Beloved. Jesus says: He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad. Jesus is saying in these words that either a person is a Christian or a person is not a Christian. There is no middle ground, no half-Christians. To put it differently, either a person has faith in the heart—a faith worked by the Holy Spirit, a faith which is a gift of God—or the person has no faith. So what does this mean for us? It means that our conversion was instantaneous. One moment we were enemies of God, desiring only to serve sin and self, with only death and hell awaiting us. The next second, after the Holy Spirit created faith in Jesus as our Savior in our heart, we then loved our gracious, saving Triune God; we were His friends; then His will was our pleasure; then the gates of heaven were flung open to us.
For most of us, that happened at the moment we were baptized. That’s when by the visible word of holy Baptism the Holy Spirit created faith in our hearts. For others, it happened later in life when the Holy Spirit, by the word that we heard or read, worked that same faith in Jesus in our heart. In either case, it was all the working of God’s grace, mercy and love to us unworthy sinners.
That very moment that we were given the gift of faith was for us a moment of glory. With that Spirit-worked faith we grab ahold/ receive Jesus and the forgiveness of sins He obtained for us; we received the perfect holiness of Jesus; we received eternal life. Now that we have that gift of faith in Jesus, we have—in short—the perfect and complete forgiveness of sin; we have the perfect righteousness of Jesus. We, fellow Christian, are justified, that is, declared righteous by God. We are now His dear Christians standing before Him in the perfection and holiness of Jesus—which we receive by faith. We are, in Jesus, His dear children and fellow heirs of heaven. All these rich, heavenly gifts and treasures are ours the very moment the Holy Spirit works faith in us.
It is not as if we become more and more saved/ more and more forgiven/ more and more a child of God over time. No! The moment we become a Christian, we are declared righteous and receive—in full—every divine heavenly and spiritual blessing. All things are now ours!
Although we are Christians and justified by God—declared forgiven and righteous in His sight, perfectly holy—we still live lives here on earth in which we strive to live more and more free from sin, in which we struggle against sin. What does that mean? It means we as Christians are still sinners; it means we are sinners living in the midst of a sinful world. It is kind of a “now but not yet.” Now we are completely saved, forgiven, holy in God’s sight because we are covered with the perfect holiness of Jesus—that very holiness we receive in faith.
But our own holiness, our own perfection is far from complete, far from perfect because we daily and often sin. First when we are in the perfection of heaven will we finally be rid of sin.
It is this “not yet” that St. Paul is talking about in our text. It is not as if we have to do all sorts of good works in order to be saved. We are already saved, already forgiven, already declared righteous by God. But our lives as Christians are lives in which the Holy Spirit leads us to fight against sin, to be more and more godly, to honor God by living lives according to His will. To put it differently: we live a life of good works not in order to be saved by them; instead we live a life of good works because we have been saved by God, in grace.
As far as your former way of life is concerned, you were taught to take off the old self, which is corrupted by its deceitful desires. Each of us, as we came into the world, is born a sinner. We confess with St. David in the psalm: I was born guilty, and when my mother conceived me I was in sin. Because of the sin of Adam, all of his descendants—you and me—are born in sin, born with that desire to sin, born as an enemy of God not wanting to do His will but to do our own will, born in slavery to sin and devil. This is old sinful nature, the old self that St. Paul teaches us about in our text.
The wretched thing is that this old self is with us from our very conception and remains until our death. It is not destroyed in baptism. It doesn’t disappear when we come to faith. It is our constant evil companion. St. Paul, speaking for all of us Christians, says: It is really no longer I who am doing it, but sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. I’m willing, but I’m not doing what is right. Even the great Christian, St. Paul, that great instrument of our Lord Jesus, still had that old self. Therefore, let’s not surprised when we daily and often find it rearing its ugly head in our lives. That’s why we hear in our text, and often in St. Paul’s epistles, the warning against our old self and the command: take off the old self.
Notice what the Apostle says of the old self in our text. He says it corrupted by its deceitful desires. Our old self gladly follows the temptations of the devil. The sinful desires which we all have from our old self lure us into evil, to do whatever evil suggests, entices, pleases. Temptation to sin always looks attractive and our old sinful self gladly goes along with that temptation to evil which always promises good fortune, joy, pleasure, etc.
But if we follow the guidance/ listen to our old self, we will be ruined in both body and soul. Nothing but hell and damnation await. That’s why the holy Apostle tells us Christians to take off the old self /to get rid of it/ not to follow the sinful desires we all have in us. Our lives as Christians are marked by a continual tak[ing] off the old self, a continual rejection of sin and a continual fighting against sin.
St. Paul then describes our lives as Christians from a slightly different angle: and to put on the new self, which has been created to be like God in righteousness and true holiness. Although the old self was not destroyed by baptism, by our coming to faith, nevertheless, when we were brought to faith we were given a new self.
Our old self was totally depraved and corrupt. All thoughts, ambitions, wishes, strivings, desires were directed against God, turned and directed toward self. But our new self that the Holy Spirit created in us is different. It agrees perfectly with the will of God. It wants to do it. It is righteous. It wants to follow the leadings and promptings of the Holy Spirit in us.
Because our new self is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, it is created to be like God in righteousness and true holiness. That means that it is perfect, without defect, holy, pure, clean, without any taint of sin. We Christians put [it] on. This is another way for the Apostle to say: live a life of faith and good works; you are given the Holy Spirit and He empowers you to follow Him in every good work, in everything that is according to the Lord’s will. Because we have the new self in us, created by God, that follows the Holy Spirit, and delights in the Lord’s law, we are constantly striving to think upon and practice all that is good, pure, virtuous, even though evil inclinations still cling to us and live in us. That is putting on the new self.
Because we still have our old sinful self that by the power of the Holy Spirit we are continually trying to take off, and because we have that new self that wants to do the Lord’s will, we have to live a life of constant vigilance. We dare never think: Well, I’m saved. The hard work is done. I can take it easy. The old self doesn’t want to be taken off. It wants to stay. And the new self wants nothing to do with sin. That’s why there’s that battle raging within us. That’s why we struggle with and against sin.
The very fact that St. Paul must tell us Christians, remind us, of the old self and that we must continually take [it] off and continually put on the new self, means that it is easy to fall back into the old way of sin, that sin can easily creep back into the fore. That’s why it is vital for us—even though we are Christians—to examine our lives in the light of God’s holy law. Then we truly recognize our inner wickedness, that old sinful self, which clings to us; then we will recognize that conflict within us of the old and new self. That’s why the Lord says through the psalmist: Blessed is the man…[whose] delight is in the Law of the Lord and in His law he meditates day and night. As we do so, we then recognize all the more the various ways Satan is out to work against us to lead us into sin and to destroy faith. There in the Law of God we see what His will is for us and what we Christians will want to be doing.
In our text, St. Paul gives us concrete examples of how living our lives according to our new self will show itself: Therefore, after you put away lying, let each of you speak truthfully with your neighbor, because we are all members of one body. “Be angry, yet do not sin.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Do not give the Devil an opportunity. Let the one who has been stealing steal no longer. Instead, let him work hard doing what is good with his own hands, so that he has something to share with a person who is in need. If we do not meditate on the Law of God, ponder it and apply it to our lives, then we give the devil a chance to work. Continual, willful sin destroys faith.
As we live a life of vigilance, examining our lives according to God’s just and holy law and recognizing our sin, we then confess our sin; and being led by the Holy Spirit, we then seek forgiveness of our sin, trusting in Jesus and His life, suffering and death. When we confess our sin and go to Jesus, trusting Him to forgive us our sin, we are doing nothing more than returning to our baptism and, once again, with the hand of faith, receiving, claiming, making our very own, the forgiveness of sin, life and salvation God gave us at our baptism. We are once again covering ourselves with Jesus and His righteousness, as St. Paul tells us elsewhere: all of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
What joy is ours! Our sins are forgiven; we are covered with the robe of Jesus’ righteousness. Heaven is opens to us.
When are we vigilant in our lives as Christians? When we meditate on the holy Law of God—on what He wants us to do and what He doesn’t want us to do. When we meditate on God’s holy Law, not only are we better equipped to fight against sin as we recognize the temptations and deceptions of the devil, but as we recognize our sin and sinfulness we are driven to Jesus and His work, the forgiveness of our sins we have in Him, to His righteousness that He gives us.
In the joy that we have in our forgiveness, our new self, the Christian in us, is strengthened and empowered all the more to follow the Holy Spirit as He leads us into a life of faith and good works. We strive to suppress sinful words, to nip in the bud our sinful desires, to check our intentions before they are carried out. In short, in joy and thanksgiving, we live a life of new obedience—as imperfect and still stained with sin as it may be.
As we by the power of the Holy Spirit, strip off the old self and put on the new self, that old self—even though it is still powerful—grows weaker and is subdued. The new self—the Christian in us—grows stronger and we become more and more Christ-like in our thoughts, words and deeds.
This is the Christian life. Though we sin, by God’s grace and work in us and on us, our new self/ the Christian in us will prevail and increase until finally one day when we are with our Lord eternally in heaven in body and soul we will be nothing but the new self, the old self finally put off. In Jesus’ holy name. Amen.