The Old Man and the Flesh

November 18, 2011

by Robin Boisvert

What actually changes when one becomes a Christian?  Confusion about this is common, especially when we realize that we continue to struggle with sin and temptation even after conversion.  Paul tells us in Galatians that we have a war that goes on within us after conversion: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. ” (Galatians 5.17)   In this short essay Robin Boisvert helps bring some clarity.  ~ WDG

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Some of the terms which the apostle Paul uses in discussing the believer’s relationship to sin can cause confusion. I’m speaking of terms such as “old man,” “new man,” “body of sin,” “flesh,” and others. These can be difficult to understand. Add to this the variations which modern translators have given these words and the subject can appear daunting.

We know a profound change has occurred in the life of the believer through conversion, but just how has the believer changed?

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6.6-7, emphasis added)

Let’s begin by trying to define our terms. “Old man” (as it is translated in the King James Version and American Standard Version) is equivalent to “old self”  (NIV, NASV).  This term refers to the unregenerate life we lived before we were converted. As John R.W. Stott has written, the old self “denotes not our old unregenerate nature [flesh], but our old unregenerate life. Not my lower self, but my former self. So what was crucified with Christ was not a part of me called my ‘old nature’, but the whole of me as I was before I was converted.”1  John Murray’s definition concurs:

“‘Old man’ is a designation of the person in his unity as dominated by the flesh and sin.”2

It’s important for us to see that the believer is not at the same time an “old self” and a “new self,” alternately dominated and directed by one or the other. We are indebted again to Murray’s insight:

The old man is the unregenerate man; the new man is the regenerate man created in Christ Jesus unto good works. It is no more feasible to call the believer a new man and an old man, than it is to call him a regenerate man and an unregenerate.  And neither is it warranted to speak of the believer as having in him the old man and the new man. 3

Thus, terms like “old man,” “old self,” “unregenerate life,” and “former self” are synonymous, all referring to the entity that was crucified with Christ.

Notice two significant grammatical features of the passage from Romans 6 cited above. First, the verb is used in the past tense: “our old self  crucified…” The crucifixion of the old self is a finished fact. Second, the verb is also passive in voice, meaning that the subject (our old self) is being acted upon. In other words, the crucifixion of the old self is not something we must do, but something that is done to us.

Another important concept in the biblical doctrine of sanctification has traditionally been designated by the word “flesh” (King James Version). The New International Version uses “sinful nature.” According to Stott, “flesh” refers to a “lower” nature, that part of our being inclined toward rebellion against God. This is that part of you that wants to pass on a juicy bit of gossip; that urges you to take a second look at the  immodest images on the television screen. “Whatever we may call this tendency [“indwelling sin,” 4 “remnants of corruption,”5 “vestiges of sin,”6 or “my sinful nature”7]  we must remember that even after we have been regenerated we still have such sinful impulses, and must still fight against them as long as we live.” 8

In Romans 6.6 Paul calls our sinful nature (i.e. flesh) the “body of sin.” He says our old self was crucified with Christ so that this “body of sin might be done away with…” To be “done away with” here means to be put out of action, rendered powerless. It does not mean to be annihilated, gone without a trace. But our sinful nature’s mastery over us has been broken.

Some, not understanding the distinction between the “old self” and the “sinful nature” have gotten Romans 6.6 confused with Galatians 5.24, which also speaks of crucifixion and the believer. Consider two translations of this verse:

  •  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5.24 NIV)
  •  And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (Galatians 5.24 KJV)

Though helpless to take anything but a passive stance in regard to the old self (Romans 6.6), we do have an active part to play, as the Galatians learned, in the subjugation of the flesh. Stott sums this up with characteristic clarity:

 First, we have been crucified with Christ; but then we not only have decisively crucified (i.e. repudiated) the flesh with its passions and desires, but we take up our cross daily  and follow Christ to crucifixion (Luke 9.23). The first is a legal death, a death to the penalty of sin; the second is a moral death, a death to the power of sin. The first belongs to the past, and is unique and unrepeatable: I died (in Christ) to sin once. The second belongs to the present, and is continuous and repeatable: I die (like Christ) to self daily. It is with the first of these two that Romans 6 is concerned. 9

And Galatians 5 is concerned with the second.

So the old self has been dealt with. In its place we have been given a new self: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5.17). And while our sinful nature (the flesh, indwelling sin, etc.) is still very much with us, its dominion over us has ended.

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Endnotes

  1. John R.W. Stott, Men Made New  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1966, 1984), p. 45.
  2. John Murray, Principles of Conduct  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957), p. 218, n. 7.
  3. Ibid., p. 218.
  4. Ibid., p. 219.
  5. Westminster Confession, XIII,2
  6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , John T. McNeill, ed. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, MCMLX), III.iii.11.
  7. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 56.
  8. Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), p. 213.
  9. John R.W. Stott, Men Made New , p. 46.

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