Putting on the New Man

CHAPTER THREE OF ST PAUL’S EPISTLE to the Colossians begins with this enigmatic statement: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The questions it raises are obvious: when did we die, and how is our life hidden with Christ?

Baptism as Death and Resurrection

Many Christians, particularly in the Eastern Churches, can answer the first question. We died with Christ in baptism. The passage from the Epistle to the Romans read at every baptism in Byzantine churches includes the following teaching: “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3, 4).

Baptism is our personal union with the death and resurrection of Christ through which the ultimate power of Death was destroyed. At our baptism, this burial is graphically represented when we are “buried” (immersed) in the baptismal water. Our resurrection is represented when we are raised up out of the water. What cannot be depicted, of course, is the effect of our baptism: our life in Christ, hidden in God.

The life of the risen Christ is indescribable, but images help us to appreciate what it might mean. In his Catechetical Sermon on the Resurrection, St John Chrysostom gives us a glimpse into some aspects of this hidden life. “All of you, enjoy this feast of faith. Receive all the riches of His loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free… O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are overthrown. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one of the dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen sleep.”

St John Chrysostom mentions three aspects of resurrection life we have received:

1. Forgiveness of sins – “Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.” When we are baptized, our sins are forgiven. Future sins can be forgiven in the Church, to which Christ entrusted this gift.

2. Freedom from death – “Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.” The heart of Death is the rupture of communion with God. Death of the body cannot break that unity for those who are living their baptism.

3. All that is His is ours – “Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.” Our “wealth” as heirs of the kingdom includes the general gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, understanding, know-ledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, fear of the Lord) and the particular gifts which enable ministry. Living in the kingdom of God includes enjoying a relationship with the Theotokos, all the heavenly hosts, and all the saints, as well as all believers, living or dead (the communion of saints).

These blessings are hidden from the world, but “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (v. 4).

Consequences of This Hidden Life

St Paul insists that receiving the gift of life in Christ has consequences. “Set your mind on things above, not on those on the earth… Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man…” (vv. 2, 5-10).

Elsewhere St Paul had explained why Christians must put away things of the earth. “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:7,8). Things of the earth, like our mortal bodies, die and decay no matter how much we pamper them. Lust, envy, wrath, filthy language and the rest of St Paul’s list in Colossians are simply ways we pamper our decaying flesh. By cherishing the “wealth of the kingdom” mentioned above – sowing “to the Spirit” – we enjoy in this world a measure of the life to come.

Putting Off the Old Man

From time to time Christians have misinterpreted St Paul’s teaching on putting off the old man. People like the Amish, for example, thought to express their detachment from the world by adopting a particular form of dress or hair style, or by living apart from others in closed communities because they are Christians. As early as the second century, however, most believers have known the distinction between living in the world but not of the world. An unknown “disciple of the apostles” wrote the following description of the Christians for a certain Diognetus, somewhere in the Roman Empire.

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by county, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own counties, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native county, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.”

“They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… To sum up all in one word – what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world… God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it is unlawful for them to forsake.”

While monastics would later separate themselves from the world, they would do so because they had a particular vocation, not simply because they were Christians.