Change is something we all need. It is an ongoing part of life. With its constant flux, life demands adjustments for our schedules and plans. Essentially, change is the new norm. But people’s spiritual lives call for more than slight changes to the calendar. Their lives are in need of transformation.
As you know, transformation is not about trying harder or having a better life. Mark Twain reportedly said that church is good people standing in front of good people teaching them to be good people. The change people need is not simply about being a better person; that would be a gross misunderstanding of change and transformation. The gospel is bigger than simple moralism, and people need to understand the very nature of transformation.
Sometimes, what they need is a universal translator that helps them understand words like “change” and “transformation.” It is much like what we need in a marriage relationship for spouses to understand one another. Let me give a few examples:
- When a husband says, “It's a guy thing,” he really means, “There is no rational thought pattern connected with it, and you have no chance at all of making it logical.”
- Of course, there is the cryptic statement, “I can’t find it.” Though difficult to understand, this means, “It didn't fall into my outstretched hands, so I'm completely clueless.”
- Wives should take special note when a husband says, “It would take too long to explain.” What we really mean is, “I have no idea how it works.”
You get the idea. Words can mean one thing from a communicator and something altogether different to the hearer.
The church can, at times, communicate the need for change in peoples’ lives, and it ends up understood as some low-level therapeutic moralistic deism—where a faraway God makes life better and makes you a better person. But that is not the gospel. We don’t want to produce good religious people. We see what becomes of good religious people from the encounters Jesus had with the Pharisees. God wants—as should we—to see people transformed at a spiritual level rather than a behavioral level.
Though often thought of in the same sense as a New Year’s resolution, transformation does not come from decisions made on January 1. Instead, it comes from re-creation, the re-creation that comes from new life in Christ. The change people need most is not in their circumstances, but in themselves. It is not the ability to try harder, but it is a life entrusted to Jesus.
So, when you preach “change,” translate it to mean “gospel change.” It is not the same thing as trying harder; in fact, there is no trying involved. Transformation occurs not because we “do,” but because Christ has “done.” So let me share three principles about the change we all need, along with some thoughts on how to clearly preach on the topic for understanding and action.
1. Real change starts with new life, not just a new leaf.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17, HCSB). The very heart of the Christian faith revolves around change, but it is not turning over a new leaf—it is living out a new life.
Christian transformation always involves something old passing away and something new taking its place. Spiritual change is needed by everyone—the poor and the rich, the success and the failure. We are constantly in need of this change, no matter who we are. But too many people misunderstand the words. They believe, “If I change, then God will like me more.” The bid to be better accompanies the hope for divine blessing. But this is the false change that comes from religious idealism. It is a misunderstanding of the teaching of the gospel.
Some seek change through obedience. I’ve heard Tim Keller say it this way: “Religion says, ’I obey; therefore I am accepted.’ Christianity says, ‘I’m accepted, therefore I obey.’” Our acceptance and subsequent change is affected by the work of Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. His work causes my acceptance before God.
Everything else leads to exasperation. Trying to “turn over a new leaf” is a temporary fix to an eternal problem. And it leads to the frustrating, exasperating cycle of always looking for a new fix to our lives.
In the Old Testament, we see how this cycle played out in the life of Solomon. He tried to change through human ingenuity when he needed divine intervention. And he was the smartest person—ever.
I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to seek and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. I said to myself, "Look, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge." I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind. For with much wisdom is much sorrow; as knowledge increases, grief increases. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).
Solomon’s own words show the “folly” of hoping to change one’s own life. With access to wisdom, finances, military power, and everything else one could possibly hope for in this life, Solomon found life to be no more than chasing the wind. He needed an outside force to grant something new rather than continuing after something old.