December 12, 2017

Another Look: Mark Galli on “Transformation”

Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers, Van Gogh

Note from CM: Mark Galli is Sr. Managing Editor of Christianity Today. In 2009 he wrote an article that proved rather controversial. It was called, “The Scandal of the Public Evangelical,” and in it Mark said things about the evangelical buzzword “transformation” that many didn’t like. Our friends at Mockingbird, being devoted to promoting grace as they are, did an interview with Mark and the following is an excerpt from that conversation.

* * *

I don’t know that I’ve talked about grace in the radical nature in which Paul and the New Testament talk about it unless people are shocked and appalled by what I’ve said. The doctrine of grace is so radical and so contrary to our assumptions about what religion is about, that once we express it in a clear fashion, it will appall people. Because we’re all so anxious—even people like me who preach grace—to justify our lives. We want our lives to be meaningful, purposeful, useful. So we hook our futures to God and think, “Now I can really make my life purposeful and useful and I can do something for God in the world. And if I work with God, he’s going to change me.” We’re not so interested in God a lot of times, we’re tired of who we are and we’re more interested in wanting to be a different kind of person so we can feel better about ourselves. So much of our religious language and religious motive is about ourselves: justifying ourselves or improving ourselves, with God as a means to that end. Well, the fact of the matter is it’s not about you. But that’s shocking and appalling to most people because we’re so used to thinking that religion is about us, even though we’ve learned to use religious language to suggest otherwise. But in fact, it really ends up being all about us.

The other thing is the whole business of “transformation.” I notice how often that word comes up—our lives can be transformed, our churches can be transformed, our culture can be transformed. We imagine if we do everything right according to what the New Testament teaches us, that things will be completely changed. And if they aren’t completely changed, I’ve either bet my life on something that’s not true, or the Gospel itself is not true.

I just keep on coming back to Luther’s truth that we are simultaneously justified and sinners. I keep on looking at my own life, and at church history, and I realize that when the Gospel talks about transformation, it can’t possibly mean an actual, literal change in this life of a dramatic nature, except in a few instances. It must be primarily eschatological; it must be referring to the fact that we will in fact be changed. The essential thing to make change possible has occurred—Christ died and rose again. (And in this life we will see flashes of that, just like in Jesus’ ministry there were moments when the Kingdom broke in and we see a miracle. And these moments tell us there is something better awaiting for us and God is gracious enough at times to allow a person or a church or a community to experience transformation at some level.) But we can’t get into the habit of thinking that this dramatic change is normal, this side of the Kingdom. What’s normal this side of the Kingdom is falling into sin (in big or small ways), and then appropriating the grace of God and looking forward to the transformation to come.

Now, some people would say that it’s depressing that I can’t change. Well, it’s not depressing, it’s freeing! It’s depressing and oppressive to think every morning that I somehow have to be better than I was the day before to justify my Christian religion and to justify my faith. That’s the oppressive thing. The freeing thing is to realize that I am a sinner and God has accepted me as such. And yes, of course we’re called to strive and be better and to love and all those things—duh!—that’s not the issue. The issue is the motive out of which that comes and what we actually expect to happen as a result of that.

A lot of this is driven by my own personal spiritual journey and is hammered home by the biblical message, and something that Luther got really well: the harder I try to be a good Christian, I notice the worse Christian I am: more self-righteous, more impatient, more frustrated. But when I stop trying to be a good Christian and just realize I am a sinner and that God has accepted me, and that’s the way it is, that, for some reason, releases the striving part of me that makes life harder, and all of a sudden I find myself, surprisingly, more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental and more joyful. So I think that kind of personal experience is a merely reflection of what the Gospel truth is. And those moments when I experience that, that’s wonderful.

Mark Galli
From an interview at Mockingbird
by Aaron G. Zimmerman, 11/20/09

Comments

  1. Incredible painting! I am continually blown away though by the misguided uproars the religious crowd project over small words or personal slants, we are all one body and Christ is longing for us to truly unite!

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    JMJ/Christian Monist also writes about this in his blog. The Evangelical trope of Instantaneous Transformation, a firewalled corollary of “New Creature in Christ” — just say the magic words and Everything is Perfect Forevermore! And just how destructive this trope can be.

    • Joseph (the original) says:

      i was an unwitting victim of this philosophy, although it was not promoted by something outside of myself. i was not ‘taught’ this concept. for me, it was the expected result of a real life-changing epiphany/encounter with Jesus. it was my misunderstanding of His invitation, “You can go back to the way you were, or come, follow Me.” i naively thought this was truly a literal declaration of my previous life being nullified/voided in favor of “life, & that to the full!” i really believed what Jesus implied was simply a divinely sanctioned “Do Over” opportunity that left all the emotional dysfunction & serious psychological issues moot: i believed i did not ever have to address those issues or that they were still a serious part of my psyche…

      {sigh}

      i do believe there was a divine element of healing to my most severe depression, but it was probably intended for me to take full ownership of my past & seek professional medical/counseling support to deal with the very real woundedness/brokenness without feeling bad or shameful or even responsible.

      Psalm 51:6
      Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

      i lived a life of repression/supression where my emotional component remained stunted & bound up. i lived that way 40 years until the threat of my eventual marriage dissolution jump-started the long delayed process of taking ownership of my past & the issues i avoided facing all those years. it is not all bleak. the last 10 years of my marriage actually represented a slow movement toward my complete embracing of my brokenness even though my marriage was DOA at that time. i was making progress in smaller ways & being more honest with myself & with God even though no major breakthru happened until June 15th, 2009. that day i made the crucial decision to turn around from the way i was going & never go back. it cost me my marriage, but i confronted my past. i confronted my then wife. i dealt with my issues thru professional counseling & doctor’s supervision. i made a long overdue exodus out of the crippling responses i had devised as self-preservation, or coping mechanisms. i dealt with a huge fear factor. faced my demons head-on & thru the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, survived the most disruptive episode of my entire life…

      bits & pieces of my story included in many of my posts on various topics over the years here @ iMonk. but the New Creature in Christ principle is a very powerful promise for those dealing with a lifetime of being messed up. it is easily misunderstood when confused with Holy Amnesia & a divine ‘get out of jail free card’ where all things negative are magically removed from reality. i find it even more amazing that God does preserve us in the midst of some very bad things. i did not suffer anything severely traumatic, but there are those that have & i am amazed at their stories of real transformation, painful step by painful step…

      thank you Jesus…

  3. dumb ox says:

    “But when I stop trying to be a good Christian and just realize I am a sinner and that God has accepted me, and that’s the way it is, that, for some reason, releases the striving part of me that makes life harder, and all of a sudden I find myself, surprisingly, more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental and more joyful.”

    Brennan Manning addressed this, too. If you think God is angry and impatient with you, you will be angry and impatient with others.

  4. “When the Son of Man makes you fee, you are free indeed.”

    Christians (at their best) live in an unselfconsciousness.

    “Sanctification (as Gerhard Forde said) is forgetting about yourself.”

    Quite the opposite message that you hear in most churches. In most churches, the message almost always manages to get back to you, in one way or another.

  5. I don’t think that when Jesus told Nicodemus “You must be born again” he was talking about something that occurs at the end of time. Being born again is a change of attitude, not a change of circumstance. 1 Corinthians 7:21 … “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it, but if you can gain your freedom, do so.” We are all bondservants to our human passions.

    It is a gross mistake to to confuse the descent of the Spirit with “saying some magic words”. It is an even more gross mistake to try to pretend that the Spirit has descended where magic words have been said, and to inflict that pretense on others. Matthew 7:21; Luke 12:1.

    I am (semi-)Pelagian enough to believe that one can make the effort of non-effort … stop trying to “be a Christian” and just do the simple work that is before one’s hands. When we are open to the Spirit, the Spirit will be there.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      It is a gross mistake to to confuse the descent of the Spirit with “saying some magic words”. It is an even more gross mistake to try to pretend that the Spirit has descended where magic words have been said, and to inflict that pretense on others.

      They may be Gross Mistakes, but in the Evangelical Circus they are VERY COMMON Gross Mistakes. And the Post-Evangelical Wilderness is filled with the casualties.

  6. I think Jesus was trying to get it across to Nicodemus that he could not be born again of his own volition…but that it has to come from above.

  7. I keep on looking at my own life, and at church history,

    Guaranteed to make one lose all hope.

  8. “But when I stop trying to be a good Christian and just realize I am a sinner and that God has accepted me, and that’s the way it is, that, for some reason, releases the striving part of me that makes life harder, and all of a sudden I find myself, surprisingly, more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental and more joyful. So I think that kind of personal experience is a merely reflection of what the Gospel truth is. And those moments when I experience that, that’s wonderful.”

    Receiving His grace and simply saying “God change me” is the only thing that has brought lasting change in any area of my life. Not always right away either. But then at some point I look back and say “Wow, He answered my prayer.”

  9. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
    nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
    – Dr. Seuss

    (Evangelicals don’t have the corner on wretched urgency.)

  10. I find my self saying, ‘God save me’, more than anything else.

  11. “But we can’t get into the habit of thinking that this dramatic change is normal, this side of the Kingdom. What’s normal this side of the Kingdom is falling into sin (in big or small ways), and then appropriating the grace of God and looking forward to the transformation to come.”

    Hmm. Should I lock up the silver and keep my hand on my wallet when with long time believers who believe this? This is exactly the defense for the “Christian” pedophile. Do born again Ax murderers still murder with axes?

    Friends, where is sanctification? Growing in Holiness? We don’t get better the longer we have the indwelling Holy Spirit? I don’t get it.

    • We do grow in the knowledge of our faith and what He has done for us.

      But this growth is His work. It’s like breathing. We don’t really control that in any real sense either.

      • So faith is not something we can do or have. It is something given to us? Do I understand you right? See, I agree that Grace is given to us but what was Jesus thinking when His first sermon was “repent and believe”. Was He telling people this He knew He was not going to regenerate and “give” faith to?

    • Martin, Mark said that he sees glimpses of times in his life when he is, “more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental and more joyful…” so he is not denying a belief in sanctification here. He’s just trying to help us see that it is being over-sold in the church today as some kind of incredible transformation, and in a way that almost transcends our humanness.

      If that were the case, we’d have no NT epistles such as we have now, for almost every one of them was written to address relational dysfunction and sinful practices in the fellowship of believers.

  12. Pastor Don says:

    If only this would be preached in every Evangelical/Pentecostal church–every Christian church–in some way every Sunday morning! It’s all about Jesus, it’s not all about us.

  13. I’m sure you guys will find this article… um… fascinating. Like Witherington, I’m an Arminian and believe homosexual relations/marriage is immoral. But this article has disastrous implications for our understanding of the gospel by saying that our salvation depends on us being good. More fuel for the fire.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/julyweb-only/behavior-relationship-with-christ.html

    • Phil M. says:

      I don’t read that as Witherington saying are salvation depends on us “being good”. I think Witherington is saying that our chosen behaviors inevitably affect our relationship with God.

      One cannot save one’s self by certain patterns of behavior but one can certainly impede or even destroy one’s relationship with God through sin whether moral or intellectual sin.

      Behaviors affect every other relationship we have in life, so why should it not be true for how we relate to God? And Witherington is correct in asserting that this isn’t really any different than what Wesley would say. I don’t think that means that we must go around in a state of perpetual anxiety, but it does mean that we must evaluate our behaviors in light of the Scriptural narrative.

      • IMHO, we spend far too much time looking at ourselves and evaluating ourselves and not nearly enough time looking at Jesus, loving God, and loving our neighbors.

      • I totally agree that our behaviors can affect our relationship with God. Maybe I misunderstood what me meant by that, but I thought he was talking about relationship as in salvation rather than acquaintance. Still, I find myself completely disagreeing with how he interprets verses like Matt.5:20 (as if us becoming more righteous than the most righteous-looking people of Jesus’ day was really possible, isn’t Jesus’ whole point that we can’t do it on our own?) which is unusual because Witherington is usually a really good exegete and gets ANE cultural values and stuff like that which tends to be anachronized by many modern interpreters.

    • I thought Witherington had good things to say. I would even give credence to the quote that Phil M posted in his response. What we do/don’t do in relationships are important and to affect the relationships. However, it’s also a mistake to over-simplify and say either that it matters (in relationship with God) supremely or not at all.

      I don’t want to be a screw-up, but the more I worry about not being a screw-up the more I screw-up. It’s the Tar Baby issue constantly. I’m convinced that when it’s all said and done the Lord of all life not only unsticks us, but has destroyed the “stickiness” of the Tar Baby. The problem presented to us is whether or not we will run through the woods searching for our Tar Baby to fight and wrestle with…

      T

  14. the harder I try to be a good Christian, I notice the worse Christian I am: more self-righteous, more impatient, more frustrated.

    Man, did this line hit home with me. I’ve seen this precise dynamic among some people close to me who are deeply involved in a stream of Christianity that stresses becoming a good Christian, and even views doubt as something that makes one’s salvation questionable. I’ve seen these people become less patient, more closed, quicker to criticize and condemn those outside their circle, more selfish, etc. It’s like watching a train wreck and not being able to do anything about it because they really believe in their own spiritual superiority, and to question the system they have chosen is viewed as a prime threat and dealt with as such; it accomplishes nothing except to discredit and possibly damn you in their minds. It’s sad beyond words and enormously destructive.

    We all have our faults and weaknesses and sins, me included, perhaps above all. But what this system does is pretend the people in it have a sure spiritual formula for successfully overcoming it all (and that others don’t), and that leads to pride.