I have a system for putting my baby to sleep. First, I pace the house with him cuddled tightly in my arms. Once his eyes shut, I gently sit down and snuggle him on my chest. Once he stops sucking his soother (a great indicator that he’s finally given way to deep sleep), I gently lay him down in his playpen, pat his back, and sneak out of the room. This system is almost foolproof. Sometimes, however, I lay him down and step out of the room and return seconds later at the sound of sobbing. Sometimes I barely lay him down, and he’s already hysterical.

“I don’t understand, little guy,” I moaned one day after several failed attempts to lay him down for his nap. “I did everything right. You’re supposed to go to sleep.”

Maybe like me, you like systems—do this and you will get that, follow these instructions and you’ll have this result. As one who likes systems, that’s often the first place I look when trying to conquer sin in my heart. I want a step-by-step method with promised results of a holier life. Ephesians 4:22-24 first appeared that way to me—if I follow each of these three simple steps, then I’ll conquer each sin in my life with ease. But what I’ve learned, and what the apostle Paul wrote about in Romans 7, is that the Christian life is not a straight line ascending upward to perfection. Rather, it’s a constant battle with stumbling, retracing our steps, and taking steps forward.

What we see outlined in Ephesians 4:22-24 is not a one-time instruction manual with promises of immediate success. Instead, it is a place we will return to often, probably with the same struggles, and the order may change. But God is faithful, and he will bring us to completion in his timing and lead us as we put off sin, renew our minds, and put on the new self, “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (ESV)

The Gospel is Always the Starting Point

Before Paul explains how they are to put off sin, he reminds them how nonbelievers act and respond. Their minds are darkened to the truth, and their hearts are hardened against God. They don’t know the gospel, they ignore their consciences that proclaim the law, and they close their eyes to the evidence of God presented to them in the world. Because of that, they have given themselves up to sensuality and are greedy for sin (Ephesians 4:17-19).

This is who we used to be. This isn’t just a description of the really bad people of the world. This is the state in which all of us lived. But we have learned Christ—God (graciously) opened our eyes and turned our heads to see him. He melted away the stone that hardened our hearts so that we could believe the gospel—that we are sinners deserving of God’s wrath, but Christ took that wrath on the cross and gave us his righteousness so we can stand before God without condemnation.

Unbelievers, with their hearts hardened, are bound in the shackles of sin. But believers, with the Holy Spirit residing in them and new hearts that love righteousness, can obey God. That is why the gospel is essential to true heart change. That is why Paul spent the first half of his letter expounding the gospel—because, without it, we are still dead people pretending to be righteous (and failing miserably). If we are to counsel someone on a specific sin struggle, or even counsel ourselves, we first need to be believers of the gospel, those who are changed by it.

Putting off the Old Self

Because we are changed by the gospel, with hearts that desire righteousness, Paul says we are to put off the old self. The old self is who Paul described previously—a lover of sin, gluttonous for impurity. When we catch ourselves in sin, or someone else catches us in sin, we are called to repent—to agree with God that we have sinned against him and possibly others, and take action to stop this sin. These actions may be severe; Jesus says it is better to lose your eye or limb than to go to hell as a whole person (Mark 9:43-48). Sin often requires radical amputation  —cutting away anything that may lead us to sin in a pursuit to love God.

Be Renewed in the Spirit of Your Mind

But change doesn’t happen only through behavior modification. Paul goes on to tell believers to be renewed in the spirit of their minds. Without being renewed, without changing our attitudes, we are solely Pharisees—doing what is right on the outside, but having a dead, sinful heart on the inside. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for this kind  of hypocrisy in Matthew 23:27-28 (NASB):

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

This means that our heart attitudes must match our outward conduct. Maybe you’ll be able to force yourself to stop looking at porn, and you’ll be able to put on a pure lifestyle, but if the whole time you are still lusting after sexual immorality in your heart, what good is that outward change? Instead, you need to put on righteous desires and godly motives to match your godly conduct.

Put On the New Self

Every “put off” is always accompanied by a “put on.” The old self is our sinful nature, so the new self is the new creation God has worked in us immediately when we are saved. When you were saved, God gave you a new heart and took out your heart of stone. Ezekiel 36:25-27 says,

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (ESV)

God has given believers new hearts with the desire to love and obey him and given the Holy Spirit to empower to do so.

The Practical Outworking

In the following passage, Paul shows us what this looks like practically. For the one who lies, he is to stop speaking falsely (put off) and instead he is to speak truth to his neighbor (put on) because he is a part of the body of Christ (be renewed). The woman who is angry is to stop sinning in her temper (put off) and instead she is to resolve her conflicts peacefully in the day it happens (put on) so that her anger doesn’t give the devil an opportunity (be renewed). The boy who steals is to stop taking what isn’t his (put off) and do honest work instead (put on) so that he can help those who are in need (be renewed). The girl who struggles to tame her tongue is to stop speaking wickedly (put off) and use words that are edifying (put on) so that she may communicate God’s grace (be renewed).

This doesn’t come naturally, which is why we need the Spirit to guide and enable us. God is the author of our salvation and sanctification, so through this entire process, we are dependent on him. He works in us so that we can put off sin, be renewed in our minds, and put on righteousness. As much as we would like a “quick fix” program, our sanctification is a life-long process that God promises to finish in us in our final redemption.