Question: "What does it mean to put off the old man (Ephesians 4:22)?"
Answer: In Ephesians 4:22, Paul references putting off or laying aside the old man: “Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (NKJV). The old man, or the old self, is a common phrase that biblical writers utilize in other contexts as well (Colossians 3:9–10; Romans 6:6; Hebrews 12:1–3). In Ephesians, Paul explains truths in chapters 1—3 and then explains how one should live in light of such truths in chapters 4—6.
In order to understand the logical conclusion of putting off the old man, one must understand the truths found in the first three chapters, focusing mainly on chapter 2:1–10. Ephesians 1 provides a summary of the roles of the Trinity in the redemption of mankind. Chapter 1 concludes with Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, which mainly focuses on a true knowledge for the Ephesians. Chapter 2 begins with explaining the effect of the gospel on the believer. Chapter 3 explores the community effect of the gospel, namely, the unity of the Gentile and Jew through Christ.
Ephesians 2:1–10 is particularly important when exploring the imperative in Ephesians 4:22. Paul explains that by nature everyone is a child of wrath, dead in trespasses and sins, hostile to God, and destined to experience the wrath of God (Ephesians 2:1–3). In Ephesians 2:4 is one of the most meaningful conjunctions found in Scripture: “but because of His great love for us.” All humanity is by nature children of wrath, but God provided a way to become children of God by grace, through faith. Ephesians 2:10 shows that those who believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ are created anew; they are God’s handiwork with the purpose of doing good works.
In this section of Ephesians, the old man and new man are clearly distinguishable. The old man is found in Ephesians 2:1–3 while the new man is explained in Ephesians 2:4–10. Paul’s imperative in Ephesians 4:22 is based upon these truths. An example of the old self is provided also in Ephesians 4:17–19, and an example of the new self is provided in Ephesians 4:24.
Ephesians 4:17 begins the discussion of the Christian walk, or how the Christian ought to live. Paul asserts in Ephesians 4:20 that the Christian should not live like those mentioned in verses 17–19 but should live according to truth found in Jesus Christ. To do this, one must put off the old man. The NASB translates the word for “put off” as “lay aside.” It shows the idea of doing away with something, taking it off and putting it down. A proper image may be when one changes clothes in the morning. One puts off or lays aside the old clothes and puts on the new clothes.
Paul commands the Ephesians to stop living as the old man and instead put on the new man. He points to the means for putting on the new self in Ephesians 4:23, namely, that one be renewed in the spirit of the mind. Similar language is utilized in Romans 12:1–2 as Paul commands the church in Rome to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This renewal is in direct opposition to being conformed to this world.
God created the new self “in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:24, NASB). It is by truth and a pursuit of righteousness that one must renew the mind. The Bible is that source of truth (Proverbs 2:6; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). As one renews the mind in truth, one is equipped to put off the old self, put on the new self, and “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1).