This passage is labeled "the new life" in my ESV Bible, for it describes in both theological and practical terms the life of the Christian who has been given salvation through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. When I looked at this passage, I thought of three descriptions for people who might be called "Christian;" which I will call "ghosts," "vampires" and "resurrected."
The ghost Christians are given the most detailed description, found in verses 17-19. Perhaps this is because they are so common and insidious; floating about as they do at the edge of almost every church. They are characterized by futility of mind; they are empty thinkers, hollow shells of what they could be. They are unable to do the right thing, even though they try so very,very hard. They have become desensitized to truth and understanding, for they do not want to face the true facts about their deathly, shadowy lives.
Obviously, ghost Christians are not true Christians at all. Paul calls them "Gentiles," meaning the pagans who were outside of the church and the Jewish nation. But it is interesting that he devotes so much time to their description, as if he knew that many people of this type would haunt the churchyard, so to speak. They claim to be Christians, but their dead souls merely flit about the things that are good and right. They cling to their sins while trying to put a Christian label on their lives.
The vampire Christians are the ones who "put off [the]old self" -- but only half the time. They may try (in their own way) to do what is holy and true, but if and when they fail, they crawl right back into their old coffins. And even when they emerge from the old pine box, ready to start anew, they end up doing the same old sinful things because their residual carnal desires are tricking them into revisiting their old addictive pleasures again and again...
Vampire Christians may be true Christians who have trusted in Christ and received his saving grace, but they keep trying to live the Christian life in their own strength. As a result, they are constantly being betrayed by their "old self" that keeps sending them back to their coffins where its very safe and very dark. Paul says that they need to "put off" this old self, in fact, it needs to be "buried with him in baptism," six feet under, never to come out again. This a work that we allow the Holy Spirit to do in us, causing us to live full-time in his power and revitalizing presence.
Resurrected Christians are those who have received new life in Jesus, who destroyed their sins on the Cross. They live in the constant realization that their old life is dead and their new life is constantly being given to them through the grace and love of God. Their souls, which were dead because of sin, have been raised in what St. Augustine called "the first resurrection." When we receive salvation, the resurrection begins with the new life of the soul; one day our bodies will receive the same thing.
Paul tells resurrected Christians to do two things. First, we must be "renewed in the spirit of your minds." This means that we must always be engaged in activities that cause us the think rightly upon God and his Word. Ghost Christians have "futile minds;" we must have active, robust minds, centered on righteousness and redemption. Second, we must "put on" our new life. This done by following the pattern of Christ's life. We should imitate Christ and grow in our efforts to be like him. We do not do this on our own, however, for the Holy Spirit is our guide, teacher and helper in our pursuit of the resurrected life.
The rest of the passage lists some very practical characteristics of the resurrected Christian life. They help us to make direct application of our new life to our daily experience. I noticed these ten helpful guidelines:
- Be honest and truthful
- Don't hold on to anger
- Don't get to the place where you may be easily tempted
- Don't steal or be lazy. Work hard so that you may share your earnings
- Don't engage in crude or derogatory speech
- Speak gracious (loving) words
- Don't do anything that would disappoint the Holy Spirit
- Stop doing damaging things
- Be a kind person
- Forgive others