Old and new – the continuous battle of a Christian

Erkki Koskenniemi
Mikaela Römer

The letters of Paul include many important teachings, which do not open up easily if we read only one chapter of the Bible. We need to read many Paul’s writings side by side to deepen our understanding. This is exactly what makes the Bible exciting – it is lifelong journey of exploration!

This time we study what Paul teaches about “the old person” and “the new person”. It is a conceptual pair that is tightly related to other concept pairs. We could also speak of “the old Adam” and “the new Adam” – or “the flesh” and “the spirit”. The concepts are not identical, but to a large extent they speak of the same thing. In the end, we actually end up with very simple and practical issues that are at the very core of Christian living.

The two sides of a Christian

The most common word pair that Paul uses is flesh and spirit.

The reader might misunderstand this: In this context the word “flesh” does not mean the bodily and evil, and the word “spirit” does not mean some immaterial and clean part of a human. This type of separation between the body and the soul comes from Greek thinking. In Hebrew thinking man is a unit, which is not separated into pieces.

Paul means something else, something simple actually: “Flesh” refers to me as the one I am in myself, without the redemptive work of Christ. It refers to the whole person. “Spirit” refers to the same whole person, but as a redeemed one, now belonging to God.

So we come to what we will be talking about today. The Christian has two sides, but the unbeliever only one. In the Christian there is both “the flesh” and “the spirit”, “the old person” and “the new person”, “the old Adam” and “the new Adam”, and “the old cfreation” and “the new creation” – Paul uses all these expressions. In the unbeliever only the second part, “the flesh”, “the old person”, “the old Adam” and “the old creation” exist. The Christian has both, and therefore there is a battle in his heart. Lets look at what these two sides exactly are.

Old and condemned

The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is maybe the most desolate description of what man is in his own strength. The word “flesh” is not present, but the issue is clear. The whole mankind has turned its back to God and chosen to serve false gods instead of God’s glory. This is why God has turned His back on mankind and forsaken it to a life in sin. Therefore every human being is like locked in utter darkness into which no ray of light will shine. This world is the kingdom of sin and death. There the life is lived without God. The wrath of God will one day meet this kingdom of sin. The issue is not about a single person’s single deeds, but about the complete apostasy of the whole world and the complete judgment, that is associated with it.

Chapter seven in Paul’s letter to the Romans gives quite a rough description of the old side of man:

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”
(Rom. 7:18, ESV)

The whole section makes it clear that man’s old side has nothing good to offer to God. It is wholly depraved, wholly turned away from God and wholly under judgment.

The fifth chapter of Romans also gives an illustrative and harsh picture of the two Adams: The first person fell into sin and deserved his inheritance – sin, death and hell. This inheritance he gave to the next generation and from there on they have been passed on from one generation to the next. I got them from my parents and have passed them on to my children.

At a newborn’s cradle it is not polite to remind of the fact that the child will once die. It is true, however, as is the fact, that he is stained by sin and deserves damnation – the “old Adam,” “old person,” “the flesh,” (or as some Bible translations say “the selfish nature” and “corrupt me”) simply exist in him. We are all, despire of age or gender, in bondage to the desolate destiny of this world.

New and wonderful

The main message of the Letters of Paul is that God has sent His Son to this world to donate something completely new to us. What occurred at Golgotha was planned in God’s Fatherly heart long before the earth was created.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 
 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 
 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 
 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”
(2 Cor. 5:17-6:1, ESV)

Man cannot help himself, but God did at Golgotha what was impossible to man. Many metaphores can describe the saving work of Christ, but maybe the most illustrative one is this: It is “a new creation”. It fixes what was broken by sin after the first creation. It is a taking away of the old Adam and a gifting of the new. It is a moment when the spirit, that turns to God and lives for Him, is donated to man.

Be undressed – be dressed!

Man has therefore fallen into sin and is “flesh” in his own strength. A Christian has, as God’s gracious gift, gotten also the “spirit,” so both the “flesh” and the “spirit” exist in him. The battle between these two is continuous, unbridled and ruthless. The images vary, but the issue is the same: The flesh and the spirit fight against each other. In Galatians 5 Paul explains how the spirit creates “works of the Spirit”, whereas the flesh creates “works of the flesh”:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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.”
(Gal. 5:16-17, ESV)

A long list of “the fruits of the spirit” and “the works of the flesh” follow after this. A serious warning is also included.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans and its third chapter Paul answers to the question whether a Christian is allowed to freely commit sin, since everything is forgiven. The answer is strict: No, because we have been baptized. The baptism signifies death of the old man and rebirth of the new. To this we always return to.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
(Rom. 6:3-6, ESV)

The third chapter of Colossians lifts up a great illustration:

“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 
 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
(Col. 3:8-10, ESV)

The life of a Christian is exactly this: We undress from the “flesh” and dress into the “spirit.” It does not occur only once, but for as long as we live on this earth. After this, “the flesh”, “the old man”, “the old Adam” – or whichever word we use – remains here, and only the “new man”, holy in Christ, reaches the heavenly home.