Almost everyone agrees that preaching should be transformational. But we need to define what it is that we are seeking to see transformed.
This is the most obvious area of transformation. We all love to see a life transformed from worldly conduct to “Christian” conduct. But we also need to be wary. Consider Frank. Frank was a drinking champion. He could drink more than anyone else and still be standing—that is how he got respect in the pub. Then Frank saw a beautiful young lady going into the church next door. He started attending. He quickly realized he got no respect for his drinking abilities but would get respect for church attendance.
Everyone in the church celebrated the transformation of Frank—“Look at what the gospel can do!” Really? Self-concerned glory hunting gave way to self-concerned glory hunting in a new context (worldly Frank in the pub became worldly Frank in the church). Not exactly gospel transformation. That’s the problem with conduct. It can be faked. It can also be manipulated from the outside.
Peer pressure and cultural conformity can bring about impressive results. But God’s involvement is not required. A Christ-gripped life will manifest transformed conduct, but it also goes much deeper.
Again, let’s both affirm this and be wary of it. Character tends to be measured as the sum of the parts of conduct. Consistency in multiple areas of conduct looks like character. But if one area of conduct can be faked (for Sunday morning), then multiple areas can also be faked for each time someone is watching. The Gospel will change a character both profoundly and gradually, but if we aim to change character in people, we are still liable to apply pressure and treat them as self-moved autonomous beings (wasn’t that part of the lie in Genesis 3?)
Unless people are transformed in what they believe, any change in character and conduct will remain superficial. Belief is more than knowledge. I can inform people with knowledge, but how do I influence what they actually believe and trust in from the heart? That seems to go beyond what I can achieve.
All of these things are good and all will be transformed by biblical preaching in one way or another. Ultimately, though, if we are talking transformation, we have to go to the next level.
Call it heart, call it values, call it appetites, whatever. The gospel transforms a life from the inside out, from the heart outward. It takes the Spirit to plant an appetite (a relish) for Christ in the affections of someone. This is where I feel relieved of the pressure to bring about transformation, but I also feel the incredible privilege of my position as preacher. I don’t twist arms to conform to behavioral standards for the sake of church conformity. I do present Christ and the Gospel in all its wonder and majesty and sweetness, and I do so absolutely dependent on God to bring about transformation.
Biblical preaching transforms lives, but it occurs from the inside out. Anything more superficial will tempt me into acting like a mini-god pressuring mini-gods into self-moved determination, and that just smacks of a fallen world perspective on the whole thing. God’s Word invites all to trust Him; we should do the same.