That’s the old man. You want to be gracious as your heavenly Father is gracious. That’s the new man. But you want to get even with the one who did you wrong. That’s the old man. You want to be grateful and satisfied with what God has given you but you see what others have and want it and resent the fact that you don’t have it.
What’s going on here? The old man seeks to claim your affections, but the new man, the new you, the you created by God in Holy Baptism, the real you, was created to do good works and live a holy life. St. Paul writes earlier in this Epistle to the Ephesians, in chapter 2, verses 8-10,
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Put off the old man and put on the new man. How? Through faith! God saves us by his grace and his grace alone. He finds us lying paralyzed on a mat and he walks up to us and tells us to be of good cheer. Our sins are forgiven.
“Oh, no,” they say. He can’t do that! Who does he think he is to forgive sins? Only God can forgive sins. That’s right. Only God can forgive sins. And God became a man to do just that. He is the new Adam come to do what the old Adam could not do. There is no deceit in the new Adam. His desires are pure and holy. His innocence is impeccable. His righteousness is perfect. He has no sin.
Yet he overcomes sin. He overcomes our sin by bearing it. God’s grace cannot stand alone. It requires Christ. It requires his obedience and suffering. Payment for sin must be made and only Christ can make it. When he says to the man suffering from paralysis, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven,” he is promising to die for him. Only the death of Jesus can take away sin. Only when we are forgiven do we have a new life to live.
Put on the new man. Take Jesus at his word. He tells the truth. When Jesus, who is holiness incarnate, tells you that you are forgiven, you can count on it. You are forgiven. You are holy. The new you is the real you and the new you “was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” How does this renewal take place? Our text tells us, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.”
Nowadays it is fashionable among those who fancy themselves experts on spirituality to downplay our mind and emphasize our feeling instead. We are warned about putting our trust in doctrine instead of in Jesus, as if learning doctrine about Jesus is bad for you. Don’t fall for this con. The inspired words say, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” Think! Think about the fact that you are forgiven of your sins by God because Jesus shed his blood for you. Think about the vicarious atonement – that Jesus took your place and satisfied God’s justice, fulfilling the law for you, bearing the punishment you deserved by your disobedience, and thereby setting you at peace with God. Think about it and consider what it means that God forgives you for Christ’s sake.
It means that your baptism clothes you in Christ. It means that the righteousness of Jesus – in which you are clothed before God – not only presents you as a saint before your Creator, but also enables you to live a new life – a life you couldn’t have lived were Jesus not your Savior.
You are born from above! You’ve got a new life to live. Live it! God has revealed to you his saving truth. This truth has set you free. So then, put away all lying. Speak the truth with your Christian neighbor. We belong to the same body. We speak the same language. We speak the truth.
You are born from above! You have a new life to live. So get angry at sin and false teaching and anything else that offends the majesty of God. But in your anger, don’t sin against your brothers and sisters. If you have a quarrel, settle it. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. If you do, you invite the devil into your life to attack your faith. He loves to stir anger up into hatred and he’s an expert at it.
You are born from above! You have a new life to live. Put stealing away from you altogether. If it isn’t yours, don’t take it. If you borrow it, return it. If you are paid to do a job, do it. Don’t leech off of the labor of others. We have no right to take what doesn’t belong to us, even if those from whom we take it are rich, greedy, and corrupt. To steal from your neighbor is to steal from God.
Jesus forgave the paralytic. Then he healed him. He enabled him to walk. The man walked. And so it is with us. Jesus forgave us. He had the right to do it for he bore the sins he forgave. And in forgiving us, he gave us the ability to walk the Christian walk. It is true that the old man is hanging around trying to claim us and our affections. But we are baptized. We have put on Christ. We have new lives to live. We don’t live holy lives in order to gain eternal life. We live holy lives because we already have eternal life. God gave us these lives to live. So we live them.