Welcome to your new self (LD 33, q&a 90-91)


The old self must go!

That is what we learned last time about true conversion. Being a Christian is not something extra, on top of the life you would normally live. If you are a real Christian, who is (as the catechism says) grafted in Christ by true faith, there are parts of you that must die. Everything that is not holy, everything that goes against God’s good design, everything that is not in line with the beauty of our Lord Jesus himself, must go.

That is a painful process. We recognize that no one would undergo this process, if it weren’t for the saving power of God. As we said in LD 32, Jesus Christ not only redeemed us by his blood but also renews us by his Holy Spirit. Thankfully, that work of the Holy Spirit is not only to put to death our old self. He also and especially gives us new life, a renewing to be Christ’s image.

We will never have the motivation to battle against our old self and get rid of it, if we don’t experience the glory and joy of the new self that God is creating in us. This we explore and celebrate in the second half of LD 33.

Welcome to your new self…

1. … who mirrors Jesus Christ
2. … who has real joy
3. … who lives a holy life

Your new self mirrors Jesus Christ

One thing the Christian faith teaches us, is to look outside of ourselves. There is no doubt that it is healthy to be a believer, that it boosts our spiritual health, that it makes us better people. But if you think of your faith purely in terms of self-help, you are missing the heart of the matter.

Spiritual gurus in the world will tell you to reach deep within yourself to find what is right. The many popular kinds of spirituality are all variations of the same theme, related to the ancient religion of gnosticism: it is the belief that locked away in every human self, there lives something superior, something god-like, and we will find true happiness and fulfillment if we can set that part of ourselves free, if we open the cage and let the bird fly…

But the Bible presents us with a different picture. By nature there is no good in us. We all start out as the “old” self, which is incapable of loving God and loving our fellow man as we should. There is no hidden divine spark that we can pull out and grow into a new, better self. If we simply become the best version of ourselves that we can be, we still fall short.

The only truly “new” self can only take shape in us from the outside. It is Jesus Christ himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who renovates us and replaces all that is wrong with what is right. We mentioned them already in our discussion of LD 32, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat these key verses:

Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
(Rom. 12:2)

You have put off the old self with its practices
and have put on the new self,
which is being renewed in knowledge
after the image of its creator.
(Col. 3:9-10)

The word “renewal” indicates that, in a way, our new self is not completely new. Originally, God the Creator had made people perfect. Perfect in holiness, in righteousness, in knowledge, in love, … An important part of the transformation we undergo is a return to these original qualities. We were made in the image of God; we will once again reflect the image of God. The Christian life is not an entirely other-worldly way of living, but rather living according to the original design of what it means to be human.

We sometimes say that “Christ lives in our heart”, which is a Biblical phrase (Eph. 3:17). But we must realize that our “heart” determines our whole life; Christ must come to live in our lives. Paul writes (Gal. 4:19), “I am in anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” As Christians are led by the Holy Spirit, their new self appears more and more, and it turns out that this new self looks exactly like Jesus Christ.

In the passages quoted above—Rom. 12 and Col. 3—talk about “the renewal of your mind,” and  “renewed in knowledge.” These words make clear that we are not talking about a superficial change. Not just Christ-like actions. All that we do is informed by our mind, by the knowledge we have of God and the world, by the attitudes we have toward life. As Paul says in Phil. 2:6, “let the same mind be in you as that of Jesus Christ”. Not just in outward behavior, but in the very patterns of our thinking and decision-making do we become a mirror image of Jesus.

“Beautiful Savior,” sings one Christian hymn. “Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight, bright the sparkling stars on high; Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer than all the angels in the sky.” Our Savior is indeed beautiful. But as the Holy Spirit brings to life our new self, we will reflect Jesus by becoming like him. His image. Beautiful image!

Your new self has real joy

In LD 33 q&a 90, the Catechism characterizes what this new self is. What does it mean for the new nature to come to life? Maybe you expect a long list of Christian moral qualities. We find such a list in Col. 3:12: “Put then on … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, patience, etc.” It is certainly true that a Christian’s new self develops all these moral qualities.

But that is not where the catechism begins; perhaps it is afraid that we take the concept of conversion and of a new self, and somehow turn it into a checklist of things we must work on. And quickly we start thinking that we must make this part of our salvation happen.

When introducing our new self, the catechism begins with heartfelt joy. There are good, Biblical reasons to give joy a first place. “The Kingdom of God is a matter of … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17) “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” (Gal. 5:22) “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4) In the book of Acts, when people become Christians and receive the Holy Spirit, we often read that they rejoiced. “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 13:52)

This heartfelt joy is the natural response of someone who realizes that all the darkness of sin and all the burden of guilt has been lifted off his shoulders. What a relief! What a freedom! In Psalm 51, David prays: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. … Restore to me the joy of your salvation!” His terrible sin had taken away all joy from his life; and he looked for the work of God’s Holy Spirit to take away his guilt and declare him right with God. That would bring him the happiness he so longed for!

Because of all this, we can safely say: a real Christian is, and ought to be, a joyful person. That doesn’t necessarily mean someone who is always outspokenly happy, boisterous, certainly not always happy-clappy. Not everybody is equally outgoing. But there ought to be heartfelt joy in God through Christ, real happiness that comes from knowing that your sin is forgiven, that you’re no longer on the way to hell and destruction, but that all the treasures of heaven are yours. How can that not, at least, bring a hint of a smile to your face?

The coming to life of the new selfis a heartfelt joy in God through Christ. What if you don’t have that joy? What if you don’t feel happy about your Lord, relieved because your sin is forgiven, and content with the life he gives you? Then it may be that you are still holding on to your old self. It is interesting that Paul, in Col. 3, gives two lists of old-self attitudes that must be put away. The obvious wickedness, of sexual immorality, evil desire, and greed; but then also the more subtle sins of anger, wrath, malice, and slander. What those sins have in common is that they stand in the way of true joy. If you hold on to the chip on your shoulder and to the axe you have to grind, it will overshadow and drown out the happiness in your Savior, who set you free from all that.

In the end, true heartfelt joy may be lacking in your life because your salvation is not yet the centerpiece of your life. Do you not only read, but also meditate on the Word of God? Do you not only confess Jesus, but also adore and admire him? Do you not only know your Christian doctrines, but foster a personal union with Jesus Christ? Do you pray for the Holy Spirit and let him lead your life? If you keep the Lord Jesus at arm’s length in your life, you cannot expect his image to appear in you, and your new self cannot come to life.

Your new self lives a holy life

Heartfelt joy is an important fruit of the Spirit, a key attitude that blossoms in every Christian whose new self comes to life. It is also the starting point of many other qualities, which shape our life. Both Old and New Testament contain lists of characteristics of the new self. For instance, when Paul in Col. 3 has talked about “putting on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator,” he continues in v. 12: “Put on then … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and … forgiving each other … And above all put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

It is important that here, as elsewhere, the new life of the Holy Spirit reveals itself in how we treat other people. Forgive, because the Lord has forgiven us. Be kind, because your Father in heaven has been kind to you. Be meek, because Christ is the meek shepherd of his sheep. And so on. Your interactions with others is where you have the best opportunity to show that you have understood your salvation. Of course, it is also important that we engage in acts of worship toward our Lord. Later in Col. 3, Paul writes: “Whatever you do, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” But going to church and participating in the liturgy are only part of the life of the new self. In everyday life, we reveal our new self in how we live together with others.

The keyword here is love: “And above all put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col. 3:14) Loving the Lord who saved you, and loving the people around you just as he loved you. The catechism explains that this love expresses itself in a delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.

That brings us full circle to the beginning of Lord’s Day 32. Why must we yet do good works? We now have a clear answer: they are an integral part of the life of the Holy Spirit, they are the natural product of our new self. If you let the Holy Spirit do his work, and your new self comes to life bit by bit, get ready for doing many good works: it’s what real Christians do. After all, a good tree will bring forth good fruit, and out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. It is in these good works that we see proof of our new self, and that can be great encouragement.

As long as we live the life of our old self, we are by nature unable to do anything truly good; but if we live according to our new self, it is only natural that good works flow out. This is why we are not really interested in having a checklist of good works based on outward criteria. The catechism has no list of approved activities: go to church, do what your parents say, be honest on your tax form, keep sex for marriage, help the old lady cross the road. All of these are good things to do. But what we look for in ourselves, and celebrate and encourage in others, are not the outward good works, but the things that clearly come from a changed heart, a new self, a Christ-like mind; things in which we recognize that Christ’s own Spirit is at work.

Under that definition, good works are, as q&a 91 say, not just morally right things, but things which are done  (1) out of true faith, (2) in accordance with the law of God, and (3) to his glory. Good works are the heartfelt response of the image of Jesus Christ, as it comes to life in the new self of all who are led by his Holy Spirit.

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