By Chaplain Mike
A relationship with God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit will change us. A church grounded in God will be transformed, and it will likely transform its surrounding culture. If living in Christ makes no difference, we of all people are most to be pitied.
But my concern about transformation can be summed up in a simple question: Should our left hand know what our right hand is doing?
Thanks to all our readers who have commented and continue to weigh in on the subject of transformation. In yesterday’s post, based on recent columns by Mark Galli, we noted and critiqued the way evangelicalism overstates and oversells the notion of dramatic spiritual changeâ€”in persons, churches, and the world. I called it “the evangelical myth of transformation.”
Today, I would like to give some clarifications.
First, no one is denying that the Gospel changes lives. “I once was lost, but now am found” holds true as it always has. The Gospel includes the power of God, not only for justification, but also for what Francis Schaeffer called “substantial healing” in this life. I agree, and so does Mark Galli, by the way. The article I quoted speaks clearly about how God graciously allows us glimpses of the inbreaking Kingdom as a foretaste of the new creation in its fullness.
So, we see a person like Zaccheus (mentioned by many commenters), who encounters Christ, is touched by the power of the Gospel, and exhibits a dramatic turnaround in his life, with undeniable evidence of heart and life change through love of God and his neighbors.
Second, however, the question we are dealing with here is not so much what happened to Zaccheus in his encounter with Jesus that day. What was the rest of his life like? Day in and day out, what was Zaccheus’s experience as a follower of Christ? Unfortunately, we don’t know.
However, we do know something about the ongoing Christian experience of the Apostle Paul.
Mark Galli writes about this in his article called “Are We Transformed Yet?”, noting first that whenever the Bible records Paul giving his testimony of his initial turnaround, the apostle does not stress the transformation he experienced, but the Christ he met and the grace that Jesus showed him. The focus was on Christ, and Christ alone.
Furthermore, when you read the writings of the mature Paul, he emphasizes not how far he has come, but how far he has to go, and again gives Jesus the glory for his ongoing work. In passages like 1Timothy 1:15-16, written in the final decade of his life, Paul still calls himself “the foremost of sinners” (note: present tense). And then this remarkable sentence: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
What example does Paul’s life set for you and me when it comes to transformation? That, over the course of his life, including his Christian life, Jesus Christ was perfectly patient with him. Not exactly a catchy marketing slogan, huh?
Was Paul not in fact transformed increasingly into the image of Christ during his life? Yes! …But those who are truly being transformed into Christ find it fascinating to look not at what they’ve become (changed in this way or that) but at what they have yet to become. The so-called progress they’ve made is so paltry and so negligible compared to the surpassing worth of the vision that lies ahead of themâ€”a vision of Jesus Christ in glory. That’s the end of the road of transformationâ€”to look like that! So naturally, their small baby steps in this life are nothing to talk about. What’s really interesting is what they will become.
Naturally, with a clear vision of the glorious Christ, what can they say about themselves but that they are the greatest of sinners, who have hardly begun to repent? This sort of thing can be said with false pietyâ€”in fact, with as much pride as is displayed by the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. But when it is said with a clear realization of who Christ is and who we (still!) are and what we will becomeâ€”that is, with deep humility and unassailable hopeâ€”that’s when we’ve met someone on the road to genuine transformation.
Thus, we are back to Damaris’s emphasis on humility as a priority in “chapter two” of a life in the Gospel. Humility is not self-loathing, but self-forgetfulness. We look away from ourselves to Christ. To live is Christ, Paul said, and the only thing he could conceive as better than walking with Christ in his vocation as an apostle was being with Christ in person (Philippians 1:21-23).
With such a focus, if we are being truly transformed, it is more than likely we will have no idea that it is happening. And we won’t care. There will be a (supernaturally) natural, organic, and at most times, imperceptible growth. If spiritual formation is really like growth, well then, we just grow! We eat, drink, exercise, go to school, live our lives. Then one day, grandma comes to visit and says, “My, look how you have grown!” And we get all red-faced and ask if we can go play with our friends.
Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but I exaggerate to make a point. In the following summary, let me set forth a “daily path” that I believe would lead to genuine transformation in the lives of most ordinary believersâ€”
Transformation is not the goal of our day to day lives as Christians.
- Living is. Living with Jesus. Living real life. Relating to my family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. Doing my daily work. Doing whatever it is I doâ€”fulfilling the vocations God has given me. Walking in the good works he has prepared beforehand for me to walk in.
- So, each day I go into every situation, every encounter simply asking, “Jesus, what are you doing in this situation and how can I participate? How can I cooperate with you in what you are doing?” I simply try to walk with him throughout the day.
- I mess up constantly, and find myself going back to the cross again and again for forgiveness and renewal.
- If I see something happen in some situation, in another person, or in myself that strikes me as God breaking through and revealing something of his new creation, I give him thanks and praise.
- If I see nothing, I don’t worry about it. Jesus is not bound to babysit me with constant evidences of his presence. And if I don’t discern something happening it means nothing. God is at work, whether I am aware of it or not. Doesn’t the Bible say his ways are unfathomable?
- When I find myself in situations of conflict or persistent failures, when I need guidance for decisions, or comfort in a time of trouble (in other words, just about every week), I remember that I am part of a community called to bear one another’s burdens. I have a pastor and trusted friends with whom I can talk and pray.
- As a member of my church and as a member of my community and world, I sometimes participate in special organized efforts to relieve the world’s suffering and help people know God’s love.
- Above all, I join my community of faith each week to immerse myself once more in the Gospel through hearing the Word and partaking at the Table. Jesus makes our hearts burn as he teaches us and makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.
Transformation (growth, formation, sanctification) happens as a natural by-product of living this way in the Gospel. It is down-to-earth, daily, human, life. My problem with much of what evangelicalism hypes as “transformation” today is that it comes packaged in programs which separate us from the realities of daily life.
We’re back to “churchianity” vs. “Jesus-shaped spirituality.”
In one of the comments on yesterday’s post from “jonathan,” he expressed his disapproval of what we were saying with this criticism:
I have been greatly encouraged by the ideas that God doesnâ€™t just save us from something, he saves us for something; that the church is to live with each other and toward the world as foretastes of the coming Kingdom; that we donâ€™t just sit around after we come to Christ and try to stay out of big sins while we wait to be raptured, but instead we look for and try to join in how God is working to renew all things.
The commenter “leadme.org” agreed. He likewise felt we were advocating a “sit back and do nothing, expect nothing” approach to Christian growth and living. To make his point, he described his Lutheran background like this:
It was a profoundly comfortable style of Christianity. Attend church for an hour a week, perhaps Bible class for another hour, and then bask in the glow of Godâ€™s grace for the rest of the week. Of course, the heroes of the faith are out there actively advancing the Kingdom of God, and we all should strive toward that, but all that really matters at the end of the day is a kind of detached intellectual assent to Christian teaching.
I hope you all realize that this is definitely not what I am saying. Nor is Mark Galli or Michael Spencer, or Luther for that matter.
But it must be said that these comments reflect a distinction (perhaps not intended) often made in evangelicalism that I find profoundly unhelpful. “Joining in what God is doing to renew the world” is usually narrowly defined in evangelicalism. The “heroes of the faith,” the ones “actively advancing the Kingdom of God” are seen as those who are involved in church activity or in some approved brand of “Christian ministry.” In order to be “transformed,” one must enlist in the system and buy into the program of moralism, activism, and “branding” that enfolds one into the evangelical “bubble,” distracts one from a focus on walking with Christ in the stuff of daily life, and keeps him or her hopping from “ministry” to “ministry” in the sub-culture.
With this approach, of course lives get “changed”! Suddenly, it’s all church all the time. And the more someone gets involved, the more we praise God for how they are growing. Until within a short time, they have few non-Christian friends any more, few activities in their lives without the adjective “Christian” in front of them, and few resources for living day by day outside the Christian ghetto. Their lives get cleaned up (or the bad stuff pushed underground) because they are in a new moralistic atmosphere. They feel a new sense of purpose and significance because they are in an activist environment that honors busyness. They feel part of something that is changing the world because they keep hearing this over and over again (and without a doubt some good things are actually being done).
- However, a person who goes to worship and feeds on Christ once a week, walks with Jesus the other six days by doing his work well, taking care of his family, helping his neighbors, and living a quiet life may be viewed in contrast as a nominal Christian who is not serious about “spiritual things,” not “on fire for Christ.” Maybe not really even a Christian.
This is the main problem I have with “the evangelical myth of transformation.”
If the kingdom is more like a seed that is sown, if love means washing feet, if Jesus is about Bethlehem, Galilee, the poor in spirit, and the cross, if Paul ultimately accomplished more as a prisoner than he did as a missionary, if a seed must fall into the ground and die before it can bring forth fruit, then I fail to see how today’s American evangelical version of transformation can withstand scrutiny.