2 Corinthians

Inner self vs. the Outer self (2 Corinthians 4:16)

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Reading through scripture, particularly in the New Testament, we see the comparison between the inner and outward selves. A key verse addressing this comparison is 2 Corinthians 4:16, saying, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” How can we understand the difference between the outer and inner self scripturally?

As we read this passage, what becomes evident is that the Apostle Paul found strength in knowing the difference between the temporal and imminent in comparison to the eternal and transcendent. Paul knew that even though he was weak, just like jars of clay, he understood that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Corinthians 4:7). Amen! He does not despair because of the weight of the glory of God. John 1:16 says, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

When Paul refers to the outer self, notice that he is not referring to the “old man” in reference to the moral and ethical dimension of our fallen and unregenerate nature. Instead, he is referring to our physical structure, which is why Paul refers to “jars of clay” or “earthen vessels” in 2 Corinthians 4:7. After which, Paul describes in verses 8 and 9:

  • they were afflicted in every way but not crushed
  • perplexed but not driven to despair
  • persecuted but not forsaken
  • struck down but not destroyed.

So two things are being laid out. The outward man, in this instance and context, is the earthly life, the physical body, and the things of this world, as opposed to the heavenly life. It could be the riches of this world or friendships, families, health, wealth, etc. All these are slowly diminishing in our lives, and there comes a time when we must leave all of this behind.

When all these external, physical, worldly things waste away and in fact, they must waste away so that we can then focus on our inner self. Only if the present outwardly self wastes away can the inner man flourish, as the earthly life declines, can the heavenly man increase in a believer’s life. So while our outwardly self wastes away, our inner self may progress toward Christ. 

This renewal of the inner self is what Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3:18, saying, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

This is a simultaneous process that happens in a believer’s life. When we are physically weak, materially deprived, oppressed by enemies, and persecuted, Paul experiences unparalleled spiritual success. 

The Lutheran commentator, R. C. H. Lenski, put it this way: “With perfect calmness Paul can watch the destruction of his outer man. What if his enemies hasten the process, yea, bring it to a sudden end by means of a violent death! He loses nothing. The inner man blossoms into new youth, beauty, and strength day by day. This inner renewal is not hindered but only helped by the tribulation that assails the outer man. These ‘bloody roses’ have the sweetest odor. These enemies are only defeating their own end; instead of causing Paul to grow discouraged, his elation is increased.”
Sam Storms, Biblical Studies: Meditations on 2 Corinthians (Edmond, OK: Sam Storms, 2016), 2 Co 4:16–18.

This is the reason that Paul can rejoice even though he suffered much. He understood the transformation that was taking place inside him, and this was just the beginning of the glorious life in Christ. It revealed that his great love was Jesus Christ, the treasure of His life, and He was the prize for which he was running. In Philippians 1:21, Paul proclaims, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 4:16 that his body was weak, exposed to many hazards, and constantly in the process of decay as he grew in age and more so in pursuing his apostolic mission. Through all this, his hope and power rested on God so he would not lose his heart. His vision lies in eternity. He says in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseenFor the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Through faith, Paul could see beyond the visible and into eternal realities where God’s glory shines in and through Jesus Christ. Amen. Likewise, are you looking at the unseen things which are eternal and become more like Christ as you gaze upon Him? Or are you occupied by seeking out and holding onto decaying things – the outer self? Where is your heart set? If you find yourself holding to the things of this world, take time to re-align your heart to the unseen, to that which is eternal, by making Christ the treasure of your life. Amen!

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