Second Corinthians 5:17 is a well-known verse in Christian circles, often learned from childhood: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (NKJV). The Message Bible adds an enthusiastic touch: “The old life is gone; a new life emerges!”
What is the significance of the fact that “old things have passed away”? This verse goes beyond rote Sunday school work; it is a reality for the genuine believer. Those who place faith in the redemptive work of Christ undergo a spiritual transformation courtesy of the Holy Spirit. The Bible refers to this as being “born again” (John 3:3–7). Theologians use the term regeneration to describe the same amazing act. We went from death to life!
The life of an unbeliever is characterized by what the apostle Paul calls “old things.” Unbelievers possess a sinful nature and are separated from God, a destructive combination. Consequently, their lifestyle displays the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19–21). While atheists may exhibit basic moral values—depending on upbringing and environment—they primarily live for themselves rather than God.
Further, religious people who are unregenerate cannot talk about an old life passing away. They are under the law and seek justification through it. This leaves them condemned when they fall short (Romans 3:19; Galatians 3:10). Without the new birth, they remain slaves to sin (Romans 7:14–23). Being religious without Christ leads to either despair or self-righteousness. One who lives under the law should also anticipate being perfectly judged by it. God is a fair judge (Psalms 9:7–8; 98:9; Romans 2:6–11; Revelation 20:12).
However, for those who believe in Christ, old things have indeed passed away! Paul provides this description in Romans 6:3–7:
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.Followers of Christ are united to Him and form His body (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:22–23; Colossians 1:18). Thus, our baptism into Christ makes Him our representative. When He was crucified, our old selves were crucified as well. When He resurrected to live for God, we too were resurrected to live a new life for God. Old things have passed away.
Many pastors are wary of preaching about grace due to the fear that their congregation will find an excuse to sin. However, this stems from a core misunderstanding. Grace not only pardons us from the penalty of sin but also possesses a transformative power to break sin’s hold on our lives (Romans 6:14; Titus 2:11–12). The reality of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is only possible because of grace.
The transition from the old life to the new one is not merely theoretical. Many people can testify to the transformation in their lives when God’s grace took up residence. Lee Strobel has compiled many examples in his book The Case for Grace (Zondervan, 2015).
Some Christians experience an instant transformation, while others progress gradually. Either way, the truth remains the same: old things have passed away for those who are in Christ. We are reconciled to God and called to live for Him. It is a beautiful lifestyle, filled with love, holiness, self-control, uprightness, and good deeds.