22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24
In the book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis asks the question: Is Christianity hard or easy? His response is that it is both hard and easy. It’s hard in that we’re called to give up our selves to follow Jesus – a nearly impossibly hard thing to do. It’s easy in the sense that God enables us to do it by giving us a new identity. It’s easier than doing what many of us try to do: trying to be good without doing the first step of having been made new.
C.S. Lewis puts it like this:
The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown. – Mere Christianity
What Lewis is describing here is what other authors have referred to as “the gospel of sin management.” The gospel of sin management says that following God is all about managing our sin, trying to control it, trying to get rid of what is bad and increase what is good. Now, I’m all for self-control, for less sin and more righteousness, but “the gospel of sin management” tries to get to this step first and by itself, as though we can simply will ourselves into moral perfection.
Lewis argues that we need to be made new creations. We need new identities. He likens it to being toy tin soldiers being made into real people. And, for that to happen, we need to have come in contact with the One truly real person: Jesus Christ.
His argument aligns perfectly with Ephesians 4:22-24 quoted above. In the passage Paul calls us to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” This isn’t just code for “try to do less bad and more good” but live in accordance with the new identity we have in Christ. This new identity is closely associated a new mindset, a new way of thinking and looking at the world.
Only after this inner transformation are we called to the transformation of our actions, to sin management. Again quoting Lewis: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
But what if we’ve already been saved, we’re already receiving the new life of Christ, and we are still often on the losing end of temptation in our lives? How then does this apply? Perhaps we need to shift to the idea of surrender. We need to surrender “ourselves”, our own desires, our own happiness, to the will of God, and live instead in accordance with who he is making us to be. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Submission precedes resistance.
That is when self-control comes back into play – self-control as a fruit of the Spirit – as something that doesn’t arise from our own natures, but a supernatural gift from God, a natural outcome of living as new creations.