“Old Man” and “New Man” in the Epistles to the Ephesians
One such misunderstanding persists with regard to Paul’s use of the “old man”/“new man” metaphor. The expressions “old man” and “new man” occur in basically four places in Paul’s letters, namely, Romans 6:6; Ephesians 2:15; 4:22-24; and Colossians 3:9-11. So, what does Paul mean when he refers to “old man” and “new man”? Does Paul mean “sinful self” (Rom 6:6) or “our old sinful selves” (Rom 6:6)? Both of these are fairly individualistic and stand quite apart from other translations such as “our old humanity” which is more corporate in focus. What about “old evil nature” and “new nature”? But the word “nature” is extremely slippery and as David Dockery points out there are few terms in English that are as ambiguous as the word “nature.” Further, “old evil nature” suggests something of the immaterial aspect of man. But is this what Paul is referring to? Is the expression, then, somewhat synonymous with “flesh” as Paul sometimes uses that term? If so, does the crucifixion/putting off of the “old man” entail a form of Christian perfectionism and sinlessness in this life? Some have understood the “old man”/“new man” in just such a way. This study is directed at finding answers to these questions from the context of Ephesians 2:15 and 4:24.
Ephesians 2:15 “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace,”
Ephesians is a letter dedicated to unfolding the mystery of the gospel as it relates to the unification of Jew and Gentile in “one new man,” i.e., the church (3:5-6). The passage which unfolds this theme most clearly is 2:11-22. Thus, it is in a context of this new salvation-historical “structure” (cf. 1:10, 11) that Paul refers to the “new man.”
The individual focus in God’s creative work of salvation comes to expression in 2:10 where Paul refers to each person as “created in Christ Jesus.” The shift, however, toward a more corporate perspective comes in 2:11-22. There it is argued that Gentiles were “foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). But God abolished the law, the dividing wall of hostility, through the death of Christ, and has reconciled the two groups ( Jew and Gentile) into “one new man” in Christ.
The Adam-Christ typology stands behind this passage as well. But the focus in Ephesians 2:15 is on the new relationships which exist on a human level for those “in Christ.” The Jew and the Gentile have been reconciled, and together in Christ they form this so-call “new man.” The “new man” is a new society in which all have free and equal access to God and are seated with Christ in the heavenly (2:5-6). In God’s design of the “new man” there are no divisions or hostility among members, only peace (2:16). Thus the focus here is on the community God has brought into existence in Christ as a result of OT hope. This does not mean that Gentiles were grafted into Israel, but rather that “in Christ” the two become “one new man,” “one new humanity.”
There are at least two important aspects to the expression “one new man.” The “one” implies singleness of divine purpose and unity in the new community. The “new man” evokes images related to the dawn of the “new” age of salvation inaugurated at Messiah’s first coming. It is an idea closely associated with God’s creative work (i.e., “to create in himself….”). Our salvation is described in Ephesians 2:10 as being “created in Christ Jesus” (2:10). According to 2 Cor 5:17 we are “new” creations in Christ Jesus. The focus in Ephesians 2:15 is on the newly created community in Christ, people who have been taken out of a realm where hatred and division were the order of the day, to form a new social reality in Christ. The estrangement and dislocation effected through Adam’s sin has been reversed through God’s creative power in the body of Christ (3:6). Thus the “new man” in Ephesians 2:15 is primarily a new structural or social reality. It is corporate in focus.
Ephesians 4:22-24 “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
In Ephesians 4:22-24 Paul refers to “the old man” (v. 22) and “the new man” (v. 24). The context is obviously ethical. He urges the Ephesians (and all those who received the letter in Asia Minor), in light of the fact that they have received a certain calling (1:3-4; 4:1) and have come to participate in the body of Christ (4:14-16), to likewise walk or live in a way commensurate with their new calling and privilege (4:17).
In particular, believers are not to live as the Gentiles do, that is, in the futility of their thoughts as those who are separated from the life of God. But how is this futility expressed? It is expressed in ever increasing sensuality and lust. The Ephesians are not to live like that because they had been taught in him (Christ) “just as the truth is in Jesus” (v.21). The truth Paul refers to is teaching consistent with apostolic doctrine, especially that which concerns Christ and living a life honoring to him. Thus it is ethical truth with a Christological rationale.
Thus the expressions “old man” and “new man” here are particularly ethical in their focus. The “old man” refers to their former life as Gentiles and the sin that so pervaded their lives in that sphere of existence. They were taught to lay this aside and to put on the new man. The figure “putting on” and “putting off” is one of exchanging clothes and refers to a change in character in light of a change in identity, having moved from the old sphere of existence (without God) to a new sphere of existence (with God).
There is some discussion in this passage as to the force of the infinitives: (1) to lay aside and (2) to put on. They are in indirect discourse and one has to wonder whether they go back to indicatives in the original direct discourse or imperatives. In other words, were the Ephesians taught that they had already laid aside the old man at conversion (indicative) or that they should lay aside the old man and put on the new as an ongoing reality in their Christian experience (imperative)?
There is nothing in the grammar of the passage, nor in the choice of the verb “you were taught” that decides the question with certainty, though aorist infinitives of indirect discourse virtually always go back to imperatives in direct discourse in the NT. But this may be because they are connected to controlling verbs which imply a command. In any case, what is indecisive grammatically is made fairly certain by the immediate context. That the infinitives go back to imperativaly ideas in the direct discourse is likely since the immediate context deals with exhortations not to walk as the Gentiles do (4:17), including putting off lying (4:25), unrighteous anger (4:26), stealing (4:28), etc. Also, since the corruption of the old man is a present reality, the need to lay it aside is a present reality (4:22). Further, the “new man” is described with ethical language, namely, “righteousness,” and “likeness of the truth.” Therefore, the infinitives go back to imperatives and should be read as such.
Also, we said that the verb “you were taught” cannot settle the question one way or another, but when seen in connection with the verb “learn” in 4:20 a different answer emerges. It seems that “what they learned was what they were taught.” But the learning Paul has in mind in v. 20 is certainly ethical. Therefore, the things they were taught were ethical and hortatory in nature. Thus, once again we see that the infinitives go back to imperatives in the direct discourse (cf. Col. 3:8-9).
Therefore, Ephesians 4:22-24 utilizes the “old man” and “new man” concepts in primarily ethical ways. The “old man” refers to a lifestyle consistent with sin, but inconsistent with being in Christ, while the “new man” refers to a lifestyle (cf. “to walk” in 4:17) consistent with being in Christ and truth. We do note, however, that positional truth about the “new man” is spoken of briefly in 4:24 where Paul says the new man “has been created according to God,” referring to a definitive event in the past (probably at conversion). Note also that as the “new man” here is primarily ethical, so community or a corporate focus must remain inherent in the idea for there has to be some context for the living out of the “new man.”
So what are some conclusions that can be drawn from these passages. The first thing that can be said is that the “old man” refers to fallen people in community in Adam who in solidarity with Adam under the old age of sin, death, and judgment. So the crucifixion of the “old man” refers to a definitive break with the past in Adam and is something God reckons to be true of us. The sinner is separated from the community of Adam and the relationships that exist there. But, there is also the sense in which the believer, having been decisively removed from that community is not to live as if he still belonged there. Thus the “old man” must be continually put off as well.
There are some things we need to say about the “new man” as well. The new man is synonymous with the church, a sphere of existence in Christ, in which there are no racial boundaries and no divisions. There is a concomitant ethic in the new man/community. We are to live at peace and there is to be no sin in the “new man” in which we are being renewed according to the pattern of Christ himself. The use of the “new man” concept in Ephesians 2:15; 4:24 is “new community” with a note explaining its relational focus.
There is an eschatology tension involved in Paul’s use of the concept of “old man” and the “new man”, which a sense that Christians have been completely and decisively brought into this new community, but another sense in which we are still trying to escape the old community. We live in the “now” of God’s saving purposes, but there is a “not-yet”, there is more to come! This “configuration” of things will exist until God perfects us ( the new man) in heaven.
Therefore, when the Bible says we have put off the “old man,” it does not mean that we will exist in perfectly sinless relationships in this life. And, when it says to put on the “new man” it does not mean that living faithfully in the new community depends totally on us. All our efforts by faith are dependent on the antecedent work of God! For our part, we live at the crossroads of repentance and faith.
Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and
Glenn W. Barker, vol. 42 (Dallas: Word, 1990).
David S. Dockery, “New Nature and Old Nature,” in Dictionary of Paul and His
Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1992).
Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the
New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).
E. K. Simpson and F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians: The New
International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: WM. B.
Eerdmans Publishing, 1980).
John R.W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, (Doeners Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press,
William Hendrickson, Galatians and Ephesians, New Testament Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1967).
 David S. Dockery, “New Nature and Old Nature,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 628.
 William Hendrickson, Galatians and Ephesians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 135;
 Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 42 (Dallas: Word, 1990), 143-44.
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 605.