Previous article in this series: October 1, 2023, p. 11.


And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.  Joel 2:13

The terminology

In the last article in this series on the ordo salutis (the logical sequence in which the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of salvation decreed by God in election and purchased by Christ on the cross), the terms “old man” and “new man” from Heidelberg Catechism, LD 33 were mentioned but not explained. In this article and the subsequent one I intend to explain those two concepts in connection with the biblical truth of conversion.

The “old man” is a biblical term, not something that Reformed theologians have invented. It appears three times in the writings of the apostle Paul: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Rom. 6:6); “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt ac­cording to the deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4:22); and “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds” (Col. 3:9).

The idea is found in other passages where the words “old man” are not used. The most common synonym for “old man” is “flesh”: “This I say, then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh: for the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal 5:16-17). Other synonyms for the “old man” are “evil” and “sin:” “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21); “Sin that dwelleth in me” (Rom. 7:20).

The “old man” is also a creedal idea, found not only in Heidelberg Catechism, LD 33, but also in other parts of the Catechism and in the other Reformed confes­sions, although the idea is often expressed in different terms. Consider these examples from the Catechism: “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor” (A. 5); “The corrupt inclinations of the flesh” (A. 43); “My corrupt nature against which I have to struggle all my life long” (A. 56); “More and more to know our sinful nature” (A. 115); “That depravity which always cleaves to us” (A. 126); and “Our mortal enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh” (A. 127). Consider also some examples from the other creeds: “A sense of this corrup­tion should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death” (Belgic Confession, Art. 15); “We do no work but what is polluted by our flesh” (Belgic Confession, Art. 24); “But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great in­firmities, but they fight against them through the Spirit” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29); “[God] delivers also from the dominion and slavery of sin in this life, though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmi­ties of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world. Hence spring daily sins of infirmity, and hence spots adhere to the best works of the saints” (Canons 5:1-2).

The old man is not an old man as such. You should not think of a ninety-year-old man living in a nurs­ing home, grey-headed, walking with difficulty with a walker or a cane, and suffering from all kinds of infir­mities. The Bible uses the term “old man” to describe a spiritual idea. Perhaps the best translation of old man is old self. The Christian has an old self and a new self, but we must not think of a split personality or of two persons. Even the term “two natures” is problematic. I prefer to reserve the term “nature” for Christology, where we speak of Christ’s human and divine natures.

There are in the hearts of all Christians two prin­ciples at work. Perhaps we cannot precisely define or explain them, but we know them; we feel within us in­clinations towards sin. But, at the same time, we feel the desire to live in godliness; a struggle—the new fighting against the old.

The idea of “old” and “man”

The term “old man,” though, captures two important ideas. The old man is called old because of its antiquity—it is ancient; in fact, the old man is as old as the fall of Adam into sin; that is the source of the old man. The old man is also called old because it is contrasted with something new. If something is old, it is ready to make way for something newer and better. “That which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).

The old man is called the old man because it involves the whole person: the heart, the mind, the soul, and the will. The old man cannot be compartmentalized, as if we could say, “The old man is in my heart, but not in my mind” or “The old man is in my mind, but not in my will.” The old man permeates, and affects, every part of us—that is why we need a new man.

In summary, we are the new man, but we have the old man.

The Heidelberg Catechism, LD 33, is very helpful in iden­tifying who or what the old man is; take note of two words in A. 89, “we” and “sins.” By using the word “we,” the Cat­echism addresses the old man as part of us. When we mortify the old man, we are not thinking about some­one else. It is easy for us to look at others, at their sins, but the Catechism says, “we.” “It is a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God” (A. 89). If others have sinned, that is between them and God; we have provoked God. When your neighbor provokes you to anger, that is his old man at work; when you respond in anger, that is your old man at work. Each of us is responsible for the sins of our own old man. That is also Scripture’s focus: “our old man” (Rom 6:6); “that ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man” (Eph. 4:22); “ye have put off the old man with his deeds” (Col. 3:9).

Sometimes we try to dissociate ourselves from the old man. We say, “The old man is an evil principle in­side me, but the old man is not really part of me”; or we say, “The old man is the devil and I am not responsible for what he does.” But the Catechism does not allow such dissociation or deflection. The Catechism says, “A sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God” (A. 89). Never think that the old man acts independently of you. When the old man lusts, you lust; when the old man is deceitful, you are deceitful; when the old man is corrupt, you are corrupt; when the old man is violent, you are violent.

The other word that the Catechism uses is “sins.” “That we have provoked God by our sins” (A. 89). This teaches us that the old man is evil; and other places in the creeds and other passages in the Bible teach us that the old man is only evil. Romans 7:18 says, “in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.” Ephesians 4:22 says, “which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” Colossians 3:9 says, “ye have put off the old man with his deeds.” In the context, those deeds are evil deeds such as anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and filthy communica­tion (v. 8) and fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affec­tion, evil concupiscence, and covetousness (v. 5). The old man is never said to be the source of good deeds.

There is not in the old man any speck of goodness, any inclination toward God or toward holiness; and there is never any improvement in the old man. The old man is, and forever remains, in this life, totally depraved. Do not misunderstand: we are not only and forever totally depraved. We are, by God’s grace, regenerat­ed and, therefore, holy. But the old man within us, or the flesh within us, is never anything else than totally depraved. Therefore, we should not expect any improvement or any reformation there. We should expect to improve, slowly, often pain­fully slowly, in sanctification, but we should not expect our old man to improve. The only thing we can do with the old man is mortify him, that is, kill him.

Mortifying the old man

The term mortify appears first in Romans 8:13. “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Notice a couple of truths in that verse. First, we mortify the deeds of the body; the apostle does not say, “If the Spirit mortifies.” The Spirit does not have sorrow that He has sinned; the Spirit does not hate His sins; the Spirit does not flee from His sins. That is impossible because the Spirit is holy and has no sin. Rather, the apostle writes, “If ye mortify the deeds of the body.” Second, we mortify the deeds of the body through the Spirit. We do not mortify the deeds of the body in our own strength; the Spirit gives us the power to do it. This is also creedal, Reformed language: “They fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their lives” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29). Take note—They do it and they do it “through the Spirit.” Canons 5:2 teaches, “Hence spring daily sins of infirmity and hence spots adhere to the best works of the saints, which furnish them with constant matter for humiliation before God and flying for refuge to Christ crucified; for mortifying the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety.”

The word mortify also appears twice in Colossians chapter 3. In verse 5 we read, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth.” Often, in the Bi­ble “members” are parts of the human body; here, the idea is the inclinations of the flesh, which need the body for their fulfillment. By mortifying your members, or by mortifying the old man, the flesh is not permitted to fulfill its longings and desires after certain sins. Again, we notice that mortifying the flesh is a command to us: mortify! Do not expect the Spirit to mortify your flesh while you do nothing or while you are passive, but ac­tively, deliberately, consciously mortify the old man.

The opposite of mortify is quicken. We are called in Heidelberg Catechism, A. 90, to be active in the quicken­ing of the new man, but we may not quicken the old man. Quickening the old man would be to feed him, to indulge him, to pamper him, and to make excuses for him. You feel anger rising in your heart; to feed that anger would be to dwell upon all the reasons you have to be angry and to fill your soul with bitterness and resentment. You would indulge your flesh or encourage your old man. The result would be that you speak a cruel word or you perform a violent act. You feel pride well­ing up in your heart; to feed that pride would be to tell yourself about how great you are and to deny that you owe everything to the grace of God. When you feed pride, you will begin to speak and act proudly. You feel lust in your heart; to feed that lust you begin to think about another woman or man, or you feed your lust by looking at por­nography or watching lascivious scenes in movies or listening to lascivious lyrics in songs. That is exactly what the flesh wants, what it longs for and craves.

Mortifying is the very opposite of indulging, pam­pering, and feeding the flesh. When we feel anger rising in our hearts, we suppress it and repent of it before we actually speak an angry word or commit a violent deed. When we are tempted to hurt someone with words, we bite our tongue and refuse to say the word that we thought of saying. When we are tempted to wound our neighbor, we turn from our evil design. That is what Paul means in Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you with all malice”; and in Colossians 3:8: “But now ye also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication.” Putting away or put­ting off those things means that you refuse to do them, to speak them, or even to think them in your heart.

Rending the heart

Mortification is very painful. The prophet Joel expresses how painful it is when he commands, “Rend your hearts and not [or not only] your garments” (Joel 2:13). Imagine how painful it is to rend—or tear—your heart. Rending our hearts is not ripping our left ventricle from our right ventricle or our left atrium from our right atrium; those are chambers of the heart. We are talking about sorrow over sin that reaches the very depth of our being, so that our mind is troubled by it, our soul is grieved by it, our emotions are disturbed by it, and our will is repulsed by it.

Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone mor­tify the old man and turn to God? The answer is that God gives an incentive to the one who comes in repen­tance. Joel 2:12 says “Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God.” The question is why? Here’s why: “For [because] he is gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.”

So, is there a sin in your life that you are afraid to confess and of which you are afraid to repent? Do not fear. If you confess a crime to the author­ities, they may show you some leniency, but you probably will not escape all punishment; but when you turn from your sins, God is merciful—He does not merely show some leniency, but He takes away all pun­ishment, He forgives, He turns away His anger.

How can God be so merciful to sinners who turn from their sins? Is it perhaps because we rend our hearts and not our garments? Is it because we have true sorrow over sin, because we hate our sins, and because we flee from them? Do our tears and sorrows blot out and wash away our sins? Of course not! It is because Jesus who never sinned bore the punishment that we deserved to bear. His blood sealed our pardon, and out of thankful­ness to Him we turn from our sins and begin to live a new life in devotion to Him.