Put Off Depravity; Put On the Likeness of God

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“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The details are a bit fuzzy after all this time. Let’s just say, a certain Moeller boy had carelessly broken one of his mom’s “pretties,” and then had hidden the evidence under his bed. (In hindsight, it was not exactly the brightest strategy, considering it was his Mom who cleaned his room; but you can’t expect a three-year-old to come up with brilliant plans, no matter how precocious he may be.)
Anyway, I do remember his Mom finding something broken that should not have been, and asking him if he knew anything about it. From the look on his face, his Mom knew he did. She also was pretty sure she knew who it was who had done it! Just to be certain, however, she laid it all out in the open: “You broke it and then tried to hide it.” That did it. Tears flowed. His hands went up to his ears. His mouth opened, and out came these fascinating words: “Don’t tell me that!”
“Don’t tell me that!” What an interesting reaction! Viewing the mangled “pretty” had troubled the boy. Having that youthful indiscretion discovered certainly bothered him. But what really hurt was having to hear with his own ears that he was the one who had broken it! His three-year-old solution? Cover his ears!
What had happened? The Law of God had done its work, even upon one so small! St. Paul writes: “Yet if it had not be for the Law, I would not have known sin… For apart from the Law, sin lies dead” (Romans 7:7-8). Jesus tells us this exposing of sin is actually a work of the Holy Spirit. “When He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).  
What this means is that just by his mother stating what was true—that the boy had done something he should not have done—the Holy Spirit convicted the boy of his sin as surely as the words of the prophet Nathan convicted David of his sins with Bathsheba. Being so confronted, David repented. Without such a confrontation, David would’ve remained dead in his sins. In fact, without Nathan bluntly stating the obvious, David would’ve kept on living his life—probably in much the same way as I—I mean “the boy”—would have continued to live with that broken knick-knack tucked away under the bed!
But this reaction to the Law of God is not unique, is it? Each of us, at one time or another, has done the very same thing. In fact, it just may be that the Church at large itself is currently in the process of lifting up its hands collectively to stop its ears and screaming out to its pastors: “Don’t tell me that!”
What do I mean? Well, it seems that there is a general aversion in the Church to any preaching, teaching, and music which would involve the Holy Spirit, through God’s Word, convicting hearts of sin, and consequently, causing guilt. It seems that what modern Christian ears want to hear, what Christian minds want to contemplate, what Christian emotions want to feel, is not guilt but joy!
What Christian could be against such a longing for joy? After all, joy is a fruit of the Spirit as noted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23). Certainly if given the choice between guilt and joy, it would be a no-brainer: Joy would win out every time! But is the joy which is a gift of the Holy Spirit the result of simply overlooking, denying, or ignoring sin? That is, of shoving sin under our beds, so to speak, and trying to forget about it?
To go at this question in another way: Should this mother have, upon finding the mangled knick knack, simply ignored it and rejoiced that her son had so much energy? “Boys will be boys, after all.” Should the boy have, upon hearing that he had broken his Mom’s “pretty,” simply denied the fact that he had done it, and rejoiced that no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? Should David have, upon hearing that he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband, simply rejoiced that since he was king, he could do whatever he wanted, and no one would dare question him? If not, why?
Well, the joy of the Christian is not simply some common type of joy like we experience when we hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth or receive a promotion at work. It is a joy that flows from the relief of guilt experienced by a three-year-old boy who’s broken one of his Mom’s favorite treasures. It is the joy that can only follow the confession of sin and the conviction that sin has been forgiven because Christ died on the cross for that sin.
So David, after being confronted by Nathan, does not speak of common joy, but of the joy of salvation being returned to him, knowing that his sins had been forgiven: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy Presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uphold me with Thy free spirit.”
So if Christian joy is tied so closely to guilt, why the running away from guilt? Has the Church simply come to the point of wanting to skip the “guilt” part of life and go right to the joy? Has the Church discovered that it is easier, more peaceful, and more appealing, to shun guilt and to promote joy?
Some would say: “Well, isn’t that what the Church—of all institutions in society—should do? A guilt-free zone? Shouldn’t the Church simply welcome, with open arms, anyone and everyone, regardless of how they live? After all, didn’t Jesus eat with tax collectors and prostitutes? Didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not, that you be not judged”? Who are we then to condemn anyone? Who are we to make anyone feel guilt? Shouldn’t the Christian life be a life of joy based upon not having to worry about who we are, and what we are doing?”
The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that it’s based about wishful thinking and faulty interpretation of Scripture. Yes, Jesus said, “Judge not…” but the context clearly shows He means to reserve judgment upon someone else until you have seriously examined your own heart. In Matthew 18, Jesus actually speaks of the duty Christians have to confront a fellow believer caught in sin, in order to restore him or her to the body of Christ. Jesus speaks often about sin and guilt and the need for repentance. In fact, His first public sermon was this: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News.”
The importance of repentance in a Christian’s life led Martin Luther to assert in his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He meant that the whole life of the believers should be one of repentance.”
A life of repentance: Now what’s that mean? How can the entire life of the Christian be one of repentance? Doesn’t that mean the entire life of a Christian should be one of guilt? No, it does not. It does mean, however, that the Christian life should be real. You and I, of all people, should realize that we are still confronted by sin! Being confronted by sin, we should not shy away from its existence, but admit, that yes, sin does exist and you and I are, indeed, sinful and unclean, and sin daily in thought, word, and deed. Repentance is therefore not a once-in-a-while type of situation, but must be a constant state of being.
Yes, you and I, through faith in Jesus Christ, have been redeemed by Christ and are now declared to be justified before the Father in heaven. Through the Word of God and the Sacraments, we have received and continue to receive the Holy Spirit, who works within us to produce His fruits, one of which is joy. Our sin, however, remains. It remains to bother, to haunt, to trouble, to perturb, and ultimately to kill and destroy. Until Christ’s return, our joy is always tempered by the ongoing reality of sin—both those sins we actually commit and the sin that permeates us from conception to natural death.
As long as you realize this, spiritually you are in a “good place.” When you ignore or run away from the fact that sin is still a daily part of your life, trouble begins. You begin to believe that your heavenly Father loves you for the good things you do; or worse yet, that God doesn’t care what you do, in effect, saying to any preaching of the Law: “Don’t tell me that!”
Unfortunately, the Christian Church nowadays, in its attempt to appeal to the masses, seems to be encouraging this very type of pseudo-Christian life by making itself a guilt-free zone. To accomplish this makeover, certain aspects of Christian life are being jettisoned. Sermons which would seek to establish the guilt of sin have to go. Hymns and songs which speak of such shame have to go. Confession and absolution? Gone. The Law of God … it must not be mentioned!
Well, that is not completely true. The Law of God certainly is mentioned in the Church nowadays, but only as a standard. Put in another way, the Law of God is not used to make anyone feel guilty, to strike fear and terror in their heart, but simply to give Christians a goal to attain or a way to measure progress in sanctification. Unfortunately, this has led many Christians to think they don’t really need to worry about the Ten Commandments anymore. Haven’t Christians been freed from the Law? Can’t Christians live lives of joy, regardless of how they live from day to day?”
That’s the way the world thinks. That’s the way our Old Adam wants us to think. And Satan would be delighted for us to continue such a line of thought until our dying day. But Paul won’t let us get by with it. In our text, he writes: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Paul contrasts this pagan worldview with the holy life of a Christian: “But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about Him and were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former way of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:20-24).
There is a clear-cut, irreconcilable difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate person, between the old man and the new. Still, the truth is, each of us is both. We are at the same time sinner and saint. The Christian created in Baptism to be like God in true righteousness and holiness is given the strength to fight sin and the old Adam. But this does not change the fact that the corrupt old man continues to reside within each of us, seeking to corrupt us.
This is a very sobering thought. The lusts and desires of the old man are so dangerous to because they are so deceitful. They seem to promise happiness, joy, and life, while in reality, they only lead to shame, burdened consciences, heavy hearts, and unresolved guilt. They promise the good life, but they ruin a person that follows their guidance—both in body and spirit—until he is lost forever.
There is only one remedy to this darkness, to this depravity, and that’s the Christian solution that was taught to the Ephesians: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through sinful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds”—in a word: repentance.
This is not easy. A life of repentance requires diligence and persistence. But more than that, it requires the work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts of sin through the Word of Law and who awakens faith and a resolve to do good by the Gospel. Putting off the old man, being renewed in the spirit of the mind, and putting on the new man are a continuous process. We must be daily renewed by the Spirit through God’s means of grace, lest the old sinful nature once more gain the upper hand.
This is why Luther directs us to our Baptism, where the Holy Spirit works faith and creates in us new life with the power to overcome sin. “Our Baptism indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
By Baptism we have been made to share in Christ’s death and resurrection. As He has buried our sin, so we, too, can and must daily overcome and bury it. And as He is risen from the dead and lives, so we, too, can and must daily live a new life in Him. Every time we recall the triune name into which we were baptized, in church or by ourselves, we recall, claim, and confess before heaven, earth, and hell all the blessings that God has given us in our Baptism.
And so, dear baptized, I send you home today with this exhortation: Put off depravity; put on the likeness of God. Put off your old self with its deceitful desires and put on your new self, created in the true righteousness and holiness of Jesus Christ. Repent and believe. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The introduction of this message is an adaptation of Paul Strawn’s introduction to his recent translation of Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses, entitled “Don’t Tell Me That!” 

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