Dean's List: Faces of the Old Adam
By Aaron T. Fenker
He's familiar. You know him all too well. And that's a bad thing--deadly, hell-worthy, even! Sounds bad, and it is! Evil, wicked, nothing good there--that's your flesh, your Old Adam.
We hear about him a lot. When your pastor preaches or teaches, you may hear him talk about your flesh which is at war with the Spirit, your old man who's against your new man, your Old Adam who's opposed to Christ Jesus. But it's not just your pastor saying that. That's what the Holy Spirit says through Paul: "The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Galatians 5:17).
But what does your Old Adam look like? He's familiar, so you'd think you could spot him from a mile away, but that's not always the case. In fact, there are some misconceptions about what your flesh will do and what your Old Adam actually looks like. So let's take a look at some different Old Adam masks that he uses to present himself.
The first Old Adam is the one we hear about the most, the one we're most aware of. He's what you could call "Frat Boy" Adam. He lives however he wants, does whatever he wants. He's a party animal. He sins and sins and sins some more. He doesn't care what he does as long as he likes it and as long as it feels good. "The works of the flesh are evident: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, drunkenness, rivalries" (Galatians 5:19, 21). Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll are this Old Adam's favorites. He can sin, sin, sin. He could also be lazy, lazy, lazy. Again, do whatever he wants. He'll trick you into thinking that you can do whatever you want because you'll just be forgiven for it on Sunday. But that naturally leads us to another Old Adam.
The second Old Adam is the super pious one. He's "Pharisee" Old Adam. He knows how to act in church. He knows how to fold his hands just right, say the perfect prayers, sing the hymns. He can even like genuflecting, organs, liturgy, and vestments, or maybe he's not that "enlightened." Perhaps his being against those things is what makes him even more pious. He thinks his church attendance fixes his sin problem. Think about the Pharisee's prayer from Jesus' parable: "God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess" (Luke 18:11-12). But "Pharisee" Old Adam's prayers, praises, worship are directed at himself and how he in his own mind measures up, religiously speaking, compared to others.
The next Old Adam is a close cousin of the "Pharisee" Old Adam. This one is the "Simon Cowell" Old Adam. He's judge-y like "Pharisee" Old Adam, but it's not just religious stuff with "Simon Cowell." It can be anything: dressing the right way, not saying bad things, living better than others, being a better student, sister, friend, brother, parent, worker, whatever! "The works of the flesh are evident: hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissension" (Galatians 5:20).
The final Old Adam is the project master, the gym member, the gold medalist. "Olympic Athlete" Old Adam always has a project. Sure, he wants the medal, but he's more concerned about doing better: party less, drink less, be more kind, and he'll do it all on his own! No Jesus required. A lot of the time he'll start with Jesus, but he's got to close the deal. "Deeds not creeds," after all. "I can go off on my own now. I don't need more Jesus," he thinks (He really comes out during Lent and Advent.) "As long as I'm a nice person, I'll achieve the ultimate prize: eternal life."
What Does This Mean?
No matter which Old Adam we encounter, the result is the same. St. Paul warns you and me that "those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:21). Death and hell are what Old Adam deserves. In fact, all these Old Adams have one thing in common. They're all curved inward on themselves. Whether it's pleasure, piety, or project, Old Adam's chief concern is #1. He's selfish, and he doesn't just try to sin you into hell, he'll also get you there by being churchy or doing good.
But all these Old Adams have something else in common, and this really helps you figure out what your Old Adam looks like. It's you. That's right: you. If you want to know what your Old Adam looks like, just look in the mirror or take a selfie. Your Old Adam is you. Don't forget that. He deludes us into thinking that Old Adam is like Hitler or Darth Maul or Thanos. But he's not. The worst part is your Old Adam isn't just "Frat Boy" or "Pharisee" or "Simon Cowell" or "Olympic Medalist." No, your Old Adam is a specific cocktail of all of them. Mine is, too. Your flesh acts out with a unique combination of sinning, churchiness, judge-y-ness, and doing better. The result of it all is separation from Jesus--hell.
Here's the Good News!
But that's you all on your own, and the truth is that you're not on your own. You aren't just Old Adam. You're also a new creation since you've been baptized into Christ Jesus. "I delight in the law of God according to the inward man (New Man). But I see another law in my members (flesh/Old Adam), warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members" (Romans 7:22-23).
When you look in the mirror, you really do see your flesh/your Old Adam. So how do you see and trust that he's not going to take you all the way to hell? Your Baptism says that Jesus' death and resurrection to new life are yours. Your Old Adam doesn't define you--not in Jesus. It's not just Baptism that says that--the Absolution does, too. Jesus' real Body and Blood that you eat and drink say that you are redeemed, forgiven, and that your body will be raised to perfect eternal life on the Last Day.
Yeah, you can clearly see your Old Adam, his works, and his ways. But "thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans 7:25, 8:1). And as baptized children of God, we can confidently proclaim: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
This article was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
Rev. Aaron T. Fenker serves as pastor of Bethlehem and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Bremen, Kansas. He is also the dean of theology at Higher Things.
Reflections: January 1, 2021This Just In: The Ultimate ResolutionReflections: January 2, 2021Reflections: January 3, 2021Reflections: January 4, 2021Video Short: January 5, 2021Video Short: January 4, 2021Reflections: January 5, 2021Reflections: January 6, 2021Video Short: January 6, 2021Under the Cross: Don't Look at the ListReflections: January 7, 2021Video Short: January 7, 2021Video Short: January 8, 2021Reflections: January 8, 2021Dean's List: The Catechism Really Is for YouReflections: January 9, 2021Reflections: January 10, 2021Reflections: January 11, 2021Video Short: January 11, 2021Helpful Things: Fundraising Essentials FOR YOUReflections: January 13, 2021Video Short: January 12, 2021Reflections: January 12, 2021Video Short: January 13, 2021Reflections: January 14, 2021Video Short: January 14, 2021Under the Cross: You Don't Belong to This WorldReflections: January 15, 2021Video Short: January 15, 2021Reflections: January 16, 2021Reflections: January 17, 2021Reflections: January 18, 2021Video Short: January 18, 2021This Just In: Martin Luther King, Jr.--The Man Who Had a DreamReflections: January 19, 2021Video Short: January 19, 2021Dead Christians You Should Know About: Saint SebastianReflections: January 20, 2021Video Short: January 20, 2021Video Short: January 21, 2021Reflections: January 21, 2021Reflections: January 22, 2021Reflections: January 23, 2021Video Short: January 22, 2021Dean's List: Jesus Hits the Spot!Reflections: January 24, 2021Reflections: January 25, 2021Reflections: January 26, 2021Video Short: The Conversion of St. PaulHelpful Things: Effective Fundraising Through Midweek MealsVideo Short: Suffering Doesn't Mean God Doesn't Love YouReflections: January 27, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday: Karma, Karma, KarmaVideo Short: Abortion and the Church's WorkReflections: January 28, 2021Reflections: January 29, 2021Video Short: What Goes On In Your Pastor's Mind About Closed CommunionFoundations: You Need Your Pastor More Than EverReflections: January 30, 2021Reflections: January 31, 2021
Reflections: February 1, 2021Video Short: Stretching Out To RepentVideo Short: Parable of Those Gifted in the VineyardReflections: February 2, 2021Dead Christians You Should Know About: Saint Blaise of SebasteSpeaking of Faith: The Liturgy Is Tried and True EvangelismReflections: February 3, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday De-platformingReflections: February 4, 2021Video Short: Hearing Law and GospelVideo Short: The Anti-Catholic ParadoxDean's List: Called to ServeReflections: February 5, 2021Reflections: February 6, 2021Reflections: February 7, 2021Reflections: February 8, 2021Video Short: Ears on the Sower... And the SeedReflections: February 9, 2021Helpful Things: Sex, Sexuality, and BaptismVideo Short: The Simple Definition of Faith That Will Rescue You From Your DoubtsReflections: February 10, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday: Wokeism and ChristianityVideo Short: What Your Pastor Thinks When Preaching the LawReflections: February 11, 2021Reflections: February 12, 2021Video Short: Valentines and LoveUnder the Cross: Valentine's Day StinksReflections: February 13, 2021Reflections: February 14, 2021Reflections: February 15, 2021Video Short: Lent is Almost HereVideo Short: Lent For Evangelical ChristiansReflections: February 16, 2021Welcome to Lent - Supplement to the ReflectionsVideo Short: How to Fast in LentReflections: February 17, 2021Reflections: February 18, 2021Video Short: Lutherans Aren't the Cult of LutherReflections: February 19, 2021