Putting to Death the Old Man: What Does That Mean?

When the apostle Paul wrote about our “old man” being crucified, what did he mean? And what impact do those words have for a Christian today?

The apostle Paul wrote that “our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with” (Romans 6:6). He also talked about putting “to death your members which are on the earth” (Colossians 3:5). What did he mean? Was he just in a morbid frame of mind from the constant death threats he faced? Was he masochistic? Or was he teaching important spiritual lessons for all Christians?

The end result of sin

In analyzing this subject, we might consider something else Paul wrote: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Paul knew that the wages, or what we earn, when we sin (which is transgressing God’s law—1 John 3:4) is death! But Paul repented and was forgiven of his past sins. However, even though Paul was forgiven and was converted, he still battled against sin.

We might think that after our own initial repentance and conversion, there would no longer be a need to repent of sins because we had already been justified of sin by the blood of Jesus Christ.

But notice what the apostle John wrote about a true Christian: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

Thankfully, when we sin after our baptism, we are able to go to God in repentance and confess our sin. We also have to continue in the process of repentance. (Read more about that ongoing process in “Repentance From Dead Works” and “What Is Conversion?”) So we always have to be in a repentant frame of mind. In His sample prayer Jesus Christ even included the need to ask God to forgive us (Matthew 6:12).

In light of this understanding, Paul used a phrase that none of the other New Testament writers used to describe the need to be in a repentant attitude and to be vigilant against sin.

Paul was putting to death the “old man”

In the book of Ephesians, Paul also addressed this subject of “the old man.” “But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you 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” (Ephesians 4:20-24).

The words put off in this verse essentially mean “putting away” or “renouncing.” Paul was instructing the members to put away their old man—the selfish, sinful way we naturally think and act in this evil world. Our old man is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), even convincing us that we don’t need to change or that God’s way is too hard. It is naturally opposed to God and His laws (Romans 8:7). Our old man produces what Paul called “the works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, including adultery, hatred, jealousies, selfish ambitions and drunkenness.

In Ephesians 4:25-32 Paul explained how we can put off the old man by telling us to go in the opposite direction from what we have done. This is a description of what true repentance is.

Let’s look at another of Paul’s writings to see where he talked about this “death.” He wrote in Colossians 3:2-3: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

When we are baptized, it pictures a spiritual death of the “old man” (see Romans 6:3-4). But that “death” has to continue to be a lifelong process for each of us. (For more on this subject, read “Symbols of Baptism.”)

Paul continued this thought in Colossians 3:4-5: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

Put to death your members

What Paul was saying is that once we are “dead to sin,” we have to continue to “put to death” the things that have a way of coming back up due to our carnal nature.Other translations say “mortify your members.” What did Paul mean when he made that statement?

Notice what Albert Barnes wrote on this matter: “Mortify therefore your members—Since you are dead to sin and the world, and are to appear with Christ in the glories of his kingdom, subdue every carnal and evil propensity of your nature. The word ‘mortify’ means to put to death (Romans 8:13, note; Galatians 5:24, note), and the meaning here is that they were entirely to subdue their evil propensities, so that they would have no remains of life; that is, they were not at all to indulge them. The word ‘members’ here, refers to the different members of the [human] body—as the seat of evil desires and passions.”

What Paul was saying is that once we are “dead to sin,” we have to continue to “put to death” the things that have a way of coming back up due to our carnal nature.

It’s a daily battle!

“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds” (Colossians 3:9). The International Standard Version states: “For you have stripped off the old nature with its practices.” Stripping the old nature away or “mortifying the deeds of the body” takes time. God reveals a little bit of ourselves to us over time, as we seek Him and ask for His guidance and help.

Paul died daily because he was constantly watching out for and putting out sin and sinful “members” of his carnal nature.

Notice Romans 6:11-12: “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.”

We see that even decades after Paul’s conversion, he was still fighting that battle of overcoming sin and carnality. He realized that even though he had died to sin and had given his life to God as a Christian and servant of Jesus Christ, he still had “members” of his carnal nature that he had to put to death on a regular basis.

“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:14-20).

Paul admitted that he still had to fight sin! We still have to fight our battle with sin as well.

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The good news!

The good news is that as we put our old man and his sinful deeds to death, we can replace him with something else! “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:9-10).

Once we remove the deeds, thoughts and actions of the old man, we are to “put on” the new man. Paul explains that we are “renewed in knowledge.” We accomplish this by studying and using God’s Word to become more like Him! (Read our article about the value of Bible study.)

Notice these encouraging words in Romans 6:5-11: “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So, just as the apostle Paul did, we fight the battle in overcoming sin and putting to death the old man—on a daily basis. The good news is that we are to be putting on the new man. We are alive to God when we begin to replace the “old man” with a new way of life. That way of life can only come by the Holy Spirit of God and Jesus Christ’s living His life in us (see also Ephesians 4:24-32 and Galatians 2:20-21).

Learn more about how God can help us in the conversion process in these related articles:


About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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