Every person has something that they want to change about themselves. I’m a skinny guy by nature, so I’ve often dreamt of what it would be like if I were able to actually fill out an adult medium shirt. There are times when I wish my voice was an octave lower so I could BOOM like many of the preachers I’ve admired through years. I’d love to sound like James Earl-Jones (of Darth Vader and Mufasa fame) but I often sound more like Screech.
What would you like to change about yourself? Perhaps you’d like to change your outward appearance or your relationship status, or your career trajectory? Maybe you’d like to be less introverted and socially awkward, or not as prone to fear, anxiety, or anger? The point is that all of us want to change something about ourselves. Sometimes these are good desires and, often, they’re not so good. Yet, every one of our desires for change indicate that, on a deeper level, we know we are lacking in some way or another. We may not always know what we need to change. Our desires can often be superficial and sinful. But we all know that we are not what we should be or could be. We all know that we need to change.
Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to change. That’s what discipleship is all about. It’s seeing Christ’s enemies become his friends and ultimately conformed to His image. The apostle Paul, on more than one occasion, tells Christians that the life of discipleship is a transformed life (Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 3:18). Have you ever been discouraged about change? Do you feel like you’re a lost cause? Are you tempted to despair that patterns of sinful behavior and negative emotions in your life will never be broken?
The good news of Jesus Christ is that, through the power of the gospel, you can change. However, many Christians—maybe you’re one of them—often try to change in a wrong way and short-circuit their discipleship. Frustration can lead them to quit and fear can lead them never get going in the first place. Behind it all is our prideful notion that we are able to change ourselves.
STOP TRYING TO CHANGE YOURSELF
Isn’t it interesting that when we’re confronted with our need for change, our first instinct is often to do something? We want a list of do’s and don’ts. I can’t tell you how many times throughout my Christian life, when confronted with my need for change I’d make bold vows, create new rituals to encourage spiritual discipline, or draw up new boundaries to guard myself against temptation and sin. Time and again, I’ve feverishly attempted to modify my behavior with lists and curb my sinful emotions by avoiding that person or those circumstances. Each year, I’d draw up a new list of resolutions even though I knew I was just as likely to fail as the previous year, and the year before that, and the year before…you get the idea. And yet, by themselves, they never produced the lasting change for which I was hoping.
Now, many of these might be great helps toward holiness, but by themselves, the sum total of our vows, rituals, and lists can’t change us. The apostle Paul wrote that ritualistic behavior modification, divorced from the gospel, has “an appearance of wisdom…but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23). These alone are powerless to change us. Echoing Paul, the Puritan John Flavel wisely pointed out, “We are more able to stop the sun in its course or make rivers run uphill as by our own skill and power to rule and order our hearts.”
Why isn’t working really hard to modify our behavior enough? According to Jesus, external rituals and behavior modifications can’t change us because our sin comes not from outside of us, but from within us (Mk. 7:14-23). While we may be able to alter our behavior for little while, it’s only a matter of time before our old sinful patterns re-emerge or new patterns of Pharisaical pride accompany our change. Either you fall into despair at the lack of lasting change or, when you do change, you develop a self-exalting, critical spirit toward those who don’t seem to be as committed as you to changing. Either way, your vows, rituals, and lists can’t change you in the manner you need to be changed. Because they cannot ultimately transform our desires at the heart-level (why we do all that we do), they are powerless to produce true and lasting holiness that cherishes God’s glory. You and I need something that goes deeper than external behaviors and is much more powerful than ourselves. We need the gospel.
THE GOSPEL IS THE POWER TO CHANGE
Only three times in the New Testament is something described as “the power of God”. And they’re all one and the same thing:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God…” (Rom. 1:16).
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).
The “gospel”, which is the “word of the cross”, that is, “Christ crucified” is “the power of God”. The power to produce lasting, sin-killing, joy-producing, God-glorifying change in our lives comes exclusively through the gospel of Jesus Christ!
Consider that at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he doesn’t first prescribe a list of new rituals and activities to modify their patterns of sinful behavior, but wrote,
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved” (1 Cor. 15:1-2a).
Paul took them back to the gospel that they had already heard, in which they had already believed, and by which they were already being changed, because Paul knows that the gospel alone is the power of God to produce lasting change. Like Paul, the apostle Peter believed the exact same thing and was no less committed to this ministry of gospel-reminding (2 Pt. 1:3-12). The great Puritan John Owen once wrote, “Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing, and realizing of the gospel on our souls”. All lasting change begins by sowing good, gospel seed in our lives and in the lives of others.
As you and I aim to follow Christ and help other people do the same, we are to be doggedly committed to knowing, understanding, applying, proclaiming, and reminding ourselves and others of the “word of the cross”. At the forefront of our ministry to love, encourage, and guard one another is the sufficient work of our sin-bearing Savior, to whom we have been united by faith (Rom. 6:1-11), in whom we have been declared righteous (Rom. 3:26-4:25; 2 Cor 5:21), and through whom we have received the Holy Spirit, who is teaching us and transforming us into the likeness of Christ by the Word of Christ until He comes (Jn. 14:15-31, 16:4-15; Gal. 3:14, 5:1-15; Eph. 1:13-14).
Beloved, let us set ourselves to sowing the powerful gospel into one another’s lives—in our gatherings, around our dinner tables, during our small groups, in one-on-one times over coffee, always trusting that God’s Word works. Let us shelve for a time our rituals and lists. Let us be careful not to counsel out of the impotence of our own wisdom, but from Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Brothers and sisters, if we are to become like Christ, we must begin with Christ.