Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Who or What is the “Old Man”? (Col 3:9)

Translation without interpretation is impossible. There may be verses where there is no question as to what the author meant, but there are thousands of verses where interpretive decisions must be made.

Paul tell the Colossians, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off (ἀπεκδυσάμενοι) the old self (τὸν παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον) with its (αὐτοῦ) practices” (ESV, also NASB, CSB, NET, NRSV).

1. “Seeing that” interprets the particle as causal. Paul is looking back at the conversion experience and saying that based on the realities of what happened at that point, therefore, in the present, they should not lie to one another. However, the participles could also be imperatival; the Colossians are to put off the remnants of their pre-conversion selves and not lie. I suspect the former is correct, but the point is that this calls for interpretation. I am a bit surprised that translations claiming to be “literal” did not just say “putting off.”

2. ἄνθρωπον is rightly interpreted as “self.”

3. By translating τὸν as “the,” the translators seem to be siding with the corporate view of παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον and τὸν νέον (v 10). The “old man” is the unregenerate humanity defined by Adam and his sin, and the “new (man)” — note that “self” is supplied by the “literal” translations — is the new humanity defined by Christ and his redemptive work.

But there is some debate as to what Paul means, and no one translation can encompass both options. The NIV interprets τὸν as a personal pronoun: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (see also NLT). This is a perfectly legitimate translation, and sees παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον as the personal vestiges of having been an unregenerate person.

I suspect the ESV et al. are correct here since there are overtones of both the individual and the corporate sense of the phrase (see Murray Harris, p. 151), but my point is that interpretation is necessary.

4. Your interpretive decision of point 3 will determine whether you see αὐτοῦ as neuter (“its”) or masculine (“your”).

But less we get lost in the grammar, we have to rejoice that the bonds of the old humanity and the effects of Adam’s sin were broken at the cross and applied to me at conversion. We are still affected by the Fall, but have now been enabled to be freed to ever-increasing measure from the effects of Adamic sin. And yet, we are not passive in our sanctification. Every day we have to take off and put on and, among other things, not lie.

One of my greatest concerns is that many people see the gate as necessary (conversion; justification) but the path as optional (sanctification). But Jesus said to both go through the gate and to walk down the path (Matt 7:13–14). To preach one and not the other, to live one but not the other, is to bifurcate the preaching of Jesus. We dare not separate what God has joined (with apologies to our wedding vows). How else can we understand that mercy comes only to those who show mercy (Matt 5:7). Only the meek will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5)?

The question of the relationship between justification and sanctification is, I believe, the burning question of the modern western church, and most people must use interpretive translations to make their decision. Thankfully, we have many good translations.