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Put Off, Be Renewed, Put On

From the series:

by Greg Gifford, PhD

There are a few passages within biblical counseling that encapsulate tenets that are crucial to counseling—Proverbs 4:23, the heart; Matthew 12:34, communication; 1 Corinthians 10:13, hope; Ephesians 4:22-24, the process of change. Having an understanding of these passages is important for the faithful use of Scripture and the process of biblical counseling.

Within those crucial passages, biblical counseling teaches a process for change based off of Scripture that goes something like this: put off the old man (Eph. 4:22), be renewed in the Spirit of your mind (v. 23), and put on the new man (v. 24). If you’re new to biblical counseling, welcome and know your Bible will soon automatically fall open to Ephesians 4 and 5! This blog will offer a few exegetical notes on Ephesians 4:22-24.

The process for change is really a section of Ephesians 4 that is an indirect discourse. Paul uses three infinitives that we, as biblical counselors, have highlighted with the process of change: “put off,” “be renewed,” and “put on” (vv. 22-24). Each of those infinitives seem to be referencing the main verb of this section, “were taught” from verse 21.[1]

Paul is suggesting that by putting off the old man, being renewed, and putting on the new man that a Christian is living out what they have learned in Jesus (v. 20). Yet, Paul makes an emphasis on the Christian as the one who is to “put off” and “put on” by using a middle voice (vv. 22, 24), while saying “be renewed” in the passive voice (v. 23). To say it another way, the Christian is to “put off/on” while God is the One who does the renewal within them—most would translate this as a command, not as indicative. That’s Paul’s point.

Let me offer two clarifications for counseling: first, while it is true the believer should “think God’s thoughts,” being renewed from Paul’s perspective is something that happens to you. God acts to change the believer so that they advance in sanctification as they walk in obedience (cf. Rom. 6:19; Phil. 2:13). Thus, we might emphasize having the mind of Christ but we do want to be cautious about using this passage as a “think God’s thoughts” passage (whereas Phil. 2:5 might be more appropriate).

Finally, Paul expresses the idea of “putting off/putting on” multiple times in his epistles (Cf. Rom. 6; Col. 3). So biblical counseling’s use of the process of change is right to emphasize putting off and putting on while keeping this in the balance of what it means to be a Christian and no longer to walk as an unbeliever (Eph. 4:17). Remember, there is a possibility that this passage could mean also, “You have put off.” So we could say, the believer has a call to follow Jesus (i.e., “were taught in him”; v. 21) and in the believer’s following of Jesus, God performs His renewing work (v. 23).

[1] “The other translation possibility is, ‘You have been taught in him that you should put off the old man.’ The reason that either translation is possible is simply that the infinitive of indirect discourse represents either an imperative or an indicative in the direct discourse, while its tense remains the same as the direct discourse.” Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: AN Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 605.