The Dynamics of the Old and New Selves

After salvation, the struggles with sin and self continue to be practically active in your life. It’s critical for you to understand these dynamics of putting off the old self and putting on a new person so you can abide in the satisfying life of Christlikeness.

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Sue feels trapped in a loveless marriage. Mitch struggles with the burden of life’s failures. And past sexual abuse torments Alice. They are all Christians who experienced the love and joy of meeting their Savior, but they have not fully realized all their expectations of Christianity.

Fallen life has ushered in difficulties, and their Christian walks lack traction; their biblical knowledge and spiritual disciplines appear insufficient.

Their relationships with Christ are now faint and feeble, and they wonder why the experience of salvation is not a fuller one. Their faith is motivated more out of duty than love.

These fictional friends have plenty of company as many Christians are struggling with the fallenness of everyday life (John 16:33). To help restore them, to help them see how Christ has overcome the world, they need gospel insight to understand the enslavement of “self” better, to learn how to cultivate humility in their lives, and to continually abide in the grace of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Taking a Hard Look at Self

The focal point of this book is “self.” When I speak of self, I am talking about the old self (Colossians 3:9-10); the unredeemed part of humanity that remains after conversion, and is always attempting to regain controlling influence of your heart.

I prefer to use the term self, or the emergence of self from the fall to communicate sin’s corrupting influence on humanity. Some people use pride or self-righteousness to denote the corruption of sin, but due to the impact of secular psychology, and weakened theology, many people use these terms to represent behaviors. So for this series, I will use the term self to describe the bent of sin in life.

When Christians discuss the deceitfulness of sin, the conversation tends to focus on activities, thoughts, and behaviors without addressing the operation of self. You will not gain sustained spiritual progress unless you first work the upstream problem of self that directs your will away from righteousness.

Sin is not a substance in itself, but that sort of disturbance of all the gifts and energies given to man which makes them work in another direction, not towards God but away from Him. Reason, will, interests, emotions, passions, psychological and physical abilities of one kind or another—these all were once weapons of righteousness, but they have now by the mysterious operation of sin been converted into weapons of unrighteousness.

The image of God which man received at his creation was not a substance, but it was nevertheless so really proper to his nature that he, losing it, became wholly misshapen and deformed. – Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith

This reality is the legacy of the old-self that still indwells you, and the baggage you carry into your Christian walk. Self is your greatest curse for its corrupted presence brings in the unholy trinity of self-will, self-confidence, and self-effort.

Self-will is the pursuit of your desires; to live life on your terms. It is the root of rebellion.

Self-confidence brings trust in your abilities, power, wisdom (Job 38:2), and choices.

Self-effort is the attempt to resolve fallen life through your means. It manifests itself to control your environment, position, and relationships.

The different facets of self create the formation of false worship structures, which are wholly ill-equipped to address the fallenness of life. Restoring your friends, and helping them find the peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7) will not occur until the headwaters of self are restored to a holy source.

New Potential

Regeneration within a Christian (Ezekiel 36:26-27) pierces through the enslaving power of sin, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit brings a new potential in life. But self remains and still seeks to gain control and exert its negative, destructive influence in your walk (Galatians 5:17).

A believer is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), but the indwelling flesh creates a tension within a Christian’s walk as discussed by Brandi Huerta and Rick Thomas in this podcast.

As a result, a Christian can fall under the control of “self” or the Spirit. In everyday life, and especially during difficulty, the indwelling flesh battles the indwelling Spirit for control.

Think of self and the Holy Spirit as two different operating systems, like you find on your computer or smart device. The operating system guides, instructs, and determines how the device behaves.

So the Christian, while under the control of self, will operate with the in-Adam operating system. Conversely, while abiding in Christ, a believer will run with the Holy Spirit operating system. This table helps to exemplify and contrast these two operating systems in various life situations.

Self Spirit
Identity Adam Christ
Worship Creation Creator
Live Before People God
Loves Self Others
Receives Counsel World Spirit
Responses to Others Judge Restorer
Guidance Emotions Truth
Transformation Resists Seeks It
Soul Condition Anxious Shalom
Anger Sinful Righteous
Suffering Reactions Quick Fix Heart Change
Conflict Reactions Defend Self-Assess
Interpreting Advice Critically Humility
Communication Speaks Listens

The Christian can fall under either of these two influences, but the command is clear; you are called to put off the old self, put on the new (Ephesians 4:22-24, Colossians 3:9-10), and to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16).

It does not take long to realize that the influence of the “fleshly self” remains strong, desperately looking to survive, and will exploit any situation in life to regain control. Its goal is to regain headship in your life.

When self emerges, you find yourself wandering away from Christ and precisely doing what you don’t want to do (Romans 7:19). We need external help to gain control of our lives.

Evil is one of the ways we learn that we in ourselves are a mystery; for we are not in full control of ourselves and cannot find any method of gaining control. — Diogenes Allen

To keep receiving the nourishment of the Holy Spirit, you must continually recognize and defend against the operation of self in your life and heart (Proverbs 4:23).

The Ongoing Problem of Indwelling Self

Self is still unredeemed, under the influence of the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), and resistant to change. Self cannot aid in the transformation and sanctification of your heart. That is the work of the Spirit as you abide in Christ.

Self employs many tactics to regain control but is most effective through the subtleties of unwatchfulness, ignorance, and unbelief.

Unwatchfulness – A season of blessing or the busyness of life can soften your watchfulness and allow the strengths of self to seep back into your thinking. Old self-habitual thought patterns return, and you find yourself living in your power, void of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

King David’s actions with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-4) are a perfect example. A season of blessing allowed David to forget about his need for a Savior (Psalm 51:5) and his need for sustaining grace; he wandered away from Christ and lived for self.

In-Adam strengths can lead to unwatchfulness that you can view as a double weakness to a Christian. Habitual thinking patterns formed under the control of self can result in worldly strengths, and not come under the consideration of spiritual examination.

For example, a pastor’s compelling charm can bleed into his ministries, where he draws on his in-Adam resources instead of the Holy Spirit’s. Thus, in your spiritual life, in-Adam strengths can become your most significant weaknesses.

Ignorance – The gospel-oriented ways of living are upside down to the ways of the world, and an incorrect understanding can lead you to misapprehend your role and God’s role in life. Self can guide you to live in legalism or antinomianism, both of which are under the control of self.

Unbelief – Difficulty in life can tempt you to question God’s perfect sovereign care, which leads to the formation of pockets of unbelief. This result is usually the most common factor in shifting control to self, and consequently is the cause for the difficulties our three friends are experiencing.

Fallen living led our friends to question God’s love. Unbelief entered their thinking, which led to self-reliant lives, and the pursuit of counterfeit solutions to satisfy the desires of their hearts.

The Journey of Restoration

With an introduction to the trappings of self, you are at the right starting point to take the journey of restoration. These topics are not new to a Christian reader: self, anger, surrender, humility, and abiding, but strung together in a way to hopefully help you gain traction in your Christian walk.

The dynamics between these are considerably involved, and for purposes of this book, the topics are treated individually to help communicate life application.

The next chapter addresses how self, corrupted by sin, uses the powerful energy of righteous anger in a way to “work in a direction away from God,” which results in self-centered, sinful anger. The third chapter explores the continuing need to surrender your will to God. This need is typically a season of wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32).

The fourth chapter explores how you can empty self through the cultivation of humility, which places you in the optimal position to receive Christ’s grace (James 4:6). The final chapter discusses the benefits, and the means to abide in Christ.

Call to Action

What are your “old self” strengths that you carry into your Christian walk?

Do you have mature Christian brothers and sisters that will discern you and speak into your life?

When thinking of your sin-patterns, where do you see unwatchfulness, ignorance, or unbelief, leading you to wander away from Christ?

Where do you see the operation of self-confidence, self-will, and self-effort in your life?

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